My oldest daughter was about one and a half years old at the time. She was my only child, and I relied fully on playdates to preserve my sanity (and hers). She was a lovely, social toddler who needed her friends, and I was a tired mom who needed hers, too.
At this time, my husband and I had been trying to get pregnant again for about a year. My first pregnancy had been incredibly hard, working full time with undiagnosed hyperemesis gravidarum. But…we were delighted with the beautiful child who had resulted from that pregnancy. And we desperately wanted a brother or sister for her.
Besides, we had enough other young Catholic friends at that point to know that having a million babies was just what good Catholic couples do. We wanted to sport a full pew, to get to be one of those big Catholic families that we so admired.
But then, we found ourselves (not unexpectedly, given our difficulty getting pregnant the first time) facing a prolonged bout of secondary infertility. I had recently confided this to one of my good friends. She had two children already, and she had recently told me that they were ready to try for a third.
Then, on a walk with our three toddlers piled into strollers, she confided to me that she was expecting.
I went home and cried. I was overjoyed for her, but my heart was breaking. How could I be a good Catholic mother with “just” one child?
St. Anne and Infertility
If I could have picked a saint to go out for coffee with that afternoon, it would have been St. Anne, the mother of Mary. Sipping our lattes, she would have hugged me, leaned in close, and confided in me, “I know. I know how hard this is.”
In St. Anne’s time, the badge of being a good wife was bearing at least one child (and sons were always preferred). Aging Anne and Joachim were a faithful Jewish couple. They loved God and devoted their lives to serving Him. Yet, they were childless. In that day and age, childlessness was considered a curse, and a sign that a couple was lacking in God’s favor.
Then, God blessed them with a child; just one child, and a daughter at that.
But that daughter was the beloved spouse of the Holy Spirit. And, although she was conceived without original sin, she was conceived in the ordinary way — through an embrace of love between her holy parents.
Surely, there must have still been those who viewed Anne and Joachim with pity. All of those years waiting for a child, and then to only have one…and a girl at that?
Good religious couples had many children. What difference could this one make?
The Birth of Mary
Can you imagine the joy of the moment of Mary’s birth? There was the elation of her parents, of course — the elation that every new parent feels when they first lay eyes on their newborn. The attendants at her birth must have felt relief for Anne, who was no longer childless. Gazing at her tiny, beautiful face, everyone must have fallen in love with little Mary.
What can’t be forgotten, though, is that Mary’s birth marked a new stage in the course of salvation history. For millennia, the Jewish people had longed for the Messiah. When this baby girl was born, she wasn’t just any baby girl. Her chubby little fists would grow to be the hands that stroked the face of the infant Christ. Her tiny beating heart would one day be the one that lulled baby Jesus to sleep. The same eyes screwed tight shut at the brightness of the new world would one day be the ones that wept tears at the foot of the cross, as she was told, “Woman, behold your son.” Her lips, now as delicate as rose petals, would be the same lips that one day would say, “Let it be done unto me,” and, “The Almighty has done great things for me,” and even, “Do whatever he tells you.”
But those who attended her birth and those who watched her skipping beside her mother through the streets — they didn’t know this. Undoubtedly, there were at least some who watched her, clucked their tongues and said, “A pity. Only one child, and a girl at that.”
Yet, that girl would grow up to be the Theotokos — the Mother of God. And the Trinity already delighted in her existence.
Good Catholics with Just One Child
Countless times, I have heard it said, “That family is such a good Catholic family — they have seven (or eight or nine) children.” But the number of children is not the indicator of the “goodness” of a Catholic couple. Rather, their openness to God’s Will is. Yes, it is true that, for some couples, that openness will lead them to a vanful of little souls. But to many, it will not. Many will sit in the pew, Sunday after Sunday, with no child, one child, or two children. Many will have others cluck their tongues and make assumptions. “Do you think that couple knows contraception is wrong? Why don’t they have children?”
Years later, I now have four children — three living and one with God. My husband and I have been married for over a decade, and I still sometimes find myself justifying our relatively “small” family to other faithful Catholics. “I have difficult pregnancies, we’ve had multiple bouts of infertility, and we also lost a little one to miscarriage.”
But the reality is, that even if we still only had one child, we could be a good and holy Catholic couple. In fact, some of the Catholic women that I admire the most have only one child. One of the Catholic women I admire a great deal has one child – an adorable boy that came to her home through adoption. Another dear friend has only one child, and he is in heaven. Both of these women are remarkable, holy women, who are in strong, Catholic marriages – and yet, their pews aren’t full of squirmy toddlers.
Like St. Anne, their journey may be misunderstood by many, but it is not by God. God sees them, he sees their motherhood to “just” one child – and he delights in that child.
He delights in that child’s parents, too.
As Mary shows us — all it takes is one child, offering God his or her fiat. All it takes is one mother, and one father, embracing each other in love and openness to God’s plan, even if that plan doesn’t fit the mold of what others think holiness is. God chooses those who are unexpected, in order to reveal to us the greatness of His love.