By Muji Kaiser
My husband and I will be celebrating our seventh anniversary in August. Not long after, we will be welcoming our fifth child. The birth of our newest means that we will have five children six years and under. Our family feels like one of those Chia Pet commercials from the 90s, “just add water” and poof…baby. Don’t get me wrong, I’m acutely aware of how blessed we have been, but I still find myself trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I am someone’s mother…yet alone five “someones.”
People with less traditional beliefs often ask me whether I always imagined having this many children, especially ones so close together. The truth is that I never gave much thought to how many children would be “ideal” before I was married. I just knew that I wanted to be a mother one day. The prevailing thought during my single days was actually the fear that I would be unable to conceive, if and when I did get married. Being a mother just seemed too incredible to ever be my reality. So, when Maggie was born exactly nine months to the day that Nick and I took our vows, on the 100th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of Fatima, I thanked God for such an unbelievable gift.
My shock and disbelief after her birth was also due in part to the fact that I had lost both parents, gotten married and become a mother within a span of two years. My life had changed dramatically in a short amount of time; filled with both tragedy and an overwhelming amount of blessings.
After having our third child, Samuel, during our fourth year of marriage, we realized that adhering to the natural and Christian calling to remain open to life within our marriage would likely result in us having a large family. This was an intimidating realization. I had worries about being able to mother so many littles, but, sadly, I also had anxiety about how our rapidly growing family would be received by loved ones with less traditional views. Our pregnancy announcements were always met with joy and excitement by those closest to us, but something about the negative comments seemed to ring so much louder. Even strangers were vocal about their disapproval about the number of children that we had.
One summer afternoon, I was watering flowers in our front yard with Maggie, Owan, and Samuel, while pregnant with our fourth, Antonin. A neighbor commented from across the street, “I’m told congratulations are in order?”
“Oh, yes, thanks! We’re expecting another boy,” I replied.
"Well, that’s ambitious”, the neighbor commented. I wasn’t sure what to say. In fact, I’m still affixed to that very spot in my front yard, trying to think of a good response (send help). I wish I could have found the words to say that our personal ambition had nothing to do with it - what could we possibly have to prove? Our children were simply the fruits of our marriage and we were trying to live our faith by submitting to God’s will and trusting in His design for our family. Alas, words eluded me and all I could muster was a polite smile.
So, what exactly does the Catholic faith teach in regards to marriage and children? The Catechism of the Catholic Church writes, “the spouses' union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple's spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family.” ( 2363)
Even among Catholics, many seem to be unaware of this fundamental church doctrine, and adherence to it is viewed by some as radical and unrealistic. Furthermore, large families are no longer en vogue. In today’s mainstream culture, the traditional family (husband, wife and child/ren) are viewed as an archaic and unrealistic expectation, disturbing attempts are being made to redefine womanhood, and children are portrayed by many as an impediment to one’s freedom. However, as Fr. Jacques Philippe wrote in Interior Freedom, “The highest and most fruitful form of human freedom is found in accepting, even more than dominating. We show greatness of our freedom when we transform reality, but still more when we accept it trustingly as it is given to us day after day.” This is certainly evident in couples that are open to life within their union. Contrary to common understanding, a couple that is open to life won’t necessarily end up with a large family. There are a myriad of possibilities and outcomes - smaller family sizes, infertility, secondary infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, child loss, adoption, foster parenting, and the list goes on. Nevertheless, these couples are just as open to life as those with many children; it may just be less apparent to those without knowledge of their sufferings.
In the instances when a couple needs to space out their children for just reasons (medical or financial, for example) Natural Family Planning (NFP) is available. Unlike artificial contraception and other birth control methods, NFP respects the unitive and procreative aspects of sex, and thereby supports God’s design for married love. The catechism expands on this topic by explaining to couples that, “it is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood.” (2368)
We are all called to unite our will with that of God’s. As Mother’s Day approaches, I’d like to acknowledge all couples making efforts to do so by remaining open to life within their marriage. Although it can be challenging and even painful, it is always beautiful since it leads to our increased dependence on God and ultimately strengthens our faith. In a couple’s suffering, they are united with Christ’s own passion and are thereby drawn closer both to Him and to one another. And, as a mother, I am particularly grateful for the gift of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who experienced the greatest of maternal joys and sufferings, and in whom we can always find consolation.
As our family has grown, so has my confidence in and understanding of why we’ve entrusted the design of our family to the infinitely capable hands of our Creator. And, thankfully, negative comments about our family sizes no longer leave me figuratively affixed to my front yard (He sent help). We are proud to live our faith in this way and to show the world physical evidence of our love for one another and of God’s love for us--because that’s what family is, regardless of its size.
Muji Kaiser is a Catholic wife and mother living in Southern California. She is also the founder of the Okaja Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable non-profit that provides aid to Catholic organizations serving orphaned and poverty-stricken children in her home country of Nigeria. To learn more about her ministry, visit theokajafoundation.org