"Freedom from Fear" by Norman Rockwell
In recent years, I have heard many differing opinions on procreation and it's relationship to marriage. Sadly, there are situations in which a married couple is unable to bear children of their own--my parents were nearly one such couple with the only resulting pregnancy of their union being me! What I wish to discuss now does not come to bear on these couples. Such circumstances are in the hands of God, and He is the only one who can bring sense, meaning, and healing to couples who suffer from infertility. But, let's assume that a couple is both young and healthy enough to procreate. They've fallen in love. They're ready for a lifelong commitment. They get married. Generally, at this point, the marriage will be consummated through sexual intercourse. Does procreation have a place, yet? According to God, Holy Scripture, and the Church, the answer ought to be yes. For many couples, however, the answer is no.
Before we take a look at the stance of the yay-sayers, let's give a fair hearing to the "no"s out there. What are some of the understandable (though unbiblical) reasons to begin a sexual relationship (in marriage) with the intent to avoid procreation? Please note that I am not advocating these points of view, I am merely giving voice to what many people feel, feelings that are in and of themselves valid and should be considered seriously and compassionately. The following list in no way includes all of the reasons that married couples choose to avoid procreation, but they are the most prevalent arguments that I have witnessed, personally:
- Marriage--and sex within marriage--is intended for companionship and love. This is the primary goal. Therefore, sex should have as its primary purpose fostering intimacy and love in a marital relationship. All other purposes are non-essential or at least non-central.
- Children demand a lot of time and attention--both of which would have to be diverted from the marriage relationship to the care of children. This could have a damaging impact on the life of the marriage.
- You need time to enjoy your spouse before children come along and become the center of your universe. If you don't have this time of intimacy before becoming parents, it's likely that your marriage will suffer or even dissolve, especially after the kids leave home because you won't know what it's like to be together without children.
- Children require a lot of money. Financial difficulty is the primary cause of divorce in the first five years of marriage. It therefore makes sense that you should wait until you have your finances under control and have established yourselves as a married couple before children enter the picture. Besides, you need to be sure that you have all the resources necessary to care for a child--what if you need to pay for hospital bills from a premature birth? You've got to be prepared before you have children.
- I want to have time to establish my career before I have children.
- We're not really "kid people."
- You owe it to yourself and your spouse to take a few years to do all the things together that will fulfill you as a couple before the kids come along. What about that trip to Europe you'd always sworn you'd take? Or that back-packing trip? What about the marathon you wanted to run together? You could never do those things with small children in tow. You don't want to wake up forty years from now and realize that, perhaps like your own parents, you never "did anything" with your life.
In tackling these points, I'll start from the top and work down. As we go, I'll be bringing in some Scripture and Church Tradition to illustrate my points so that you know I'm not making this stuff up.
The first bit of this argument is completely true. Children do take up a lot of time and attention, and yes, that means that as you give your time and attention to your child, you will have less time and attention than you otherwise would have for your spouse. Still, it begs the question: what couple has said, "You know, my job takes up a lot of time and attention; I think I'll take a few years off to establish myself in a marriage relationship so I don't divert valuable time and attention from my spouse." Now, we all see this as being foolish, and I'm sure many of you are ready to shout at me, "Well, you need money! You don't need kids!" Possibly, but my point is that we are willing to give up our time and attention otherwise devoted to a spouse when it is being diverted to something we value. Something that is a priority in our lives. Now, one only needs to take a brief survey of Scripture to determine whether money or children/people are more valuable to God. Should this sort of argument hold water for the godly couple?
Moreover, I have a final point to make on this first argument against procreation. I have heard time and time again--from wonderful God-fearing people--that having children "too soon" will damage your marriage. They say it with an air of certainty. When we announced 10 months after we got married that I was pregnant, one of our friends from church confessed that he was truly concerned for our marriage and thought we were "crazy." Most people couldn't believe that the pregnancy was not only desired by planned--we were trying to get pregnant in the first year of marriage! *gasp* It seems that most of society, godly society included, is suffering from convenient amnesia where procreation is concerned. Until about forty-five years ago, birth control of any sort, including barrier methods was not only banned by every major Christian denomination, it was illegal in most states. So, unless you wanted to go around defying the church and the law, sex=procreation (except in cases of infertility). When you got married and started having sex, babies were not an option; they were an expectation. God cares deeply about marriage. It is a sacrament of the faith. Hebrews 13:4 tells us, "Marriage should be honored by all and the marriage bed kept pure..." To be quite frank, if having children early on were really an imminent threat to the health of a marriage, God would have come up with some other way to beget them than by the sex act which consummates a marriage almost immediately following the wedding.
Now, let's take a look at the second argument: Children become the center of your universe once their born, pushing the marital relationship to the background of the parental one. If you do not have time to establish the marital relationship strongly before having children, once the children are gone, you will not know how to maintain the marital relationship. Well, life experience will show how utterly foolish this argument is. I have personally known many couples who waited many years before having children only to find once they were empty nesters that they still didn't know how to have a healthy marriage. A few years of child-free wedded "bliss" is certainly no guarantee that you'll have a healthy marriage once the kids move out. For one thing, people grow and change. Even if you had only one child, you can't possibly think that you and your spouse will be the same people when the child is eighteen and moves out that you were prior to giving birth. You will both have changed. If you're not working during the years when you have children in the home at continuing to know each other and grow together as a couple, then you will be at a loss when the kids hit the road, no matter how much time you spent "kid-free." Additionally, it is not biblical that children should ever take priority over marriage. In Genesis 2:24, we read, "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." Jesus confirms and emphasizes this point in Matthew 19. We see plainly that from the time God ordained marriage in Eden, spouses would become one flesh--leaving their parents and cleaving to the new husband or wife. The spousal relationship must take precedence over the parental relationship--though never to the neglect of the parental relationship. God foresaw the problem that spouses would face when their children left home even from the time of the first marriage covenant. He wisely instituted these familial priorities precisely to safeguard the sanctity of marriage with regard to it.
Moving on to argument three. This is, perhaps, the most prolific and seemingly wise argument against procreation. In fact, it is the one that I have heard touted as "truly" biblical. Acting "wisely" and being "good stewards" are both biblical principles, therefore, some argue, wisely delaying children until we are ready to adequately provide for them must be biblical. I have even heard this argument used as the ultimate de facto biblical choice regarding procreation--that having children too young or with not "enough" money in the bank is deemed actually unbiblical because it is "unwise."
Now, I have seen this argument addressed from the viewpoint that we truly do not need as much money to raise a child as our generation seems to claim. We do not need to put our children through four years of college; we do not need to give them the latest gizmos and gadgets at Christmas; they do not need the nicest clothes, the best furniture, the top-of-the-line video game system, or the latest CDs. This point about the excess to which we indulge children in our current culture--which many experts are now proclaiming as actually detrimental to the child's character, which defects are carried into adulthood--is worth paying heed to. However, let us assume that you are not the sort of couple that would indulge children to such a degree. You paid your own way through college, and though you may set some money aside for your children's schooling, you presume that they will either take out loans or achieve scholarships as you had to in order to attend the college of their choice. You don't mind that they have to "do without" at times; it builds character. But, you ask, don't you need to have some semblance of financial stability in order to support a family? Particularly if you hold with the viewpoint that it is vital for a child's development that one parent remain home to care for the child at least for the first few years of life?
This is an extremely valid point. Let's say you have come to a reasonable and godly estimate of how much you need to "have" in order to support a child. You need a safe home (of any sort, really), the ability to clothes and feed the infant, money for emergencies, and (in the United States) some form of adequate health care not only to waylay the costs of prenatal appointments and delivery but in the tragic event that the baby becomes ill and requires treatment. Some people would even say that these requirements are, while ideal, unnecessary before choosing to embrace procreation. In my opinion, though, this is the bare minimum that is advisable before having children. However, I do not advocate avoiding marital procreation before these goals are reached. I would advise avoiding marriage before these goals are reached. Having a home, the ability to provide food and clothing, and access to health care should be priorities before you enter into a marriage relationship. I'm not saying you need a two-car garage, money to eat out whenever you wish, or top-of-the-line insurance. I am saying, however, that when a man asks a woman to marry him, he ought to have some way of supporting her. In addition, if you are married and you are having sex even if you are using every birth control method available avoiding pregnancy is not guaranteed! You can get pregnant. In such a case, it would be wise to be prepared.
This is in no way intended to place judgment, blame, or guilt upon those who were married before it might have been fiscally advisable. Rather, it is advice for those who find themselves contemplating marriage and saying, "Well, we'll barely have enough to live on, but let's go and get married--we just better not be having kids for a good, long time!" Since a baby is always possible within a sexually active relationship (such as marriage!), it is always a wise decision to be ready to support a baby before engaging in acts that might result in one. Of course, if you are married and short on cash (who isn't feeling the pinch these days?) it is important to remember that though finances can be a reason to prayerfully consider growing your family or not it should never be the de facto reason to postpone or prevent pregnancy. Diligent prayer and an open heart to do God's will ought to be the focus of questions of all sorts, including questions of family planning.
Argument number four addresses the desire to establish a career before children. This one usually comes from the women/wives in the crowd. Men never seem to think about establishing their careers before having children. Even when mothers choose to go back to work immediately following the birth of a child, they will statistically still bear the brunt of housekeeping and child care after working hours, and this can lead to legitimate fears in a woman's mind that she cannot compete with her male counterparts in the workforce once she becomes a mother. Now this is a primarily upper- and middle-class issue. Working class women have traditionally thought more about "holding down a job" than "building a career." There is a great deal to be said about this issue that I don't think I'm going to go into right now. I'll just point those who wish to read more about it to the following link to start getting the mental juices flowing. It is worth noting that most women will not have successfully "established" themselves in their career until the age of 35, after which fertility, particularly for those who have not yet born a child, drops and continues to drop at an exponential rate. In addition, the risk of birth defects rises after such an age. NPR had an excellent segment on this if you'd care to listen. My point here is: Will you someday look back and wish you'd had the career or the kid? Because you may not be able to "have it all," no matter what our modern feminist culture would like to convince us of. Sometimes the biological clock literally runs out--earlier than you thought.
One of my personal favorite arguments against procreation: "We're not really kid people." Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 19:14 "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." If we don't "like" kids and do not spend time with them, then how will we learn to be like them, as Jesus calls us to be? In both Matthew 10 and Luke 18, Jesus emphasizes this point further: "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." Clearly, observation of children ought to be important for those seeking to lead a godly life. In fact, God has quite a bit to say about children in the Bible. What is the great tragedy of biblical women? Barrenness. How does God reward these women: by granting them children. Children are a tremendous gift! In Deuteronomy 6, the Lord commands the Jews to teach His commandments to their children: Children are the legacy and future of the faith! Psalm 127:3 proclaims, "Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him." Proverbs, the book of Wisdom says in Chapter 17, verse 6, "Children's children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children." And, of course, my favorite verse concerning children, Psalm 127:4: "As arrows are in the hands of a mighty man, so are the children of the youth." Children are a blessing. Children are an inheritance. Children are a gift. Children are a treasure. Children are to be desired. This is the message that we hear again and again from the pages of Scripture. This is God's attitude toward children, and it ought to be ours. If we find that we are not "kid people"--and I confess, there was a time when I was not, though that may be hard to believe--we should find a way to become "kid people." God is definitely a "kid person," and we should strive in every way to imitate Him, to desire what He desires, to cherish what He cherishes.
I almost don't feel that the final argument is worth addressing. It is true that once you have children, you will not be able to do all of the things that you want, when you want to, in the way that you want to. Even making it to an evening bible study or going to see a movie can be difficult. At the very least, it's not as simple as it once was. But, one objective look at this question reveals that it is bred entirely from selfish thought. Such desires--to travel Europe, for example--are not evil per se. But, to feel entitled to such things, to ignore the will of God in order to seek after our own pleasures should never be the goal of a godly life and certainly not the goal of a godly marriage. A God-centered marriage does not revolve around the spouses' own entertainments and hobbies and desires but around the desires of God and service and obedience to Him. Trust me, if your marriage is built on these latter things,a lack of the former is never going to harm your marriage, even if you do find yourself wishing one day that you had backpacked through Switzerland. Hey, I wouldn't mind doing that myself! Maybe one day--maybe with the children!
In the Catholic Church, there are some forms you sign before a witness when you are looking to get married. In addition to name, hometown, and all that general information, there are some questions on the back that are considered essential for giving solemn and informed consent to marry. One is that you believe that marriage is a life-long commitment. Pretty important and basic, wouldn't we all say? Considered on the same level of importance is the question of whether you will be open to life. Basically, are you open to having children from the time this marriage commences? No form of artificial birth control is permitted for use by Catholics and using it is considered a grave, or mortal, sin--putting one out of communion with God and the Church, for which one must seek absolution in sacramental confession with a truly contrite heart and a resolution not to sin again. (The Church does permit the use of Natural Family Planning, commonly referred to as NFP, when a couple has prayerfully concluded together that there is a serious reason to avoid pregnancy, at least for a time. This method uses the God-given biological cycles to avoid pregnancy without using "birth control." Some people dislike NFP because it has the potential to be used as a form of "natural" birth control. If used as the method is intended, this is not the case. Obviously, each person and married couple will have to search their own hearts to know whether they are using NFP, if they choose to use it, to the Will or God or in opposition to it.)
Biologically, sex is for children. God made it this way; He ordained it this way. Married couples do and should have sex. God considers children to be always a blessing, never a burden. God made sex for marriage, and he made sex for procreation. Where sexual intimacy is practiced within the loving confines of God's commands, we can trust, as His children, that it will build up our marriages, never tear them down. If you are currently in a marriage relationship where you are not open to procreation, I would encourage you to start praying and spending some time in God's Holy Word with this issue in mind. He has a lot to teach us on this subject, and I know that His Holy Spirit will guide you if you seek His will truly.
I'd like to end with a final thought. It seems that many people view the issue as choosing when to have children. The subtlety of the other side of the coin escapes many: If I am choosing not to have a child now, I am making the choice that a certain child who might have been is not to be. Each person must consider in his or her own heart, through prayer, whether it is right or wrong to avoid having children, but we must never overlook the fact that not making the choice to have a child is indeed making a choice.
* The Bookworm's Library has been updated: Crossing the Threshold of Hope by Pope John Paul II