Being Fruitful

There is an apple tree in my parents backyard.  It’s rather large, some would even say overgrown.  It’s pretty old, but is still producing apples most years.  It’s strange having such a large reminder looming over head of the idea of being “fruitful” during this time of my life.  I feel anything but fruitful right now; in fact, most days I feel like fruit leather.

I’ve had to do a lot of thinking and a lot of research about family size over the last few years.  I definitely knew the answer I thought I was going to get, and boy was I wrong.

I’m going to come out and say here and now, for all eternity on the interwebs;  

A good Catholic family can prayerfully discern to have a small family, even an only child.

As I’ve gone through my struggles getting pregnant and my multiple, in a row, miscarriages I’ve dug around on this topic more than a little bit.  I can, essentially, throw in the towel.  I can say I’ve had enough and I’ve been through the wringer.  I can stop trying.  I can never get the blood work and the genetic tests. As long as I don’t get in the way, via birth control and contraception, of my bodies natural abilities I can call it good here and now and still hold my head up high in Mass on Sunday.
It’s hard being a small family around very traditional, and usually large families.  We can get loaded with assumptions on our personal life; sometimes these assumption come from a well meaning place and many times they don’t.  Even the most innocent question about wanting more children is ridiculously complicated for someone who has difficulties conceiving or carrying to term.  Most of the time on Sundays or at church events you feel like you need a sign on your back “My other kids are in heaven”.
One thing I’ve learned through all of this is that, according to Catholic teaching, I’m not required to have ALL the babies.  I’m not required to pump out the most human lives from my body in a set amount of time.  The only thing that is expected of me is that I remain open to what God wants from my life and take no action, in the form of birth control or contraception, to get in the way of those designs.  I’m not required to only have relations on my most fertile days and it’s not expected to never use the days that are not.  I’m merely supposed to be responsible for my actions.  It is the acceptance that it is not only my “plan” that counts and the number of children I have when I reach menopause is not a faithfulness tally where the highest score wins.
There are a hundred, thousand ways a person can be called to be “open to life”.  For some this means the sacrifices that come from providing for their own children.  For others this means using the time and resources available to them from having fewer children to help support and love children who are not their own.  It is not inherently sinful to decide that fewer children is what’s best for you due to your unique health, finances or situation.  It is not sinful to find joy in being able to focus on your fewer or only child or provide for them in ways a larger family cannot.
Nothing about family size is a given.  An only child is not doomed to be a selfish heathen and a twelve child family is guaranteed to produce only selfless saints.  Family size is not an indicator of freedom from contraception or openness to life.  The number of children in your home will not guarantee dedicated spans attention or feelings of love.  No matter the family size you work with what you have and give what you can.

That apple tree in my parents backyard fills up with apple blossoms every year.  The tree is loaded with them in the spring and those blossoms are never an indicator of the number of apples we’ll have at the end of the season.  Early frost, a strong storm, bugs and other wild life can all wreak havoc on that tree, yet it is still fruitful.  It does it’s duty every year filling itself with blossoms that may or may not become apples and at the end of the year whether we have one apple or hundreds it is still an apple tree. 

It is not what is produced that makes you fruitful, it is the possibility, the opportunity.  It is blooming where you are planted.  It is opening the most fragile part of you and saying “Nature, do what you will.”  It is about understanding that blessings don’t only come in baby shape.

To avoid too much drama in the comments I am not saying that all motives for having only children or small families are right.  I still maintain that using methods outside of your natural reproductive abilities to attain an only or a small family is not ideal, though many people (my friends here included) use these things with good intentions.  That is not a judgement on those who use them either, I still love and respect you though we disagree on this particular subject.  It’s just that a small family or only children should not be an automatic sign to Catholic families that there is something wrong or that someone is behaving in a way contrary to God’s plan for them.

To all the big families in my life – you know I love you.  Your dedication and sacrifice are an inspiration and I know you’re trying your best with what you’ve been given and I know that it is hard.
To all the small or intentionally or unintentional only child families in my life – I see what you’re doing and what you may be going through and I respect it.  If your family is not what you thought it would be due to any number of unforeseen circumstances you have my sympathy; what you are doing still matters.  If your family is exactly what you feel God wants it be and have thrown yourself into one of other thousands of ways to support a loving, life affirming community I salute you.  It takes guts not only to face the Catholic community and say “This is what God wants and that’s okay.” and the secular community saying “This is what God wants.  It’s not about me.”

That apple tree isn’t producing too much this year.  What apples it has are too high to pick, but there are still apples.  A few years ago we thought the tree was at it’s end.  No one could remember it producing fruit for a while.  Honestly, we hadn’t paid that much attention to it for a long time.   Then one day I was out in the backyard and there hanging just at my eye line was a perfect red apple.  There was no reason why that apple should have been there.  The rest of the tree was basically bare and the deer should have picked off weeks ago.

I plucked that apple and bit in preparing myself for a bitter, mealy experience.

It was the best apple I’ve ever tasted.

That year there wasn’t much in the way of bounty, but the single apple that tree put forth just by producing blossoms and leaves, roots and shade made more of an impression on me than a dozen years of fruitfulness.

**I know this may be a touchy subject for many people.  I welcome thoughtful, calm discussion even if we disagree, but will freely delete anything hurtful or accusatory.  I’m not claiming to be an expert on Catholic teaching either, if you can accurately point out a flaw in my logic with evidence to support it, I will not stubbornly oppose it.**

Edit:  Thank you to everyone for being so gracious and civil when we disagree.  There’s some great questions, reasoning and clarification in the comments that I won’t repost here – but please read through the comments for more discussion.  I do just want to clarify that when I talk about a family prayerfully discerning their family size that “discerning” in this case is an understanding of God’s plan and desire for their particular family and circumstances.  It is not someone making a decision ala their family size and then expect God to work with them; particularly when this is justified by illicit means.  It is us working with whatever God gives us.  The best example I can give is my own experience via my one child here on earth and his 3 heavenly siblings; we have “discerned” for the moment not to actively pursue growing our family via the licit measures we can take (via adoption, fostering, medical resources) at the moment.  We do not, currently (though this may change in the future) and after much discussion and prayer, feel drawn to using these methods just to grow our family – therefore we’ve “prayerfully discerned” that it may currently be part of God’s plan for our family to remain small because we do not feel called toward these other methods.  However, we remain open to whatever the real plan might be in the end.  Any more clarification I can give, don’t hesitate to ask.

40 thoughts on “Being Fruitful

  1. Molly, I literally laughed out loud when I read this, ” …in fact, most days I feel like fruit leather.” A good post, my friend.

    Isn't it amazing how nature (in this case, the apple tree) continually teaches us? I'm always surprised what a beautiful blueprint of life God gave us in nature. I was thinking this recently when Lucia planted tomato seeds – the patience and preparation of growing our own food teaches us about patience and preparation for heaven. Unfortunately, so many people are so distant from nature that they no longer have access to these “blueprints”.


  2. Thank you for this.

    “It is not what is produced that makes you fruitful, it is the possibility, the opportunity. It is blooming where you are planted. It is opening the most fragile part of you and saying “Nature, do what you will.” It is about understanding that blessings don't only come in baby shape.”

    It's been a rough week. I needed that line so very desperately today.


  3. Molly, I have been blessed with more than a couple children, but I still think about this topic often. Numbers of kids doesn't make a family “Catholic” for even “pro-life.” I have a draft bIog post written about it that I don't have to publish now because you've said it all perfectly and beautifully 🙂 Thank you for writing this. Thank you, thank you, thank you. (for sharing your thoughts and for doing it in such a gracious, charitable, and beautiful way!)


  4. Yes to all of it. This was all so beautiful and true. “I'm not required to pump out the most human lives from my body in a set amount of time.” Amen. Doing so would be treating children as a commodity and is opposed to a true openness to life. We must treat each child we are given as the unearned undeserved gift that they are to us and the world.


  5. Thank you for saying this Molly. It's perfect and so true. One of the things I'm most afraid of when it comes to my fertility is that I may not be able to have the big catholic family and I'm afraid of being judged. That my church, family and friends will assume my small family is not the best one or that it is less worthy than the big ones.
    Thank you for this!


  6. PART 1 (couldn't post my whole comment in one box 🙂 )
    Saying this: “A good Catholic family can prayerfully discern to have a small family, even an only child.” is very different from saying this: “It's just that a small family or only children should not be an automatic sign to Catholic families that there is something wrong or that someone is behaving in a way contrary to God's plan for them.”

    God does not will for people to limit their family size on purpose unless there is a serious reason for it. The fact that a family might lose babies to miscarriages is a physical evil and only has to do with God's permissive will. He might bring good out of that sadness, but he does not take those babies away on purpose.

    Catholics used to be known for their large family sizes but not anymore. It's the Muslims and the Mormons that have claimed that title. It seems a reasonable assumption that the contraceptive culture has seeped into Catholics so that for many Catholics, birth control is ok, and for those Catholics striving to do the right thing, NFP is touted as the alternative by the mainstream Church.

    I'm not anti NFP. It's just that NFP is supposed to be the exception, not the rule.

    You obviously aren't discerning to have an only child. You have suffered many miscarriages that cause a pain I can't even imagine. God isn't saying a big family isn't for you. It isn't some message from Him saying you were meant to have a small family.

    Unfortunately, because of Adam's fall, we have physical evils (illnesses to the body). And because God allows the world to progress in a natural manner, he permits these things to happen. He can however bring good from these evils. Such as your increased compassion for women experiencing these trials.

    Or if you had the opportunity to baptize the miscarried babies, they are assured of Heaven and are now Saints working towards your family's salvation.

    But it doesn't mean God desires small families. He thirsts for souls. He wants more souls with Him in Heaven.


  7. PART II
    It's not about pumping out children. It's about taking things as they come. Trusting that God will provide (of course doing our part as well) and that He wants souls.

    My husband comes from a family of 9 kids. They were poor growing up and there were a lot of times that they didn't know how they would get through financially. Many looked down on his family as being “irresponsible” for having that many children without having “plenty” of money. But they trusted in God, said the daily Rosary, and all of those kids have kept the Faith and are some of the most intelligent human beings I know.

    No, it's not about numbers, but the norm would be for Catholics to have larger families, which we don't really see these days except for in the smaller traditional circles.

    The exception are the women who have lost babies due to struggles with infertility. It is a very, very hard cross. And shame on those who turn a judgmental eye regarding family size.

    But, as sad as it is, I'm willing to bet there are more Catholic families that use contraception on purpose as opposed to struggle with infertility. That's the state of our Church. Less Catholics believe Christ is present in the Eucharist and thus if it's just like any other Protestant denomination, why not use contraception?

    I'm sure you're trying to make sense of all these miscarriages and are asking God “Why? Why this cross and why me?”

    You can blame it on Adam and the Fall. My husband has a few things he'd like to punch Adam for.

    So, honestly, you have produced and you have been fruitful. Those were honest to goodness eternal souls that you and your husband created.

    So, in conclusion to this rambling comment, I was a little confused about what you were trying to get across… Whether you are trying to say it is that it is ok to discern to have a small family (This is faulty)… or if the message was that just because one has a small family does not mean they are acting contrary to God's law (definitely true)… I just wished for clarification as this topic is already confusing among the general Catholic population.


  8. Molly, this is well done. I know your wisdom and perspective on this topic are so hard-earned…thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Much love to you, friend.


  9. I love this, Molly. It gets irritating when I tell people that we're open to life/not using bc/don't have a set number of kids we want and they automatically assume that we're just going to have as many kids as my body can physically handle. We constantly have to discern what's best for our family right now… being open to life also includes the best you can do for the kids/family you already have. Also, I love what you said here: “It is not what is produced that makes you fruitful, it is the possibility, the opportunity. It is blooming where you are planted. It is opening the most fragile part of you and saying “Nature, do what you will.” It is about understanding that blessings don't only come in baby shape.” Thanks for taking on a difficult topic for so many!


  10. You stated you desired evidence to follow any flaw in logic. Here's a great excerpt from Casti Connubii by Pius XI: “11. Thus amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place. And indeed the Creator of the human race Himself, Who in His goodness wishes to use men as His helpers in the propagation of life, taught this when, instituting marriage in Paradise, He said to our first parents, and through them to all future spouses: “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth.”[12] As St. Augustine admirably deduces from the words of the holy Apostle Saint Paul to Timothy[13] when he says: “The Apostle himself is therefore a witness that marriage is for the sake of generation: 'I wish,' he says, 'young girls to marry.' And, as if someone said to him, 'Why?,' he immediately adds: 'To bear children, to be mothers of families'.”[14]”

    Large families are part of God's plan and children are part of the primary purpose of marriage. Infertility does not make you less of a mother as you truly have attempted to have more children.


  11. Thanks Andrea for your response. I'll try to respond to what I can to help clarify. I definitely think someone who thinks “I only want one child and will do anything to prevent more” is in a different category from those of us who say “One is all I might get. I don't feel called towards extra fertility procedures or adoption. One seems to be what God wants from me.”

    What I wanted to get out here is not that we shouldn't try to be open to all the children we may be given, but that (as I think you understand) that sometimes we're not given as much even when we're open to life and that's okay.

    I definitely don't want to come across as supporting anything except in grave circumstances either and I definitely think we should be open for more than we might think we can handle.

    I guess it's just personal on many levels – my child might be my only child on earth. We're still open and occasionally actively “trying”, but at the same time we don't feel called to adoption right now or licit medical procedures so in my head we've “thoughtfully and prayerfully discerned” a small family size and possibly an only child.

    We're definitely not sitting here saying “this is all WE want so we're trying to skirt around God as licitly as possible”, rather coming to accept that it's okay to stop actively trying to grow our family and let God be charge, even if that means our family will always be just the three of us.

    I hope this clarifies. Thank you for your calm tone when handling a subject you feel very passionately about. =)


  12. I definitely agree and do believe large families and children are part of God's plan for many of us and that children are the primary focus of marriage, just that through my personal experience I believe God has shown me that there are many ways to be “open” to children in my life and my marriage when the “plan” doesn't seem to include a large, earthly family.


  13. Thanks for your clarification, Molly. I honestly don't think that one child is what God “wants” from you per se. You have given life many times over. And God certainly doesn't expect you to adopt or perform fertility procedures. It seems like you aren't discerning a small family size, but rather it seems you're willing to take things as they come 🙂 You are definitely fulfilling your calling as a wife and mother to the fullest and don't let the Devil let you think otherwise! You're making your house a home, supporting your husband and leading your child to Heaven. Job well done. 🙂 God bless.


  14. Thank you for the calm discussion – I've seen this subject turn nasty before. I do think, even if my last three babies had never been conceived and I had spent the last, almost, two years totally infertile that I could come to the same conclusions – that *maybe* this is part of God's plan and that I'm still a good Catholic for just being open to life, no matter how many children are conceived. =)


  15. I think I want to point out that I'm not sure God wants us to suffer to produce souls for him. He loves me too, and wants me to suffer about as much as he wants me children to live such short lives; if that makes sense?

    I absolutely do agree that what happens to me and so many others – infertility, subfertility, miscarriage – is not “God's plan” and is a result of living in a fallen body; it took me a long time to work through the grief to understand that. But I do think he has a plan within our fallen world and bodies; for example that he can choose not give a pregnancy to couples with genetic or health issues (the issues not being part of his plan) as a form of mercy. But that's a whole other theological ball of wax. =)


  16. If I had a nickel for every time someone compared us to the Duggars, I'd be rich. It's a topic that can always use more understanding from both sides, and I'm thankful for your witness and that of others that has helped many understand that a small family is not a sign of opposition to God's will, but often simply a different way that a family is called to live their faith. Every time someone commends us for being “open to life” I feel a little guilty, because there are so many others who are open to life and simply don't have the same fruits to show for it.


  17. Thank you so much for writing this! After struggling with infertility we have a lovely little two year old girl. Now we are struggling with secondary infertility and my biggest struggle now is that my sweet little girl doesn't have a sibling yet. This reminded me to wait, be patient, all in God's time, and if she is meant to be an only child, that is what is best for our family. Beautifully written.


  18. Thank you for this post. When I had only 2 kids, I was an insomniac because of a distressed toddler who would never sleep. At that time, I had gone to a recollection given by a priest in which he scoffed at the birthrate being 2 children/family. I was livid and almost walked out. We simply cannot judge who's being generous and who's not. What came to me in prayer afterwards was the story of the widow only giving 2 coins (after the pharisees gave large amounts) and Jesus praised her for being the most generous. One of my favourite definitions of generosity is from St. Francis de Sales: “God does not judge generosity by how much we give Him, rather, He judges generosity by how promptly we do His will.” Having said that, I do disagree with some of the comments I see here. I do not believe that it is the default for everyone to have a large family even if they are perfectly fertile. As mothers we all share the same general vocation, but our particular vocations will be quite unique. It helps to remember that we do not follow an ideology, but a living God.


  19. Thank you Lee-An. I do not agree that large families are the “default” either. I think getting to Heaven is the “default” setting for Catholic families, and since the holiest family that ever walked the planet had ONE child, and more than half of the canon of saints were people who had ZERO earthly children, I'm not inclined to believe that having a large family makes someone more likely to get to heaven.
    My husband and I are living NFP as a “lifestyle” with three children (under age 4) and our reasons for using NFP to avoid indefinitely are ours and ours alone. God knows them, and if He disagrees, He will make it known to us. We don't need anyone else's input.


  20. You're right, God doesn't want us to suffer. It just happens that suffering exists in this world due to the fall. But Christ put a redemptive value on the suffering we encounter in this world and God brings good to our lives when we offer this suffering up for Him.

    God works with the natural law and science. So if there are health issues present, he doesn't necessarily step in but lets biology take its course. However, there are times when he'll step in and work a miracle that goes against the natural laws of science.

    Thus we have babies born to women with terminal cancer or down syndrome babies. God doesn't will these, but he brings beautiful things from them. 🙂


  21. I love that quote from St. Francis de Sales, Lee-An.

    I agree that I don't think large families are the default either – it is right and good that we have large families, but that doesn't mean everyone is called that way.


  22. I was having a discussion with some friends with those large families a few days ago – and was surprised to here that many of them don't automatically jump to “small family = contraception” but rather “small family = NFP works for them or just that they have a calm, normal fertility” It was very reassuring to hear just a few people assume that our smaller families are actually a result of doing things right or having a normal reproductive cycle (many of these ladies have experience “hyper fertility” themselves).


  23. This is so beautiful and honest, thank you Molly!! Although I have not suffered the loss of a child, I sometimes have gotten comments that at being married 2 1/2 years and where are all the Catholic babies…basically why aren't we pregnant yet. I appreciate reading this because we have to remember families come in all shapes and sizes; with and without children. Thanks for sharing your heart:)


  24. hi molly,
    i'm a new follower of your blog (found you through Carrots). i grew up baptist, and currently go to a baptist church, but i don't know if i agree with their thoughts on contraception — i'm really curious about learning more about what the catholic faith teaches on the subject. do you have any sources you can point me to? i know Carrots writes a lot about NFP, which I'm also curious about. my husband and i have just been thinking a lot about if using contraception/birth control (which we don't right now but have in the past) is not being open to God's will.

    i'm sorry if that is a little off topic! your post was really beautiful, and i pray that God will give you peace and healing from the pain of your miscarriages


  25. Thank you Renee!

    The most basic that I can break things down into is that we believe life begins at conception, that moment when two sets of chromosomes combine and create a unique individual. Since from that moment we have created a unique individual it is wrong for us to do anything that ends that life, which most forms of Birth Control (the chemical and hormonal kinds) can affect. Most BC's do not get in the way of conception, only implantation about 6 days are conception.

    In the most basic approach we believe that sex is a gift, but a gift we're supposed to be responsible for. Procreation is what sex is for, that's just straight up biology, and we're supposed to be responsible for our actions. So that we understand that any moment when we choose to have sex we've basically signed an agreement with God that we accept responsibility for any life He chooses to create.

    We do believe that NFP is morally acceptable, which is simple understanding your bodies natural cycles to make that decision of whether or not you want to have sex during your most fertile times. NFP does work effectively, but the difference between that and BC's is that in the end God has the final say.

    We love children and big families, but understand that due to health, finances, etc. not every month is a good time to “try” for another child. However, if the reasons are so dire we just expect that the couple abstains from sex completely until the crisis is over. Ironically whenever you hear of a woman with a bad medical diagnosis being told “don't have kids right now” her doctor will often tell her to go on BC; does that even make sense? You can still be on BC and get pregnant and only one person in history has gotten pregnant by not having sex. It's actually more risky to go on BC while having medical or financial issues than abstaining from sex, because birth control does fail.

    That is just the basic “i should be getting ready for work, but I want to write a response” comment. I couldn't find an email address for you, but please feel free to email me at mollymakesdo @ gmail . com. and I can point you towards some more “official” and complete information.


  26. Molly –
    I recently stumbled across your blog through a friend. It seems as though we could be twins in different states. I too have struggled for years with infertility and undiagnosed recurrent miscarriage. My husband and I have one son who is almost 4 years old, and I thank God continuously for him. Recently, we decided to pursue domestic adoption. We applied with a Christian agency relatively close to our home. We were rejected almost immediately for being Catholic. The assistant director's exact words were that they “did not feel as though their faith beliefs aligned with ours.” I was beyond devastated. In some ways, I have taken it harder than a miscarriage. It is not only a loss of hope but a direct hit to a part of us that we cherish. I am once again at a loss of where to go next. We have decided to take some time off from everything and just try to be at peace with where we are. As a true lover of Mary, I have to remind myself that the Holy Family only had one son, and it was perfect! I look forward to reading more of your blog as we are “both longing to bear a child, while learning to bear a cross.”



  27. This quote is beautiful. I think we often get stuck on the 'rules of our faith' and lose the spiritual gift behind them. This post, for me, seems to be trying to understand the spiritual gifts behind the Catholic churches stance on contraception. Suffering sucks but the benefit of it is that it can make us soft-hearted and propel us to think more. I think you've turned the pain of your miscarriages into some lovely thinking about the Why NFP. I'm not a catholic, by the way, just find the debate around this issue really attractive and provocative. This stuff doesn't get discussed at all in my usual church circles. After an eight year gap we have just stopped contraception this month so these comments and thoughts are particularly pertinent for me at the moment.


  28. Thank you Shelley – as a Catholic I feel that I will always support our stance on contraception, but try to encourage the discussion to defend that a “good family” does not always need to be a “large” family. Whether is from choice – health or financial reasons or no choice – infertility, etc. – we need to remind all of us that the biggest things we are asked to do is the act of being open to a will that is not our own. =)


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