Full of life

November 27, 2006 | 16 comments

My husband and I had our first real experience of socializing Catholic style this weekend when we met up with Mr. and Mrs. Darwin at the DarwinCatholic world headquarters for dinner. We had fascinating conversations about the benefits of getting a classical education, the pursuit of truth, Church history, the latest news in the Wall Street Journal, and tons of other topics over homemade pizza and a bottle of good wine. Their little girls ran in and out of the room, occasionally jumping up to see who could sit on my lap first or to tell me breathlessly about some exciting project they did with their mom recently. The house is painted with beautiful, bold colors, the bookshelves filled with scholarly books, and the air filled with happy screams and giggles. My husband and I were trying to describe the atmosphere on the way home and all we could come up with is that it was so wonderfully…full of life.

At one point during dinner we remarked that, both of us being only children, this was a very different experience for us. Our dinners growing up were mostly silent, with the occasional question like “How was your day?” heard over the quiet clinking of forks on plates.

As soon as she heard this a look of genuine pity crossed Mrs. Darwin’s face and she said, “That’s so sad!” I realized when she said that just how much I agree. Which is not to say that during my childhood our quiet, three-person household struck me as lacking anything; it only seems kind of sad and vacant in retrospect now that I see the alternative, the households like that of the Darwins and other Catholic families I’ve met that are practically exploding with warmth and life.

I suppose it’s necessary to throw out the disclaimer that I’m not proposing that all big families are happy and warm, that it always works out as well as it’s seemed to for the Darwins and the other Catholic families I now know. I only write this post to say that, having experienced it both ways, I literally shutter to think that just a few years ago I was certain I wanted just one child — if I had kids at all. And, once again, giving Church teaching the benefit of the doubt has really paid off. I always bristled at their “oppressive” ideas about contraception and openness to life, especially the horrible burden it supposedly put on women. But, yet again, I find myself thanking God that I opened my mind to the beauty and wisdom of Catholic teaching.


  1. Paul, just this guy, you know?

    “…and tons of other topics over homemade pizza and a bottle of good wine”

    reminds me of:

    Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
    There’s always laughter and good red wine.
    At least I’ve always found it so,
    Benedicamus Domino!
    – Hillaire Belloc

  2. SteveG

    I always think of it as ‘blessed chaos’. It can be stressful and demanding at times and there is no denying that. But I have these moments when I am at my wits end, when I feel like I can’t give anymore, when I want to throw my own little tantrum…and then the sun breaks like the dawn, and I start laughing as I think about what I’d be doing instead if I weren’t devoting my life to my family.

    Saving tons of cash, going on glamorous vacations, bigger house, newer car…please, who would trade my little babies dimpled smile, my little boys tackles in the middle of the living room, or my big guys unexpected ‘I love you’ in the middle of reading stories for such nonsense!!

    Give me more! Strip away this accursed selfishness that tries to own me and let me instead enjoy the joy of these treasures which no moth nor can rust destroy.

  3. Anonymous

    This having a large family thing is surely a life of sacrifice, but I DO feel strongly that I have given my children the gift of many siblings, and that will last long after I am dead and gone. This belief has gotten me through some hard times when I’ve wondered what the heck we were thinking.

    Now I just have to hope and pray that I’m able to do a decent enough job at this motherhood gig that they won’t grow up totally warped. When you have a small family, and you screw it up, at least it’s just a couple of people’s lives you’ve ruined, but when you have a whole herd of kids and you mess up, you’ve really screwed up a LOT of people. And unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen in some very large families.

    Scary what a responsibility it is, but I do trust God to help us through it and pray He will make up for my many deficiencies. And thankfully, I was blessed with a fantastic husband who is excellent with children. God is good!

  4. Anonymous

    I was just thinking the other day that while my littlest wasn’t planned (nor were any others really) I am so glad he is here. And, my girls still want more siblings, so we must not have ruined them yet. I think being an only child could be very lonely. My dad is an only child and his only living parent just died this week. I can’t imagine the feeling of knowing there is no immediate family left. Thank God for His plans and not mine.

  5. jay

    My wife is religious and I am an atheist.

    We have 2 and I want more, I even want to adopt. She does not.

    Go figure.

  6. Anonymous

    I’m a newcomer here, and I’m maybe having trouble understanding the connection to happy, large, loving families and Catholic teaching specifically.

    Are you relating the teaching (followed by few U.S. Catholics anyway) against birth control to the establishment of happy families? Cannot nonreligious people or people of other religious backgrounds choose to have many children and make warm, lovings homes for them?

    I grew up next door to a strict Catholic family – 10 children – in the days when “good Catholics” absolutely did not use birth control.

    Boy, that was anything BUT a warm, loving home. I still shudder to think of the father, a mean drunk whose children were frightened to death of him, and the mother, scared of her husband and completely worn out by the time she was 40.

    Not a pretty picture in the least.

  7. Anonymous

    To the anonymous above:

    I’m anonymous, too, mainly because I know just what a small world it is out here in Catholic blogosphere, and I prefer to go incognito, especially when I sometimes point out an elephant in the room that makes other people mad 🙂 Maybe that makes me wimpy, but I made a resolution a long time ago not to let any online activity disturb my inner peace, and getting hit in the crossfire of mudslinging in cyberspace most surely does that to me.

    I am with you when it comes to observing that not all large families are happy ones. In fact, I really believe that it’s BECAUSE people looked around and saw just how unhappy a lot of big families were that they embraced contraception so readily when it became available. I just have never bought into the idea that everyone who breathed a sigh of relief when the Pill came on the scene was simply a selfish, totally self-absorbed wretch with no interest in making any kinds of personal sacrifices for the sakes of their families. This idea flies in the face of the experiences I have had with friends who use contraception to limit their family size. Am I saying I believe in contraception? No, in fact, I do believe the Church is onto something when she forbids it. BUT I also think that in order to understand why it is so prevalent, we should look at the factors that made it so appealing when it first came out. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a lot of mothers of many children weren’t relieved that their daughters wouldn’t have to experience the hardships that they had experienced raising large families themselves, many times in less than ideal and happy circumstances. I have quite a few recent ancestors (as in grandparents, parents-in-law, etc) who were raised in large families and were anything BUT happy—alcoholism, poverty, lack of love, coldness, etc, certainly didn’t give these relatives a sense of happiness or security growing up–and yes, these were practicing Catholic families who went to Church every Sunday and followed the Church’s teachings on contraception.

    I don’t think that anybody here is saying that a non-religious family can’t be a happy one. In fact, I know of one or two of these myself—larger families who had more than the usual 2 or 3 children because they actually really love being around a lot of children vs. doing it because of some religious belief. However, I do think most people these days don’t tend to have large families because it IS a lot of work and sacrifice, and society at large doesn’t really have a favorable outlook on couples having herds of kids (maybe because of experiences like yours—when people have seen some real large-family disasters, it does tend to turn one off to the idea). What this translates into is that most couples who choose to have large families nowadays do it out of faith or religious belief. This same faith is what makes these families tend to have less divorce. Because it’s this group of people producing the large families we tend to see these days, it’s these same faith-driven couples that tend to be the topic of conversation when large families are discussed.

    And just to clarify……the Church does not teach, nor has it ever taught, that we must all have 10 kids. Periodic abstinence has always been an acceptable means of regulating family size when there is true need for it.

  8. Jennifer F.

    Anon1 and Anon2 –

    My last paragraph of this post was an attempt to make it clear that I was not saying that having large family = guaranteed happiness, and that I’m relaying my personal thoughts on how this relates to my life. And while I did relate it to Catholic teaching since that’s my frame of reference right now, I did not mean to exclude the possibility that people of other faiths can be happy.

    Your comments, however, bring up a few thoughts/questions.

    1. I am an only child. My husband is an only child. 90% of our friends are from one- or two-child households. So for every story you have of a large family being miserable, I can counter it with a story of small families being miserable. For every example of people who grew up in large families not feeling happy or supported by their siblings, I can tell you a story of an only child facing the great burden of struggling to keep up with the demands of two aging parents all by himself. We could go ’round and ’round.

    My grandmother was the mother of seven children (one died when he was three). Her life was riddled with one horrible tragedy after another. Because of her family size she and my grandfather went from being upper-middle-class to barely getting by. She was happy. A certain other relative (who shall remain nameless since you never know who’s reading) is the father of a very small family, is financially well-off, and is the most depressed, unhappy person I know.

    So, while I agree that having a big family doesn’t guarantee happiness, it certainly doesn’t exclude it either. And, in some cases such as my own and the DarwinCatholics, having more kids does indeed bring more happiness to a family.

    2. Which brings me to point number two. One of my bigger surprises since starting this blog is that every time I bring up the subject of large families I immediately get a few people who must write in to say that people with lots of kids aren’t happy. I thought I was avoiding this this time by adding that last paragraph making it clear that this was about me and my personal experience and decisions for my own life, but evidently even that wasn’t enough of a disclaimer. What is it that gets under people’s skin so much about saying positive things about having a big family?

    3. Anon2 – I appreciate your comments on here and am always interested to hear your perspective. You’re a good writer and always bring up good points that make for thought-provoking discussions. However, as a fellow fan of pointing out elephants in rooms :), I must ask why you spend so much time and effort leaving comments on blogs about how much it sucks to have a large family. I believe I’ve come across your comments on other people’s sites as well (unless there’s another Anon with your same story who has a very similar writing style) and am intrigued by the sheer quantity of words you’ve written detailing the downsides of having a large family and how ambivalent you are about being the mother of many children. You’re clearly very driven by this pursuit, but I can’t figure out what the goal is. Why do you put so much effort into writing about this, especially when you’re not in favor of contraception? Do you have a particular recommendation based on your experience (e.g. not having lots of kids, or perhaps a way to find happiness if you do)?

  9. Anonymous

    Jennifer F.,

    I actually only post here and one other place on a regular basis, but I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t another person out there like me blogging out there in the Catholic blogosphere because a real-life friend of mine recently asked me the same thing and named another Catholic blog where she thought I was posting regularly, and I wasn’t. Kind of creepy, actually 🙂

    I AM very conflicted about motherhood in general and about mothering a large family in particular. I think because of my own personal experiences with it, both psychologically and physically, I find the whole subject extremely fascinating. As I have mentioned in the past, I grew up in a very strict Catholic environment where NOT having a large family or being open to life just wasn’t a consideration……but it was an unloving environment. Then I went to a small Catholic college where I never would have dreamed of anything but being open to life when I got married. I know I was young and naive, but the whole shock of motherhood is something I am still reeling from. And it scares me when I look around at a lot of the families I know who follow those same ideals who really AREN’T very happy. I have reached a level of acceptance and (hopefully!) competence in the area of motherhood, but my own children are growing older now, and I’m constantly contemplating how to try to raise them in the best way possible (as are we all, I imagine). I am very blessed to be happily married (yes, my husband is a wonderful man who has been there for me every step of the way while I dealt with all the unexpected–and actually quite shocking to me–angst of pregnancy/postpartum/motherhood), and I desperately want my own children to be as happily married—and to be MUCH happier and well-adjusted in the area of parenting than their mother ever was.

    I wish that some other Catholic woman had been there for me when I was dealing with a lot of these things, and it always skeeves me out a bit when I see Catholics looking for the magic bullet for happiness by jumping on the bandwagon of something like large families, anti-contraception or even anti-NFP, Tridentine liturgies, etc. I guess I don’t think it’s that simple. I look around me at many of the people in these Catholic circles, and they do NOT have what I want for our family and what I so want for our children to have when they have families of their own. Many of them pretend to, but behind closed doors, things just ain’t so rosy. I’m sure that goes for small families, too.

    I’m sure it seems just downright weird to somebody who wasn’t raised in such an environment to be wrapped up in these kind of subjects, but I’m second generation when it comes to this kind of Catholic renewal that seems to be a reaction to the 60s and Vatican II. I AM the product of that wave of conservative Catholicism, and it was a very difficult upbringing. Now I’m just trying to figure out how to best raise my own children to follow the Church but be balanced and HONEST about themselves. Hypocrisy makes me want to gag, and whenever I start to see it in myself, I try very hard to exorcise it. I’m starting to see some of it in my older children, and it’s making me wonder if it’s genetic? 🙂

    It probably does seem like I spend a lot of time and effort on this subject of maintaining sanity while mothering a large Catholic family (and somehow processing it all in my head at the same time), but actually I’m a fast and impatient typist (which is obvious, I’m sure, by my frequent typos and rather stream-of-consciousness style that doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense!!), and as I tell my husband, the few minutes I take to post on the two blogs I check out on a regular basis is my secret guilty pleasure 🙂 I generally get up very early in the morning on my days off to try to get some stuff done in a quiet house, and I indulge myself by checking out Catholic blogosphere for a few minutes while sipping on some hot java.

    P.S. Yes, I do know a lot of unhappy smaller families, too. And maybe that’s the lesson—it’s not about family size at all, but about the love that is present in a family. After all, Jesus was an only child, and it was good enough for Him. The love–or lack thereof–in a family is probably what determines the happiness of it in the final analysis.

    And that’s where I do truly believe that the Catholic Church’s teaching about contraception is a good thing. It makes it harder for us to be selfish and self-absorbed, and the less of those two things we are, the more likely we are to be able to give love.

    And, yes, now I really HAVE spent too much time online and have to return to laundry, Christmas cards, and taxiing kids 🙂

    Btw, thanks for having a blog and allowing us anonymous posters to share some of our experiences—and exorcise some of our demons. I’m way too private in my cyberlife to ever have a blog of my own, but I do want you to know I appreciate being allowed to post on yours 🙂

    Oh, I just re-read your post, and you asked about any particular recommendations for finding happiness in motherhood when a person is ambivalent about it but still wants to be a faithful Catholic. The biggest recommendation I can come up with on the spur-of-the-moment is to focus on the aspects of it that you DO enjoy, know that you are not alone in the struggle, and most of all, foster a spirit of gratitude. Yes, I AM grateful for my healthy children, for my comfortable house, and for the chocolate I just ate!

  10. SteveG

    I’d love to add something that I think is missed in these types of discussion too often. I think it’s been touched on here glancingly, but I want to try to draw it out a bit.

    What I am driving at is the tendency to talk about something like contraception as an issue. By that, I mean we talk about it in isolation from the larger Catholic ethic.

    When you bring up that a family had 10 kids, but the family wasn’t loving, or the dad abused alcohol, etc. My reaction isn’t ‘Oh, great, at least they were following the teaching on contraception.’ My reaction is that they were in some ways as much ‘cafateria’ Catholics as those we commonly think fit that label. They were choosing to follow the rules, but not necessarily choosing to follow Jesus.

    If they had been doing that, they would have been striving (and succeeding and failing to varying degrees) to live a radically selfless love that would have mitigated some if not much of the unpleasantness that existed.

    So, is it really the large family that caused the unhappiness? Does it really have anything even directly to do with the contraception issue? Or does it have to do with the lack of a deeper discipleship of Christ on the part of the parent.

    I think you said something similar when you pointed out that the key is how much love is given. I just wanted to attempt to draw that out.

    I’d go so far as to say that devotion to the church’s teaching on contraception will not bring peace and joy.

    I think instead we should say that embracing the church’s teaching on contraception as part of a devotion to being disciples of Christ (in the Church) will bring us peace and joy.

    I too am very leery of some of the subcultures in the church. I am not condemning them in the least, but I’ve seen way to many instances where people misplace their devotion to Christ with something lesser (i.e. Tridentine Liturgy, NFP, etc.). I’ve said it before, but I am just so happy to be Catholic. Just plain old Catholic. That alone is a greater gift than I deserve.

  11. Kate

    Steve G –

    Get your own blog – please! Even if all you do is copy all your comments box comments to it so I can find them all in one place. 🙂

  12. Anonymous

    aaaaw kate! You are too nice. Thank you for you kind words. 😀

    I’ve tried bloggin before, but it just takes more time than I can spare.

    I’ll think about what you suggested, but it seems like it might feed my vanity too much. 😛

    I mostly only comment at Jen’s blog anyhow. 😀

  13. Anonymous

    So, while I agree that having a big family doesn’t guarantee happiness, it certainly doesn’t exclude it either.

    Right. So there are big happy families and little happy families and even couples who are very, very happy without children.

    What surprised me about your post was that you seemed to relate Catholicism to having a happy family – and I didn’t understand why you’d do that. Reading a little further into your blog, I wonder if what’s happening here is “confirmation bias” (from Wikipedia):

    Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis. As such, it can be thought of as a form of selection bias in collecting evidence.

    So, you’re interested right now in converting to Catholicism, and you visit a large, happy Catholic family (that contrasts with your own small, atheistic and unhappy? family) and then you conclude that happy families must be large Catholic families. But actually, that conclusion doesn’t follow. Perhaps you’re reaching it due to confirmation bias?

    The same phenomenon happens with something like saying the rosary. We recite prayers (consciously or unconsciously) expecting good things to happen, and then both good and bad things happen as they do in life, but we seize on the good things and remember them because we (again perhaps subconsciously) want to confirm our bias that good things will happen if we recite certain prayers.

    This is normal. We’re pattern-seeking animals because recognizing patterns helps us be successful, evolutionarily. But I think it’s worthwhile to recognize confirmation bias and try to guard against it because it can lead to spurious and even dangerous conclusions.

    Here’s an interesting article that gives more background:

    Scroll down to “Not Very Comforting,” a book review of “Don’t Believe Everything You Think,” by Thomas Kida.

  14. Jennifer F.

    Anon –

    My goal with this blog is to share my experiences with faith. So I wanted to write about my dinner with the Darwins because it brought up a lot of thoughts I had about Catholic families, etc. I used to think that things like having lots of kids or being Catholic automatically made people miserable, and I’m shocked to see how wrong that idea was. Just making an observation.

    I’m familiar with the concept of confirmation bias. I studied it in college while taking courses in advertising (that sort of mentality on the part of consumers who make large purchases often comes in very handy for ad agencies). I am as certain as I can be that that’s not what’s going on in this case. But what if it is? Does that matter? That’s not the reason why I’m following Church teaching — it was, again, just an observation.

    Same thing with the Rosary. I didn’t think anything would happen, was expecting nothing, and only when wondering why things were so great did I realize that the changes happened when I started saying the Rosary. I think there’s a connection. Now, maybe that was caused by God or maybe it was just a therapeutic effect of having quiet time to let my mind rest and reflect. I’m only mildly interested in which one it was, or even whether my whole perception of having a good couple of weeks was perhaps rooted in confirmation bias.

    My faith is not pinned on whether or not large Catholic families are happy or whether or not the Rosary is my direct line to God. So is the question of confirmation bias really important here? Why is it important to you?

  15. Anonymous

    So is the question of confirmation bias really important here?

    Apparently not. I’m sorry if I offended you by thinking it might be of interest and offering it up for discussion.

    I guess I got the wrong impression when you solicited opinions over at FA. I had thought you were open-minded about religion and were specifically asking for input from those of us who are former believers and now atheists. If that’s not what you’re after, again I sincerely apologize. I won’t post here again.

    Why is it important to you?

    Since you asked, I’ll try to explain.

    No one explained confirmation bias to me, and I fell under its thrall and stayed there for 30 years. So I thought of every “hit” as a miraculous example of “answered prayer” and tried to repress, ignore or explain away every “miss” as just another example of “god’s mysterious will.”

    Eventually this kind of cognitive dissonance took its toll and I came into midlife on the verge of a total mental breakdown. If I had understood confirmation bias earlier in my life and been able to relate that to what I had been doing subconciously in order to continue in the faith, I might have been spared the terribly painful process I have gone through in leaving the church over the last five years.

    That’s why it’s important to me, and why I brought it up thinking it might be something you hadn’t considered, as I hadn’t at your age.

    Best of luck to you and your family in your journey.

  16. Jennifer F.

    I guess I got the wrong impression when you solicited opinions over at FA. I had thought you were open-minded about religion and were specifically asking for input from those of us who are former believers and now atheists.

    You bring up a good point. I *was* soliciting opinions about the question I asked Hemant. However, there are occasions (like this post) when I’m just telling a story about my faith journey or making an observation, and am not necessarily looking to start a debate about it. Since almost every post I write is going to involve matters of faith, it could become really time-consuming if every time I tell a story or make a comment that indicates belief in God I have to go into whether or not he even exists. 🙂

    It’s interesting that you mention this, I was just thinking about this this afternoon. One of the great things about this site has always been that since 99% of my audience has been Catholic or at least Christian I can ask questions about Catholic/Christian faith and discuss it within the confines of the assumption that God exists. (Believe me, I have enough questions about this faith stuff even if you stipulate his existence!)

    What I was trying to figure out is how I’m still going to be able to do that if I have atheists regularly reading and commenting on the site. On the one hand, I don’t want to silence them or make them feel like their opinions aren’t welcome. On the other hand, if I’m trying to figure out a specific issue with Church doctrine and want to focus in on a question (say, something that differs from the Episcopal Church, for example) it’s going to scatter the conversation too much to have to rehash whether or not God exists each time.

    Anyway, I see now where you were coming from and it makes sense. Sorry if my tone seemed pissy, I actually wasn’t irritated, I just didn’t understand why you were asking.


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