Note: This post originally attributed the opening quote to the interviewer, Elaina Koros, rather than the author, Jonathan Eig. My apologies. The attribution has been corrected.
“People have been trying to control birth since the dawn of sex. As long as we’ve been trying to make babies, we’ve been trying not to make babies.”
– Jonathan Eig on his book “The Birth of the Pill” in interview, U.S. News & World Report
Not only is Mr. Eig wrong, he’s in outer space. For one thing, how on earth could he know? We can’t just project our own modern biases back onto cultures of the past. All we can know about prior eras must be based on whatever historical evidence exists.
Going back to “the dawn of sex,” what we do find in the historical record is evidence that fertility was held in the greatest of awe and wonder. The iconic Venus of Willendorf has been dated back to 22,000 years BC, and is joined by multitudes of other female fertility figures in every ancient culture.
In the original human culture, birthed in a place we have traditionally named the “Garden of Eden,” the culture that evolved into the Judaic, you find the commandment of Yahweh to the first couple: “Be fruitful.” And they were. The patriarch Israel had twelve sons and at least one daughter. In one of the oldest known human manuscripts, the Hebrew scriptures, children are described as arrows in a quiver, the more the better, and wives as fruitful vines with children like olive shoots around the table. Children are, in every instance, a blessing in the Hebrew writings, dating from around 1500 BC, when the oral tradition was already ancient.
The blessing of children was unquestioned until Judaism became mixed with the pagan cultures. The practice of infanticide was so widespread in ancient Greece and Rome that it may have been partially the cause of their eventual demise. Roman law explicitly allowed fathers to expose female infants. Because girls were so much more likely to be abandoned, the sanction of infanticide led to a wildly gender-unbalanced, aggressive society.
Then along came Christianity. From the first days of the church, infanticide and abortion were prohibited. Christ’s apostles warned against it in a code written in the first century (the Didache 2:2).
You shall not murder a child, whether it be born or unborn.
Crimes against infants were so abhorred that the images in the ancient text Apocalypse of Peter written about 100 AD include a gruesome depiction of those guilty of infanticide and abortion submerged to their necks in excrement.
Most of us intuit how hideous abortion and infanticide are. And we’re on the road to understanding why contraception is unworthy of the Christian life. But because of the air we breathe, the culture we were born into, most of us have not internalized the ancient view that children are, always and everywhere, a blessing.
It is a modern notion that fertility is a restriction on women. On the contrary, it is the seat of their power. Contemporary feminists have been convinced to throw away their greatest asset for the privilege of sitting down in the Boys Club. A better strategy would have been to convert the Boys Club to a different thing altogether, one that would esteem and integrate the fertility of women.
It’s a result of the astigmatism in our culture that we can’t see children anymore the way God sees them… infinitely precious, with no limits. There is not some cosmic supply/demand function that makes kids more valuable when there are fewer. Kids aren’t like barrels of oil whose price can be manipulated by alternately starving or flooding the market. But we persist in seeing them that way, as commodities that will either enrich or impoverish our own personal lives.
In God’s view, each and every one is precious, no matter how many. There is no limit on God’s love. As Mother Teresa once remarked, the idea of too many babies is as ludicrous as the notion of too many flowers.
You can see our cultural astigmatism at work in reactions to large families. Ask anyone with more than 3 kids. They are constantly on the receiving end of invasive remarks chiding them to, for Pete’s sake, knock it off. Imagine a stranger asking you:
- Are they all yours?
- Do they all have the same father?
- Don’t you know what causes that?
- Were they all planned?
- Why did you keep all of them?
- You’re done now, right?
When comedian Jim Gaffigan was asked why he and his wife had so many kids (5), he remarked:
“I guess the reasons against having more children always seemed uninspiring and superficial. What exactly am I missing out on? Money? A few more hours of sleep? A more peaceful meal? More hair? These are nothing compared to what I get from these five monsters who rule my life … each one of them has been a pump of light into my shriveled black heart.”
Here’s Jim one child ago, on the arrival of their fourth:
Recently, my family was dealt some serious blows. It made me realize what a great gift are siblings. Who else could help me deal with inside-family issues? No friend, however close, understands the family dynamics like a sibling. What if I was a team of one? What do only children do in later life, when they have to shoulder the family burdens all by themselves?
My boss, Monica, is dealing with illness in both her elderly parents. She has five siblings and numerous nieces and nephews. Without their help, she could not continue her work. With their help, she becomes a living, breathing witness of the theology of the body, not just in her talks and retreats but in her family life.
I follow Professor Janet Smith online, as she cares for her beloved mother with Alzheimer’s. Without the help and good humor of her siblings, she might be overwhelmed and possibly unable to fulfill her vocation of teaching and writing.
Those are some good practical reasons for siblings, even apart from the fun and adventure of having built-in playmates and confidantes. My whole childhood would have been flat-out dull without the imagination and energy of my sisters, leading me into bike expeditions to Witchland and endless games of chase, rain puddles and Marco Polo, and the competition for good grades and honors.
“Wait! Are you saying that I’m just supposed to have more and more children until I’m all used up?” No. The question alone shows how weird our attitude is towards family and children. Why do we feel we must “engineer” our families, with either as few kids, or as many, as possible? Do we have to plan everything? Where’s the wonder?
I know, I know. You’re throwing the financial aspect back at me. But is that really, really our bottom line? Is money the final answer to every single question? Are we missing something bigger?
How can any of us put a price on a human being? As St. Thomas Aquinas taught, the good of one human person is worth more than the good of the whole natural universe, precisely because that person alone is the image of God, capable of love.
I’m fascinted by Jeannie Noth Gaffigan, the wife of the prodigious comedian. She is an actress, writer and executive producer, in addition to mothering those five kids. By all accounts, she’s an exceptional parent, a consummate professional and appears to have a grand time with it all crammed into a small Manhattan apartment.
I nominate her to replace on the pedestal of exemplary feminism those women who renounce their fertility in order to sell a much smaller version of femininity. Small feminism is the version that focuses all its energy on not making babies, those little beings worth more than the entire natural universe, those unique manifestations of God’s love.
My point is not that every woman needs to have as many children as her body will allow. Rather, my point is that we might be happier as a culture if we can gradually come to see children as gifts, pure blessing, rather than as liabilities, tax exemptions, savings accounts and money pits.
When we put price tags on human beings, we’re looking at the world through monetized glasses, and isn’t that an impoverished view of all life?
Sheryl Collmer, M.T.S. is Director of Evangelization for TOBET in Irving, Texas.