I’m fairly certain that when I envisioned the time that I would start talking to M about my beliefs–or, probably more accurately, non-beliefs–about how our world came to be, my source of moral codes to live by, and what happens after we die, I am pretty sure it did not involve going through the day’s mail and seeing the flyer for the Rockettes’ Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
But one cannot plan for these things I suppose. This is why so much parenting is improv.
Last year a bunch of my family (including us) went to see a performance of the Rockettes during the Christmas season. M really loved it and so did I. But one thing that took me aback during the show was the part near the end where it focuses on the birth of baby Jesus–I really didn’t like that part too much. Now, I know what you’re thinking: I didn’t like it because it involved religion and I’m an atheist. Nope, that’s not why. I didn’t like it because (in my humble yet artistically untrained opinion) it really slowed down the momentum of the show in a weird place, and, quite honestly, unexpectedly. I had no clue that that kind of religious content would be part of the show. Not that it would have persuaded me to not go see the show. I mean the whole point of Christmas–in the traditional, Christian sense–is the birth of Jesus. But I think that many of us could agree that these days, for too many people this is no longer what Christmas is about, and so I was simply expecting lots of glitter, high kicks and middle of the road holiday music.
The traditional celebration of Jesus’ birth is certainly not what Christmas is about for me personally. For me, it’s about family-based traditions in food, music and connecting with the winter season, and looking forward to that one time of year that we get together as a family for celebration, indulgence and embracing each other and all that we’ve done in the past year. Though putting it that way makes me realize that the only difference between Christmas and Thanksgiving is an evergreen tree, a smaller food hangover and some wrapped presents.
At one time Christmas did have a religious basis for me, or at least it was more religiously informed when I was a participating member of the Catholic church, but that stopped way back in 6th grade or so. So as a result, M’s Christmases have not (yet) had any religious ties. And that makes sense considering we don’t go to church as a family. I don’t go to church or temple or any other place of worship because I am a non-believer. I respect the rights of others who choose to go, but it’s not a place for me. If my husband chose to go again, I’d respect that. But presently he doesn’t go either. If you want to know why, you’d have to ask him since that is his own choice, a decision that is entirely separate from mine.
But as a result of all of this, other than a handful of baptisms and other ceremonies of friends and family that M has attended, her exposure to any kind of religion has been nonexistent. She is somewhat aware that some of her friends go to church on Sunday, but I’m pretty sure all that she thinks that is is some place where you go in a nice dress before you go out to breakfast.
Anyway, because we went to last year’s show,
we’re on the stupid mailing list the ticket sellers naturally assume we want to go again this year, so we received the glossy flyer in the mail. As M and I were thumbing through it and admiring the lovely ladies poised in their high kick pose, she got to the last page where there was a photograph of the baby Jesus scene from the show.
She asked, “Mommy, what’s that?”
I told her it was baby Jesus, hoping that she wasn’t going to probe any further because although I am not shy about my stance on gods, religion and many of the issues that flow therefrom, I was not particularly ready to talk about it at that moment in the front doorway next to a very recent patch of cat barf.
I dodged a bullet because she wanted to know what baby Jesus was sleeping in since it was a grainy photo. I told her it was a manger, kind of like an older version of a Pack-n-Play made out of straw and wood (Pack-n-Hay?). It satisfied her curiosity. Phew.
But then I realized that I need to get my elevator speech ready on this ASAP because she is at the age where she is going to have plenty questions about this. Fortunately, right now she is all too consumed by volcanoes and how mountains are made, but she’s only a few logical steps away from how the planet was made and why don’t we get dressed up on Sundays too?
Reading Parenting Beyond Belief by Dale McGowan (his blog is here) about a year ago certainly helped give me some insight about this issue, though I think I soon need to read his other book, Raising Freethinkers to round out my abilities to navigate this arena. But it’s much more than reading a book for some pointers. I have to remember that she is growing up with extended family who are practicing members of an organized religion, so there is a fine balance between imparting my understanding of the way the world is, her father’s (which is slightly different) and the rest of our families’, all while remaining respectful and non-judgmental. And considering that it’s not really a topic that is openly discussed among our extended family and friends, it already feels slightly awkward.
I have to remember that she’s attending preschool with other children who are members of organized religions that are different from the one of her extended family (Roman Catholic on all sides), and that sometimes I cannot fully predict when issues of religion might appear in my absence. Case in point: one of her classmates graciously brought in some Challah bread in celebration of Rosh Hashana last week. I think it’s wonderful that she is part of a rich fabric of cultures, religions and backgrounds among her peers—really, I do!–but it’s not like there’s an atheist day where I can send her in with a Bundt cake. These kinds of things will start to stand out more and more, and I am honestly not feeling too equipped to say the right thing given her age and attention span. At some point, if she asks, I am of course willing to expose her to whatever it is she wants to learn more about, even if it ultimately leads her to adopt viewpoints that are polar opposite from mine.
But right now I’m in that parenting sweet spot where I do have some control, or at least input, about these kinds of values. The problem though, insofar as I can see it, is that there is no doctrine or book or weekly sermon that I can point to to back me up in a way that is not academic. There are few social places (save for some Unitarian Universalist or Humanist Society groups) and no holidays where entire families gather to rally around the kinds of thoughts that I have, so sometimes it feels a bit lonely out here. So I have to riff a bit and it’s making me uncomfortable in a way that I had not anticipated. And maybe it’s just me, but I feel like I get the bulk of the deep, loaded questions instead of M’s dad. She asks me how babies are made and what will happen to the dead sparrow in our yard, and she asks her dad where her shoes are. Or at least it feels that way. And this is why she thought that all of the dirt in our entire backyard is made of dead people who are helping the new flowers grow (nothing like a four year old extrapolating one small example into one larger possible reality!)
Until this Rockettes flyer came along, I was happily drifting in the no man’s land of preschooler ignorance about big ticket items like religion. But I can see the hot seat on the very near horizon. And so I just want to give a shout out to the Rockettes for kicking me in the butt to get my spiel together so that I am ready next time.
Copyright (c) 2011-2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved.