Another Theology of the Body, Part XIII--"Breeding Like Rabbits" and Some Thoughts on Big Families

I am the oldest of four.  Four kids is an interesting number in many respects.  In a "modern" sense, it is a large family--it is a full two children above the Total Fertility Rate for the United States, and even significantly above the average for US Catholics.  My own sense is that four is considered by many to be a quantum jump in size over three; two is "normal," three is "kinda big," while four is "definitely big."

On the other hand, in comparison to families of the past, especially Catholic families of the past, it is a modest number.  Indeed, both of my parents come from larger families--six kids for Dad, ten kids for Mom.  People are amazed when I say it, but it is true--I have 22 first cousins on Mom's side alone.  So, even though I am sure others would view my family as very large, my parents, and by extension, us, don't really perceive it that way--"medium" is probably closer to the mark.

I say all of this to suggest that I have some perspective on the question of family size (especially large families, however one defines that), and the Pope's recent remarks on the subject.  When I saw those remarks, I knew that the zealous advocates of the Catholic Fertility Cult would freak out, and predictably they did.  [Note also that Patheos Catholic Channel has replaced all the thumbnails with rabbits, which I assume they view as ironic or something].  They believe that they are stigmatized for having large families, and that the Pope's comments support or facilitate that stigmatization.  While I think that a significant part of this feeling of persecution is projection, I accept the notion that people with eight or ten kids get sideways looks nowadays.  But the problem, which the Pope is suggesting in a tentative way (at least in some cases), is that maybe those sideways looks are justified.  Maybe big families are, at a minimum, problematic.

Why might that be so?  Well, the example chosen by the Pope is certainly one reason.  A woman having more children than her body can physically handle, such that she risks death, is counter-productive by any conceivable measure.  If one asserts that "children have a right to a mother and father" (no matter how dumb that idea is), then you must also believe that a mother has some sort of duty to take care of herself such that she can keep acting as the mother to her already existing children.  Having more children when it is dangerous to your health is literally robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Don't be fooled into thinking that this is some fringe scenario--the "breeding at all costs" idea has deep roots in the more conservative sectors of Catholic life.  Consider the case of St. Gianna Beretta Molla.
St. Gianna, canonized in 2004, was a doctor with three children in the early 1960s in Italy.  When she became pregnant with a fourth, doctors discovered a fibroid tumor in her uterus.  She was given three options--she could have a hysterectomy (resulting in the death of the fetus and the end of her fertility), she could abort the baby and then have surgery to remove the fibroid (preserving, potentially, her future fertility), or she could have the fibroid removed while keeping the fetus alive (the far more risky alternative).  She chose option three, complications of which resulted in her requiring a caesarian section, complications of which resulted in her death (though, the baby survived).

It is important to note that option one is entirely consistent with Catholic moral teaching, via the magic of The Principle of Double Effect (let's put aside whether that idea makes any sense).  She was under no affirmative moral obligation take the risk she might die and leave her three living children without a mother.  And yet, she prioritized the life of the fetus ahead of not just her own life, but the well-being of her living children.  It is hard to see how this is justifiable, except in reference to the value of more children for the sake of more children.  To "breed like rabbits," if you will.  And they made her a saint.

But let's say you won't go that far.  Let's say you agree that the woman should not put her life in danger to raise children.   There are other, very important reasons to be skeptical of the wisdom of very large families.

It is easy to demagogue the claim that you should only have as many children as you can afford.  "Stop being so materialistic," one is tempted to say.  Easy for the person not having to feed and clothe and educate a bunch of kids, and easy for us in the US to say, as compared to people living in, I don't know, the Philippines.  But put that to the side, because there is another set of finite resources that parents have--mental and especially emotional resources directed toward your individual children.

One thing I take away from the stories from my parents growing up (particularly my mother) is that parenting a large family is by definition a mass process.  The logistics of getting a large group of tiny humans dressed, fed, educated, washed, etc., requires a certain regimentation.  By necessity, you have to look at your children a little less as individual people and a little more as cogs in the machine of the family.  It is almost impossible to provide individualized attention to one of your kids when there are six or eight or ten others looking for the same attention.  You just don't have enough time in the day.  You cannot parent a family of ten children as well as you can parent a family of four children, at least as seen from the perspective of each individual child.

My father was very up-front with me about this.  He told me once that he would have had more children, but was concerned that he and Mom would not be able to provide the kind of individual parenting to any one of them.  He basically thought that the four he had was more or less at the limit of his (and Mom's) ability.  And, it should be noted that my parents basically sacrificed every non-essential thing in their lives--friends, hobbies, etc.--to raise their children.  There was no "fat" in their lives, no frivolous distractions from parenting.  If Dad says the he couldn't have effectively parent another child, then I believe him.

I will also say, there were definitely times growing up where I felt like I was lost in the shuffle.  I say that not to lay blame on my parents, but to point out that I think my Dad is 100% correct.  My own subjective sense was that my parents were close to being tapped out with four kids.  If I had one or two additional brothers and sisters, I do believe that it would have negatively impacted my experience of my parents as a kid growing up, which in turn would have affected me in unpredictable ways as an adult.  No one wants to believe they are a cog in a machine, whose interests are subordinate to some kind of Borg collective.  Especially if the Borg Collective is their family.

It is not the case that every additional child reduces a parent's ability to properly raise the children they have--there is not a fixed pool of "parenting points" that have to be distributed among your kids.  And it is true that the invasive, "helicopter" style parenting we hear about is not good, either.  But I firmly believe that there is a point of diminishing returns--above a certain number, adding an additional child is going to reduce in a tangible way your ability to support and raise each individual child you have.

That number is likely different for each couple, and one should not presume to prejudge what that number is for any particular couple.  But the number is real, and if a couple exceeds that number I believe they are doing affirmative harm to their children.  Based on my experience, singular and biased as it is, I would be very skeptical of anyone who claims that their ceiling is over four.  I simply do not believe that you can provide individualized attention to five or more children in the vast majority of cases.  And assembly line parenting has its consequences.  So, yeah, I do look askance when I see the (albeit rare) families of six or eight or ten kids.  I look askance because I don't think they are doing right by their kids.  Not because they don't want to, but because they can't.  They are robbing Peter to pay Paul.

But who is the Paul they are paying?  The Catholic Church has spent almost two years now focusing on the problems of the family, and the importance of the family.  Well, here's a test.  Is the Church willing to tell the truth, and tell parents that they need to think hard about the personal commitment it takes to raise, not just "a large family" as an abstract collective, but many individual little kids who need and deserve individualized attention from the most important people in their lives?

Or is the Fertility Cult more important?


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