Lately I've been inundated in articles and blog posts about how wonderful it is to have a large family. Like this one, for instance: Why Have More Kids? The thesis is always: just have kids! Don't worry! It'll be fine!
It makes me feel strange. I always intended to have that giant family and to be writing its-so-wonderful posts someday. And you know, I still might have lots of kids yet .... but I don't think I would write articles like that.
What these articles come down to is advertising. They try to make the life of a mother of a large family look great, so that people will choose that life. But since they are advertising, they're necessarily biased. They gloss over the tough parts.
And who wants to be the bad person who points that stuff out? If I were to do so, wouldn't I just be a big complainer who hates my children and my vocation? (Apparently yes, according to this article.) But here I am, taking the plunge and talking about the tough parts, because someone's got to do it. I think a high regard for my vocation implies I will want to warn away people who haven't got what it takes. You know those military recruiters who will sign up anybody just for the numbers? I don't want to be that. I want people to sign up for the long haul that is parenthood with their eyes wide open, knowing (insofar as it is possible to know) that it will push them to their uttermost limits, and then some. If you're scared away by the truth, maybe it's not for you, you know?
So here are a couple of the arguments I'd like to poke some holes in.
We have lots of kids because we love kids.
Well, I love ice cream, but I also know when to say when. I read somewhere the line that one can have a high regard for apple trees and still not plant them one foot apart all over your yard. If you love kids -- really love them for themselves -- you're going to consider what they need from you, and seriously ask the question about how you are going to provide all that. People who love kids are probably going to have more of them than someone who doesn't care for them, but it's not a complete explanation for why you have fifteen of them.
I have kids because I haven't deliberately chosen to prevent that.
No, you have kids because you're having sex, I assume. Nothing wrong with having sex if you want kids, but don't pretend it's not a choice like any other choice. God did not send a child winging down from heaven to join your family without you taking part in this decision. And yeah, there are some cases when I would say you don't have the right to have sex, even if you're married, because of the negative consequences that will result. So, use discernment. Abstinence is always an option, if you don't believe in NFP or think it won't work for you.
God will always provide for your material needs.
If you live in America, the taxpayers will provide for your material needs. I don't have a problem with that per se, but if you are on unemployment and food stamps and have a kickstarter to fund your family's heating bill and all of your friends and church acquaintances are pitching in to fix your car .... maybe getting pregnant right now isn't the smartest choice. After all, the money that is providing for you is coming out of the budget of another family -- it's not hand-delivered by angels. Even if it's money the donors don't need, they could be helping another family with it. I'm not saying poor people should never have babies. I'm saying, use discernment and don't assume because you're not starving to death, it means God is approving everything you do. Anyway, that's a pretty insulting thing to think, if you consider the parents in third-world countries who love and trust God as much as you do, and wind up watching one of their children starve to death.
You always have enough love for another child.
Absolutely true. You know what doesn't multiply? Time, patience, lap space. I really do love Miriam just like I love my other kids. But the fact that she's here means that somebody's got to get the shaft. Suddenly the toddler can't sit on your lap, the preschooler can't do any letter games, the homeschooler is being told "here's another workbook to review old stuff, because I can't teach you any new stuff." Any catastrophe in the family is going to have effects like that, and kids do weather them, but it's different to choose to do this every year or every other year. You've got to ask yourself if it's really to the kids' benefit to go through this. When Marko was two, I had a strong sense that he was ready to be a big brother, and I was right -- he flourished with a little less attention. Michael, though -- his behavior is shockingly bad lately, and it's been very hard to work on it because I am busy with the baby. So perhaps my sense that he wasn't quite ready to be a big brother was right after all.
Just because you are exhausted is no reason not to have another.
I'd agree that being tired is just a normal symptom of parenthood. But exhausted? Exhausted means empty, completely drained. An exhausted well isn't a well that needs coffee before it can give you water in the morning ... it's a well that has nothing left to give. And exhaustion does happen to people. Nuns, social workers, teachers, all have to be on their guard for burnout, take their yearly vacation and daily recreation, perhaps a sabbatical every ten years. (Mother Teresa, who said "give until it hurts, and when it hurts, give more" gave her sisters an hour of silent prayer a day, plus recreation time outside of that. She wasn't deceived about what human nature can and can't handle.) Mothers are imagined to be these miraculous burnout-proof creatures, but we're not. I've seen burnout. It's when you wake up in the middle of the night to a baby's cry, and lie there for a moment wishing you would die so you wouldn't have to get up. It's when your kid asks for a sandwich and you shriek "No! You kids need to stop NEEDING stuff all the time!" When you stare dumbly at a child deconstructing your house and can hardly make yourself care, let alone get up and stop him. When dishes lie in the sink a week gathering mold because there was always, every moment, something urgent that had to be done. Some women say it might be their thyroid. I say it's just that you're not supposed to be able to get by on five hours of sleep indefinitely. Something's got to give. And yet they think "but being tired is no reason not to have another baby."
Let me sum up: if you are so tired that your husband, kids, and/or home are suffering, it is possible that you are just too tired. When you are handling what you've got more-or-less okay, you'll probably start wanting another baby all on your own ... you won't need to be guilted into it.
The greatest gift you can give your kids is a sibling!
Sometimes this is true. Certainly when I was fifteen and depressed and lonely, my little brother Joseph was the best thing anyone could have given me. But even if a sibling is the greatest gift, it doesn't follow that it should be the only gift they ever get from you. Kids don't have a lot of needs, but they do have some true needs. You know better than anyone what your kids' needs are. Just because someone told you a sibling is top of the list, doesn't mean that's true for your individual child.
No one ever grows up to say they wished they'd had fewer siblings!
No, because that would be a horrible thing to say and people would hate you for it. But there's no end of people who grow up to say "I wish I had had more of my parents' attention." Maybe they were getting bullied by an older sibling and their mother was too busy with the baby to ever notice. Maybe they went through a stage of depression as a teenager and their parents told them to suck it up because they needed help with the toddlers. No one wishes those babies away, because if they are your siblings, you love them whether or not they caused you a lot of grief. But that doesn't mean your parents' choice to have a large family was necessarily the best choice for you.
No one ever regrets having had so many kids!
That's just a lie. They do. Usually they don't say so, but they think it. It's a horrible thing to think "I wish I didn't have 12 kids," and of course any parent who thinks that then thinks of each one of the 12 and wouldn't wish away any individual child. They just feel like the number of them is too many. If only someone could swoop in and borrow a couple for a week or a month, and bring them back with all their behavior issues fixed!
There was a woman awhile back who posted her toddler on Craigslist. She said she had other kids as well, her husband was deployed, this particular kid seemed very needy and she knew she wasn't being a very good mother to him. She was hoping someone would adopt him and give him the love he needed. Instead she got arrested, because you aren't allowed to give up your kids for adoption that way. But I just felt for her. Of course she didn't really want to be rid of him forever -- she wanted some help! But when help is unavailable, the only thing her loving, motherly heart could think of was to find him a new mother that could give him what he needed. I have felt that way myself, once or twice, and it's an awful awful way to feel.
Having another child makes you less selfish and more holy.
It might. And yet my own experience is that there is a point beyond which the whole "challenges make you stronger" thing stops working. Your psyche is so damaged it becomes hyper-protective of itself and refuses to give more. You start turning to crutches like overeating or alcohol or even self-harm to make it through. At that point you aren't really capable of generosity or empathy; your soul turns inward because it's hurting and exhausted. You hear the baby crying and instead of thinking "an opportunity to be Christ for my sweet child!" you think, "I wish that horrible child would shut up." Defensiveness becomes anger; you become a harsher person, quick to judge and to lash out.
How do I know all this? This is what Regnum Christi did to me, trying to push me to a level of "selflessness" I was not ready for and didn't take on myself willingly. And I've seen it happen to mothers as well. Motherhood is one vocation that has an absolute need for a healthy psyche. You need to give yourself on an emotional level so many times every day. You can't do that if you're empty.
I know people mean well when they "advertise" motherhood this way. They themselves are happy as mothers of large families (I assume), and they want to share that. But in the end, this batch of mothers winds up being a high-pressure community where saying how tough it is really isn't allowed, because you're making motherhood look bad. (Again, flashbacks to cult life, where your happy face is presumed to be an advertisement for Jesus and you are a horrible sinner if you aren't smiling.) The result is a loud proclamation of how wonderful everything is on public blogs .... and tale after tale of misery in private groups. I see that side of it too. It's really shaken me, the stories that people will only tell where their friends can't read it. No one wants to admit that they're not handling things as well as everyone else seems to be.
Let's just get it out here right now, then: Motherhood is a challenging, grueling, emotionally draining, beautiful vocation. The more kids you have, the more true this is. And there's a kind of generosity in seeing that you can only be a good mother to the number you have right now, as well as generosity in having more.