Here’s the thing about having kids: once you feel comfortable in any given stage, your kids get older and grow into new and wholly different stages.
So even when I feel like I know what I’m doing, I really don’t. The saying, “Fly by the seat of your pants,” might as well be my mommy-motto. Except, my pants are usually dirty, or are leggings, and are often times still in the washer.
All this said, I’ve gotten rather comfortable flying by the seat of my dirty leggings. Once I accepted that mothering has a huge learning curve and you do the best you can, I settled into a very happy role of learning alongside my kids. I definitely do not have all the answers, but I'm okay with not having the answers, because I know my kids. We will figure it out together. Just like I shape my kids into the people they will be, they shape me into the mom and person I want to be.
Except there’s one thing I’ve been struggling with lately, and I definitely do not have the answer.
I’ve been struggling with religion. Particularly, how do you talk to your kids about religion, especially if you disagree? I guess this is a new stage with a new learning curve.
For those who do not know me, my husband, or our childhoods, we both grew up in the same small town in Virginia. We grew up in (different) churches. There was Sunday school, Bible study, mission trips, and more. I was baptized at age 11 and my husband worked the after-school daycare at his church.
We were born and raised Christians. While I grew up questioning everything because, well, that’s just who I am, my husband accepted everything at face value. When we got married, we did so under God by a pastor from my church. We tried out churches in every town we lived in, and even had our son recognized by the church I was baptized in. Our daughter never got around to being recognized, but she and my son were gifted with many Bibles, angels, books about Jesus, and crosses. It runs in both of our families, and in us too. Until it didn’t anymore.
I do not know when this change happened. I’m still not sure it happened with me. I have recently messaged my pastor (in the past two weeks) because I am still questioning everything. However, my husband is a nuclear engineer, and damn if his studies do not defy what we’ve both been taught.
Faith is believing without seeing. It means having a deep, existential understanding that what you are taught in the church and read in the Bible are true. My sister has an enviable faith. Between me, my brother, and my sister, I feel my sister has the strongest faith. She always seemed to take church a little more seriously, mission trips a little more to heart, and, as she grew older, she shaped her life and her family around God. Not only does she (pun intended) religiously attend church, but she also volunteers at the nursery, attends weekly Bible study, works nine to five as a child therapist, raises two children under the age of five, houses foster children on any given day, and does everything else a modern woman and wife does. She doesn’t simply claim to be a Christian, she lives as one.
She’s also faced many hard challenges. When you have so much going on in your life, you’re inviting that many more chances for something to go wrong. From the trivial like locking her keys in her car, to the more trying things like sick children, she has never wavered or broken in her faith.
I do not have faith like my sister, but I do watch her, and especially her kids, and see how much fulfillment and peace they find in their religion. At times I envy them. I feel like I should be doing that. My husband felt like he should be doing that. We tried doing that, but we weren’t getting the same results.
My husband is now a complete atheist. He's scientific by nature and has traveled too far into the wormhole of astro- and metaphysics to firmly hold the belief that Jonah got swallowed by a whale or a giant got defeated with a slingshot. And, while most of these stories are metaphorical, he asked me what differentiates them between everyday fairy tales: stories that also teach lessons and are metaphorical. I couldn’t answer him.
Bringing all this back to our children, our son is old enough now to where he is making real-world connections to Jesus and Bible stories. He is asking huge philosophical and religious questions and, frankly, I cannot answer them. Some I do not have the answer to, some make me uncomfortable, and some make me mad.
My husband no longer puts on the pretense of being religious in front of our kids. When he is asked the deep, soul-searching questions, he deftly dodges with a noncommittal answer that leaves our kids satisfied. He does not choose the Biblical children’s books we used to read to them at night anymore. Instead, he takes them to space shows at the Children’s Museum and discusses math and science concepts. His perspective is that he's teaching them the truth, but this truth negates religious truth, which is the truth my children believe in. I'm stuck somewhere in the middle, with no way to answer my kids’ questions, and fearful of committing one way or another.
My son told me a couple months ago that he wanted to die. You haven’t felt fear or sadness until your five-year-old (or any age child, for that matter) tells you that he no longer wishes to live. In a matter of seconds, I went from fear to anger to sadness to defeat to clarity until I could confront and discuss what the hell he was saying.
I’ll never forget this moment. We were both sitting on my bathroom floor and tears began to fill my eyes. I was devastated and heartbroken. He was confused. As it turns out, he had heard that Jesus was so awesome and that Heaven was so cool that he wanted to just go ahead and go. Skip what would hopefully be an extremely fulfilling and successful life so he could sit on the clouds and watch TV with Jesus.
My first thought was, “Sweet baby boy, Heaven isn’t real.” Then I was shocked all over again. What was I thinking?! Of course Heaven was real. I’d been indoctrinated with that my whole life. I believed it, but suddenly, confronted with the idea of my son taking his life so he could go on a permanent vacation with the man in the sky, I wasn’t so sure.
That was a hard conversation. Finding the line between shattering belief systems and getting my point across was like trying to juggle coffee mugs while playing hopscotch barefoot in the gravel. I wanted my son to know the truth, to know what’s real, but that’s a personal thing, isn’t it?
My sister’s truth is different than my husband’s. My own truth is different than both of theirs. As a parent, it's my duty to teach my children and help mold them into kind, smart, caring people. However, is it my job to tell them what faith to believe or not to believe in? Or, for that matter, to tell them that religion is all a fairytale?
I do not have this answer. At almost 29 years old, I'm still trying to find what I believe. I cannot refute evolution, I believe the world is billions of years old, I think the story of Noah and the Ark is allegorical, but I also believe in the message of Christ. I find importance and power in nature. I cannot label myself wholly as one thing, so am I the best candidate for trying to shape my children in this manner? Me, the lady flying by the seat of her yoga pants that have never seen a yoga position a day in their life? I don’t think so, and that’s okay.
Here it is: I believe that religion, faith, spirituality – whatever you want to call it – is a personal choice. I cannot tell you how to raise your children any more than I can make my children believe in Zeus or Buddha or Christ. How I think it's best my husband and I raise our children, though, is to let them learn through exploration. It's important to me that they know these subjects are personal, and that even though Tom preaches his belief as the truth, and Dick has another version, and Harry doesn’t believe in anything at all, that that is okay. None of them are wrong.
At the end of an exhausting day of parenting, I want to go to sleep knowing my kids are informed. I want them to have all the options to choose from, so they can find their own way to their beliefs. Religion is a huge thing. It is literally a thing people chose to dedicate their lives to. I do not want to tell my kids some things are true and others aren’t because, well, I don’t know. I don’t want them to be scared or guilted or misinformed and resent me and my husband because we led them astray. I do not have these heavy-hitting answers. My children have moved into a new stage that I am adjusting to. This is one of those stages where we will learn from each other.
My kids do not need to believe what I believe, or what my husband believes, or what anyone else believes. This is a hard road to navigate, but together, I know we will arrive at an answer that strengthens us all, even if it is not found in the Bible, Quran, or even an astrophysics textbook.