Why would anyone decide to have more than two children? More than one, fine: The baby needs a sibling to play with. Three, maybe, if there’s an accident. But four or more? What are you thinking?
It is impossible to answer this question without looking at the meaning of parenthood — maternity and paternity. Generally, the people who have larger families are people who are able to answer this question: What does it mean to be a mom or a dad? They may not be able to articulate it, but they have it answered in their own heart, to their own satisfaction.
This is my articulation.
A child is not a web of interconnected pros and cons — two more years of diaper changes, 300 boxes of cheesy macaroni advanced food substitute, $10,000 a year in college tuition vs. hugs and kisses, happy grandmothers, and the hope that someone will visit me in the old-age home. A child is a human being, possessed of all the breadth and depth that make up every human heart. A child is a person.
It is conceived (ordinarily) through an act of love within marriage, and it is the living expression of the love of the spouses. In this way, the nature of the Trinity is revealed symbolically within the natural order: Two become one through the unity of love, and this love itself constitutes a third person. It is for this reason that sex has been called a “natural sacrament” — a new spiritual reality; the creation of a new human being is really and actually brought about through all of the outward symbolism of joining bodies and loving embraces.
The new soul thus conceived animates the body from the earliest moments of existence: You may see only a couple of cells on the microscope, but this is merely the external and visible manifestation of the conception of the child. This is the soul taking form within the world.
It lives: If it did not, it would not divide, respire, grow and so on. A human being is not, as men of learning once believed, a creature that slowly coagulates in the womb — but a creature that comes into being at the moment of conception and then makes its home within the walls of his or her mother’s womb.
Anti-abortion advocates — myself included — generally make a great deal of fuss about the genetic uniqueness of this new human being, the fact that the pattern of body and personality is fixed from the very beginning.
There is something more here, though: The child is formed from the only cells of the human body that are incomplete, that do not contain the full genetic pattern for the body that formed them. In the reproductive cells of the human body, there is only half a tale, an incomplete narrative of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), that strange chemical language in which life on earth is written.
Some particular set of themes and plot threads from the secret interior code of the mother and another from the father are joined together to form a new character in the great drama of human existence.
The child thus created is not a tabula rasa on which anyone — parents, teachers, social workers, engineers of brave new worlds — can inscribe their glowing hopes for the future. The behaviorists of the 20th century were wrong. Perhaps if they had consulted more mothers and fewer rats, they would have realized their error before they published so much nonsense.
The child is created in the image and likeness of God, but it is also in the image and likeness of its parents. The people who hope to see evil eradicated from the world through increasing government intervention in the lives of children are going to be sorely disappointed.
Children do not inherit their faults and failings merely by watching and imitating mom and dad. They inherit them on a much deeper level.
Not only does the hero of each person’s story come into being in the instant when sperm and ovum collide — the villain does, as well. The struggle with sin which turns the heart of man into a battlefield is there from the beginning, imprinted. Original sin is not a Christian myth; it is a reality archetypal and chemical, scripted into the depths of the human psyche and the heart of the amino acid chain.
This first came to my attention when I was working as a live-in volunteer for a small shelter for homeless youth. There was one young man, in particular, who was deeply disturbed. He was liable to lose his temper and attack the other clients. He had, I learned, been adopted as a baby.
I pictured his adoptive mother as a kind of monster, incapable of loving this child who had not come from her own womb — distant, disappointed and disillusioned with the project of motherhood.
I was surprised when one of the women from my church, a wonderful, generous-hearted lady, approached me and asked about the shelter.
Always enthusiastic to recruit a new volunteer, even if it was just to bake us some meat loaf once a week, I started talking to her. I quickly discovered that her interest was personal: She was this young man’s adoptive mother. She wished that he would come home, but she couldn’t force him to. She loved him very deeply.
It is a pattern that I have seen repeated throughout my encounters with adopted children. A friend of mine recently reunited with a daughter that she had given up at birth 18 years ago. She was astonished to discover how similar they were, how much of her mother this little girl had carried in herself through all those years of separation.
This is why parents — biological parents, both mother and father — are the best people to raise their own children. There is a foundation of similarity; the heart of my daughter is closer to my own than the heart of someone else’s child. Her faults and failings are a reflection of mine. I understand them, and I have all of the experiences of my own life out of which to help her overcome them. Her talents and her abilities are also mine, and I am able to recognize and nourish them.
Parents do not do this perfectly. Certainly there are cases where a mother encourages the faults of a child because she overlooks them in herself, and there are cases where a father despises skills and talents in his son that he has suppressed within himself. Still, there is nothing quite like the love of a parent for a child to encourage us to acknowledge and work on our sins — and to make us grateful for the gifts that we have been given.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer