It is probably a good thing that I didn’t approach the Catholic faith as a young woman. I might have found the Church’s teaching on marriage and contraception too hard a teaching to bear. Like those who heard Christ speak of eating His body and drinking His blood, or like the rich young man, I might well have decided the road was too hard and turned away, never to return.
From my perspective, my groom has never seemed to suffered from a lack of faith or the ability to act on it—even when we were unchurched. Witness the fact that, when we married, he wanted four kids and I wanted none. He married me anyway, calmly assuring me, for several years, that I would change my mind—and even endured my quivering outrage every time he said it. He saw some chink in the armor of my fear that I would be a terrible mother, and would have to give up my career and would be miserably unhappy. He was sure that openness only he saw would eventually end up in motherhood and that I would not be a total failure at it.
Of course, I did change my mind and when I did another problem presented itself. Like so many young professionals who put off childbearing to suit themselves, we couldn’t conceive as we wanted. It took thirty years or so for all the lessons of that period in my life to dawn on me, but one of them came clear right away. Let the record reflect that anyone who has doubts about the dehumanizing effects of separating the unitive and procreative aspects of sex has only to undergo a fertility workup and the ensuing treatment. And anyone who believes that children are a right rather than a gift needs only to live through the pain of coming to accept that there seems to be nothing at all to be done about it to learn the truth of the matter.
After months of evaluation and useless treatments, and a painful early miscarriage, we decided enough was enough. I am forever thankful that in-vitro fertilization was still an exotic treatment that we somehow intuitively avoided. I am also thankful that the national expert physician taking care of me had the bedside manner of a cranky pit bull because it drove me out of the clinic and into acceptance of our situation. We finally decided that adoption was our only choice if we really wanted to be parents.
If you ever want to test your motivations for having children, try filling out an adoption request form. Pay particular attention to the “why I want to have children” question and let me know if you find a way to phrase it in some way that doesn’t involve rank self-indulgence. Why did we want children? I have no recollection of our answer, but I do remember that our empty nursery was a great, unexplained and unanticipated ache. Perhaps, in retrospect, because we were beginning to realize at some level that real love gives life, and the fact that our love didn’t produce babies rankled.
Looking back from a perspective of nearly thirty years, I see that our resignation to our situation and our decision to turn that ache into a way to reach out to someone else was another chink-in-the-armor that let God’s grace in. Casually mentioning to a physician friend the results of our work up (“There really isn’t anything we can do…”) and our determination to look into adoption, we were surprised a few days later when he called to let us know that a pregnant teenager in a clinic his wife worked in wanted to privately adopt her baby. Were we interested?
Were we ever. The unabridged story is a shaggy dog tale involving a two-months premature delivery occurring the day after we met with the lawyer to start the process; an uninsured mother with a medical bill in the thousands of dollars; a question of developmental disability in the baby; our own exceedingly thin personal bank account, the reflection of the attorney go-between that if the new baby had the determination of his parents (who refused pressure both to marry and to abort the baby), we were in for quite a ride; and a totally unprepared nursery--- but on July 8, 1982, we became parents. We finally stepped forth in faith. God sent us a child and, even though we didn’t quite articulate it, we accepted the gift with great joy and discovered that it doesn’t matter how or how unexpectedly a child comes into one’s life, he comes a wonderful, enchanting, enriching stranger. Three years later, when we were gearing up to adopt another child, another gift, a daughter, this one in the conventional way.
And then we blinked. Overwhelmed with three careers and two children, one of whom had some special needs, we decided that was enough. Having begged God for the gift of children, we decided to close our arms to any more. Fortunately for us, God is very creative with His gift-giving. What He cannot give directly, He’ll find a way to deliver another way, if we are but open to it.
As the kids grew, a sometimes motley assortment of children began to gravitate to our home: Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Daisies, Brownies, Girl Scouts, sleepover friends, theater kids, kids who came for tutoring, kids I taught in class, choir kids, church and school kids, college room-mates. And when the nest was empty, a graduate student in need of housing and a high school exchange student in need of a sponsor.
Our daughter laughingly put words to it when I told her about the newest addition to our expansive brood of “bonus babies.” “I begged you for a sister or brother when I was little,” she chided. “How come you waited until I was out of the house to take me up on it?”
Who knows? The need to make good use of the oversize house with the now-empty bedrooms? The recognition of the joy that all those kids over all those years brought? Some desire to respond now with a resounding “Yes” to make up for the “No thanks” of so many years ago?”
All I know is this: somewhere in the hard shell of my fear and selfishness, there must have been the tiniest crack. Over the years, little by little, the importance of God’s gift of life slipped in until now, when it’s too late to do anything about it, I understand and cherish the Church’s teaching on marriage and children. It’s one of my great regrets—that I didn’t know thirty years ago what I know now. Life would have been so different—or so I think—if I had been more open to life. I might have had a houseful of children, or I might just have had the two I do today, but at least I would know that I had kept my hands outstretched and I would have learned generosity and faith in the bargain.
In my more difficult tempers, when my own two beloved offspring have driven me to the brink of distraction (even today), I have been known to mutter under my breath that I love kids and want at least a dozen. God must have heard me over the years, because I recently counted the various kids who have become a permanent part of my life, who still call, and write, drop by and send flowers years later. It’s already passed a dozen, and this time, I have no intention of putting limits on God’s generosity. And my dear and faithful husband just smiles, and knows this time, I won’t change my mind.