It was a good day, but a long one: the house in disarray. Another week where we planned to go to our small group from church, where I made dinner early and managed to bring the boys in early from outside (one tantrum in the process but I only got bit once). August hates small group. We went for the first time five weeks ago and my oldest boy decided he’d never go back. Since then, Chris has gone alone. Staying up an hour past bedtime is hard enough on the boys, but if August is crying and screaming all day prior to going, it’s hard for me to work up the gumption to get us there. I know if we go, I’ll end up staying in the child care room all night and I’d rather stay home, go to bed, especially if I’ve been out another night that week at writer’s group or preschool co-op meeting or the college freshman Bible study I lead.
But this past week, I’d been home at night; I’d gotten rest. So I talked up small group. August was not excited but his tears were less pronounced and I promised I would stay with him until he felt comfortable. I made the promise, knowing that I might be signing myself up for months of childcare attending, instead of actually being with the adults I’ve been trying to get to know.
So, when the boys were sitting for dinner at 5:45 and the phone rang, I was surprised to hear from Chris that he couldn’t get home in time. Some emergency issue had come up at work. He’d be home late.
I hung up the phone, relieved that my already-crashing baby would make it to bed by 7:30. I was relieved I could catch up on laundry and make an early bedtime.
In my quest to define a new kind of spirituality for the mother whose life cannot fit the Christian plan for spiritual growth, I’ve had several conversations with other women about the struggle to follow Christ, knowing that their lives do not look “faithful.” The faithful life I grew up in always included an abundance of church attendance.
I’m beginning to accept that even if other moms of small children have found a way to be in a small group: I don’t have to. For whatever reason, I have a kid with a strong personality who had “a bit of an attitude” with the childcare woman at small group five weeks ago. I have the boy who is completely potty trained but refuses to go in public, who screams and cries when the children are all walked down the hall to the bathroom. I have a 14-month-old who still takes a 5 pm nap and, miraculously, falls asleep for the night at 7:30.
Sometimes I wonder, how did my mother do it? She taught school all day then took us to church in the evening, when she was in Bible study or handbell choir and I was in Mission Friends and childcare till 8:30 pm? Wasn’t she exhausted? How did she manage to get to church Sunday mornings, Sunday nights and Wednesday nights? What about all those five-nights-in-a-row revival services? How did we get our homework done? How did we sleep?
I grew up in a church that was all about children’s programming. I did some wonderfully fun things and I learned all about missionaries all over the world. I smiled through competitions of who could leaf the onionskin Bible pages fastest. I memorized scripture, visited sick kids in hospitals, watched Christian videos, ate popcorn, had outdoor water fights, listened to Bible stories, built a clay sculpture of the Old Testament Tabernacle, and once a month slipped my two dollar tithe into the envelope with my name printed on it.
But I’m getting the sense that my boys’ experience of church will be very different from that of my childhood.
That’s not because I don’t agree with my church upbringing. I thank God for the deep knowledge of scripture I was given, how my heart lived among the words of the Bible. I’m thankful for the letters I wrote to the missionary in Hong Kong, how much bigger my world was when, as a four-year-old, I learned about how rice was grown in China. I’m thankful for a second home inside the church hallways, for the comfort of my great big Southern Baptist childhood culture, for the friendship of the adults who ministered to me.
But I find myself in a different place: I want to be the one to teach my kids theology. Honestly, I don’t trust what they’ll hear from others. I was a highly sensitive kid who still carries unhealthy ideas about God in my gut, ideas that someone taught me, ideas my parents didn’t hold. I want my sons’ upbringing in the church to teach them about community and mission. I want them to see us living with others in holy friendships: loving each other, praying together, carrying each other through sorrow and struggle. I want mission to happen as a family, not separate from one another in our age-appropriate programs. I want church to look like a community of people living faith in the messy, beautiful, confusing way faith happens.
Growing up I saw faithfulness in our family’s commitment to the order and sweet rhythms of church life; our church life right now is more chaotic, but it is sweet also in how we fill our hours with the lives of others.
And I know that’s not prescriptive. Being a mother has been a long journey of letting go of my need to please and impress. I want you to think I’m a good mom. I want you to think I care about being in small group. I want to be strong and get my kids to church, even if they don’t like it!
And then I take a deep breath and say: Oh, my kid is deathly afraid of the childcare worker and my other kid needs sleep, and I am out on Monday nights and Thursday nights already. And this may feel like a long season of life, but it’s really just a flash of a season. So, if I don’t make it to small group, perhaps I’m practicing a different sort of spiritual discipline, the kind where I determine not to impress you, the kind where I get rest and read stories to my kids and trust that when I beg God to hold tight to my boys, God is doing it in his own way, while they sleep and while they sit with me on Wednesday nights on the couch and giggle.