The Holy Gift of Killing Time

lgfak01“And tell me, do you play with your children? Do you waste time with your children? The free gift of a parent’s time is so important.”
~ Pope Francis

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Reckless Breeders

The correlation of reckless breeding with defective and delinquent strains, has not, strangely enough, been subjected to close scientific scrutiny. This is a crying necessity of our day (Margaret Sanger).

Mrs. Sanger would classify me and my wife as reckless breeders—seven kids, and not a whiff of birth control. “Bring ’em on!” we said when we got married, and so God did—alleluia! And nary a defective nor delinquent strain in the lot. Scientific scrutiny be damned.

Margaret-Sanger-1916-620x320The funny thing is that reckless breeders are in short supply these days, and not because of scientific scrutiny, nor its nefarious twin, draconian social policy (thankfully a thing of the past). As a nation, we’re sinking demographically, but instead of rearranging deck chairs, we’ve struck up the band and we’re throwing a party! Yeah! No babies! Whooo-hooo!

A stark example of this is a recent Time Magazine cover story, “The Childfree Life.” Here’s the tagline: “The American birthrate is at a record low.” Indeed, it’s startlingly low—2.0 babies per woman at last count. Keep in mind that the replacement rate is 2.1, and the rate’s trajectory is down, not up. Bottom line: We’re going the way of Europe and Japan, where grey is all the rage.

Shrinking fertility rates and aging populations are important for a number of reasons, as William McGurn points out in his review of Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. Among other things, fewer kids means fewer workers to make stuff and buy stuff, and fewer taxpayers as well. More and more retiring boomers are starting to collect government benefits, and there are fewer and fewer employed taxpayers to foot the bill. Our weak economy only exacerbates all this.

McGurn also mentions a weakening of our national defense and a curtailing of innovation as the balance of our population tilts in the direction of the aged. But these are mere temporal concerns. A bigger problem has to do with our vision of what marriage and sex is for in the first place.

But don’t I know? It’s for fun, of course!

Of course. But not just for fun.

Back in 1982, The Roches released their album Keep on Doing which included a song called “Sex is for Children.” The song is a collage of sounds and words that doesn’t reveal a whole lot about the title’s meaning. But, as song titles go, it’s definitely provocative and memorable. And simply true. Physiologically, anatomically, sex is indeed “for children.”

Regardless of how enjoyable it is (and enjoyment here is meant to include both tactile pleasures and the more abstract pleasures of mutual self-giving), sex is clearly oriented to the begetting of children. In fact, when Margaret Sanger and her allies coined the phrase “birth control,” they obviously took the biology for granted—i.e., they were selling more sex with less births.

This dual meaning of sex—pleasurable union and procreation—is something the Church has always taken into account and honored. It’s an idea at the very center of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae:

[The] fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman.

Yet, the Church goes much further than that, teaching us that kids really are the main point. Pope Pius XI puts it this way:

Thus amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place. As St. Augustine admirably deduces from the words of the holy Apostle Saint Paul to Timothy when he says: “The Apostle himself is therefore a witness that marriage is for the sake of generation: ‘I wish,’ he says, ‘young girls to marry.’ And, as if someone said to him, ‘Why?,’ he immediately adds: ‘To bear children, to be mothers of families’.”

Terribly backward by today’s standards, I know, but even Margaret Sanger seemed to admit that motherhood had its good points—even aside from merely perpetuating the species. She wrote that the “potential mother can then be shown that maternity…may be the most effective avenue to self-development and self-realization.”cheaper-by-the-dozen

But how? What is it about having kids that seems to be so vital to self-development and self-realization? I think Lauren Sandler’s Time article gives us some clues, like when she quotes New Yorker Jenna Johnson, who is partnered and happily childless: “My plans—professionally, daily, long-term, even just for vacation—are free from all the contingencies that come with children.”

Contingencies. That’s a nice way of putting it. For us parents in real-time, it’s more like “constant chaos,” where every day is a matter of survival, and coming home at night is similar to a controlled crash landing.

So why do we do it? Love. Love begets love. And, in this case, it’s not an abstract begetting, but rather a fully incarnate, enfleshed love—one that cries and laughs and poops. Being entrusted with that incarnate crying and laughing and pooping love changes us. It makes us better men and women, husbands and wives, friends, neighbors, workers, humans! Or at least it can. It should.

But it’s herculean, by all accounts—something that another childless woman featured in the Time article seems to grasp. Leah’s life with her husband is “insane already,” even without kids. She goes on: “I don’t feel we can do what we do and be great parents—and for me, the emphasis would be on being great parents.”

Exactly. Leah would be a great mom. I hope she gets the chance.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Naming Our Prince

The press and paparazzi were on pins and needles: When would the royal baby be born? How long would the labor take? Would all go well? And, of courprince georgese, the all important question: What would his name be?

George, it turns out. My money was on Edward, but Prince George it is—long live the king!

Naming rituals are important to commoners as well, and every family has its own approach. We always consulted the Catholic calendar to see if a due date coincided with a favorite saint’s feast. Whatever names were proximate to the due date—male or female—were fair game.

Well, maybe not every name.

We always ended up with a “probably not” list in addition to the favored “A” list. For example, when we found out we were pregnant with our sixth child, we determined that he’d be born in mid-October sometime. “How about Hedwig, honey?” I asked my wife after glancing at the calendar. “She’s on the 16th. Or Ignatius, on the 17th?” I knew Nancy’s naming limits—long ago she had made it clear that no son of hers would be named Bruno (or daughter for that matter). I was crushed. What dad wouldn’t want a son named Bruno? But I acquiesced, and Nancy retained the name veto in perpetuity.

Back to our sixth: Teresa, perhaps, if the birthday was the 15th? Or Luke if it was the 18th? What about the 19th—one of the North American Martyrs, maybe John or Isaac? We waited and pondered: Who would this child be?

There was nothing unusual about the pregnancy itself, and everything was in order when Nancy approached (and then rolled by [also not unusual]) the due date. Nesting was complete, supplies were at hand, and the bed double-layered and prepared. (No swimming pool, however. I was stubborn and skeptical, so Nancy didn’t get her water labor until Katharine, our seventh. But that’s another story.)

Labor commenced the night of October 16, and Lynn arrived at the ready shortly after I called her, although it seemed like forever—another “not unusual.” Time flies and stands still during a birth. It’s as if everything slows w-a-a-y down, but it all speeds up, too. Weird.

Anyway, labor progressed as normally as the pregnancy had. (Note: I realize I’m taking a liberty [as a man] in using the words “normally” and “progress” in reference to childbirth—or even talking about childbirth at all—and I acknowledge that Nancy should be telling this part of the story, for she did all the work [and marvelously, heroically so, as always], but this will have to do for now.) At some point in the wee hours of October 17, Nancy made that final push, and our baby was born—a boy! Alleluia!cececenick

He pinked up right away, and let us know he was breathing by letting out a squeak or two—no bellow or wail if I remember correctly. As Nancy cuddled with him and assisted him to latch on for the first time, the three of us settled down to get acquainted. Lynn was nearby attending to Apgar scores and the placenta. At some point, we woke up Ben, our oldest, to come meet his new brother and cut the umbilical cord.

Yet, something wasn’t quite right.

For one thing, Lynn was a bit hesitant—not her typical modus operandi during a birth, I assure you. And our baby had certain physical features that were out of whack somehow: Ears too low, for instance, and almond-shaped eyes.

Lynn finished tidying up and took leave to go chart. I broke the silence in our bedroom: “Is he alright?” Nancy answered, “I don’t know,” and then, after a brief pause, “It looks like he has Down’s.” I followed Lynn downstairs to ask her.

Do you know Lynn? Let me tell you about Lynn. She was our midwife for our last five births—prenatal care, labor and delivery, and postpartum care—so we got to know her pretty well. I can tell you without any reservation that Lynn is an extraordinary person—not just a great nurse, but truly an extraordinary person, with a soul full of tenderness and love. Those qualities were particularly important that night in October.

Extensive experience and training enabled Lynn to see immediately that our newborn son had Down syndrome—something the Apgars only reinforced. But she said nothing; she did nothing different. She went about her work as professionally and unobtrusively as she’d done throughout our previous three births with her.

And when I showed up in the kitchen with my question? She didn’t mince words—I greatly appreciated that. “He has Down’s, Rick,” she said. Simple as that—although I think her eyes were welling up a bit. Mine were, too, I’m pretty sure. In any case, I hightailed it back up to Nancy to fill her in, and we both wept over our boy.

They weren’t tears of disappointment though, or tears of anger or regret. And Lynn knew that. She knew that we welcomed our baby son no matter what—without question, absolutely, and no exceptions. This wasn’t a messed up order from Land’s End or Amazon, for God’s sake, so no thoughts of “returns” or customer complaints. He was our child, after all; and not just a child, but the very child we’d been waiting for and praying for. God had bestowed on us as an inestimable gift, and we were grateful and delighted.

Nevertheless, Down’s did present some challenges, even that first day outside the womb. There was the possibility of serious heart defects to begin with, and we had to get him a hearing test as I recall. Plus, a definitive diagnosis required a blood test, and that was important to get done right away as well. After a generous interval to allow us to process everything, Lynn gave us the lowdown on what we needed to accomplish ASAP—like an echocardiogram to rule out life-threatening heart problems.

Back up for a moment and consider this line: After a generous interval to allow us to process…. Our new gift from God wasn’t whisked away by strangers to get tested and poked and prodded; no awkward silences or downcast eyes in response to parents’ questions and pleas, “Where is our baby? Is he OK?”

No. A generous interval to get to know our new son in all his glorious particularity—just like any new baby. Home birth—and, in particular, home birth with Lynn—made it possible for a hard situation to be truly humanized. The Down syndrome was a surprise, for sure, and we knew we had a steep learning curve ahead of us. Moreover, we knew our boy (and we with him) would be facing difficulties and battles our other kids never faced. But…so what? He was our boy, and he was fiercely loved from the very beginning. Lynn knew that and incorporated it into her care.

1091154_221445288005265_569329236_oOh, and the name? As noted above, October 17 is the feast of St. Ignatius—not an option.

Instead, we chose Nicholas Matthias. Nicholas, for the patron saint of children, i.e., Santa Claus! And Matthias? Ben (the umbilical-cord-cutter) had lobbied for that name because of his favorite Redwall character, but that wasn’t the clincher. Instead, we chose it in honor of St. Matthias the Apostle, the one that took Judas’ place after the Resurrection—the one they chose by casting lots. The Eleven had narrowed it down to Matthias and another guy named Barsabbas, and Matthias lucked out.

In fact, it’s because of that selection method that some cultures consider St. Matthias’ feast the luckiest day of the year—the best day to gamble or buy lottery tickets.

I don’t know about that, but it’s certainly true that Fortune smiled on us that night in October. The Creator, the King of the universe, entrusted us with another beautiful child—indeed, a prince! Like every baby, this baby was the latest edition of God’s own image of Himself, the image of the King in our midst.

Nothing could alter that. Nothing. Deo gratias!
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