A Nice, Neat Family of Precisely Two Children

A Nice, Neat Family of Precisely Two Children April 21, 2012

Usually if I happen to be talking to another woman – an ordinary woman who has a nice, neat family of precisely two children – the subject of family size comes up.  It’s natural: the train of three kids running pell-mell in front of me with a baby gurgling in the stroller is an unusual sight.  Are they all mine?  Yes.  She has only two, but that’s enough.  With two, she never has time for herself, never gets the gardening done, is constantly in her car driving them from here to there.  She can’t imagine how I manage with four.  I say, “Oh, four is nothing.  My Mom has eight.”

If I know the woman a little better, the conversation deepens.  Underneath the worries and anxieties, the feelings of parental inadequacies, the frustrations of the life that one has put aside, there is a longing.  “The baby is so cute.  It makes me want another one. . . . I don’t know.  Sometimes I think maybe I’ll adopt one.  But then – ” the money, the time, the energy, the work.  The vast gray specter of eighteen more years of the dullness and drudgery.  “Maybe it’s better just to look.  Eventually, I’ll have grandkids.  Can I hold him for a minute?”

Melinda Selmys, Sexual Authenticity:  An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism, 130.

This probably wouldn’t have made me all misty if the exact thing hadn’t happened to me last Sunday afternoon.  I had taken my three children out for a walk for the first time – Daisy is brand new – and met a family of precisely two.  Their youngest was a little younger than my second.  A lovely family, they just couldn’t imagine how we did it.  A family of five in a little two-bedroom apartment downtown.  Even in their big house in the burbs they couldn’t imagine where they’d put another baby.  And the lack of sleep!  No, they couldn’t have another one, even if it would be nice.

Daisy sure is crying a lot though.

Is she hungry?

No, she just ate.  It’s probably digestion.

Maybe I could get her to stop?

Be my guest.

Mom held Daisy for a long time.  Then, Dad.  He’s the expert at this, after all.  Maybe he can get her to stop.  Then Mom again.  They could not put her down.  It’s really too bad we can’t have another.  Really too bad.

Here’s the thing.  We can’t imagine how we’re doing it either.  Our heads are barely above water.  Sometimes we order pizza to avoid dishes and sometimes we put on the cartoons and have a nap.  But we’ll get there.  People have been having more than two kids for a long time.

In other news, a family in the neighbourhood recently told us they’re expecting number 2.  Number 1 is still home in China with relatives and they miss him terribly, and this pregnancy wasn’t planned.  They had scheduled the abortion, in fact (“We’re not religious, you understand.”), but cancelled at the last second.  They’re scared, but excited.

We see you out with your kids all the time.  They look like so much fun.  How do you do it?

I have no idea.  But you’re right, it is fun.  You’ll never regret having your baby.

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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  • Ronald King

    “Go outside and play. You kids make me sick!” “You kids will be the death of me yet!” from the unpublished and unwritten psyche of the oldest of six living beside the railroad tracks in Penn, PA from 1947 to 1966. Of course there is a little more to this.

    • brettsalkeld

      Yes, Ronald. How we talk about kids right in front of them is really quite remarkable. I am always stunned when someone tells me, right in front of their kids, how problematic having kids is.

      In some circles it is done quite unwittingly as small talk. Complaining about kids is the first thing you do when you meet another parent.

      • Ronald King

        When my mother was 10 months old her mother died of tuberculosis and mom and her two older sisters were put in a catholic orphanage for the next 8 years because her father was a coal miner and could not care for them. He would visit them on weekends. The loss of a secure attachment and love changes the neurocircuitry and neurobiology of the brain and makes it hypersensitive to stress no matter how much one may love their children. This is an extreme example but there exists within the brain mirror neurons which records behavioral and emotional responses to self and others which predisposes how the child will interact with that child’s children when she/he becomes a parent. So when you hear others talking in negative terms about their children it is because they have no free will until they know how their circuitry and biology are influencing them from their attachment history. You can then ask them how it was in their attachments to their parents and see what their response is. God Bless.

        • brettsalkeld

          Yes Ronald, none of this kind of thing ever happens in a vacuum. Thank you for highlighting that part of the system where you have expertise.

          Lack of freedom is, I think, a great way to say it. The couple I met in the park felt a lack of freedom in this area. And I think you’re exactly right, if they could see the roots of the lack, it would lose its hold on them.

        • brettsalkeld

          I should add, of course, that there are all kinds of good reasons for not having children or not having more children. The problem I’m trying to highlight is that many people feel a lack of freedom here where there need not be one and it hurts them.

          • Ronald King

            I agree and there are many internal and external pressures which influence this sense of a lack of freedom. The transgenerational reason I have interpreted from scripture seems to have begun with the first conscious family with Eve and Adam. The attachment between the two of them was not secure and the first son Cain appeared to inherit the message of not being good enough in his response to his brother. Fear of not being good enough(shame) and then the reality of violence and death are a constant unconscoius influence on those who have been created to bring life into this world. There is so much more. Thank you so much for engaging me and I love what you are doing for couples and families. God Bless. It may be that exploration of the 4 existential crises that all human beings share might be a way to begin to help families and potential couples identify the source of their sense of a loss of freedom. Death, freedom, isolation and apparent lack of meaning would seem to open a deep exploration for potential spouses and parents.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    Everything about you, which I can glean form what you write tells me you have a real vocation to have children. This is the way I wish society would look at it. It should be honored as a special vocation, because not everyone has the personal draw to do it. I think looking at it this way, not the opposite, really would help the world The opposite is the idea that everyone is called to be a parent by dint of having a sex life, especially when young and fertile and energetic. Look at the world we have inherited because of this notion.

    I had the most amazing experience when my sister had her first child. For a time when my nephew was younger he looked exactly like me as a child. Exactly. Down to the mannerisms and facial expressions. Genetics are amazing. I didn’t even have to have a child to have that experience of staring at a little version of me. Quite lucky, I thought. Very charming. But it did not make me want to have the vocation of a parent. That is the point. But I am glad that level-headed people like you do want to have that vocation. For sometimes it seems like a lot of the people who want children are not stable enough to handle it.

    Come to think of it…..isn’t that an argument for contraception? But that’s another story. Cheers!

    • brettsalkeld

      Well PPF, I think we are in two very different camps here. I am rather more concerned with the damage done to the world by the idea that sex can be completely detached from its natural consequences than “the idea that everyone is called to be a parent by dint of the notion of having a sex life.” I’m with free-love feminist Tennessee Claflin who writes that “No woman should ever hold sexual relations with any man from the possible consequences of which she might desire to escape.”

      I’m skeptical of imagining that my vocation to have children is some supernatural gift. It seems much more likely to me that it is embedded in family and cultural practice, religious practice in particular. If that is correct, then I suspect a better solution to the problem of unfit parents is not to prevent certain folks from breeding, but to encourage a culture that would support and nurture vocations such as my own.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs


        Well, first, I agree that no one, not the State or any “smart person” should “prevent” anyone else from breeding. We agree completely on that one. The policies of China in that regard are completely barbaric, as I see it.

        But that is not the same as encouraging things one way or other. If the world at large can spend so much stupid time encouraging us all to be “attractive”, as if that every helped anyone ultimately with happiness, then a teensy bit of the encouragement could go to encouraging good parents and discouraging bad ones. You know the amazing thing is that “bad breath:” gets a thousand times more discouragement than bad parents! Freedom is about the possibility of persuasion. You seem to feel that basically everyone, with some religious exceptions and unplanned health issues, is in the Imago Dei a potential good parent. Now, Brett, you sound like a good parent to me. But look around in the world and tell me honestly that you would choose to be the child of that deranged looking Dad you just saw in the supermarket. Or that you would be the child of that drugged-out lady you caught glimpse of while hurrying to classes through downtown. (I know Toronto, Canada doesn’t have as much of that as say San Francisco, but follow the thread here please. And BTW !!!! Why do you think Canada has fewer of those problems. Do you think it is because they have views like your or like mine??? There’s a reason the Queen is still on the currency! Humane English liberalism, not Roman whateveryoucallit.) If you don’t want to be the child of those people, then how can you hold a view that others should be. Again, I am not for the State making any of those decisions, ever. But that is quite different from a humane evolution away from cruelty.

        • brettsalkeld

          I was not aware San Francisco had been overrun with Roman whateveryoucallit. 😉

        • Peter Paul Fuchs


          it’s not named after the Little Brother of the Poor for nothing. What a place, huh!? San Francisco is filled with homeless people, and yet the very attractive an fabulous Gavin Newsom (whom I have crush on believe me) produced a very expensive Tiffany trinket to be given out to dignitaries as a special gift. Democracy is soooooo complicated. I know this because we went to an estate sale in the Kalorama district of DC one day at an embassy for some some small country and bought this little Tiffany ramekin
          with lid for one buck.

    • Why is contraception the answer, though, PPF?

      If you think reproduction is something vestigial that should be limited for many people…why get rid of the reproduction but keep the sex?

      Why medically target fertility and not, rather, libido itself?

      That would seem to be the REAL social-engineering answer to the world you claim to imagine: a pill to kill the sex drive, not a pill to leave it intact but stop the consequences.

  • civicsgeeks

    the cultural norm of 2 children is absolutely dominant.

    my wife and i are expecting our second baby this august, and we think she is a girl, and so often we hear, “oh, a boy and a girl, the perfect family!”

    it makes me want to puke

    • brettsalkeld


    • Smith

      I agree. My wife and I now have a boy and a girl. Any mention of more kids brings about a reaction. This reaction isn’t always bad, but there is always a reaction.

    • Peter Paul Fuchs

      Remembering the flamboyantly nauseous Mr. Santorum’s words, one must ask: Why is there so puking going-on amongst conservative Catholics?? Is it Cryptospirituum in the water or something??

    • CC

      Aw, cut them some slack, they’re just trying to make polite small talk. I doubt they’re seriously trying to say you shouldn’t have more children; if they’re awkward (like I am), *all* polite small talk comes out wrong (frankly, if they’re as awkward as I am, they did a really good job saying what they said!).

  • johnmcg

    Those neighbors are in my prayers.

  • Melody

    Congratulations on your little Daisy, Brett! She’d be about the age of our younger granddaughter. They are precious to hold. Enjoy her now; the time will seem to pass in a heartbeat. Before you know it you will be taking pictures of her in a prom dress.

  • I am not sure what to think here. Even the Catholic Church has for decades not subscribed to the idea that married couples should pretend they don’t know what causes children and just let chance determine the number. If people want two and only two children, what’s the problem? Now, if people in their heart of hearts want many children, and they are intimidated by the majority view that two is the ideal and the limit, then that’s sad, but it’s also their own fault.

    If the point of life is to have children, and the point of the children’s lives is to have children, and the point of the children’s children’s lives is to have children, there doesn’t seem to be much point in life but to reproduce!

    • brettsalkeld

      Now, if people in their heart of hearts want many children, and they are intimidated by the majority view that two is the ideal and the limit, then that’s sad,

      That was my point.

      As to the rest, the point of life is to be happy. Reproduction serves that point by making us happy and by making others exist so that we can share the joy. It does not replace it.

      Of course, there are those called to serve joy in other ways.

      • As to the rest, the point of life is to be happy.

        Misery is certainly not a good, but happiness as an end quickly runs into problems, both moral and practical.

        Congrats on Daisy! Fwiw, we found the transition from 2 to 3 relatively seamless – hope you do as well.

        • brettsalkeld

          Could you elaborate on the problems with happiness as an end? I’m not sure where you’re going. Or if we’re using the term in the same sense.

        • Well, words have a lot of meanings. In our culture, I’d be reluctant to make a statement like “the point of life is to be happy.” It may imply to some readers that the subjective experience of being “happy” – that is, content, without troubles – is the primary end towards which we should direct our actions. That seems to me to be in tension with much of the Gospel message; implicit in “seek ye first the Kingdom of God…” is the clause ‘whether it seems like it will make you happy or not’. Gethsemane was not about ‘happiness’ in the common sense, nor do most of the lives of the saints seem to be driven by happiness, but rather by a concern for holiness, virtue, closer union with God, etc..

          Now, in the end, the pursuit of what is good often leads to greater happiness even in the common sense of the term; but when it is pursued as an end to itself (often as a justification for shirking one duty or another), I think the pursuit of happiness becomes an exercise in narcissism. I am sure you meant something quite different by happiness, but it still sounded like an odd claim for someone with your background to make.

          • brettsalkeld

            Now, in the end, the pursuit of what is good often leads to greater happiness even in the common sense of the term

            It seems we are agreed.

            I could be wrong, but I think the Baltimore Catechism says something about being happy with God in eternity as the purpose of life.

            I just have a slightly more realized eschatology than the Baltimore Catechism. 😉

  • Bruce in Kansas

    God bless your family, Brett! My grandmother always said babies make good grown-ups. I agree that there is something intrinsic drawing us toward parenthood and its sacrificial, unconditional, self-giving love. I think it’s the same thing that attracts us to a religious life. It’s also what attracts us to marriage. It’s what attracts us to Jesus. If there’s an argument against having a baby that’s not at its root selfish, I haven’t heard it yet.

  • Two is the norm now? Really? Huh. In my experience, though two is not uncommon, three seems to be the “standard” ideal. But I’m from a rather conservative town, I guess.

  • Susan

    A group of women whose husbands worked with mine threw me a baby shower after I had my 3rd son. At one point I walked into the kitchen and overheard a woman mumbling (to no one in particular): ‘I could have had a third…. why didn’t I have a third? She has a third, why didn’t I?!’ It was a bit odd, but I felt sorry for her… it was obvious that she based her childbearing on ‘cultural norms’ (this was in the 80’s when it was especially rare to see families with more than one or two…. Angelina Jolie wasn’t around then).
    We had our share of unthinkingly rude comments as we had even more children, but if I answered thoughtlessness with polite comments, people usually ended the conversation by complimenting us on our nice kids. it’s all about love, and attitude. Also- Ronald King, thanks for posting. My grandmother had a similar background as your mother.

  • Ronald King

    I think the point of life is to make this a better life whether or not we have children. We cannot make this a better life if we see children as an unwanted intrusion. And we cannot make this a better life if we need children to complete us. In each case the child will instinctively know that something is wrong with this situation depending on their level of sensitivity to the dysfunction within the caregiver. They will be able to pick this up at a pre-verbal and pre-conscious level and if the dysfunction is persistent it will influence the brain to develop with a high sensitivity to not fitting in and will exhibit a variety of symptoms which either increase the tension or result in the child internalizing the conflicting feelings as a way of decreasing the external tension. As adults these children will have difficulty with intimacy and bonding.

    • Peter Paul Fuchs


      Look, I am not saying your rather idealized rhetoric here is wrong. Many of us in the world would have been quite delighted to have parents with such discerning ideals. So please don’t take this in a way that I don’t mean it. But, the simplest cultural deduction about why most people in first world countries have children is this. And I emphasize that counter-intuitively the following reality has only increased with a world of modern conveniences of information sharing that also bolster anonymity. Namely, that for a lot of people in such an anonymous world that “status” of being a “mom” or a “dad” is the only status they are going to ever have. This also explains the phalanx of dysfunction we see in kids. As your very logic indicates the kids know that the only real reason they were wanted is because it gives insecure mom and dad a place in the world. And like all kids they are keen to reveal their knowledge of the the parent’s “secret” ambition. Thus, a cycle of dysfunction and denial. And as the kids grow up and are itching to NOT do what will fulfill this underlying ambition of the parents, the parents have regrets.

      The moral of the story is that society needs to have a simple message. If you really, really want to have kids you are exactly the sort of person that should have them. If you think they will give you a place in the world or status, then your life is liable to only become a locus of misery for that vexed ambition.

      • Ronald King

        Peter PF, I don’t know whether to address you as Peter, or Peter Paul, or PPF but that is my dilemma. I am always looking at the ideal and as always I appreciate your comments. When I began reading Krishnamurti in 1973 one statement he made immediately cemented itself into my brain, “In order to know what love is we must identify what is not love.” I was afraid to have children because I was keenly aware of my neuroses and I did not want to pass that on to them. Well, that did not happen. Both of my/our children inherited the sensitivity of each side of the family and I observed them suffering with similar self doubts and difficulty fitting in as their parents did. One thing that is different for them is that we are able to help them understand the internal and external dynamics which influence them. However, my thinking is that what we have learned through new research about human development through the study of interpersonal neurobiology could begin to be taught to children entering grade school in coordination with parent education.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs

          So mote it be.

  • Pinky

    Among married people at my office, the average is a little above 1 child. Only one co-worker has three kids, a single birth and a pair of twins. I’m not sure that 2 is considered the ideal anymore in the city I live in.

  • R.

    Unfortunately, this entry piqued my interest, and I read Ms. Selmys’ book. I do not recommend spending money on it.

    Brett’s book is good, and was not a waste of money, so let me be clear that I’m not talking about his.

    I’ll give her this, she has the most compelling summary of the Theology of the Body that I’ve ever read; it almost makes sense, even if it’s not totally persuasive.

    One of you should take up more of this book than just that little snippet. Brett, what did you think of the rest of it?


    • brettsalkeld

      Thanks for the kind comments about my book R.!

      Mrs. Selmys’ (I believe she goes by Mrs.) book is tough to review. It is a strange animal as it does not seem to pick a genre (is it biography? polemic? theology?), and its direction isn’t always clear. I’m not sure she was always writing for the same audience either. Sometimes she was writing for a broader public and sometimes she seemed to be very deliberately preaching to the choir. Her ethical concerns about homosexual acts are presented quite obliquely, though that may be by design. She expresses the belief, with which I concur, that such arguments aren’t very helpful outside of genuine relationships. She herself was never (it seems) convinced by arguments. She simply met Christ and that was it. (Ok, that’s oversimplifying. Once she met Christ, she began to see all kinds of false assumptions she had previously held about sexuality in general and men in particular, and that led her to be able to see the credibility in the Church’s teaching.)

      Nevertheless, despite the odd structure and methodology, the book contains some real gems. Her summary of TOB is very good. I loved the chapter on children, from which I took the above quote. And I really liked the way she deconstructed how homosexuality is presented in the media (by both sides in the debate).

      Sometimes it is idiosyncratic and a little navel-gazy. Sometimes her writing soars and sometimes it looks like she’s trying too hard. (Even if she didn’t confess to being an aspiring novelist in the text, it is perfectly clear to an astute reader.)

      All in all, I found it interesting, but I think it is the kind of book I’d like to read alongside someone else. It would stimulate fascinating conversation.

      I’m still looking for the one book to recommend on this topic and am becoming worried that I might have to write it. That terrifies me. Not only am I (currently) unqualified to do so, but I do not relish the thought of researching it. Though I am intensely curious to know more about an issue that is of tremendous import for the Church in this day, I have already read some things that I find really unsettling. (E.g., I am interested in the relationship between anal sex and reciprocity/mutuality since I am given to understand that the vast majority of male-male relationships that include anal sex only go in one direction. The reading on this topic inevitably involves descriptions from pornography that disturb me quite a bit.) I’m not sure I’m spiritually ready for such an endeavor.

      • Brett, if you do choose to write a book about the theological ramifications of TOB vis a vis male homosexuality, coauthor with a gay man who is Catholic and has some knowledge of theology. Fr. Alison would be an ideal academic partner should he wish to collaborate.

        I can’t vouch for other gay men, but TOB (not the Christopher West sparknotes version, but translated collections of John Paul II sermons) is very hard to understand if one does not have an affective understanding of heterosexuality. I found it about as clear as a tractor shop manual. This is not to say that LGBT people can’t grasp the text in an academic context.

        Even though I know you grasp this, I must say: anal sex is not practiced by all gay men. Some gay men are not even sexually active. I once had an intense friendship with a straight man which satisfied my emotional need for male companionship. Quite sadly, the few times TOB mentions homosexuality, it is almost always within the context of act and not affection.

        • brettsalkeld

          I like to make the point you make about anal sex and gay men. Many relationships never get to that point. And for good reason. Sounds intimidating to me.
          And yes, people sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that being gay means being attracted to certain acts (which could be done with someone of the opposite sex in any case!). I think that thoroughly misrepresents the key issue.

          As for coauthoring? It’s a great idea, but very difficult in practice. I’ve done it once. The book was better for it, but took four times the work of the book I authored alone. I have no idea if Father Alison would want to write with me. In any case, it would be a long way in my future.

      • R.

        Thank you so much for this response, Brett. It helped me to see you put into words some of the issues with it. I also strongly agree that it would be a great book to read with someone, because yes, agree or disagree with her, it could spark some interesting conversations. I am not sure who that person would be (hence trying to elicit *your* comments).

        I also found that Eve Tushnet had written about the book back when it came out, and like me, she was disappointed. Still, her points, while not exactly the ones I would have made, also gave a good perspective. Maybe she could partner with you on writing that book … but I am thinking she’s probably not your best go-to source for male-male anal sex habits. 🙂

        • brettsalkeld

          Could you give us the link for the Tushnet piece? Thanks.

        • R.

          Brett, the best I can so is this link to Eve Tushnet’s March 2010 archive.


          You have to scroll down to a March 5, 2010 entry that begins “Still Preferring the Tinsel” – I don’t seem to be able to link right to that post.

          • brettsalkeld