But what about families without children?

I was recently reading where E! News Anchor Guiliana Rancic and her husband Bill are going to “stop trying” for a baby for the time being. After two years of struggles and tests and procedures (virtually all of it public by virtue of their reality show) they have decided they need a break. And who can blame them? Infertility is a grueling and depressing struggle to go through. Especially for observant Catholics.

One of the statements the couple has made is about the two of them being a family. In many Catholic circles, regardless of reason, this is a controversial statement. It is true that God’s very first edict to Adam and Eve was to “be fruitful and multiply.” But are there not also Biblical stories of women who could conceive? What of Elizabeth, Hannah and Rachel (to name a few)? Were their marriages less valid, their family units less important than those bearing children? Of course not. So how have we come to this idea now?

Mothers of many will note they seem to be a pariah either way. Either an insult to those who cannot conceive or a joke to those who just can’t understand why families would want more children. But for an infertile couple in a place like a Catholic church with many large families, being in the minority is decidedly less than fun as well. And unfortunately, even the most well-meaning of us put them on the spot sometimes. How many of us have casually with no ill-intentions asked a woman married more than a year when she plans on having a child?

And let’s face it, as if being the only childless one of your friends isn’t bad enough if you want kids, there are all kinds of obstacles to becoming a parent any way other than naturally. Cost being the first among those. But as Catholics know, not all medical options are ethical.

And then there is everyone’s suggestion, “Well, you could always adopt!” It might be one of my life’s goals to get people to stop saying that to infertile couples. Not everyone can adopt for assorted reasons and there are plenty of people who should not adopt either. In the case of celebrites like Giuliana and Bill, we tend to think they should adopt becase of their position in society and their financial status. I mean, shouldn’t all celebrities  be like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in this respect? But sometimes even adoption is not easy for a celebrity. Remember the story of Madonna’s adoption of her daughter Mercy from Malawi? World Series champ and Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels and his wife Heidi also attempted a Malawian adoption and were deemed unfit because of Malawi’s strict policies regarding visiting the country. Actress Jaime Pressley was turned away by China and Korea in an attempt to adopt because she was single (in talking to a friend who helps facilitate international adoptions, sometimes the rules on things like single parenthood can change month to month in a country). If it is that difficult for these people to get a child, one can clearly see it can be a huge issue for those of us without the name recognition.

But the flip comment about adoption raises another question. We tend to judge infertile couples in a whole different way than we do those who can easily conceive. We tend to brand a couple who does not pursue adoption immediately as “selfish.” Would we dare tell an expectant mother that she was selfish for not choosing to adopt a child and have one of her own? Of course we wouldn’t, so why do so many infertile couples have that attitude (even if it’s not explicity said) have that thrown into their faces? Is it because we view the infertile who would like a child of their own as being childish and wanting what they do not have? If so, in most cases, that is an unfair assessment as many, many infertile couples have wanted to be parents their entire lives, before they would even have been physically able to become them.

We tend to equate the term “family” with “married couple who have children.” We do not typically like to extend that term to “married couple without children.” A good friend of mine had a letter to the editor of Red Book published for not demonstrating in one of their articles that she and her husband are in fact a “family” although they are unable to have children and have not been able to pursue fertility treatments or adoption. Perhaps it’s about time this attitude was changed not just in our country, but in our pews. A married couple is, in fact, family to one another with or without the addition of children and it, quite frankly, is none of our business as to why they do not have a child or more children. The stigmatization of these couples only leads to paths we don’t want to go down: divorce, estrangement, lack of love for our neighbors. Let us begin to love our brothers and sisters in Christ and this love will teach us to be sensitive and accepting of situations different from our own in regards to families.


3 thoughts on “But what about families without children?

  1. I’m not familiar with the show or people you’re talking about, but I’ve seen both sides of the fertility spectrum.

    Personally I don’t think there is anything wrong with asking any couple if they’ve discerned adoption. I understand couples struggling with infertility would more likely get asked about it more, but any family, whether they have welcomed their own children or not, should discern the question of adoption. I’m open to discerning it when we have our own home and some stability (my husband has not yet been offered a full time job) and I’m one of those “and you can’t stop getting pregnant” women. I don’t think there is anything wrong asking a couple who has struggled with infertility about adoption provided it is done not in a condescending, last-resort way but in a sincere consideration that it could be God’s calling for them, as it could be for any couple.

    I confess there is one very good Catholic couple I always wondered why they didn’t have children. Until they miscarried. And miscarried. And miscarried. And I learned that you simply never know why a couple doesn’t have children and, unless they feel comfortable talking to you about it, it is no more anyone’s business than it is why another family has many children. I’m very glad I had never asked them about it, though they are very open about their fertility. I’m happy to say they now have an adorable little 6 month old boy.

    I can understand where people get confused by what is a family and what isn’t. In ancient Rome, the family included the whole household, including servants. Some today consider homosexual partnerships a family. Some people consider their pets part of the family. I’m not sure just what a universal definition of it would be. I’m also not sure if there would be any distinction between what makes “a family” and those who one would consider “family.” For example, a good friend could be considered “family” but that is from within the relationship and those outside the relationship wouldn’t recognize the friend as “family.” Are Godparents family? I’m not saying a couple without children aren’t “a family” (as opposed to “family” to each other, which they clearly are) but I can see where the definition is not necessarily obvious. I think part of the reason for this is how a couple’s fertility has come to be viewed as 1) public information and 2) a simple choice. I wrote a whole post reflecting on this (http://www.havingleftthealtar.com/2010/12/contraceptive-mentality.html) and I think abortion, but especially contraception, has drastically changed the way many people not only think about fertility but children and thus, the family.

  2. I think Katherine raises some good and interesting points on the definition of family. As an observant Jew, who has never had trouble conceiving, I come to this from a slightly different perspective. I have four children but my sister and her husband have never been able to conceive. They have unexplained infertility and it is incredibly difficult for them. Because they both work and are out in the community actively, people often ask them about adoption. Because of our Judaism, this is a very complicated situation. As this article http://www.jewishcolumbia.org/page.aspx?id=30348
    well explains, bloodlines and lineage are an important part of our faith. Adoption poses various problems with this and makes it a less than ideal situation for many Jews. As do many fertility treatments. My sister and her husband, as a result are childless. And they are constantly asked about when will they have children and adopting to give the answer to a non-Jew is very confusing and highly illogical to many who do not share our faith. It then becomes an us vs them situation that no one wants to get into.

    I read your post and as a pro-life Jew, I have a general tendency to agree that certainly fertility and such is much more public now as a result of contraception and abortion. However, we cannot deny that such attitudes toward infertile couples go back much, much further and The Pill and Roe v Wade. The Bible even has stories of women scorned for their infertility. We tend to think marriage should somehow equate with having a child. My next door neighbors growing up were Catholic and I can often recall the Grandmother who lived with them talking (when she was a girl) if a couple in their parish married and failed to produce a child either straight off or ever, there was a certain air of condescending nature between other members of the church toward the couple. A woman’s role then was to be a wife AND mother, don’t forget. This goes back even further than the early parts of the 20th Century though. In some ancient cultures (and in religions such as Islam and Judaism) a second wife was allowed only under certain conditions, one of which was the inability to bear a child. I mean, look at the story of Rachel and Leah. Leah was unloved because her marriage to Jacob was a trick played on him but she more or less became the favored wife once she began bearing multiple sons. Rachel, on the other hand, was punished with infertility. Even in Genesis we see how infertility is a punishment, quite literally from God. Is it any wonder women who are infertile feel like second class citizens? People have always been able to see if a couple was having children or not. And a couple has always been judged on their ability to conceive or not.

    The main reason the adoption question can so easily come off as rude or condescending is because we, as a society, tend to treat the infertile as pariahs and more often than not, the person asking is assuming that a person should just shut down all emotions and move on to adoption. Infertility is a situation that almost always must be mourned before a couple can move forward to whatever the next step is or should be. While I agree that adoption is something that more fertile couples should also discern, let’s you and I be honest, are we EVER really asked if we’ve “looked into it” or been told, “Well, you can always adopt?” There is a double standard there and it does make an infertile couple, particularly an infertile woman feel inferior. And if a couple chooses not to pursue adoption, for whatever reason, as Kristen stated, they can unfairly be branded as selfish.

    Let’s not forget, there are ethical concerns with adopting too. Even here in the good old US of A we run into issues where domestic adoptions should more accurately be referred to as baby sales. While there are many good and reputable agencies out there, there are just as many back alley deals that occur. And the problem can sometimes be compounded in other countries. Even a very reputable US agency that assists in overseas adoptions can be misled by people in those countries who may “encourage” young women to give their child up or tell in-tact families that their child will be given an education if they send him or her wherever. These reasons alone cause many couples to fear adoption.

    Adoption is a wonderful, beautiful gift, but for an infertile couple, the choice to adopt is really not any easier than for a couple with no problems conceiving. Couples always have to face that there may be profound disappointment in an adoption even as profound as never being placed with a child or having a child they have loved for some time be claimed by a biological relative.

    As my sister’s situation has taught me, there are no easy answers when it comes to infertility which is why it behooves the rest of us to respect infertile couples who identify themselves as “a family.” They are living the life God gave them in the way they know best.

  3. Thank you Katherine and Megan. I appreciate your insights. I would also encourage anyone reading this thread to please look at these two blogs: http://mysmalltreasures.blogspot.com/ and http://www.gsheller.com for very personal stories about adoption. One of these is written by a mother who did face infertility and the family has 3 domestically adopted children. The other by a mother with four (soon to be five) biological children and one adopted son from Liberia.

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