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.
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.
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.