Family Size and Spacing Children

Little hands on top of a big hand.

Ah, NFP. Can I be honest? I hated NFP (Natural Family Planning) through our first four years of marriage. They were intense. I got pregnant on our wedding night. When my son was three months old, I conceived my daughter. Ever heard of Irish twins? That’s us! Our babies are 364 days apart. They’re feisty and didn’t sleep through the night until they each turned a year old. My pregnancies were difficult and I was exhausted for three years straight. Raising Irish twins combined with four moves in three years, living far from family, and feeling like we’d never had time to adjust to marriage, I felt like a crazy person in 2018.

Neither baby was planned, and I was terrified of getting pregnant again. I felt cheated by the simplistic “honeymoon every month” vision I’d be promised in marriage prep. It was much, much harder than that! My husband, an eternal optimist, tried to open the conversation about another child when our youngest turned a year old. I had just started sleeping through the night for the first time in two years, and you’d better believe I shut down that conversation fast!

However, guilt crept in. Were we being selfish? We both had to confront a deeply-held belief we’d picked up somewhere along the way; that Catholic families should always have another baby in the works. I’d heard that only “grave” reasons could justify delaying another child. But the more we talked, the more we realized we’d never actually looked into Church writings. We began reading the Catechism and talking to priests and trusted friends.

To start, I learned I’d been misusing the term “open to life.” I’d thought it meant that a couple was actively trying to get pregnant. If you were using NFP to try to avoid, you weren’t open to life, I thought. However, using NFP means you’re always open to life, even when trying to postpone pregnancy. You’re ordering the gift of sexuality rightly and putting God in the driver’s seat of your union. The Catechism reads, “Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom.” (CCC 2370)

As we read deeper, we were surprised to see how little the Catechism said about how many children or how far apart they should be spaced. I wanted specific answers. “Give me the numbers so I can objectively know!” I thought. But I soon realized that Mother Church in her wisdom said what needed to be said and no more, for good reason. It’s because firstly, children are a gift, not extra credit on your final judgement report card. Secondly, it’s because everyone’s life situation is different. The Church wants to give people the tools to form themselves correctly, and then allow them to apply the principles as they see fit. Every family has different amounts of income, health challenges, and family help available. Every family has different job situations, temperaments, and callings.

Furthermore, the words “grave reason” aren’t even in the Catechism! Those words call to mind for me a dramatic scenario of a woman on her deathbed, gray and unable able to move, saying to her husband, “my dear, I don’t think I can manage another child right now.” What the Catechism actually says is this: “For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make sure their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood.” (CCC 2368) Wow. That’s entirely different. A mom feeling overwhelmed with her parenting duties may rightly have a just reason to avoid conceiving a child that month. A family about to move homes may determine justly that they’re not called to have another child in the midst of their transition. A father out of work may mean that it’s not a good idea to put their family in financial jeopardy…and a million other scenarios.

Pay attention to the wording used: responsible parenthood. Taking care of the children you already have is a factor in discerning whether or not you’re in a place to welcome another. In an earlier paragraph, the Catechism states, “Married couples should regard it as their proper mission to transmit human life and to educate their children.” (CCC 2367) Responsible parenthood means not just giving children life, but also caring for them. It’s a both/and.

It’s easy for me to oversimplify and lose the forest for the trees. For example, the Catechism reads, “Sacred Scripture and the Church’s traditional practice see in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity.” (CCC 2373) My imperfect human mind might interpret that to mean that only in large families are parents blessed and generous. But that’s far from the intention. The next paragraph discusses the sufferings of infertility and encouragement toward research to help couples conceive, as long as the methods are ordered toward God’s plan. The overall message is that life is good and we should strive to be generous with God, not to lay guilt on small families. And lest we forget, the holiest family in the world had only one child!

The more we talked and studied, the clearer the picture became. It deepened my respect for the timeless wisdom of the Catholic Church. Children are meant to be welcomed as gifts and couples should be open to life by using NFP. However, that outlook should also be tempered by prudence and discernment. The Church wasn’t asking me to feel guilty for wanting to space my children out in manageable gaps. I began to breathe freely again, remembering that everyone’s call is individual. And that individual call can open for discussion every cycle as the couple works with the woman’s fertility in discernment. As family situations change and develop, the couple can communicate about when God might be calling them to conceive another child.

All this led me to realize I had had a faulty image of God my Father.  I had been holding myself to numbers to earn his love, while he’s looking at me with love no matter what. The most experienced couples we talked to all said the same thing: “You discern each baby one at a time.” When I felt overwhelmed, I didn’t need to feel guilty about feeling overwhelmed. You just carry your load one day at a time, strive to listen to God, and communicate well with your spouse. And that’s enough for God.

Written by the Holy Rukus