Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"Welcoming Congregation" ... for parents of young children???

I don't know if I'm going to post this. And if I post it, I'm not sure I'm going to leave it up.

Goddammit, am I welcome in a UU church?

Oh, no, I know. I am welcome. However, if by "I," I mean, "I and my children," then ... well, no, not necessarily.

I have to admit to feeling slapped by a blogger whom I really like, who put a comment on someone else's blog saying, to paraphrase, that she wouldn't mind breastfeeding in service being uncommon, not because of the breastfeeding, but because she doesn't want babies in the service at all. Period.


Now, before the "Oh, but what about those horrible people who let their children yell and scream and run up and down the aisles ..." I'm not talking about that. Those people piss me off just as much as anyone. But how is that not different than the argument, "Oh, I don't mean all black people. People like you are very nice. But you know, those other black people. The ones on welfare, who don't talk right, who just want us all to support them."?


The area I live in has several UU churches and we recently had a citywide workshop. One of the comments was something along the lines of, "I think there's room in our town for an adults-only church."

See, that sounds fairly innocuous, doesn't it? But what it means is, "I think there's room in our town for a church with no parents of young children."

See, this is how it works. We can't leave our 2 year olds at home with a bowl of water and a sack of kibble. A church with no children means a church with no parents. No parents of young children, anyway.

How would it sound:

"I think there's room in our town for a church with no gays/lesbians."

"I think there's room in our town for a church with only white people."


So why not just leave them in the nursery?

I think that is a question that would only be asked by someone who either a) has never had children or b) had children so long ago s/he doesn't remember what it was like, that first year.

The first 3 months, you don't want to leave your baby in a nursery, no matter how wonderful it is. Your child is too young, too vulnerable. And the truth of the matter is, many of our nurseries are not set up for infants. Not enough staff. Or the staff isn't qualified. As in, "Oh, I'm going to feed your two month old some animal crackers, okay? Spread with honey?"

Soon after that, the baby begins to have problems "separating." Meaning, they know what a stranger is (anyone other than mommy or daddy) and aren't going there for anything.

So, my infants, including Little Warrior, have been in the service with me. Frequently nursing. Discreetly. And quietly, other than an occasional slurp. Anytime a child wasn't quiet, we beat a hasty retreat. So, yes, we might have upset your concentration for 5 seconds. Really, that's so horrible that you would rather I not come to church for the first year? REALLY?

My church, (I say with pride), does that part right. I say that not only with church pride, but also personal pride. We moved to a new location several years ago and I had one priority: there must be a "crying baby" room for when your baby isn't quiet. A room where you could go, at the back, where you could still hear the service, but where a fussy baby wouldn't bother others. They did it. Glass wall, and speakers.

But apparently, it isn't necessary for a baby to be fussy to bother others. Merely present.

To reiterate: I - am - not - talking - about - parents - who - let - their - babies - yell.

So, why IS it like this? African-American man didn't choose to be black, lesbian woman didn't choose to be gay. But I chose to have babies.

Is that the difference? "You made your choice ... live with it. Don't ask me to accomodate you."

I'm not.


Jeff W. said...

People who do not want parents of younger children to come to services are obviously A) self-centered and insensitive or B) have a death wish for Unitarian-Universalism. Even if it is only A, their attitudes will nonetheless accomplish the goal of B.

Anonymous said...

For oh so many reasons...Thank you. and Thank You.

uuMomma said...

I agree with you; I agree with Jeff. Babies belong with their parents until they start walking around and causing trouble (and by trouble I mean being so darn adorable that people like me get lost in watching the baby and lost in the awe that is new life I sometimes don't pay attention to the spoken sermon). Some people just don't get that.

Hope you keep this one up.

Ms. Theologian said...

Hmmm... Thanks for writing this. I actually have a question in my in-box that I haven't responded to that gets at the people without kids v. people with kids issue too. Your thoughts are very helpful in responding.

Nancy said...

I wasn't comfortable leaving my son in the nursery until he was two! Now it's no problem, but I actually stayed away from church because he was so squirmy and loud for most of that time.

It's hard enough being a mom without feeling like you are unwelcome. We just had a restaurant owner in town declare that children were not welcome in his restaurant after a mother brought her sleeping infant in to dine with her. When she called to suggest he put a sign up to save parents the embarrassment, he cursed at her and hung up on her. It made the local paper. Jerk.

Maybe those churches should post a sign to save us the embarrassment or the backstabbing comments made to others we don't hear.

Kaleigh said...

Keep the post up. I can think of a few people that I'd love to watch their faces while they read it.

Jeff made the point I was going to make. An adults-only church? No thanks. It's doomed. And boring.

My biggest problem with kids in the service at my church is the kids who bring in their cups of hot chocolate and then spill them. But they're not even remotely babes-in-arms, which I find completely darling.

And honestly, what's more distracting? A baby contentedly sitting with parents, making the occasional baby sound, or the nursery attendant/usher trying to find the parent when baby in the nursery goes into full freak-out?

(That being said, my babies LOVED being in the nursery, and I LOVED the hour of nobody sitting on me.)

(YMMV, of course.)

Z said...

Keep it up, LE. Hopefully, that other blogger will read it and have second thoughts. It is also a reminder to people to be as considerate to parents as they expect parents to be considerate. After all, we were all babies at one time too. Plus, babies are so damn adorable. :)

ms. kitty said...

Yup, Jeff said it well. A church of all adults is doomed. My god, my little congregation is working its pants off to find more children and they will always be welcome in our services because they are our future!

jess said...

When our daughter was a newborn, and started squawking in the middle of the sermon once, the minister actually stopped preaching to call out our names and ask that she be taken out - and my husband was already making his way out of the pew. And this was within just seconds of her starting to make little noises working up to a big fuss, not full-out fussing. I was so pissed.

Chalicechick said...

If it helps explain my feelings on the matter, I was forced to endure church from a very young age because my parents thought that surely a smart kid like me would get a lot out of the service.

Umm... No.

When it was discovered that the person leaving notes in the collection plate that said "The sermon is too long" was a seven-year-old me, I was finally allowed to hang out in Sunday school instead. This was after years of Sunday being my least favorite day of the week because of church.

My take, kids don't get much if anything out of the service and they squirm and make noise because they are uncomfortable and bored and tired of sitting in the same position. And I don't know why this wouldn't go double for babies.

I don't believe in calling out parents of noisemaking kids from the pulpit, of course.

But I've never attended a church that didn't have some sort of outside area where the service could still be heard.

Why not mostly hang out there, where babies can be bounced and talked to and moved around and little kids can lie on the floor and color or maybe even run around a little bit.

My housemates' baby is teething. I honestly can't imagine wanting to take her to a church service. But if I did, I would surely sit outside where if I needed to distract her, I could.

who has been known to hang around outside the service herself because SHE was too fidgety.

Shelby Meyerhoff said...

Thank you for reminding us that we need to be open and welcoming to the children in our worship services. I was disappointed to hear that so many other people who commented here have been made to feel unwelcome for bringing their children to worship.

However, this seems to me very different than discrimination on the basis of race and sexual orientation, as it often experienced in congregations. Racism and homophobia run deep in this country, and are reinforced by economic, social and political institutions. Racism and homophobia in congregations serve to reinforce the power imbalance present in society as a whole.

I do think poor children and children of color are undervalued in our society.
If we look at social services, and society's treatment of youth of color, we can see how discrimination threatens the well-being of children.

However, I don't get the sense that what you have experienced in your congregation is connected to this kind of systematic discrimination.

Lizard Eater said...

Thank you for all of the comments. Obviously this hit a nerve.

CC, thank you for your comments. I appreciate your willingness to join the conversation.

To answer "Why not mostly hang out there..." -- Speaking only for myself, one of the most difficult things about being a new parent was the isolation that I felt. When I went to church, I didn't want to just observe the service, I wanted to be a part of it, hymn-singing and all. So long as my baby did not infringe upon others with noise, I did so.

Shelby -- yours was obviously a well-written post and I think we would have much to agree on in other contexts. (BTW, see Leonard Pitts' editorial this week -- I think you'll really like it: )

However, my post was not about discrimination. It was about being welcoming in our UU churches. One of the hallmarks of UU is our desire to be welcoming to all races and all orientations.

Why would we not want to extend that same welcome to parents and children?

Steve Caldwell said...

I'm thinking of a quote from the recent science fiction film Children of Men:

"As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children's voices."

Churches that are not welcoming to people of all ages (infants, children, youth, young adults, parents of infants, older adults, etc) and are selectively welcoming to only some adults not really living up to our first principle. And they will end up living their own version of the dystopian future depicted in Children of Men.

Frankly, a baby who cries in worship is less disturbing to me than the cell phone belonging to an adult member of my congregation. This member hasn't taken the time or trouble to know how to turn his phone to "off" or "silent." Babies don't know any better about making noise in worship.

This person with the noisy cell phone should know better.

Chalicechick said...

Yeah, I guess my housemates are much more ok than most parents with other people watching their baby. I don't have kids myself and I hadn't realized that was such an issue. My housemates very much value adult time.

Also, the teething is getting REALLY old. She really cries a lot these days.

So maybe I'm cranky.

But in my crankified state, I still think this comes down to the
needs of the kids versus the needs of the mom and that any disturbane of the cogregation is really just a symptom of the deeper issue.

To me, the essence of being "Welcoming" is knowing that different people have different needs. I really don't think a baby ever needs to have to sit still and quiet and unplayed-with for that long.

Some might say it wouldn't be welcoming of us to pull aside mom after church and say "Your daughter might be fussing a bit because she's having to sit still for so long. If you don't want to take her outside, we do have cribs in the nursery."

I think it would be kind of us.


uuMomma said...

CC--with all due respect, I don't think you are hearing what LE is saying. You're talking as if you know what the baby's best interest is, and LE is saying that the baby's best interest is to be with its parent. And that is exactly what those parents who bring their babies into the service are doing--using their judgement of what is best for their children (just as your housemates do with their child). We do the best we can, and when our kids make noise that is more than intermittent, we do something about it. I find it more distracting to watch the people who are bothered by the intermittenet noise rubber necking and glaring, as if trying to use their supernatural geezer powers to quiet babies. Babies are great. Distraction happens. Deal with it. It breaks your connection to worship so much more to be so pissed off about it. That's how I feel about the adults talking during the service, too.

Boobless Brigade Master said...

Wow. I'm going to throw in my non-religious two cents here.

I'm shocked that this is even an issue in any church.

Everyone thinks it was horrible that Mary and Joseph were turned away from every Inn and Jesus was born in a manger...but once he was born, were there really people refusing to let *him* be a part of their congregation? Sure sounds like there would be today.

No offense L.E., and I hope you KNOW this isn't directed towards you or your church...but this is just another one of those hypocritical reasons that turned me away from church in the first place. Kind of makes me giggle thinking about What Would Jesus Do?
He'd kick himself out of the church??

Chalicechick said...

The minister who was so rude to Jess' husband aside, I don't think anybody is talking about kicking anybody out of church. I think we're talking about essentially etiquette here. If it helps, when I see a kid start to squirm and make noise and the kid isn't immediately taken out, I am annoyed with the parent.

But I feel awful for the kid. Because the kid is likely going to get lectured or punished because the parent wanted more attention, quiet and stillness than the kid could give.

And as far as I know, nobody made Jesus go to the temple until he was twelve years old and old enough to be interested in the proceedings.

And UUmomma, I'm sure my parents thought making me sit in church with them and be quiet and sit still for all that time was the best thing for me.

I very much appreciated the people who were kind enough to convince them otherwise. I just wish they had done so sooner and spared me lots of unpleasant memories of being desperately bored and unhappy.

(And the time my father felt I had been so loud that I owed every member of the church an apology, so I had to go around and apologise to every table at a potluck.)


Lizard Eater said...

CC -- it sounds like you had a rough time growing up, at least in terms of your parents respecting your feelings. Being publicly humiliated -- ouch.

Ultimately, the issue is about respect. Respect for the child, respect for the parents, respect for the congregation.

As a parent, it is my job to respect my child and try to find out what he wants. (For instance, my turns-11-tomorrow son recently began requesting that he be allowed to stay in the service, rather than go to children's chapel. He sits quietly and asks good questions later, so it's fine with me.)

As such, barring good evidence to the contrary, I deserve to be treated with respect *as the parent*. If I feel that my infant would prefer to snuggle in my lap during the service, no one else should presume that they know better what my baby wants or needs.

My right to make the decison ends when something other than her mere presence disturbs others. I think there is a certain amount of common sense here needed on all sides. It's not just fussing that is distracting -- if a baby is babbling and wildly waving at others, it may be cute to some, but not others. Beat a retreat. And if a baby is making "baby noises" -- gulping while nursing, quiet little sighs -- that is no worse than the normal rustling, coughing, etc. of your average service. Focus on the service and ignore it.

Note to CC -- if your housemates don't know about Hyland's teething tablets, let them know they can get them at Walgreens if they want to try something else. Works on some kids, doesn't on others. But when it works -- wow! It's magic. We call it "baby crack."

Please don't call CPS.

Anonymous said...

I see such a big difference between my 2 kids- the younger one was nursed during services, sat on my lap during others, was removed if he was disruptive... he doesn't mind going to church at 16 and feels very much a part of the congregation. The older one started at the same church when he was 3, but children weren't "allowed" in the adult only service. Until our wonderful interim Betty Pingel came and challenged the congregation to try out a change of including the kids every week for the first 15 minutes. But it will be too crowded, but it will be too noisy, but it will ruin the service...

We agreed to try it for 2 months and have never looked back. At times kids are obnoxious, but they have learned to be patient for that short amount of time. It feels much more like community. And my younger son shows the benefit I think of those early days and a different attitude toward children. Don't know if he'll stay a UU or do something else, but I believe there is a much better chance of that vs. his brother who did not feel as welcomed at an early age. He is bonded to the other kids, but not so much to the adults.

Thanks for writing on this. And glad you are going back to seminary. Good luck.

Cincinnati mom

Chalicechick said...

For the record, I don't object in the least to having kids in the service for the first fifteen minutes or so when there is content that is actually geared to them.*

My church does that and it works fine.

And I don't object to kids who actually want to be in church being there.


*I don't think kids should be barred absolutely from many places at all, though barring them from movies that start after nine seems reasonable to me.

I did side with the airline in the case of the kid whose famile got off the plane because she freaked out and refused to get in her seat and put her seatbelt on and was delaying takeoff. But I'd call that a special case.

Elizabeth said...

(((Some might say it wouldn't be welcoming of us to pull aside mom after church and say "Your daughter might be fussing a bit because she's having to sit still for so long. If you don't want to take her outside, we do have cribs in the nursery."

I think it would be kind of us.)))

If someone would ever say this to me I would NEVER come back to that church ever ever ever. I don't even have kids yet and I am offended. But, I am a huge advocate of kids in the service and adults getting used to it. If the child is throwing a FIT or screaming, do you keep them in the service? No. If the child or baby is making some noises or doing some distracting things, I say, hey adults, get used to it. I just LOVED the way that our former minister Thomas handled this - he stressed how welcome kids were in the service - at whatever age - if they or their parents didn't feel comfortable being apart.

And, as for LE's comments on racism or heterosexism, and Shelby's comments as to how this is different, I think that although such issues are not identical or exactly the same, there is a strong connection. Child-unfriendly societies are, de facto, women-unfriendly societies because women are more responsible for childcare than men (whether or not this is right or wrong or neither, this is just the case). Churches that are not welcoming to babies and children are less welcoming to mothers. I see the unwelcomeness of children in church as part of a general child-unfriendly society, where parenting is not considered a valued and important part of life - it is secondary to "real" work, economics, money, quiet church time, etc. That is not directed toward CC - it is just my general feeling about the way families, children, and parenting is valued in this country. Anyway, just my thoughts. EG

Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing up this important issue. I'm all for babies in the service, for lots of reasons, many mentioned here. I trust the judgment of parents who keep their little ones with them; they have their own good reasons that they need not justify to me.

I think though that at its core, it's a question of hospitality. I hope you'll excuse me for coming at this from a purely personal point of view, but this is exacly the sort of thing I want from my church -- to see that human beings come in various ages and stages and bodies. My work-a-day life cuts me off from this dimension. Worship can reconnect me to that basic human reality that we are all part of a large extended family -- humankind -- in various life stages.

Once I walked into a (non-UU) church and saw a rocking chair at the end of many of the rows, scattered throughout the sanctuary. It touched me so much, it brought tears to my eyes.

Being in community means that I need to create a little space inside myself for others. That means turning off my cell phone, opening my mind for the sermon, and being vulnerable to the unexpected...sometimes that comes in the form of a elder's hearing aid causing feedback in the sound system. Sometimes it's the little happy baby noises (or even the mildly cranky baby noises). It may be the unwelcome comments someone makes behind me about how this church service has turned into a blankety-blank yoga class, during meditation, mind you. All these are little things that could "bump" me out of the attitude and mental space for worship. It takes a little commitment, a little discipline to stay with that worshipful attitude.

To me, the point of community is to let go of some of my own ego, to be invited into a space that is both paradoxically centering and de-centering. I welcome the disequilibrium that comes from the environmental noises (and smells, and sights) of community. They grow me in ways that I can't quite describe.

I'm grateful to parents that choose to remain in the service because it may be the only time all week I will come into contact with someone who isn't Just Like Me.

I for one look for a day when UU churches have rocking chairs.

It's a spiritual practice, people.

Occam's Trowel said...

Ouch. Ouch.

It's times like these that I want to scold our whole movement for being such selfish, spoiled brats. I look forward to the day when the insensitivity you've experienced will be seen as completely unacceptable.

This is, IMO, one of the unacknowledged consequences of our love of individualism. I'm so bothered that there are people who can misunderstand worship as being like the symphony where nothing is allowed to spoil the perfection of their experience. Worship is supposed to be an experience of the community, the whole community, and that's far more important than whether there's a little background noise.

I try to be especially aware of the families with very young children sitting in worship when I'm preaching, and give them a personal welcome after we're done. If there's a little gurgling or baby-talk during the meditation, I try to weave it into my words as the "music of new life". I can't bear the thought that anyone believes that our sanctuary is "adult only" space.

There's a great British series called "Clatterford" ("Jam and Jerusalem" in the UK), whose vicar does exactly what Jess described -- stops the service and actually says, "I won't continue until you take it out." An awful, squirmy moment, and just inconceivable that it should happen in our own congregations. Ouch.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that often children are not welcome in church (I luckily grew up in a church with almost as many children as adults, and with paid nursery staff) but I think this is a larger problem than parents bringing babies to church, in light of the UUA's recent decision to stop funding youth and young adult programming continentally and the severe lack of programming for youth, it seems you are right about UUs wanting to be an adult only church, and they don't just mean babies! It is frustrating to see my friends grow up UU and leave the faith the second they hit 17 because programming stops, they stop feeling supported, while many churches do not have a baby room many churches also do not have a youth room, and many are lacking on some of the in between as well. The UUA often talks about being intergenerational, but I don't think I believe it.