I've heard many people say they felt no need to attend religious services until after they had children. That having kids is what brought them back to church, back to the fold. For me, it was just the opposite.
As it turns out, the arrival of two pooping, peeing, gorgeously gurgling babies in my life coincided exactly with an unwillingness to waste precious minutes listening to a middle-aged white guy expound on a vision of spirituality that felt irrelevant -- or at the very least inadequate -- to me. After our preschool-age daughter joined our family a year later, I kept hauling my exhausted ass to church most Sunday mornings. But by then, the threads of loyalty that tied me to church life were as frayed and worn as my new-mother nerves.
The fact was motherhood had awakened in me an intense emotional vulnerability. Before becoming a parent, I hadn't so much as sniffled at the movies; now scenes with distraught babies reduced me to blubbering idiocy. News coverage of abused children, local murders, and war-torn countries brought me to states of near panic.
With this sensitivity came a fresh hunger to right the world's injustices -- and an unswerving intolerance for bullshit. When the pastor at our church suggested that we "show the love of God in a practical way" by handing out cold Cokes at the Portland Rose Festival -- as opposed to, say, mowing the lawns of elderly neighbors or delivering food to low-income families -- I fantasized about how I might show the irritation of God in a practical way.
Then one morning, while sitting in a small discussion group at church, I mentioned that I had a teeny, tiny problem with the whole idea of an angry, war-mongering God. A man in my group looked at me for a moment, then leaned forward and said, "I know just what you mean. Sometimes I really struggle with that, too. But -- we're not supposed to question. We're supposed to have the faith of a child."
The faith of a child. Um…had this guy ever actually met a child? Because all my four-year-old ever said those days was, "Why, Mama, why? Why?" And as worn out as I was by the constant need to answer (or ignore) her, her persistent (some might say relentless) questioning seemed pretty healthy to me.
Deep inside, I felt something shift. What was I doing at a place like that? I didn't want my children to learn not to ask questions -- about God, or about anything else. Hell, I didn't want to not be able to ask questions. It wasn't that this church was more limiting than any others I'd attended; motherhood simply had changed what I was willing to put up with. When I walked out that day, I knew I wouldn't be back -- and neither would my children.
By the time I'd become a parent, at age 35, I had attended religious services for most of my life: at first, out of curiosity; later, out of a sense of duty; and, more recently, because I'd become so entrenched in a particular religious culture I couldn't envision how to climb back out. But a curious thing happened once I gave myself permission to walk away: I became genuinely excited about the idea of pursuing my own spiritual path, free from the suffocating influence of other people's expectations.
Post-church, I continued to ask, with increasing confidence, what I saw as the big questions of life -- out loud, to anyone who would listen. I stopped praying for or about things and began to, instead, simply sit in silence. In the absence of an imposed religious agenda, I felt a deeper connection with something larger than myself. Some call it God; others, Spirit, or the sacred. The words matter less to me now than the fact that I'm finding my way in a manner that means something, perhaps not to anyone else, but to me.
Eventually, I found that I longed for a place where I could ask my questions in a community, with others who were doing the same thing. I wanted my children to see that the spiritual life is both individual and collective -- that it is, like most important things in life, something we do not just alone but in relationship with others.
A year after quitting church "forever," I visited a Quaker meeting made up largely of Democrats and peaceniks. I knew it was the right place for me when my daughter brought home a Sunday school worksheet titled "What Women Can Do In Our Church," illustrated with pictures of a dozen jobs (including preaching): every single one circled. I knew I was moving in the right direction when I stopped listening for the voice of God "out there" somewhere and started listening in places much closer, like my own heart. Like the voices of my children.