When I first got my driver's license, I decided to visit my sister in Rhode Island. I wanted to conquer my lifelong timidity, so I struck out in my minivan with three little kids . . . without a map.
Seven hours later, I found myself in Cape Cod.
I was literally about to drive into the ocean before I decided that it was time to stop and ask for directions. By that time, the sun had set, several of my kids had wet themselves, and I was so emotionally shattered that I locked the keys in the car when I stopped for gas. I had to leave the screaming children, dash to a miraculously nearby fire station, and beg the firemen to break into my car for me. The kids screamed harder. To this day, they flinch when they hear the name "Cape Cod," and they don't even know why.
Now, Cape Cod is a lovely place in itself -- but I didn't belong there. I had only gotten there because of pride and stubbornness, and it was disastrous for me to be there. I wasn't ready to make that trip to Rhode Island by myself (although I can handle it now!), and I certainly shouldn't have tried it without a map!
Why am I remembering this ugly chapter in my life today? Well, it's not easy for a good Catholic girl to admit this in public, but . . . I was Googling myself yesterday. Specifically, I was hunting for a particular piece I had written, and I stumbled across this letter to the editor:
In the lead quote of “In their own words”(In Focus, May 20), Simcha Fisher stated the following: “The Church does not demand that women bear as many children as possible.” On balance, her overall quote regarding the gift of motherhood is full of wisdom. She is also certainly correct that the Church does not require more than what the Divine Master demands of each of his followers. Nevertheless, shouldn’t we exhort women to love heroically? Indeed, heroic love seems to be of the very nature of authentic femininity. Don’t we marvel at stories of women who have defied the odds and born children out of total charity?
Just as we do not undercut the virtue of fraternal charity by telling people that “the Church does not demand that you love your neighbor as much as possible.” So also, let’s not undercut the virtue of generous parenthood by not holding it up as a virtue for which to strive. And generous parenthood fulfills not only the love of neighbor, but also the love of God, whom we are to love with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind.
Let’s encourage Catholic parents to be more generous in welcoming children. We truly need heroic mothers, much like Fisher — and generous fathers, too!
I understand what he's saying, and he's quite right: it would be wonderful to hear more exhortations to heroic love, and to hear priests and others encouraging Catholic parents to consider having large families. A large family is a wonderful thing, something I know I'm lucky to have.
But I have a quibble with the way he equates "generous parenthood" and "heroic love" with "many children," as if those with fewer children are necessarily less generous or loving. His letter reminded me very much of some comments I've been getting on an old post I wrote, "Why we're dropping out of home school." The commenters chastised me for discouraging parents who were going through normal struggles with home schooling (although, when a struggling person chooses to read a post titled "Why we're dropping out . . . " and then feels discouraged, the author is hardly to blame).
I wrote that post in part because I know there are ten million blogs and websites encouraging families of home schoolers, but very few, if any, meant to encourage people who have stopped home schooling. Now, you might say that there is very little need to encourage people to stop home schooling. Life itself performs that function: we get tired, frustrated, scared, lonely, bored, misunderstood, mocked, and occasionally thrown in jail for home schooling. So is there really any need for me to join this discouraging chorus?
Sure there is. Because for every mom who is having a terrible day with the kids, and who just needs to hear "Hang in there! It's so worth it! You can do this!" there is another mom who is having a terrible day of another kind -- that terrible day when you realize that things have to change. That you're not the person you thought you were. That God is asking something different from you. And what that mom needs to hear is, "You can do something different, and you will not die."
The world can tempt us to give up and stop trying when things get hard; but it can also tempt us to keep on trying and trying and trying and trying to do something that just isn't working -- and that's a temptation, too, and can be just as ruinous if you listen to it.
The same is true for the question of whether or not God is calling us to have a large family. Is it ever wrong to have a child? I don't know. But I do know this: for every ten women who hears the world saying, "Don't be stupid, don't be a freak -- just get your tubes tied and stop overpopulating the planet," there is one woman who really needs to hear just one person say, "There are lots of paths to holiness. Maybe your family won't be big, but it can still be holy. Or maybe you just need to catch your breath and take a little break before the next baby comes. It's okay. You can do that, and it doesn't mean you're lacking in love and generosity. It doesn't mean you're letting God down."
Is there a possibility that these reassuring messages will fall on the wrong ears? Absolutely. Will some people use this encouragement as an excuse to be lazy and selfish? Sure. These are the perils of the internet age. Pressing "publish" is like shooting buckshot: it goes every which way.
But the point is, there is nothing especially holy about pressing forward with something that just isn't working. There's nothing courageous about boldly striking out on the wrong path without a map. There's nothing courageous about getting all the way to Cape Cod, if you really needed to be in Rhode Island.