Openness to Life Means Openness to Incredible Joy
Earlier this past week, I thought I was surely going into labor. At nearly 39 weeks pregnant, that would not have been so out of the realm of possibility.
Only problem was, I had a hair appointment scheduled. Right around when the contractions and other assorted labor-related symptoms began, I was supposed to be leaving my house for a cut and color at a salon nearly a half-hour away. And I’ve had this planned out for awhile now—my hair is growing out from when I got it chopped off back in October, I’d had it touched up in January, but it had since become a mullet with dark roots and I REALLY NEEDED TO GET IT FIXED BEFORE THE BABY WAS BORN.
So with a bemused and concerned husband and children looking on, I grabbed my purse, said I’d be in touch, and set off for the salon. Clearly I am nothing if not determined. And, maybe a little vain.
Now in my defense, it turned out to be a perfectly reasonable choice in the end—because in spite of the uncomfortable contractions continuing on and off for the rest of the night and my packing a hospital bag at 1:00am, I did not in fact go into true, active labor. And my hair looks much better so, as far as I’m concerned, winning.
Being pregnant in my mid-thirties (my baby will be born just shy of my reaching what the medical community so lovingly refers to as “advanced maternal age”) has not been so wildly different from being pregnant in my twenties, other than the way it confounds other people who aren’t entirely sure why you’d still be having babies at all. Especially when you already have three kids in middle school or two kids with special needs, or when you already have eight kids, period. (Four of them are adopted, although that doesn’t really change perceptions so much. I am the equivalent of Michelle Duggar to the average person on the street, and prior to getting my hair done a few days ago, that comparison may not have been too far off.)
Anyway, while I was sitting and contracting in the chair at the salon, the stylist asked me if we would finally be done having kids after this baby. I gave my standard answer of how we’ll always more or less be open to having biological children—which is the primary thing that a lot of people can’t really fathom about a person being pregnant in their mid-thirties, and begs the follow-up question (albeit much less commonly asked) of, “But why? Why do you want more?”
It was shortly after becoming Catholic when I read Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility. What I loved so much about the book (which I’d highly encourage everyone to read) was the focus on the trajectory of the marriage itself, on what the sacrament means and how it ought to look. It didn’t reduce a woman’s fertility to mere mechanics or even the keeping of charts (although of course that may be involved), and it didn’t focus on some magic number of children that couples should try to reach or, conversely, avoid reaching. No, it affirmed the beautiful truth that children are the natural fruit and sign of our married yes, of a generous love between spouses. There had been such a preoccupation in my formerly Protestant circles with not only avoiding pregnancy, but also with planning things out. The assumption was, I suppose, that you had a conversation where you decided upon a reasonable number and then pursued that—and because the use of artificial contraception was not typically discouraged, this was relatively simple to do.
And, this was precisely what we began to wonder about, once upon a time. It would eventually lead us to the Catholic faith. Neither my husband nor I came from large families, and we weren’t so much interested having enough children to star in our own reality show—we simply started asking ourselves how fertility was meant to be approached within marriage. There seemed to be such a tension and uneasiness swirling around this subject, particularly among women, and particularly when you started asking hard ethical questions about potentially abortifacient contraception methods. It was abundantly clear that the widespread use of contraception was not to be disparaged or even re-examined. Birth control, even among the most faithful of Christian families, was absolutely permissible, necessary, and dare I say even vital to a healthy marriage. So, nothing to see here, folks. Pay no attention to the IUDs, pills, and condoms behind the curtain.
Except that this view of Holy Matrimony is intrinsically impoverished, because it fails to address (of all things!) a most basic facet of married life (namely, sexuality). Family planning is enormously and obviously relevant to husbands and wives. Yet in ignoring (whether out of ignorance or not) God’s perfect design for married men and women, we miss out on so much of the beauty of life.
And I really can say “we”, because I used to take the pill. I wanted to finish college. I thought good marriages were ones where you didn’t have kids “too soon.” I’d never in all my life heard a good, comprehensive, rational, or spiritual explanation for how the whole thing was supposed to look, how married life was supposed to be ordered, or why artificial contraception might be a problem.
Of course, the other side of being open to children in marriage—and particularly over the course of a marriage—is that it’s not all happiness, roses, or fun. If someone tries to tell you that, they are wrong. Sometimes it is excruciatingly painful, like when you lose a baby to miscarriage or cannot conceive, or when a child makes bad or self-destructive choices. Parenting is incredibly demanding and will inevitably necessitate suffering, of some sort, at some point. I have had three miscarriages, I am mother to two adopted children with Down syndrome and, consequently, assorted challenges, and I get tired and cranky and anxious just like any other mom. I never anticipated having a large family and I certainly never considered myself a “kid person.” Sorrow, alongside the joy.
But I have found the whole openness to life thing to be unbelievably good.
I see the way my kids extend compassion to one another. I see how God has used the crucible of our family to build things like self-confidence and virtue. I see my marriage strengthened and home life fortified any time we add to our family. It has never been about finding that magic number or about meticulous planning or hair-splitting decision making. It has been about saying yes to God and to love and to life.
And yes, there are sacrifices to be made. I don’t have the big fancy career I once thought I might. Instead, I’m a mom with a laptop. I get my hair done when I may or may not be in labor and I drive a huge van that is difficult to park. I’m that person in my mid-thirties, with soon-to-be nine kids, who presumably has some number of years of fertility left—and so I humbly trust that the Lord will continue giving me the strength to live out my vocation, to the best of my ability. I became Catholic solely because I became convinced that it is Christ’s Church and the fullness of the faith, but I admit it was the Church’s unwavering and astoundingly profound position on marriage (and the dignity of the human person) that first got me interested. I have never been one to advocate that some huge number of kids is the goal, but I also don’t think that happiness (or order or general cleanliness, which everyone assumes are mutually exclusive with having a large family) is necessarily dependent upon the limitation of children. In the end, it’s really about the pursuit of love in marriage, the visible and tangible sign of which happens to be a baby.
And that is why, I suppose, that in spite of the annoying (and apparently ineffectual) contractions I was having with foils in my hair, I won’t say with certainty that I’m done.