The Sacred Work of Mothering in the Pew
I was recently talking with a friend about the challenges of worshiping with small children. She was lamenting how hard it is to teach her children how to participate in the liturgy while juggling wiggly siblings and easily distracted littles. And with every fiber of my being, I got it.
I have blogged here and here and here and probably scores of other places about how hard worshiping is with little ones. I can’t count how many times I came away from worship frustrated, exhausted, sad and even angry. Not exactly the emotions one would hope for after worship! While we always wanted a large family, I used to joke with my husband that I couldn’t even consider talking about having another child until at least Tuesday — when the Sunday worship struggles were less vivid in my mind!
My children are older now, and while not perfect, worshiping with them is ever so much easier. And for the most part, I hear everything and am able to actually worship. But those days of pew struggles are still very fresh in mind. I recall one Sunday when I was very pregnant with our third child, my husband called me up to the front of the church to use my pregnant belly as a sermon illustration. I was unaware he was going to do that, and was not dressed for it/mentally prepared for it/psyched up for it. And directly before he called me up (again, this was unexpected!), I was tending to my normal circus in the pew and my 2-year-old son spilled Fruit Loops all over the floor. As I was leaning over (around my giant belly) to clean up the mess, my husband called me and the kids to the front. I was mortified as he spoke while I stood with the kids next to him — in my un-thought-out, rumpled maternity dress with my unruly children. I felt like those first moments of going to the front summed up my life perfectly – messy, unprepared and a spectacle.
Since my husband only sits with us a handful of times per year (mostly when we are on vacation), training the kids in the actual worship setting has been largely my job. It’s a job that weighs heavy on me, even now. I want my children to desire to be in worship every Sunday. I want them to participate fully and crave God’s word and sacrament. I want them to never see going to worship as just an option — one to be chosen only if they aren’t tired or busy. I want them, as young adults out of our nest, to first and foremost in a new environment find a church home.
But man! Wiggly, loud, often complaining little ones don’t exactly lend themselves to my lofty model! And it can be so easy to say “It’s not worth it! I’ll come back to worship when they get older and can sit still!” I felt those thoughts too – ‘why am I even coming to worship? No one is getting anything out of it!!’ But in my more lucid moments (and often those distanced a bit from the trauma of Sunday!), I knew that was Satan getting under my skin.
Even when it doesn’t feel like it, little ones are getting so much out of worship!! They are watching and learning at every step. They see you close your eyes (briefly, mammas, I know — or someone will yank his sister’s hair causing a loud wail!) when you pray. They see you kneel and commune and share the peace. They watch those around them do the same things. And even if they appear to be busy torturing their siblings, coloring their children’s bulletins or flinging their Fruit Loops, they are watching. And they are learning and worshiping. When they see you take them to church, every Sunday, without fail, they see that worship is the number one priority. And they begin to pick up these habits themselves. Sure, they will still poke their brothers and refuse to say/sing/pray now and then, but as they get older, your habits become theirs, and the faith that was given to them in their baptism is nurtured and grows.
And as for your own worship (or seemingly lack-there-of), mammas, my mother-in-law used to comfort me with this truth: Even if you can’t fully listen to the readings and homily and liturgy, God’s word is being proclaimed, and your ears are hearing it, whether you are absorbing it all or not. Did you catch that?? What a blessing that sentiment was to me in those early years! I might not have been able to process all that I was hearing during worship, but God’s word was still pouring over me. And even more: in communion, I was receiving Christ into my very body! Even though worshiping with children is not exactly the experience it used to be, it is valuable nonetheless — and in some ways it can be even more meaningful!
Remember when my husband called me up to the front? I don’t recall exactly what he said, but I remember it addressed the idea of mothers giving up their bodies for their children, and likening it to Christ giving His body up for us in the Eucharist. My mortification turned to reflection and tears as I listened to his words. Motherhood is a sacred vocation, and through it, even in the pew — perhaps especially in the pew, we are being made holy. Mothering little ones is hard work, without a doubt. And teaching little ones the faith week after week is not for the feint of heart. But through these sacrifices each Sunday, our own faith continues to grow, and the faith of our little ones blossoms through our example.
If you’re a young mother struggling in the pew, keep at it! You have a most sacred job — nurturing and teaching the faith to the next generation. You are their most important teacher of Christ! No one else will be able to impact their faith like you can.
Stay strong, mammas! Your work is holy!
Photo credit to Petras Gagilas. Some rights reserved.
My children are older now, too. However, my 16 year old has autism and sometimes his behaviors draw attention to us. My 13 year old has PTSD and behavioral problems and can still have tantrums. It is a different struggle than when they were younger, but still an ongoing training ground. It is a joy, however, when my 16 year old sings out (LOUDLY and off key). He is receiving the gifts that are present for him and singing from his heart. It is a joy when my 13 year old sings out and I catch her listening to the sermon. It reminds me that it is all worth the struggle in the pew.
I remember my pastor saying usually young children can at least get through the first 5 minutes of a service and in those 5 minutes you are reminded of your baptism and the forgiveness of sins when you hear the invocation.
When my daughter was young, one smart mom from our congregation with young ones of her own, gave Grace a “church bag” for her first baptismal birthday. Inside was a small notebook, a sheet of stickers and a pack of chunky colored pencils. To this I added a board book from CPH’s “What I (see, hear, etc.) in Church” and changed it out often with others of that series, and as she got older-either a magnetic drawing pad or sewing cards as to practice some hand-eye coordination. The notebook was used to draw in or put stickers in and as she got older we would write her name or Jesus and have her trace it or copy it. We would look for the crosses in the CPH books and find the crosses in church. Even at one children can learn when it is time to “be quiet and listen” even if they are “multi-tasking” while they hear God’s word.
Another superbly written blog and so true. It is a shame when parents don’t bring their children because they are “too little”.
I love this post Shelley. I can definitely relate. My youngest kids, age 4 and 6, are occasionally “wiggly”. They have now begun grabbing a service book and wanting to turn to every hymn and pretend to sing a long. I think we drop a book on the floor just about every time though. Thank you for your inspiring post!