7:40 pm . Olivia, my soon-to-be -4-year old, is in bed but not yet sleeping. Her eyes flutter, and she yawns. I drag the comforter from the floor, its usual place at nighttime (my two-year-old son, 30 minutes earlier, climbed on top of Olivia’s bed, threw her pillows and stuff animals and comforter onto the floor, and jumped his little heart out. Olivia joined him, and this is the bedtime ritual I have allowed, and it lasts for several minutes.). I pull the comforter over Olivia’s chest, stopping below her chin, and then she startles me with: “Mommy, we forgot to say our prayers,” and she says this in a loud whisper but she does not make any moves to get out of bed because she is sleepy and tucked in so nicely. Part of me just wants to let her sleep because she’s had a hard day (um, pre-k?) and she looks so angelic in bed. But a voice in my head suddenly starts criticizing me for even thinking this heathen thought so I reach for my child, pick her and place her on the floor. She’s leaning over the bed, burying her head in her folded arms. I am kneeling. “Kneel, babe.” She does so. We do not recite memorized prayers, but I do ask her, “What are you grateful for today?” Tonight, she does a half-shrug and yawns. She usually does a full-shrug with a half-smile. I remind her of all the “good” things that happened to her today: singing songs at school, playing with her brother, talking to her aunt on the phone, and the cookie her grandmother gave her when she thought I wasn’t looking. And then I tell her to ask God to watch over all the people that she loves and cares about. She does so. This lasts two minutes, and I pick her up and put her back to bed.
We pray because this is the easiest way to explain God to her. I do not know how to answer “Where does God live, Mommy?” without feeling like an idiot-hypocrite when I say “He’s everywhere” and then quickly changing my answer to “He lives in the sky” and then I’m thinking, “Oh, shit. I made God a male.” We do not go to church regularly (I never did when I was growing up), and I am not interested in forcing a religion on her, but I do want her to have a relationship with God. But what does that mean? I could not even tell you. The only way I can articulate God is through prayer, and praying is spiritual for me. Praying is a time to be reflective and to help my child articulate her gratitude toward being alive and being surrounded by people who love her. Am I crazy? Is this too much? Is it too early to teach empathy and sympathy through prayer? Do I tell her about the earthquake in Haiti and the devastation and for us to pray for our brothers and sisters in Haiti?
Last fall, my daughter’s school held a can drive, and Olivia reminded me for days that I needed to give her cans to bring to school. Then one afternoon, after I pick her up from school and we’re in the car, she tells me, out of slight frustration by my forgetfulness, “Mom, we need to bring cans to school for the poor people. They don’t have anything.” I look at my daughter’s face through the rear view mirror, and her expression is thoughtful and concerned. I make a detour and head straight to the grocery store.
Stay tuned for Part II, where I go shopping for a church…
Martha has lived in New Orleans, Louisiana for 30 years (with a few years here and there in Princeton, New Jersey and Washington, DC), and is the proud Cocoa Mama of two children, Olivia and Abraham. She is also a doctoral student and writing instructor in the English department at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and her research interests are women’s and gender studies and American literature pre-1900.