This post was previously written and published in another forum, but I thought I might post it here as food for thought this week.

While motherhood is not limited to bearing children, bearing children is definitely one facet of motherhood.

What do Mormons believe about fertility and children?

I find it funny that so many people outside the church consider Mormon women to be somehow looked down upon or subjugated, when, in the trenches of LDS/Mormon life, I have found women have as many viewpoints, opinions, and freedom to choose varying lifestyles as there are stars in the heavens!

With regard to the outlook on childbearing and our faith, many Modern Mormon feminists have a mission: they want to break through stereotypes that would define Latter-day Saint wives as perpetually pregnant women bound to their children and stripped of choices to succeed in life.

They are a few years too late. The fact is, most LDS women have no intention of being pregnant too soon or with too much frequency.

As a Mormon blogger recently wrote, “Three is the new six.”

While traditionally LDS women have been stereotyped as “barefoot and pregnant,” uneducated and subjugated, that is just not the case in our modern age.  LDS women are much more in line with the popular culture’s views on the subject.

In today’s pop culture, pregnancy is not a partnership with God, it’s a fashion statement. In the society in which we live, children are often considered something to be put off until you’ve done everything else, and that is the one thing you haven’t tried yet. In fact, many find that they never tire of life without children, and are perfectly content to skip it altogether.

The culture of modern society celebrates the fact that women can use birth control to put off children or forego having them altogether in lieu of trips to Paris, a nice house, a great figure, or a gorgeous guy:

While I am very, very grateful for the technology and strides in modern medicine that make so many things in our lives possible, the whole attitude that babies interfere with having the good life was depressing to me.  I am definitely not advocating a large number of children for every family–but I do wish that more people could realize how having children, while perhaps negating a trip to Paris, can be even better. Not easier, but better.

Recent statistics show that the average LDS family has three children, just one more than the average non-LDS family. A BYU sociologist also noted that LDS members in Mexico usually have fewer children than non-members in that country. The BYU Health Center director reported that at least 80% of women who are getting married request birth control, which corroborates Tim Heaton’s research showing that LDS rate of birth control usage is the same as the national rate: 80.5%.

I know there are people who have received answers to prayer that expressly tell them to limit the number of children they have. I just wish they might look at other options aside from chemical birth control, which I will explain more below.

Over the past decade, I have also seen a huge increase in the number of cases of infertility within the church. I am very happy to see that most members have been very understanding and loving toward infertile couples, as they should be. I believe it is vitally critical as Relief Society sisters, especially, that we refrain from making any kind of judgments regarding this sacred subject.

Over the years I have heard mothers of soon to be married daughters talk with gusto about how their daughters will be using the Pill to put off having children until they are “ready.” They speak with pride on this subject, admitting that it is they, the mothers, who have convinced their daughters to take this course of action. But, do they understand the risks?

If they do understand, these mothers are persuading their daughters to risk:

  • bacterial infections (because the pill weakens the immune system)
  • infertility-unable to ever bear children
  • cervical cancer
  • ectopic pregnancy
  • shrinking of the womb (endometrial atrophy)
  • mood swings and depression
  • breast cancer
  • blood clots
  • birth defects in children conceived while women are on the pill
  • stroke

Are the risks worth it? I thought it woefully disappointing to read the following viewpoint of a girl about to get married at BYU:

The Ferrins said they decided to use birth control methods for a short while when they got married so they could get used to being a couple before bringing children into their family. “There is a different dynamic when you get married, and I think it was important for us to develop a marital pattern before introducing new factors like children..”

I wonder if they have factored in the very real chance of breast cancer into their “marriage dynamic,” considering that the Pill has been linked to a 660% rise in breast cancer since 1973?  Do they realize that they are putting themselves at risk for these diseases just so they can “develop a marital pattern”?  Is it worth it?

To show just how much of a threat the pill posed to young women, Lanfranchi pointed to several statistics, including a 2006 Mayo Clinic meta-analysis that concluded that breast cancer risk rises 50 percent for women taking oral contraceptives four or more years before a full-term pregnancy. In 2009, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that women starting the pill before 18 nearly quadruple their risk of triple negative breast cancer. Even more shocking, Swedish oncologist Hakan Olsson concluded that pill use before the age of 20 increases a young woman’s breast cancer risk by more than 1000 percent.

I wonder if they have factored in a chance of cervical cancer into their “marital pattern”:

Women who used the pill for less than five years had no increase in their risk of cervical cancer. But women who reported using birth control pills from five to 10 years had a 60% increase in their rate of cancer; women using the pill more than 10 years had a rate over twice that of women who didn’t use the pill.

What do members of the church think? Here is the church policy:

“…The decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord. Church members should not judge one another in this matter…sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a means of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife.”

Many members have extracted from that statement a tacit endorsement for birth control.

I could not find, however, anywhere it says the decision is intimate and private and should only be left between the couple and their in-laws, the couple and Norplant, or between the couple and Beyaz, or the couple and their OB/GYN. I do understand that there are some couples that will use birth control, and that is between them and the Lord, but what I got from this statement is that a husband and wife can actually invite the Lord into their family planning and that He will send or not send children when it is the right time.

If we believe the Bible and the Book of Mormon to be the word of God, which we say we do, it would appear that the Lord can open and shut the womb at the right times and seasons. Of course, this would require a great deal of faith on the part of the couple. And they would have to invite the Lord and the Spirit into their sexual relations, as well. This concept may be so foreign as to make it seem impossible,  however, there are multiple examples in scripture that would attest to Heavenly Father’s omnipotence in this area of the Plan.

It would also be very comforting to couples whose mission in life included having the womb shut for the entire duration of the season of mortality.  How much less we might judge each other if we all practiced, at least a little, putting the Lord into the equation.

It seems that few young single adult women and men even understand the basics of conception, let alone how to understand fertility. If we understood the absolute miracle that it takes for a woman to get pregnant to begin with (a woman who is regularly sexually active who is not using any form of birth control has only an 11 percent chance of conceiving each month), then we might not be so crazy about the Pill and other forms of birth control. Those 11% odds diminish drastically with age and birth control usage.

There is another quotation which is oft-quoted by those who would choose to wait to have children, given by Elder Gordon B. Hinckley in 1983 :

“I am offended by the sophistry that the only lot of the Latter-day Saint woman is to be barefoot and pregnant,” he said. “It’s a clever phrase, but it is false. Of course we believe in children. The Lord has told us to multiply and replenish the earth that we might have joy in our posterity, and there is no greater joy than the joy that comes of happy children in good families. But he did not designate the number, nor has the church. That is a sacred matter left to the couple and the Lord.”

Many members of the church take this to mean that “three is the new six,” or some similar philosophy.  Some think it is an endorsement for the pill.  I don’t think it is.  I also don’t think it’s an endorsement for people to assume that President Hinckley meant that people who have 7,8, or a dozen or more children are more righteous than people who don’t have any children, or only 1 or 3.

He simply stated that God did not designate the number, nor has the church.  It’s too sacred of a matter for anyone to judge.  He also added that there is no greater joy than happy children in good families.

That being said, it is unfortunate, also, that many now forget the Church’s injunction that members should not judge one another in the matter of how many children to have and when. I know there are some people who base their self-esteem on having lots of children (which is NOT a good motivation for having a large family. It’s selfish). They have a tendency to look down on people who do not have a “quiver full.”

Because I have such a large family, many of these people who judge others on their small number of children assume that I feel the same way they do and start talking to me about how frustrated they are with people who just won’t have more than 3 or 4 kids, or however many is “too small a number” for their sensibilities.  I often think that if some of these loudspoken people were more generous and less judgmental regarding this issue, more people would be willing to consider it.  But, no one wants to be smacked upside the head with these kinds of statements, especially when there are real, sometimes heartrending reasons why a couple chooses not to have children (and infertility is not the only one).

But, people can be unthinking and harsh.  Especially when it’s a self-esteem issue.  And I emphatically believe that the number of children a family has should never be linked to its esteem.  That’s ridiculous and ignorant, like the axe boasting or the saw exalting after itself.  Without God’s explicit interference, those children would not be here.  And, in the end and always, they are His.

These days, I find it far more prevalent to see the opposite judgment– those who have limited their families to 3 or 4 constantly judging women who have the courage to choose fertility. Here are just a few of the remarks I have witnessed from others:

“Pregnant again? Aren’t you done yet?”

“She’s crazy to have another baby.”

“You know we use [insert a form of birth control here]. It’s really effective.”

“Are you planning on getting your tubes tied after this one?”

“She can’t do [insert calling that involves adults here]. She couldn’t handle it. Let’s call her to Cub Scouts…she obviously likes kids.”

“Well, you can have all those kids because you can afford it.”

“Well, you can have all those kids because you are more patient than I am.”

“Well, she chose to have all those kids, she can figure out how to get through this pregnancy without our help.”

“If she gets so sick every pregnancy, why does she keep having kids? That’s so irresponsible. Well, she did it to herself.”

Note that the last four absolve the observer from ever offering to help the family with lots of children, and assuming that the mother has infinite amounts of patience and, therefore, never needs help.

If these are not judgments about how many children to have and when, I don’t know what are. Choosing fertility is often a difficult, hard road. Having many children is really not easy, but often, those with lots of children feel that they cannot show weakness, lest they be given a critical “I told you so,” or be derided. Often, there is little support for the mother of seven or more…especially if she also has weight gain from the pregnancies.

Having worked for many years with victims of abuse, I can see many reasons why people are afraid or unable to have large families. Having seen many instances of women in abusive relationships in which NO ONE would suspect the husband of being that way, I can understand why these women would choose to work and forego having children. I can also understand that there may be people who have prayed and know with absolute certainty that birth control is God’s will for them. I just want people to be educated in the risks and what that actually means when using a form of chemical birth control, especially the pill.

Whether a family has no children, three, or fifteen, is not for us to judge. However, it is vital that each couple take into consideration what it means to have it between them and the Lord. The statement, “left between them and the Lord,” is not a blanket endorsement for birth control, nor is it a new policy to make “three the new six,” nor is it a reason to have 20 children.

If we and our children are taught what it really means by taking Church policy along with scripture study, faith, knowledge of the body and how birth control works, and knowledge of our own fertility, they will be prepared to make an informed, prayerful, best decision, not one based on our current culture’s version of “choice.”

At that point, it is my hope that the judgment, heartache, and hurt regarding fertility and motherhood can be laid to rest, that we can better understand what it truly means, and let fertility (or the lack of it), and faith go hand in hand and trust that it is truly between us and the Lord.