“Mommy, what happens in a church?” That’s the post-hysterical-meltdown inquiry lobbed at me by my three-year-old once we settled our parking lot hysterics (she wanted to ride home without her seat belt, and I refused because I am “the meanest mother in the world). Before her tears had dried, her supple mind had flitted to a brand new topic: religious institutions. (NOTE: We don’t attend church.)
The question itself, so simple and so earnest, cracked my cynical heart wide open as I imagined telling her something simple and true, leaving pedophilic priests and hypocritical televangelists with perfect coifs out of it. For now, at least.
I wanted to get this right. I’d already botched the “where did the dog go?” (dead) conversation and the “why does Gus have two mommies?” conversation with long-winded pedantry. It has to be simple.
But I don’t really do simple. I wanted to channel Anne Lamott and assure my daughter that church is full of real-life good Samaritans who will pick you up when you stumble, broken-hearted into a ditch so deep you think a shovel can’t reach you. I wanted to tell her about the best Church stuff that I know personally: the corporal works of mercy and the songs. Oh, the songs.
Definitely start with the songs.
“People go to church to be together to sing and pray. Sometimes stories are read. It’s like school in a lot of ways. The songs I sing to you at bedtime I learned in church.”
I patted my own back for keeping it simple and relating it to some of her favorite things in the world: school and songs. I checked her face in the rearview mirror– she was thinking as she chewed a bite of the apple we grabbed on the way out of the gym.
Who am I to let silence pass when I could just as well fill it up with my wordy word words?
“You know how we say prayers at night? Some people like to say prayers with lots of friends and community. Church is a place to do that.”
Another glance backwards. She’s still munching and either considering what I’ve said or wondering where her princess crayons are. Either one, really.
“Which side will the church be on when we drive down our street?” She asks this question every time we drive down our one-way street, and never appears fazed that the answer is always the same. “Sweetie, it will be on your side. I’ll tell you when to look out the window at St. Andrew’s.”
By the time we drove by the church, we were deep in a conversation about what kind of birthday cake her little brother will have in three weeks (“Spiderman, Mom”). I still point out the church and promise that we can look at some steeples next time we are on the computer.
And I wondered, for the 67th time this weekend alone, whether I had done it right. Had I given her age-appropriate information that was true and unbiased enough for her to make her own decisions when the time comes for her decide whether she wants to participate in a church or a temple or a mosque? Had I given her actual tools for discernment or just vapid explanations that reveal nothing about myself or the actual world?
How the f*ck should I know? This self-doubt feels like pure agony. It’s the hardest part of being a parent with a brain like mine, that is always analyzing and wondering if I gave my children tools or a bomb that will detonate in a few years.
I assumed there will time for all that self-revelatory crap if she happens to ask again when she is old enough to understand my piece of luggage labeled “church.”
It was hard to put the perseveration away. It was hard to tell myself believably: “You did it just right. You struck all the right balances. You can show her steeples or church services on YouTube later. You did it right. Move on.”
But I said it, and I almost believed it. I’ll get another chance to say more, or less, or something better. I didn’t have to do it all today.
I did it just right.