Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists from Liguori Publications, and a contributor to numerous Catholic books, magazines, and online publications. Find her online at JenniferFitz.com.
So my husband and I are sitting at the table one evening when our dinner guest proceeds to ask us, in front of our children, about our sex life.
That’s not what he meant to do, of course. What piqued his curiosity was the part about how we had a run of four children two years apart, and then: Nothing. The difficulty is that, for those of us who are old enough to know how these things work, by definition any question about the spacing of our children contains within it two other questions: Are you having sex? And if so, why aren’t there are any more babies?
May I advise you not to ask these questions? You run the risk that someone will give you the answer.
Here are some of the answers women have volunteered to me over the years, sometimes anonymously, sometimes not:
- I’m unable to carry a baby to term anymore.
- Intercourse is unbearably painful now, due to complications from my last delivery.
- Postpartum depression makes me suicidal.
- We stopped having sex when my husband contracted HIV.
- Ever since the affair . . .
Is there a time and place for sharing this information? Certainly. But those times and places are far fewer than the question gets asked.
Why do people ask?
Our guest is not alone. I’ve put that foot in my mouth a few times myself. It is extremely common in our culture for people to ask or answer these questions even with complete strangers. One time, a mother at swimming lessons spontaneously volunteered she was using an IUD because she developed kidney problems during pregnancy. Another lady I barely knew saw I was pregnant and promptly explained her small family size by telling me all about her diabetes. By the time we were expecting #3, it was more or less de rigueur for people to inquire whether we knew where babies came from, and whether it was time to consider getting cable TV.
(Oddly: My midwife who loves her some contraception never lists cable TV as a reliable method. Must be a plot by Big Pharma.)
There’s a natural reason the question comes to mind: A species that is indifferent to reproduction isn’t going to last long. Humans have the ability to think, plan, and choose. It follows that we’ll use our rational faculties to make sure there is a next generation.
The other reason people ask isn’t so natural.
Would you like fries with that?
The goal of contraception is to separate sex from fertility. It’s a goal so thoroughly achieved that people get shocked and offended if you suggest that pregnancy is the normal, predicted, even desirable outcome of sexual intercourse.
We now of course separate fertility from sex as well, thanks to IVF, artificial insemination, and surrogacy.
The result has been a traffic in children fueled by a newly-acquired conviction that offspring are something you order off a menu – and send back to the kitchen if the dish doesn’t appeal after all. Even for pro-life, Christian couples, the idea of not using contraception is radical and foreign. “Family planning” is so ingrained in our mentality that we consider it irresponsible or simply unthinkable that one would plunge into parenthood with no particular strategy other than to welcome the children God sends.
The Marital Default Mode
This is not what marriage is meant to be. Within the loving, faithful, committed, lifelong relationship between husband and wife, it is normal to have sex at will and to therefore conceive, bear, and rear the many children who are bound to result from having all that sex. That’s normal. That’s how life should be.
We live, however, in a fallen world. When a couple stops having children before natural menopause, then we know something has gone wrong. We don’t know what. We have no reason to believe the couple did anything wrong, unless they up and start talking about their vasectomy (which far too often: they do), but we know something has gone awry. You were meant to be able to fill your home with piles of lovely children who don’t fight and always keep the house clean, and instead you didn’t get any of that.
There can be good reasons for close friends to discuss, privately, what that thing that went wrong might be. Sometimes the reasons are quite public and don’t require any asking at all. Sometimes people want to share their problems freely, either because they find it helpful to receive solace from others, or because they are looking to solve their problem and get back to procreating.
But children are not something you order up like you pick out a new car. To ask why a couple has the number of children they do, spaced as they are, is to ask: Tell me about your sex life. Not at the table in front of my kids, thanks.