January 7th, 2008

More on AP

I really don’t know why I am doing this. This is not my kind of thing AT ALL. We’ve got a stomach bug in the house and I am furiously trying to get some dinner prepared before I need to go out for the evening, but since many of you are emailing me in frustration after reading Dr. Popcak’s and others’ comments over at Heart Mind & Strength I feel compelled to share my own email to Dr. Popcak here:

Dear Greg,

Thanks so much for commenting on your blog about Do What Works Best for Your Family. I accept your comments in the spirit of charity that you intend and want to be sure you know that, while we may disagree, I recognize your good intentions and harbor no ill will toward you. I do, however, want to add a few different points:

To begin, I think I need to point out that no one is saying parents ought to do only what feels right or good. What we are saying is do what works best for your family, which is quite a different thing. It might feel good if I, as a homeschooling mother of 8, just sat around all day eating ice cream, but that would definitely not work best for my family.

I don’t know the science as well as you do and I won’t argue with you about cortisol levels. I will point out, however, that saints were raised for centuries before anyone even knew what a cortisol level was. I also do wonder if anyone has bothered to study the cortisol levels (or any other symptoms) of older children in large families who might be neglected, snapped at, or left to do too much for themselves too soon because their exhausted mother is focused on wearing, nursing, sleeping with, and otherwise bonding with the “baby” who needs her to keep his cortisol levels down.

I am not trying to be flip here. I have read and re-read and re-read again dozens of books on AP and ecological breastfeeding. Time and again I come away with the thought that these are high ideals and great ideas, but that people who are dogmatic in their promotion of them as “right” or “best” for everyone, especially Catholics, are blind to an entire segment of the faithful Catholic population.

Personally speaking, if I had had a baby only every 3-5 years or so, I would probably feels lots differently about the practice of AP. I have often felt that AP proponents and others don’t know what to do with families like mine, where, despite ecological breastfeeding, the babies come fast and furious and parents struggle to homeschool as well. They don’t “get” our experiences because they are not their own. They don’t “get” that AP might not work perfectly for different kinds of families because it has indeed worked very well for their own. “God does have a plan for our families!” I want to tell these leaders. “It’s just a different one from yours!”

You say: “More often than not, however, ‘Doing what is best for your family’ just means, ‘Do what comes naturally and feels right to you’ which is a perfect way to raise kids who exhibit the same sins and sinful tendencies that you do.”

I think you are underestimating motherly instincts and inclinations here. It has been my experience that a mother’s instincts or “feelings” do not naturally lead her toward selfishness and taking the “easy way out.” A mother’s natural inclinations are toward generosity and nurturing care for her offspring. Babies need to be touched, and mothers love to touch and hold their babies. Babies need to be responded to promptly, and every mother I know jumps at the sound of her baby’s cry or an older child’s “Mama!” Every mother I know wants to do what is best for her child, even if it costs her emotionally and physically.

But most mothers I know want what is best for all of their children, even the ones who have moved beyond the baby stage. A mother is only one person. She might have an infinite supply of love for her children, but I can attest to the fact that she does indeed have a finite supply of energy and patience, particularly when pregnant, and as a result she must balance her children’s needs — the older ones, the babies, the toddlers, and the unborn ones too. I think it is short-sighted to imply that this kind of “balancing” as it plays out in a faithful, large family is un-Catholic.

You say: “There are a million ways to raise a basically decent, grow up, get a job, and function in society kids. Personally, I think Catholic parents are called to do more than that. We called to raise (and be) saints. ”

Here I think you are implying that parents who don’t use AP are just shooting for the “bare minimum” and aiming to “get by” and I find that an unfair assessment. Good Catholics who do not use AP are aiming to raise and be saints every bit as much as the AP parents are.They are just called to do it in a different way — to imply that their way is less “Catholic” is wrong-headed, and I cringe at the thought of young, vulnerable mothers reading words like these and then beating themselves up in the future when they wind up doing what actually is best for their families.

You rightly point out that Catholic teaching on contraception might not “feel” good or right to some, but the fact is the Church’s teaching on contraception is clear and incontrovertible. Our Church, in her wisdom, has not given us such clear directives on co-sleeping, baby-wearing, bottles, or even homeschooling. There is lots of room for different styles of good parenting within Catholicism. To tout the benefits of AP is one thing, and to promote its use for the benefit of Catholic families is a very good thing indeed. We must be cautious, however, about placing a burden on all Catholic parents that the Church herself does not.

Danielle Bean

Feel free to continue discussing (nicely of course) below!

UPDATE: I’m all done with public discussion here, but you can read Dr. Popcak’s response over at HMS blog.

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