Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What Does It Really Mean To Be Open to Life?

I know I have commented before on the variety of responses I get when people learn that I am pregnant with my fifth child.

Some are bewildered, some are thinly veiled jabs, some are just lovely, but they always come. Always.

In fact, I often try some evasive maneuvers before revealing my true state of affairs. When people ask if this is my first baby, I smile and say no very politely.

Of course, some of them proceed to ask if I have a boy or girl at home. And I proceed to tell them that I have one of each. Plus one more of each. A spare set, Rob and I like to joke, in case we royally mess up the first two.

That's when it gets fun. Some people get positively breathless. One saleswoman just kept saying WHAT?! About ten times in a row.

I try to be gracious, I really do, but it's annoying. I refuse to act apologetic or flustered or distraught or ashamed or embarrassed or anything other than what I feel: I am pumped! I am grateful! I am having a ball! Go suck eggs! (oh wait, that last one wasn't gracious. My bad.)

I usually put all these exchanges right out of my mind, but Lerin's post at Beautiful Chaos made me think about what it really means when we say we are open to life.

Lerin posted recently about the toll on her emotions when she and her husband decided to put their school aged children in public school. They've prayerfully decided to grow their family according to what they feel is God's plan for them, and that means they can't afford the tuition at their Catholic school.

It's a situation that many Catholic families face, and Lerin wondered why it had to be a choice at all. She lamented the fact that it seemed their family's adherence to Catholic teaching had precluded them from educating their children in a Catholic school.

An anonymous commenter took her to task for feeling upset about not being to afford tuition for her children. Lerin was accused of looking for a discount or some kind of deal where other tuition-paying parents would have to pick up the slack for her. (For the record, she was not. She was willing to work at the school or trade services and expertise for reduced tuition.)

The commenter noted that she had limited her family size to three children so that she could afford tuition, thus implying that Lerin had no right to complain since she and her husband had made the decision to have more children than they could afford to send to Catholic school.

I've been a party to these kinds of exchanges before, both in reference to myself and to friends, and of course they can be disheartening for a number of reasons. In fact, it can be even more deflating when the criticism comes from an unexpected place.

I think that in many circles, when people say they are "open to life," the natural assumption is big family ahead. In fact, I have been drawn into discussions about the way some Catholics present large families as the gold standard of faithfulness.

Obviously I am a supporter of large families (literally. Just ask my poor pelvic floor.), but I don't think having lots of kids completely encompasses the whole expression of being open to life.

"Open to life" doesn't just mean having as many children as you possibly can, although that is certainly God's plan for some families, but I know many good and faithful Catholics who have been blessed with a single child.

And some very faithful people, like our priests and religious, have no children at all. They are all still open to life.

Here's the tricky, and really HARD, part about saying that you're open to life --- what you really mean is that not only are you open to God's plan for your own family, but you are open to His plan for other people's lives as well.

That's a lot to swallow for flawed humans, but there it is just the same. It means that you are open to accepting and helping others with their vocations; it implies a generosity of spirit.

The single teenage mother? The parents with the loud kids at Mass? The mom of many who is a little strung out? The family who needs help to provide their children with a Catholic education? Yep - that's who you are opening yourself up to when you say that you are open to life.

I guess what I am long-windedly trying to say is that being open to life means following Jesus' command to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked . . . whether that naked, hungry stranger comes from your own womb or from a few pews behind you in church.


  1. Aimee- I can only imagine some of the unkind (UNWARRANTED) responses you get when people realize you have #5 on the way...ridiculous! We were at TGIFridays last week with the 3 littles and a man actually walked up to our table and asked me if I had "enough" kids yet. Mike happened to have Michael in the bathroom when this occured. I just gave him a half smile and I think I said "we're good with 3" or something? It didn't truly sink in until he walked away. This man was probably in his late 40s and I had overheard him and the lady he was with (wife? i dunno) arguing. I wish I had said, "I don't know, are you done being verbally abused by your wife?"--oh wait, NOT gracious...oops ;) I am glad I didn't respond in kind but STILL, what? I swear, it seems that as soon as you have more than 2 children, you might as well be the Duggars- the reaction goes in the same direction. I don't feel it is my right to pass judgement on anyone's choices around children...I don't know everyone's circumstances and I would NEVER impose on a stranger the way some people do. I wish you guys all the best as you await the arrival of this new life!! I just try to remind myself that people often speak out of turn & I try not to let their opinions ruin my day...some days that is not the easiest task...

  2. Sometimes the criticism comes from an unexpected place, and sometimes the encouragement does as well. We were having dinner at a restaurant where we were the only people with children... and when my husband had excused himself to the bathroom with our newest undies-wearer... our waitress confessed to me:

    "I always hope to have a big family like yours. I know sometimes you must feel tired or overwhelmed, but it is a dream of mine to have many children. I hope I can some day."

    I thanked her, and told her that the best gift my parents ever gave me were 4 siblings to share the joys and pains of this life with.


    Many blessings on you and yours. Thank you for the thoughtful response and links. I am going to give you a link, too. :)

  3. People can be so rude. And so judgemental. It's hard for everyone to live and let live. I'd love to have more, but I'm 40 so I don't believe it's in the cards (and I can't really imagine nightly feedings at this stage in the game). We got a late a start. God's plan for everyone is different. We have to be open and say Yes to whatever that plan may be. And we have to stop judging everyone elses plan.
    There's a woman in our church that has 6 or 7 boys (I've lost count). I know there are lots of whispers that surround her. She looks like the happiest lady on the planet. I think she has said "Yes" to God. You can always tell someone that has opened there heart and accepted what is given to them. They seem so much more at peace than the rest of us (or maybe she's just heavily medicated and I'm giving her too much credit).

  4. I am very grateful for the comment about faithful Catholics with just one child :)

    Also, just left a long comment on Lerin's post... to say that I believe a parish based education can also raise faith-filled kids and should not be considered "second best" to Catholic schools. Of course, I AM biased since it's my job to provide that parish education :)

    but it is amazing to me, that the assumption to be a good Catholic family involves lots of kids AND Catholic School. I think a lot of the comments directed at you for the large family are probably defensive (pre-emptive?) ones from folks.

    I enjoy teasing my sister in law about her 6 kids... but stopped when I realized it wasn't fun for her. It's probably because of stuff that you're describing in this blog- and honestly, I never thought to consider that :) Thanks!

  5. WOW, well said, Aimee. I hadn't thought of it this way--openness to life--and I'm so glad that you wrote about it. :)

    And in your typical style, you had me laughing enough to have to support my poor, week-old cesarean incision and keep it from popping open. ;)

    I have also noticed the different reactions from people--parishioners and strangers alike--when I respond that this baby is our fifth, not our first or third. I delivered in a Catholic hospital and I heard several negative comments that surprised me. None were about me, but about larger families such as the Duggars or families who had delivered their five children in five years, rather than the eight years that we spanned. But many of the comments that I received were positive. Older ladies at the store always surprised me because many of them responded something to this effect, "Oh, that's great! There are not many big families anymore and it's such a blessing," or, "I raised six kids, too," or "I wish that we could have had more children, that's wonderful!" Then there's our pastor who loves children and gets ever so excited at the announcement of another. Many families in our parish are large (5+ kids).

    The fun thing is that both of our doctors--family practice/OB and the surgeon who does the cesarean--have large families. One has 9, the other 12. So when we were talking about my insides with the surgeon before we left the hospital, he said that I looked healthy and that he'd see us in another two years. :) (And the first thing that he told us in our consult seven years ago was that he would never perform a sterilization.)

    What am I getting at? Sorry, I think my postpartum brain is rambling through my fingers.

    I remember when we were new parishioners with no children in school. I remember feeling mildly irritated that so much of our church budget went to fund the school that we weren't yet using. I soon got over it and realized what a blessing our parish was. Now as we send three of our five children to school for a mere $450 a year (total--and this is for all families, not just ours), I am more grateful than ever for our parish family and for those who take care of us by providing such a wonderful school. It makes me want to give back to our parish again and again and again.

    So I've written a book. Thank you for this wonderful post! :)

  6. Anonymous2:51 PM

    So well put as always Aimee! I kind of know where you are coming from too- when I was pregnant with Ayden and went in for my consultation with the nurse at the ob's office, she was flustered because all of my paperwork hadn't been filed and then when she found it realized that Emmalee was only three months old. Her response to this, "Oh my goodness, did you mean to do this?" I was dumbfounded (and quite upset because there were complications with the pregnancy early on)- I wanted to say- what business is it of yours? Instead, I remained calm and remembered the answer my mom used to give to people who said to her, "I can't believe you have 5 children, let alone that the oldest and youngest our 20 years apart." She would say (and I mean she would actually say this) "I don't remember asking your opinion on my children, I am raising them, not you and I think my husband and I are doing an excellent job- thank you!"
    I really believe some people jsut don't think before they speak and they truly don't know how hurtful their criticism can be.
    So yeah to you for being open to life in so many ways and WAY TO GO-five kids is awesome!!! (six or seven would be too!)
    Mirabella Mom

  7. Hi Aimee! I'm new here and stopped on over from Lerin's post.
    Well written post. Although I am a mom with secondary unexplained infertility, I still consider myself very open to life. And if that life come when I least expect it and long after I had planned, I know that God's ways are not my ways.
    Thank you for the reminder that there are many different ways to be a faithful Catholic open to life!

  8. Brava, Aimee! The worst is when you get those comments from other Catholics. There's a lady in our parish who has 13 or 14 kids now. I have heard what she has had to endure from other people in our parish. I can only imagine what she has to deal with in everyday life outside of the church walls.

    I've concluded that sometimes, certainly not always, those who make rude comments to you about the number of kids you have (I get them too-and we only have three!) are jealous that they didn't try for more, too.

  9. Well said. I'm one of those for whom "as many as God gives us" translates to "as few as God gives us," although, in retrospect, it seems like God knows what He's doing. (Who knew?)

    My license plate refers fairly obviously to my kids, including the numeral 2. Once one of the ladies in the parish asked (in a tone implying that she thought I was the one imposing limits on my family size) what I would do if I had another child. I started to give her my standard response (that at my age, my chances are slim and none -- and Slim's on his horse), then I gained enough presence of mind to tell her -- I'd change my license plate, duh! (I'm still holding out for a change-of-life baby, though.)

    Two of the biggest families I know belong to my former OB/GYN and my pediatrician -- I joke that you have to be a doctor to afford a big family these days -- but I know other families who eke by on much less. One of the families we play hockey with has six kids, and I don't think they're done yet, even though both Dad and Mom each have two jobs (which they somehow manage to fit around raising their children and ferrying them to hockey and swimming and basketball and baseball practices) to do it. My elder daughter, sadly, asked in a disparaging tone, "Why do they have so many kids?" I told her, "They like it that way. They have lots of love to share."

    BTW, our parish school tops tuition out at three kids... unfortunately, that refers to three in the school, so even with that, folks who have kids in Catholic high school, which around here costs $7500 - $10K/year, can be stretched pretty thin. However, our pastor has said he will not turn away any parishioner's child for financial reasons.

  10. Congrats on baby number 5! What a blessing.

    Great post. I especially love the line "being open to life means following Jesus' command to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked . . . whether that naked, hungry stranger comes from your own womb or from a few pews behind you in church." Ha.

  11. Hi :) I'm stopping over from Lerin's. Just wanted to say a big AMEN! I am continually amazed by what others think is their business. Last Fall a dear friend and fellow homeschooling mama and I planned a trip to the coast with our little ones. Mind you, I only have three children {she has four, but the littlest stayed at home}. Everywhere we went {the aquarium, the cheese factory, down on the sand} we were stared at ~ as though no one had ever seen two mamas and six kiddos before. Blessedly we didn't receive any rude comments, but one woman did stand there and count each child. Out loud.

    Thank you for saying what I'd love to! :)

  12. Anonymous8:35 PM

    Very ironic I should happen to check out your blog today - when I so often don't have the time to so and though I wish I could check it out more, it is only every few months I get the opportunity to check it out - but, this very topic has been on my mind alot. Because at my son's party the beginning of Feb, someone made (unbeknownst to me until after the party) a comment to my sis-in-law who has 3 kids: "Don't you have a television at home?" Now #1, it was probably not by chance that I was not present when that comment was said, and #2: she only has 3 kids and you are giving her a hard time? Now I'm 7 of 8 and years ago in my early twenties, I kissed the ground my Mom & Dad walked on and thanked them (& continue to do so) for their generosity and devotion to have a big family and for not listening to all those who told them (docs and friends and religious) that it was ok for them to be on birth control! Thank God that had a different plan in mind and were devoted to having a big family! My life is truly & simply here because of their generosity and because of their willingness to sacrifice their freedom/independence. I was one of those un-wanted children by society...the 5th too many! There is a hidden agenda in our world to "not over-populate" and our wonderful big families get beat up on ALL the time! In fact, I was talking to my Dad about this whole topic just two days ago, and though, I don't myself currently have more than two children, I just HATE it when I hear people make such critical comments about #2 or #3 and etc! If you get a dog, everyone would be agreeing with you this way and that way with approval and how much it adds to your life...yet add another child to the clan and your judged all kinds of mean things and criticized! It is almost quite vicious and full of hatred! The remarks seem to be getting more cruel - I'm not sure. Sorry, I can go on and you certainly wrote this much more eloquently and thought out and more rational than I am commenting...only know you have me in your court and I respect your path and pray God blesses you and your family with lots of love & joy. Coming from a big family myself, I know the joys I received from being raised with so many brothers and sisters and a great church community...all the toys and activities and vacations and house space in the world cannot compare to those family days! Hold your head up high, keep the smile coming, let the comments fly away in the air (or shake the dust from your feet, as our dear Lord Jesus advised his disciples) and know that even though you might most often feel alone that you are NOT and that you will be rewarded tremendously for all you are doing now. Now almost 40, not a day goes by that I don't thank God for the deep, amazing love my parents had for me - for life. Love, Diana L.

  13. Great post! Your family is AWESOME!!

  14. Congratulations on your pregnancy. I linked around and came across your blog. I so agree with this post. I am a Catholic mom to one child. We started late in life and were blessed with a wonderful child. We were always open to more but it didn't happen. I felt even though I had only one child I was still open to life in other ways and also needed to accept that this was God's plan for our family. My close friend has four boys and gets many comments and I feel for her many times. I don't know why people feel they need to make comments about other peoples lives. It's just rude and intrusive.
    In my case I look younger than my age and have had many remarks that have hurt me in regards to having just one child. Stereotypical remarks have frequently been made about only children that have been very hurtful. People did not know how much we prayed for another. Other ways I have found to be open to life is in caring for the elderly. I work part time in a nursing home and give my widowed mother my time. So many people ignore the elderly and it is very sad.
    Thank you for your post. It helped me think of the many ways to be open to life.

  15. Aimee - So eloquent, so true... I swear God works through you to inspire me to be a better Catholic. I have witnessed your faith, I have witnessed your family, and I have never doubted your openness to life. In fact, I have much admired it. I am like Lerin's waitress; I am envious of you and Rob and the 4, soon-to-be 5 blessings which have been visited upon your home. Truly, Catholicism is alive and well in your presence. This is not to say that those blessed with fewer children are not faithful as well, as Mary herself was supremely open to life and God's plan for her, and she "only" had Jesus Christ. I love you, I love your family, I am proud and humbled to have you as my sister.


  16. Gosh, Aimee, coming upon this very late -- but had to say -- this is an awesome post. Very well put. Thank-you.

    (btw.... you should hear what I get with my 10 kids!)


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