Searching for Sunday: motherhood, guilt and disillusionment

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

via Wikimedia Commons
I spent my teenage years dedicated to the music department at my Fenland comprehensive school. Choir, orchestra, string quartet, vocal ensemble, recorder group. Local music festivals, county-wide choir days, youth orchestra every Saturday and umpteen church fêtes. We were a partner school of Cambridge University, and so it happened that every December, we'd pile into a minibus and he'd drive us to Cambridge, the Head of Music leading a gaggle of girls over the Backs and to King's College chapel, where we'd sit, awestruck, alongside fellow music geeks of Cambridgeshire, and listen to a special performance of Carols from King's; without the TV cameras, without the crowds of people queuing from breakfast time to try to get a seat. Just 20 or so teenage girls high on sugar from vending machine sweets, on the lookout for nice male undergraduates in the choir, with a slightly harassed middle-aged man known as 'Mr C'.

I'd sit and listen to those performances absolutely rapt. The hush, the stillness and sense of anticipation in the chapel always contrasting with the grey murkiness of the December day as we stepped back outside shrieking once more and looking about, furtively, for attractive men (think of my choir, circa 1999, a bit like Alan Warner's Sopranos - minus the nuns and delinquency, instead intensely bothered about their GCSE results). Something got to me every time and it's something that's always happened with old churches and chapels, something I ceased to think about very much as I moved into adulthood, attending church in a school hall, a football stadium, a tent, a conference centre and finding that God could show up in any of them, as well as in seminars on Celtic mysticism, in halls of residence at one in the morning, in fields at dusk and on a mountain in a hailstorm.

I recently finished reading Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans' new book about 'loving, leaving and finding the church'. As I read the final chapters, highlighting paragraphs and having laughed, cried and nodded along with Evans' experiences as a member of a most difficult generation, - a generation that's the subject of research and anguish and umpteen thinkpieces - I felt as if I'd reached a turning point and was ready to do something I haven't been able to do for three years. I say I haven't been able to do it - I've alluded to it and vaguely explored it - but have intentionally refrained from writing because the reality has been something I've been wrestling with, and all along I've felt as if this isn't something I could write about in the midst of so much turmoil.

And so instead, I've emailed people. I've engaged in lengthy Twitter conversations and poured my heart out to friends. I've been angry and I've felt full of shame and I've felt relief and happiness when people have said 'Me too'. Because for three years I've been searching for Sunday, and I've come to the conclusion that right now it's probably not what I should be doing, nor is it what's most helpful.

In 2012 I became a mother. It hardly seems possible that Sebastian is three this week, a hilarious, much-loved little ball of energy. Motherhood hit me like it hits most other women; I mulled over the shift in my identity incessantly, felt incredibly lonely, struggled with anxiety and felt as if I'd left my brain somewhere else for months on end as I cared for a child that Did Not Sleep. Unsurprisingly, I totally disengaged from church. With one eye on the baby and my weary mind struggling to cope with the noise and the crowds and the intrusion, I zoned out. When I wasn't zoned out, all I could feel was guilt.

The modern church can be incredibly effective at making you feel guilty because you're insufficiently involved, insufficiently on board, insufficiently motivated to do more, give more, be more. There are always more programmes, more opportunities to serve, another reminder to get better at quiet time or outreach or prayer. When you have a baby your priorities change. This doesn't mean that you have no desire to give more, to learn more; in my case, motherhood coincided with the beginning of a deep desire to know more about theology, to delve deeply into scripture, and a growing sense of revelation in the everyday, in conversations with friends and rigorous self-analysis. But what it does mean is that you almost certainly have no time to actually do it. 

In 2012 I became a mother. My mental health has had its ups and downs. I returned to work full time when my son was nine months old and I love my job. I've had a thirst for deep friendships, but my introvert's brain doesn't do well with small talk and crowds and distractions. I've longed for peace and quiet and a sense of the sacred and to simply be left alone. And for a good few years, I've been sold the idea that showing up on a Sunday, getting enthusiastic about joining in and getting something out of it is paramount. But by and large I've felt nothing, learnt nothing, wished for more free time and more focus, wished I'd stayed at home or gone for a walk or read a book instead.

Deep down I know that looking to find everything in 90 minutes on a Sunday isn't the right thing to do. But I've still expected something - and when I've failed to gain anything from those 90 minutes on a Sunday, I've felt disillusioned and angry. Excluded because I'm not 'on board' and don't even want to be, apprehensive because I've been desperate to talk to someone about it but worried that doing so would make me a troublemaker, get me labelled as bitter, problematic, a contentious woman. The fear of raising issues with church is real. The fear of raising issues with church as a woman takes things up a level because you know that somewhere, someone will listen to you pour your heart out and then put you in a box marked 'women's issues', 'over-emotional', 'Jezebel spirit'.

via cassidy @ Flickr
On Christmas Eve last year the three of us went to the afternoon service of lessons and carols at the cathedral. Arriving with half an hour to spare, the building was already packed and we ended up sitting off to one side, behind a pillar. A hush fell over the congregation as the lone voice began to sing, the long wait of Advent reaching its end. After the first carol, the choir sang This Is The Truth Sent From Above, something I hadn't heard for years. For a moment I remembered a bleak day and King's College Chapel, and as I sat and watched I felt, for the first time in a long time, what it is like to worship. At the close of the service, as we sang Hark the Herald Angels Sing, I wanted to raise my hands rather than sit down and sigh, disengaged again.

Traditional forms of church aren't new to me; I grew up in the Church of England. Rachel Held Evans and others have written of a 'trend' that's being observed, of millennials rejecting new churches and falling in love with liturgy. Some people are regarding this with a bit of cynicism: is it truly a trend, or the confirmation bias of a few bloggers with book deals in their sights? Maybe, and yet when Evans writes "All I wanted from church when I was ready to give it up was a quiet sanctuary and some candles. All I wanted was a safe place to be," I get it. Last summer, I felt as if I was about to become a 'done', but I wasn't sure. My faith hasn't gone anywhere, and deep down, I knew that become a 'done' wasn't the answer.

A couple of weeks ago when I was discussing all this with friends on Twitter, I said I was finally ready to write about it - this internal battle that's hindered my writing about faith for at least two years now. I wanted to write about it because I know that at the start of all this, I felt so alone. I felt as if I knew what would happen if I ever broached the subject. In early 2014 I wrote an impassioned response to a pastor who had blogged about what he thought were 'five really bad reasons to leave a church'. "Put away the shopping cart and pick up a shovel," he admonished Christians, accusing those who have struggles with the church of being lazy consumerists. That post came out of my fear of raising those same issues and getting those same, dismissive answers - or as Rachel Held Evans described in Searching for Sunday, a desire to find a quick fix and restore everything to the joyful, smiling norm:

"...what they find is when they bring their pain or their doubt or their uncomfortable truth to church, someone immediately grabs it out of their hands to try to fix it, to try and make it go away. Bible verses are quoted. Assurances are given. Plans with ten steps and measurable results are made. With good intentions tinged with fear, Christians scour their inventory for a cure.

But there is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another's pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome."

And so, over the past couple of years, I've been thankful for those who have come not with an answer but who have said "I know" or "My wife felt exactly the same" or "Me too" and made me realise I wasn't alone. I don't think we talk about it enough; we keep quiet because it rocks the boat and upsets people and makes us seem selfish and complaining.

What do I think churches can do? You can support mothers of young children but not just mothers of young children, really - the disillusioned and the anxious and the people who have big plans that don't fit with your vision. Look out for the people who are just standing there on a Sunday, zoned out, looking uncomfortable, not looking joyful like I know you want them to. You can remember that we don't have the time and the headspace to give you more and more and buy into your latest strategy, but also that we still exist and that we want opportunities and role models - and that we are still striving to grow in our faith. You can provide pastoral support that makes people feel they can be open, not apprehensive about speaking up. You can refrain from publishing blog posts that call people who have issues with the church selfish consumer Christians.

And what if you're reading this and thinking "This is me"? Bring it all back to God and your place in the Kingdom and where you're at, right now. Not what you feel you should be involved in and saying yes to and not how you think you should be continually striving to do better and give more of yourself. Invest time in your family and your friends. Listen to God when you feel prompted to explore ways of worship or study or churches you might feel at home in. Remember the fact that Christianity doesn't mean being assimilated and being just like everyone else at church, or all your Christian friends on Facebook, or having to like everything you hear on a Sunday. When that headspace starts to come back, use it wisely. And know that you are not alone.

Click here for my Storify of a conversation on Twitter mentioned in this post

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