A recurring topic of conversation among my jolly group of “mum friends” at the moment seems to be about whether or not to go for the third child. We all have two – a compact number, easy to transport, a sibling has been provided for the first, people will still invite you for lunch, etc – but we all seem to be obsessed with the idea of having more. Instead of just getting on with it, though, we talk about it in hushed voices as if more than two is somehow unnecessary, extravagant, indulgent and possibly unmanageable with all the pressures of modern life.
Money, or the lack of it, seems to be the main issue, with the prospect of a third round of morning sickness, nappies and sleepless nights coming in second. I am reminded of my marriage preparation classes where our priest encouraged us to multiply, while enthusiastically reeling off a list of exemplary families in his congregation, the largest of which comprised 14 children at the time. When I came home and told my parents about this, my mother said, “And will Father be paying for all these children you are meant to be having?!”
At a recent lunch, the forensic-accountant mother among us announced she had made a spreadsheet and calculated that it was going to cost us £90,000 per child if we send them to the local private school from the ages of 11 to 18. Most of us agreed that if we worked and saved really, really hard, we might be able to cover two children, but three would be impossible unless a secret benefactor were to emerge from the woodwork in the meantime (I have always believed that this will happen to me, much to my husband’s exasperation).
But is the inability to send them to private school a good enough reason not to grow your family? I would say not, partly because children spend only 15 per cent of their time at school, which indicates that home life is what matters most.
The Church agrees that lack of money is not a valid reason to stop having children. “A couple not acting prudently or generously,” says John Grabowski, professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America, “is one who says, ‘we will not have children or we will not have more children until we have a seven-figure retirement fund or until we have a third vacation home’,” adding: “As Pope Francis says, people who are poor or in poorer countries have an easier time recognising a child as a gift than wealthy people in wealthy countries oftentimes.”
As a privately-educated only child, I would have given anything, including my place at a lovely boarding school in Kent, to have had a sibling or two. As a small child, I would sit between my parents, hardly takingup a third of a pew at the Brompton Oratory, and observe with fascination the enormous families, endless children in velvet-collared coats, bookended by their parents, the proud father and the eternally pregnant, angelic mother, milling contentedly among themselves. I paid no attention to the Mass, but instead daydreamed about being part of their pack. This has stuck with me and made me long for a large family, a desire which has only been compounded by the latest fad pushed by Harry and Meghan that having more than two children is environmentally unfriendly.
But it’s the tiredness which really gets me. In spite of the fact that my children provide me with more entertainment and joy than I ever thought possible, I feel half-dead most of the time. Surely a third would be the final nail in my coffin? As a friend with three children under three said to me the other day: “I am a good mother because I have a nanny.” Well, I do not have a nanny.
But as a Catholic, I have been uncertain about whether I am even allowed to be asking these questions, or having these conversations with my friends. Of course, every child is a blessing, but is there a valid excuse for not having more children while you still can? I was comforted to read St John Paul’s words: “It is the right of the married couple to make a free, informed and mutual decision, in accordance with accepted moral principles, regarding the spacing of births and the size of the family.” Pope Francis agrees: “Some people believe that – pardon my language – in order to be good Catholics, we should be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood,” he asserted in 2015. If a third were to kill me, then it would seem responsible to stop at two.
But in all this, I still can’t get the angelic mothers at the Oratory out of my head. As I observed the new generation of them last week on a rare trip to London, I thought that I am only 34, so maybe I can still be one of them, serene and unfazed with my flock of 10 children. Now, where to find a nanny…
This article first appeared in the Easter 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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