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On Privilege, Planning, and Progeny: Wading into the NFP debate

Simcha Fisher, in her inimitable style, has set off an explosion in the middle of NFP week with her lastest piece The Privilege of Saying “No Thanks” on NFP. Her assertion, in response to another blog, is that anyone who can say “no thanks” to family planning is coming from a position of privilege. While Fisher focuses most on financial privilege she notes that this is only one kind. Other considerations include the privilege of a healthy relationship between spouses, or the privilege of good health either mental or physical.

When Fisher speaks of poverty she speaks with the passion of someone who knows this suffering intimately. This powerful and purposefully discomfiting language combined with the word choice of privilege seems to have set off a wave of defensiveness from many readers. It doesn’t sound nice. It shouldn’t. Suffering isn’t nice or clean or pleasant. It makes you squirm. If it isn’t clear yet I don’t disagree with Fisher’s article, and I don’t think her words were cruel but it’s unfortunate how often we can’t hear each other because of a particular word choice.

It is unfortunate that camps exist in Catholic family planning land. I call it family planning because whether you use NFP or not you are planning. You’re making a conscious decision about how to conduct your family life. Which is really Simcha Fisher’s point at the end of the day I think. We’re all examining all the factors involved and making a good faith decision to live God’s will for us as best we can. If your will is not constrained in your choice then, well let’s call it lucky or blessed if privilege feels too loaded.

Since both camps exist in a world hostile to our lifestyle, it’s especially sad that both feel judged and attacked by the other. I can see why people who have bravely (and it is brave even if you are privileged) said “no thanks” feel that their sacrifice is somehow denigrated by the “charge” of privilege. As Fisher pointed out in her piece this was not her intention despite tone designed to shake us out of our complacency. There is no fault in being blessed. It’s just good to note that you are, give thanks, and show charity to the less fortunate.

Maybe if hearing this point feels like an accusation, looking at it from the perspective of the other will help. You are not the only ones who feel their position is misunderstood or portrayed negatively. NFP couples feel the same. Let’s flip the camera for a moment. Saying “no thanks” and having a large family does involve taking on large burdens that many in our world would not undertake. If it feels that having those burdens treated as an advantaged position seems dismissive of their difficulty realize this is actually the exact same feeling many NFP couples experience when they are discussed as a whole. Often having fewer children is discussed as a privileged, easier reality when it is one we would happily trade in.

As I wrote in The Generosity of Catholic Family Planning years ago, we find a lot of sympathy for the infertile and a lot of praise for those who do not use any method of natural family planning. But at best those couples who could have children but sometimes don’t are seen as having an acceptable excuse.

It is assumed, at least by the language we use, that all families who have less children than they might have in fact want less children than they might have and have luckily come down with a perfect case of grave cause to justify that desire. No. Couples using NFP as the church allows are very often grieving their position. First there is whatever suffering is requiring the avoidance of pregnancy. But watching the opportunity for a child come and go is often a cross itself. Of course since they have children they are not allowed to grieve. This should be enough for them to many observers. And since they have slightly fewer children their generosity must be slightly less as well to another set of judges.

On the contrary, such couples are making a tremendous sacrifice and I’m not talking about having to go without sex on the days of fertility. I’m talking about sacrificing fertility and potential children out of a conviction that this is what obedience to God’s plan requires of them at this time. Yesterday I packed away the newborn clothes. Without becoming too awkwardly personal I suffer from layer upon layer of separate health conditions which will eventually make it necessary for me to forgo more children. It is the time bomb at the centre of many family discussions. I won’t lose my fertility mind you. No the decision will be a month by month reminder that I could have more kids but shouldn’t. I sadly realized that in all likelihood this would be the last time I took out at least one set of newborn clothes, either girl or boy.  Forever I will either have way too many children for some or not enough for others. A whole set of people, the set I should have in my corner because we’re all in this crazy counter cultural open to life family life together, will forever see me as privileged enough to have only 5 or 6 while that “only” means something much sadder to me and mine.

Here’s the thing, privilege and disadvantage aren’t mutually exclusive. Joy and suffering often go hand in hand, crosses and blessings. None of this is quantifiable and comparable. Placing ourselves on scales and trying to weigh out who has it best and who deserves what praise and what sympathy will lead to jealousy, pride, scrupulosity, and anger. It isn’t a competition. Where we are blessed let us give thanks and be inspired to help each other. Reach out to the big “no thanks” family and help them. Reach out to the NFP family and help them. Heaven knows we all need it. We may find our own crosses bless us with the ability to help others with different ones. Often the best way to lighten a cross just a little is to help carry another’s. It can be a privilege.

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Big Families – Bad Doodles

There is a category of question I and my friends who also have above the national average number of children get asked, or told about having “so many” kids.  I’m not talking about from the snide but from the sincerely curious.  Some are just amazed at something they’ve rarely seen before, others are contemplating adding to their own brood but are nervous.  This category I’ll call the “love” question.  Variations might include, “Don’t you feel like they don’t get enough attention?” or “I love my child so much I just can’t imagine loving another as much.” or “I feel like I’d be robbing him of me.”  When I found out, a mere nine months after JD was born that I was pregnant again, I was a) thrilled b) overwhelmed and c) sorry for JD.  I snuggled him extra thinking about how soon he wouldn’t be my one and only.  So I think these are fairly natural reactions and fears.  But in the years since then I’ve learned a lot about the nature of love, and that’s what I’d like to share today.  Now, I am not an artist.  Let’s just get that clear right out of the gate.  But they always say visuals help so I’ve sketched up a few here.

Here are a few analogies for what we might fear about expanding a family.

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As you can see, here love is a finite thing.  You have only so much and you have to ration it carefully.  Just one more:

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But that’s not how love works!  My first attempt to explain this was my Bucket Family:

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Here we see Mr. and Mrs. Bucket in their leaky roofed house.  Joy and love and blessings are continuously pouring down on them.  Eventually they are full to overflowing, better get another bucket!  I liked this analogy because it does feel in our house like we become so full to bursting with happiness that we all want to share it with another little Bucket.  But it’s not quite right.  For one thing, it would seem to say that some families get enough joy and love and blessing to grow and others don’t.  Not a fan of  that.  Also, it seems to ignore the fact that it’s very good and also easy to share your love and joy and blessings with Buckets who don’t even live with you.  Finally, the Buckets each have a limit.  But love has no limit, either in how much you give or in how much you receive.  Time for a new model. This time with no measurable things.

It starts like this:

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Pretty straight forward right?  Cait loves Mike, Mike loves Cait.  I use arrows for two reasons.  One, to show that there are two separate actions going on, one in which I am the giver, one in which I am the receiver.  Arrows also go on forever.  So I can always give more love, I can always love better.  I can also always receive more love.  Alright, got that?  Now watch what happens next:

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Ok so now there are six separate love relationships.  JD has a relationship with me and with his father.  Also, I didn’t split the previous arrows.  These new relationships are completely original, completely unique.  Now’s probably a good time to point out one of the great things about this model.  Each of those arrows is infinite remember?  So if this is as big as your family ever gets, well there’s still a limitless amount of love to be had by everyone!  But another cool thing happens when you add a sibling:

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Now we’re at 12 love relationships!  The number of relationships (each in itself infinite) grows exponentially.  Wow.  John Paul II once said that the best gift you could give a child was a sibling.  Now we see why.  Because they’re not losing out on love here!  They get extra places for love to flourish! They give and receive love from Mum, give and receive from Dad, AND give and receive with their siblings.  And it only gets better.

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(20 arrows)

And better!

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(30!)

Now this is how I picture my family.  A big chaotic mess of love jumbled together and wonderful.  I can’t lie.  You DO run out of energy.  You DO run out of patience, money, time.  But that’s by no means the same as running out of love.  If it were then anybody who worked a job, or who suffered with debilitating illness, or who was in poverty couldn’t love their child as much as a healthy, wealthy stay at home Mom.  Breadwinners would automatically love less.  Well clearly that’s silly.  And there are more than enough hands and hearts to pick up the slack when somebody is running low on any of those things.  My husband comes from a family with 11 children.  Can you imagine that chart?  Well you’ll have to.  Because I’m not going to attempt to draw it.

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