e-mail us


‘So are you done?’ a woman asks


There is a conversation that takes place in backyards and coffee shops, at playgroups or book clubs -- any place moms gather. Someone throws out casually to someone else the question, “So, are you done?” And we all know what she’s talking about: Are you done having babies? And it implies, of course, that we have control over the answer.

One woman I know with five children -- certainly a big family by today’s standards -- said she’d have another if her husband would agree. Others who have one child can’t imagine having the energy and emotional resources for more. Lots of us pushing 40 with two or three school-age kids wistfully watch new moms absorbed with nursing an infant or walking hand in hand, in deep conversation with a toddler. Frankly, I suspect we somehow feel we can stop our own aging clock if we could just return to that place.

I heard an anecdote from the pulpit once. A former pastor said that years ago he learned that a parishioner, a Catholic schoolteacher, and his wife were expecting their eighth baby. As he pondered what to say to the couple, perhaps unsure as to whether he should congratulate or console them, he reported, the mother remarked, “Isn’t God good?”

This story brings tears to my eyes because it speaks of unconditional love and unconditional trust in God -- two qualities I aspire to but mostly fall short of. It also speaks of choice and of culture. Years ago, many families were large, and most families could get by on one income, apparently even a Catholic schoolteacher’s. I think even the most frugal of families today would be hard-pressed to do that. And families years ago did not have the option of choosing “artificial” birth control in order to have fewer children born further apart.

For every story of a big jolly family full of love and togetherness, there is a story of a big family in which the children didn’t get their emotional needs met, the parents just got too tired out to do anything but crowd control, and the mothers had nervous breakdowns because their needs always came last.

The knowledge of the power, the miracle, of growing a baby is in me forever. My third child’s birth five years ago was fast and furious; she arrived seven minutes after I checked in at the maternity desk and told the gum-chewing receptionist I had to push so could they please hurry and get me a room. (The people on the elevator with me looked really scared.) Yet the very next morning I watched a couple walking down the hospital hall in active labor, practicing the breathing exercises. I had them pegged for first-timers. And my reaction of tears surprised me. The sight flooded my brain, already in hormonal overdrive, with a jolt, as I realized, “I may never have this experience again.”

My own choices, decisions and feelings on childbearing reflect my fortunate circumstances. I have, in the context of a happy marriage, given birth to three healthy children, all wanted, loved and nurtured by two parents who make them a priority and who have tons of support from friends and family.

I have never faced an unwanted pregnancy, nor been unable to conceive when I wanted to. I’ve made my choices in good conscience and faith, and I respect others’ choices. Yet my deep respect for the sanctity and goodness of life does not mean I believe that reproduction in and of itself is always the greatest good.

We Catholics accept the reality of suffering and believe it has value -- very countercultural these days. But is there a limit to suffering, a point beyond which suffering makes no sense, serves no higher purpose, even if devoutly “offered up”? One can summon up historical examples of mind-bending human suffering -- El Mozote, the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust. Misery is a choice aided and abetted by circumstantial factors. To know that some Holocaust victims held to their belief in the goodness of humanity in the face of all the hate and pain they endured means to me that they rejected misery, rejected the power of evil.

But what about the ordinary suffering of a woman stretched and worn by childbirth, who defers her dreams, perhaps all her life, in order to nurture and sustain her children? I wonder if this is as noble a cause as some would postulate, or whether there might be something in her that dies in self-sacrifice.

What of the women around the world who watch their children die in front of them because they have no food? What of the abused woman tied to her abuser because she is economically dependent on him? What about a family with two parents working at minimum wage just to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table?

I believe that the promise Catholic couples make during their wedding vows, to be open to children, doesn’t need to mean that each and every act of sexual intimacy be open to conception. Rather, I suggest that each couple make the promise to be open to welcoming children as they see fit -- whether through using any one of the various, non-abortifacient ways families can prevent conception; through adoption; through teaching or serving children in poverty; or through the old-fashioned way of taking it all as it comes. Each couple needs to decide what makes sense in their circumstances.

I cannot say with certainty that I will never have another baby, even though I could. Neither can I write that you should, even if you can. It is a matter of choice and conscience.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at bergolk@earthlink.net

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2000