By: Dr. Gregory Popcak
How do you know how big your family should be? How do you know what God wants? Discerning family size is one of the most common concerns expressed by both listeners to my radio program and clients in my counseling practice.
Coming to Terms
A lot of people use the phrase “responsible parenthood” but few understand the practical implications of the concept. It’s a phrase that’s found in many Church publications. Basically responsible parenthood boils down to a commitment to the following principles:
Being generous in the service of life (i.e., open to having children)
A commitment to “integral procreation” (i.e., a commitment, not just to having children, but also to meeting the needs they have to grow up healthy and holy. More on this later).
A respect for the strength and unity of the marriage and the ability of the couple to effectively meet the temporal, psychological, emotional and spiritual needs of the children they already have.
A commitment to ongoing prayer and discernment and a willingness to seek God’s plan for each family.
It is tempting to want cookie-cutter solutions to complex problems. Would that we could all turn to page xx of the big book of life’s questions and find the answers to vexing questions like, “Where do socks go when we put them in the dryer?” “Why don’t men stop to ask for directions?” And, “How many children are we supposed to have anyway?”
But the Church tells us that there are as many correct answers to the question of family size as there are families. In paragraph 50 of Gaudium et Spes,the Second Vatican Council’s document on the Church in the Modern World, the Faithful are told that it is the couples’ responsibility–and the couple’s alone–to make the call “in the sight of God.”
So how do you know if you are making the right call? Here are a few tips to help you discern what God’s will is for your family.
Live a Holy Life.
I once interviewed Fr. Ronald Lawler, co-author with Archbishop Donald Wuerl of The Teachings of Christ, and put the question of family size to him. “The first thing,” he said, “is to live a holy life.”
His point was that making any decision “in the sight of God” first requires that we know how to hear God’s voice and know his will about anything. If a couple isn’t striving together to live a holy life by praying together and discerning God’s will about all the big and small decisions of daily life, then there is virtually no chance that they will ever be confident that they have found the “right answer”—that is, God’s answer–to the question of how big their unique family should be. But the couple who regularly prays together and asks for God’s guidance about daily problems, job situations, parenting questions, and other lesser issues, will have spirits well-tuned to God’s will and know that their hearts are ordered toward seeking God’s plan for their family.
If you and your spouse aren’t in the habit of praying regularly together about the practical decisions of everyday life, start today. If you don’t know how to hear God speaking to you in prayer, then little books like What Does God Want? by Fr. Michael Scanlon and Listening At Prayer by Fr. Benedict Groeschel can be very helpful resources.
The next two points are important, but without having this first step in place, a family will always be tempted to try to turn general principles into a cookie cutter recipe, or to look to others to tell them what to do, or do what feels right regardless of what God’s will might be. So, while you consider the following, make sure that your prayer life is in order.
Consider the Family You Have.
In Gaudium et Spes, the Church asks families to prayerfully consider the following when discerning whether it is time to have another child. “Parents should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted…Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself.”
In other words, the Church asks families to consider that they need to both be open to the possibility of conceiving and be confident that they have what they need to teach their children love God and to love each other. The Church calls this, “integral procreation.” That is, being responsibly open to life doesn’t just mean saying, “yes” to conception, but rather being committed to saying “yes” to meeting all the needs a child has at every age and stage so that we can not only have children, but raise them to be whole and holy people. Regarding this latter point, when the Church says that parents are responsible for “educating” children, she doesn’t just mean teaching them a trade or paying for college. The Church is referring to parents’ obligation to teach children how to love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength and love their neighbor as themselves.
Only the parents can for sure know whether or not their desire for another child (or lack thereof) is actually rooted in a genuine concern for–and honest assessment of—the emotional, relational, and temporal resources they need to raise another saint for the Kingdom.
But even when considering the issues listed under the second point, a couple should never place themselves in a position of saying, “That’s it. We’re done.” Rather, the couple should prayerfully ask, “Even if we don’t feel it is right to try to get pregnant this month, what do we need to do to get the additional emotional, relational, or temporal resources we believe are necessary in order to be willing to reconsider the question of having another child?” By asking this question, the couple is able to approach objections to the possibility of another child both realistically and generously. For instance, it may be that parents decide that an older child’s behavior problems–or the couple’s marital problems—require too much of their attention to be able to properly attend to a new baby at this time. But this should not be an excuse for never having more children. Rather, parents should say, “What can we do to overcome this child’s behavior problems (or our marital struggles) so that we can free up the resources we need to raise another saint?” In this way, parents respect the call to both unity/intimacy and procreativity. When taking this approach, parents are able to always remain open to life and do so responsibly, keeping in mind their mission not only to be willing to have more children, but their responsibility to raise those children in a faithful, loving, environment that gives them the best education for living a holy life.
And with that we come full circle, because the question of family size ultimately boils down to the married couple living a holy life in order to teach as many little ones as they can to live a holy life as well. Of course, none of this is possible without vigorous prayer and actively seeking God’s will regarding the size of their family. But with prayer and faithful discernment, each couple can find the answer God has in store for them.