Hauling my family to church every Sunday is making me lose my religion

Let’s get a few things straight right at the outset, before we dive in.

I love my family.

I love God.

I love and appreciate my church family.

But I have to tell you that for me, attending church with  my family on Sunday morning has earned a place up there on my poo-list with Mondays, dinner, glitter, daylight savings time, and people who try to talk to me when I’m sleeping.

Let us first discuss the hellacious process of getting everyone ready for church, which in itself is enough to make me start raiding the communion wine.  There is the issue of what to wear.  Now, does God care what we wear to church?  Really, no.  Of course we know that the answer is “no”.  However, I do think it is my duty as a parent to teach my kids to dress appropriately for the place and situation in which they happen to be in attendance.  I fear that if I fail to do so, they will one day show up at a job interview wearing pajama pants and a stained t-shirt because nobody ever taught them that there is a time and a place for that sort of thing.  Obviously, we save our pajama pants and stained t-shirts for when we go to Wal-Mart, but I digress. One kid doesn’t want to dress up, which is fine.  We don’t insist on “dressy” clothes, but we do insist on no sweat pants.   Unfortunately, for my 10-year old boy “no sweat pants” is the same as “dressy” by default. So a “certain someone” is inevitably in a foul mood from the moment the sun breaks the horizon Sunday morning.  The girl doesn’t have as much of an issue with getting ready for church because she gets to wear a pretty dress and pretty shoes.  It’s really the main reason she goes to church, aside from the candy our children’s ministry puts in the “busy bag” they hand out to the kids before the sermon.  All that to say that by the time we navigate the “normal” morning mood swings, breakfast, clothing-related drama, getting everyone dressed and out the door on time, and have the “I don’t want to go to church– it’s boring” conversation, we usually arrive on the doorstep of our place of worship a little bit discontent, to put it mildly.

Then there is the issue of actually being at church with kids in tow.  Kids are super talented in that they can ruin anything.  Church is no exception to this rule.  When they were babies and toddlers we would put them in the nursery, which sounds like it would be a good thing, right?  Unfortunately, it turned out to be fraught with all kinds of worship-killing issues, such as separation anxiety, diaper blowouts beyond the scope of the nursery volunteers, feeding times, missed morning naps, and usually some kind of plague that they would acquire 36-48 hours after leaving.  Between the Sundays we missed due to our own kids’ illnesses and the Sundays we had to take our turn volunteering in the nursery, it felt like we hardly ever got to attend the service.   On the rare occasions we were all healthy, present, and able drop them both off in the nursery, Jeff and I would enter the sanctuary and sit there like abused prisoners of war who had just been set free out of a dark hole, blinking in the blinding light of freedom.  Those 45 minutes without the children tugging at us were less about spiritual growth and more about the free babysitting just taking a breather.

With the exception of those few times we were able to make use of the nursery when they were babies, I have not sat through a church service in over a decade without being interrupted every 4 minutes at a minimum.  Over the course of a typical worship service, I break up at least 3 arguments, play a rendition of musical chairs in the pew, field at least 3 requests to go to the bathroom (despite the fact that they both went before we got there), respond to 2 additional requests to leave to get a drink of water, fish at least one child out from under the pews, answer approximately 15 random questions that have nothing to do with church or God or Jesus or worship or anything remotely connected to what I am trying to concentrate on, and THEN–then!!–9 times out of 10 one of the kids will fart (always silent/deadly), thereby crop-dusting all of the poor unsuspecting worshipers around us.  It is exhausting.  And stinky.  And not at all conducive to spiritual growth of any kind.

We have tried many things over the years to try to foster our children’s love for God and their church community.  They love God, but Sunday church is not a fan favorite.  They don’t enjoy going, and because they don’t enjoy it, it is much less enjoyable for me.  I’m not sure how to walk the fine line between prioritizing church as a family without tipping over into legalism.  Or losing my sanity in the process.

This is not how I pictured it would be, of course.  I always thought we would be the kind of family that would be really involved in our church.  Not because I think that will win us any special favors in the eyes of God.  I know we are loved whether we attend church regularly or lay on the couch in our jammies.  But I also want my children to grow up immersed in a healthy faith community, where they will learn the importance of knowing others and being known, of giving and receiving, and where they can practice worship and service.

One of my good friends told me about her husband’s grandmother, who had 6 children.  On Sunday mornings she would take the older kids to the early Mass and the younger kids to the later Mass.  If the older kids misbehaved, she made them attend Mass a second time with the younger siblings.  Say what??  This woman is my hero.

So if you see me smiling maniacally at church on Sunday morning or stage whispering to my kids in the pew, now you know that I’m just white-knuckling my way through until nap time.  MY nap time, that is.  Pray for me.  Deliver me, Lord, from Sunday.

Tween-dom 

I will admit it.  I let my guard down.  I used to be pretty attentive, always looking around the corner, anticipating the next set of issues and problems, reading up so that I would be prepared when the time came.  I started out when I was pregnant and on bed rest, reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting.  This led naturally into What to Expect the Toddler Years and a motherlode (pun intended) of mommy blogs and message boards.  I’m not sure when or why I stopped doing this, though it was most likely a gentle slide, a slow erosion of my hyper-vigilance.  You know how it is when every day starts to feel like groundhog day, like a variation on a theme, and you just settle in and coast for a while.

I wouldn’t say that the change took place overnight, necessarily.  But it was a significant transformation, one that continues to surprise me as it evolves and plays out in the day-to-day.  Coasting is no longer an option.  There is no predictable pattern or even much of a warning when it’s time to batten down the hatches.  All I know is that this change is just the beginning, a small taste of things to come, and I do not feel prepared for it.

I’m talking about this new person that lives in my house.  This one who used to think I was awesome and fun, who called me “mommy”, who saw me as an ally rather than an obstacle.  This new guy is called a “tween”, I am told.  When I look at him, I still see his baby face in there somewhere, hiding under the hood that is always cinched up around his face.  (are you cold?  is it breezy in here?  what gives?).  When he hugs me, he no longer grabs my thigh or my waist, or reaches up his hands for me to pull him up.  His arms circle all the way around my back, his head can now rest comfortably on my shoulder, and he makes gains on me every day.  Soon this one I carried in a sling and pushed in a stroller, who cried when I left the room, who threw broccoli on the floor, will overtake me.  He will literally look down at me, and I will have to tip my chin up when I tell him to go clean up his room or do his homework.

He is aware that he is on the precipice of physical enormity, and he is practicing for it by doing things like rolling his eyes and greeting simple requests with poorly executed sarcasm.  He obviously doesn’t know that I won the regional award for eye-rolling back in my day.  There is no “What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Teenager” on my bookshelf currently, so I’m still figuring out how best to nip all this in the bud without making it worse.  Because it’s a really delicate balance, you know?  Too authoritative and the tween is likely to retreat back under the perceived safety of the hoodie and shut you out entirely.  Not authoritative enough and you’ve got a hoodlum on your hands.  (see what I did there?  “hood”lum!)  It’s a little like approaching a wild animal on a National Geographic special.  Very precarious.

And what of the fact that my tween has so many NEEDS and FEELINGS right now?  So many feelings, none of which can be easily identified, because they are all wrapped up in this little ball that is generously coated with a layer of anger and finished with a fine dusting of resentment.  Am I to be the one to unravel that ticking time bomb?  Do I cut the black wire or the red one?  Which chapter addresses these sorts of emergencies?  Also, nothing like reliving middle school through the eyes of your child to dredge up all of your own emotional baggage.

I used to be really good at this.  I could tell by the look in that kid’s eyes when he was hungry, or overstimulated, or if he needed a nap.  I could anticipate what kind of scenarios were likely to be overwhelming or frustrating, and do some work on the front end to avoid  doing damage control on the back end.  Now, I don’t know anything, and I have a 10-year-old to tell me that I don’t know anything.  Also, in case you’re wondering, I’m lame.  And embarrassing.  And I’m not funny.  Not even a little bit.

I love this poem by Adair Lara, who really sums up the tween through teen stage nicely:

                                                         WHEN CHILDREN TURN INTO CATS

Have you ever realized that children are like dogs? Loyal and affectionate, but teenagers are like cats…
It’s so easy to be a dog owner.
You feed it, train it, boss it around. And yet it still puts its head on your knee and gazes at you as if you were a Rembrandt painting and bounds indoors with enthusiasm when you call it.
Then around age 13, your adoring little puppy turns into a cat. When you tell it to come inside, it looks amazed, as if wondering who died and made you emperor.
Instead of dogging your every step, it disappears. You won’t see it again until it gets hungry. Then it pauses on its sprint through the kitchen long enough to turn its nose up at whatever you’re serving.
When you reach out to ruffle its head, in that old affectionate gesture, it twists away from you, then gives you a blank stare, as if trying to remember where it has seen you before. You, not realizing that the dog is now a cat, think something must be desperately wrong.
It seems so antisocial, so distant.
It won’t go on family outings.
Since you’re the one who raised it, taught it to fetch and stay and sit on command, you assume that you did something wrong.
Flooded with guilt and fear, you redouble your efforts to make your pet behave.
Only now you’re dealing with a cat, so everything that worked before now produces the opposite of the desired result.
Call it, and it runs away. Tell it to sit, and it jumps on the counter.
The more you go toward it, with open arms, the more it moves away.
Instead of continuing to act like a dog owner, you should learn to behave like a cat owner.
Put a dish of food near the door, and let it come to you.
Sit still, and it will come, seeking that warm, comforting lap it has not entirely forgotten.
Be there to open the door for it.
And just remember…
One day your grown-up child will walk into the kitchen, give you a big kiss and say,  “You’ve been on your feet all day. Let me get those dishes for you.”
Then you’ll realize your cat is now a dog again!

I love this kid, this dog-turned-cat, this shape-shifting boy-man, who has come to teach me of the messy side love in all its forms.


The special ingredient

  
So listen.  You all know that things get a little crazy in my house around dinner time.  It is the most chaotic time of day around these parts.  This is nothing new.  This week, my kids decided to kick things up a notch.  And sometimes when I am really hungry, I make questionable decisions.  This may have been one of those times.

The kids only had a half day of school earlier this week, so they were home in the afternoon with Jeff.  He was trying to open our pool that day, which turned out to be more complicated than usual because we had a large population of tadpoles who had taken up residence on the top of our pool cover.  The kids were beside themselves with the thought that the tadpoles would have to be sacrificed in order to get the winter pool cover off.  So my darling husband lovingly transferred all those slimy critters into an empty fish tank.  The kids, in turn, gleefully watched them and played with them for hours while Jeff did what he needed to do to open the pool.

I got home from work at 6:45 pm, and they were all outside.  Jeff was working away, and the kids raced up to me to tell me all about the tadpoles and their rescue mission, which included a trip to the pond later that week to let them loose.

I went into the kitchen and noticed that Jeff had started dinner.  He had water on the stove for pasta that was close to boiling, and he had made fresh pesto (yummy!).  There  was chicken all set to go on the grill, and various prep dishes at the ready.  I picked up where he had left off, put the pasta in the boiling water, heated up the grill for the chicken, and made a quick salad.  I was starving.  It always seems such a race to get dinner on the table after work, the first step in the frantic weeknight dance of dinner-homework-clean up-showers-bedtime.

I got everything made, table set, food plated up, called everyone to the table, and we sat down to eat.

After we said grace, Jeff looked down at his plate.
“So…what did you use to drain the pasta?” he asks me.
“Umm…the pasta strainer….”  I replied.
“The one that was in the sink?”
“Yes, since that is the only pasta strainer we own.  Why?  What is it?”
“Nothing.  Never mind.”
“What?  What is it??
“You don’t want to know.”
WHAT DON’T I WANT TO KNOW??”

“Well, it’s just that the kids were using that to fish the tadpoles out of the pool and into the tank, and it was sitting in the sink because it needed to be washed out.”

We all looked down at our plates.  The beautiful bright green pesto was suddenly less appealing.   It was 7:15 pm.  I hadn’t eaten in about 7 hours.  I took a quick internal inventory.  I thought of all the times I had jumped into the lake at camp as a kid and accidentally swallowed a mouthful of water.  Or all those statistics out there that talk about how many bugs the average human accidentally swallows in their lifetime.   Also, the boiling water went into the pasta strainer before the pasta even touched it, so that’s almost like sterilizing it, right?

“I’m eating it”, I said.  Jeff looked a little surprised, but then shrugged and dug in.

“We don’t want to eat the tadpole pasta!!!”  the kids complained.

I put my fork down and looked at them.

“You are going to eat the tadpole pasta, because you are the reason we are having tadpole pasta.  First, you used my pasta strainer, the one I use to make food, to fish for tadpoles.  Then, you put that dirty strainer in the sink and you didn’t wash it out.  This is your fault.  You are going to eat it, and you are going to like it.  Now, pass the Romano cheese.

So we all ate it.  It tasted exactly the same as the pesto pasta we always make.  Turns out tadpole water residue doesn’t have a very strong flavor, especially with cheese on top.

After I was no longer in starvation mode, I started to wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have done that.  Maybe my low blood sugar had impaired my judgement.  Maybe our whole family would get Campylobacter, and then I would have to explain to my doctor how this happened.   That would be awkward.

But, I have to tell you, so far so good.  It has been about 4 days now and everyone seems just fine.  In fact, I think I may have totally reset my internal microbiome.  My intestinal flora feels like it is thriving like never before.  Maybe this will be the next holy grail of health food supplements and I can quit my job to sell tadpole water supplements, rich in Omega-3’s and antioxidants.  All natural and organic, with no GMO’s!

Moral of the story?  Pack a high-protein snack to eat on the way home from work, to avoid the extreme hunger that can lead to making poor decisions about food.  Also, don’t come to my house for dinner.