Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Heart of Fertility - To Breed or Not to Breed

The subject of the Christian and their fertility can be a sensitive one. I have noticed that people tend to fall into two categories with this subject. There are those who have no problem determining ahead of time their ultimate family size, make it happen, and then close up the baby shop, without much fuss or fanfare. And then there are those, like me, who spend lots and lots of time thinking, pondering, praying, and discussing the subject with anyone who will listen.

From the time I was quite small, I desired to be a mother. I wasn't sure how many children I thought I'd like to have, but I knew I wanted several. I can remember reading "Cheaper By the Dozen" and "Bells on their Toes" as a 6th grader and telling my friends later that I wanted to have twelve kids someday. I loved the portrayal of the Gilbreath family in these books and I just knew I could duplicate the same thing someday in my own family!

My parents had some friends who ultimately ended up with seven children. I observed this family whenever they would come visit and I soon came to view big families as something negative. This particular family was quite poor and I remember wondering why they continued to have babies when it was obvious that they couldn't afford them! Also, when they would come visit us in our home, I would watch the husband and wife. The husband would go out back, sit with my dad, and talk. The poor wife, no doubt desperate for some "women talk" time would be in the kitchen attempting to talk to my mom while trying to keep her kids under control. It was a losing battle! I also remember observing that the parents, particularly the mother, always seemed angry with their kids. So, this example that I had did not paint big families in a favorable light at all! Indeed, before I even left home, this particular family dissolved. The wife walked away from all of her children and husband one day and eventually had a baby with another man. Later, it was found out that she had abused some of the children over the years. Obviously, in this situation, there was a whole lot more going on than simply having too many children. Although, I can't help but think that this poor wife was simply overwhelmed and exhausted by the demands of so many and maybe she would have been better off if she'd had a more supportive husband and fewer children. Perhaps this tragedy would not have occurred.

I also remember noticing during my growing up years that very, very few families in our large church had more than three children. Ours certainly didn't! It was just me and two younger brothers. I realize now that those relatively small or medium sized families were probably not so much a statement of what people thought families out to be, but a way for those families to be able to afford our church's Christian school tuition!

Regardless of these observations, by the time I was dating my husband I had decided that I still wanted a large family. I knew I had plenty of energy and since I had no intention of ever being poor, I figured having a big family would be no problem at all. So I told Paul I intended to have seven children and he said that sounded fine to him!

By the time I'd had my first two babies I was beginning to reconsider the whole "seven kids" thing, though! We were poor, I had a special needs child, and it was obvious that I'd be having surgical deliveries with any future children. It was at this point that I began to question who was in control of my fertility and what my attitude ought to be towards the control of it. We had some well-meaning friends and family urging us to never have any more. But I wanted more children and I wasn't so sure I liked the idea of surgically altering one of our bodies in order to control what we thought our family size should be.

We had our third child, miscarried another, and then entered a long period of secondary infertility. It was during this period of time that God began to really challenge both our hearts concerning the issue of our fertility. It was also at this time that I first heard of "quiverfull" thinking. The terminology comes from Psalm 127:5, which says, referring to children, "Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them." The idea is that a couple totally removes their fingers from family planning and lets God send - or not send - babies as He sees fit. There was a time where I began to wonder if I had missed the boat with my thinking, wanting to plan the number of children we'd have, along with their spacing. I never became totally convinced, though, that this was God's perfect plan for all families. However, since I was unable to have more children at that time, I was able to let the concept ride, mentally, and just shrug my shoulders and say, "whatever!" Life went on without me having to make a definite decision, one way or the other, to God's will.

By the time our youngest celebrated his 8th birthday, I was, miraculously, about fifteen weeks pregnant, and it appeared that we'd be taking this one home. No longer could I let the issue of my responsibility towards our fertility rest. I actually spent most of my pregnancy anticipating and planning yet another future pregnancy, because I thought it would be best if we had a companion close in age for this baby, since he would be so much younger than his older brothers.

At the same time, though, I could not find a peace about accepting the whole quiverfull idea. It seemed to go against what I read in Scripture about being a good steward, both of money and our bodies. Nowhere could I find direct orders from God prohibiting the practice of family planning. I couldn't even find principles that would seem to support this. Often, those that are quiverfull, like to point to Psalm 127:3-5 as a basis for their thinking.

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb is His reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
so are the children of one's youth.
Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them,
they shall not be ashamed,
but shall speak with their enemies in the gate.

It's a beautiful passage of Scripture, but I don't see any directives there. At the time, this didn't mean, however, that I intended to not have any more children. But if I did, it would be because we had prayerfully sought God's will for our family, and not because we felt compelled to accept as many babies as we could conceive.

As things turned out, we didn't have that fifth child. Our fourth was the last. In the weeks preceding delivery, I was pressed by several of my doctors on the subject of more pregnancies. All were discouraging the idea. My pregnancy had been difficult and high risk. This would already be my fourth c-section and the idea of a fifth did not appeal to my doctors. Still, I declined to say that we were finished. I really wanted one more! I remember my OB bluntly asking, "Sarah, have you considered adoption?"

In the face of such disapproval, Paul and I began to pray. We didn't want to be stupid, but neither did we want to be pressured into making a decision we didn't want to. We asked God to make His will very clear to us concerning what we should do with our future fertility.

A week after having my fourth son, I suffered a small stroke while sleeping. As we were waiting for test results while sitting in the ER, I remember saying to Paul, "Do you suppose this means no more babies?" Somehow, I knew. Indeed, the next day the neurologist sat in my hospital room and told me he strongly suspected that my c-section and/or pregnancy hormones had contributed or had even caused the stroke and that were I to have another baby, I could end up having a massive stroke. My OB also came up to see me that day. She had gotten sick right after delivering Sam and so I had not seen her since my surgery. She told me that my c-section was absolutely one of the hardest she had ever done because of the amount of scar tissue on my uterus and around my bladder.

Later that day our pastor came to visit me in the hospital and Paul and I laid out for him the facts and opinions we'd been given and asked what he thought. He stood there and said, "Well, that's a no-brainer!" It was. We had to conclude that we had been praying about this issue and that perhaps God had even sent, or at least allowed, the stroke as a way to clue us in to His will for us. The Bible is full of examples of God speaking His will through others and we had to believe that God was using my doctors as His mouthpiece.

Paul got a vasectomy when Sam was eight weeks old and we have yet to regret that decision, although a part of me still wistfully thinks at times about that fifth child I would have liked to have!

Still, I was surprised at the criticism I received from one person. She told me that I wasn't exercising enough faith and even if I did have another stroke or died during a future delivery, I should accept that as God's perfect will. But I couldn't. God gave me a brain, along with a free will. Just as I was not compelled to receive the gift of salvation, neither am I compelled to receive and raise countless children! One thing Paul has mentioned more than once to me is that the Bible is full of examples of families of all different sizes. If God's will was that all would have large families, it seems that there would a consistent example of this throughout Scripture.

So where does this leave the rest of Christian parents, though? I had rather extreme circumstances that, admittedly, most parents won't have. Many have the health and physical ability to have many, many children. Is God's will different for them? No. However, God's will is individual, from couple to couple. I have no doubt that while one couple feels comfortable with limiting their family to only one or two children, and doesn't do so for selfish reasons, without seeking God's will, it may be God's perfect will for another family to have numerous children. My concern is when I see mothers who feel spiritually forced into this mindset and have baby after baby, wearing themselves out in the process. Often they lack the financial resources to adequately care for all their children (not that God doesn't or won't supply their needs, but He's not going to continuously rescue one from a situation of their own making), and more often than not, older children end up taking on more parental responsibilities than they ought to have to do. It can be argued that that situation helps to instill responsibility in the older children and I agree. My older boys , in fact, have been a tremendous help in caring for their baby brother. But I'm not so sure that it's right for an older sibling to be continually forced into that responsibility.

Can I just say here that, despite how the above paragraph may come across, I love big families?! I enjoy reading and hearing about the Duggers and other mega-families. I find it inspiring to see how they manage their households and would love to sit at the feet of some of these moms and see just how it is that they do it!

One of the neatest moms I know is my friend Tammy. She's expecting her eighth baby this fall. Unlike most parents of large broods, however, Tammy and her husband are not quiver minded. With the exception of a couple of "suprises", all their children were individually planned and conceived. They just wanted a bigger family than most. All the children are very well-behaved and even though the household operates on a shoestring budget, they all seem to be well-fed and adequately clothed! Tammy and I have had many conversations about this very subject and she, herself, has lamented to me over mothers she know who seem to be bent on having children just so they can say they have X number of children.

These are thoughts that have been clattering around for a while in my brain. It's actually been kind of cathartic to write them out in some sort of orderly fashion. Ending our fertility was not an easy decision and there have been some times that I have second guessed our decision. But all I have to do is to come back to the conclusions that we drew from our search of the Scriptures and I know we did the right thing. In conclusion, if I ever have the opportunity to counsel young married couples, this is what I will urge them to do: don't take my word for it. Go through the Bible and see what God says about family planning. Consider your resources and own desires. Ask God what His will is for your future family. Don't be persuaded by anyone, regardless of where they stand on this issue, except God. In seeking God's will you will end up with a perfect peace and the perfect family!

PS: the baby in the picture is my own sweet Samuel when he was just two weeks old!


  1. That was very interesting and some things that I had never thought about. Thanks for sharing! We too have wrestled with this issue.

  2. camo on a baby???? lol Are you a closet southerner??? You presented your struggle well, maybe its the "seeking" God really calls for not so much the blind surrender. My problem is when am I suppose to use my brain and then when am I suppose to use blind surrender? I think no matter what...we have to remember Grace, the law reveals God's heart but we do not live by the Law, Christ fufilled the Law and culturally we have choices that few had in previous generations. The hard part...remembering this when someone has a conviction we do not share. I guess that is the biggest thing I have learned - the "essentials" vs. the "nonessentials" and it its not an essential to salvation I try to offer grace and let God hash through it w/ the person.

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