Why I Have So Many Kids (a conversion story)
I have to admit, no one has ever actually asked me. I can see it in their eyes, or hear it their tone of voice as they ask me to repeat "Six", but no one has ever come right out and said "What are you, crazy? Why do you have so many kids?" It's just as well; I don't have a nice neat answer.
No, I'm the only one who asks myself this question, when the chaos runs high and there's more Jell-O on the ceiling, or we're taking the toilet up again. And I still don't have an answer.
About all I can do is think back to where it started, realise how perfectly inevitable it all was and thank God that he was in charge because it's not something I would have voluntarily done to myself, much less thought of.
Fade to a suburban living room: I was sixteen and Peter was twenty-one and we were sitting on my parent's couch watching the Christmas tree lights make reflections on the ceiling.
Out of the blue he asked; "How many children would you like to have?"
Boy, did I think fast. Obviously (thought I) I couldn't give the answer that first came to mind; "Some. Lots. How should I know?", I might have scared him off. So, I answered with the politically correct Zero Population Growth standard answer and said; "Two."
By that Christmas, we had been courting for a year and a half and had already discussed the idea of getting married in some hypothetical future. We could see that there would be problems. I had to finish High School and he had to finish University. I was Presbyterian and he was Catholic. I was English and he was French. There was that five years age difference. Neither of us had any money or job. To almost everyone but us, marriage seemed like a really bad idea. They kept telling us, too.
So, we were married in the August of my eighteenth year. I even expected to live happily ever after.
In our first year of marriage, there were four important moments. Okay, there were lots of important moments. But four moments stand out as turning points, occasions when we made choices that have directed our lives since then.
The first came about after we had been married for about four months. It stopped being fun. It stopped being easy and started being work. What a shock. Here I was living with this strange person, who was grumpy in the morning, ate more than I believed possible, and won't talk to me instead of studying.
One night, when things were going really badly, I went out for a walk. I walked along trying to imagine how I could fix Peter, when I realised that he must have been thinking the same things about me. But I was fine the way I was! Could that mean that he was fine the way he was?
Yes, and I was stuck with him.
That evening I realised that when I promised to love him 'for better or for worse' I hadn't been promising Peter that I would. Nor had I been promising this to myself. I had been promising God that I would stay married to Peter. I didn't know much but I did know you don't break promises you've made to God.
So, if I was going to have to stay married to this guy, and I'd rather be happily than unhappily married, it was up to me to figure out how to make it into a happy marriage since it didn't seem to be happening on it's own. I went home and we apologised to each other. It seemed to be a good place to start.
Shortly after that came the next important moment. Peter was sitting in a biology lecture when the professor said; "A healthy cat will ovulate every X number of days". The words 'in sickness and in health' echoed in Peter's ears. The connection may have been easier to make because my nickname is Cat, but in any case Peter realised that our using artificial birth control was breaking his promise to God (his marriage vows) by rejecting a healthy function of our bodies.
At the same time, I began to feel vaguely uncomfortable about taking a pill every morning. I didn't like the feeling that we were tinkering with my body the same way you tinker with a car to make it work more conveniently. I had never heard any teaching against artificial birth control in the Presbyterian church, and what I was starting to think seemed to me to be madness. I felt like I, or my body, it was hard to tell which, was being used. But Peter loved me more than anyone ever had in my whole life. He wouldn't use me, would he?
Finally one evening, we were studying together at our kitchen table. Simultaneously we laid down our pens and said; "I'd like to talk to you about something."
Later after hours of talking, we flushed the pills down the toilet. Then we got out the biology books to figure out the fertility cycles of the human female. (This may seem bizarre, but to two science majors, it made perfect sense.) We began to use a self-derived Natural Family Planning method, with no idea that any one else had come to the same conclusions we had or that any developed and tested NFP methods existed. Amazing how isolated two people can be in the middle of a big city, isn't it?
With these two realisations; that marriage was really for life, and that artificial birth control was wrong somehow, our ideas about how to live and how to be married began to wander farther and farther away from the university culture we were living in.
That's when we got to the third 'fork in the road'.
My father was a sea captain, and my mother was a home economist. I grew up in an obsessively neat and ordered house. Logic and rationality were next to God, the highest course of behaviour was 'being sensible'. Among other things my background taught me that rules and regulations were made to be followed. And no excuses either. When I accidentally discovered that Catholics were supposed to go to Mass every Sunday, I was determined to do something about it.
As far as I was concerned, if Peter had what was called 'an obligation' to go to church every Sunday, then he should go whether he wanted to or not. Since I wasn't going to stay home by myself while he went to church, I had what I thought was a perfect compromise. "We'll go to your church one Sunday and to my church the next." Poor Peter, he had been embarrassed enough when I confronted him with this church thing, now he had to say; "No, I don't think that would be good enough".
I was indignant. What about the modern spirit of tolerance and ecumenicism? We live in a changing world, you know, we have to learn to accept each other's differences. Here I was offering a good mixed marriage solution and this big guy, who at least has the decency to blush when he says it, is telling me I'm wrong!
"Gee," I thought, "what is it about Catholicism that it gives them this attitude?" "This I have to see. When we have children I'm going to need to teach them about Catholicism, I may as well start finding out about it."
We went to 'his church'. Every Sunday.
By now it was summer again. Shortly before our first wedding anniversary, came our fourth turning point. We conceived our first child. Deliberately, I might add. Well, sort of deliberately. Well, O.K., accidentally on purpose.
While I have some regrets about having only slightly more than a year to be alone with Peter learning how to be a wife, and I remember wistfully and fondly the days when we didn't have to lock ourselves in the bathroom to talk, I know that starting our family when we did was without a doubt the best course for us. I know the longer we had delayed, the harder it would have been to move aside and accommodate another person in our lives.
It was an exciting time. The idea that we had created a new person made us look at the whole of life from a new perspective. From our training in biology we both knew that reproduction was a natural part of life, but to have it come true in our own little attic apartment was a strange and new idea. You mean, humans have to obey the laws of Nature too?
On the other hand, my scalp crawls at the thought of my daughters having a baby at nineteen like their mother did. In many ways, I was still hardly more than a baby myself. I can finally understand, but never condone, why my parents counselled abortion when we told them that I was pregnant. Trapped inside their rationality and sensible-ness, they were offering the best advice they could.
The shock was profound. I felt betrayed and completely lost. The contradictions between reverence for life and reverence for, what?, expediency? was more than I could stand. I knew that they were wrong, that there was a better way to think about all this, but they were my parents. Supposedly older and wiser. I didn't have and couldn't find the words.
By our first anniversary, all the pieces were in place for a conversion. The final break had been made. The inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in the world view of my parents, of our friends, of the university culture were clear. It just didn't fit what experience was teaching us was the truth.
Still, rejecting 'conventional wisdom' introduced a new set of questions. Was there any wisdom? Was there any world view that fit what we had discovered to be true, that could stand up to close scrutiny and examination? Fortunately (because I had been such a pest for rules), we didn't have to look far.
The only place that had stood the test of time, that had stood the test of scholarly examination, that could and would honestly, concisely and clearly answer our questions was - the Catholic Church. And then I discovered there was even more.
Until my late teens, when I went away to university and it became difficult to get off campus to a church, I was a regular church attender. I went every Sunday because I was searching for something, I hardly knew what. I had been taught that the world was a serious and cheerless place, but I couldn't help thinking that it needn't be like that.
I wanted to know so many things. Why were there so many denominations? Could I ask God for things or should I only praise Him? If I was a sinner, how could I ever hope to get to Heaven? Where was the proof that Jesus loved me? All the sermons, all the good men who ministered to their congregations had never been able to tell me what I wanted to know.
By the time I married I had decided that there were no answers. I knew that there was a God, but He seemed very far away. Rules and regulations were all there were, and maybe that was all I would ever find. Life really was a serious business and it was time I got to it.
All of a sudden, in a tiny neighbourhood church, I started hearing my answers. And seeing answers. We went to Latin Masses, French Masses, and English Masses and everywhere it was the same. I watched the Consecration over and over, fascinated, and the Last Supper and the Crucifixion finally made sense. I saw people kneeling and crossing themselves and could see the power of gesture and movement in worship that I had been missing. I looked at statues and icons and saw unbroken centuries of faith.
I began to want to pray. And there too, were answers. The Catholic Church had prayers for everything already made up! They were beautiful and they said what I wanted to know how to say.
I felt a little like the Ugly Duckling finally meeting the swans. Excited, curious, a little bit unsure of what I thought I'd found. I pestered Peter with questions until he ran out of answers.
At this point I have to say that we both converted to Catholicism, not just that I converted to Catholicism from Presbyterianism. Like many other young people, Peter had fallen away from the Church in his late teens and early twenties. Peter and I traveled into the Church together. Propelled by a conviction that artificial birth control would be ultimately destructive to our marriage, and a sense that we needed a better vision of both humans and nature, we found our way back to the Church.
I was five months pregnant when I had my First Communion. Romantically, (remember, I was only nineteen) I hoped that the baby inside me would leap with joy at the presence of our Saviour, just like John the Baptist, but she slept right through it. An introduction to the reality of Faith; it is made up of day to day things, not high drama. This isn't the end of the story though. Just like our wedding didn't complete our marriage, my First Communion didn't complete my conversion. It was just the beginning.
Compared to the RCIA programs which are more common today, my catechumen program was like being given classroom instruction on how to swim and then being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool. For someone as completely ignorant of spiritual life as I was, more follow up and explanation of abstract concepts like faith, trust, discernment and prayer would have been appropriate.
Old habits die hard. I thought all I had to do obey the rules of my new Church and the joyous faith and certainty that I saw in others would follow. I spent many years struggling to keep my head above the water, never realising that I was supposed to sink.
God kept supplying turning points though, occasions when I had to look for answers and make decisions. I am fortunate to have been guided by many good people who gave clear, concise, orthodox, unapologetic, hard answers. Slowly, slowly I've learned.
Many of my turning points have been around my children. If this story is a 'faith journey' then my kids have been signposts, standing on the spiritual landscape: "This way to Heaven, Mom".
The sight of an unhappy eighteen month old Tina, sucking her thumb in the corner at daycare when I came to pick her up after my university classes, was one such signpost. She needed me more than I needed a career, it was as simple as that. I gave up a little so that she could gain a lot, and moved into the strange hermit like world of the stay-at-home mother.
From hyperactive Andrew, who must have the most exhausted guardian angel in all Eternity, I learned patience. He was such a frustrating child, always on the move, I never had a moment to myself. Good point, this, I realised. Why should you have a moment to yourself whenever you want it? I gave up a little more, and learned to set my needs aside a moment at a time.
From Sarah, who came along when I thought my hands were already full, I learned to concentrate. Suddenly there were so many people and needs in the house, I had to decide what I was really doing. Was I marking time 'til they were at school and I could escape? With that attitude, I would be a long time in suspended animation. Or might this time at home be worth something? It was up to me to decide.
On a single income, we had to live more simply, but we always managed to make ends meet. I sewed and cooked from scratch and learned how to repair things and what to do without. It was apparent that I was not just staying at home with the kids, I was earning money for the family by staying home and saving money. I was as much a contributor to the family's welfare as Peter. Yes, this time at home was worth something. I had a career and a vocation all in one.
Matthew's birth the day after my grandmother's death and three weeks before my father's diagnosis of terminal cancer, opened my eyes to the priceless value of children to the aged and dying. In children they can see their whole lives, and the hope of the future.
Up to that point, I had loved my children for the satisfaction they gave me. This in fact is using your kids. My father had been furious when he found out I was pregnant with a fourth child "we could ill afford". But while he was dying, his greatest solace was that same little baby holding his hand. I had to chose to forgive my father and acknowledge that my children are first God's children, that He has plans for them beyond what I might imagine.
It was getting harder and harder to keep my head above water of that swimming pool.
It was also around this time that I finally read Humanae Vitae. Peter and a friend of ours, Father Bob, were lost in one of their endless discussions of life as seen through strange humour. I can't follow those two for more than about fifteen minutes when they're like that so I went off with a copy of the encyclical. There were some surprises waiting for me.
The first surprise was how short and simple it was. After struggling through Familiaris Consortio, Humanae Vitae is as easy to read as a children's' story. It's just about as clear and simple as a childrens' story too. What had caused all the discussion and debate I had heard so much about? There didn't seem to be any room for interpretation in even one of the words.
The second surprise was a shock of recognition. Here was what Peter and I had been trying to express to each other in our first year of marriage. We could not ignore biology or Natural Law or our marriage vows and try and manipulate life to our convenience, we had to accept and welcome life and each other.
I could look at my own young family and see the truth of the Pope's words. We had five children by this time. If we hadn't followed our instincts and our hearts we would have only had two. Our family without Sarah, Matthew or little smiling Jonathon would be a poorer and emptier place. No career, no beautiful house, no smooth running car or meat on the table every day could ever take their place.
The latest turning point in my life has been a gift from Robert, our youngest child. From him, I learned the difference between belief and faith, and what it means to let go and trust God.
For many years, I was afraid of pregnancy. There was something about labour that terrified me. Just before Robert was born, I finally realised what it was, and in realising could conquer the fear. The loss of control in labour to nature and hospital personnel made me flash back to an episode in my childhood when I was desperately afraid, in pain and without help, an episode that taught me that NO ONE was ever going to look after me. I had to be in control all the time and take care of myself.
From that point on, I did. I always held some part of myself back, so as not to lose control. I converted in my beliefs to the Catholic Church, but the only one I had faith in was myself. It took many years, but finally I was just so tired of being scared and tired that I had to give in and ask God for help.
Just admitting to myself that I needed help was all it took. God already knew it. It was as if all I needed to say was " Well, I can't worry about and control and handle everything so I give up. It's your world, God, you do it." and I stopped being scared. Belief taught me that I could trust God, faith gave me the courage to do it.
Robert is now three years old. It has taken six children to convert me and teach me what I know today. If we have any more, it will be because God wants to teach me something else.
All through our marriage, Natural Family Planning and Humanae Vitae (even when we hadn't heard of it) has led the way for the rest of our lives. As Peter says, NFP dragged us into the Church and kept us there.
It wasn't until we flushed the pills down the toilet, stepped down off the wide road of modern delusion and started trying to find Truth, that we were ready to hear the voice of the Church.
Of course this isn't the whole story. Everything that happens every day is a turning point, it's all part of our conversion story. Still, whatever it was that began the evening I told Peter I wanted to have two children has ended with us here, sixteen years of marriage and six children later.
We have more laundry and much bigger pots, a couch I built out of 2 by 4's strong enough to be a launching pad for astronauts or acrobats, a skating rink on the front lawn and a dog in the back yard. We have meatless days and baking days, a vegetable garden and a blanket box full of scrap fabric. We have eight seatbelts in the car and eight chairs around the kitchen table. Most important, we each have seven people to love us, talk to us, joke with us, and ask us about our day.
It's quite fair to say that my children converted me. If I hadn't had them, I wouldn't have converted, but if I hadn't converted, I wouldn't have had them. This is what makes the question I started this with so difficult to answer. I don't really think I have 'so many kids'. We have exactly as many as we should have.
And I don't think I'm crazy either.
Return to Stories Page.