How “Planet Money” helped me write about NFP

For several years, I’ve been loving the podcast put out by Planet Money, the NPR economics team that explores cultural and political issues, from the housing crisis to the “song of the summer” through the lens of economics. I listen to it on long runs or walks, and I almost always find it interesting and discussion-worthy.  Recent extra-good ones: “The Eddie Murphy Rule”  and “when patents hit the podcast” and pretty much all the rest, so go check it out, and if you listen to podcasts, definitely put this one in your queue.

Some time ago, Adam Davidson, co-founder of Planet Money, began writing the “It’s the Economy “ column for the New York Times, and I’ve followed those as well. I’ve noticed and admired the structure of the column lends itself to pondering big issues in a truly accessible way. Davidson usually starts with the story of one particular person, then explores an issue in depth, and finishes (perhaps a Jack Handey SNL-nod?) with “deep thoughts for this week”–several statements that sum the issue(s) and pose other questions. Here’s a recent one on “What’s an idea worth?” on the notion that perhaps the billable hour has outlived its usefulness.

So when a Facebook mini-kerfuffle transpired last week regarding NFP and the sharing of an article about family size, I didn’t comment initially for many, many complicated reasons. But I did have some in-real-life discussions with some of those involved in the comment thread, and wanted to organize my thoughts more clearly and present them in some way, because the issues here are really important.

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On a mid-week run, I happened to listen to a Planet Money podcast, and mused again how there should be a Catholic version of that podcast, or a Catholic version of “This American Life” (though I would argue there is very much, of both of those shows that is catholic and Catholic, one of the reasons why they are such compelling listening).

And then, the structure of “It’s the Economy” column morphed with a “Planet Money” podcast, presented itself as a way to organize how I want to respond to the kerfuffle. So, thanks to Planet Money and Adam Davidson, who unknowingly have furthered Catholic discussion on NFP and family size.

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I grew up in a big family–I’m on the younger end of six kids–and I have to say it was terrific, and it still is. We just got back from a “beach week” reunion of all six siblings, spouses, and what seems like dozens of cousins. It was a blast to have so many people around, and talking loudly about whatever, and eating too much, and staying up too late, and popcorn pop-offs, and beach time, etc.

I’m not looking at my past or present with rose-colored glasses–every family can have dysfunction and craziness. Yes, maybe there was too much noise on our vacation, and once I got into a shouting match friendly disagreement with two of my sisters, and I started crying and stormed off, but we talked it through later and agreed to disagree.

But overall, my parents made it a happy home when we were growing up, and even though they are gone now, we siblings all love and respect each other and still get along, despite our differences.

That’s why I’m always and truly, every time, genuinely shocked when friends with a largish family talk about the negative comments they get from family members, friends and total strangers when they announce a new baby, or even just have their large families out and about.

I am totally excited to hear about someone having a new baby. If you are my friend in real life, I hope I convey my happiness when you announce a new baby, no matter the circumstances. I’m thrilled for you, even if I know you weren’t planning a baby at this time, or there is a medical or other issue going on, or you’re going to get grief from someone close about “are you really having another?”. A new baby is always amazing and awesome.

And healthy large families are super fun and a great way to grow up. Those of you with larger families may have some sacrifices in terms of sharing rooms or big mom-buses. The parents, in particular the mom, of many, might have to shoulder the cross of the negative comments or outright judgment of others. But all of those are small prices to pay for the benefits of a big family.

But in Catholic circles, there is also a cross that is shouldered by parents or those who would want to be parents, in particular women who do not have “a lot” of children, or who have none. And that is the judgment of others about their family size. This Catholic Herald article is what started the Facebook kerfuffle last week, and the notion implicit here that it’s not “normal” or healthy to have only a few children.

I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been in a gathering of Catholic women at which a woman with fewer than four children have felt the need to explain, in great detail, why they “only” have three or two or one, or no children. And that really is a shame. Part of that stems from the judgment implicit in articles like this, that it is normal and expected that married couples will inevitably have large families.

But that doesn’t always happen. And there can be a lot of reasons for that. Fertility issues. Marital issues. Family needs. Financial issues. Emotional issues. And so on. Families who might be experiencing any one, or more than one of these issues, are often laid bare to the scrutiny or judgment of others, and really have no recourse or response.

An associated and also completely annoying, problem with this article (and with many blog posts and articles recently about the beauty of large families) is the notion that NFP could be used with a “contraceptive mentality,” or that couples use it as contraception. This one just sends me through the roof. I’m not going to go on at length about this fallacy, but consider reading I use NFP for more about this.

This is a sensitive topic and one difficult to get “right” when trying to convey Church teaching. Unfortunately, many times there can be a significant lack of sensitivity among those who promote large families as a way to demonstrate life-giving love, however well-meaning they are, towards those many families who are smaller.

So, yes, large families do need to be supported and encouraged. But so do smaller families.

And you know what? Both the judging and the defensiveness needs to stop. Whatever your family size, be proud and grateful and happy. Don’t be too quick to assume why a family has fewer, or more, children than you. Even if you think you know.

Tolstoy famously began Anna Karenina with “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But he was wrong.

Back in college, I wrote an essay arguing the opposite of that first line, and I still believe it. It’s much more true that happy families are as different as each family, and it’s the unhappy ones that are all alike.

“Happy” doesn’t mean “always laughing and having fun,” as anyone knows from living in a family. “Happy” means progress, struggling, loving, not perfection, but seeking for the good and holiness in each other and in the family. And that kind of happy comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes.

Deep thoughts for this topic:

1. Babies are totally awesome, all the time.

2.  There are myriad ways to be a happy and holy family. It can be spiritually hazardous to be either defensive about your own family size (large or small), OR to make assumptions about other families.

3. NFP is not contraception. Period. Don’t even get me started.

4. If you can’t say something nice about someone’s family size, don’t say anything at all.

5 thoughts on “How “Planet Money” helped me write about NFP”

  1. Thanks for the thought-provoking blog post and for the motivation to review a wonderful teaching of our Catholic faith!
    No doubt your statement is correct that using NFP is not the same as using artificial contraception, but the topic of discussion here is what might be in a person’s heart when discerning God’s will during each cycle. It’s not the means for spacing births being discussed here, but, rather, the discernment process.
    I guess I am a bit confused by your statement that it “sends you through the roof” that NFP can be used with a contraceptive mentality. Do you not believe that it is possible for couples to use NFP and have similar selfishness in their hearts as a contraceptive couple? Are you saying that by the very fact that a couple practices NFP, by definition, their obligations to the truths of Humane Vitae are met? Some NFP users are purists, naturalists, practicing no faith at all and have no understanding of Humane Vitae whatsoever.
    While we should never judge what might be in a person’s heart at any time or have any lack of support for them, we are at the same time called to be witnesses to the truth of the wisdom found in Humane Vitae that married couples “are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator.”
    It appears that this discussion came about as the result of a comment on FB about Michelle Duggar stating, “I use NFP and Michelle Duggar is not my idol”

    While trying to do a good thing in promoting the effectiveness of NFP, in my opinion, this is somewhat problematic for the following reasons: it damages the character and good name of another person, judges her discernment process, and may cause scandal and confusion among non-Catholics or those who may not have full comprehension of Humane Vitae or the vocation of marriage that it is “ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.” (8)

    In my opinion, this public denouncement fails to point others to the beauty that can be found in the treasured wisdom of Humane Vitae. The reader of such a bold statement may walk away feeling as if the narrator is promoting the use of NFP so that these “blessings” don’t happen. Readers lack the feeling of God as creator and author of life and the delicate and careful discernment of His gift to us of co-creation. What I would call the if/then mentality clearly expressed in Humane Vitae seems to be missing here (Couples should be open to life until a serious issue arises, then they are permitted to use NFP).

    I fear that an unintended consequence is that readers walk away feeling like the person making the statement feels quite empowered and sort of “stepping in’ and “doing something” and (calling others to do the same) instead of allowing God to be the creator and author of life in his/her marriage with very careful discernment and an ardent desire to follow the will of God with tremendous gratitude for His gift of children and co-creation. This seems contrary to what is found in Humane Vitae, that NFP should be used “for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts.” And that “one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator.”

    Comments about Mrs. Duggar seem to be somewhat offensive against the sacredness of God’s creating hand revealed in each of their children, for “Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source. “Human life is sacred—all men must recognize that fact,” Our predecessor Pope John XXIII recalled. “From its very inception it reveals the creating hand of God.” (13)

    Furthermore, the statement fails to echo the sentiments found in Psalm 127:
    “Certainly sons are a gift from the Lord, The fruit of the womb, a reward,
    like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons in one’s youth.
    Blessed is the man who has filled his quiver with them.
    He will never be shamed for he will destroy his foes at the gate.”

    Humane Vitae states “Husbands and wives should take up the burden appointed to them, willingly, in the strength of faith and of that hope which “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us ~}

    In the posting of this comment about Mrs. Dugger, couples may feel hurt and wholly unsupported in “taking up this burden”. They may have discerned that they have no serious reason to use NFP, yet in their struggle to be faithful and unselfish find themselves feeling judged by those who should perhaps be supportive of them.

    We need to be cheering each other on from the sidelines, so to speak, encouraging that “resolute purpose and great endurance” As Humane Vitae states “This law demands from individual men and women, from families and from human society, a resolute purpose and great endurance.” We should not make large families feel badly about this obvious striving for holiness. It is not at all a statement or judgment of anyone else’s discernment, it’s no one’s fault, it’s just more obvious. We should certainly not judge a person by their family size, but we should also never make a family feel guilty for being living witnesses of the beauty and wisdom expressed by Pope Paul VI-living witnesses striving for holiness, their children reflecting the beauty of God’s creation! Families with one child are also living witnesses to the truth. It’s just a bit less obvious. No explanation is needed and none should ever be required. At the same time, in an effort to keep from offending anyone, our lips should not be silenced in expressing the beauty and awe of the gift we see lived out in an obvious way in a large family.

    Living these truths can be very tough and very counter-cultural. Perhaps the reason those touting the beauty of a large family in your presence is not to make you or anyone feel guilty or in need of explaining anything, but, rather, because a group of Catholic women may be a safe haven in which to find support when neighbors, friends, coaches, teachers, and relatives all think they’re a little off for what they believe. I would hope no God-fearing soul would ever judge you or say anything unkind, and I am truly sorry if this has happened. Next time the situation comes up, consider that there may not be judgment in the hearts of these women as they speak but that they may only be looking to blow off a bit of steam or gain a bit of support. For when they leave, the rest of society judges them continually and much of their lives can often be spent explaining their existence, for they live lives that are markedly different than almost everyone else around them. But surely, in some situations, parents of large families can most likely feel judged without actually being judged.

    I suspect that most of us are not called to have 20plus children, our own TV show, and entertain millions with our family antics, but we are called to live and witness the truth in all things at all times and to support each other in doing so while being fully aware of God’s tremendous love and unfailing forgiveness.

    1. Rose, thank you SO much for taking the time to put down your thoughts and reflect on this along with me. I know we have had some of these discussions in real life, and will continue to do so.

      I agree with so much of what you are saying, but I was writing from a perspective of assuming all you wrote about openness to life and the need to encourage and build up large families and support them.

      In addition to that, another goal of the post was to share a less- commonly talked about phenomenon. That is, for those who, for whatever reason, don’t have that “big family,” there can be a cross of not feeling “good enough” or “normal” despite a desire to and practice of following God’s will through discernment. This is in addition to judgment from others.

      I plan to write about this again, and clarify so much, but I thought the perfect was the enemy of the good and I wanted to get my thoughts out there.

    2. Also, Rose, I was unclear on your Duggar reference since I don’t mention it in my post, and I don’t think the Facebook discussion referenced it, either. That is a fun show and we have had a lot of good times watching it here. Can you clarify?

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