I’ve got the contraceptive mentality

Honestly, how can parents survive who have more than one child?

Wicked thoughts like this have kept popping into my head during this Christmas visit to my in-laws.  Julie has not taken well to sleeping in a new place, and I’ve gone through several nights when I got next to no sleep because of watching her.  It reminds me of when she was a newborn, and I think to myself “God, do I want to go through that all over again?” and “Could my career take another hit like that?”

This is, of course, the hedonistic, materialistic “contraceptive mentality” that we reactionary Catholic bloggers are always railing against.  I’m not particularly surprised to have experienced it; I’m a fallen man who has experienced lots of temptations in my day.  Something about it surprises me, though.

I’ve realized that the drive for regular sleep is stronger than the drive for sex.  Years ago, when I decided that I had to align my behavior with Catholic sexual morality, I would sometimes think to myself “What if this means I’ll die without having any kind of sexual release ever again?”  The thought gave me a little panic.  That was then.  Maybe it’s that I’m older now, or maybe it’s that I’ve successfully reproduced once, but I’m finding the practice of celibacy much easier than I once did, and the thought of perpetual continence actually has some appeal.  If Parvina (Mrs. Bonald) and I just abstain from this one activity (that we never have time or energy for anyway), our lives could be so much easier.

I know, that’s the Devil talking, preferring personal comfort to the generosity of making lives.  Maybe it will go away when Julie gets older and I start missing having a baby around (and forgetting what it’s actually like).  Julie was always adorable, but as she gets older, she keeps getting more fun, more responsive, and I even think more cute.  Having another one wouldn’t mean rewinding in time; my first one would keep going forward in her delightful ways.  I expect I’ll talk myself into having another one in a year or so.  It’s a wonderful experience.  Sometimes, though, you do think that it’s going to kill you.

34 Responses

  1. My girlfriend mentioned earlier today that the consensus among all her (many) married-with-kids Catholics friends is that having a second child is even more difficult than having the first, and the third is more challenging still — and after that it’s all cake.

  2. At any rate, is there really anything wrong with earnestly desiring to avoid having more children if one genuinely feels one can’t handle the stress of it? My understanding is that the so-called “contraceptive mentality” applies only to those couples who use NFP without sufficient cause. Surely there is no moral obligation to have any set number of children.

  3. I certainly recognize that state of desparation (and chronic headache) that comes from endless nights of not-enough and disrupted sleep; plus I was in my forties when I did this, an much less resilient than no doubt you are.

    But bear in mind that the evidence from ‘natural’ hunter gatherer conditions is tha babies were naturally spaced out by three or four years by the contraceptive effect of breast feeding in conditions when diets are low in fat (and therefore the woman does no begin ovulating until she has built up reserves).

    Modern people have babies far too close together – so there are too many chicks to manage, then suddenly there are none – and the nest is empty.

    What’s the hurry? The benefits or naturally spaced out kids is much less sibling rivalry – the older kid is different and dominant and that is that.

  4. You are suggesting “This is hard. I don’t want more kids” is sufficient reason? Or that it is sufficient as long as we utter the vaguely therapeutic word stress to help us pretend this is a medical

  5. Premature post. Should be medical reason.

  6. We’ve recently had our third child, with roughly two years between each one so far, most likely due to the natural spacing of breastfeeding. I have found the challenges present at having one and then two children to be intensified with having three. The sleep factor Bonald mentions is immense (though in recent weeks it seems that I have been able to function without the constant feeling of dragging along, even though I have not been getting good sleep), but worst of all I think is the feeling of deprivation I sense in myself when trying to be a father, and be fatherly, to these children as they are growing and becoming more cognizant of the world each day. The impatience I observe in myself is such that I often question why I was called to be a father. A good father would do so much better than I.

    At the same time, I would not know nearly the reality of my own limitations were I not placed where I am, which reveals an often woeful state of shortcomings in myself. I read what bgc is saying above, and see the wisdom in it, but at the same time, the difficulty that I believe has been good for me to take part in would not have been of the same intensity, and therefore not the same good, if our children had been born with more years between them. I also see our children being confronted quickly with the need for selflessness when siblings close to their own age have very similar demands to theirs, and all cannot be satiated at once. This is an often painful experience for them and for me and my wife.

    I want to be careful not to overstate my case. There is something that doesn’t seem right with the mind that wants to see how many births can be packed into the shortest amount of time (I actually don’t encounter this very often, even among the traditional Catholic crowd we tend to hang around). But there is something to be said for allowing new lives to begin, even if one is aware that allowing such will put you in a situation where much is beyond your control, even your ability successfully to execute your duties as a father because of your shortcomings. This is a constant reminder that I cannot do what I am supposed to do without help, most especially of the divine sort.

  7. I agree that would not be a good reason to use NFP. But then he’s not talking about using NFP but remaining celibate. Again, is there an obligation to have sex until your capacity to have children is tapped out?

  8. I agree that 1 per 3 years is about ideal. In this case, that would make Parvina 37 years old, which is about as old as one wants to be when counting on having another child.

  9. I don’t see the distinction between NFP and remaining celibate in order to avoid having children. NFP is remaining celibate in order to avoid having children (it’s just that the intervals of celibacy are chosen to correspond to the woman’s fertile periods). It is a perfected remaining celibate in order to avoid having children. Bonald did not take a vow to remain celibate forever, did he?

    There is a distinction between NFP and remaining celibate to mortify the flesh or remaining celibate because you think sex is icky or remaining celibate because you have a heart condition or remaining celibate because you want to imitate St Francis . . .

  10. Our experience is almost like your girlfriend’s friends’. The second was harder than the first, but the third and fourth were both easier. Easier in most ways. The third did not sleep alone or through the night or in a bed/crib until 2 years old. I think most of this is caused by learning what you can safely not worry about. The sleep deprivation does suck, though.

    On spacing, our first two are about 18 months apart and were (consequently, I assume) best buddies for years. Three and four were at five year spacings.

  11. Hmm – 37 is beginning to cut it fine if you do want another child – many women have difficulties after 35, exponentially increasing.

    In that case, it may be the sooner the better.

    *

    This is a case of don’t do as I did, but do as I say; because we were both in our early forties when we *eventually* got around to having kids and for obvious reasons pretty close together. But we were very lucky. Not to be counted on.

    We did, however, find the second much *easier* to manage – having built up some expertise – not least in sleep training based on this guy’s work:

    http://web1.tch.harvard.edu/views/june06/sleep.html

  12. I’m in a similar boat—my 2 are about 2 and a half and 1 years old, so I haven’t really had much totally uninterrupted sleep in quite some time. Raising children at these ages is hard, so I have no criticism in me to offer to you. I’m 40 and my wife is 35, so our 3rd will have to be fairly soon as well. This is my penance for marrying so late I suppose.

  13. Somehow I pictured you as a father of many Bonlad, LOL.

    As parents of 5, my husband and I have concluded that this is hard, but we wouldn’t change a thing.It’s also full of joy.

    We are past the sleeplessness period, though.

  14. I probably need to post on this in more detail – but I feel that Roman Catholics make *way* too much of their opposition to contraception.

    My feeling is that this is a consequence of the excessive ‘legalism’ to which RC is prone – an attempt to tie up all loose ends neatly in a system which sometimes leads to policies which are very coherent in theory but which are simply not enforced in practice – like RC pro-natalism (Italy, Spain and Ireland have among the smallest average families in human history).

    Mormons are famously pro-natalist, and out-reproduce Roman Catholics by more than two fold – especially among the wealthist and most educated. Yet virtually all Mormons use contraception.

    Indeed, Mormons (generally) adjust their family size to economic circumstances, in the sense that they have as many chidlren as they can without needing to rely on welfare to bring them up decently (not luxuriously).

    Any group that eschews contraception must either accept families living on permanent welfare (which is, of course, unsustainable) or accept very high child mortality rates as the means of popuation contol (as through almost all of human history. The second is not unreasonable as it probably will happen anyway – but it is honest to be explicit about the fact.

  15. Please do post on this. What do you mean by “make way too much?” How do you propose we convince families (and women, especially) to forgo medical technology in favor of very high child mortality rates? That seems even less likely than reducing the usage of birth control.

    Or if you mean that devout Catholics should not follow the birth control teaching, I’d like to see your argument. Or if you have discovered some trick for the church to change her position?

    In full disclosure, I am a Catholic convert for whom the teaching is always a threatening cloud over the future, one that I wish wasn’t there to cause so much trouble and work that my worldly friends won’t even know about. But then again if it changed, it would be a huge blow to my faith.

  16. (addendum: ‘worldly friends’ is certainly not a dig at anyone commenting here. Mostly I had in mind my Catholic friends for whom this is just more of that ‘Vatican stuff’ along with confession, Sunday obligation, etc.)

  17. Mormons are famously pro-natalist, and out-reproduce Roman Catholics by more than two fold – especially among the wealthist and most educated. Yet virtually all Mormons use contraception.

    Mormons aren’t Christian. They’re a heretical cult. The most educated and the wealthiest tend to have the lowest birth rates. The least educated have the highest birth-rates due to welfare and being sustained by the upper-classes which reproduce little. Middle-sized families tend to be in the middle-class and unfortunately they’re being squeezed by both the lower and upper-classes. The cafeteria and nominal Catholics have the lowest birth rates and the highest go to the Roman Catholics which are pretty devout and orthodox. Modern Italy, Spain and Ireland have secular governments.

  18. @alcestises…

    “Mormons aren’t Christian. They’re a heretical cult. The most educated and the wealthiest tend to have the lowest birth rates. The least educated have the highest birth-rates due to welfare and being sustained by the upper-classes which reproduce little. Middle-sized families tend to be in the middle-class and unfortunately they’re being squeezed by both the lower and upper-classes. ”

    Well, I would regard Mormons as – in *practice* – a type of Christian – although with many unusual theological features. But that is somewhat a matter of opinion.

    However you are factually wrong about Mormon birth rates – see The Rise of Mormonism by Rodney Stark – research by Tim B Heaton – plus I have even done two empirical projects on British Mormon fertility myself (unpublished!) It is a fascinating subject.

    The facts are that Mormons are the most fertile of economically and educationally successful groups, the most fertile of groups that use contraception, and the richer/ more educated the man then the more fertile (Mormon women’s fertility peaks at bachelor degree level).

    And for confirmation just think of the famous Mormon men and how many children they have had – Donny Osmond, Mitt Romney. Harry Reid, Orson Scott Card.. – it would be difficult to find similarly large families among their peers.

  19. Protestants discovered that contraception and masturbation were non-problematic about five minutes ago. Then they discovered that abortion was not so bad, either. For whatever reason, they’ve changed their minds on the latter lately. The Orthodox made the discovery (about contraception but not masturbation) two minutes ago. I have not noticed Roman Catholics making anything whatsoever of their (entirely notional) opposition to contraception since the universal rejection of Humanae Vitae in the 70s.

    There is no population problem for the foreseeable future, so worries about this can be safely deferred for a few centuries.

    We ought to imitate some of the non-problematic aspects of Mormonism, though. We need magic underwear, bizarre beliefs, and the social solidarity that these things breed.

  20. I think we have to be honest about non-contraception as a universal moral norm, though. Do we have an answer for the question of what first world countries with average fertility rates of 6+ would look like? I believe Bonald has started to address this.

  21. @Penda – I feel bad about discussing this on Bonald’s blog – I shall try to gather my thoughts to do something on mine.

    In essence I feel that this (I mean sex within marriage, and what can and can’t be done) is one of those areas in which the RC scholasticism – which is perhaps the deepest flaw of the denomination as well as/ because it is its greatest strength – will just not let go of a topic until it has been logically extrapolated into absurdity.

  22. Mormons have a high turnover rate and I am wondering if they might not be losing a lot of their members at the top end. While I don’t think that logic is the major factor to do with people either converting to or leaving a religion, the objections to belief in Mormonism are considerably more difficult to overcome than in most other mainstream religions.

  23. In other words, I’m wondering if Mormonism really is a good long term strategy for helping elites keep reproducing. I am open to the fact that it might be, but am not sure.

  24. You will see conversions by highly intelligent people to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, sometimes even Evangelical Christianity. You tend not to see that happen with Mormonism.

  25. TMWW – US Mormons have above average intelligence (IQ probably in the lowish hundreds) and considerably above average college graduation rates and income.

    Like most longish term exponentially growing religions (doubling every c. 15 years), Mormons grow as much or more by reproductive success, than conversion – and many conversions are from among family and friends rather than strangers converted by missionaries. (See Rodney Stark).

    The amazing fivefold growth of Islam in the past century (4 to 20 percent of world population) has also been mostly by fertility.

    Christianity is still THE big converting religion, but nowadays has lower than replacement average fertility.

  26. This may be true. My point, though, is that there’s not much sense talking about one having a “contraceptive mentality” when one is remaining completely celibate. Surely such a thing is possible when using NFP (“I don’t want kids cause God wants me to get my grad schools in womyn’s underwater psychology etc.” — the kind of thing I hear all the time) but how can a couple go wrong by mutually agreeing to abstain from sex entirely, especially if only temporarily?

  27. Also bgc I hope that you didn’t find my reply offensive )=. You’re one of my favourite Christian bloggers and I love reading your blog.

  28. alcestiseshtemoa – No problem.

    I am defensive about Mormons who are, on average, much finer people than average, indeed exemplars of many of the best American values; yet attract such un-restrained and spiteful comments – including from mainstream Christians who really ought to know better.

    (I mean, people use against Mormons exactly the same arguments which mainstream atheists use against mainstream Christians – that they are silly, ridiculous, idiotic, dumb, deluded, arbitrary, sinister, dull, repressed, conspiratorial, engaged in brainwashing, childishly naive, anti-women, unhealthily obsessed with marriage and families and so on. Note that some of these criticisms are self-contradicting.)

    My view is that Mormons get the important things right, and the rest of us should cut them slack on the relatively-unimportant areas of disagreement (mostly either theoretical, or matters of lifestyle preference).

    Remember, there is no full-time professional Mormon priesthood (except the President and Apostles in Salt Lake City) – so it is wrong to expect a complex, abstract and fully self-consistent theology from a group who are mostly fathers with very busy lives balancing large families, work, religion, evangelism and charitable activities.

  29. relatively-unimportant areas of disagreement

    Point taken about how the Mormons tend to be better people than even Nicean Christians, and that should provoke some considerable humility and soul searching in the latter.

    But would the church fathers have been so sympathetic to a group of polytheists claiming to be Christians? To ask is to answer. The attack on Mormons is pretty understandable given the Mormon propensity to blur the distinctions between monotheism and polytheism and it is hard to characterize that distinction as a minor point.

  30. One aspect of traditionalist Catholic subculture I find surprising is the seemingly non-traditional approach to child-rearing and its attendant responsibilities. (I say “seemingly” because I am no scholar of child-rearing practices, so perhaps the neo-traditionalist approach does have precedents of which I am unaware). Traditionalist fathers seem very involved in baby care, for instance . . . often, when I take my crying daughter into the vestibule at the EF Mass, I seem to be interrupting some kind of male-bonding ritual, since every other parent I see is a father. Moreover, the preferred method of baby care is attachment parenting (very labor intensive for most people) instead of, say, Ferberizing. I think there are good reasons for these changes, but in the short term they make reproduction much more difficult. Bread-winning fathers are forced to maintain their jobs while suffering from chronic sleep deprivation, and spend their weekends pacing the hallways with a baby sling instead of working on projects that help support the family or improve the household. Mothers, even of the housewife variety, are distracted from normal responsibilities by the need to learn baby sign language or take over their busy husbands’ chores. I guess what I’m saying is that, if you find the present situation trying, there are other approaches you might be able to take: letting your wife take over the nighttime responsibilities, letting your daughter learn to self-soothe, hiring a part-time housekeeper or a Saturday night babysitter, etc.

  31. Bonald, we have eight, four after my wife’s 35th birthday, and have survived quite well. It was our fertility in part that drew us toward the Catholic Church (that plus the truth). So quit yer whinin’…

    As to the sleep, we have a rule: Once the child has slept through the night, the child is expected to sleep through the night. The corollary is: Be prepared to endure hours of screaming to enforce the rule. One night of said screaming is about all it takes. The inability of most people to remember such traumas from early childhood is probably due to such traumas.

    Then you’ll sleep… then you’ll want to make more babies…

  32. Mormon birthrates are not holding all that steady and they are not preserving their religion or culture through their kids. Mormon families having 4-6 kids in the 70s and 80s are mostly not seeing those kids have kids in like amount. And often many of the kids leave the church as adults and become strident anti-religionists.

    It will take some time for the statistical data to catch up to the reality on the ground.

  33. I also wonder how it is that bgc feels that Roman Catholics make too much of opposition to artificial contraception. Hasn’t the magisterial opposition to contraception been largely the response to technological advances in birth control methods in the past century or so? Or is it merely coincidental that the Catholic Church’s vocal opposition to contraception has grown stronger and more defined the more accepted and accessible artificial means of contraception has become? I suppose many perceive this as rabid pro-natalism, but I don’t see a strong and persistent strain of rabid or irrational pro-natalism through the Catholic Church’s history, and I think this perception is unjustified, and largely an exaggeration by the Church’s opponents of the counter-cultural stand against artificial contraception by the magisterium, a stand which is entirely appropriate for it to take based on the moral implications of any act of artificial contraception.

    As for the faithful (or “faithful” if you prefer), the vast majority of Catholics, it is known, and as Bill implies, use contraception just like anyone else does.

  34. […] lust finds itself at a greater and greater disadvantage.  (I’m 36, and already it’s getting easier for me.)  No man wants to be a slave of lust who isn’t one already.  Our own sexual fantasies […]

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