By Monica Crumback
My daughter recently carried home that common curse of the preschooler—the fever virus. This made for a rough week and one particularly trying night. That evening, after doses of ibuprofen, she remained wet-headed, scarlet-cheeked, and pie-eyed with incomprehension. Her pink princess pajamas were wilted and sticky. My husband and I followed the temperature-taking schedule, and we planned for awful contingencies in worried whispers. When, at long last, we poured our sodden, spent girl into bed, I told her I’d ask Jesus to make her better. On hearing that, David’s eyes grew as wide as our daughter’s.
Although the face of a famous, long-haired bearded guy hangs in a state of perpetual laughter just above our daughter’s bed, our little house rather distinctly lacks a direct line to his ear. In truth, we’d never thought to have one connected. It’s not that we’re not good people, decent people, moral people, Christian … well, I guess we can’t claim that last one. Until we had Sophia, this was barely a point of consciousness for us.
Very early in my pregnancy, my mother-in-law gave me the gift of a hooded baby towel. It was lovely and soft and yellow. We didn’t know yet if Sophia was to be herself or our would-have-been boy, Henry. My mother-in-law is etiquette-savvy and always quite carefully appropriate in matters like color-to-gender agreement. She was also, on this day, careful to tuck a tiny pamphlet (brochure? mini-manifesto?) on raising one’s child in Christ into the fold of the towel. I remember seeing it, discreetly pretending not to have seen it, and covering it again with great haste. Oh my, I thought. Already?
In fairness to my mother-in-law, she had already cut me a good deal of slack in the Christ-Her-Lord category. When I met David at a Lutheran college, I was in the infancy of my feminism. He was studying to be a pastor. As our relationship became serious, we reconsidered our circumstances and remade our choices. We were still very nice young people when we left, just a lot more liberal and a lot less Lutheran.
We were married three years later before a judge. Four years after that, David became a lawyer. The transition was jarring for his mother in some ways but not so bad in others. Sure, a pastor for a son may seat you closer to the altar, but a lawyer impresses the ladies at the potluck. So slack was cut—until we had Sophia.
She was born in the usual way—meaning a horrible, extended, botched, vacuum-assisted hospital delivery. Her reception by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends was also standard in its statements of joy and its pronouncements of her being a miracle. I accepted all of this and even agreed. Babies, before they become sleep-depriving, nipple-biting, in-hair-puking monsters, seem quite miraculous indeed, even to a skeptic like me. We named her Sophia Bella, and it seemed to stick well enough without the meeting of water with forehead.
Well enough for us, that is. As I have since learned, once a baby emerges from one’s vagina, she enters not just the world but a family, lying in wait. Ah, sweet child, may the wind be always at your back.
We brought our baby home. She grew and thrived. Sure, David and I were both working at least two jobs apiece, but Sophia was warm, clean, and clothed (color-appropriately, I feel moved to add). I was breastfeeding to the absolute exclusion of bottles (she refused to take one). Months passed.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, secret discussions commenced amongst the female contingent of my husband’s family. By all measures, we were doing right by Sophia physically. But what about her soul? They may have even said her immortal soul. I don’t have a transcript to reference. The exact wording doesn’t really matter. What they proposed to do, according to our well-placed in-law source, was baptize our child behind our backs. Yikes and Holy Shit indeed (even though they would really mind my saying that). The heathen mother is always the last to know.
The news that a clandestine sprinkling had been in the works came to me secondhand via my angry husband, and the fury that immediately overtook me was, well … Biblical in scale. I think I was angry mostly because I should have seen it coming. There had been clues. My husband had, after all, been studying to be a pastor in no small part to please his mother with whom he had always had a complicated relationship. Sophia’s yellow towel had, after all, come with a pamphlet directing us steeple ward for guidance. Up until this point, we had been, to our minds, indulgent of their many hints and nudges meant to get us back to God. When his aunt presented us with a beautiful, if entirely inappropriate, handmade christening gown, I believe we even succeeded in passing off our stunned silence as speechless awe. We had been told she was buying us a swing. A secret baptism, though? I mean, Jesus!
It’s not as if my husband and I had never thought of baptism. This was way too sticky a subject to have simply slipped our minds. Growing up as we did in families that practiced Christianity—to varying degrees—we still spun toward it when the going got harrowing. That’s exactly where I’d been spun by exhaustion and a raging case of oh-God-no the night of my daughter’s fever. My pious promise to Sophia surprised my husband. We are often amused at this ability of ours to be born again and then perish (so to speak) in five minutes flat. We find these moments to be seldom and fleeting and fun. They probably also point to the inappropriateness of either or both of us ever having thought of entering a parsonage.
But the thought of that secret baptism was in no way amusing. After all the years of treading lightly through a fraught relationship with David’s family, this was the moment when it all collapsed, when we couldn’t help but think our position as parents was in danger of being usurped. The night we found out, I watched David pacing the floor, saying, “This is it” over and over again with deep conviction and watery eyes. I stayed mostly silent, slouched on the couch, chin in hand. I had little left to say; I’d run out of bravado. That was the worst moment, thinking about their disregard for our wishes for Sophia, the disrespect for our skills as her parents, and the betrayal of our beliefs in how to raise her.
The next day, we were all over the place. Being too weary at breakfast, we didn’t even bring it up. By lunchtime, though, we had revived and were having a good laugh, picturing the family matrons gathered around a mixing bowl in the dark with our daughter, a shameless pastor, and a teaspoon full of water. But then dinner rolled around, and we were back at “This is it.” “It” as in “They will never lay eyes on our girl again!”
And then, right before bedtime, we watched Sophia as she listened to her grandparents’ voices on the phone. She was beaming and squealing and, well, loving them.
Well, damn it.
But could we just let this slide? Could we, really, when there was already so much residual tension over our having jumped off the pastoral track and gotten married in a courtroom instead of a church? Or would there now be open bitterness and derision between us and people we loved and who we knew loved us and our new daughter? People we had always known we had disagreements with? No. It would be a lie to say that we never thought of using this last straw as a fuse, enabling us to finally blow apart a difficult relationship. We did think about it, but we could never quite bring ourselves to light it. As uncertain as I am about where I stand in relation to Christianity or what it represents, I am positive about where I stand in regard to going through life with suspicion and malice.
My dad’s parents died long before I was born, so I always had only the one set of grandparents. I’m sure my mom’s parents did their best, but they couldn’t be four people. Sophia had the full complement, and I wanted her to know them all. She was a lucky girl. Really, I still thought so. And so did my husband, who was carrying a lot of heavy love for every single person in the wretched scenario. Besides, try as we might, we couldn’t imagine an instance in which saying, Just where the hell do you get off? would make us better parents. So we didn’t say it.
As far as I knew, David’s mother had no idea that we were wise to her scheming-for-salvation ways—and still hasn’t. They don’t really make a pamphlet that says, So you were thinking of secretly baptizing my child, huh?—nor is there really an appropriate occasion on which to hand her a towel with said pamphlet tucked inside. With no subtle way to tell her to back off, we simply chose not to.
Even so, I will admit that this isn’t exactly a bygone. My husband and I simply limit our rants, which are more seldom of late, to our own private audience of two. Of course, there is a slight chance that someone in the extended family may find out we know about The Plan. If that is the case, I will say simply, Yes, we know, and when will we see you next for dinner?
Our way of coping was to make our choices and stick by them. While we’re not ashamed of the clay we come from, we of little faith still revel in our freedom to choose different, fresher, more philosophical, and less sanctified material from which to form our daughter. Sophia is four years old now, and, yes, a print of Jesus hangs in her room. It had been a gift from David to his grandmother, a deeply religious woman, to help her through the death of her husband. When she died, it was returned to us, and Sophia asked to have it in her room.
Why not? Our little girl understands Jesus as living in the sky and loving her and everyone else. She understands much the same about the Buddha, Allah, and Vishnu, to name just a few. She has passed long hours in her short life flipping through her father’s old religion texts to admire the big, bright pictures. Nowadays, this activity often brings up questions that combined sound like this: Why is he crying or dying, blue or bleeding, wearing that or naked, glowing or burning? We answer when we know and consult the text when we don’t. This is good enough for now. We are doing our best to give her a childhood filled with choices. Later, she’ll be at liberty to add her own finer details, like churches and sacraments, whatever her development and tastes should indicate. And while we can’t predict later, we will always tell her that she is loved, loved, loved. And that love, even when it stumbles, presumes, and conspires, is itself divine.
Author’s Note: A while ago, during a visit with his parents, David and I inadvertently overheard his aunt telling his mother that she had missed an opportunity to “get Sophia to church.” She had been on speakerphone when she said it, obviously not realizing that we were there, too. David quickly boomed a “Hello!” to his aunt. The subsequent look between him and his mother might have been hilarious had it not been so painful.
To the best of my knowledge, Sophia remains unbaptized to this very day. This is something I am neither proud nor ashamed of—it’s a mere fact. Her dad and I agree that should she one day choose to be baptized, we’ll be there, front pew center. I’ll even leave a space for her grandmother.
Monica Crumback lives in Michigan with her husband, daughter, and three cats.
Brain, Child (Winter 2008)