Dear Adviceless,

Our son is 16 months old and a true delight—curious, outgoing, and eager to explore the world around him. Our faith is important to both my wife and me and we want him to be raised in the church, especially since my wife is the rector of the church we attend. On Sunday mornings, she goes off to church—and my heart sinks in dread.

Crying-in-ChurchFor some time—and definitely since our son started walking—church has been a nightmarish experience for me. It’s a small congregation and the children’s play area (for those too young for Sunday school) is in the rear of the church. Our son is not bound by the welcoming rug and pile of books and toys that are there. He loves exploring all the corners of the church, “reading” hymnals, and generally going every which way except in the back of the church where we “belong.” (Oddly, he is generally not interested in his mother leading the service.)

I’m torn: the congregation welcomes (or at least tolerates) him wandering all over and his nap routine has recently allowed us to switch over to a later family service, rather than an earlier, more traditional service. I’d be content to let wander except that it’s an old church and there are always things to hurt himself on, leading to crying fits (in the middle of the sermon). Plus, I feel like I “should” be keeping an eye on him. In all of this, I am barely able to participate in the service. My own spiritual life is struggling as well, which only compounds the feeling that church is hardly worth it anymore. On some Sundays, I’ve seriously debated with myself about not going to church, though usually the thought that the rector’s spouse and son should be in church gets us out of the house. What to do? How do you go to church and be a parent at the same time?

Yours, Struggling Single Sunday Father

tinywalteranddude

Dear Struggling Single Sunday Father,

Based on your letter, I’m going to assume that nursery isn’t an option. Because I will stick my two crazy zoo animals in church nursery in a heartbeat, especially when they are younger than 4. No guilt and no remorse. But I have worshiped at churches where, for lots of reasons, they don’t have one. And it sounds like that is your current situation. So how do you parent an active toddler through an hour of worship solo?

Well, you don’t. Not well anyway. Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat this: Your worship life has been ruined. And nothing I can tell you will fix it. I mean, I can make suggestions. Bring snacks, promise a lollypop “if he behaves,” tell him that the communion wafer is vanilla flavored (yes, all of my ideas are food based).

dear-abby-colorFrankly speaking I tend to just whisper-yell commands: Sit! Shush! Kneel! Don’t lick the pew! But I’m going to guess you’ve tried some of these tactics already and you still feel like you’re accompanying a miniature Walter Sobchak meets Curious George to church.

I clearly remember that transition when we went from having a cuddly baby to having an irate Ninja Turtle who enjoys yelling back at the preacher and demanding Goldfish crackers. Parishioners stopped looking at me like I had brought the sweetest of God’s creation into their worship experience and started to give us what I’ll generously call “pew space.” Who could blame them? Toddlers are loud and annoying.

What I want to offer you is a word of grace for yourself. Being a parent in church is hard, even when there are two parents sitting in the equation. It can feel altogether lonely and frustrating when you are doing all of it by yourself. I would encourage you to find time and moments of spiritual solace that might exist outside of your Sunday morning worship. To be honest, I think this is easier for women. There are entire industries devoted to mothering and self-care. So, dear friend, you will have to row your own boat on this one.

I’ve found that a quiet Sunday afternoon of rest and reading helps me tremendously after the chaos of parenting on the pew. I also (gasp) highly recommend skipping church. When our son was little, and especially boundary-less, there were some Sunday mornings that I woke up and just said, “Not today, God.” I made a big pot of coffee, put on some Rain for Roots, and danced in the kitchen with a rowdy toddler. God doesn’t need you to come to church. Your wife doesn’t need you to come to church. And the congregation doesn’t need you to come to church. They need you to remember that you are loved by a good and gracious God. And sometimes (for us it was 1-2 times a month) that means something other than Sunday morning worship.

So with that established, I also want to offer you a word of grace for your son. Preacher’s kids, or just kids who go to church regularly, are really, really comfortable there. It’s like an extension of their living room. And I see this as a good thing. It means they feel welcomed and loved by a community. In a world that depends on soccer teams and neighborhood groups for something meaningful, our kids get to be loved by an authentic community in the broadest sense of the word. Churches are these rare spaces where people can share almost every human experience: encouragement, forgiveness, laughter, heartbreak, and redemption. And that is a very special gift you are giving your child every Sunday that you bravely face his music.

Which brings me to my final point. Children ruin most of life’s pleasures, at least for a time: nice meals, quiet reading, happy hour, walks in the woods, almost any moment of intimacy. I believe it is prudent to go ahead and tack “church” onto that list. Because, as in all aspects of parenting, it is easier when we accept the reality of what is and stop desperately clinging to the hope of what could be. Your son will learn how to act like a reasonable human being in worship. He is simply in his own season of Church Pew Jackwagoning. And, as his father, you have the important and incredible calling to help him through it. You’re doing great. He’ll be better in a year and almost unrecognizably calm in two. I promise.

Yours,

Adviceless

P.S. Do you have a query, serious or non-, you’d like to see addressed on I Have No Advice? Email info@mbird.com and be sure to put “Adviceless” in the subject line. This should be fun.