When my daughter, Maxine, was born, I knew religion would be a tricky topic. I thought about what I would say and wouldn't say. I decided I'd teach her that different people believed different things, and try to answer her questions honestly. I'd neither bash religion nor sing its praises. And, of course, I'd tell her about the wonders of science. Sounds pretty good, right? But somehow, all these general plans just didn't add up to a well-packed suitcase. Maxine was barely 5 years old when, driving home from preschool one day, she piped up from the backseat.
“Mommy," she said, "you know what? God made us!”
I felt like I'd been hit in the back of the head with a cartoon frying pan. You could actually hear the capital “G.” My heart raced. I'm quite sure I began to sputter. Visions of Darwin and his evolving ape-man traipsed through my mind, followed closely by my childhood image of the big guy upstairs in his flowing white robes. I couldn't speak. And, in the awkward silence that followed, I was forced to admit the truth:
The word “God” scared the bejesus out of me.
In fact, the whole topic of religion suddenly terrified me. I didn't know where to start, or how to start, or what message I wanted to put across. The last thing I wanted to do was to confuse or mislead my kid. If I said the wrong thing, would she be teased or ostracized? And it wasn't just her classmates who believed in God. Many of her most beloved family members did, too. Anything I said to her now was very likely to end up in their ears later. Plus: Did I really want to start preaching my facts? My truth? In shooting down Maxine's newfound notion of creation, wouldn't I simply be doing just what religious people do when they raise their kids to believe they'll go to hell if they don't embrace one specific religion to the exclusion of all others? It was all indoctrination, was it not?
In the car, I swallowed hard and forced myself to speak.
“Well," I stalled, "Who is God?”
Now, I don’t remember if Maxine actually said “duh,” or whether she simply leveled a "duh" look at me through the rearview mirror. But I can tell you that, in a general sense, "duh" was the tone of the rest of our conversation.
"He's the one who made us,” she said, her eyebrows knitted.
Have you ever had a 5-year-old be sarcastic with you? It’s humbling.
“Okay... well, what is God doing now?” I asked, trying for casual.
Again with the nonverbal “duh.”
“God is busy making people and babies,” she answered.
This information could not have been delivered to me with more clarity — or more faith. My little girl who had never heard an utterance of the word "God" in our house (aside from decidedly ungodly uses of the word) now, at 5, had it all figured out thanks to a classmate who also happened to be her very first boyfriend. I was beaten by a cute preschool boy.
I let the subject drop, but my chest constricted all the way home. And it stayed like that for hours.
Why hadn't I been prepared for this? Why hadn't I thought this through? And what was I supposed to say now that she was getting her information from this boy at school?
Was I to sit Maxine down and break the news that her little friend was wrong, or was probably wrong, or might be wrong? Was I to let her go to school and spread THAT joyful news all around? And what words should I be using? Was I supposed to frame the Bible as a book of stories, a book of myths, or someone else's history? What exactly was I supposed to say about heaven? How would I adequately explain the differences of opinions swirling around her?
Heart palpitations, people. Heart palpitations.
At that moment, I gladly would have told Maxine everything she ever wanted to know about sex. We’d start with vaginal, move to oral, and see where the conversation went from there.
But this? This was unbearable. I didn't know where to start. I couldn't bring myself to say the word "God" without suffering a slight tightening of my throat. And yet I wanted to talk about it. It felt wrong to me that children from religious households should be lucky enough to be educated about this hugely important cultural phenomenon and that, because she was born into a nonreligious household, my child should be left in the dark.
Maxine was ready to have “The God Talk.” And if I was going to be the mother I wanted to be, I was going to have to figure things out — and fast. Because at least one thing had been made clear already: If I didn't talk to my child about God, someone else would.