Marriage and family are ordered to the good of the spouses, to the procreation and the education of children…Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children in the faith, prayer and all the virtues. They have the duty to provide ..for the …spiritual needs of their children” (CCC paras 2249 & 2252)


In our society in the 21st Century, people are having fewer children and having them later in life. Artificial means of contraception and increasing infertility rates have led to parenthood as something you opt into rather than out of. The trend is to marry later or not at all.  Recent British Law Commission proposals for unmarried couples are based on the prediction that by 2011,the number of married men and women will fall below fifty percent of the population. Lower marriage rates have signalled a greater unwillingness to commit to relationships and to the idea that a sexual relationship will result in a family and in the assumption of the responsibilities that this entails. 50 years ago, when people started dating they would be assessing their date at least in part as to their apparent suitability as a mate, lifelong partner and parent. Parenthood was tacitly and automatically part of the deal. Now for many physical attraction and superficial and often short term compatibility are seen as sufficient and babies are seen as an optional and rather expensive add on to an existing often very child –unfriendly life-style. It is often stated that low fertility in the West is a result of free choice, but recent research has shown that there is a significant gap between the number of children couples have and the number they wish they had had.


Hopefully, with proper marriage preparation, Catholic couples avoid the pain of many who watch their fertile years go by, waiting often in vain for their spouse to feel ready to become a parent. We are likewise freed from the opposite compulsion in our society to see having a child as a right to be enforced at all costs; infertility is understood as merely a call to a different kind of service and is in no way a reflection on the individual or couple.


We are fortunate to be liberated by the teaching of the Church from the onerous and unnatural constraints of our society, so that we can be as God meant us to be as couples, genuinely open to the gift of life. But once we are embarked upon this awe-inspiring mission that is parenthood, how do we, especially in this secular context, prepare ourselves for the task?


Some of us will be lucky enough to have had a very happy childhood with excellent role models in the shape of our own parents. Many are not so lucky. Habits and behaviour patterns are very strong and will carry over from one generation to the next, unless an individual takes measures to change them. Where we have received good parenting ourselves and especially when our parents provide us with genuinely unconditional love and support for us and our way of parenting, we may be fortunate enough to have many inbuilt positive reflexes when it comes to caring for and educating our own children. And yet, even where both partners to a marriage have had good family relationships, the childhood experiences of a husband and wife may well have been very different and therefore their tacit expectations of parenthood may be dissimilar.  Such differences need to be recognised, assessed, and discussed preferably before a couple marry and certainly before a child arrives.


Whether or not the experiences of a prospective father and mother have been positive, when two people come together to found a new family, they need to review the past, to find common ground and a common vision and to plan for the future together. They need to be free of pressure from the wider family and indeed from friends, free to question how things were done when they were small, how others are currently doing things. Couples need to be free to adopt only those approaches and attitudes which they as a couple feel are consistent with their joint understanding of how their own family should be.. As It says in the Bible; “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis, Ch 2 . v24, The Holy Bible, N.R.S.V Catholic Edition) . I am reminded here of the story about the Sunday Roast. A little girl watched her mother thoughtfully one Sunday as she prepared the lunch. She asked her mother. “Why do you cut the ends off the joint, before you put it into the pot?”. Her mother stopped, surprised. She had never wondered this before. “I’m not sure” she answered, “but my mother always did.. we’ll ask her why”. They go to see Granny. “Why did you do this, Mum?” asked the now grown-up daughter. “I am not sure” replied her mother, but my mother always did. We could ask her “. They visit, the great-grandmother, now rather infirm but still bright. Delighted to see them she exclaims “How are you?!” “Well!” Replied her now elderly daughter, “we were wondering; why did you always cut the ends off the joint on Sundays?”. The old woman thought for a moment and then a smile broke across her face. “It was just that the pot we had was too small!” She explained. Without reflection, the family life of this current generation can often be cramped into an expectation and a model that was fine for previous generations or indeed other couples in this one but which is too limiting to permit the happy growth of a particular married couple and their children.


Before we have our own children, it is very important to reflect on our own childhood experiences and to consciously adopt the positive, to heal any hurts we may have and to set about with our spouse envisioning the kind of parents we aspire to be ourselves. How might we set about creating that unique joint approach which is so crucial for the founding of a happy family?