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The Gift of Siblings

Members of the Pellegrino family walk forward to present a candle during a prayer vigil led by Pope Francis "to dry the tears" of the suffering in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican earlier this year. The family lost a son and brother. Pictured are siblings Chiara and Raffaele, and parents Domenico Pellegrino and Giovanna Astarita. CNS photo by Paul Haring) Members of the Pellegrino family walk forward to present a candle during a prayer vigil led by Pope Francis "to dry the tears" of the suffering in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican earlier this year. The family lost a son and brother. Pictured are siblings Chiara and Raffaele, and parents Domenico Pellegrino and Giovanna Astarita.
According to recent headlines, the population explosion so alarmingly projected 50 years ago has not materialized, and we may well consider whether it’s time to rethink attitudes toward children.
 
Notwithstanding those who long for children but because of life circumstances or infertility find themselves unable to have them, there is a view of children in modern culture as burdensome.
 
A 2014 Pew study reported that nearly half of Americans (48 percent) say two is the ideal number of children, and fewer than 14 percent of women today have four or more children, compared to 40 percent in 1976. Sixty-five percent of Americans surveyed cited the costs associated with raising children for the preference for smaller families and the difficulties associated with finding childcare. Some argue that it is in the best interests of children for parents to limit family size in order to concentrate emotional and economic resources on existing children.
 
But are they right? Loving parents work hard and sacrifice much for their offspring. What if it turns out that the best insurance of future happiness parents could give their children, beyond any material benefit, is that of siblings?
 
In fact, evidence is mounting that larger families may be essential for the survival of society itself. Ten years ago, theologian George Weigel warned that Europe was destroying itself, and America would soon follow. He wrote, “By the middle of this century, if present fertility patterns continue, 60 percent of the Italian people will have no personal experience of a brother, a sister, an aunt, an uncle, or a cousin.”
 
Today, America indeed appears to be headed in the same direction. For the first time in history, the United States population is below replacement rate. In an interview on PBS News Hour, Economist Todd Buchholz, author of Siblings “The Price of Prosperity,” stated bluntly why wealthy nations like the U.S. endanger their future by having too few children: “You need somebody to support the retirees. You need to pay into the pension plans. You need people to work at the hospitals, at the nursing homes.”
 
At the local level, a family of many siblings may provide an optimal training ground
for life. The Catholic Church teaches that children are a gift.
 
On their wedding day, Catholic couples are asked: “Will you accept children lovingly
from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and His Church?”
 
This precept is, of course, subject to interpretation. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” states, “For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood.”
 
Pope Francis himself has counseled prudence in discerning family size, and the Church has become a champion of Natural Family Planning as a way to morally space pregnancies.
 
But, not infrequently, adopting an attitude of “generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood” often leads voluntarily to larger-than-average family size, as parents discover that negative stereotypes about large families are untrue and fears about depriving children of material goods are exaggerated.
 
Patrick and Stacey Guinee, parishioners of Holy Family-St. Lawrence Parish in Essex Junction, are one such family, with nine children, ages 1-14. Both come from large families, something they say has influenced their desire to have many children. As adults, their siblings “...bless us as we grow as a couple. (They) continue to challenge us as adults and remind us of our roots, of our faithful parents and of our mission to raise strong, faith-filled children in our holy little church,” Stacey said. “As I reflect on my own relationships with (our siblings), I see the future laid out before me, and I desperately want my children to develop lifelong friendships with their siblings like ours.  The support and love that come from shared history and faith make life more enjoyable.”
 
Jenn Smith of St. Mark Parish in Burlington, who with her husband, Bill, has five children ages 2-11, and is expecting her sixth, agreed. “Having a big family made me realize how much I missed growing up as an only child.” She said her children, “...experience childhood with the all the joys of having babies and younger siblings growing with them.  It gives them a bigger picture with different ways of looking at things instead of just their own outlook.”
 
Mary and Paul Niekrewicz of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Williston, parents of six children ages 5-18, said they view their home as a earning ground to prepare children, “…for the spectrum of life through the immediate needs of how to resolve a conflict over who gets to take a turn riding in the middle row seats of the family minivan, to growing fruitfully into faithful, independent adults. Above all, they learn how to love one another unconditionally just like Jesus loves them. Family life gives them a daily opportunity to meet Jesus in each other.”
 
The Catholic attitude of “welcome” to the gift of new life may be key to why families have found joy in choosing the countercultural and sometimes challenging path of parenting many children.
 
My own experience as one of eight siblings and the mother of five children bears this out. Today, more than ever, I appreciate the gift my parents gave me by “accepting children lovingly from God.” I’m sure it wasn’t always easy for them, and I won’t pretend that life in a large family wasn’t often messy and loud and complicated.
 
When my mother was widowed at age 46, with five young children to raise, it was her Catholic faith that sustained her. Despite the hardships of those years, my mother always had an optimistic view, and before she died at age 90, she remarked many times how grateful she was that God had blessed her with children and grandchildren.
 
As I have grown older, I have discovered the joy of having a group of people who share my history, mourn my losses and have my back like no one else ever could. I hope my own children will come to experience this gift in the same way. Comparing the considerable effort of raising a large family to the lifelong treasure of having siblings, I can only say to my parents, from the bottom of my heart, “thank you.”
 
 By Carrie Handy, respect life coordinator for the Diocese of Burlington.
 
Last modified onFriday, 23 December 2016 10:52
Vermont Catholic Magazine © 2016 Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington