Pusillanimous Families and the Longing for Siblings

January 31, 2024

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Ryan Hanning PhD, Fraternus Captain and Conspicuous Procreator,
takes a moment to remember the unconceived

It may be odd to title an article on family life and the gift of siblings with an antiquated Latin word, but stating the real problem up front will be of service to the reader later. Pusillanimity was the Latin word for the vice of “small souledness.” It meant to think too little of yourself, your ability, and your call to duty. It summarized both the malaise of mediocrity, and the failure to rise up when it matters most. When used in the field of ethics, it describes the deficiency of several celebrated virtues. To be pusillanimous meant to lack courage, to be faint of heart, weak, and immature, unable to respond generously to the gifts you have been given. It is the vice that made strong men weak and smart men stupid.

While we experience its effects acutely in today’s society, we don’t have a good English word equivalent. “Small-mindedness” comes close, but it doesn’t accurately speak to the deforming gravity of having a “small soul.” Today, sadly, many families struggle with this vice, and fail to live up to their natural potential, let alone their supernatural calling. Intuitively many husbands and fathers feel this dilemma deeply and the effects are demonstrated in the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and the continued breakdown of family life. Pusillanimity, small souledness, could be the subject of several articles regarding family life. Most of these I could write autobiographically, having suffered myself from periodic bouts of pusillanimity, not to mention the other vices that rob me of peace and joy. However, the present task at hand is to describe the courage required to have children, and why, after having kids, we should have more of them so that our children can have siblings — they need them.

Let’s face it, it takes courage to have children. To bring into the world that rebellious fruit of my flesh that melts my heart, keeps me up at night, thrills me with first steps and then crashes the car, is not easy. And to bring multiple children into the world, as is the biological norm for most people, can seem daunting. This is especially true in a culture that tends to see children as either burdens or personal extensions of our own egos. The contraceptive approach to the gift of sexuality has deeply impacted the way that we understand the purpose and goal of our sexuality which in truth must always be unitive and pro-creative, bonding couples together as they cooperate to bring the gift of new life into the world. Contraception, in addition to depriving society of stable couples, and depriving couples of the ability to fully give themselves to each other, has also deprived generations of siblings, brothers and sisters who in the natural order of things play a significant role in our growing up. You could say that having a sibling is a biological right of the unconceived as well as a profoundly spiritual good.

My wife and I were reminded of this 10 years ago. While gathered with our children for evening prayers, each one of us offered up our intention to the Lord. The usual menagerie of requests were duly noted, except for one. Our 7 year old son prayed, “Dear Lord, please bless our babies.” This was curious for several reasons, not the least of which was that my wife was not expecting. The next night brought the same intention. Concerned, we sat down with our son and asked for some clarification. “Son, you know that we are not expecting another child, right? Mom isn’t pregnant.” He explained in his beautifully simple 7 year old logic. “We’ve had a baby every other year, and my little brother is going to be four soon. We need to have two babies to make up for it.” Every night for the next few months, he prayed “Dear Lord, please bless our babies.” Soon, the other children joined in for good measure. Shortly prior to Christmas we discovered that we were pregnant and decided to tell the kids on Christmas day. Something was admittedly lost in the translation because when we told them, they all ran through the house shouting “Twins! Twins! Twins!” Despite our best efforts we could not convince them otherwise. Soon, our friends were calling to tell us they heard the news, because our children asked their children to pray for “our twins.” After several months, and lots of certainty that there was only one baby, we sat down with our son to explain a few things. “Son,” we said, “God heard your prayers and gifted us with new life, but it was only one baby.” He looked at us slightly incredulous and said, “I talked to God. You’re having a little girl and little boy.” Something from the conversation must have spurred him to deeper prayer because just a few weeks later, my wife found him and his sister sneaking into the garage. Assuming that they were getting into candy, she followed them from a distance, only to find that they had made a little shrine on one of the shelves and had been praying a novena to St. Jude Thaddeus. Amazed at their faith, and their desire for siblings, we decided to get another ultrasound and hopefully show the children that there was just one baby. During the appointment, we explained to the doctor that the kids had been praying for twins and that while all indications were one baby, we wanted them to see the ultrasound. The doctor, though finding it a strange reason, consented, only to laugh a moment later. Looking at the screen, he said “Well, there are two babies in there — you can call it what you want.” Eight weeks later we delivered a little girl and a little boy. They are now 8 years old and a constant reminder of God’s incredible goodness and generosity to our family. Our children had a capacity and desire for siblings and the gift of new life even more than we did. They understood that siblings are a gift, one worth praying for.

Siblings as Gift

Jesus reminds us that parents want what is best for their children. Even bad parents understand this principle (Matt. 7:9-11). Research has indicated what common wisdom has known for millennia. Children benefit from siblings. Major medical, psychological and sociology journals have all recently pointed out the obvious importance of siblings and their impact on “social-emotional well-being” and “mental and physical development.” What is interesting is that many of these articles point out that having siblings close in age and having older and younger siblings provides all sorts of very practical and profoundly deep benefits. Practically, having siblings close in age provides strong bonds, encourages communication, and builds confidence and social awareness. It also helps to have some older brothers to evaluate the worthiness of their sisters’ would-be suitors. On a deeper level siblings can provide a confident outlet for navigating the challenges of life and provide positive influence and emotional care that is distinct from a parent’s. It’s worth mentioning that, for some, having a child or having multiple children is outside of their control. Infertility or serious medical conditions may prevent having more children, or sadly, having any children at all. For others, there may be sound prudential judgment that would require the careful spacing, and even, in serious situations, indefinite postponing having a child or additional children. In these cases, natural family planning which still protects the dignity of the spouses, and the sanctity of the marital act, may be warranted. However, for most couples discerning and having multiple children is and should be the norm.

Today, many men reject the idea of having multiple children, some out of fear either imagined or real. Some reject the call out of selfish or misguided notions of what children actually need; some out of selfish and misguided notions of what they themselves actually need. Let’s address these head on…

…The current form of masculine culture bubbling under the surface today is far from adequate and far from being healthy. The idea that having a wife and children limit your freedom is so far off the mark it would be laughable, except that so many men believe it today with disastrous effects. The truth is that men are made to be fathers. By rejecting the paternal trajectory of their life, they are rejecting what it means to be a man. In the name of being freed from constraint, we too often constrain our nature and limit our fecundity. Our failure to cooperate with our nature means that we fail to receive its gifts—the very things we long for—nor are we able to give these gifts to others in meaningful ways. True, fatherhood can be expressed in many ways (such as spiritual fatherhood, or Priesthood), but the normative expression is in laying one’s life down for a wife, and the two become one flesh. In this union there is a love so profound that nine months later you can give it a name.

For the Christian man, all the fears, all of the misguided views on what children actually need, and all the selfish excuses need to make way for a much more authentic discernment of how God is calling you to live out your fatherhood in loving your wife and children. Lord, are you calling me to have a family? If so, give me the courage to make my family a home of receptivity, love and production, not of contraception, selfishness, and consumption. If so, give me the strength to persevere in virtue and discern with my wife the call to grow our family, and raise them into the men and women you called them to be. This is a great and noble call, the call of men free from “small-souledness…”


Reprinted with permission from Sword&Spade.

Ryan Hanning PhD is a Professor of Theology and Catholic Studies and serves as a founding Fellow of the San Juan Diego Institute which serves several Universities, non-profits and Catholic apostolates, and a Fellow of the Harvard Institute for Virtuous Leadership Institute and the Institute of Catholic Theology. In addition to teaching and consulting, Ryan also serves as a theological consultant and speaker for Catholics Come Home™ & Amen Alleluia™ and writes and speaks internationally on education, theology, ecological ethics and virtuous leadership. Ryan currently homesteads in Tennessee with his beautiful wife Rebecca, and their ten well socialized homeschooled children.

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