My daughter brought home a note from school last week. It said that there would be a liturgy this coming Friday, and as she was one of the students doing a reading I would be saved a seat in the front pew of the church. I’m pleased that she has been chosen to do a reading, and she’s excited about “learning her lines”. But the truth is, I don’t want to go. Although my husband and children are all Catholic, I’m an atheist. I find attending church not only tedious but slightly ridiculous. I can accept religion, I just can’t agree with it.
Because I was brought up in a secular household I’ve never had much to do with religious faith, and probably don’t fully understand or appreciate it. Life, for me, is straightforward; people are born, people die, good things happen, bad things happen. I don’t feel the need to ask the big questions: Why are we here? What is this all about? What does it mean? I take things at face value.
Although my husband’s Catholicism is based more on family culture than pious belief, he is still keen to continue the traditions with which he was raised. When we were planning our wedding he told me that he would prefer to have the ceremony at a church. This didn’t bother me; I was happy to have a religious wedding if that was important to him. I was more hesitant, however, about the baptism of our children.
Before our daughter’s initiation into the church (at nine months) I wondered if it was okay to baptise someone who didn’t have the free will to refuse. It seemed like it would be better to give her the choice to opt-in when she was old enough to understand the concept. But I also knew that dunking her head in some water and lighting a candle wouldn’t actually change her – it’s not like she would then have to be a Catholic forever, with no escape. It was just a ceremony. So in the end I let my husband have his way and we went ahead with the baptism.
When we had another baby I guess I felt that we probably ought to treat him as we had his sister. Fourteen months later I was outnumbered – our household contained three Catholics and one heathen.
Religion was seldom mentioned again until it came time to choose a primary school. My husband was open to suggestion; he didn’t have his heart set on the Catholic education system. However, our local primary school happened to have a particularly bad reputation. I always thought my kids would go to whatever school they were zoned for, but it was difficult to ignore the rumours. Trusting our instincts, we chose the nearest Catholic school after all.
My daughter is now in grade three and my son is in prep, and I’m happy with the school. They seem to like going, have good friends and are doing well academically. There are small issues now and then, but overall the school is fine. Except for one thing: the religion. I like the philosophical and moral aspects of the teaching, but I find the more spiritual parts harder to bear. Unfortunately I’m pretty sure that if you voluntarily send your children to a Catholic school you can’t expect the teachers to omit RE. God and Jesus are going to be part of the curriculum.
I expect my husband to cover any extra-curricular religious activities. For example, my daughter is being confirmed this year (her choice) and he will be accompanying her to all relevant church events. I am completely uninvolved. However, many of the other school-based church activities are held during school hours. So here is my conundrum: do I go to these (my husband can’t, due to work) to support my children, or shun them because I’m a non-believer?
If the kids joined a footy team I’d watch the games (even if I disliked footy), and if they formed a band I’d go to their gigs (even if I hated the music). But what if they were involved in something I actively disagreed with? If my daughter started working for an online gambling company I couldn’t support her. If my son owned a caged-egg farm I’d be devastated.
I look at the note about the liturgy again. I am available. I have no actual excuse to be absent. And I know that my daughter would love for me to be sitting there, in the front row, watching her up at the altar. So I think I will go. I won’t cross myself and say ‘Amen’ with the rest of the congregation, and I may not agree with what my daughter reads, but I’ll be there. I believe in her.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem