Children, the Supreme Gift of Marriage
Last year Christian musician Nichole Nordeman shared a humorous but tragic anecdote. She described overhearing a couple at the airport on a video chat with their “baby” and the baby’s “grandparents.” The parents, she said, were clearly suffering separation anxiety. “They are cooing and gushing and exclaiming ‘well look at YOU, big boy! So big! So handsome!'” she wrote. Then followed a “million questions” for “Nana” about the baby’s eating and bathroom habits, and toys.
“I’m literally crying into my latte because it’s so precious,” recounts Nordeman, “and I turn around to try and get a sneak peek at the baby on their FaceTime video.”
It was a Labrador puppy!
According to The Washington Post, it’s not just our imaginations: younger couples really are consciously choosing to forego having children and instead to have pets, which, in many cases, they treat as if they actually were human children. Not only are millennials far more likely to own pets, but according to one study, 44% of millennials who have a pet view their pet as “practice” for having a child. In reality, as psychologist Jean Twenge observes, “pets are becoming a replacement for children.”
According to The Post, the pet industry has grown three-fold since 1996, becoming a $70 billion/year industry in the U.S. How absurd has it become? As journalist Matthew Walther wryly observes this week, we now have: “Dog strollers, dog birthday parties, dog hotels, dog therapy, dog aromatherapy, dog yoga, dog church, the “Exquisite Dog Coloring Book: Mindfulness and Stress Relieving Patterns,” and “The 6 best dog swimming pools to buy in 2018.”
One Minnesota company recently hit the New York Times for deciding to offer employees the option to work from home for a week after they get a pet. They call it “fur-ternity” leave. Another company offers two weeks paid “paw-ternity” leave for any employee that adopts a dog or exotic pet. In the U.S. many working mothers of actual newborn babies won’t even get two weeks of paid leave!
The Selfishness of Voluntary Childlessness
Pope Francis has little patience for this sort of thing. In a 2014 homily, the Holy Father lambasted the “culture of well-being” that convinces couples that: “It’s better not to have children! It’s better! You can go explore the world, go on holiday, you can have a villa in the countryside, you can be care-free . . . It might be better — more comfortable — to have a dog, two cats and the love goes to the two cats and the dog.”
In the end, he warned, such a marriage “comes to old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness. It is not fruitful, it does not do what Jesus does with his Church: He makes His Church fruitful.”
How different is this modern attitude from the traditional attitude, which is reflected in the language of The Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism, quoting the Second Vatican Council, describes children as “the supreme gift of marriage.” Not just one gift among many. But the “supreme” gift! Indeed, as the Catholic Church has repeatedly insisted over the years, marriage is primarily oriented towards the procreation and education of children. And, as the Catechism also states, it is in children that marriage “finds its crowning glory.”
Sadly, whereas in past generations the truth of this statement would have been self-evident, it now strikes many young couples as preposterous. Indeed, an enormous amount of what we hear about children these days is profoundly pessimistic. I often hear from young couples, “We are not ready to have children.” “We cannot afford to have children, or more than two children.” “The world is overpopulated. It would be selfish for us to bring another child into it.”
Many young couples will agonize over every single detail of parenthood, worrying about the effects on their lifestyle, how they will pay for their child’s education, the stability of their careers, the size of their house, and myriad other such details. Sadly, the more they agonize the more they find compelling reasons not to have a child, because, truth be told, the ideal circumstances to have a child simply do not exist! Often, they will couch their hesitancy as a selfless concern for their non-existent child’s future, or the planet, when in reality they are merely worried about the threats to their comfort and sense of security.
In the meantime, they become older and more and more set in their ways, so that having a child appears ever more daunting and disruptive to their comfortable lifestyle. In the end, such couples will often find good reasons to delay starting a family until well past the woman’s peak fertile years. Indeed, they often find to their dismay that they have delayed too long and are forced to resort to expensive and immoral “reproductive technologies” to have the children they could easily have had in their mid-twenties.
Pope Francis powerfully put into words the consequences when a tired, decadent society eschews its very future by refusing children in this way. “A society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society,” he warned in 2015. “The choice to not have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished.”
“The joy of children makes their parents hearts throb and reopens the future,” he added. “Children are not a problem of reproductive biology, or one of many ways to realize oneself in life, let alone their parent’s possession. Children are a gift. Do you understand? Children are a gift.”
Children: The “Supreme Gift” of Marriage
I personally witness the truth of this statement everywhere I travel. Indeed, there is nothing in the world like the warmth that I find whenever I enter the home of a growing, rambunctious family whose parents have been generous in welcoming new life.
In many of the poorer parts of the world that I visit, the parents may have had to sacrifice enormously in order to provide for their children. And yet, what joy reigns in such households! Often, I am mobbed at the door by children, eager to be the first to greet me. The pride that the parents take in each of their children is infectious, and they will gladly entertain me with stories about the adventures and gifts of each child. Mealtimes are riotous affairs, filled with lively conversation, laughter, stories, and – yes – numerous spills. The older children often keep a look-out for their younger siblings, playing games with them, reading to them, and making sure they get served at table, while the younger children clearly adore their older siblings. Sometimes the houses are a mess, but I truly wouldn’t trade that merry mess for all the spotless, silent, lifeless mansions of the voluntarily childless couples that populate our wealthy cities and suburbs.
Of course, family life comes with great challenges. Often at the end of the day, the parents fall into bed, bone tired. Yes, having a large family often means that the parents cannot go out as often as they would like, or afford expensive vacations, and all the other perks that our advertising industry constantly convinces us that we need. And yes, sometimes there is profound heartbreak, as when a child suffers a grave illness, or makes choices that harm the child’s physical or spiritual welfare.
But, as so many parents have told me, the rewards of family life are enormous. They may not be glamorous, but they are deep, and full of meaning. Working side by side in overcoming the challenges of raising a loving family is an ongoing education in love, and often brings the couple far closer than they might have been had they not had children. Their relationship has been forged into something resilient and beautiful by the habitual practice of sacrificing for the welfare of their children and for each other. Their love is not the immature puppy love of a young couple, highly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life; theirs’s is a deep, rooted love, characterized by a depth of mutual understanding that is the hard-won fruit of years, or decades of shared labor, struggles, sacrifice, triumphs, joys and prayer.
As the Catechism states, children are not only the “supreme gift” of marriage, but they also “contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents.” This becomes especially clear as the parents age. The many challenges of raising a large family give way to the irreplaceable joys of watching one’s children growing into mature adults who often count their siblings among their closest friends. Then there are the happy family reunions, the joyful family dinners and birthdays, the births of grandchildren. Even as they physically age, many parents of large families scarcely seem to get older: they are surrounded by so much life and love that they maintain an astonishing youthfulness of spirit into old age. Nor do they face the dark prospect of spending their declining years alone. They live in the happy confidence that their children will care for them, and that they will always have the lively presence of their grandchildren to lighten their twilight years.
It is true, as Pope Francis says, that, “it takes courage to start a family.” To bring a child into the world is a powerful act of defiance against the uncertainties and tragedies of life. Parenthood is the greatest act of hope, a resounding affirmation that life is worth living and full of meaning, that God’s creation is good, and that love is always fruitful and self-transcendent. To start a family is to open wide one’s arms to uncertainty and possible heartbreak; but to do so with a deep faith in the prevailing power of God’s providence, is to invite authentic joy into one’s life.
These young couples who are “practicing” parenthood by having pets will never know the joy of the first time when their child says, “I love you”! They will never know the subtle, rich and deeply rewarding pleasure of working side-by-side with one’s spouse in the most magnificent of all human tasks – that of cooperating with God in creating and nurturing new life! They will not learn that the glamour of this world leads only to boredom, disillusionment, and estrangement, and that the only path to the lasting love every heart craves is the sacrificial gift of self to another.
To all couples, and especially to young couples, I would urge that you do not allow yourselves to be overwhelmed by the anti-child pessimism of our age. Have courage! Have hope! Starting a family is daunting. But God’s grace is great! Learn to pray together as a couple, and then make that supreme act of hope and start a family. You will find great challenges; you will be stretched; you will experience moments of difficulty. But if you persevere in hope and love, nurturing the sacrament of your marriage through prayer, you will also experience greater rewards and joys you can now imagine.