Is it easier for rich people to have big families?

Is it easier for rich people to have big families? November 4, 2015

Heart of money

David Mills is doing a little self-examination at Aleteia with A Marxist Lesson for Breeding Catholics: What is romance to the comfortable can be a burden to the poor and sick. Mills is a good and honest man, and has a knack for prodding our weak spots without excusing himself. I think he’s only half right in this essay, though.

His main thesis: Most of the Catholics writing about Catholic sexuality are resting comfortably in a place of privilege — and they should knock it off. For a Catholic middle class couple, says Mills, having another child

 may mean giving up a vacation if the family’s wealthy, or the Thursday family dinner out if the family’s middle class. Her arrival won’t mean giving up food, or rent or the parochial school that can make all the difference to his older siblings’ future.

It’s easy, he says, for a financially secure couple to let their marriages be fruitful, and to see Catholic sexual teaching as a lovely and liberating thing. But, says Mills, the poor do not have this luxury, and may face genuine hardships that a middle class couple never even considers.

Mills says,

 The affluent for whom the Catholic teaching is not a great burden can fall to the temptations of their class, one of which is to think of their children as lifestyle accessories … You can feel that God rewarded your obedience and sacrifice by giving you more “toys” than your friends have.

He concludes:

We the comfortable, who speak so romantically of being open to life—because for us, with our privileges, it is a romance—could find ways to make it a romance, and not a terror, for others too.

Overall, he has a very good point — and truly, the main reason my book about the struggles of NFP sold so well was because there was such a glut of “perky” public discourse on the topic. About a decade ago, just about anybody who talked about the Church’s sexual teaching talked about how lovely, how fulfilling, how empowering, how enlightening, how life-changingly, marriage-buildingly, blindingly awesome it all is. So the world was pretty ready for a book that said, “Yes, but it’s also really hard, and sometimes it stinks on ice. Here’s why it’s still a good idea.” (And if you’re interested in making my life a little more romantic, then for goodness’ sake, buy my book!)

It’s a bad idea to present Church teaching as a golden ticket to happiness. But more specifically, I have a quibble with the idea that material wealth usually makes it easier to be “open to life” (a phrase which Mills uses to mean “ready to have another baby,” which is really only a part of what that phrase means — but that’s a post for another day!). Depending on what crowd you’re in, you can get very different ideas about who’s struggling with what. I mean no disrespect, but Mills, a white-bearded male scholar, most likely reads about Catholic sexual teaching in books and journals, where one is unlikely to hear anything candid, raw, unpolished or, frankly, honest. For some more useful research on the topic, try hanging around in the back of the church with other women who can’t sleep because they’re not sure if they’re pregnant or not, and they can’t make up their minds how guilty to feel about the way they feel about it.

He does acknowledge that the poor aren’t just helpless saps, too anemic to grapple with the headiness of solid doctrine:

The poor are not merely victims but moral agents who can teach the comfortable, not least about the good life and the place of children therein. As Pope Francis said, “For most poor people, a child is a treasure. … Let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child.”

I wish he had said more about this. In truth, it’s often wealthy couples who struggle more with the notion of having another baby.  Poor couples can be so accustomed to uncertainty, and so used to making the best out of whatever happens, that the notion of having yet another child is less terrifying to them than it would be to a wealthy, secure couple who feel like their material lives, at least, are under control. A couple with an empty checking account and a fridge full of government cheese can laugh hilariously when they read that it takes $245,000 to raise a child; but a couple who actually has $245,000 in the bank might gulp and think twice before taking that kind of plunge. 

Poverty is (or at least can be) a great teacher, because we are (as Mills points out) all poor in one way or another — if not materially, than maybe physically, or emotionally, or in our relationships. Being poor in any of these ways makes it obvious that we are not in control, but that we still need to work very hard to get more in control — which is an excellent model for how to approach parenthood, and marriage, and life in general. Try really hard all the time; realize, all the time, that a lot of what happens is not up to you. 

Is it easy to trust God, with your sexual life and otherwise, when you’re poor? I’m not going to say yes! Poverty is no joke, and being poor and pregnant can be twelve different kinds of miserable. But I’m not going to say that money makes it easier to trust God. There’s a reason Jesus warned about getting bogged down with riches.

As for why it’s mainly the secure and happy who write about sex, there are two reasons. The first is legitimate, and it’s that people who struggle don’t want to reveal private things about their marriage to the world.  It may be comforting for Jack and Joanne to read that Alyssa and Aaron had a big fight about sex; but Aaron probably won’t appreciate it if Alyssa spills all to the Huffington Post

The second reason is less defensible. We faithful can be loathe to speak publicly about our struggles because we’re afraid that we’ll scare away the undecided — that our suffering will be the final nudge that tips an on-the-fence couple the wrong way.  So we Happy Face it up, thinking we’re helping the Holy Spirit out with one of His less-successful PR campaigns. 

Poverty comes in many forms, as Mills acknowledges; and so does faith in God. I am working on learning how to put more trust in the truth when I write about my faith. It’s not up to me to paste a happy ending on the word of God, and that is true no matter how much money I have in the bank.

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  • Fr. Denis Lemieux

    Bravo! Probably because of where I live and the kind of folks I rub elbows with (and offer priestly counsel to), most of the NFP couples I know are actually pretty poor. And yes, it is hard. But yes, they do it anyhow. While I respect Mills and he is making some good points, I agree that he might need to get out more.

  • Thank you. As one of 11, I grew up neither poor nor wealthy. One think that I think happens on both sides of the equation is an inability to relate to anything beyond their own notions.Sometimes the “poor people can’t afford it” argument is being used by not so poor people, not out of concern but self justification for their own desires to avoid sacrifices

    I have an unmarried friend, who already makes more than my father (still raising 6 of 11) does. He has told me there is no way he could afford more than two children. It’s sad because it comes from a close-mindedness. That close-mindedness can turn into a lack of charity toward those who don’t take your perspective, ironically even when you think you are coming from a place of concern.

    The moment you designated a level of material comfort as objectively better than another, you have made material goods and preferences a moral issue. As you suggest this is not to say there aren’t reasons to avoid conception or real poverty. I am not trying to diminish poverty. But in my experience, too many well meaning Americans confuse “not achieving a preconceived desirable standard of living” with true poverty. They confuse truly being in need with virtuous sacrifice.

    If you look at the things I and my siblings got to have and then at what my father makes, it would be hard to understand how the math works. God’s blessings don’t come down to a “net total” on a budget.

  • Dan13

    I think Mr. Mills grossly underestimates the costs of Catholic school education and day care (unless he is assuming that every middle class and wealthy Catholic family has a stay-at-home mom).

    Let’s say you have a middle class, dual-income family with two grade-school level children who go to Catholic school. The school tuition is about $10-12,000 total for the two kids (Catholic school isn’t cheap). If they were to have a third child, they would either have to get day care, at about $10-15,000, or have one of the parents give up their job and have the family cut down on expenses (e.g., sell off one of the cars, move into a smaller home). Either way, the Catholic school tuition is getting cut. So to say a typical middle class family wouldn’t feel a pinch is not necessary true because of the incredibly high costs of day care (again, unless they are already a single-income household).

    • Eileen

      Probably depends upon the area of the country in which you live. Here in the Philadelphia area, parish school maxes out at about 6k no matter how many kids you have in the school. 1 child is ~3k, 2 kids ~5k, and 3 or more will run ~6k.

      High school is a bit pricier. I believe the cost at a diocesan school is ~7k plus fees, with a family maximum of ~11k plus the 1200 dollars per student in fees. There are also lots of merit scholarships. If you’ve got a top student, that child could very likely go to a diocesan high school for free.

      Private Catholic single sex high schools here run about 20k per year, but there is a lot of financial aid as well as merit scholarships so that for many families the cost of private Catholic high school will be comparable to full price at a diocesan school. Of course, aid will vary greatly from school to school. At my daughter’s private high school, there was very much a rich vibe to the place. But at my sons’ very competitive private Catholic high school, there is much greater diversity in income than there is in the top tracks at our local public school.

    • KarenJo12

      Also no one has considered the costs to the woman’s career from having to take maternity leave every two years or so. After the third pregnancy her career is over because she’s had to take so much leave. There is no unbreakable law of physics that requires this result; better public policy, especially the guarantee of paid leave, would ameliorate the situation. Only us horrible evil vile feminists ever discuss this; conservatives believe that women shouldn’t have their own money anyway so who cares?

  • anna lisa

    Last Sunday, we said goodbye to a priest from Uganda, who was filling in for the pastor. He is one of 18 kids. He gave simple, easy to follow sermons. Last Sunday, his sermon was about how we can become saints if we want to. He illustrated his point with the true story about how some wild geese taught some domesticated geese on a farm in Uganda, how to fly. Some of the fat and complacent geese didn’t even give it a try. He smiled like he was enjoying himself the whole time. He laughed about things like not being able to afford a cell phone, which his American friends insisted that he needed. He said he agreed to an email address, but didn’t find much use for that either.

    Another Sunday, he laughed about the day his parents informed them who their favorite children were –the ones that helped willingly.

    I shook his hand at the end of mass and he beamed back at me. As we herded our kids into the car, I looked at my husband and said, “they are poorer than Americans but happier–I’m sure of it.” My husband heartily agreed.

  • Andy James

    I don’t think it makes any difference either way…rich or poor. Both conditions present their challenges to having a large family (and more importantly, raising them to be moral and holy). I recall being in a group of friends years ago, and someone said something like “I don’t know how we ever made it on only 35k a year” and I was astounded, because at the time I was making closer to 25 and already had 4 kids. Now I make many times more than that, but have all the same struggles.

  • Darren K

    I have 7 children ages 15 years to 4 months. I acknowledge that by modern standards we are at a minimum unusual but I by no means think we are in some way heroic. I say this because we have friends, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who think it takes some sort of super hero parent or uber-Catholic to have more than 3 children.

    Even more surprising are the reactions and comments we get from complete strangers, who suddenly feel empowered to ask questions or give advice about our sex life/finances/world hunger/the possibility that my spouse knows the UPS guy a little too well/etc. etc. etc. My favorite was a woman in the checkout line who overheard me talking to a friend and felt the need to blurt out, quite loudly and enthusiastically, “Seven kids! You must make a lot of money!” For once the response on the tip of my tongue was appropriate and true and not full of snark: “No, I make a lot of sacrifices.”

    That answer is not intended to sound boastful but rather to recognize the basic truth of the situation: My wife and I made a conscious decision to let God take us where He pleases, and following along is not always easy. We have not done cartwheels with every positive pregnancy test, but we have shed tears of joy with each birth and Baptism. We struggle interiorly as we write tuition checks and explain to the girls why we can’t go to Disney like (seemingly) every other single person they know, and we melt when we see our older kids display genuine love and compassion to their younger siblings. I want to wallow in self pity when I think of all the fly fishing trips I’ve passed on for lack of time or money, and then had a grin break the bounds of my face when my five year old catches a 4 inch bluegill at the local pond on a Spiderman pole, convinced he has got Moby Dick.

    We are solidly middle class financially. Catholic school and grocery bills make us feel poor. Our kids remind us that we are rich.

    • If it makes you feel better, I never went to Disney as a kid (even though seemingly everyone else I knew did), and I don’t feel like my childhood lacked because of it.

  • proscientia

    It is tough with family expectations not strongly taking into account a Catholic view of openness to life. My fiancee and I recently got your book! We look forward to reading about it.

  • DavidMillsWrtng

    Simcha: Thank you for this. It was very helpful and the kind of response a writer hopes for.

    But I would protest the ad hominem “Mills, a white-bearded male scholar, most likely reads about Catholic sexual teaching in books and journals, where one is unlikely to hear anything candid, raw, unpolished or, frankly, honest. For some more useful research on the topic,” etc. You don’t know me and have no reason to say that.

    Part of the column came from conversations with precisely the woman you claim I don’t know and part from email conversations with other women writing in response to one of my cheery articles, who wanted me to know that I had left out their experience. The column was a kind of reparation.

    It also came from our experience having our last two children, when NFP failed (and blessedly so), which were very difficult pregnancies coming when we were just getting along financially working for a non-profit ministry always financially on the edge. Our youngest was born when my wife was 42. We know the experience from the inside.

    • simchafisher

      Thanks for the response, David. You’re right, there was no reason to drag your beard into it! I believe you that your post was the fruit of actual experience and conversation, and should not have jumped to conclusions. I do see that you were attempting to correct a real problem (the happy-face-ification of obedience to hard teachings), but, as I explained in the post, I think your correction also misses the mark. As others have stated, the truth is that we all struggle with one or another aspect of obedience, and it’s generally not helpful to say “such-and-such a group has it easier” – because there is such variety among people, even those who resemble each other on the outside.

      Some people seemed to think that I had missed a major point of your post – namely, that rich couples should do more to ease the path of poor couples, so that poor couples don’t suffer disproportionately when they’re just trying to follow God. You did allude to that idea, but didn’t get specific. Is that something you’ll be expanding on?

      Anyway, thanks for the civil response, and I hope you write more about the topic!

      • DavidMillsWrtng

        Simcha: Thank you. Part of our disagreement is that I do think it not only helpful to say that some people have it easier but necessary, when that group is speaking or acting in a way that hurts others. It’s part of the pastoral side of the writer’s calling.

        I second your insights with cheers. You’re offering more general insights into the broader question about the challenges of living the Faith and I was making a different and specific point about the economic impact of one particular act of faithfulness. I didn’t miss the point you think I missed. I was aiming at another.

        And Aleteia only gives columnists 700 or 800 words. There’s only so much one can do. I am following up with some ideas of how the affluent can help here next week.

        • Beth

          Thank you both for writing about it, and please keep doing so!

        • Momtoafew

          It does rub me the wrong way that people think richer people have it easier with being open to life…every situation is different. The opposite has been true in our marriage. When we were hurting financially, we were open to life. It was a sacrifice. We truly went without. But that struggle pales in comparison to the hardship we faced when we were rich and open to life–Financially we can have more children. But, we are now struggling with the healthcare needs of our older son. We can afford our bills + lotsa extras. But, I struggle with being present for the rest of my children-Everyday is a struggle, but not because we don’t have money. Money can buy you alot of things, most of which are not really all that important when you start tallying up what matters. If I could trade ALL of my earthly wealth for my son’s health, and tack on 10+ more children, I would. In a heart beat. Struggling financially with a large family was a pure joy compared to what we are doing now. You may not hear this perspective because it is depressing.

      • DavidMillsWrtng

        Oh yeah. I’m probably not as old as you think. My family turns grey early. Plus beards just make you look older.

  • Don’t rich people write more about just about everything? Time to write, computers to type on, education to write well enough to be published, and connections to actually get your writing published seem like they’d all be easier to come by if rich