Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Church with an Infant

My wife has been on the path to UU ministry for about a decade now, she says she is on the turtle track. During this time we have traveled to many congregations where my wife preached. We also had two daughters and that gave me the opportunity to care for my young daughters at several different congregations and see how different congregations handle things.

Did I stick the kids in the nursery? Did I keep the infant with me in the service? Did I go to an area where they piped the service to listen with my daughter? Yes, all of the above. The option I chose mainly boiled down to how my daughter and I were doing that morning as well as what options and obligations I had that morning. The decision was never decided on general principle alone. As the parent of an infant there was one thing I appreciated more than anything else - options. And helpful greeters to let me know the options were always appreciated. If your church has greeters make sure they know the options for parents.

Generally I hang back and wait when conversations go on in the UU blogosphere, with good reason. Usually someone steps forward and says pretty much what I was thinking more eloquently than I would. This time I have not seen that happen and in fact have found myself in the odd position of taking umbrage at things both "sides" of the argument have put forth. If you are not a reader of the UU blogosphere and you are not sure what I am talking about then you can get the gist of the general conversation which started with a comment at "It was like one big discussion", and then to "'Welcoming Congregation' ... for parents of young children???", and then to Those evil people who do not want children in church services, and then to Babes in Church, not Toyland and other responses I may have missed.

The comment that bugs me more than anything else was in regards to church nurseries: "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?'". Now I suppose I should take some offense at this having been a volunteer in a church nursery, but no that's not it. Sometimes as I traveled with infant and wife I was responsible for some technical aspect of the church service. I needed to rely on the church nursery, the idea that someone would know that a church was unsafe for my younglings and not immediately go full tilt at making it a safe and sanitary environment is a tad disturbing. Trust me as a new parent I learned quickly to ignore rude suggestions, but there is no way in heck that I would go to a church that didn't have the common decency to offer my infant a safe environment. I just might need, or simply want, to take advantage of the nursery. At a minimum to be welcoming to parents of young ones we had better make them feel the family is safe.

I do agree with the understaffed part. Sometimes we had 2 adults to anywhere from 6 to 8 infants/toddlers and if this ratio sounds OK to you then volunteer in the nursery. When you have that many little ones and they are happy it is a joy to behold, but things can rapidly degenerate when one kid goes into bouts of crying. Kids at that age are empathetic, and one inconsolable child can demand nearly the full attention of an adult and make pretty much everyone else miserable.

Frequently it lined up that the church service was right when my daughter would need her nap. This sounds like it would be perfect timing for the nursery, but if she didn't fall asleep in the car on the way to church then it wasn't. She would either scream for 30-45 minutes when placed in a crib and make everyone in the nursery miserable, or 15-20 minutes with a dedicated nursery member attending to her, or she would quietly drift off to sleep in my arms during the church service. I know this cause we tried all the options. When I brought her into the church service I knew that it was doing the folks in the nursery a huge favor to not have to deal with her, and I could keep any disturbance to acceptable levels within the service.

Of course leading up to church service my daughter was usually noticeably fidgety. This made some adults around me uncomfortable, but what I was counting on was keeping her fidgeting until the service began to maximize the amount of time she slept in the service. The folks who offered information were always appreciated, but the ones who were more obviously telling me what they thought I should do were not. "By the way, children belong in the nursery" is not the polite way to tell me what my options are. I'm making what I consider to be the best choice, and most parents would, and I do not need to hear anyone else's preferences. If a parent has a fussy baby to contend with then they don't need the stress of fussy adults adding to their stress.

Sometimes it had been a long week at work, and I didn't want to be forced to decide between time with my daughter and church. As long as she was willing to oblige and the fussing would be within acceptable levels it should be ok. I would have to have a member of the community try and force me to choose.

I did try cry rooms as well. Often times in the "cry rooms" the decorum was allowed to deteriorate to the point where there seemed little point in attending. It doesn't seem appropriate to ask someone to quiet down their child in a cry room. If you do want to actually pay attention to the church service then you just might have to leave the cry room and hope for the best in the church service. It all depends.

Reflecting on my experiences I never really appreciated encouragement or discouragement either way. Support was always appreciated, but far to often it seemed that peoples encouragement was more about validating their own or their friends life choices. If one week I decide that my teething daughter should really be in the nursery, and you tell me how it's the best thing to do "because the kids are so used to it from daycare" then how will you feel next week when my daughter is with me? If I keep my daughter with me, and you tell me how wonderful that is "because I am such an attached and loving parent" then what will you think of me next week when she is in the nursery?

Children older than infants are an entirely different issue. Talking about older kids at the same time only confuses the subject. Perhaps I will post some reflections on older kids in church services later, but this post seems long enough already.

Bottom line for me is that I don't see promoting any particular choice as the right choice to be healthy for our congregations. It would be nice if we could offer as many choices and options as possible. I have been to congregations that had a nursery where the service was piped to, as well as a separate room with the service comes in over the speakers. In addition to that I think parents, particularly new parents, often have enough stress that they don't need other people's judgment placed on them.

My favorite memory of bringing my daughter into a church service was when Nick Page was leading a music worship service at the congregation. It was one of those times when my daughter's nap was lining up to be during the church service, and by golly I was going to be singing in the choir. Some people's nerves were palpable leading up to the service, but I didn't have time or inclination to worry about their issues. By the time the service rolled around she was asleep in my arms, and with a group of about 60 of us singing loudly on stage she quietly slept through the service. Afterwards I got multiple comments that in addition to the wonderful music my gentle swaying of my daughter on stage was another highlight of the church service for some.


Chalicechick said...

FWIW, I think this is the best post anybody has written on the subject.


UUpdater said...

Thanks, cause at the moment I am feeling I should have slept on it. I don't like the title, the church doesn't have an infant, oh well...

If I were to redo it what I would say more succinctly is that I think problems arise when we have "presumed correct" ways of being. If you presume heterosexual to be the correct way of being then you exclude gays, if you presume educated, white, etc. etc. you will be exclusive. For this issue I would want to avoid the presumption of a "correct" choice for the parents to make. That would seem to be the most inclusive route.

I have finished my coffee yet, maybe I will want to clarify or pull this comment...

Ms. Theologian said...

I agree with CC. I think you demonstrated compassion and reason in your description of the situation and nicely avoided the false dichotomy between infants in the sanctuary v. infants in the nursery.

And I think your comment is equally asute regarding "presumed correct" behavior.