Written by Lisa Cotter. Originally published in Family Foundations.
Can you remember the first time someone explained what the little phrase “being open to life” means in the Catholic world? I know I can. It was at youth group in high school and I remember thinking, “Okay, but I bet nobody actually follows that.” I brushed the idea off for a few years, but once I hit college, the topic came up again, and this time, I could not ignore the logic behind it. I wish I could say that once I understood the Church’s teachings on contraception, I happily consented to the idea of God planning my family while I blissfully cared for my little blessings who brought more joy to life than I could comprehend. *Sigh*
But in reality, I thought, “Oh, (insert your choice mild expletive word)! This whole being open to life stuff is real and makes sense and is what would be best for me and my future family and society on so many levels… and I’m going to actually have to follow the Church’s teachings and not use contraception if I get married!” Then I tried not to panic while I had a vision of myself barefoot in a log cabin wearing a shapeless plaid jumper with ten kids pulling at my leg while I tried to sort through a sea of laundry. Because God has a sense of humor, I got married right out of college and I was fairly certain I would be having ten kids over the next 20 years. Amazingly, by this time, I wasn’t too overwhelmed with the idea because, thanks to my mentor moms, I had begun to see the beauty in family life. Plus, I had been told God would only give me one pregnancy at a time, and the grace for each child would come with that child, not before.
During the first three years of our marriage, God blessed us with a daughter and then a son, and it seemed like we were on track for our ten kids in 20 years with no bumps in the road. Then the time came when we expected God would bless us with a third, but much to our surprise, it wasn’t happening. As our youngest went from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 without the announcement of another bun in the oven, we were surprised, and others started to notice. You see, as Catholics who publicly profess our love of the Church and all of Her teachings, both friends and perfect strangers at Catholic events began to make comments from, “So, when are you going to have another?” to “Don’t you have three now?” to “Wait, do you only have two kids?”
While I know many of these comments were innocent, I constantly felt like I had to defend our situation with rebuttals like, “Only two so far!” or “We’re just waiting for another!” to ensure that the inquirer did not judge us for only having two. It is a funny thing being a non-contracepting Catholic in this world. If you have more than three, the world thinks you are crazy. If you have less than three, some Catholics think there is something wrong with your understanding of the Church’s teaching on contraception. I feared the second type of judgment because I had done it in the past. While I am not proud of it, thoughts like, “Oh, they only have two kids; they must not be really faithful Catholics,” or “They have been married for three years and still don’t have kids; they must not get it,” definitely crossed my mind.
It was not until I started hearing the stories of families that I assumed were not open to life that I realized how wrong my thinking was. Stories of couples who conceived on their wedding night and have not been able to conceive ever since. Stories of couples who lost their first two children to terminal illnesses. Stories of couples who have suffered three, four, or even ten miscarriages. And stories of couples who have not been able to conceive at all. Through it all, I slowly learned that you NEVER judge a family by its size or spacing, and you NEVER make assumptions about how a family came to be the way it is. Difficulty achieving pregnancy was one of those topics I wish I had been prepared for. I assumed being open to life meant God would bless us when we were all ready: my husband, God, and me… which, of course, would always be at the same time. Yet, in reality, it rarely happens that way. As hard as it can be to accept, we have to remember that children are a blessing and not a right, which means sometimes all we can do is place our trust in the Author of Life and assume that everyone else is doing the same.