We are only a family of seven but we still get some looks when we go out. There are the familiar comments:
Are they all yours?
You must have your hands full.
and the despicable…
Don’t you know what causes that? (Is there really any polite response to that? I mean, “No! Tell me!” wouldn’t really be appropriate…)
It’s not been that long ago that our family size was the norm. When people with one or two children were pitied. Now in recent years something called the “Quiverfull Movement” has come into vogue. This tends to flourish primarily among evangelical Christians. The Duggar family is the one people are probably most familiar with since they have been featured on television. As Orthodox Christians, most families we know have at least four children, many have more.
Now before my mother has a heart attack reading this (smile), I have no specific plans to have nineteen children. Frankly, I don’t think that one’s family size or anything that goes into it is a topic of conversation for anyone but you, your spouse and your spiritual father. That being said, there are a few general guidelines.
1. First and foremost, children are a gift from God, a blessing! Losing sight of that leads people into so many ills like abortion.
2. Reasons to limit family size or delay childbearing do not include waiting until you have a brand new three-bedroom house, two cars, an established career and a trip to Jamaica under your belts. Now, I acknowledge that many people would disagree with this. There’s not really any point in arguing.
Beyond these general “rules” there is a continent of gray area that is, again, best navigated with your spiritual father.
We had our children one by one, unlike some families we know who had them like the animals on the ark – two by two (you know who you are!). There are also families that acquire multiple children at once through the blessing of adoption. Some things that we have learned along the way:
1. There is always room for another baby. We’ve never had to put a crib in the back yard.
2. The largest expenses in the family do not change with the addition of one child or three.
3. There is always enough attention to go around. Remember that old saw: you multiply love, not divide it?
4. The older children love having a new baby in the house. Usually they fight over who gets to hold it and I have usually had an audience every time I nursed the baby. After we had number three, I never had to entertain the baby: the older children are delighted to pretend to trip and fall down 473 times to make the baby laugh while I get dinner.
5. It’s nice to have children find out that the world doesn’t revolve around them – personally.
6. As my spiritual father said once, “You don’t know how selfish you really are until you have children.” This is so true. Children force you to grow up.
I could go on and on. When people look at me with incredulity or pity, I smile and think about how delightful it is to watch puppet shows, magic shows and recorder recitals, be served with a bewildering array of plastic food, watch your child crochet or build something for the first time, come in a room to see an older child reading to a non-reader and (joy of joys!) hold your baby for the first time. Now, a large family isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but a small one isn’t either!
From Fr. Thomas Hopko:
According to the Orthodox teaching as expressed in the sacramental rite of marriage, the creation of children, and the care and love for them within the context of the family, is the normal fulfillment of the love of a man and woman in Christ. In this way, marriage is the human expression of the creative and caring love of God, the perfect Love of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity which overflows in the creation and care for the world. This conviction that human love, imitative of divine love, should overflow itself in the creation and care for others does not mean that the procreation of children is in itself the sole purpose of marriage and the unique and exclusive justification and legitimization of its existence. Neither does it mean that a childless couple cannot live a truly Christian life together. It does mean, however, that the conscious choice by a married couple not to have a family for reasons of personal comfort and accommodation, the desire for luxury and freedom, the fear of responsibility, the refusal of sharing material possessions, the hatred of children, etc., is not Christian, and can in no way be considered as consonant with the biblical, moral and sacramental teachings and experience of the Orthodox Church about the meaning of life, love and marriage.
In light of the perspective offered above, the control of the conception of children in marriage is a very delicate matter, discouraged in principle and considered as perhaps possible only with the most careful examination of conscience, prayer and pastoral guidance. The abortion of a child already conceived is strictly forbidden in the Orthodox Church, and cannot be justified in any way, except perhaps with the greatest moral risk and with the most serious penitence in the most extreme cases such as that of irreparable damage to the mother or her probable death in the act of childbirth. In such extreme situations, the mother alone must take upon herself the decision, and all must be prepared to stand before God for the action, asking his divine mercy.
The vast majority of us can’t stand at a lectern and expound on the role of the Christian marriage. What we can do is stop feeling guilty for fulfilling God’s plan for our selves, our marriages and our families. We can stop apologizing for the number of our children, or the desire to have many children.
Ps 127:3 Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb is a reward. 4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. 5 Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them; They shall not be ashamed, but shall speak with their enemies in the gate.
Ps 128:1 Blessed is every one who fears the LORD, who walks in His ways. 2 When you eat the labor of your hands, you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you. 3 Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the very heart of your house, your children like olive plants all around your table. 4 Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD.