It seems like we live in a world where everyone thinks they have a right to an opinion about everyone else’s family size (and parenting strategies, but that’s another post entirely).
Many people think two is the most appropriate number and are fascinated by asking the question, “Are you done now?”
Some Catholics get a little outspoken and think you have to have a zillion kids. (Or sometimes people misinterpret things and think the Catholic Church says you have to have as many kids as possible. It doesn’t.)
The Weston A. Price Foundation apparently thinks you’re hurting your children if you have them any closer than 3 years apart.
The pressure to have the perfect family – size and spacing – is intense!
Whatever happened to a husband and wife making their own decisions, in the eyes of God, about their family size and arrangement?
Who Gets to Decide?
I received an email from a Catholic reader who had discerned with her husband that they should have a large family, and they conceived their second child around baby number one’s first birthday, just as they had hoped.
During her pregnancy, she was doing a lot of reading around the real food blogosphere and listening to podcasts, and she was beginning to feel that the belief of many – presented as fact – was that it was reckless to have children less than three years apart. The mommy fear was pricked that she was setting up her children for a life of health problems: braces, glasses, and worse, simply by choosing to have a large family.
The authors were adamant that child spacing is the only way to truly have a healthily perfect family. They seemed to blame parents that had large families for their lack of control and thus causing pain for the children following the first one through dental, facial and genetic deformities.
I’m sure you’ve heard of “second child syndrome,” which Dr. Cate in her book “Deep Nutrition” goes into extremely lengthy details about. The first child is always the supermodel while the following children will spend their lives in the doctors offices getting glasses, braces or medications. Of course you can make a better second child if you wait a minimum of 3 years before you try conceiving again.
This was new information to me, but my heart really went out to the reader.
I know what it feels like to think that your children’s health is of optimal importance and the pressure to care for them in the best possible way. We’re bombarded with opinions, research, celebrities, bloggers, doctors, and information from so many directions, and it’s hair-raising to try to figure out the best way to feed a family.
Does the Second Child Draw the Short Stick?
My third child doesn’t seem too unhappy here…
I looked into the child spacing recommendations a bit more, and here’s what I found:
Food Renegade interviewed Dr. Cate Shanahan here, and I’ll excerpt the bit about this topic in particular.
FR: What is “second sibling syndrome”?
It’s the set of consequences that come from a kind of gestational sibling rivalry. These days, most mothers can not nourish themselves optimally before conception or during pregnancy. And close-birth spacing exaggerates the differences in health between siblings. There’s benefits and drawbacks to being first.
The first born gets first dibs at all the nutrients in mom’s body (minerals from bone, fatty acids from brain, etc etc). So there are definite advantages to being first if your mom did not follow an optimal diet. If baby number two is born in short order, mom’s body will likely be depleted of one or more nutrients for baby number two because baby number one took all she could spare. This relative deficiency means baby number one usually has a wider jaw and higher cheekbones than number two, for instance.
These days, being baby number one has a special disadvantage of its own because most women eat far to many carbs. This often makes their bodies relatively hormone insensitive, which means that their uterus will not perform optimally the first time around. And that performance can impact baby’s skeletal growth and symmetry. For baby number two, uterine blood vessels and hormone receptors and other infrastructure have all be laid down, and the uterus grows faster for number two. Because of this, baby number two is often more biradially symmetrical and has features indicative of optimal hormone sensitivity compared to number one.
You can see examples of the trend here.
Totally fascinating, presented factually and non-judgmentally…however…it’s really easy to read all this as a push to “do things properly.” I also have not read Deep Nutrition, so I’m not sure how the subject is handled in the book.
The Weston A. Price Foundation does specifically recommend three years for proper child spacing, and their warnings are a bit more in-your-face than the interview above:
One of the most interesting traditional practices reported by Dr. Weston Price was the deliberate spacing of children in primitive societies. Throughout Africa and the South Seas, it was considered shameful to have a child more than once every three years.
Modern science validates this practice. We now know that the ideal interval for preventing physical birth defects is three years; this is also the optimal spacing for the emotional health of children. And allowing at least three years between pregnancies permits the mother to recover her nutritional stores between children and to provide sufficient attention to each child–and to her marriage!
Fertility Awareness can help create a healthy well-spaced family. It encourages communication and cooperation between husband and wife, and illuminates the fact that the family’s health depends on the cyclic nature that characterizes human reproduction.
While I am happy that the WAPF is promoting Fertility Awareness (another way of looking at Natural Family Planning), I would rewrite the last paragraph as follows:
Fertility Awareness can help create a healthy family by putting God first in all things. It encourages communication and cooperation between husband and wife, and illuminates the fact that the family’s health depends on the strong relationship between the parents and a trust in God for their well-being.
I know plenty of large families with children close together who are more emotionally mature and balanced than only children and children who are spaced “optimally.” We can nickel and dime each other with research until we’re blue in the face, but the fact is that no one knows exactly how personalities, nutrition, birth order, child spacing, schooling, and more come together to create a human being.
A commenter at the WAPF article above hits the nail on the head:
As much as I love this site and the information it offers, I’m so disappointed to see that its authors fall for the same old trick of trying to use science to determine numbers and frequencies of bearing children. The human body reproduces at a rate corresponding to the health of that body, and I have known many women who have had a “large” family (by modern standards, anyway) at a rate much more frequent than once every three years, with no adverse effect to their health or to the health and happiness of their families.
In fact, I firmly believe from first-hand observance that they and their families are healthier than the average “enlightened” families with “properly spaced” children. One day perhaps we will understand that God did not create us in such a way that our bodies would accomplish feats of nature that were automatically unhealthy for us – in other words, if it’s possible, it’s because it’s meant to be so.
These are children we’re talking about, not just bodies that we need to care for and raise right. There are other considerations beyond physical health – social well being, emotional maturity, spiritual growth.
Siblings teach a child more about the world than perhaps anything else in one’s entire life, whether they’re Irish twins and best friends or ten years apart with almost a parent/child relationship. No health book or organization is going to tell me how varied their ages ought to be.
Who Has a Say in Your Family? Man, Wife, and God.
Here’s the bottom line – God says children are good, and if He desired 3 years between each child, then the average “natural” child spacing with breastfeeding would be 3 years, and it’s much more like 2 years – and I think that’s children two years apart, not just pregnancy 2 years apart.
I also don’t interpret that to mean that God wants everyone to have as many children as they can, two years apart, throughout their child-bearing years. All. People. Are. Different. We all have different gifts and talents, levels of patience, and coping mechanisms. What is “just right” in the eyes of God for my family might be horrible for another couple.
I myself happen to have extremely long periods of amenorrhea (breastfeeding infertility) after childbirth: 19, 23, and 21 months and counting. My children thus far have nursed a few months into the next child’s pregnancy, a mortal nutritional sin in the church of WAPF.
And so far, in my data set n=3 children, or n=1 family, they have successively only gotten healthier.
The even more important bottom line, that I need to be reminded of as much as anyone, because natural living really can be a slippery slope into idolatry before we even notice it, is that food, caring for the environment, health, and the WAPF are not a religion.
My faith is in God, and I believe that the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth and a line of leaders going directly back to St. Peter and the apostles.
A lot of people have a beef with the Church over contraception, saying things like, “Nobody gets to come into my bedroom and tell me what to do.”
That makes perfect sense, except for the fact that God, your Creator, is everywhere, created you in your parents’ bedroom (or wherever it happened), and is the author of life itself. To kick Him out of anywhere is…well…ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense at all.
God, who created the world, designed it with certain rules. To say that He can no longer be in charge of governing His own rules – like the one that says egg + sperm = baby, and the one that says man + wife = forever, undivided – is to make ourselves a god.
It’s a wonderful gift that God gives women cycles of fertility and infertility, and that man is brilliant enough to have figured out the natural signs, allowing us to, in cooperation with the Lord through prayer and discernment, use those cycles to achieve or avoid pregnancy, without putting anything unnatural between man and wife.
The marriage bed is sacred, as long as we allow God to be there.
The table, on the other hand, while a holy endeavor and part of a woman’s vocation in her family, is not exactly sacred. We would do well to remember to keep our trust in the Lord through our meal prayer, no matter what sort of food is being served. (Again, speakin’ to myself here, people.)
Whether sexuality or health is at risk of becoming an idol, let us leave our moral choices between us and God, without human organizations pressuring us with opinions where they don’t belong.
Is a Large Family Going to Hurt Your Children?
Here’s part of the letter I wrote back to my concerned reader:
God, man and wife make a triangle, and I’ve always used the visual image that as the husband and wife both move closer to God, they slide up the sides of that triangle toward to point and are thus also brought closer together. Children come from that relationship, not anyone’s relationship with their own body, with food, or with a human organization.
If God is calling you to have a large family, I respect and honor that so greatly, because I don’t know that He’s given me the fortitude and perseverance to raise a brood and survive to tell about it! If God has many in store for you, spacing them 3 years apart would likely put you so close to 40 that the WAPF would have many things to say about the risk you put your children at just by conceiving that late in life. Phooey on that. No one chooses a child’s timing but God, through a man and wife’s discernment.
One thing I’ve always loved and clung to about the Catholic faith is the value of suffering. I, too, have found myself worried about my children’s long-term health, or even beating myself up over certain health decisions based on a negative outcome either in the short term (like a brief illness which is nonetheless annoying and painful to the child and family) or in the long term (worry about Crohn’s or other chronic and/or deadly diseases).
In this Internet-information-driven world, it’s easy to do.
God says suffering has meaning. Who am I to say that I want to protect my children from the opportunity to offer up their suffering as a prayer for this fallen world, to unite their pain, whether that be braces, glasses, or an autoimmune disease, with the Cross of Christ for the good of the world and the salvation of their own souls?
Too often I lose sight of the prize, of the gift of Heaven at the end, and I focus on the little temporal details that affect my day, my hour, my minute. It’s not up to me to protect my children from the pain of the world 100%, but to teach them how to cope with anything and how to cling to the Body and Blood of Christ, keep the faith, and live eternally in Heaven with our whole family someday.
I will pray for your little one in the womb and all your future saints for God, and I ask you to do the same, and may the post I write someday be inspired by the Holy Spirit and not my own weak and selfish nature!!
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me and inspiring my own!!
Whether we “hurt” our children by setting them up for potential physical complications is a risk we take by living in this fallen world. There are all sorts of hurts out there, which our children are at risk of experiencing just by being born, period.
Our job is to make any “hurt” part of living, not something to be scared of.
And I’m preaching to myself, here, believe me. I’m not exactly known for “rolling with the punches” even though I wish I was more that kind of person.
Let us consider potential silver linings to “second child syndrome,” keeping in mind that every child is a gift, and every day on earth is a gift as well:
- How many ways could the Lord use an “imperfect” second child to better a family?
- How will the first child learn to be more patient and loving because of 2nd child’s ortho appointments?
- How will baby two’s imperfect vision allow the parents an opportunity for sacrifice, to see clearly the Lord working in your family?
- How does NOT looking like a supermodel perhaps protect child two (or 3 or 4 or 5) from some of the negative peer pressure in high school that comes with “beautiful people” and “the popular crowd?”
- How can we allow God to work through our suffering, rather than limiting Him to only showing his goodness through happiness?
I want to remind even myself today that all suffering has meaning. That if my child falls ill, it will be an opportunity for me to demonstrate faith, peace, perseverance, and the power of prayer.
We’ve learned a lot about many lives of the saints this year in our family, and so many of them had serious difficulties, physical and situational, in childhood and beyond. Their faith was strengthened by the trials, and I have a hunch there would be fewer saints in Heaven and on earth if there were no trials to overcome.
In closing, I challenge the pressure to give our kids the best start possible by spacing them at least three years apart. I disagree that anyone outside God and a couple should have any input on the size and spacing of a family. One child, ten children: all are blessings in the eyes of their Father in Heaven.
I don’t think that one’s health should be their top priority, since after all, we’re not just bodies, but beings infused with an immortal soul by God Himself. Our bodies are a gift, but they are not the primary gift of life.
I think that suffering has value, great value, and that we all – I’m first in line – need to remember to keep life balanced and not live in fear of sickness or pain.
We don’t need to run toward it and ask to be made ill, to eat junk food irresponsibly and make ourselves sick, but I hate to think of all the moms (raising hand first, again) who are more at risk of a stress-induced illness with all the worry they harbor over their family’s optimal health.
There are no perfect children.
There are no perfect parents.
No one has perfect health.
There is no perfect family…
…except for yours, when you live in the grace of God and do your best to live in love.
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