Catholic Answers and Having Number 3

My wife Flannery and I are expecting our third (and who knows, perhaps our fourth) child.  I’m sure this is the case in many places, but in downtown Toronto you need a good reason for having a third child, an excuse almost.

For some reason, many people have the impression that two children is a reasonable, even a defensible, number of children to have.  It seems to have something to do with the replacement rate (and since it is difficult to have 2.1 children, two will have to do. ) Though why we would want to replace ourselves exactly has not been explained to me.  Is roughly 7 billion the optimal number of people for our planet?  Certainly 30 million and change is not optimal for Canada.  It’s quite low in fact.

In any case, in Toronto you need an excuse to have more than two children.  Fortunately for us, we have one.  You see, our first two children happen to have the same gender.  And a family with two little boys can be excused for having a third because they are obviously, as we are constantly asked, “Hoping/trying for a girl?”

Now, there are a lot of books I haven’t read about this, but I also don’t read much astrology, and it seems to me that one can’t really “try” for a girl.  We tried for a child.

So, when people ask, “Hoping for a girl?”  I give my best Catholic answer:

“That’s one of two very good options  We’d love if this one was a girl.  We’d certainly like a daughter at some point.”

“You mean,” they gasp, “you want more?”

I love giving these kinds of Catholic answers.  It (gently) makes people stop and think about what they’re saying and presuming.  Most people, in my experience, actually come away impressed rather than scandalized by a Catholic vision of family life.

This recent experience reminds me of when I had first met Flannery.  As I’m sure is common among young Catholics everywhere, one of the things people talk about, while scoping the group for possible mates, is how many children each person wants.

There are those who are cautious:  “Well, I’d certainly like a big family, but I’m not sure how many I could handle.”

There are those who are a little defiant:  “I don’t care what anyone thinks.  Two and I’m done!”

There are those who talk a big game:  “At least a dozen!”

Flannery didn’t play that game.  When she was asked how many children she would like, she gave the most Catholic, and the most reasonable, answer I’d ever heard:

“All of them.”

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of three (so far) and husband of one. He is the co-author of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.

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  • Ryan Klassen

    Congrats to you and Flannery! “All of them,” indeed!

  • Mark Gordon

    All of them.

    Oh, I love that. Congratulations, Brett.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


    first, congratulations to you and Flannery. Just remember: with three, you can no longer play man-to-man defense: you have to go with a zone.

    Second, you have badly mis-stated world population: it is edging towards 7 billion; estimates from the Census bureau put it at 6.96 billion as of today; we will pass the 7 billion mark before the end of the year.

    • brettsalkeld

      Thanks David. I’ll recalibrate. And work on my zone.

  • Kyle R. Cupp


  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Well, mazeltof. Believe me, I am only prying into this because there is a certain public aspect to your whole presentation here. But I am curious, how do you afford these children as a “doctoral student” in theology?? Is there an aspect of the Canadian system of social care involved here (which I am not against, mind you.) I really am just curious given all the vexed Catholic libertarians in the US causing problems.

    • brettsalkeld

      Well, I don’t pay for health insurance, and we have a childcare subsidy, so yes, being in Canada helps. I’m nearly done school too. And I have some other work on the side.

      Oh, and in Canada, you get 1 year of maternity leave, so we won’t really suffer the loss of Flan’s income completely until 21 months after the decision to get pregnant. (9 months of her normal income and then 12 months at a given percentage from Employment Insurance.) By then, I should be done school.

      • bill bannon

        I would say then Brett be careful about calling the multiple birth thing a “Catholic answer”. In the US a small grocery store owner must pay $12,000 a year for family health insurance and his wife gets nothing from the government for time off from the store after birth. Such a Catholic will not hope for the ten children that the farming Hutterites have out in the midwest where a solidified church group covers each other in emergencies. On another continent, the Chinese Catholic can only have one child or two in some areas. After that they are fined three times their yearly income and can be imprisoned. They are not in your situation. Currently African women with many children are trekking from Somalia to Kenya while watching half of their large families die of starvation. This area is far more about which country one lives in and at what education level….than it is about faith in God. In some countries a woman with multiple children whose husband dies…gets money from the government as I suspect your wife would. Yet in India she could be homeless in a month. I sent money for ten years for a widow’s child in India. The widow had to give away her children to Catholic orphanges and then take a job as a maid near them so as to visit them. We are sugar coating this Catholic answer constantly. It’s about countries and education levels as much as it’s about faith.

        • brettsalkeld

          I never called the multiple birth thing the “Catholic answer.” I wrote about ways a Catholic might answer people who ask particular questions such as “Trying for a girl?” or “How many children do you want?” If multiple births is the Catholic answer, what is the question?

          It looks to me like you read my post in the most superficial way. Did you not see that I wrote that “All of them” was a far more “Catholic answer” than “A dozen at least”? The whole beauty of the “All of them” is that it isn’t presumptuous at all about one’s future circumstances. It doesn’t ignore substantial differences between families and even social and historical circumstances. It says that whatever number of children I am gifted with is the number I want and that each of them are loved and wanted. Now, in circumstances like Canada or Western Europe where most people could afford 5 kids but have other priorities, that may mean Catholics have more kids than their neighbors, but that is a secondary point and not one I was writing about. I was writing about how certain answers to commonly asked questions could give eloquent witness to the Catholic attitude towards children.

          If I had said “A dozen at least” was the most Catholic answer your critique would be justified, but my point was precisely the opposite!

          In keeping with this attitude, and in response to precisely the kinds of concerns you raise, my wife and I have another “Catholic answer” for the question, “How many more do you want?”

          “At least one.” Because that’s all we can know before we have that one.

      • bill bannon

        But “all of them” as the Catholic answer is heartbreaking for the Chinese Catholic woman to speak from her own mouth. I just would hate for it to become a widespread canard in Catholic literature and then find that thousands of books are printed in China with it. And I can imagine it. You’re a young author. Anything can happen in 20 more years.

        • brettsalkeld

          It’s a Catholic answer. Not the Catholic answer.

          But the Chinese Catholic’s situation is heartbreaking no matter how popular any of our turns of phrase become.

      • bill bannon

        I read where at Christmas many non religious Chinese families often linger in groups near the Church Christmas lights in sizable numbers….because of the lights and because they are distantly fascinated with the Holy family having… like them…..only one child. Thus the Holy Family may be iconic to many non Christians in China as being their existential situation.

        • brettsalkeld

          I hadn’t ever thought of Mary saying “All of them” before.
          It strikes me as quite beautiful.
          Thank you.

      • Thales

        I think it’s a great response. I don’t know if it is entirely synonymous with the response “as many as God wants us to have”, but I think it seems to be a similar response. I think both responses would encompass any number from 0 to x, because each couple is being called by God to live out a life of faith differently. And so I think each response could easily be echoed by a couple in China, or a couple experiencing some hardship where they are being constrained from having more children than they would otherwise like to have, or even the couple who can’t have any children because of infertility. In short, I fail to see Bill’s concern.

      • bill bannon

        We can only hope that many are Rahner’s anonymous Christians. In the last ten years though, they have outstripped Taiwan in military capacity with their new found financial success….and that can mean war in your lifetime between the two. Experts say now that China would win in days if the USA stays out of it. Very awful prospects. The nature of each US president in the future might be key.

      • bill bannon

        You’re saying that a Chinese couple who can only have one child by law (last Oct. one region aborted forcibly a woman who broke that law) can logically say when asked how many children they will have…..” All of them”. I don’t get it.

        • brettsalkeld

          The question wasn’t, “How many will you have?”
          In any case, my guess is that some Chinese Catholics have figured out very good Catholic answers for their own situation.

      • bill bannon

        Hmmm. I’d love to see Fr. Karl Rahner (who Archbishop Amato called orthodox in 2002 at a Rahner symposium at the Lateran) and Fr. Bernard Haring return in wraith form and discuss that with you. Neither was censured for decades by any Pope for being outside the standard answers on that and Rahner knew well the dogmatic relative weights of things. Farewell. And I’ll pray for the pregnancy…..I do an hour a day….it’s easy to fit one more….or two or three.

        • brettsalkeld

          I’m sorry, discuss what with me? I’m confused.

          And you don’t need to defend Father Rahner to me. I always find him very insightful.

          Thanks for the prayers.

      • Thales

        I suspect that I’m not catching the nuance that you see. “All of them” seems to me to include 0 and 1 children. You apparently think it doesn’t. Regardless, it’s a minor point. I agree with you that the state in China is a travesty.

  • Marianne

    Kids are great! And you and your family should do what is right for you … but does this presuppose that the Higher Power will find a way to pay the bills – since your wife won’t be working? And you’re in school? Who pays for the childcare? Who pays for the groceries?

    • brettsalkeld

      Presumably I won’t be a student forever and the baby won’t cost much at all for the next 6 months. I’m not a providentialist, if that’s what you’re asking. In any situation, financial or otherwise, having a child is an act of trust in God.

  • crystal

    It seems like you’ve decided one can either reduce their carbon footprint by lessening the amount of resources they use, or they can have fewer children, and you’ve chosen the former – but people can and probably should do both.

    • brettsalkeld

      Actually, I’m going to raise a dozen environmental engineers and lessen everyone’s carbon footprint!

      • Linda

        awesome answer!

    • Dan

      I don’t buy the whole “less children, less carbon” angle. Not while people are investing into financial stocks and derivatives instead of clean energy solutions. We have the resources to make clean energy a reality within a couple of decades if we’d only be willing to redirect our resources to the betterment of all instead of the betterment of ourselves.

      • brettsalkeld

        I saw a great presentation once at the CTSA meeting about how NFP families are good for the environment because both the practice of NFP and the experience of being in a big family translate into practices that are good for the environment. Dr. Patrick Clark is at Scranton, I believe.

  • Sofia Loves Wisdom

    Congratulations, Brett! And I LOVE Flannery’s response. As to the environmental question, my friends and I are committed environmentalists & I always point out to them that the country with the biggest consumption problem is the US when we only have 1/5 of the world’s population. The reality is that the more rich you become, the more you consume.

    • brettsalkeld

      You mean less that 1/20 of the world’s population, right?

      • Sofia Loves Wisdom

        LOL, right! Thx!

  • Sharon

    Oh Brett, what a lovely response from Flannery, and what a heart of love it showed in her. It’s almost like she could think of her future children, and years before meeting them or even knowing how many there would be, she could say, “I love you all already.”

    In thinking of Sofia’s comment, I do wish we could reach a point where we had “enough”, where our needs were met and we were left free to enjoy the world, most especially the free beauty offered by nature, without our constant grasping for “more” and “better” and “faster.” I also think that NFP is good for the environment because the excess estrogen in our water supply is already harming wildlife, and will probably be harming humans as well.

    As far as affording extra children, I see many people pay exorbitant prices for things like sports equipment for the kids, then wonder how anyone can afford more than two. Well ours have done very well on the less expensive versions of such things, and hand-me-down skates work just as well as brand new ones! We also can’t afford to over-consumer, so we really are not that bad for the environment!

    Congrats on number three, from one who just saw number four off to college and is so glad to have four more (future taxpayers!) still in the house! :)

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


    to refocus things a bit, I have been doing some research today on family size and religion. The key measure I believe is “total fertility rate” (TFR) which is intended to be a snapshot of women’s projected fertility based on current trends. It is a synthetic measure designed to predict on average how many children a woman will have over her life. The “replacement rate” of 2.1 is the TFR which, in the aggregate, will keep populations roughly stable.

    If I read your post correctly, your underlying assumption is that most (secular) people expect a “normal” family to hew to this and have 2 children (with the occasional 3rd) but the “Catholic answer” supports a higher TFR. Ideologically this may be true, but empirically it does not seem to. Demographic research in the US indicates that Catholic and non-Catholic family size have trended together since WWII—there is no longer a “Catholic family”. However, demographers report that there are differences depending on “religiosity”: the degree to which women regard religion as important or very important in their lives. However, the reported differences are very small. From a 2002 NIH study, the overall US TFR was 2.2; for women who reported that religion was very important, it was 2.3

    If I understand this metric correctly, this suggests that while religious families are larger, they are not substantially larger on average. In other words, Catholics, even religious Catholics, will regard a family with 2 or 3 children as “normal” and, having chosen to have a family of this size themselves, might question (or want to understand) why someone would want a larger family.

    • brettsalkeld

      I’m not sure how many people have 2 children. There are quite a few with 1 or 0. I just talked to a friend from Germany whose wife was pregnant with number 2 and I asked if that was considered a lot in Germany since the average is well below 2 there. He said 2 wasn’t considered large, even though it was above average, because it was the zeros who were really bringing it down. He thought that, among people who had any kids, 2 was more common than 1.

      In any case, regardless of how many children people are having, there is an expectation, in my experience, that others only have more than 2 for very good reason. The “Catholic answers” I noted here were ways to respond to that expectation in a gentle, but thought-provoking, fashion. I didn’t consider whether a “Catholic answer” supports a higher rate, though it probably does. I was just writing about how to talk to people who presume things about you that are inaccurate, and how certain ways of talking could be a little dose of the gospel of life. To say that one wants “All of them” is to say that, whether you are blessed with 1 or 10, they are all wanted.

      Now, as for how different Catholics families are empirically, that is another issue. It seems to me that, as society becomes more secular, the difference gets bigger. My parents had very little sense of having a radically different worldview than their neighbors, but the Catholics I know in my own generation certainly have that sense. As that sense increases, I would expect it to show up in the demography. I just went back home to Saskatchewan for a visit and almost all my Catholic friends from undergrad are pregnant or with a newborn. (Off the top of my head I can think of one with her first (born while we were visiting), two with 2 (neither of whom are talking as if they’re done), one expecting #3, one expecting #4 and one expecting #5.)

      Now the US is not nearly so secular as Europe or Canada, so I would expect less of a difference there, but in Kaufmann’s book that I recently wrote on here (or in the video I linked to, I can’t remember) he notes that Catholic women in France and Spain average fully one more child than non-Catholic women. When the national TFR is way less than 2, that’s pretty significant. I would think we’ll see that trend in North America soon enough.

  • Tito Edwards

    Nice, a Catholic living out his faith in the world!

  • Julian Barkin

    Hi Brett. Awwww, your wife’s response to your question on kids sounds so sweet. BTW, if you care to divulge, did you get your wish granted with a baby girl? Oh and in agreement with Tito.

    • brettsalkeld

      Thanks Julian, though if you reread the post you’ll see we didn’t wish for a baby girl, though we would be delighted with one. And no, we don’t know yet.

  • Darwin