The Home Front
Antonia Robinson FAITH MAGAZINE March - April 2015
A late starter at marriage and motherhood, I used to desperately wish for a large family. What a “large family” means for someone with one sibling is of a rather different magnitude than for someone who grew up in a family with eight or nine or 10 children. I prayed fervently to be blessed with what for me seemed like a large family. “Dear Lord,” I pleaded, “please can I have four children before I’m 40.” Really. That’s what I prayed with my firstborn son in my arms. I was 33.
God has a funny way about these things. I had a second child, then a miscarriage, then a third child, and then, when I was 39, the fourth. Two more pregnancies at 40 and 42 never made it beyond the start of the second trimester, and now at 45 I can feel a bit more serene about it all. I see the futility of making any assumptions about fertility, about wishing for any more than God has given, and I can shake my head in wonder at the audacity of the prayers of that first-time mother. I have four children here on earth and three in Our Lady’s care.
One of the first things that I learnt as a trainee breastfeeding counsellor was never to judge a woman’s mothering experience on first impressions. An older woman presenting with a newborn might be a first-time mother, or she might be rejoicing in the blessing of a “blackberry chick” – an unexpected babe late in life, after older children have left home. A mother with one baby may have had a previous child who died, or may have had a series of miscarriages before this first live-born baby. Judging a mother by what we see can be immensely deceptive.
The same goes for family size. Pope Francis’s much misquoted rabbit comment has generated much discussion about the “right” family size for a “modern” Catholic family, but to discuss what a family’s size should be is to miss the point. Every family is different, and it can be deeply misleading to make assumptions based on the number of visible children. I know families with one or two children who would dearly love to have had more. These precious children, conceived naturally after medical advice deemed it impossible, are almost miraculous. Yet, despite being completely faithful to the teachings in Humanae Vitae, these parents have suffered from the presumptions of others that their small family is a matter of choice – a result, surely, of their not living as “proper” Catholics.
The badge of a true Catholic family is not its size, but its fidelity to the Gospel of Life. The conflict between openness to life and the material constraints of the world are what prompted the Holy Father’s comments. So how can this fidelity to the Gospel of Life be faithfully maintained by a husband and wife without necessarily leading to lagamorphical rates of conception?
Natural Family Planning is often touted as the answer. In itself, NFP is morally neutral. It is essentially a toolbox of knowledge; it is how we choose to use this knowledge that makes it licit or illicit. The truth is that it is often implicitly “marketed” as “Catholic contraception”, perhaps as an attempt to appeal to couples currently using artificial means of contraception in the hope that they’ll change to a morally “better” method.
NFP is useful but trying to control fertility with the explicit intention of avoiding conception goes against the spirit of Humanae Vitae. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was something licit, even positive, that could suppress fertility naturally as a side-effect and be synergistic with NFP? Well there is: it’s called lactation.
This is about following natural law. God’s perfect plan for families includes breastfeeding. Lactation suppresses the hormones that control fertility in much the same way as artificial contraception. It is nature’s way of spacing babies. It’s nature’s way of ensuring that the mother’s body has time to recover, that the nursing baby is strong enough and mature enough to deal with a sibling, that everyone has time to catch their breath between births.
Reputable, large-scale studies demonstrate that natural-duration breastfeeding suppresses a return to fertility for an average of 14 months post-partum for most first-world women. This means that a gap of less than two years between siblings is highly unlikely. Continuing to breastfeed for the minimum two years recommended by the World Health Organisation keeps the average woman sub-fertile and therefore less likely to conceive. Without taking breastfeeding on board, NFP is a scientific nonsense: lactation and fertility are inextricably linked, and breastfeeding is possibly the most important mechanism by which God gave us the means to control our fertility and limit our family size.
Yet in Catholic parishes, we’re teaching people how to avoid their fertile period while not talking about breastfeeding at all. We are creating, or at least condoning, an artificial rupture with the natural order.
This is obviously a gross over-simplification: the full implications of the relationship between fertility, NFP and breastfeeding deserve a far more detailed treatment than is possible in this column, but the connection is real and should be more widely understood, particularly by Catholics. An excellent starting resource is the book Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing by Sheila Kippley, an NFP practitioner and breastfeeding counsellor who is herself Catholic.
Meanwhile, seven pregnancies, 10 years of breastfeeding and four children later, Pope Francis’s comment that we don’t have to “be like rabbits” leaves me feeling wistful. Despite the feminist dogma that has been absorbed into society’s subconscious, many of us would love to be “like rabbits” and would welcome more children with a joyful heart.
Antonia Robinson is a home-educating mother of four and lives in Kent.