When you stay up until 4 am, as Rebecca and I did not so long ago, you're prone to 'solving' the problems of the world (or at least thinking you have, assuming the world would actually listen to you). One of the many topics that came up during our wide-ranging conversation (seriously, you can cover a lot in that many hours of talking) was that of family size, the mythical perfect number.
Our Western secular culture adamantly insists that one, maybe two children is the right number, if you must have children at all. (Don't you know that humans are a scourge on the planet and there needs to be vastly fewer of them? [please note that this is a real attitude that some environmentalists have developed]). If you have more than that, how can you possible give them all the attention that they need? Besides, it is so very expensive to raise children (especially in proper style, with smartphone by age 12... or is it 8 now?), not to mention the insane cost of college. And you need to make sure that you can afford the occasional luxuries for yourself, a massage, pedicure, something to relieve the stress of dealing with those little tyrants day after day. (Please note that I am in no way, shape or form arguing that parents do not need to take care of themselves; I am only arguing against the way our culture insists that caring for oneself must be done in a consumeristic manner.) Granted, this cultural pressure is far better than what women face in China, where a permit is needed for each pregnancy, and unlicensed pregnancies are subject to forced abortion. The one child policy has so permeated the culture that in areas of China where families are being encouraged to have a second child, surveys show that most couples prefer to have only one, desiring to lavish all their attention and material goods on a single child. Yet even the cultural pressure in our own country towards having small families can feel oppressive.
Perhaps to counter the materialistic pressure towards small families, as well as to emphasize the importance of openness to life, Catholic culture has at some times and places, gone too far in the opposite direction. How often has the statement "Big is good, small is bad," spoken or unspoken, reared its ugly head in Catholic circles? How often has someone said "So-and-so has 10 children; she must be a saint?" How frequently are assumptions made about those of us who have few or no children? For that matter, how often do we have to argue that yes, we are a family, even if we have no children? How often do we listen to a homily discussing child-rearing as the experience of learning sacrifice and suffering for another? Unintentionally, while arguing that every life has value, our Church sometimes devalues a life without children; in continually emphasizing the need to be open to life and be fruitful, the Church more often needs to acknowledge that "open to life" does not always mean children. In seeming to say that bigger is better, do we not inadvertently push couples towards the ART industry? If they are constantly fed the lie that children are the only or best fruit of a marriage, how much harder is it to resist the temptation to have a child at any cost?
Better that we should change our message: the right number of children for a family is however many God sends. For some families, that will be 10 or more, for others perhaps 2, and yet others that right number will be none, as heartbreaking as it may be. Being open to life is not a guarantee that we will have a set number of children, or even any; being open to life means acknowledging that God could heal us and grant us a child, while still accepting that it may not come to pass. It is being open to whatever mission God has planned for us in this life, whether it involves children or not. It was beautiful to see that Pope Francis separated those dealing with infertility from those giving in to the "culture of comfort" (see here). Of course each and every one of us has our own hopes, dreams, and plans, including how many children we desire; some will see those plans come to fruition, while others will be lead to a different path. Let us not fixate on some perfect number, but endeavor to trust God and His plans.