This spring, I had the opportunity to interview Kimberly Hahn for an article in the Couple to Couple League’s Family Foundations magazine. Catholic audiences need no introduction to Mrs. Hahn and her husband. But for those who aren’t familiar with their work, Scott and Kimberly Hahn were a Protestant minister’s family who converted to Catholicism via a long and sometimes painful process of rediscovering Scripture. Dr. Hahn unwraps Catholic faith and teachings in the light of Scripture, and Mrs. Hahn focuses on issues relating to family and parenthood.
The day we talked, I got to pick her brain on the subject of overparenting, and the way that the choice not to use contraception affects our outlook on parenting. Although we were talking Catholicism, I think her reflections will resonate with Protestant and Catholic alike.
KB: Is there something about the choice not to contracept that causes a shift in the way couples choose to parent?
KH: I do think it makes a big difference. Just looking up a couple of articles on the one-child policy in China brought it into focus. In China they’re talking about the “little emperor syndrome.” Since this is the only child they’re going to have, parents focus all their time and attention on that child. You have two parents and four grandparents catering to one child. Six adults, all trying to figure out how they will help that ONE child afford a house. Now they’re referring to these little boys as the Brat Pack, because instead of learning the normal things that a child needs to learn, they’re being catered to.
Sometimes in the States you’ll hear people having only one or two children talk about “premium” children. They’ll use negative images about larger families, like “we’re not having a litter of kids, or a crop of kids, were having premium children.” To NFP parents, they are priceless children. They’re a gift from God, so we have a responsibility to raise them well, but not to have them be the focus of our lives.
The secular view is: I only want to have one or two children because I can then give them everything. My husband overheard this couple on a plane, with a six-month old baby. Scott got into conversation with them. He said, “Is this your first child?”
“This is our only child,” the husband said. “We’re gonna give her everything.”
And my husband said, “Except siblings.” The secular world thinks of the THINGS, the room to themselves, the toys…but they’re very lonely children. Some of them don’t have very many cousins, aunts and uncles, so the family structure that would help them be well-rounded Christian people isn’t there. There are those who substitute things, and they think they’re doing what’s best for their kids.
KB: Does the fact that we practice surrendering to God’s will and trusting in God’s timing predispose us to resist the urge to overparent?
KH: As Christians, the center of our lives needs to be Christ. Do we need to be responsible for their safety? Sure, but ultimately I’m not the one in control—God is. And our perspective on contraception is that God is the one in control. And we’re acknowledging that.
For example, germs. If you have one or two children, you can go out of your way to protect them…but they may grow up to be sickly adults because they weren’t exposed when they were young. When you have lots of kids, you can’t do that, but they may be healthier later.
It’s important to be responsible for their care, but God is asking us to be faithful in parenting. One of the challenges every parent faces, whether Christian or not, is different shading between our children and ourselves. We can feel that their success is our success and their failure is our shame. I think the Catholic perspective on parenting is more balanced. Yes, we have an influence on their success or failure, but if we begin to equate their success or failure with ours, then were not putting the correct emphasis on God.
Does that mean I can’t reinforce my child’s obedience? Of course I can–but I can only do so much. Beyond that, I have to trust in God. God is going to teach them and challenge them through other people, not just me. I think of those parents who map out what Ivy League school their kids are going to attend based on what preschool they send them to. They’re confusing their identity.
I think that a Catholic view on parenting is much more balanced. Of course, we all bring our own weaknesses and strengths to parenthood. One of the differences between the Catholic view of family and the secular world is the marriage relationship. The primary relationship is our marriage; and from that, our children are our next priority. It’s very important that we care for children and serve them in the ways that we need to, but we can’t make them the center of our life, because that’s where God needs to be. And ultimately if we put the priorities in order, we’re serving them better.
KB: Does the Church offer us any guidance? What about Scripture, saints, etc.?
KH: In I Corinthians 8:1, Paul says that knowledge puffs up; love builds up.
The Church teaches us that responsible parenting is being open to life. The world will pit having children vs. being responsible. So many of these beautiful Church and papal writings don’t pit one versus the other. I don’t know any parent who would say they DON’T want to do the best thing for their kids. If that’s our primary motivation, then we need to trust the wisdom of the Church that what is best for our children includes our openness to life.
There’s a psychiatrist up in Canada who treats kids with lots of dark thoughts. There’s the sense in these kids that it was a good thing they were conceived when they were, because otherwise they might not be here at all.
If we will yield to the Lord and the Church, we will discover how good it is for our children to have other children. I think of older couples who say they wish they had had more children, but now it’s too late. The time to be open is when it’s possible.
My mom had her last baby when I was sixteen, and she said it this way: “I know I will be an older parent when he’s young. But you are all so close, I know you will all care for him.”
KB: As you might imagine, considering my interest, we also talked about Down syndrome. Its pretty common, though of course not universal, that once you have a child with Down’s, you’re done—as if parents throw their hands up in defense against the fear of being overwhelmed by more children, because that one child requires so much more to accomplish the basic necessities of life. Mrs. Hahn took a different approach. She told me about a friend of hers, who has a child with Down’s. That friend responded by saying, “It makes me want to have more children. I know I’m probably going not to outlive my child, and this way his siblings can care for him.”
I know that conventional wisdom would react badly to that—as if the only value for a younger sibling of a child with special needs is as eventual caretaker, a person in service to a more fragile older sibling, a la My Sisters Keeper. But I think that misses a couple of important points.
First, this perspective only exists in combination with a deep love of and openness to life. And secondly, this is what family is about: taking care of each other. I don’t see anything wrong with parents who take into account the lifelong welfare of all family members while they’re making decisions about family planning.
Mrs. Hahn goes on to say,
KH: That’s part of the irony of the Gospel being lived out in normal life: it may sound more logical to stop everything and focus all the resources on one. But I can think of a family where the next child challenges and encourages the older sibling with developmental growth.
Parenthood gives us a chance to really trust the Lord: whether we’re able to conceive, whether we’re able to bring them to term, whether there are disabilities to deal with…we’re really not in control.
On the other hand, we do know a lot of parents feel the impulse to overprotect. It is responsible to pause and consider: Is there something good and holy in that impulse?
When we try to live the Church’s teaching we can sometimes fall into the trap of Catholic guilt and think we have to offer everything up, that we can’t ever say, “This is too hard!” Sometimes its really overwhelming, and we have to find the friends who will encourage us and pray for us.
Note to CCL members: look for more with Kimberly Hahn in the September/October issue of Family Foundations.