I've been praying for some time on what it means to be "open to life." It's thrown out there sometimes in opposition to a children-as-commodity mindset, but I wonder what the meaning and intent behind its use is at times. Many, I'm certain, use it in the literal sense - being open to the will of God for your family and being faithful in discerning His call to "be fruitful and multiply." There are times, though, I hear it used as a catch-phrase in the most Catholic of circles. "Oh yeah, we're open to life," or "such-and-such family sure is open to life!" Others I find use it as a dagger to divide. That dagger, either knowingly or unknowingly, can be the means of injury to couples and families - faithful couples and families.
There are those who use the term to indicate that a family should be a certain size (large). That if you are open to life, then there are many little lives scurrying underfoot, close together in years. That if you are open to life, you can have no just or "grave" reason for spacing your family or not having children. Yet there are so many reasons, most ever so private to the people intimately involved. There is the heavy cross of infertility. There is the equally painful cross of miscarriage. There is mental illness. There is the desire for more children unfulfilled. There are so many other reasons that a couple could faithfully, and justly, choose to delay childbearing or growing a family - reasons that are between them and God.
Certainly in this culture of contraception and abortion-on-demand, it is easy to assume that people just don't want to have more children and are not open to what God has in store for them. Yet for so many small families I know, that just isn't the case. They are hard-working, God-loving, faithful families who are trying to discern God's will for them, who desire children, but for one reason or another have few or none. Does it mean that they are not open to life?
As so many of my own friends are having more children and growing their families, it can start to feel like a bit of a rat race for a Catholic wife and mother. "So-and-so is on their fourth. We're still on two." Families aren't a rat race, though, are they? Children are a blessing from God, and He chooses to bless us all quite uniquely. For some, being open to life does, in fact, result in a football team. For others, that openness doesn't always result in children.
In his post a few weeks ago, Taylor Marshall ignited a bit of controversy about natural family planning in outlining what the Popes have put forward as serious reasons for married couples to avoid pregnancy. Again, I think the controversy here stems from a misunderstanding of the term "family planning." It's certainly understandable to be shell shocked and reactionary in this culture where we are in such a battle for life. Family planning has become synonymous with contraception or abortion. It's time to take the lingo back, much like so many other terms, and be proactive in advocating a true purpose and definition.
Natural family planning for us, or fertility awareness since we don't adhere to any one method diligently, was a gift in achieving both pregnancies. It gives us an opportunity every day to discern what God is asking of us as it relates to our children. It allows us to have that intimate conversation, to understand whether an act of love may be likely to result in another blessed life, and to discern whether that will drive mama over the edge, which God certainly doesn't want. All joking aside, it is an opportunity for greater intimacy of Spirit, of honest and direct conversation. This may, or may not, result in a child. For now God has not seen fit to bless us with more children. Some days I do start to long for another little baby in my arms. Most nights, I do not and I thank Him for His wisdom.
We are, as are most of our friends, open to life. There is no contraception. There is no abstaining because we don't feel like we have a serious enough reason to avoid pregnancy. That is our story. Each couple has theirs, and some of those stories are tear-filled and more painful with every glance that reads they don't have enough children to warrant them "true Catholic families." Simply because their openness doesn't look like a conversion van full of the VonTrapp children doesn't mean they are any less faithful in their adherence to God's will for them. Let's all be careful that we don't begin to turn lives and families into labels and causes. Each soul is too important to God for us to diminish them into a box full of our assumptions. At the end of the day, open to life isn't a family size, and we'll never win anyone over with a judgmental glare anyway. More love, more mercy, more grace - because Love always wins in the end.