Fecundaphobia: On the Fear of Large Families

The pharmacist was eyeing me strangely, and it was making me nervous. I glanced down at my clothes, then surreptitiously ran my tongue over my teeth. Then I noticed his eyes moving between me, my prescription, and the baby who was sitting on my hip. Suddenly I understood. Based on my prescription, he knew that I was pregnant. He was shocked that I was expecting another baby when I was already the mother of an eight-month-old.

It was a “welcome to the club” sort of moment. I had heard from the parents of large families about the stares, the snide remarks, and the subtle (or not-so-subtle) reminders that science has found a solution to all this excessive fertility. I thought I would need a larger number of children to be honored with that particular brand of public disapprobation, but it turns out that even two is enough if you space them right (or rather, wrong). What would the pharmacist have thought if he knew that I also had a 2-year-old at home?

I’m sure the effect will amplify if God blesses us with more offspring, but shepherding even three small boys (the eldest is not quite four) through public places is a bit like having a car covered in bumper stickers. People readily view my family as some kind of bold statement, and many feel a need to offer a rebuttal. Many of the comments are positive, and I must gratefully acknowledge that a good portion of the public is still inclined to be generous to harried moms. People hold doors for strollers, or call out after me if a shoe or jacket has fallen unnoticed on the path behind us. Good-natured older women have twice let me go ahead of them in grocery lines, observing with compassion that the whimpering child in my arms is probably ready for his nap. These gestures are hugely appreciated, and it’s certainly heartening to see that there is still a good supply of pro-family sentiment in America.

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Having said that, the negative comments can be truly bizarre. “People will bring their kids anywhere,” said a teenaged girl (quite loudly) to her boyfriend as we turned a corner at the local Trader Joe’s. Actually there are quite a number of places I would not bring them, but is food shopping now an adult-only activity?

The sample lady at Sam’s Club was equally enthused, noting without a hint of a smile that, “You have three now. Hmm. And all boys,” as though boys were agreed to be an unusually repulsive specimen. She pursed her lips in vexation, then begrudgingly added, “At least they’re fairly cute.”

Indeed, our situation is grim, but we put a bold face on it by reflecting on how much worse things might have been if we had been afflicted, not merely with boys, but with ugly boys.

Why do large families inspire this kind of nuttiness? Mollie Hemingway, noting this same phenomenon, playfully names it “fecundaphobia”: the fear of fertility and large families. Like me, she was arrested by the furor following NFL quarterback Philip Rivers’ admission that he and his wife were soon to welcome their seventh child. After an ESPN interviewer rudely informed Rivers that “it’s impossible to be a good parent” to so many kids, Deadspin decided to follow up with a story declaring that “Philip Rivers is an Intense Weirdo.”

Of course, as Hemingway notes, there’s nothing singular about a professional athlete who embraces (biological) paternity with enthusiasm. NFL players Antonio Cromartie and Travis Henry have between them fathered 23 children with eighteen different women, and ESPN has not seen fit to interrogate them about the adequacy of their parenting. What distinguishes Rivers? Well, in contrast to Cromartie and Henry, Rivers’ kids all have the same mom and he’s married to her! What a freak.

Fecundaphobes used to cite overpopulation as their excuse to recoil at the seven-passenger vans and the jumbo boxes of fruit snacks. Now that declining birth rates have made that justification less credible, they’ve had to get creative. The Rivers family presents a particular challenge because there can be no jokes about hand-me-downs and white-bread-and-bologna sandwiches; the $12 million Rivers will earn this year should be more than adequate to deck his offspring out in designer jeans for a family lunch at Ruth’s Chris, if that’s what he wishes to do. In desperation, ESPN fell back on the rather lame claim that there are “not enough hours in the day” to be a good parent to multiple kids.

Clearly, this is just foolishness. For more insight into the causes of fecundaphobia, however, we might look to cruder but more honest taunts of Planned Parenthood supporters who smear mothers of large families as “breeders” and “baby factories.” Here the implication is clear: women who embrace their natural fertility are degrading themselves to the level of animals, or even machines. They are allowing their physiology to supersede their rationality. For them, maternity is merely a biological reality. Its moral and spiritual dimensions are overlooked.

Why would anyone believe something so ridiculous? It should go without saying that people who spend most of their time around children are in an excellent position to appreciate their moral and rational natures. However, we may begin to understand the malady of fecundaphobia better if we view it in light of society’s long-confirmed habit of brushing children aside for the sake of more adult-centric pursuits.

Again and again over the last few decades, we have seen prominent “experts” arguing that children will not be significantly harmed by divorce, by two parents pursuing time-consuming careers, by single or by same-sex parenting. Over time, as children start to grow and reveal the scars of their displacement and neglect, this advice is exposed as the wishful thinking it always was. But the process of manufacturing false reassurances (“Do what you want! The kids will be fine!”) continues because, to the modern mind, it is simply galling to accept that it may really be necessary to give up cherished goals or preferred lifestyles for the sake of the next generation.

If only we could plan things better, fecundaphobes suppose, we could achieve a harmonious world in which children grew up happily with no serious inconvenience to anyone. A society that can build atom bombs and manufacture widgets by the millions must surely be able to escape from the drudgery of child-rearing.

At its root, fecundaphobia is the fear of that burden. If pro-life Catholics like Philip Rivers can have seven children and still be functional and respected members of society, that proves that such things are possible. It suggests that perhaps the morally responsible course is to make the sacrifices and shoulder the load, as our forebears did for centuries. This possibility is distasteful in the extreme, so fecundaphones reassure themselves people who have large families must not be serious about the responsibilities of parenthood. They must not appreciate that the children they bear are moral, rational beings. They’re more like animals really, breeding thoughtlessly and without regard for the consequences.

Would it help if we spoke more about the burdens, as well as the blessings, of family life? I sometimes wonder whether, in our eagerness to reassure the skeptical world that we are happy and fulfilled, Catholic parents inadvertently lend support to the idea that we aren’t even aware of the trials and the missed opportunities. We probably never wanted to do anything but change diapers. We just don’t need as much sleep as normal people.

Rivers strikes a good balance in his reply to ESPN’s nosy question:

It’s a two-year rotation: Once the diapers come off of one, we usually have a newborn. And we have another one on the way, due in October. I help when I can, but my wife, Tiffany, is the key. My big, growing family keeps everything balanced and grounded. My oldest is 11 now, and the kids are getting into football. They’re Daddy’s biggest fans, and they don’t get on you as bad as most fans. If you throw an interception, they still love you.

Well said, Mr. Rivers. Acknowledge the burdens. Express appreciation for spousal efforts. Then talk about the blessings, and make sure everyone understands that big families, just like small ones, are ultimately held together by love. When Rivers eventually retires, as every superstar must, will we be opening the newspaper to stories about him crashing sports cars or experimenting with drugs? I’m guessing not.

Get help, fecundaphobes. Our society does indeed have problems, but excessive enthusiasm for parenthood isn’t one of them.

Editor’s note: The image above is a scene from the Walt Disney animated film “101 Dalmatians” released in 1961.


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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