7.06.2009

Whom Are You Receiving?

“So, what are you having?”

Call it a rite of passage. Every pregnant couple goes through it. Friends, relatives, and even those less familiar—the cashier at Wal-Mart, the teller at the local bank, or the Schwann’s deliveryman—ask, “So, do you know what you’re having?”

Customary responses include “a boy,” “a girl,” “we don’t know yet,” and “we’ve decided to keep that a secret.” I know of one couple who replaced “we don’t know yet” with “Yes, we know what we’re having—a Lutheran, of course!” (Their Lutheran pastor baptized the baby within hours of birth.)

The question “what are you having?” may seem innocent enough, and no doubt most who ask it have no ill intentions. Nonetheless, there is something unsettling about the question itself. This becomes clearer with each new pregnancy.

“Are you hoping for a ... this time?”

Consider, for example, the typical experience of a couple whose first child is a girl. With Baby #2 now in the womb, the question “so, what are you having?” is joined by “Are you hoping for a boy this time?” The question makes sense in a culture where some parents do hope for a boy when they already have a girl (or for a girl, when they already have a boy). But the question also normalizes this attitude, as if “hoping for” one sex or the other is an attitude worth encouraging.

“Are you trying for a ... this time?”

After two or more girls, the question becomes, “Are you trying for a boy this time?” The phrase “trying for,” as compared to “hoping for,” suggests a greater degree of agency on the part of the parents—as if there is something mom or dad could do to determine the baby’s sex.

King Henry VIII unfortunately blamed his wife for failing to bear him a son; ignorant of genetics, he did not realize it was his failure to contribute a viable Y chromosome that resulted in the child’s feminine sex.

What are you technologizing into existence?

As Francis Bacon quipped, “Knowledge is power.” Now that we know about X and Y chromosomes, among other things, technology has empowered us to choose sons over daughters, or vice versa. Men and women (I won’t quite call them fathers and mothers, since in vitro fertilization technicians assume part of those roles) can now quite literally “try for” and even “obtain” a boy or a girl at will—and for a hefty price tag, too.

Having morphed from “what are you having?” to “what are you hoping for?” to “what are you trying for?” to “what are you biotechnologizing into existence?”—alas, the question no longer appears so innocent.

Broadening our horizons, increasing our cross-cultural awareness, only reveals the problem more deeply. In China, for example, a one-child government policy and a cultural preference for sons over daughters (or, son over daughter—singular) has encouraged the deployment of surgical abortion for purpose of sex selection. As for sex selection in the United States, it perhaps is more common to “terminate the spare embryos” at an IVF clinic, or else to freeze them indefinitely until a more convenient time.

May I take your order, please?

Extreme examples, perhaps. But even the original question already stands at the edge of the proverbial slippery slope. “What are you having?” Is that really how we speak of children? Such a question is more appropriate for a restaurant. The wife peers over her menu, asking her husband, “So, what are you having?” Then the waitress arrives, inquiring, “May I take your order please?”

Yes, I’d like one of each, please.

Similarly, “Now that you have three boys, are you hoping for a girl this time?” follows a grammatical pattern more appropriate for a buffet line. People pass through, loading their plate with at least one of each kind, and going back for seconds if they have a favorite. But in the “buffet line” that people have misconstrued pregnancy to be, God sometimes serves several helpings of one sex before bringing the other sex to the table. How rude of Him, says our culture. We’d rather start with one of each.

And many would prefer to end with one of each, too. Perhaps all of those children’s books from the 1960s have brainwashed Americans into envisioning the perfect family as Dad, Mom, Brother, and Sister, plus maybe a cat or dog.

We’re finished now, thank you.

Those who came of age in the 1960s are prone today to assume that a family with, say, four daughters, would embark on the journey of pregnancy once more only to be “trying for” a son. A fifth (or more) pregnancy just does not make sense in this Era of Planned Parenthood, unless birth control failed or the parents really, really were hoping for a child of the other sex this time.

The buffet analogy strangely fits here, too. “We’re finished now.” Those who don’t call it quits after about seconds or thirds attract glares, ranging from curiosity to ridicule. “Don’t they know when to quit?”

But let’s press the question a little further. Quit on what basis? We’re talking children now, not the buffet line. Should a couple intentionally stop having children after being blessed with at least one boy and one girl? Or after having three or four or five children all of the same sex—as if it’s time to give up “trying”? But if it was proper to be “trying for” one sex or the other in the first place, why does it become less appropriate as the family expands? The logic seems to be this: try for one boy and one girl, but stop trying once your family size starts to impinge upon your lifestyle. Follow that rule, and no one will stare at you when you take your (two or three) children out in public.

Fortunately not all see family size in terms of "trying for" and then quitting. I rather like the slogan the Concordian Sisters have adopted – entrusting one’s family size to God means that “your family size determines your lifestyle rather than the other way around.”

Whom are you receiving?

In Holy Scripture, of course, children are not regarded as buffet servings. Nor does the Bible teach that children are things to be had, hoped for, tried for, or biotechnologized into conformity with one’s narcissistic dreams. They are persons to be received. Perhaps next time you talk with someone who is pregnant, you could try asking “What do you know about the one whom are you receiving?” rather than “What are you having?”

Receiving, of course, requires a sender. That makes it different than merely “having.” God sends. We receive. Or so the Lord intends it. As Christ instructed his disciples, “whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5). Suggesting that this attitude toward children properly extends back to conception, The Hausvater Project has encouraged “that husbands and wives welcome all of God’s procreative blessings in their marriage, recognizing children as a heritage of the Lord.” This concisely captures the attitude expressed in Genesis 1:28, 24:60; Psalm 127, 128, etc.

Whom have you rejected?

Too often we receive, but begrudgingly. (Dare a parent ever admit to a child, “We decided to have a fifth, because we were hoping for a girl, but then we ended up with five boys instead”?) Sometimes we reject rather than receive—whether preemptively through contraception or after the fact through surgical abortion and the several forms of hormonal birth control that also function abortifaciently. Sinful actions stem from sinful thoughts (cf. James 1:14-15). Receiving begrudgingly is the first step toward rejecting murderously. Neither attitude welcomes children.

“I tell you the truth,” said Jesus in anticipation of the Day of Judgment, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45).

Who has forgiven you?

Thankfully, Jesus also said more. He did not take on human flesh and walk this earth merely to condemn us for sinning endlessly against him and our neighbors in thought, word, and deed—although he surely had plenty of solid evidence at his disposal had condemnation been his game plan. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). This includes cheating tax collectors (the immediate context of the verse just quoted) as well as reluctant or picky parents. Indeed, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). (How frequently I have been comforted by that little word all—Christ purifies us from all unrighteousness. Hebrews 9:12 similarly emphasizes the all-sufficiency of Christ’s forgiveness for us.)

Who has called you into parenthood?

“With the help of the LORD,” said history’s first mother, “I have brought forth a man” (Genesis 4:2). And so it has been thereafter. God “opens” and “closes” wombs (Genesis 20:18, 29:31, 30:22). “Sons are a heritage from the LORD” (Psalm 127:3).

Parenthood is a divine vocation, as our Lutheran fathers testified (LC Fourth Commandment; LC Sixth Commandment; AC XXIII; AC XXVI, 10; Apol. XXIII [XI]—not to mention many other writings by Luther, Chemnitz, and the like).

Keeping this fact in mind may guide our conversations with others.

How can you answer those who ask?

“So, do you know what you’re having?”

“We know very little about the child whom we’re receiving. But we don’t worry so much about that. We know the One who has sent this child into our lives. The Lord our gracious God will take care of us, and help us to care for this child, no matter what may come. If we receive a son, we’ll raise him to be a man of God. If we receive a daughter, we’ll raise her for godly womanhood. Either way, we are grateful, and humbled, just to have the opportunity.”

2 comments:

GL said...

This is very good. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

"As long as it's healthy, right?"

The follow-up question to our answer of not preferring boys or girls. Of course, we hope for a healthy baby, but we'll take the unhealthy ones just as joyfully.