That morning he stole the microphone
There were always teenage girls in the churches I grew up in, who had babies on their hips throughout the morning service. Or toddlers clinging to their legs. I was never one of those girls. I had nothing against children, but I did have an aggressive inner mantra that I would not be made to do Sunday school just because I was a girl. And the little kids, perhaps sensing my resistance, left me alone.
To this day I have never taught a Sunday school class, although I’ll probably feel some kind of responsibility to help out when I have a child old enough to go along. I am nothing if not overly dutiful.
But of course in becoming a mother I have been thrust towards the child/church interface in a very personal way. I have my own child on my hip now (for short bursts) or clinging to my legs. There is no creche at our church (or I would happily leave him – Jesse is happy being left with pretty much anyone as long as there are toys), and there are no instructions, so we’ve been making it all up as we go along. For now, he comes to church and hangs out with us for however long we’re there.
I was thinking this week about how my relationship to church has changed since having a kid, because I read another honest and beautiful blog about a mother’s struggles with church in the season of early parenthood. I’ve read many different accounts about how hard it can be to feel like church is a meaningful or helpful place in the sleep-deprived, anxious, chaotic, zombie-like days of early motherhood. There are horror stories about rambunctious toddlers being evicted and breastfeeding mothers being shunned. I hear people complain that kids are allowed to bring toys to church to entertain them, or allowed to run around willy-nilly (THEY’RE CHILDREN).
And then on top of fitting in to the regular things churches do, there’s the pressure, as an adult, to “be involved”.
I had a conversation recently with a good friend who’s a mum of a two year old; she, like me, has been “involved” (helped run things) the whole of her toddler’s life, and we were talking wistfully about those parents who felt able to resist the pressure. Imagine, people who feel free enough not to always have to turn up! (This says more about my dysfunction then anyone else’s).
I have no great pronouncements to make about how we should relate to church as parents of tiny people, no judgements, no pressure. I am sad that mothers often have such awful experiences and feel that there is no place for them. I only want to tell a good story. Because that is what ours has been.
I loved bringing Jesse to church from very early on because he was always welcomed wholeheartedly. And other people would hold him (if he wasn’t strapped to me, asleep). It’s the same reason I loved bringing him to the church toddler group. Other wonderful people would cuddle him, and coo over him, whilst I had a coffee and a grown-up conversation, and a little respite.
There was a little room out the back we sometimes used to feed him,or change him on a Sunday morning, but mostly he was with us in all the services. I was never very interested in spending Sunday mornings in a pokey room on my own, so I never really gave Jesse that option either. No-one ever seemed to mind the noise, the intrusion, the distraction. He got to recognise people’s faces and trust them. To him, they are family (and he sees them more often).
Jesse and his “god-sisters”
At 18 months, he runs into church and usually straight into the arms of his two ‘god-sisters’ (this is what they have named themselves) who watch out for him, entertain him, hold him and usually prevent him from hurling himself headlong off the furniture. They adopted him as soon as he was born.
He spends the services playing on a mat at the front of the hall with the other tinies, rooting through the musical instrument drawer, scribbling on colouring sheets and occasionally joining in with the band (or attempting to dismantle the PA). He dances enthusiastically along to the music, and if his dad is playing, tries to help him on the guitar. This last week he headed straight for the large wooden cross standing in the middle of the hall, and wrapped his arms around it (enacting the old hymn, “I’ll cling to the old rugged cross”). When the congregation were invited to deposit balls of ripped paper at the foot of the cross as part of their worship (it must have been symbolising something), Jesse decided to scatter them all further afield.
There was grace, and space, for him. And, I hope, for the other small people.
It probably tells you something about the kind of church we’re part of – that nothing is very formal, and that chaos is always present to some extent. I’ve led services with Jesse on my hip (although usually someone else appears to distract and entertain him before long). We also meet out in localised ‘communities’ which involve our kids too, and Jesse has always belonged there. Our community hosted his first birthday party!
On top of that, I’ve been “involved” beyond Sundays. I joined the church’s leadership team before Jesse was born and I kept going to the meetings after he was born (after a 3 month break). Please don’t think that this was a great gesture of sacrificial service on my part; they kept me sane. One morning a week, I brought Jesse to church and he either napped or was cuddled or entertained by various members of the leadership team; and I got to talk about things entirely unrelated to having a baby.
Of course there are some downsides, some frustrations, some logistical challenges. One of us often has to leave the Sunday service early at the moment to get him home to nap (if we wait till the end and drive home, he falls asleep and then the transfer up 4 flights of stairs to bed does not generally go well). I’m distracted and don’t exactly focus intently on whatever is being talked about. Persuading him to eat lunch mid-service is often a frustrating endeavour. If Andy and I are both involved in some practical part of the service, it’s a bit of a nightmare.
But so far, so good. It’s a cliche, but for us, church is a community – a family – to which we belong, over and above an event or a building. And that’s felt even more true since there have been three of us. The people in our church (and especially, our community) have babysat for us, cleaned our flat (!), made us endless dinners, loved Jesse and always made us feel welcome. I haven’t felt pressure to do things I just can’t make time to do – instead there have been lots of reassuring conversations with more seasoned parents about taking things as they come, giving myself a break, and finding news ways to engage with God that suit the insanity of parenting tiny people. It’s early days, in parenting terms, but I’m hopeful that these are the guys who will keep us afloat in the years to come!
I know not everyone has positive experiences of church and small children. I’d love to hear how you’ve found it, and what you think churches should do to make things better. (Also, feel free to share your happy stories!).