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Can You Have Too Many Babies?

January 22, 2014

by Candice Watters

Q: I’ve been wondering how many children is too many; is it even possible to have “too many” children?

If we believe in a completely sovereign and good God, what are the implications of that on determining how many children are in a family? I hear people say we should use wisdom in determining the size of our family, but how is that consistent with completely trusting God’s sovereignty in every area of our lives? I struggle to understand this, and I really want to have God’s perspective and not tainted by my own preference or opinion.

If God is in control of all things, can’t He determine when a family has the right amount of children and close the womb? If so, why don’t we trust Him to do that? Our hearts are so deceitful: How can we know better than God what is best for our family?

Some say that if a woman is in too much pain or discomfort, or if there are risks for her to carry another child, that the couple should do something to stop having them. But like Job, who are we? Why should I get to determine how much pain I go through in life? We are such fallible, finite creatures. How can we determine what is best in this regard? And isn’t doing something to stop having children really saying that we don’t believe God is sovereign?
I feel compelled toward God’s sovereignty. But I also want to have some role in determining how big my family is. What do you think God thinks of this?

A: It is such a delight to think through your questions and press into God’s Word for wisdom on this issue of how many children to have. I’m a member of the first generation of children whose mothers had access to the pill. The landscape is dramatically different from any other time in history. The fact that we can so easily separate sexual intimacy from the possibility of conception and pregnancy means that for most married women, we often do. This too is unique, and fairly recent, in the history of humanity. And it has profoundly changed the way we think about the size of our families and the value of children.

Scripture shows babies are wealth (Psalm 128:3). Jesus says children are the model of kingdom faith (Matthew 18:2–4). Biological fruitfulness is the reward for obedience (Psalm 127:3–4, Genesis 22:17–19). Throughout Scripture, barrenness is a curse (Job 15:34, 2 Samuel 6:23, see also the stories of Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, Hannah, Elizabeth, etc.). Yet we live in a day when many live in a state of self-imposed (albeit often intermittent) barrenness.

What will be the legacy of this mindset, of all this control over birth (or more accurately, non-birth)? I suspect we’ll not know the extent of the consequences until we reach heaven. But I do worry on one level that we’ll see many couples entering old age with regrets not that they had too many children, but that they had too few. Steve and I have friends who stopped at two babies because in their day, it was seen as the environmentally conscientious thing to do. They are now in their 60s and look back on that decision with sadness.

We tell the story in Start Your Family of our own struggle with secondary infertility (in our case, prolonged difficulty conceiving after already having had two biological children) and the shift from thinking we were done to being told we were. What an emotional time that was. Our third baby, and especially fourth, were miracles. I can’t imagine our family without them. And yet I grieve that we ran out of time to have another. I still wish we could have one more.

I used to look down on families with more than five children (since I’m one of five, that number seems normal to me). It felt unseemly and hinted at careless disregard. Now I know that my impressions were rooted in my embrace of what our culture says is normal, as well as my own selfishness. What a joy it was to become close friends with a family with seven children when we lived in Colorado. At first I was totally intimidated by them. And frankly, I thought they were a little weird. But, oh, the joy of getting to know them. I grew to love each of their children, and that love grew as I got to know them individually. When they told us they were expecting their eighth, I still had that twinge of shock. And the husband held up our book when he made the announcement. (How deceitful our hearts can be!) Now that their eighth is here, I know how wrong I was. Their family is wonderful, and their new baby is a welcome and vital member of it.

Typically when women ask me about letting God determine their family size, they’re motivated by a fear of becoming the next Duggar family. But I believe that often their fear is unfounded. While researching birth stats for Start Your Family, we found that more often the opposite holds true:

By the time the average couple tries to have kids, they are often surprised to find they are already moving past the peak of their fertile years. As a result, the proportion of 40-something women who are childless (and unlikely to ever have children) doubled between 1976 and 2000. Perhaps the most telling statistics are those that reveal a growing gap between what couples say is their ideal family size and the number of kids they actually end up being limited to. While only 2 percent of respondents to a World Values Survey say they don’t want any children, fully 20 percent currently end up having none. And while 3 percent say they only want one child, 16 percent find themselves limited to just one.

I wonder how much of our discomfort with large families is the result of shifting cultural trends. It seems strange now simply because it’s less common. But the fact that it’s less common shouldn’t be the reason we stop having babies. I’m not arguing that more babies are better simply by virtue of volume. But that when husband and wife embrace their children as the wealth and reward that God says they are, and when Dad and Mom take seriously the charge to train their children up in the fear and admonition of the Lord, and when both parents are embracing the sanctification that being parents of many children inevitably imposes on them, and when they’re being intentional about passing on their faith and running a well-ordered home, it’s a joy to experience. And from what my friends with large families tell me, it’s a joy to be in.

I realize not all large families are run this way. But neither are all small families. I’ve been in homes where two children were the source of much chaos, with impatient parents responding sinfully to undisciplined children and all the consequences that follow. It’s not the number of children that leads to pathologies, but the lack of the gospel. That’s true no matter how many–or how few–chairs are around the kitchen table. And so it’s not enough to simply make babies. We must be faithful to all the Bible says about caring for and providing for them, about bringing them up and discipling them.

Dr. Andreas Kostenberger says this: “In godly homes, husband and wife sharpen one another as ‘iron sharpens iron’ (Proverbs 27:17), and their children are drawn into the communal life of the family and into the path of discipleship pursued and modeled by their parents, which fulfills the Lord’s desire for godly offspring (Malachi 2:15). This, too, is part of obeying the risen Christ’s commission for His followers to ‘go…and make disciples’ (Matthew 28:18–20).”

Nor is it enough to be godly parents. Both man and woman in marriage are called to faithfulness as husband and wife. And the husband is to “live in an understanding way” with his wife so that his prayers may not be hindered (1 Peter 3:7). God has given us the ability to understand our fertility, and that understanding makes it possible to space babies. This is a great mercy for the young wife with many young children. It may be that the most understanding thing a husband of such a wife can do is honor her need for a break from being pregnant. This will require extra vigilance and self-control, but I do believe we have the freedom in marriage to take such a break.

I also think this applies when the wife is ill or has been told she will become ill if she conceives any more babies. I’m not in this position (nor have I ever been) so I want to tread very lightly here. From where I stand, and again, I’m not in a situation of great exhaustion from multiple pregnancies close together or facing grave pregnancy-induced illness or extreme birth defects, but from here, I think Natural Family Planning is a gift. It allows husband and wife to make informed decisions about intimacy, while remaining open to the possibility that God will intervene with a pregnancy.

And if He does, we can trust Him. He is always trustworthy. I think the answer to your question about God’s sovereignty is that, yes, we can trust Him. Always. Even when we don’t like it or agree with it in the moment. It is never wrong to trust God. He is able to open and close the womb. He is able to provide for our daily needs (strength, stamina, groceries, salary, etc.). I think of George Mueller’s amazing faith for the orphans of Bristol. Surely many, many people said George Mueller “had” too many children. But the story of his faith and God’s repeated answers to his prayers for everything they needed, down to the milk for their breakfast, are legendary. I wonder how many of us cut ourselves off from that sort of faith and answered prayer because we take matters into our own hands and rely on our own understanding.

Children are wealth. They are a reward. It may not be sin to say no to more, but at a minimum, it seems we should reconsider the “wisdom” of refusing such gifts from the hand of God.

I hope and pray all this is helpful. It’s such a delicate, yet essential topic that we must carefully wrestle with it. But wrestle nonetheless, for our decisions will have implications for all of eternity. I pray the Lord will bless you for thinking deeply and biblically about these issues.

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The CBMW National Conference is April 8, 2014 in Louisville, KY.  Speakers include John Piper, David Platt, Albert Mohler, and more. Registration is just $30. Find more information here.

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