Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
I think I've been pregnant forever. Those due date calculator thingies put me at 31 weeks and four days, but I'm certain that it has to have been at least 50 weeks by now. Also, has anyone heard reports of a rift in the time-space continuum that has caused the passage of time to slow to a crawl? Because I am positive that the weeks are going by at least twice as slowly as they used to.
Let me jump in and say right now that I realize that I have a gratitude problem. I should be honored to be able to participate in the miracle of new life, and should accept with joy the relatively small troubles that come with bringing this new soul into the world. Honestly, I'm working on that. It all makes for a rich Lenten exercise. But between a life-threatening medical problem that required hospitalization, mysterious third-trimester morning sickness, constant fatigue, insomnia, and my perpetual inability to get a good breath of air -- all on top of the daily chaos of being a homeschooling mom to my five young children who are already here -- I'm having a little trouble in the "suffering with joy" department.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the word "done" has popped into mind more than a few times in the past month. Especially that I'm in my mid-30s and I have a medical condition that is exacerbated by pregnancy (which was the cause of the pulmonary embolisms that landed me in the hospital last month), it is easy to think of all the advantages of not doing this again. But I'm trying to fight against that mentality, because the more I think and pray about the issue, the more I think it's important to view any big decisions about openness to children as a temporary state of mind. Just as the newlywed who feels sure that she wants 12 kids would be wise to scale back her family size discernment timeframe and take it year by year, so should those of us who feel ready for a break from childbearing think of ourselves as being done for now as opposed to being done, period. Here's why:
1. It makes it hard to stick with NFP
Natural methods of child spacing inherently come with a certain level of openness to life, and they force couples to make decisions about family size on a month-by-month rather than on a permanent basis. This is a feature, not a bug. But the more time we spend envisioning a baby-free future, the more Natural Family Planning begins to feel like a burden. We're bombarded by cultural messages that tell us that contraception and elective sterilization are great solutions that offer couples lives of freedom and ease. Even though it's not true, getting too deep into the "done" mentality can make those options start to sound pretty tempting.
2. It tempts you to ignore the call to serve
Maybe this isn't the case for everyone, but when I imagine the end of my childbearing years, my mind immediately flashes to images of freedom: Getting out of town with my husband without having to tote along a baby, not having to fill sippy cups 50 times a day, being able to run to the grocery store and leave the kids at home, and so on. There's nothing wrong with any of that, but the problem comes in when we begin to think of the end of the diaper years as an end to intimate service. The Christian life is all about pouring ourselves out for others, often in ways that are uncomfortable, so, if we're doing it right, each of us will always be "changing diapers" in some form or another.
3. There's more than one way to grow your family
Similar to the above, when we ("we" meaning "I") conflate an end to the baby years with an end to working hard in the service of others, we could close ourselves off to a call to expand our families by other methods. Even if a couple has discerned correctly that they're not meant to have any more biological children, God could still call them to add to their families by adopting or fostering children -- but if they've become entrenched in the mentality that they should be on Easy Street now that they're done with pregnancies, they may miss that call altogether.
4. It discourages others
I'll never forget the day, back when I had three children under age three, when an acquaintance who also had young kids told me that she was done having children. She and her husband were both Catholic, but they'd decided that he would get a vasectomy. She was one of the few people I knew who was living a counter-cultural lifestyle like mine, and we had laughed and cried and commiserated together on many occasions. I hadn't realized how much it boosted my spirits to have her walking this path with me until she told me that our paths would now diverge. I felt discouraged and alone. And even though I was confident that my own life was where it needed to be, it was certainly a life that came with sacrifices, and it made my crosses feel heavier to hear her gush about all their glamorous plans for travel and entertainment that would begin in just a few short years.
Being in the trenches of modern parenthood is hard, and being in these trenches while trying to follow traditional Christian teaching on contraception and sexual morality in the midst of our hedonistic culture is harder still. It's a good life, but it's not an easy life, and I doubt I'm the only mother of little ones who has ever had the wind taken out of her sails by hearing another mom cheerfully announce that she had chosen not to be open to life any longer. Even if you're pretty sure you won't have more children, I think that the simple act of saying that you're done for now (instead of done forever) can be a surprisingly large source of encouragement to parents who are still struggling through those difficult early years of parenthood.
5. Technology could change
This is especially important to remember for those of us who might avoid pregnancy for medical reasons: The rate at which medical technology is advancing is breathtaking. Just because there's not a treatment for some condition now, doesn't mean that there won't be in the future. In my own case, I have access to pregnancy-safe blood thinning drugs that weren't on the market just a few years ago. New developments are coming out all the time. Who knows? Maybe five years from now there will be a revolutionary new medical technology that would resolve your condition and make you change your mind about openness to pregnancy.
6. Your life could (and will) change
I never cease to be amazed at how often I fall into thinking that I can see the future. Logic tells me that I can't. Experience tells me that I can't. The Lord himself tells me that I can't. And yet I have this persistent habit of making decisions based on a certainty that I know what my life will be like five, ten, even 20 years from now. My husband has a saying that "it's never the things you think it's going to be," meaning that the problems we think we'll have in the future are rarely the problems we actually have. This is especially true with common reasons we decide we don't want to have more children: Feeling maxed out by constant neediness? When your kids are teens, you'll probably be bummed that they don't need you so much. Financial problems? Maybe the household breadwinner will get a raise or an exciting new job opportunity. Marriage troubled? You may come through this rough patch even stronger than before. Maybe these things won't happen, but maybe they will: The point is that none of us knows either way, and we shouldn't let these kinds of worries tempt us to decide now that we won't be able to be open to life years into the future.
In a way, all of these ideas come together in #6. Certainly there's nothing wrong with couples choosing to avoid pregnancy for the long term, even if it extends to the end of their fertile years. The problem is not avoiding pregnancy or adoption per se, but making a long-term decision based on the false assumption that we know exactly what our futures hold. For whatever reason, family size decisions seem to be the area where we are most strongly tempted to imagine our own clairvoyance, yet it is the area where we need to be most careful not to do so, since there is rarely more at stake than when we're determining whether or not to welcome another human soul.