Motherhood & Words

the power of a carol — mothertalk blog bonanza: parenting beyond belief

Today’s MotherTalk blog bonanza is inspired by the new book, Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion by Dale McGowan.

I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to post today because my struggle with faith is one of the main narrative threads of my book, and I’ve been mulling that thread for the past few weeks. I have to admit that I’m a little burned out. But I just couldn’t stay away.

I should come clean: I’m a PK. Not in the actual, father-in-the-pulpit sense; my dad was a professor rather than a preacher. But still, he’s an ordained Presbyterian minister, and this fact undoubtedly shaped me.

I have two sisters, and we all went to church with Dad growing up, but they’re both atheists now. My older sister was an unwavering atheist even as a preschooler. When she was four, she told Dad that she didn’t want to pray to a man who had long hair and wore a dress and never got married. (Who knows from whence that came.) When she was eight and we were told that we all needed to get shots because we had been exposed to someone with hepatitis B, she said, emphatically, “This is why I don’t believe in God. Jesus wouldn’t let this happen to little kids.”

She had a point, but nevertheless, I did believe in God. I was active in my church youth group. I went on mission trips. I prayed regularly. It was only when I was in college and experiencing a severe depression that I decided I agreed with my sister. Sounding like an eight-year-old, I screamed: This is why I don’t believe in God. If God existed, I wouldn’t want to die.

My faith didn’t return after I emerged from the depression. I would go to church occasionally with my dad, and I found that I still loved the music, still loved to stand in the darkened church on Christmas Eve with a burning candle in my hand, surrounded by illuminated faces and the low strain of “Silent Night.” But I could not fully return to church. I just didn’t believe anymore.

But now I have a three-year-old. So now what? Should I take her to church even though my own faith is so shaky?

One evening last December, when my dad was over for dinner, he turned on a PBS Christmas special. I was in the kitchen, and when I came out, Stella was tucked next to my dad on the couch, her eyes wide, her mouth open, her lips moving slightly. A blue-robed choir was belting out “Joy to the World” on the television. Stella was mesmerized.

I had been worrying that I was depriving Stella of some sort of foundation of biblical (and musical) knowledge by not taking her to church, and that night, her beaming face seemed to agree with me.

My dad left the house promising to take Stella to church. I even threatened her with it once: “Get back in your bed right now, or we’re not going to church with Grandpa.” Seriously, did I say that?

We found a book of Christmas carols, and D. and I sang our way through it dozens of times. By the time we went to church, Stella knew all the words to two verses of “Joy to the World.” She was up early that morning practicing.

The church was crowded, and Stella had to stand on the pew to see the pulpit. She alternated between saying, “I can’t see. I can’t see.” and “When are we going to sing ‘Joy to the World?’”

Of course we didn’t end up singing “Joy to the World.” She seemed interested in “Angels We Have Heard on High,” one of my personal favorites, but it just wasn’t the same.

When D. asked her later whether she had had fun, she shrugged. “We didn’t sing ‘Joy to the World.’” Enough said.

Honestly, I was relieved that Stella hadn’t loved church. If she were clamoring to go every week, D. and I would be forced to make a decision I’m not ready to make yet: to go back to church or not. The best I can do right now is to continue to sing Stella her favorite carols and just see what happens.

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.

1 Comment

  1. Mardougrrl on May 25, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    What a wonderful post–it’s such a struggle, isn’t it, wanting to give your children *some* foundation without being hypocritical?

    I’m just happy she’s small enough that I have a little time.