I am thirty-three years old.
I am holding my baby.
I have come to worship.
I am so anxious I can hardly breathe.
It feels like my heart is going to burst out of my chest. It feels like a constant struggle not to run away. It feels like my journey from ‘good Christian girl’ to ‘spiritual failure’ is complete.
It has taken me months to come back to church since my girl was born. She is my first, and I am not married to her father. We had only been together a few months when I fell pregnant, I knew what church people thought of that. They may be polite to my face, but I had been told enough times in my life that virginity was a treasure to be saved for marriage, and here was my daughter as evidence that I’d failed the test.
I had no words, back then, to talk about how deep this ran for me. I had been raised on purity, and my sexuality had become a wound which infected my sense of place in church. I had lived with unspoken shame about failing to fend off unwanted advances, and the forced loss of virginity that I’d never had the courage to speak about. I had lived with unspoken shame about failing to find a husband like ‘good Christian girls’ do. I had lived with unspoken shame about physical desire, and the wrongness of my body, and its capacity to betray me.
Over time, as the rift between me and church widened, I’d ‘act out’ my sexual desires, always with one eye looking back over my shoulder towards the judgment of God and church. My relationships were exactly what sex shouldn’t be – an act of shame for me, and a selfish objectification of my partners. There was often more guilt than pleasure in the act, and a heavy burden of shame left behind.
At thirty-three, I had left such acting out behind. I thought I had come to a place where I had left my sexual shame behind. I loved my daughter. I loved my partner. I loved my God. But somehow, having a child opened a space where I feared judgment again. My place in church was perilous. I came, I worshipped, and I fled.
And so it went for the first two years of her life. It often took me weeks to find the courage to make a Sunday morning trek. Mostly I’d spend a good part of the service fighting back tears. I hopped churches, hoping to find one where I would be accepted – where I could ask for acceptance, rather than trying to hide my story. It felt safer to be a visitor, an anonymous ‘woman with child’, than to worship somewhere regularly, and let them know me.
We moved out of the city, to a regional town where there was only one church of my denomination. Once again, I felt the fear. I started attending irregularly. I learnt the names of a few people, and sometimes even made myself stay for morning cuppa.
But if my two-year-old had a bad day – as two-year-olds often do, when you try to make them sit still and be quiet–then I would find myself fighting back tears, and practically run out of church as soon as the service was done. In my head, I added ‘bad mother’ to the ‘spiritual failure’ tag, noting in my head every example of a quieter and better behaved child in the building.
One morning, when I had dealt with a constant barrage of my daughter’s demands for stories, weeping because she had fallen off the pew, loudly voicing inappropriate questions, dancing in the aisles, and underwear-flashing forward rolls during the children’s talk, I gathered my belongings for the post-church dash to the car.
Only this time there was someone standing in my way. An elderly man, the sort of upright church elder who I imagined was standing in judgment over me. I braced myself for the condemnation.
All he said was this. “Please don’t stop coming. We love her.”
Those words were enough to open up my heart. Like the father opening his arms to the prodigal son, it felt like this man had seen my shame – and was asking me to stay. He was telling me that I had a place in this kingdom, in God’s heart and amongst God’s people. And my daughter had a place as well.
It was all I needed to know. I was finally home.
I am a psychologist and mother-of-two living in Bendigo, Australia. Parenting has been the biggest learning curve of my life, and has taught me so much about faith, compassion, and how much I need God’s grace.
Get a free download of a Christian parenting manifesto that helps us guide children into healthy spirituality + the most helpful parenting resources with progressive values.