Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Prudence and Parenthood

Danielle Bean is a brave woman. Every Tuesday she puts an open thread on her blog for commenters to use as they wish. Subjects from potty-training to NFP to attachment parenting to budgets to homeschooling issues to serious marital concerns have been raised over there, and the conversations can get a bit dizzying.

Today, a matter came up which has come up before, and though it looks like the subject is dying down as a topic of conversation, I wanted to use the opportunity to address it. The question has to do with responsible parenthood, and particularly asks is it prudent to continue adding to one's family if one is already accepting government assistance to care for one's existing family?

There is, as you might imagine, a wide divergence of opinion on the subject among Catholic families. Some people believe that the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood means that while one may certainly accept government aid in cases of dire need or in some particular circumstances, relying on such programs as free children's or maternal health insurance, WIC nutrition programs, and the like as part of one's ordinary means of support for one's family is not the action of responsible parents. Others believe that the Church has a "preferential option" in favor of continued procreation and the creation of large Catholic families, and that these families are therefore entitled to the support of the wider community, including the support of taxpayer dollars to aid in the financial support and raising of the children.

The first group of people are likely to point out that government programs aren't really "free." We all must pay higher and higher taxes in order to fill the coffers out of which these programs are funded; and while the government certainly wastes a lot of money on things much less necessary than infant nutrition or health insurance programs, there's no denying that these programs are costly, and that as the costs associated with them continue to rise so will the level of taxation on the rest of us. Instead of being a "safety net" to protect vulnerable children while their parents endure a period of hardship, seeking self-sufficiency as a goal, these programs begin to become an ordinary means of support for more and more people, forcing those families who do believe they are called to be responsible for meeting the immediate needs of their own children to bear the increased costs and be pushed closer and closer to needing this "safety net" themselves, just to make ends meet. Of course, the more people who need the program, the more it will cost--and a vicious cycle of confiscatory taxation and growing reliance on government aid from an ever wider sector of the public will be the result.

But the second group of people will argue that we're already living in a society structured in favor of the two-income, two child family, and that large single-income Catholic families are already so far behind the economic curve that there's no way for them to exist at all if government-funded programs don't make up the family income shortfall. We don't, after all, believe that only the wealthy should have large families, do we? And we certainly don't think that large Catholic families should put their kids in daycare and public schools so both mom and dad can work in a fruitless attempt to make ends meet. So what's wrong with accepting the help that's available? Granted, our ancestors were highly unlikely, even during the Depression, to seek government handouts as a way of life--they had more pride than that. But was it a false pride? And isn't it true that things are much, much harder for a traditional family today than they were even thirty years ago, as the two-income family has risen to ascendancy and made having even four or five children virtually impossible for the average middle-class family on one income?

These are complicated questions. I don't pretend to have all the answers, either. My family has never been in a position where we've needed government aid, but that doesn't mean it could never happen. Like many Americans, we live paycheck to paycheck, and save what we can, but we don't kid ourselves that we'd be able to go for very long if Mr. M. didn't have a job all of a sudden--a fact of life in our so-called 'global' economy.

Like so many questions relating to responsible parenthood, NFP, and Catholic family life, though, I think this is a question that can only be answered by each individual married couple, who may seek recourse from a good spiritual adviser if necessary. The extremes on either end, of a Catholic family on the one hand being determined to have college funds for each child, and of a Catholic family on the other hand living in government housing and accepting all sorts of welfare in order to add to their already-numerous family, tend to be more uncharitable caricatures than actual reality. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, and whether we're called by prudence to refrain from adding to our families for a time in order to improve basic financial stability, or by prudence to consider accepting aid in some area to meet our families' needs, is going to depend so much on individual circumstance and so little on carved-in-stone ideas about what Catholic families ought or ought not to do that offering general principles for consideration becomes an extremely tricky business.

God alone knows our hearts, and He alone knows the specific way in which He is calling our families to be. Prudence in parenthood does demand that we carefully consider these sorts of things as they pertain to us; but charity toward others demands that we not seek to judge them for decisions they may make which are different from our own.


Maria said...

Good post, Red. While I tended to be in the "take the aid" group in the initial discussion, I think it was mainly in reaction to what I felt was a hostile attitude towards poorer families. I think you set the right tone in this post. And I think the most important point is that it is difficult the make generalizations in this area - which is why the Church itself has left the whole responsiblity parenthood question in the hands of individual couples.

Maria said...

Red - are you THE Erin Manning that subs over at Crunchy Con? If so, you are just fabulous over there.

Red Cardigan said...

Guilty, Maria! :)

Anonymous said...

The extremes on either end, of a Catholic family on the one hand being determined to have college funds for each child,

The funny thing is that's me, all over, and I don't think I'm extreme in the least! I think it's nuts to do anything but. I don't live paycheck-to-paycheck, and I couldn't sleep at night if I did.

I agree with you that there are different ways to live, all legitimate, but it does seem as if there are two ways to handle it: You are either the type of person who can handle financial stress or the type who can handle the stress of an education/job that guarantees no (major) financial stress.

I guess you just have to choose the one that bothers you least.


Daddio said...

"And isn't it true that things are much, much harder for a traditional family today than they were even thirty years ago, as the two-income family has risen to ascendancy and made having even four or five children virtually impossible for the average middle-class family on one income?"

I guess it all depends on how big the one income is. It might be impossible to have the same extravagant lifestyle of your dual-income friends, but it's still possible to live simply. Many are just living beyond their means, and many women, especially those without college degrees, barely make enough to cover the extra costs of daycare, convenience foods, additional car, etc. In many areas of our country, there are decent houses to be had for well under $100K. In some states, housing prices and even rent prices are way too high. Maybe driven up by the dual income families. Ironic, no? Work harder to make more money, only to cause inflation in the housing market and lower your spending power to where it was before so many women worked outside the home.

Anyway. I wouldn't say it's "much, much harder" these days. A little harder, but do-able.

And I don't frown on accepting government assistance in times of need, but I do not think it's proper to count on it as a means of supporting one's family. We had some friends that got pregnant very early in their marriage, before graduation from college (I wouldn't propose marriage until I had a degree and a job, maybe another topic for another day) and they were really conflicted about accepting WIC. I assured them that they'd pay a lot more into the system via income taxes over the course of their lives than they'd receive in the next few months until graduation and full-time employment. I'd also find no fault if someone was financially devastated by an unforeseen illness in the family. But it's called "temporary assistance" for a reason.

extremes said...

I am thankful that government assistance is there for when we need it. I am dismayed about the attitude of entitlement when it comes to the number of children a couple believes they have a right to have when government assistance is the norm and not a temporary condition.

It is an extreme but a growing extreme from what I see. When we dare say that we should consider whether we can provide food, clothing, shelter, and medical care for the children we have before we conceive another we are somehow labeled as anti-life and how can we say poor people can't have large families, we now lack charity. what about just waiting for a time to space your kids so that you can seek other employment opportunities and get out of the difficult situation you are in?

I don't have large family although I would love to have one I can not responsibly keep having children, not for financial reasons, but because of a serious disabling mental illness. I've never looked at it as an entitlement, Should mentally ill people not have large families? Well perhaps they need to consider the needs of the kids they already have and accept the sacrifice of a smaller family with the wisdom and grace of God.

clara said...

I have been following this conversation over at DB's site, then came over here to see what Red wrote.
It seems to me that in some sense this is a simple issue of "each couple must decide before God." In another sense, though, this is not an issue of family planning and personal responsibility at all but rather a matter of what it means to at once be a faithful Christian and a good citizen. And I would say that depends on where you live, probably. I feel that the specific viewpoints listed here are specifically American and probably more American-Catholic than anything else. (And we would not want to make the mistake of equating partisan American politics with morality, now would we.)
I don't think that the Catholic Church's teachings about wealth, poverty and openness to life--or any matter!--is drawn in lines clear to either of the U.S's political parties, but always speaks to the Global Church. (And wealth is not money, according to the Catechism, anyway!)
Two final thoughts:
1. NFP is only as effective in postponing pregnancy as its user rates (not perfect-use rates!), AND there are unexplained exceptions with perfect-use every year anyway. The whole point of using it is that it is open to life. That is why it is philosophically and morally acceptable according to the Church.
2. I have heard arguments about "responsibility" being made over at DB that are eerily familiar...we're not really saying that people in under-developed nations should be trying harder to prevent conception than those in wealthier nations, are we? This is the same line of argument that the so-called women's rights folks use while they sterilize women in India and hand out condoms in Africa.
The Church will NEVER teach this and we should probably stay as far away from that kind of rhetoric as we can.

the world poor said...

I think that people reading these thread who do get aid are feeling very sensitive. I don't think getting governement aid is the problem. We all at one time or another could possibly need help. There is nothing morally wrong with that.

My question is more of continuing to have children knowing we can not provide for them and government aid becoming our source of support. I think America is different because of the opportunities. I don't think we can compare the poor in a third world country to our poor.

The last poster made a good point about the global church.

In American you can keep having children even though you can not provide for them because the government wil provide for you. The motto God will provide is not universal as we can see when we look at the world's starving children. We just happen to be fortunate in America.

In Third world countries it is not the case and when you have 5 starving children already, what do you do? I know nothing about the marital dynamics of Third World couples, if the women even have voice as to when they have sex or not.

It also raises the point of the responsiblity we have to help the world's poor get out of their poverty and being able to make a living. It also raises the question of what do we as open to life Catholic couples need to do with the millions of children orphaned?

The focus of "open to life" is IMO so narrowly defined as the number of children you can conceive. I'd like to see a broader definition of it. When do we turn our hearts towards the millions of children already conceived and have no home?

Yes the church is global, but we each have to discern the circumstances of where we are living. If I am having a large family on government assistance and another family is paying the high price with their taxes has to limit their family size it really raises some good questions.

Sarahndipity said...

I know, personally, that if I were on government assistance, I would be doing everything I could to get off of it and would not intentionally have another child until I was. I wouldn’t tell another couple they’re being “selfish” for having another child while they were on government assistance, though, if they really felt that God was calling them to do so. I think it depends on the situation.

The ease of living on one income depends on where you live. It varies drastically. We live in an expensive area (the DC area). We live here because we grew up here and wanted to stay near or families and friends. But it also means we both have to work full-time. (Although I’ll be able to cut back to part-time once baby #2 arrives in January). My mother-in-law watches our daughter during the day, for free, which is wonderful. It’s hard with both of us having to work, but on the other hand, it’s wonderful living near our families. We’ve never had to pay for a baby-sitter. Once this next baby comes I’ll be working just 20 hours a week, and those 20 hours the kids will be with grandma, so I don’t think it will be that bad. Everyone just has to do what’s best for their family.

I’m like Kayo, I couldn’t deal with the stress of living paycheck to paycheck. It’s stressful having both of us work, but that sort of financial stress would be much worse. I guess I don’t think “being determined to have college funds for each child” is that “extreme” either. My husband and I are already saving for our daughter’s college. We do have a bit of a disagreement, though, as he thinks that being able to pay for college should be a prerequisite for having another child. I think that while we should certainly try to pay for college for all our kids, or at least as much of it as we can, I don’t think we should not have another child just because we aren’t 100% sure if we can pay for college. By the way, by “college” I mean in-state tuition – out-of-state is out of the question unless they get scholarships.

Daddio said...

"The focus of "open to life" is IMO so narrowly defined as the number of children you can conceive. I'd like to see a broader definition of it. When do we turn our hearts towards the millions of children already conceived and have no home?"

Amen. Going off topic here, but we can't keep preaching against abortion and gay adoptions if we aren't going to step forward and offer an alternative. But everyone has an excuse why it's not for them.

welfare said...

I was disappointed to read Danielle's (Bean) post today. She took the stance of have all the children you desire with very little consideration given to being able to provide for them. And we should never discuss what responsible parenting means because it would be telling couples that they can't have kids. So we should just ignore whatever the Church meant by that.
In fact it is heroic when you have more kids and have no means to provide for them. Catholic teaching has so many different interpretations. This is one extreme. Once again the focus of open to life is narrowly defined as how many kids you can conceive. The more you conceive when you are on welfare the holier you are.

Daddio, you are right we are also narrowly focused on the abortion issues. Which is very important. But in so doing we are not well rounded pro-lifers.