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've mentioned before that we've seen an uptick in the "Are you done yet?" questions ever since our fifth child was born last year. In our part of the country it's not unusual to have three or even four children, and you can safely be considered normal as long as you stay within that range. But there seems to be a consensus that five is getting into crazy territory, and now people need to know more urgently than ever if this will be it for us.
There are a lot of reasons why people seem nervous on our behalf about the prospect of future children. Some worry about us being able to pay for college. Others worry about us being able to pay for groceries. Yet others wonder how we could possibly have enough time for each child. But by far the most common source of concern that I have noticed in recent discussions comes down to one thing: A fear of suffering.
A woman at a social event nervously eyed my children playing happily in a friend's back yard, and said, "You've been lucky enough to get five healthy kids. Why tempt fate?" She volunteered that she and her husband chose to end their fertility after their second child was born because they worried that another child might have special needs or disabilities, even though they were not in any special risk categories for that kind of thing. It's a thought process that I've heard many times before, one that Elle UK Editor-in-Chief Lorraine Candy articulated in a 2011 article in which she pondered undergoing tubal ligation surgery when her fourth child was delivered. She wrote:
We know how lucky we are, the toast has landed jam side up for us nearly four times and I don't want to tempt fate further. I've already run the gauntlet of hideous nightmares and fear of Karmic retribution with this fourth pregnancy. And it'll be a long time before I forget the emotional day earlier this year when we raced to an emergency appointment at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London to see a baby heart specialist after my 20-week scan.
I've cried for each of the high-profile women who've miscarried late in pregnancy, sensing only the tip of the iceberg of their pain and then selfishly wondering if I'd be next. I am not emotionally equipped for another nine months of living this fearfully. No, this is it. The last one. The full stop for the chapter marked 'Pregnancy'.
Candy and the woman I talked to at the party are right: More life means more suffering; less life means less suffering. Any time we open our lives to new human beings, whether it's through pregnancy or adoption or missionary work or any other kind of intimate service, we're opening ourselves to the potential for experiencing suffering -- not just our own, but the heartbreak of seeing a loved-one in pain, which is it's own kind of torture. I know that fear; I don't think any human is immune to it. I've had all those same distressing thoughts about everything that could go wrong if we were to have another child. If I weren't Catholic, it's unlikely that we'd have the five kids we do now, and even less likely that we'd ever have more. And the main reason is simply that fear of suffering.
I've come to think that one of the greatest things our culture has lost in its rejection of Christianity is a theology of suffering. The secular world doesn't know what to do with it; the popularity of books that promise endless health and stamina and youthfulness are a testament to the fact that we basically just try to pretend like it doesn't exist. Taken to the extreme, this mentality leads us to live out our lives in self-made museums, where there's no suffering because everything around us is already dead.
This is especially a shame when it comes to people's family planning choices. As I think back on the many conversations I've had along these lines in recent months, I grieve for the families who have chosen to limit their family size based solely on worries about suffering. More life means more suffering. That's definitely true. But if you can gain peace with that idea, and come to see that even our worst pain can be redemptive, then you can begin to see that more life also means more love, and more life always means hope.