When Sunday morning arrives, I know a break from my mothering duties is imminent. However, as I watch my two sons climb into the car and head for church, feelings of resentment (even hostility) emerge.
Since the time my oldest son was twelve months old my sister-in-law has politely yet persistently asked if she and her husband could take him to church on Sunday. She had long since given up on me as a potential Christian convert, and now she was focusing her attention on my offspring. I remember the evening the inquisition began. During one of our regular family get-togethers, my sister-in-law and I were standing on opposite ends of the counter while twin bowls of artichoke dip steamed between us. I was not expecting the subject to come up. I was wrong. She tilted her chin sharply to the side, her bright hair was a tuft of red and yellow feathers that circled her thin face.
“It would be so wonderful if your boys could come with us tomorrow to church!” Her hazel eyes tattooed in blue eyeliner shimmered at me like two pieces of crushed glass. “We can pick them up. It will give you a chance for a break and I just know the boys will love it!”
“Um. I have to wash their hair tomorrow,” I said. My voice sounded like the last wave of a distant echo. She gazed at me with eager enthusiasm. I looked at her hot pink lips and wished I had chosen to wear make-up that evening-a little war paint, something to give me courage.
One week later, after an unusually long bedtime ceremony that included a sock puppet parade, a freeze frame dance party, and no less than four helicopter rides to the moon, I made my way into the bathroom. While staring at the blood blue crescents that formed under my eyes and my oily shoestring hair, it became apparent to me how tired I was. I’m certain that my fatigue was in direct correlation with my youngest son’s increasing mobility. With an eighteen month old and a three year old now at home everything seemed to be getting faster and faster. The thought of acquiring a few extra hours of leisure time on a Sunday became a blessing I could no longer forgo. While lying in my bed that night I relished the thought of reading in peace, bathing in peace, or even peeing in peace without the sound of little hands banging on the bathroom door.
Before I knew it another week had gone by. It was Saturday evening again. When I failed to check my caller I.D. before answering, my sister-in-law was able to make her usual inquiry.
“Can the kids attend church with us tomorrow?” There was silence. I was tired. I needed a break. Besides, what kind of mother denies her children the innocent fun of Sunday school? With hesitation and frustration welling in my throat, I finally gave in to the temptation of Christ.
“Okay, what time will you be by?” My voice was soft and short. She must have sensed that this was hard for me.
Marrying into a very religious family has provided challenges for me. Being an atheist has only magnified those challenges. I knew I was going to be outnumbered the day I said, “I do.” Atheists are in the minority as it is. According to a 2004 American National Election Study, 77% of Americans still consider religion to be an important part of their lives, while 48% of the population (according to a 2004 General Social Survey) still considers Christianity “truly” American. Of course, my in-laws mean well. They are nice and responsible people. I deeply care for them and remain hopeful that at some point, we will be able to put our philosophical differences aside, and look beyond the sharp contrast of their religious conservatism and my more, ahem (not amen), “liberal perspective.”Once I hung up the phone with my sister-in-law, I began to feel the sheer force of implied heritage sweeping my own children away.
After all, my children are their family too, and not merely by marriage, but through a far more unifying arrangement, genetics. I began to feel like my own faith (or lack there of) was never going to stand a chance against the constant indoctrination my children would inevitably be subjected. They were going to grow up surrounded by religious fundamentalism and I was terrified. Immediately after I agreed to the Sunday excursion my fears grew. How could I compete with fun loving bible stories, cupcakes, and happy songs about Jesus? My children were going to like church and there was nothing I could do about it.
When I was a child my father told my brother and I “seek the truth and run from anyone who has found it.” I was raised without religion. Our weekends in California, especially Sundays, were spent outside hiking through the Santa Monica Mountains. As we strolled along collecting unusual rocks, spotting different kinds of birds, and commenting on the robust hillsides my father constantly reminded us that nature is responsible for everything. Despite his vast interests and prolific approach to research he was the first to admit when he didn’t know the answer to something. He would shrug his shoulders and grin. Then, he would give me his stock answer, “I don’t know baby girl. I don’t know what that is but I’m sure there is a book about it.” He was right. There was always a book about it. We had fun looking up insects, birds, and plants in our encyclopedia once we were home. In my youth, I was encouraged to attend many different churches. My father wanted me to experience and hear it all.
Growing up in Southern California afforded me the opportunity to do just that. I had a Mormon boyfriend, a Catholic best friend, and a Jewish boss. Each one of them was kind enough to let me visit their service at one time or another. I remember my father eagerly waiting to hear about my observations. We would sit outside throwing the ball for our dog Rufus and talk about the different ways in which people worshipped the same God. What remained a mystery to us was how each religion was supremely convinced that they were absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, correct. I know how persuasive the varied consolations that religion has to offer can be, especially against some of life’s harshest truths. The sense of community is an attractive feature as well and I understand why people chose to take refuge in all of that. These have always been powerfully persuasive tools for those with whom religion appeals. For me it does not, nor has it ever, felt right.
I now know why some people feel they should never discuss religion or politics with loved ones. To think that everyone shares the same convictions is an arrogant assumption to make. Talking openly about personal and/or political beliefs can be a highly divisive tactic rather than unifying. Recently during one of our family get-togethers we were asked to bow our heads and give thanks to, among other things, George Bush. Apparently, the Lord has blessed us with his divine leadership. Needless to say my husband still has a small bruise on his right shin (notice I didn’t chose the left), from a suspicious pair of size eight women’s running shoes. For the past five year’s I have patiently remained quiet while listening to points of view that sometimes were offensive to me. After years of playing possum on some of the most sensitive of issues I realized I had become the kind of person I never wanted to be, a sell-out.
Where was my philosophical backbone? It seems that somewhere during my matrimonial merger I had lost it. Perhaps this was the result of some sort of anti-Darwinian, reverse evolutionary tactic, (uh-oh did I say evolution)? I had reverted into the kind of spineless amoeba from whence we came some four billion years ago. It would have been easier had we chosen to live in a metropolis where cultural and philosophical diversity is the norm. However, living in a smaller town with a church on every corner has given the sense of religious inundation. I constantly feel like a square peg trying to fit inside a cross-shaped hole.
After the first Sunday of attending church my oldest son came home with a gold glittered cross in one hand and a half eaten cookie in the other. He was ecstatic.
“Did you have fun at church today?” His enthusiasm was contagious.
“It was great!” He pushed the other half of the cookie into his mouth.
“What did you learn?” Eager to hear his answer I pulled up a chair and sat down beside him.
“God made the earth.” He said this while he handed me his sticky craft. His little starfish shaped hand was now waving in front of me. This was his way of telling me he needed a towel.
“That’s a nice story.” I said, as I wiped his hands clean.
The following Saturday, after a week of weighing the pros and cons of our current situation I voiced my fears to my husband. After patiently listening to my concerns he assured me that just because a kid goes to church is not necessarily going to make them hate gays, ignore science, deny reason, and develop an attitude of moral superiority. His calm rationale was effective. I was lulled to sleep just imagining all the delicious leisurely possibilities the next day had to offer. Later that Sunday afternoon my son brought home another craft, this time a construction paper crown like the one Jesus wore. He also told me with chocolate cookie enthusiasm that, “Jesus died on the cross, and had nails in his hands!”
My natural reaction was to explain everything in that moment to him about my personal beliefs on the matter. But I withheld. Instead I handed him a sippy cup filled with milk.
“The stories you hear at church are just stories. And everyone has different stories.”
My tailbone stiffened. I was skeptical as to why anyone would want to share this bit of morbid information with a three year old. The next Sunday came around quickly and by now the routine had been established. My sister-in-law picked both my boys up at the house around eight am. Car seats were exchanged, then the symbolic event of handing over the diaper bag. The control had shifted. Some one else was going to be in charge of my babies for the next several hours. I hugged everyone goodbye and once again they were off to learn about the Lord.
When my children came home they were energetic as usual. Both eager for their lunch. My three year old carried yet another sticky craft into our kitchen. This time, an Easter egg with a cross drawn on the middle.
“Mommy, Jesus died on the cross and then he flew way up into the sky and he was okay.”
“Well. What do you think about that?” My concern was bordering on defensive.
“It was sad. Jesus had nails in his hands from the soldiers.”
My skin grew hot.“Listen, those are just stories.”
Later that night I had learned that one of our neighbor’s daughters was going to have her tonsils removed due to recurrent strep throat. I decided to make organic chicken soup for the family. I know it can be hard on the parents when a child is sick. My oldest son and I drove to our neighbor’s home and were greeted by a happy group of children.
The youngest of the group squeaked out, “I’m havin’ an operation on my talker!” Her voice was raspy yet sweet. While her parents carried the soup into the kitchen, I kneeled down to give her a big hug and told her how brave she was. I noticed large crosses hanging on the walls of their hallway. The mother thanked me repeatedly for the soup and my “prayers.” She invited me to her women’s bible study on Wednesday night. As usual, I declined.
Despite my numerous reservations about monotheistic endeavors I had to face the fact that my children may eventually chose to be Christian. We were simply out numbered by Christian folk. The thought saddened me because I had always hoped my children would become, well, more like me. I had hoped that my hard earned philosophical standpoint would find away into their hearts and their own proclamations. Now I was faced with the possibility that they too would view me as the “lost soul” of the herd, the one in need of “saving.” My dreams of raising my kids in a home where freethinking, reason, humanism, and skepticism are the norm seemed more unlikely than ever before.
Often when I close my mind on an issue the answer comes. Some call it a sign from God or the Holy Spirit. I prefer to call it the mind, or intellect, which I believe is solely responsible for vast complexities of human problem solving. A few more Sundays came to pass. Several other construction paper crosses made their way into the recycling bin. Then one Saturday my oldest son and I were sunbathing in the backyard. I had finally taken the time to commit to memory the names of the various desert plants that surrounded our property. Succulents never appealed to me. Compared to the lush and colorful landscape I had grown accustom to in my childhood cacti looked so unapproachable and insipid. But, I decided to put aside my constant critic and instead learn about this bizarre and foreign flora. As we rested on the lounge chairs, I began to teach my son the tree names.
“What do you call that one way over there on the hill?” I looked at him through dark sunglasses.
“You mean the one that looks like a fork?” His nose squished up like a miniature accordion.“Ahhh, that’s a Sawarrow!”
We were silent again. I looked up into the cloudless sky and closed my eyes. He cuddled up next to me in the chair. Soon after the silence, he began to tap me on my shoulder.
“Mom!” He crowed. “Mom look at this!”I lifted my head to see his latest fascination. A row of black ants had begun their journey in one long and thin conforming line to and from our swimming pool.
“I see. Those are ants.” I put my head back down.
“Mom!” He was tapping me again. “Why do they all go together like that?”I thought of my father. I thought of the way he used the things in nature as a metaphor for life. Now I was aware that during all those walks together he was teaching me not only about nature but about human nature as well.
“I don’t know why honey. I don’t know why they all walk together like that. But, I’m sure there’s a book about it!” I promised him we’d find some pictures of ants when we went back inside.
Later that afternoon, my neighbor had come by with a thank you card for the soup. She invited me again to her bible study. This time however I decided to be forthright. I told her that I was a non-believer, that organized religion does not appeal to me. She said she understood. She said it sounded like I was struggling to find my path back to Jesus. She said she would pray for me, she would pray that I would come to know his divine love and eventually follow him home. I pictured the ants.
I realized that my sons were growing up to be like me. Maybe they would spend time in church, but ultimately they will know my beliefs too. They will grow up in a home where they are expected to question everything. I can see my son already growing comfortable with uncertainty. The notion of having to earn an answer was beginning to resonate in his mind. As we slowly printed out five pages of information from the Internet about ants his patience was tested. But, in the end, he was proud of his findings. We colored the black and white photos of the ants and pinned them around his room. We never did find an answer as to why they insist on following one another in a straight line forever. If I had to guess, I would bet it has something to do with security, community, and hard-wired biological imperatives. In any event, my son found it peculiar enough to research and so did I.