When people see me out and about with my four young children, one of the most common questions I get is, “Do you want more?” (Or, more accurately, “DO YOU WANT MORE?!?!?!?!“)
I’m never sure what to say. “Yes” doesn’t sound quite right. Our fourth baby in four-and-a-half years is only eighteen months old, so I can’t say that I’ve spent a lot of time yearning for another baby lately. In fact, I’ve never really been a baby person. I’ve never had that moment other women talk about of holding a newborn and thinking, “Oh, I want one!” On the other hand, “no” doesn’t encapsulate what I’m feeling either.
I’ve thought about this a lot over that past few months, and I eventually realized that I have such a hard time coming up with the answer simply because it’s not the right question. Here’s why:
6 reasons why “Do you want more?” isn’t the right question
1. It’s not all about me
When I used to think about pregnancy and babies, I wouldn’t think a whole lot further than the first couple years of new life and how it would impact me. My first thoughts would be along the lines of, “But I don’t feel like being pregnant!” or “I don’t want to deal with all the work of the baby period!”
Thanks in part to my conversion and in part to watching my children grow, I’ve since had the epiphany of realizing that those high-maintenance pregnancies and fussy newborns are actual human beings! I know this sounds crazy, but I had a total mental disconnect where I kind of forgot that all the adults I know and love were once fetuses and newborns themselves. I hadn’t internalized the fact that a new pregnancy will lead to a full human being, just like me. Now that I get it, when I evaluate when and if to have more children, I try to remember to consider the life of the potential new man or woman as much as I consider his or her impact on my own life.
2. It’s not all about what I want
One of the biggest revelations of my conversion was this:
Doing what I want ≠ Happiness
All my life I thought that if I could just spend enough time meditating on what I feel like doing and then amass enough control over my life to go do it, I’d finally have lasting happiness. I was shocked when I found out that that assumption was wrong. I was more shocked when I realized what is the path to lasting happiness: serving others.
I used to think that if I could just hurry up and stop having kids so that I could get back to living “my” life, I’d be happy. Now I see that, not only is serving others the right thing to do, but it’s the only path to joy and peace. So the ideas of not having more children vs. having more children aren’t all that different: either way, I’ll be sacrificing and serving.
3. I don’t have a crystal ball
Usually the “Do you want more?” question is stated as a long-term proposition: Do you want to have more children, ever? The scope of that question dizzies me. I’m 33. I likely have at least 10 years of fertility left. Even if I did feel absolutely, 100% certain that I was not up to having another child right now, I have no way of knowing how things might change even a month from now, let alone a year or ten years from now. God has yet to reveal a detailed, 10-year plan for me; heck, I can’t even seem to get him to give me a 10-day plan!
4. It’s important to have a “wholeness of vision”
Toward the end of his life, Sheldon Vanauken sought out the daughter whom his deceased wife Davy had given up for adoption when she became pregnant at 14. He ended up becoming close to the now-adult daughter, named Marion, and it profoundly affected him. Vanauken wrote:
I glimpse what [John] Donne meant in saying that any man’s death diminished him. I should be diminished if half a century ago Davy had clutched at the straw of abortion. And all the folk who have touched or shall touch the lives of Marion and her children and their children-to-be would be diminished.
The quote is from this must-read article by Chuck Colson, where he talks about having a “wholeness of vision.” Though he’s specifically talking about abortion there, I think that seeking that wholeness of vision is critical whenever we evaluate the possibility of new life. I have no idea how things might play out in my life or in the world around me. I can’t imagine how differently a new child might fit into our family two, three, four or more years from now. I can’t fathom what God might plan to do with the next human soul that I help bring into the world.
One thing that my blog readers have help me understand as I transitioned from a contraceptive to an “open to life” mentality is just how rapidly things change with children. Right now my kids are 6, 4, 3 and 18 months. When they’re 12, 10, 9 and 7, things will be different; and at 32, 30, 29 and 27, they’ll be more different still. I’ll be in a new place in my life; our family dynamic will have evolved. It would be unwise to make a long-term decision about whether or not to add a new person to our family based on the narrow view given to me by this moment in time.
When I have bad days it’s tempting to say that I simply couldn’t handle another kid any time in the indefinite future; it’s tempting to go into hyper-control mode and adopt a completely “closed to life” mentality. But then I think of Vanauken and Colson’s words about having a wholeness of vision. I imagine our Thanksgiving dinnertable 20 years from now, and I remember that the only important thing I’ll leave in this world is the love that I shared — and I’d be wise to make sure I don’t miss any opportunities for that.
5. I’m not good at knowing what I want; I’m terrible at knowing what I need
As I said in #2, I learned the hard way that what I think I want is often not the path to lasting happiness. Similarly, what think I need and what I actually need are two different things. And never has this been more true than with children.
If you had told me five years ago that I’d have four children today, I would have assured you that I simply couldn’t do it. No way. I don’t have the right temperament. I’m the most impatient, selfish introvert I know. I would have assured you that it would be a disaster for all involved. And yet having four closely-spaced children has been a blessing in so many ways. Not only do I have the pleasure of being the mother to these precious souls, but it’s caused me to learn and grow in ways I never could have if things had played out my way. Though I didn’t exactly plan to have four children so close together, it turned out to be exactly what I needed.
6. I’m not afraid
I’ve written before about how I’ve noticed a great fear of life in our culture. It’s understandable: there’s so very much that can go wrong in the process of having children. From pregnancy (or adoption) complications to health issues for the baby to increased grocery bills to college tuition costs, there’s so much to worry about when evaluating the prospect of new life. It’s tempting to say you don’t want to have more kids simply out of fear of all that could go wrong!
As longtime readers know, we’ve had our own challenges in that department: When I was pregnant with our second child, about two weeks after I saw the truth of the Church’s teaching on contraception, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening blood clot in a major vein. It turns out it was caused by a rare genetic clotting disorder that’s exacerbated by pregnancy. My doctors told me I couldn’t have any more kids. Then, when that second baby was five months old, I got an unexpected positive pregnancy test. We were drowning in medical bills from the last pregnancy. We didn’t have insurance that covered pregnancy. The medicine to prevent clots would cost us $900/month. We didn’t even have our own house; we were living with my mom at the time.
That experience was one of my first encounters with that old saying that “every baby comes with a loaf of bread under his arm.” I first heard a version of that adage from a friend who grew up in a family of seven children in abject poverty in Mexico. Despite the fact that they never had enough to eat and were too poor to own even beds or blankets, she insisted that God sends down special assistance for every new baby. As God guided my family through our own time of difficulty, I was stunned by just now true this is. And I learned the lesson yet again when I had another unexpected pregnancy the next year.
It’s an exaggeration to say that I’m not ever afraid of welcoming new life into the world anymore — but I certainly have a whole lot less fear now that I’ve seen how powerfully God works in the lives of couples who are open to life.
So that’s the answer I’d like to give next time I’m asked, “Do you want more?” (Though, knowing me, I’ll probably just laugh awkwardly and slink off.) It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean that I throw all caution to the wind when it comes to the possibility of future children. We use Natural Family Planning while remaining “open to life” (you can read about what that means here). We decide on a month-to-month basis whether we think right now would be a good time to have another baby — and there are plenty of times that that answer is “no.” But I’m always aware that, when it comes to new human beings, it’s about so much more than what I want.
My story + 7 lessons I learned about conversion
Thursday night I was honored to be asked to share my conversion story with the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) group at St. Elizabeth’s parish here in central Texas. I wanted listeners to be able to take something away that they could apply to their own lives, so I wove in seven lessons I learned about the conversion process. Click here to view the handout I gave to attendees (PDF). It includes a list of my seven lessons, as well as a page of recommended reading.
You can listen to the 45-minute talk through the player here:
© 2010 Jennifer Fulwiler – All Rights Reserved
If you’d like to download the MP3 it to listen to it later or play on your iPod, here’s the original file. Right-click on that link and choose Save Link As.
Hope you enjoy it!
(Also, I’ll be busy getting ready for the taping this week, so I probably won’t write again until Friday. See you then!)
“We thought about having another, but the sleepless nights, the diapers, the pregnancy and birth — ugh! Aren’t you just so ready to be done with all that?” a neighbor asked at the playground last week.
“I do not envy you,” a lady at the grocery store said solemnly as I passed by with a cart full of three kids under five and a hugely pregnant belly.
Whenever people say things like this, I have this odd reaction of simultaneously having no idea what they’re talking about and knowing exactly what they’re talking about. My life seems so completely normal to me that I can’t imagine it any other way; yet just a few years ago I would have been horrified by the idea of having so many kids so close together and would have thought it unthinkable not to use at least five different forms of contraception to make sure that no others came along any time soon.
Up until my mid-20′s I was firm in my belief that I never wanted to have kids. A combination of events made me reconsider the issue, and by the time we got married I was open to the idea of having some pre-set, small number of kids and had begun thinking about the precise timetables on which I would have them.
Even after my husband and I came to an intellectual agreement with Catholic thought on contraception and agreed to do Natural Family Planning, I viewed my future with trepidation. I’d see women at Mass or on blogs who were pregnant and had lots of kids, or I’d hear about a Catholic couple mis-estimating their fertile period and ending up with a surprise pregnancy, and I’d think, “Ugh. That is not the life I want!”
It is surprising, then, to find that even though our combination of high fertility and high ineptitude at NFP makes me well on the way to being “one of those women,” my life is actually much better than it was before. It would have been inconceivable to me to imagine that constantly having my plans derailed by pregnancies and not even having any idea when I’d be done changing diapers would be an improvement over my fully controlled, well-ordered life, but it has been.
Lately I’ve been imagining what I would say to 2003 Jen if I could go back in time and give her a crystal ball to show her what her future would be like. I’ve been trying to imagine how I would talk her down from the balcony ledge after the crystal ball got to the “four kids in five years — and doing NFP!” part, how I could possibly convince her that this life is not only not a recipe for misery, but the true fulfillment of everything she thought she wanted.
I would love to tell you that I’d simply be able to explain that each child is such a joy and a blessing, but that would not have resonated with Old Jen; I might have agreed, but ultimately I would have said that those joys and blessing are just too much hard work. “I just don’t see how that kind of life could be anything but miserable for someone like me,” I would have said.
Here is what I would say in response, based on five key things I didn’t understand then that I understand now through the wisdom of Christian teaching:
1. Each of us is called to a vocation, and we’ll never find peace until we find it and throw ourselves into it.
I’ve talked before about how understanding the concept of vocation revolutionized the way I saw my life. Until I understood this concept, that God has called me to the married life and that therefore my primary purpose on this earth is to be a wife and a mother, I kept thinking that there was something “out there” in the world that was going to bring be fulfillment and joy. I was stuck in the mindset that I needed to hurry up and get these challenging diaper and temper-tantrum years out of the way so that I could get back to living my “real” life, i.e. immersing myself in worldly pursuits in search of fulfillment.
What I could not have imagined is that when I surrendered to the idea that I am a wife and a mother first, that all my other hobbies and interests are important but secondary to that primary calling, it opened the floodgates for a waves of peace and grace to wash over me.
2. The world has nothing to offer us.
At the same time I began to understand my true vocation and attempt to fully embrace it, I also began to really get the Christian concept of, to paraphrase the great theologian Yaya, “WHAT YOU THINK IS OUT THERE AIN’T OUT THERE!” I realized that all of these excellent and important things I was going to do with my life after I was out of that difficult diaper phase were nothing more than all the things I’d been doing with my life before that had just left me restless and endlessly searching for the next big thing.
Slowly I began to realize that the only thing that was ever going to bring me lasting happiness was to discern what God’s will was for my life, and to abandon myself to it.
3. “It’s not what you do, it’s whom you serve.”
A product of secular society, I’d fallen into the common notion that the way to find true happiness is to focus on yourself more and other people less. It makes perfect sense, after all: doing pleasurable things for me is fun, sacrifice and hard work are not fun; ergo, the secret to happiness must be to live for myself as much as possible. Right?
How shocked I was to discover that I was wrong — dead wrong. Part of fully understanding the concept of vocation was understanding that a vocation is not to be thought of as “what you do” as much as it is “whom you serve.” It was nothing short of revolutionary to hear the concept that God has called every one of us to serve others, that living for yourself is not a valid option; that the key to deep fulfillment, to finding your very purpose in life, is as simple as finding out the specific way in which you’re called to serve. Do that, and you will find peace.
It sounded not only too simple to be true, but too difficult. As a spoiled only child the idea of living to serve sounded terrible. But once I actually took a leap of faith and tried it, I had no doubt that this was truth.
4. When you see something as temporary, you don’t optimize.
On a practical level, I realized something that should have been more obvious to me given my business background: when you see a situation as temporary, you don’t optimize.
Back when I saw pregnancy and birth and babies and diapers and the terrible two’s as just a brief phase of life, my mentality was to simply grit my teeth and get through it. I had the luxury of belaboring every inconvenience because I knew in the back of my mind that it would all soon pass.
But once I changed my view to see new life as an inherent part of marriage and made no more long-term plans about exactly when we’d be done having kids, I was forced to confront the difficulties of the baby/toddler years in a new way. Now I was motivated to really get creative and brainstorm with my husband about how we could overcome some of the difficulties of these years and make things run more smoothly. And, due to some combination of natural psychological mechanisms and the grace of God, all those things about having little ones that had seemed like such a big deal just weren’t that much of a big deal anymore once I saw it all as a lifestyle instead of a brief phase of life.
5. Life is better when you don’t try to control everything.
One of the most frightening things about this lifestyle change — taking the decision about whether or not to have more kids month by month, seeing openness to life as the default, not using contraception even though we’re bad at NFP — was the lack of control.
“But what about my plans?!” I’d think. “What about those lists of things I want to accomplish in the next five, ten, twenty years? How can I make progress on that if I don’t even know how many kids I’ll have and when I’ll have them?!”
As I’ve said before, after a few years of living this way I’ve come to the shocking conclusion that my plans weren’t actually that great. I’ve seen over and over again that just taking it day by day, discerning what God wants me to do here and now and not worrying about the long-term, is a far more fulfilling way to live.
What I was ultimately searching for with all those grand plans was a sense of accomplishment, a feeling of making a difference, a life of excitement, joy, peace and happiness. Little did I know that children would never get in the way of any of that, because those things are not the result of well-crafted goals spreadsheets and to-do lists; they are only found in God.
And then, of course, there’s this:
…the “result” of my first surprise pregnancy, snuggling with her grandfather. Children are only burdens when they’re theoretical. Once they’re here, you don’t need any further analysis to know that they are priceless gifts from God, that whatever you had to sacrifice for them to exist was a small price to pay.