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We’re the Family That Only Goes to Church on Easter

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

I’m in a rebound generation. My mom was unhappily hauled to church by her Lutheran mother and Catholic father and as a young parent thought that too many churchgoing folks were hypocritical, judgmental, or both. Though she had a baptism for me and a naming ceremony for my brother, she essentially never took us after that.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, which is largely Catholic, and my lack of churching was an occasional scandal for friends or a teacher. (Kindergarten was held in a church basement and the first time we went upstairs, I cried in fear.) My teenage besties brought me to youth groups and masses. It opened my eyes to how much I wasn’t learning: I didn’t know Bible stories, I didn’t know what communion was, and I couldn’t wrap my mind around what made one religion different from another.

In college I took a “Bible as Literature” class and, in the way you do, had deep discussions with people who were Jewish, Unitarian, and everything else. I went through a period of announcing I was “nothing” or an atheist but that wasn’t true. I did believe in a higher power—I just couldn’t figure out how to express it. Then I started taking my mom to church, just for Christmas Eve services in the little Lutheran church that my grandma still attended. We giggled through a lot of it but it still felt good.

I married a Unitarian and found a nice Unitarian church; he joined me for some education classes there, but out of a lifetime of habit, I couldn’t get it together to go every Sunday. Then I became a mom, and copied my mom’s example with a Lutheran baptism for my daughter, and a Unitarian naming ceremony for my son two years later. Unlike her, I tried to make us a church-going family.

Short story is: That didn’t work. My kids are fine with going sometimes, to see a family friend who plays the organ in his church, or to see cousins sing in theirs. We’ve gone to synagogue to see other cousins at their Bar Mitzvah. But my kids (and let’s face it, me) balk at an every-Sunday schedule, even though they seem to enjoy services. My daughter, in particular, likes to participate in open communion. At least I can be thankful they aren’t afraid of a church, right?

A lapsed-Catholic friend, also from Pittsburgh, found a little church near us in Brooklyn that has a lovely Easter service. We went last year and with serious intentions, I asked about the Bible study classes for kids. But I didn’t sign my children up. Now a year has gone by, and I’m planning on showing up again this Sunday. No doubt the regulars who keep the church running will spot us once-a-year folk a mile away, and sigh.

Here’s what I want them to know: We’re lazy Christians, but we own it. We’re still proud (if extra guilty) members of the club. I mean, I named my children Grace and Joseph, for heaven’s sake. I’ve talked to them about what faith means, and the importance of having it. I have a book of Bible stories in the house. I tell them what Christmas celebrates, and the story behind Easter, and why the Easter cake I bake, the same one my grandma always insisted on, is lamb-shaped. I’ve told them that they can talk to God anytime they want to; He’s always listening. Even if they only show up in His house once a year.

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Surprise Easter Basket
Surprise Easter Basket
Surprise Easter Basket

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Calm Down About the Princesses

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

I live in a slightly out-of-the-culture neighborhood of Brooklyn, where mothers of baby girls shun pink and boys wear their hair fairly long, and sometimes I feel surrounded by princess-haters, who think that the Disney Princesses are trying to put all of our kids into a narrow box. I have lost count of the number of friends who have said they will never sanction Disney princesses in their home. They usually lose that battle anyway.

I can’t speak authoritatively about girls trying on extreme gender roles, because I am no child-development expert. But my beat here at Parents and American Baby includes toys, and I know when a little girl reaches 2 or 3 she usually wants a princess doll, or a costume dress, or a plastic pony with a long pink tail. I don’t know why, but I can tell you the want is real and seems primal.

My daughter, Grace, went on a loopy-doopy princess bender from ages 2 through 4. She dressed as Cinderella as she learned to climb the monkey bars and wore her Belle dress through the supermarket. It hurt no one, and I would argue particularly did not hurt her. She outgrew wearing costumes before elementary school, as I knew she would, but retained some lessons from “the ladies.” She knew that Ariel should have talked to her Dada before making that crazy deal to get human legs, and that Jasmine needed some street smarts. She understood Cinderella’s weary patience and Belle’s determination to block out haters. The new movie Frozen (which we’ve seen twice!) particularly has great themes, as Sheryl Sandberg points out.

Last fall we visited Belle in Fantasyland and Grace, now 11, studied her from a distance, judging her acting ability. (“She gets the voice right…”) I can’t get my tween to put on a dress, let alone a frilly one. She eyes Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, which honestly makes me more nervous than her watching of Snow White ever did.

The eloquent “Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney” piece that ran in the New York Times resonates with me in that it points out how Disney stories are tales as old as time. The characters are acting out ancient dilemmas: How do you learn to trust your instinct? When should you do what you want to do, and when should you do what is expected of you? How do you find your place in the world? Not to overstate things too much, but trying to block kids from learning the princesses stories is to shut off a huge wealth of literature, history, and culture. And I can’t help but notice that no one fusses at my son about Tarzan’s body or the fact that Mowgli is so dang skinny.

I am not saying you need to welcome the ladies into your home so much as I’m saying: Calm down about them. They’re characters, and if you pay more attention to their character development instead of their shape, they have a lot to teach.

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Yes, I Told My Daughter to Lower Her Expectations

Monday, November 4th, 2013

My tween daughter had a lot of plans for Halloween: what she was going to wear, which friends were coming over, how much candy she’d collect, how she would also hand out treats, and how she’d simultaneously cohost a party with her aunt. 

She takes after me, a master multitasker. And she did an admirable job, getting in an hour of trick-or-treating, an hour of passing out candy, and two hours of partying before collapsing in bed. But then she started sobbing, because it didn’t all go perfectly.

“I forgot to put on my bat necklace!” was her first complaint. And then, “I forgot the spider ring too! And Alma never came over! And neither did Emma!”

At first I did the Mom thing of trying to negate every little thing she brought up. “No one would have noticed the jewelry. Look at the text that Alma’s mom sent, saying they were too exhausted to come. And you KNEW Emma couldn’t come.” Etc.

But there’s no stopping a tween tantrum, as I should know by now. So then I did another Mom thing, which is to get angry, and start being a little too honest.

“Grace, you can’t expect every event to be perfect. Lower your expectations! If you think it’s going to be just okay, and then it’s better than okay, you’ll be happy. But if you need things to be amazing, and then they’re just good, you’ll always be disappointed.” And then I sung her to sleep. 

Downstairs, as the party wound down, I recounted the story to one of my best friends, who doesn’t have kids. “You told your daughter to aim low?!” she asked in sort-of mock horror, holding her head in her hands.

I thought about it. Yes. I think that is what I did. “But you know, girls get worked up about things being perfect. Like expecting Prom to be some magical evening, which it never is,” I argued lamely. We are far from Gracie going to Prom.

At work the next day I checked in with a Mom colleague to get some perspective. Her daughter is only 1, but she’s thoughtful about raising a girl. “It’s not like you’re asking her to lower her life goals!” she reassured me.

That is it, of course. I want Grace to continue to say she hopes to go to Yale. I want her to continue to list about six professions she thinks she will hold at once as an adult. I want her to aim high for everything…except the little things. Halloween is supposed to just be fun. Teaching my kids to live in the moment and ride over little disappointments while also making life goals and recognizing the big stuff remains my toughest parenting challenge. When Grace was a toddler I would say, “that is not to cry” when something small upset her. Finding the right words now that she is 11 is more difficult. But I guess I’ll start with “lower your expectations sometimes.”


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