In Praise of Big Families

After what I think was the longest winter ever, it’s good to see the sun again. Shortly after the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, I began to feel extremely ill. Since I have a history of cancer and a vivid imagination, I was sure it was serious. And it was.

We Always Plan to Be Blessed

A couple of visits to the doctor and, just days after my fortieth birthday, I learned we were expecting twins. Then I learned one of the babies would be waiting for us in heaven. The remaining baby looks healthy and strong and we are taking comfort in the fact that he or she will always have an especially dear intercessor. Mom, on the other hand, has been completely leveled by hormones.

My midwife found it comical that I had no suspicion I was pregnant. And the way my body’s reacting, one would think it had no idea what hit it. Never mind the fact that we’ve been here seven times before. My children have gotten a crash course in self-sufficiency. Did I mention that my husband’s traveling extensively? I’ve learned to work at the computer with my head on the desk. This is a more than a bit chaotic. And it all looks so unplanned.

The truth is, this baby is due exactly four years after the last one was born and we have been praying for him or her the whole four years. In the midst of all this nauseated chaos, I was blessed by a conversation with several of my friends, who are also mothers of large families. We’ve traveled a similar road when it comes to understanding the real blessings and the nuances of openness to life.

Abstinence in Marriage Is a Privation

Early in marriage preparation or in the early years of marriage, many, if not most, Catholic couples learn about Natural Family Planning. They learn that NFP can be a real blessing in helping to understand better how a woman’s body works. They learn that it is a valuable tool when trying to conceive. And they learn that it is also very effective when trying to prevent conception. Unfortunately, what they often don’t learn is that abstinence in Natural Family Planning is to be regarded as a privation. Too often, they come away with the belief that using NFP to space babies or prevent them is the default mode for a holy marriage and not the exception.

What many parents of large families have discovered is that NFP has its place, but that it’s a very limited place and not the usual day-to-day mode of operating. In Covenanted Happiness, Msgr. Cormac Burke writes:

Spouses need to improve in life — to rise above their present worth — if they are to retain their partner's love. It is good therefore — it is essential — that each spouse sacrifices himself or herself for the other. But it is doubtful if any husband and wife, on their own, can inspire each other indefinitely to generosity and self-sacrifice. Children can and do draw from parents a degree of sacrifice to which neither parent alone could probably inspire the other. It is for the sake of their children that parents most easily rise above themselves. Parental love is the most naturally disinterested kind of love. In this way, as they sacrifice themselves for their children, each parent actually improves and becomes — in his or her partner's eyes also — truly a more loveable person. “For the sake of their children, spouses rise above themselves, and above a limited view of their own happiness. Moral stature is acquired only if one rises above oneself. Children, above all, are what spur a couple on to moral greatness.”

That is why family limitation is not properly described as a right and is wrongly thought of as a privilege. It is basically a privation. It is meant for exceptional cases, for those couples who are obliged by serious reasons — by some powerful and overriding factor — to deprive themselves of the fulfilling joy and the enriching value of children. A couple who, in the absence of such an overriding factor, choose not to have more children, are starving their conjugal love of its natural fruit and stunting its growth. They are lessening their mutual preparedness for sacrifice and in that way undermining the mutual esteem that can bind them together.

Open-to-life sexual relations are the normal expression of married affection and alone fulfill the conjugal instinct. To encourage people, without serious reason, to abstain from such relations is to place an unnecessary and unjustified strain on the solidity of their married life. The conjugal instinct, which draws people to marry, is not a mere sexual instinct, nor is it satisfied simply through the companionship and love of a spouse. It looks to the fruit of that love. In other words, people are naturally drawn to marriage by a deep desire for fatherhood or motherhood.

It has been my privilege to be surrounded by large families. All over the world, I have witnessed the examples of couples who have truly understood that children are always and only a blessing and that to limit family size truly is a privation, one that is to be undertaken only for grave or serious reasons. Some of those parents come from large families and they knew from the beginning that that was what they wanted for their new families. Some of them come from the small families of the first birth-control generation and they have come to understand the blessing as it has unfolded in their own married lives.

The Number Is up to God

It is expressed this way in the words of Bridget Galbraith, one of ten children and the mother of seven children:

It is hard to explain to a young couple just starting out or even to an older couple who has not had this openness how married love can grow from the challenges of many children. Indeed, the openness may be key here, rather than the actual numbers of children. The openness is up to us, the number is up to God.

How can you explain that when you look at each other, in the midst of chaos and just break out laughing together, that builds another layer of trust and love?

How can you explain the abandoned joy you share in a unique new baby…who looks just like the whole bunch at home? In fact the appreciation for each baby and each other seems to deepen with every child.

The work load is heavy. How do you explain that when we both are diligent in our respective roles as husband and wife, and support each other in those roles, that it all comes together? (It’s not always pretty, but it works.)

We are working together for a far greater purpose than our own fulfillment. We're essentially fighting for souls. Sometimes we fight valiantly together and sometimes we just muddle through. But it is sanctifying.

Sanctity is the goal of married life. God created us male and female and He gave us marriage. If we are called to marriage, it is His plan for our sanctification. Day after day, year after year, we must ask ourselves what He intends for that marriage. How does He intend to sanctify? For the couples who have embraced true openness to life, the path to sanctification is not easy, but it is simple.

Elizabeth Foss is a freelance writer from northern Virginia. Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home by Elizabeth Foss can be purchased at

(This article originally appeared in abridged form on the website of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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