Poster Child


Image by youngdoo, via Flickr

My whole life, I have been a poster child for Catholicism.

I was a choir baby, which means that on Lenten and Advent Wednesdays, I sat on hard pews and read or did homework while Mom and Dad rehearsed. I started playing flute at church at the tender age of ten or eleven, and by thirteen I was a member of the folk group. At fourteen I participated in discussions about the new document on women in the Church, and I think I was the only one who actually waded through the document, and not just the cliff notes. During college, my “falling away” from the Church consisted of skipping Mass twice. (Maybe just once. I can’t remember.)

My sister used to call me “super-Catholic,” a phrase that implies blind obedience, not mature faith. But I have always sought understanding and wisdom, even if I don’t always achieve it.

These days, the stakes are higher. Christian and I practice Natural Family Planning, which in this day and age is a pretty radically Catholic thing to do. We also teach NFP. As choir leaders, we’re right in the front of the church every week, and everyone knows us. This makes us, as someone joked once, “poster children” for NFP.

For the most part, living life on display doesn’t bother me. But it does lay a certain responsibility on my shoulders.

These days, we look like a walking schoolbus wherever we go. Friends, acquaintances, and random strangers tell me, “Wow, you have your hands full!”

I never know how to respond. I do have my hands full, but I mean, everybody’s busy. Other people have three kids. Other people have kids two years apart. Does everybody get these kinds of reactions? Or is it because my middle child has Down syndrome, that people seem to think my hands are full enough to warrant comment?

It doesn’t really matter, except that as a known NFP user, I feel compelled to present a certain image to the world. If I walk around looking tired and harried and spastic, then I might as well be a poster child for birth control. That is not a poster I want to claim.

Then again, maybe I’m reading into people’s reactions too much…or at least, overrating my importance in the world. The other day at the grocery store, I got in line behind a man pushing two grocery carts full to the brim. “Your total is $489.17,” said the cashier, and then hesitated. “So…just out of curiosity,” she went on, “How long will this last you?”

“Oh,” he said, and as he drew out that single syllable, I could imagine what he was thinking: he was weighing the merits of a smart reply versus the worn-out explanations required by telling the truth. Truth won out. “A week,” he said. The girl’s eyes popped, and he added, “I have a wife and seven kids at home.”

After that, I thought surely my family must have seemed not quite so big a deal. But as he left, she turned and smiled at me. “Boy,” she said, “you sure have your hands full, don’t you?”

I imagine that everyone who chooses to have large(r) families probably feels the same insecurities. We probably all feel like we’re on display—as if we have to justify our family size by appearing to have it all together in public.

Then again, I suppose it would be better if we did have it all together, and who gives a flying fig how it looks to everyone else?

11 thoughts on “Poster Child

  1. fillforsix

    Hi Kathleen. I am also a Catholic mom and I’m enjoying your blog. If you’re interested, my blog is I look forward to future posts!

  2. Kelley

    Again, this culture expects a lot of things of all of us that we can’t really expect ourselves to live up to. We are all harried and crazy at times, no matter if we have one kid, seven, or none. And I also find it annoying that people consider more than one or two kids as having a huge family.

  3. I wonder if those of us who practice NFP are hyper-sensitive to perceived judgment…because you’re right, everyone gets harried and crazy, no matter how many kids they have.

  4. fillforsix

    We also practice NFP, but because we only have one, I often feel like we’re the freaks – but in the Catholic world instead of the secular one.

  5. Yes, I can see that, too. NFP users are just as prone to judge other people as other people are to judge them, I’m afraid…I have intentions to write on the subject of “middle ground” one of these days. 🙂

  6. Mary Anne Flesch

    fillforsix – it’s funny you should say that (and I was going to post it too). When my co-worker’s two adopted daughters started at our Catholic school, he came in and made a comment about all the moms with all the little kids coming to pick up their school-age kids. I told him the same thing – that he and I were the “freaks” for only having two!

  7. Julie

    I totally agree! I am a Youth Minister and mother in her mid 20s with 3 children (all under the age of 4). I am constantly being asked by parishioners and strangers alike whether my husband and I own a TV or not. It’s otally annoying (like it’s any of their business). The truth is, whether you have none, 1, or 7 kids God knows your heart and we shouldn’t worry about the world’s endless comments. Four of our best friends(2 couples) have been trying to get pregnant for years and are unable. Finally one of them did; but both couples get stares from the NFP world (like, how can they only have 1 kid with all that money they make, etc.) It’s a real turnoff. We must advocate NFP while being all-inclusive of those whith 1 or no children…they might be practicing NFP too 😉

  8. The endless comments only bother me b/c I want to be a good model for NFP. It would be nice if people didn’t look at how well I handle motherhood and make a judgment about my use of family planning methods, but that’s the way the world is. And I believe so passionately in the goodness of NFP that I always want it to *look* as good as it *is.* And if I look harassed, I feel like people are just going to shake their heads and say, “That’s why birth control is so important.” I’m having a really hard time articulating this. Oh, well. So it goes.

  9. After my 3rd child was born, I had a stranger actually ask whether or not this would be our “last baby”….
    “You aren’t planning to have any more, are you?”

    My reply went something like this: “We aren’t intending to have more children at this point. But who knows? Maybe someday in the future, we’ll change our minds.”

    Her eyes widened, “But…but.. surely THREE children will be enough to handle!”

    I made some dismissive awkwardly-wanting-to-end-the-conversation remark.
    But I really wanted to confront her about the impertinence of her question. Does it really matter if my husband and I want 3 kids, 5 kids, or 15 kids?!

    Well unfortunately, I came to the conclusion that people feel justified in their condemnation of large families, most likely because of our society’s prolific welfare system.

    If a family of eight spends $700 worth of groceries in food stamps, everyone standing behind them in line realizes that money is coming from their pockets via taxes.
    They believe, “if we’re paying for your family’s food and medical care, we should have a voice in your household.”

    Anyone with a ‘large’ family (more than 1-2 children) is seen as a potential threat to our economy. If we aren’t already “in the system”, it’s only a matter of time before the breadwinner loses his/her job, or there is a divorce, death, or some other financial hardship….
    To which our neighbors will respond with:
    “Well, if you didn’t have so many children, your burden would be less.”

    With this generation’s aggressive mentality, how does a mother answer the probing, and often insulting, questions? How do we explain our personal and/or religious beliefs that view all children as blessings to be encouraged … to a world that sees every mouth as a liability? With some mouths apparently more burdensome than others…

    • Perhaps this might help: one of the bloggers I read has 7 children, or something like that, and she talks about the family’s impact on the environment. Big families just don’t live like small families. They don’t go out to dinner every night, they don’t take massive vacations and waste resources, because it’s far too costly to do so–waste is a luxury that only those with small families or lots of money can indulge in. So the chances are good that the larger your family gets, the more careful you are with your resources. Like us, for instance: we’re growing strawberries and tomatoes and herbs. We’re moving toward vinegar for cleaning instead of expensive, environmentally unfriendly chemicals. We use cloth diapers and no bottles or pacifiers (to speak of). And we have to think every day about what happens in the case of a lost job.

      No doubt there are those people out there who take advantage of welfare and don’t plan ahead. But I think that is more a stereotype of a certain philosophical/political persuasion than it is a reflection of reality. You can always find examples to prove whatever point you want to make.

      • I only wish they were a stereotype in our neighborhood… the welfare community is alive and thriving in our small town.

        But I can definitely see your point in highlighting the benefits of being sustainable and environmentally conscious.
        We, too, are constantly searching for greener ways to cut expenses: we only own one car, I walk as much as possible, we avoid TV dinners and fast food, and I loooove vinegar and baking soda for cleaning! 🙂

        A popular opinion among folks in my inner circle is that our planet cannot support large families for much longer, due to limited natural resources. Some of them preach that families should PAY the government for each child, rather than receiving benefits or tax breaks… since we’re taxing our planet with many little carbon footprints.

        So pointing out that the quality of lives being raised, rather than quantity, might offset some of these arguments. It’s something to think about when many smaller families are consuming more, and wasting more, than we are. 🙂

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