Questions and conversations on family size tend to make me apprehensive. It usually feels like a no-win situation. Walking on eggshells isn't quite sufficient; it's more like navigating landmines. I can't help but feel conspicuous in such discussions, due to the size of my own family. Nor am I unaware of the weight that attaches to my words on account of my pastoral office. Getting to the substance of what I actually believe, teach and confess on matters of marriage and family is made more difficult by the fact that I do not agree with some commonly-held presuppositions. The further assumptions that are made about my position and opinions, before I have had a chance to say anything at all, make the challenge of communication that much trickier.
It would be easier and more comfortable to say nothing at all. I'd much rather keep a low profile and simply go on with my life without entering into discussions and debates regarding numbers of children. I venture into such territories, where the angels have no reason to tread, because I have perceived that it may be of helpful service to my neighbors; and because, as a pastor and teacher in Christ's Church, I have a responsibility to confess His Word and faith in response to perennial questions pertaining to these profound aspects of human life and love.
The ground-zero problem is the presupposition that children are a choice. Every disagreement, every frustration, every poor decision (because there are choices and decisions to be made), and every fear pertaining to family size either stems from this presupposition or is exacerbated by it. Christians should know better, but they may be misled. They confess that God is the "Maker of the heavens and the earth," the "Author and Giver of life," but their decisions and actions may profess something else. Perhaps it derives from an imprecise and sloppy way of speaking, but the rhetoric has shaped thinking and solidified opinions contrary to the Creed.
Surely it is true that God's work of procreation coincides with the decisions and actions of men and women, even when those decisions and actions are sinful and unclean. With the exception of our Lord's own virgin birth, we are able to discern and describe the process of conception; precisely because the Lord our God is a faithful Creator who preserves His Creation and still maintains the good order that He has established against the devilish chaos of sin and death. Yet, the Lord has not relinquished His divine prerogatives; nor has man's self-idolatry enabled him to become like God, delusions of power notwithstanding. It is the Lord who opens and closes the womb. The activities of men and women do not lead inevitably to the same results in every case, despite their intentions, whether for good or evil. They may cause death, but they are incapable of creating life. Their choices are contingent, never certain.
Unfortunately, we sinners have this mindset of control. We reject what God has given; we grasp and seize what He has not. Hence, we have this thing called "birth control," which ought really to be called "birth prevention," and too often it has been exactly that. I do believe there are times and circumstances in which methods of pregnancy prevention are permissable, with discretion, in the freedom of faith and the service of love. But any method of "birth control," which would intentionally prevent the birth of an unborn child at any stage of pregnancy from conception to full term, is contrary to the Fifth Commandment. That includes the "birth control pill," the full dangers, damages and repercussions of which are yet to be discovered, I fear.
"The pill" does figure into the shaping of my perspective and position on "family planning." When my bride and I were wed at the age of 19, the summer following our freshman year in college, we had assured our parents that we would complete our education before having any children. In retrospect, that promise was presumptuous, but we were trying to be responsible and to assuage those of our family and friends who worried that we were too young to be getting married, to say nothing of starting a family. Our doctor advised the use of "the pill," so that is what we dutifully did. Half a year into our marriage, however, I came across an article on "the pill," which claimed that it worked, in part, by preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg in the womb. Percentages differed, depending on the type of "pill" being used, but, according to the article, one could expect a "silent abortion" to occur at least every other year. We found this information quite alarming and disturbing. On the first opportunity, we consulted with our doctor, the one who had recommended "the pill" in the first place, and asked him about it. He admitted that, yes, it was true; "the pill" would cause the rejection of a fertilized egg, and that was by design as a last line of defense. "Birth control," indeed. When we asked the doctor why he had not told us this before, he replied that he didn't think we'd want to know.
We could not in good conscience continue using "the pill." Rather, we were grieved to have used it at all, and we were shocked at the way that we had been misled. It resulted in the first major shift in our way of thinking about our marriage and our openness to children. Our DoRena was born the following year.
The reactions of our fellow students were interesting. Our extended family and most of our friends were delighted for us, and supportive of our efforts to continue going to school while caring for a child and working to provide for our needs. But there were also those among our peers who muttered about that we were being reckless and irresponsible. We should not have gotten married to begin with, but, having done so, we should certainly not be choosing to have children. For our part, though, it was not a matter of choosing to have children, but a refusal to act in such a way as to destroy God's good gift of life. Deliberately not avoiding conception was a kind of personal penance for having blindly used "the pill" without questioning the consequences of that choice. Resolving to receive and care for any children that God would grant us was a discipline of repentance and a confession of faith in the One who did not withhold His Son, but freely gave Him up for us all.
It is not my opinion, nor has it ever been, that methods of pregnancy prevention are inherently sinful. I do not believe they are. Nor am I inclined to distinguish between "natural" and "artificial" methods of pregnancy prevention, because I have not been persuaded of any ethical difference in this distinction. My concern, and here I am thinking of myself more than anyone else, is not with the external decisions and actions of pregnancy prevention, but with the heart. It is out of the heart that all manner of wickedness proceeds, and while I do not know my own sinful heart as well as the Lord knows it, I am at least somewhat aware of my idolatrous fears and my covetous desires. It is precisely in my heart that the temptation to think of children as a "choice" would take hold of me. I would seek and strive to control their number and timing, so as to fit my desire to control my own life, my time and energy, my interests and pursuits, my gods and demons, my proud plans and grand schemes. Thus far in my life, a choice to avoid the likelihood of conception would not derive from faith and love, but from unbelief and selfishness. It would contradict what I confess and deny what I preach and teach. So I have set myself against those temptations, and have deliberately not given way to the trepidations of my heart.
Trepidations there are, more than I can name. My wife has consistently been stronger in her faith and love at this point than I have been. The assumptions of those who have guessed that we are either careless or simply delight in having lots of children, and that all of this is easy for us to manage, could not be more mistaken. We are not careless, but have at many times along the way been almost paralyzed by caution and confusion. We do delight in our children, but we also grow weary and get frustrated with them. I cannot count the times I have coveted the freedom, the time, and the available resources of acquaintances with smaller families, whose children are no longer wearing diapers and requiring constant care and supervision. While there are days of fun and full of joy, which I would not trade for the world, rare is the day that could be called "easy."
The assumptions are mistaken, because they stem from the presupposition that we must be choosing to have children. Not so. Unlike many of our family and friends, we have never found ourselves in the position of "trying" to conceive. Rather, the Lord has blessed us to be fruitful and to multiply beyond any effort or intention on our part. Honestly, learning that we are expecting another baby has usually been a difficult thing to embrace with glad and willing hearts. I'm sorry to say that, but it's true, and it goes to the point. Initial reactions to the news are full of mixed emotions, including questions of how we'll manage the demands of another child upon our limited time, treasures and talents, and concerns about what other people will think and say. When our little Job died in the womb this past February, I grieved and mourned quite deeply, but there was also a part of me that involuntarily felt a small sense of relief. I despised that feeling in myself, but I could not banish it away from my heart and mind. There was relief, in part, from the challenge of another child, and from the fears that I had harbored for my wife after the difficult experience she underwent with Gerhardt's delivery. Mainly, though, there was a bittersweet sigh of relief in me that we would actually receive some sympathy from people who would otherwise have looked askance at another pregnancy.
We have not chosen to have children, because that choice is not within our prerogative or power. We have chosen to be and to live as husband and wife, and to be a father and mother to as few or many children as God entrusts to our care. We have chosen not to avoid conception; not because we are eager for a bigger and bigger family, but because we cannot claim that either faith or love would be guiding such avoidance. The day may come when I should love and serve my wife by deliberately seeking to limit the likelihood of conception, and then I shall proceed to do so in the freedom of faith. Heretofore that has not been the case.
Assumptions that we have chosen to have lots of children are matched by assumptions that couples with fewer or no children have chosen not to have more or any. That is a dangerous and hurtful game, which is one of the many reasons that I strive to be very careful in how I speak to these matters. The fact that such choices are beyond us is evidenced by the husbands and wives who desire children, who may even long to have many children, but who suffer from infertility, or from miscarriage after miscarriage, or who must deal with the precarious health of the woman's body. Courts and constitutions cannot grant any freedom of choice to avoid such crosses, but Christian charity could certainly do more to avoid the sting of presumptuous comments and questions.
Those who suppose that I insist upon or expect a "big" family have not known my mind or heart or spirit at all. For one thing, it is precisely my point that such a goal is not within our reach, and is therefore not appropriate. For another thing, I fully acknowledge and empathize with the weakness of our sinful hearts and the frailty of our mortal flesh. It is for those reasons that I have always affirmed the legitimacy of pregnancy prevention, which is not inherently sinful and can be undertaken in repentant faith toward God and in ferevent love toward one another. What I warn against, chiefly in myself but also in my pastoral counsel, is the covetous idolatry that would seek to avoid children for the sake of selfish desire. The difference between abortion, which is murder, and pregnancy prevention, which is not, is as great as the difference between life and death. Many of the motivations and arguments for both contraception and abortion, however, are indistinguishable. That is why Christians examine, not only their actions, but also their hearts and minds; and they are called to repentance, which bears the fruits of faith and love in Christ.
Practically speaking, Christian couples have not only been misled by the rhetoric of "choice," but have been done a disservice by the limited number of "big" families to consider as examples, as a consequence of "birth control." It was only a few generations ago, when my grandparents and many of my older parishioners were children, that a family the size of mine would not have seemed especially "big" or so unusual. Now the standards, expectations, routines and provisions of our societal culture are geared toward families with only a couple of children. By the fourth child, people are beginning to wonder "when you're going to stop." Half a dozen children qualifies as a decidedly "big" family, and families the size of mine are now just shy of being magazine cover stories.
Because a "big" family is comparatively rare, it is a daunting thing for a young couple to imagine. They can hardly comprehend what it must be like, because it appears to be so extreme. When a father and mother are coping with two or three children under the age of five, the prospect of two or three times that many children can be downright frightening. It seems impossible. The temptation is to suppose that "big" families are either extraordinarily gifted or else simply crazy.
Truthfully, it does get easier with time, in numerous ways and for all sorts of reasons. Apart from sextuplets, you never do end up with half a dozen toddlers all at one time. Not everyone is wearing diapers at once. Not everyone requires constant supervision and maintenance. Little children get older and mature; eventually, they grow up and move away from home. There are still challenges, to be sure, but of a different sort. The older children grow into responsibilities and are able to assist with their younger siblings. There is family comradery and a sense of community. DoRena and Zachary were a tremendous help to us in their teenage years, and now we see Nicholai and Monica moving into those positions. There is a dynamic at work in a larger family, when you have both older and younger children at the same time, which smaller families don't see. So that is one thing to consider.
Another thing is that parents do get better at this gig as they grow in experience. That's true already in the labor and delivery room, but it continues to be the case from the first day that the new baby comes home. After three or four children, at about the point when people are starting to wonder, "when are they going to stop," moms and dads are finally settling into the routine. I realize there are all sorts of exceptional circumstances, and that children with special needs require a whole new learning curve that I cannot pretend to fathom. Such things are met, as marriage and family and each child are met, by the gracious providence of God. In any event, as parents gain wisdom and maturity with age, along with the knowledge of experience, it really is amazing what a difference that makes. We were twenty-one and still in college when DoRena was born, and we were pretty clueless and naive about parenting. We weren't pros, yet, when Zachary was born two years later, either. Everything is new; most things are difficult; lots of things are scary. You muddle along and learn as you go. Thankfully, God has made children fairly resilient. If you love them and proceed conscientiously, you're not likely to mess them up too badly. I've said before that DoRena and Zachary were our guinea pigs; we not only learned from our mistakes and our experience with them, but we also grew in confidence and became increasingly more comfortable and relaxed in welcoming and rearing more children.
Young parents with two or three children should also realize that the impact of additional children will not be as great as the first few. Having your first baby is a major change, obviously. Going from one child to two is also a significant adjustment. Three children means that neither parent can hold all of them at once. Beyond that, the shift in family dynamics with the arrival of another baby is increasingly less dramatic. Going from seven to eight children, or from eight to nine, makes hardly a ripple in the flow of life (other than the immediate demands of a newborn). There are the challenges of vehicle capacity and dining room table size, but no earthshaking renegotiations of family polity, structure and governance. I will say that, having had three boys in a row (Justinian, Frederick and Gerhardt), it does sometimes take me a little longer to get the correct name from my brain to my mouth when I'm trying to get the attention of one of them.
In all likelihood, and this is how it now is for us, at some point between eight and ten children the oldest ones start spreading their wings and flying away. They don't cease to be our children, but our responsibility for them is redefined, and their place within the day-to-day life of our family is substantially reduced. Although it might sound odd to many people, my family has seemed rather small this past year or so, with DoRena and Zachary both away from home and now married. We have also felt the absence of our Job, even though we never had the privilege of seeing him or holding him. I never quite know how to answer the question of how many children I have. Counting Job and Katharina, there are eleven. Counting Sam (our son-in-law) and Rebekah (our daughter-in-law), there are thirteen. But presently living at home outside the womb are only seven. I know that's still a "big" family by most standards, but I consistently feel like I'm missing someone (truth be told, I am). It's not impossible that we could end up with ten children around the table before Nicholai heads off to college (or wherever), but it's not likely that it would ever be more than that.
I'm grateful for the children God has given us. Each one has been His choice, not ours. Other husbands and wives might make all the same decisions we have made, and yet receive an entirely different set of blessings and crosses to bear and carry. I'm incredibly grateful to my wife for her faithfulness in her vocations. I'm grateful to our parents for not only supporting us, but for rejoicing with us in each pregnancy and each new baby, no matter which number. I'm grateful to be only in my 40s, relatively young these days, already seeing my older children married, and now awaiting the arrival of my first grandchild. God-willing, I will live to see many grandchildren in the decades ahead, and then great-grandchildren, too. If each of my children were to have as many children as I have, then by the time I am 86 I would have 100 grandchildren. But that is no prerogative of mine, nor theirs; it is the Lord's. So here am I and the children He has given me. My prayer is that He will keep me faithful in serving my several vocations, including that of father, to the glory of His Name and to the benefit of His children in my care.
Old Lutheran Quote of the Day
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