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Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend an amazing Catholic women’s conference in Austin. Not only was the event itself a balm for this frazzled mother’s nerves, but during it, the Holy Spirit offered me an amazing insight into the invisible cross that people struggling with fertility issues are asked to carry.
I wrote about it on my blog, and when I was done, I sort of closed my eyes and said a prayer as I hit “publish”, because how presumptuous is it for a mother of six to talk about the experience of couples struggling with infertility or subfertility? Answer: very.
However, the outpouring that followed that post was something I never expected, and have never seen before. Women who previously felt invisible within practicing Catholic circles graciously shared with me their pain living a counter-cultural life, namely one that is radically open to life, but not having the large family that is the visible shorthand for that resistance.
Women shared their anguish at having the secular culture heap praise upon them for being “responsible” about their family size, while at the same time other faithful Catholics either made thoughtless comments or, even worse, seemed to question the couple’s willingness to walk the “open to life” walk. Story after generous story came in, and suddenly, through the pain that practically radiated off my screen, I heard a single word, whispered in my heart.
It stopped me dead in my tracks, it did. Objectification? Us? We’re the good guys here! It’s the secular world, the culture of death, the contraceptive mentality that objectifies children! It’s them, not us. It’s them who view children as something that can and should be ordered according to our time schedules and our bank accounts and our five-year plans. It’s them who view children as a commodity, to be created and destroyed at will, bought and sold in IVF clinics and surrogacy agreements like so much cattle. That’s them. It’s not us! We don’t objectify children!
But then. Then I really listened to what the Holy Spirit was trying to show me, and I had to admit that sometimes, looking around my own parish, the follow up thought to the observation that we were, hands down, the largest family there was, “Well, we must be the only family who is faithful to all the teachings of the Church. Even the hard ones.” I had to admit that sometimes I was guilty of turning children into signs of devotion, of making them objects of their parents’ fidelity to Christ.
Forgive me, my brothers and sisters.
Then I thought about the language we practicing Catholics use to talk about family size. We say things like, “I only have three,” or “We’ve got two, so far.” Absolutely this is partially the language of defense, of a heart that is already wounded, looking to protect itself from further wounds. But it’s also the language of objectification, isn’t it? It’s the language that strips the amazing uniqueness of children and turns them into a tally sheet. It’s the same language that’s echoed in comments like, “Well, one is a good start. You’re still young!” Or, “Well, there’s always adoption!”
These are words and notions that play right into the hands of the enemy. Because that’s where this all springs from. Who else would the devil fear in this increasingly secular culture that people who rebel against death and the barrenness of a contraceptive mentality? In a diabolical trap designed to view children as burdens and drains and robbers of a good life, it’s those of us who remain open to all life that are on the enemy’s radar.
And so, having failed at luring us to embrace a culture of death, the devil seeks to poison our souls in this other way. He seeks to have us glorify children in a way that verges on idolatry. Or fetishism. And from there, children stop being important because they are unique souls made in the image and likeness of God, but rather important because they signal a resistance to snares of the devil that we just backed ourselves right into.
So where does that leave us? I think it leaves us in a place where graces flow. It’s a place where we trust each other enough to expose our wounds, and a place where we take extra steps to help others carry their crosses. And mostly, above all else, it’s a place where we remember that children are not a number or a sign of faithfulness, but rather unique creations made by a loving and merciful God.
Cari Donaldsonis the author of Pope Awesome and Other Stories: How I Found God, Had Kids, and Lived to Tell the Tale. She married her high school sweetheart, had six children with him, and now spends her days homeschooling, writing, and figuring out how to stay one step ahead of her child army. She blogs about faith and family life at clan-donaldson.com. This article was originally published on Aleteia.org on August 4, 2014.