Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Trusting and testing

I don't watch reality TV, so it was from other sources that I learned that the Duggar family is expecting their twentieth child. The only thing I have to say directly to the Duggars is that this is certainly their business and their decision, and that I wish Mrs. Duggar what I would wish any expectant mother: a healthy pregnancy and a safe and happy delivery.

So: why write about this at all? Well, there's one thing about the reaction I've seen to this news on the Catholic blogosphere that bothers me just a bit. Granted, the reaction of secular commenters is far worse, with the nasty jokes and the pro-sex, anti-baby slant; but I think this is an instance where for me, as a Catholic, it's more important to address one not-so-great Catholic reaction than to take the easy target of the totally wrongheaded secular one.

The reaction I'm talking about is this: someone will mention some prudential concerns they have for the Duggars, in a thoughtful way--concerns about Mrs. Duggar's age, the scary situation that developed with her last pregnancy and the medically-intensive birth of the tiny preemie (number 19) who, by the grace of God, is doing well, and that sort of thing. And someone else will "slap down" the first commenter with a withering observation something like this: "The Duggars are trusting God. That's all that matters."

Well, certainly we should all trust God. And we all hope that in their private decision making as a couple, trust in God was part of the Duggar's conversation, though none of us is, or should be, privy to such private discussions that take place between married couples. But to step away from the specific and to the more general, as I insist on doing, I must object to the notion that totally ignoring maternal health concerns even when these might be significant (and I'm not saying they definitely are in the Duggar's case, mind) is always and everywhere the same thing as trusting God.

Sometimes, it might be. But sometimes, ignoring serious or significant maternal health concerns is no different from testing God, not trusting Him.

I don't want to make this too personal, but long time readers know my own situation. Were my husband and I to ignore that situation and demand to have more children (and, yes, for any new readers, we do use NFP and have never used artificial contraception), we would be testing God's ability to provide us with certain specific things we would need in order for a happy outcome (including, perhaps, a medicine that might not even exist); or we would be rushing to embrace a potential maternal martyrdom that might not, in fact, be God's perfect will for my three daughters who sort of still need me around.

Now, that is our best and most reasoned prudential decision, and it was not made easily or lightly. Another couple in some similar situation might make a different prudential decision--but that is why the Church leaves such decisions to couples who have just reasons to postpone pregnancy. The guidance of good pastors, the wisdom of serious spiritual advisers, the shared experiences of others can all be helpful, but in the end, decisions about having a baby or postponing pregnancy must be made by the couple together.

And provided the couple seeks to think with the mind of the Church on these questions and only uses means of fertility regulation which remain open to life, all of these decisions are about trusting God. I'm going to repeat that: all of these decisions are about trusting God.

Do I trust God to give me medical advisers who have good information about the risks of further pregnancy for someone who has had my experiences? Yes, I do. Do I trust God to "override" NFP if He knows that some new medicine will not only increase a baby's chances for survival, but also keep me from ending up in the hospital for months? Yes, I do. Do I trust God in His wise choice of a spouse for me, who balances my more emotional longings for a new baby with the reality of our situation? Yes, I do.

In these, and thousands of other ways, we trust God, who planned our family before we ever met--and we are no different from those other faithful Catholic spouses who use natural means of family planning to help them make prudent and loving decisions about when to try for a new little one, and when to say, however reluctantly, that the time is not right, or that it may never be right again.

And the family of many who discovers with a holy joy and a holy fear that their wise and prudent openness to life has been answered with another little blessing is also trusting God, as the Duggars may certainly be doing.

But the woman who is led or forced by her community, Catholic, Evangelical, or otherwise, to believe that seeking through moral means to postpone pregnancy in the presence of just reasons is somehow the same thing as not trusting God is being spiritually abused. And if those just reasons include a serious threat to her physical or emotional health that is being waved aside as if her just concern about this threat is the same thing as a moral weakness, a display of unrighteous selfishness, or some such thing--then she is being abused in ways that go beyond the spiritual, in my firmly-held belief: because no one should be forced to put the Lord our God to the test.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I think I want to print it out and frame it.

Ann Marie

Red Cardigan said...

Thank you, Ann Marie! :)

Rebecca in ID said...

I am glad you have posted on this topic once again. Very clearly and well said. I've ended up in several discussions about this, and I've been trying to pinpoint what it is that leads people to think that not using NFP is more "trustful" than using NFP. I think the mistake has something to do with believing that not using NFP means letting God do his thing, whereas using NFP is human choice getting in the way of God doing his thing. Which is strange, since having relations is definitely a choice, just as much as anything else. God works *through* our choices. It is almost as though there is a kind of infection of quietism going around about the use of NFP, among otherwise faithful Catholics, and I think it is very damaging.

Your wording about spiritual abuse is strong but I think entirely justified.

Kate said...

Nice post! I never imagined that I would have only had the two children I've been blessed with in my life. Both my husband and I come from large families ourselves and I always thought that having siblings was a great thing. It certainly makes family gatherings fun. But it's interesting how people automatically assume in some NFP and no planning at all circles that those of us with small families must be automatically using contraception or just being selfish. I've not been able to conceive for some serious medical reasons. It's not about being willing or not to lay down my own life either; it's just that my spouse and the children I do have need me in their lives. My youngest has autism and will likely need care his entire life. It's been a blessing and privilege to be able to give him what he needs. I had a serious health scare last year and my husband wrote me a lovely note one day telling me how scared he was and how important it was to him and the children that I take care of myself. He told me point blank that as devastated as he and my elder child would be if something happened to me, it would be nothing compared to what our youngest would suffer.

As for the Duggars, what they do is their business. My only concern is that I can't see how they are able to be there emotionally for all of those children. I get the sense that at some point the care and raising of some of them gets passed off to older siblings instead of mom and dad when they are no longer babes in arms. I was the eldest sibling and truth be told, I did more to raise my youngest brother and sister than my parents did. It was the ones in the middle who managed to command the most sustained parental attention in my family.

So again, thanks for your post. This post and the other on children at Mass really resonate with me. I wish people would be more charitable and understanding. My autistic son is reaching middle school age and I can say that the lack of charity and understanding only increases as he gets older. It's frustrating that people so easily feel comfortable in making assumptions about others based solely on what they think they see, without knowing the whole story, or that people feel they have the right to information that is by its nature meant to be private.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I can articulate clearly my thoughts on this as well as you can Red. My issue with the Duggars is that it seems like they are collecting children for their own use - like some people collect antique cars or boats or whatever. And then if you express your concern about this, you get slapped down with the "anti big family" label. Why should we glorify the cult of big family above all else? There are some subsets in Catholicism and/or Evangelical Christianity that seem to get overly excited about being apart from the norm, and whether it be having super sized families or only associated with SSPX types or not allowing your daughters to wear pants or go to college or only eat vegan, whatever, it seems like the activity is worshiped and glorified, ie "By doing this, I'm living the right way". Am I making any sense?

And another odd phenomenon is that if they didn't get the big payout from the show or the publicity, would they be throwing such caution to wind? Would we be so excited and supportive if the child were supported by the state? They are considered "normal" and above reproach because they are a financially stable,Caucasian family? If they were Muslim would be so excited about another Muslim entering the world? I just don't get the glorification of these people.

Barbara C. said...

Well, JMB, they already had a "large family" (11 or 12 at that point) before they started garnering media attention. That is WHY they garnered attention at all. They used oral contraception before and after the birth of their oldest son, but then they learned of the abortifacient qualities of the pill when Michelle miscarried a baby conceived while on the pill. THAT is when they decided to no longer use contraception and "trust God" with their fertility.

Yes, the show has given them a lot of financial advantages they might not have had otherwise, but they were financially stable and living debt-free before they became famous.

I find that a lot of the people who criticize the Duggars rarely watch their show or have read either of their books. While I as a Catholic obviously have many theological disagreements with them, I really believe that they are people who sincerely try to discern and live God's will for their lives and teach their children to do the same. As a result, I am happy for them and their new blessing.

Personally I enjoy watching the Duggars' show with my kids because: 1) there are just not many family friendly shows available, 2) the Duggars more closely represent my own cultural and religious values than most things on television, 3)it opens up lots of good discussion between me and my kids about a variety of topics (faith differences, dating/courtship, educational experiences), and 4)it's entertaining to watch them having fun.

But I think a lot of the people who get so angry and upset about the Duggars need to learn a little humility. I think it betrays the same arrogance that comes out when people talk about others "voting against their own best interest". How do you or I know what is prudent for them? That's between a husband and wife, their doctors, and most importantly, God.

beadgirl said...

I get what you are saying, Anonymous. With the obvious caviat that i cannot know their hearts, I can't help but be suspicious that the Duggars might be having so many children for the wrong reasons -- as a kind of competition, or source of pride. It doesn't help that I disagree with a number of their parenting and life decisions.

That said, great post, Erin. I begin twitching anyone says you need to just trust in God (or its corollary, "God never gives you more than you can handle").

It reminds me of the joke about the man in his house as the flood waters rise, rejecting all evacuation help from neighbors and emergency workers because he was trusting in God to save him. Only he drowns, and when he asks God why He allowed that, God explains that He was the one who sent all those people to help him.

Anonymous said...

So I guess I need some humility because I'm not gung ho Duggar?

I do watch the show every now and then, but perhaps I've seen too much of the world to think that you can throw yourself into the entertainment industry, make it your livlihood and come out unscathed. Kudos if the Duggars can pull it off. The entertainment industry is ruthless.

Fame and fortune can take on a life of its own and there are many many examples of crushed lives left in the wake. Are the cameras going to be there when all the little Duggars grow up and realize that their adult lives will be pale in comparison to the life of Riley that TLC provided? What happens when they aren't cute anymore? Or Michelle is unable to produce any more Duggars? What happens when the producers wink and nod at Jim Bob and suggest that the only way they can eek out another season is to, well, you know what. Are the Duggars above the fray because they have a supersized family? Are they immune to the pressures of fame and fortune?

I know plenty of large families that live quiet, humble good lives, are open to life, and truly live out their faith in my real life. I don't need to watch reality tv to see it, or even believe that it exists.

lizsturm said...

You are totally right Erin, but I think that the "trust in God" folks may be over-reacting to the spurious reasons that secular culture uses as an excuse to avoid children. For example, I have heard "well, we want to go to Disneyland so we are only having X children," quite a few times. (Like the point of life is to give your money to some commercial enterprise!) Of course, this type of thinking has seeped into some of the pews, where it causes damage in itself, and by sowing paranoia in among Catholics who are open to life. They start erroneously thinking that everyone with less than 7 kids is using contraception, which obviously isn't true. (Your blog post eloquently speaks to that.)

However, no one forced the Duggars to go on TV and in magazines, and promote their books and website. While I support their right to have as many children as they see prudent -- and kudos for them -- I can't help but wonder (recovering cynic that I am) how much of this is "no publicity is bad publicity." Maybe they feel that if they don't keep having children, they won't be witnessing the value of large families. But, either way, when you agree to be the cover story on People magazine, you have to be prepared for both positive and negative feedback.

Anonymous said...

Personally, as the oldest of eight children, I cannot see that much involvement of parents in the lives of a tremendous amount of offspring any more than a kindergarten teacher might with more than 12-15 pupils. The oldest children necessarily end up raising their younger siblings with what they think is how their parents raised them, as if they're a colony of offspring with the same last name, or a dynasty and the family becomes very efficient in a militarily organized way to provide the necessary elements of life. Now, my brothers and sisters are in our 40s and 50s, we are very close in our hearts and realize that living and growing up together was not a long-term hardship, but my parents (and all of us kids) lucked out in having excellent health. They owned their own home in a 'primitive' homesteading area, and had a well-respected job as a source of income with excellent retirement benefits, plus they managed to stay together until all of us finished college.

rdcobb said...

I'm not saying everyone has to be gung ho for the Duggars, but it's amazing to me that so many people get so irate about the mere fact that Michelle is pregnant again because THEY assume that THEY know what is best for Michelle and Jim Bob and rest of the Duggar kids better than the Duggars do. And a lot of these same people make assumptions about the Duggars' reasons for doing things without even bothering to find out what the Duggars have said about the subject.

The Duggars view their television show and publicity as Christian missionary work and as a season in their life, and if it was canceled tomorrow I have no doubt that they would just move on to the next place that they felt God was leading them.

And certain people may not need to see a family like the Duggars on television (pro-family, living out their religious convictions without apology or disrespect to the beliefs of others) to know they exist, but where else on television or in other media are you going to find that?

TLC used to have another show about big families that profiled one family per episode...some homeschooled, some didn't, some were overtly religious, others weren't. I think it would be great if EWTN put together something like that...just a week in the life of Catholic families big and small. It offers encouragement and hope in the face of so much anti-family rhetoric and media that saturates the main stream. I know when I am on the 4Real Learning Forum gleaning wisdom from a Catholic mother of seven or eight or more that it makes me feel more confident in my ability to handle my four. That's what the Duggars give to a lot of people.

And I think the "Disneyland reasoning" for not having more kids is less about feeding commercialism and more about wanting the finances to offer kids and the entire family certain opportunities. My husband and I have no plans to intentionally seek another pregnancy because one among many reasons is finances. We would like to not only get more financially stable in order to be able to pay for food, clothing, and braces for our kids without amounting more debt but also so we can offer our four kids other opportunities such as travel, whether it's commercial Disney World or educational Washington, DC.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I never heard of the Duggars before, and I generally believe that decisions about how many children to have are best left to individual couples, informed by whatever faith they may adhere to. Some couples can, will, and do, make horrendous mistakes, but I have yet to see evidence that fewer mistakes will be made, or more wise judgements made, if we set some standard in stone as a matter of law or regulation. We would just get a different pattern of mistakes.

That especially goes for doing what God wants us to do. Some people respond to what God is calling them to do, some don't, some aren't even listening, but no governmental authority ever got better in tune with God.

It might be worth considering that "no man is an island" and the decisions couples make to bring more or fewer children into the world DO have implications for their entire community. If the parents can't give all the kids what they need, delinquents or even serial killers MAY result, or abusive single parents of the next generation. Large families really do use significant quantities of some public services or other, even if not getting food stamps, and that is not nothing -- but it is not a mandate for state intervention either.

Anonymous said...

I still think that if the Duggars were Hasidim or Muslim, all the pro-life Christian cheerleaders would be conspicuously silent.

Barbara C. said...

"I still think that if the Duggars were Hasidim or Muslim, all the pro-life Christian cheerleaders would be conspicuously silent."

This is the typical ultra-liberal rhetoric that insinuates that all conservatives are scared of non-Christians infiltrating American government and culture.

I have no qualms about the Hasidim or the Muslims or anyone else having big families, especially if they are genuinely trying to know, love, and serve God in their way. I have read several books about the Hasidim and their cultural values are much closer to the Duggars than mainstream America. The same could be said for Muslims.

I am concerned about physically dangerous extremists of any religious or political stripe no matter how many children that they have.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

And THAT is the typical faux conservative stereotyping paranoia that anyone who says something that MIGHT be directed at oneself is being put forward by a "typical ultra-liberal," which justifies setting it aside as entirely unworthy of consideration. Never mind whether it is true, or plausible.

Actually Barbara, you are probably a perfectly nice person and a good neighbor, and much of the rest of what you say is true. But please hold the rhetoric.

In the long run, Muslims, Christians (Roman, Orthodox, and Protestant) and Orthodox Jews (not limited to Hassidim) have more in common culturally with each other than any of the above do with agnostic modernists.

In order to reaffirm each other's commitment to faith in God and good morals, all of the above will have to come to terms with a framework something like our own First Amendment, which is still going to allow nonbelievers to spout their skepticism. The only thing they can't all agree on is the precise doctrine which mandates respect for marriage etc.

Meantime, I would bet there are SOME conservative Christians who would have responded differently if the family had been Muslim or Hassidim. Apparently, Barbara is not one of them. That's a good thing.

rdcobb said...

Well, if you notice I didn't say ALL liberals as opposed to "all pro-life Christian cheerleaders". ;-)

I agree that I don't like extreme rhetoric on either side. And I don't use "ultra-liberal" as a derisive term, but as a descriptive term. To me an "ultra-liberal" is part of the small percentage of people who tend to take the most extreme liberal position regularly as opposed to the "ultra-conservatives" who go to extremes in the other direction.

I would bet there were SOME conservative Christians who would respond differently if the family was Muslim and Hassidim, just like I bet there are SOME liberal atheists who believe that however many kids the Duggars have is between them and their doctors. You can find all sorts of plausible opinions among small groups, including that SOME liberals and SOME conservatives don't give a crap about the Duggars one way or another.

But Anonymous was clearly stereotyping "all pro-life Christian cheerleaders" as Islamophobes and against non-Christians.

Barbara C. said...

Oh, and rdcobb is really me. Damn Google keeps telling me I can log in after I submit my comment and then publishing it under my husband's account.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Thanks Barbara, I was hunting all over the previous rdcobb statement for use of the word "ultra-liberal," and not finding it, and I was about to say that I was responding to you, not to rdcobb.

You are right of course that there are SOME of any descriptive who vary from the standard political correctness attributed en masse to any given demographic. That's what keeps life so much more interesting than Fox News and MSNBC would have us believe.

I see what you mean about ALL the "pro-life Christian cheerleaders."