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Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard Headshot

Being a Mom, Being the Church

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It's been a hard week as a parent. Interesting, given school is almost out, but there it is. As author Mary Wollstonecraft said, "For years I have endeavored to calm an impetuous tide, laboring to make my feelings take an orderly course, it was striving against the stream." Wollstonecraft was mother to Mary Shelley, who was mother to Frankenstein. So here, from up above, my child and I have the necessary distance. I can sit and watch her for an hour as she does gymnastics. She can be observed doing something she loves. We both can be happy.

Up here, looking down on her seems an apt metaphor for parenting. It's the position we parents find ourselves in, looking down on our kids, when they are smaller. We are up above them, making decisions for them. Then, before we can say "American Ninja Warrior" (my daughter's favorite TV show), it shifts. I found it odd to have a child grow taller than my line of sight. Just yesterday he could not see what was up on the counter, now he looks down on me. When I hug him, my head is at armpit level now.

"Don't you test me," a mother scolds her toddler son next to me. She has spent the last 20 minutes cooing to him, and covering him with kisses as he's told her, "Stop. Stop. Stop."

She responded to him, "I can't. I just want to kiss you." She continues. He melts down. He squirms in her arms. He squirms out of her arms.

"Don't you test me," she says, "I'll spank you. You've been terrible today!"

I took a two lane highway to get here to my daughter's class. Traffic goes fast on that highway, it's hard to find a good time to enter from a side road. Timing is everything.

My daughter asks, "Why don't they put stop signs on this road?"

"To keep traffic moving ... stop signs would slow everyone down," I say. I think of the "Modern Family" episode where Claire petitions for a stop sign in her neighborhood. Sometimes as a mom I want to put up stop signs, to slow the fast pace of my kids growing up, to slow it all down before their childhood stops, and their adulthood starts up.

Saying no in parenting is a stop sign. It stops traffic, albeit momentarily. Saying yes can keep it all flowing along. But how to gauge what our kids can and cannot do, what they are old enough to do, what will surely bring them into harm's way and what will be a memory for a lifetime? It's a series of hard calls. And on a week like this one, it feels like there is no particular order, no rhyme or reason to it. There were highs and lows of a particular magnitude that caught me off guard, both in terms of the words of wisdom I could conjure at a moment's notice, and the lows to which I could sink.

My own mother's mantra was and is, "If you can say yes, say yes. Save no for when you really mean it."

At church on Sunday, we arrived late and sat in the back next to a high school graduate, who was being recognized in the service. Those who knew her family well, or who were ordained as elders or clergy were asked to come forward to pray for her, putting our hands on her shoulders, or the shoulders of her parents as we prayed. Tears streamed down my face through the whole prayer. It will soon be time for my tall boys to go through this ritual. I will put my hands on their backs as they are prayed for by people who have watched them grow up.

After church, I said to the mother of the graduate, "You were able to keep it together better than I was through that."

"I love that!" she said. "It feels like people literally have your back."

God knows I get all sorts of questions about faith and religion. I'm often told how wrong the church is, and I hear the beefs people have against "organized" religion. Sure, there are horror stories from churches, terrible tales of churches from around the world. I've heard many of them. But I know, that I can count people in our church who offer their wisdom, who are there for my kids, especially at times when my parenting falls flat.

When I am asked why I go to church, I pause. I go to church for many reasons. Church reminds me of God's on-going activity, God's word to us in countless forms. Church helps me reorder things, reprioritize. At church, I find people I trust to have my back. People know my kids by name, and my daughter has a posse of retired people she greets every Sunday. If it takes a village to raise a child, I'm grateful for the multi-generational village which is the church, where we pray for each other, support each other, and encounter people very different from us. I need this. I need this while my children are still growing inches by the month; I will need this when they leave school and hasten to what's next.