For our final guest post this week, please welcome the talented and lovely Molly Walter of Molly Makes Do. She and her husband are raising their sweet little boy in the Midwest where she works and mothers and gets her crafty blog on. Her reflection today was one of the first pieces that popped into my mind when I thought of marking Infertility Awareness Week with this series. I hope it speaks to you the way it spoke to me.
There is an apple tree in my parent’s backyard. It’s rather large, some would even say overgrown. It’s pretty old, but is still producing apples some years. It’s strange having such a large reminder looming over head of the idea of being “fruitful” during this time of my life. I feel anything but fruitful right now; in fact, most days I feel like fruit leather.
I’ve had to do a lot of thinking and a lot of research about family size over the last few years. I definitely knew the answer I thought I was going to get, and boy was I wrong. I’m going to come out and say here and now, for all eternity on the interwebs:
A good Catholic family can be a small family. A good Catholic family can have an only child.
As I’ve gone through my struggles getting pregnant and my multiple repeat miscarriages, I’ve dug around on this topic more than a little bit, and I’ve discovered that I can, essentially, throw in the towel if I want to.
I can say that I’ve had enough, and that I’ve been through the wringer. I can stop trying, and I can choose to never get the blood work and the genetic tests done that might supply the “why” behind our infertility.
I can accept it. I can call it good here and now and still hold my head up high in Mass on Sunday.
It’s hard being a small family around very traditional, usually larger families. We can get hit with assumptions about our personal life, and sometimes these assumption come from a well meaning place, and many times they don’t.
Even the most innocent question about wanting more children is ridiculously complicated for someone who has difficulties conceiving or carrying to term. Most of the time on Sundays or at church events you feel like you need a sign on your back: “my other kids are in heaven”.
One thing I’ve learned through all of this is that, according to Catholic teaching, I’m not required to have ALL the babies. I’m not required to produce the most possible human lives from my body in a set amount of time. I’m not required to do hormone injections or Clomid or surgeries or sign up immediately to foster or adopt.
The only thing that is expected of me is that I remain open to what God wants from my life, and take no action against what is ultimately His plan for my life.
He might make it clear later on that pills, injections or reams of paperwork and court days are what he wants, but then again, He could be telling me that “this is good. This is what I want you to be doing,” even if it is an only child or a smaller-than-normal family.
And I can accept that mine is not the only plan, and the number of children I have when I reach menopause is not a sort of “faithfulness tally” where the highest score wins.
There are a hundred, thousand ways a person can be called to be “open to life,” and while procreation is a one of the great gifts of marriage, it is not the only fruit a good marriage should bear.
For some couples their primary sacrifices will come in the form of providing for their own children. For others, it will mean using the greater time and resources available to them as a family with fewer children to help support and love children who are not their own, to foster a life of prayer or service.
So long as you’re not intentionally frustrating the process with contraception, it is not inherently sinful to decide that fewer children is what’s best for you due to your unique health, finances or situation.
It is not sinful to say “no” to more tests, more meds or more procedures that, while licit, cannot guarantee a living child.
It is not sinful to find joy in being able to focus on your small family or only child, or provide for them in ways a larger family perhaps could not. It can be a prudent, loving decision to give your “yes” to God exactly as you are.
Nothing about family size is a given. An only child is not doomed to be a selfish heathen, and a family of twelve is not guaranteed to produce only selfless saints.
And family size is not an indicator of freedom from contraception, or evidence of openness to life. The number of children in your home is not a guarantee of a greater amount of love. No matter the family size, you work with what you have and give what you can all with the grace of God at your side.
That apple tree in my parents backyard fills up with apple blossoms every year. The tree is loaded with them in the spring, but those blossoms are never an indicator of the number of apples we’ll have at the end of the season.
Early frost, a strong storm, bugs and other wildlife can all wreak havoc on that tree, yet it is still fruitful. It does it’s duty every year filling itself with blossoms that may or may not become apples, and at the end of the year whether we have one apple or hundreds, it is still an apple tree.
It is not what is produced that makes you fruitful, it is the possibility, the opportunity. It is blooming where you are planted. It is opening the most fragile part of you and saying “God, do what you will.” It is about understanding that blessings don’t only come in the shape of babies, and that the Sacrament is the marriage itself, and is not dependent upon the children that may or may not be given.
To avoid any potential drama in the comments: I am not saying that all motives for having only children or small families are right. I maintain that using methods outside of your natural reproductive abilities to attain an only or a small family is not licit, though many people may these methods with the best of intentions.
It’s just that a small family or an only child should not be an automatic sign to other Catholic families that there is something “wrong” or that someone is behaving in a way contrary to God’s plan for them.
To all the big families in my life – you know I love you. Your dedication and sacrifice are an inspiration and I know you’re trying your best with what you’ve been given, and I know that it is hard.
To all the small or only child families in my life – I see what you’re doing and what you may be going through and I respect it. If your family is not what you thought it would be due to any number of unforeseen circumstances you have my sympathy; what you are doing still matters.
If your family is exactly what you feel God wants it be, and you have thrown yourself into one of the thousands of other ways to support a loving, life-affirming community, I salute you.
It takes courage. Not only to face the Catholic community and say “This is what God wants for us, and that’s okay;” but also the secular community in your refusal to pursue illicit and immoral means of artificial reproductive technologies, saying “this is what God wants, and it’s not about me.”
That apple tree isn’t producing much this year. What apples it has are too high to pick, but there are still apples. A few years ago we thought the tree was at it’s end. No one could remember it producing fruit for many summers. Honestly, we hadn’t paid that much attention to it for a long time. Then one day I was out in the backyard, and there hanging just at my eye line was a perfect red apple. There was no reason why that apple should have been there; the rest of the tree was basically bare and the deer should have picked off that low hanging branch weeks ago.
I plucked that apple and bit in preparing myself for a bitter, mealy experience.
It was the best apple I’ve ever tasted.
That year there wasn’t much in the way of bounty, but the single apple that the tree put forth just by producing blossoms and leaves, roots and shade made more of an impression on me than a dozen years of fruitfulness.