I was bummed, that is, until I was actually sitting in the plane. Then it turned out I was relieved - not because of the hassle of traveling with a child, but because of a revelation I had during the review of the safety procedures.
Let me back up even further to say that last summer I took my child on his first roller coaster ride, in the very same roller coaster in which I took my first ride. I experienced a whole new level of fear when I felt for certain that the restraints on a ride that old (much older than me, even) certainly were not secure enough for my child; so I used my own hands and arms to hold him down, convinced that at any moment he would fly out of the seat.
I realized in that airplane that the same irrational fear had returned.
I knew as soon as I heard the familiar refrain from the flight attendant - make sure to secure your own mask first before helping those around you - I knew that I would be incapable of following that very wise and logical instruction. I would not be able to help myself before I helped my child.
We all know why you are supposed to do that - because in the time it takes me to take care of him, I myself may suffer to the point where I am helpless and useless.
Now of course I am going to connect this metaphor to nurturing faith in our own children, but before I do that, I think it is helpful to remember that we make this same mistake in many other ways as well.
Here are just some of the ways I take better care of my child than I do myself:
• I insist that he eat fruits and vegetables, while I seem to be exempt from that rule.
• I take him for annual physicals, though I only go to the doctor when I feel I’m sick enough to need antibiotics.
• I make him wear a life jacket on our annual canoe trip. I use mine for a seat cushion.
That’s all I am willing to admit to for now.
Too often I see this same pattern in parents at church. They insist on their children receiving a religious education, while they neglect their own religious life and spiritual health.
While I have written before about the impact that modeling a mature and passionate faith has on the spiritual and religious development of children, I think it is just as important to consider the ways that neglecting our own spiritual health and growth impacts us as parents.
In my experience, and in conversations with parents who have moved past the stages of raising younger children, I have come to believe that many modern parents are so wrapped up in the lives of their children, and the success of their children, that they stop taking care of their own needs in many areas, including their religious life.
We get so trapped in a bubble that we hardly have time for personal reading, let alone the study of scripture. We hardly have time to consider when we last ate a vegetable, let alone the last time we took 10 minutes for silent prayer. And the truth is that our lives are so over-scheduled that many can barely get their families to church on Sunday morning, let alone an additional time for a class, committee meeting or mission project.
And so when our children no longer need the educational services of the church (for some this comes after their children are confirmed and for others when they graduate from high school) parents can look around and realize they are part of a religious community in name only.
I have had many empty-nesters tell me they relish the time after they stop needing to deliver their children to Sunday school, because it means that they themselves can stop getting up early to go to church on Sunday mornings. I have actually heard from folks in this particular age group who, when asked why they no longer come to church, say- I don’t get anything out of it. It is not worth my time. I would argue that they don’t really get anything out of it because they spent years not really putting anything into it.
Just today I had a young mother regale me about an enviable trip she took to Ireland and Scotland this summer on a Celtic pilgrimage. Her reflection on the trip was very telling on the problem that most of us have as parents - she said, “it was so much easier to see the face of God when I didn’t need to worry about what my children were going to eat for dinner.” Then we had a lengthy conversation about the pros and cons of becoming nuns.
Yes, it is easier to see the face of God when one doesn’t need to fold someone else’s underwear, put dinner on the table, coach a soccer team, or drive the car pool. But that is the life that most of us are living, so how do we find the time and the method for hammering away at our own spiritual growth as parents?
Here are a few very simple suggestions -
1. Form intergenerational relationships in your congregation.
The wisdom that I have gained as a mother and as a woman of faith from women twice my age has been phenomenal. They have given me a vision of the other side, and they inspire me to continue to remember to care for myself.
2. Every so often read a “religious” book that is not focused on parenting or the parent-child relationship.
In my congregation, we have a tendency to focus on these kinds of continuing education materials because we can more easily entice parents to participate. But it helps the soul and even the intellect to try every so often to have a religious thought that goes beyond your identity as a parent. Yes, many things seem irrelevant in light of impending childhood daily stresses, but it will strengthen your identity as person of faith when the stresses of adulthood come crashing down.
3. Consider how the choices you make as a family are affecting your ability to actively participate in a Christian community not just because it takes your children away from church, but because it takes you away from church.
Honestly, the best way to work on building up your own life of faith is to actually show up for it.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions of the church, your faith, or even the Bible. We can take it.
I have heard of parents who are concerned that they have too many questions and that the church only wants people who have it all figured out. In my experience, at least, this is not the case. Questions are a sign that faith is changing and growing rather than mimicking. Faith should change as we grow into adults, but it takes work to make that change turn into something that you are comfortable with and know how to sustain.
5. Talk about your faith at home.
Your children want to know what you believe and how you see the world and understand God. Often, needing to articulate our beliefs so a child can understand them helps us to set aside the niceties and the window-dressing that we can be distracted by, and allows us to simply and plainly state what we believe. Being honest with children about our faith can also help us identify the places in which we struggle and the areas that we might need to focus on in our own education and growth.
6. Finally, set aside real Sabbath time as an individual, as a couple and as a family.
Now I don’t mean a weekend vacation, or even a day at the spa, but a real Sabbath. An intentional time set aside to do nothing, to rest from the work of the world, and to give thanks for all the busy days that have led up to it. We may not all have time to take a spiritual pilgrimage, but we can take advantage of opportunities to step away from the world, even if it only means being in silence.
Even these simple things will give us a moment to take a drag on that dangling oxygen mask hanging in our faces, so that we might once again be renewed for the very important work of caring for our children.
How do you as a parent struggle to find time to work on your own spiritual growth? How do you find time to care for yourself and to find a place for yourself in the Christian community outside of your children?