This past Sunday evening we attended the baptism of our six-month-old twin nieces. The parents had the ceremony (is ceremony even the right word? Suddenly I have no idea) at their home, outside on the deck in the early evening summer light. They live in a beautiful wooded place so the backdrop really was quite lovely, and while the hour and the day and the drive made it a bit inconvenient for us, I could see why they may have chosen evening over the alternatives.
It was a couple of hours in the car each way for us, and since the kids are all strapped into their car seats on road trips we have a bit more freedom than usual to listen to music or podcasts or just to talk to one another with limited interruption. Especially on the way home, we spent a lot of time talking about baptism: what it means, why people do it, upon what criteria godparents are chosen, and also about rituals and traditions in general but particularly in relation to raising children.
I don’t come from a terribly religious family. My sister and I weren’t baptized, although we did attend church semi-regularly in spurts growing up (or at least that’s the way I remember it). I actually think well of that church, enough that when K wanted to attend this past Christmas Eve, we went there. Kristin grew up in an Evangelical Lutheran family, so she’s much more familiar with the nature and reasons behind all of the rituals and traditions than I am. We don’t attend church now, and I think that I can speak for both of us when I say that we’re spiritual but not religious. Personally, my sense of spirituality is much more tied to nature and beauty and gratitude than it is to anything related to the Bible or any other text. We didn’t choose to baptize our children (and in fact, I don’t remember it ever coming up in conversation) and I have no doubts whatsoever about that choice, although I respect the choices of those who do.
I like rituals and traditions. I like the weight of them, the significance of marking something meaningful to you and your family. I like the history associated with generations before us having gone through the same motions and recited similar sentiments in a shared belief in something. But I’ve never been able to make much sense of the idea of signing your children up for something that they haven’t chosen and aren’t old enough to consent to. That said, I’m sure you could point out dozens of hypocritical things that I am OK with that are somehow similar (piercing a toddler’s ears, for example). But I suppose what’s confusing to me about baptism is that, in my mind, real faith is about what you deeply believe in, often despite challenges to those beliefs. If you’ve been in the world and really lived, and heard all of the different perspectives and opinions and you still believe, that’s faith to me. But signing a baby up for something, it doesn’t feel like it means very much in the grand scheme of faith.
That said, I do understand what it means to be a parent and to want the very best future for your children, and to have hopes and dreams for them and to try to do what you hope will set them on the path for a happy, fulfilling life. I’m sure that for many people who baptize their babies, that’s what they have in mind. I also know plenty of people who have done it because, “that’s just what you do” and/or because it was important to grandparents, and I can see that too. It would water the whole thing down for me, but OK. It doesn’t do any harm.
On the way to the baptism, we listened to an episode of a parenting podcast about multicultural families and how they pass traditions and elements of identity down to their children. We also listened to an episode of On Being with poet Marie Howe, that addressed “the ways family and religion shape our lives.” Perhaps surprisingly, both of these were chosen somewhat at random. We weren’t looking for things that tied into our plans for the day. But both of these pieces, along with an article I found when Googling Howe as we drove, led our conversation about baptism in interesting directions. That article in particular made Kristin and I miss our NY tribe desperately.
So many rituals for babies have to do with who they are and who their parents hope that they will become. It makes sense; we know so little about them when they’re born, so it’s not as if anyone could stand up and give the sort of storytelling speeches we give at weddings or memorial services. At that stage of life everything is about hope and potential. We’ve been to one Jewish naming ceremony, not a bris, but just a naming ceremony months after the child was born, and it was lovely. I recall K and I talking about how much we enjoyed it, this coming together of people to celebrate the life of a little boy. It wasn’t an especially religious ceremony, but it felt like community and celebration of both his place in the world and the significance of his existence in his parents’ lives. In the podcast, one of the mothers talks about this ceremony and how it’s kind of the only option for Jewish girls, since a bris is only for boys, but that a bris is meaningful because (if done by the book) everyone comes together within seven days of a birth to welcome the baby and celebrate. We didn’t circumcise our boys, so that’s also not a thing that we believe in especially, but the idea of your tribe coming together from all over to celebrate the enormity of having a child, showing up to meet that baby and say “welcome,” it makes me wish that there was a tradition like that for everyone, regardless of faith. Not that you can’t make something up, and a friend of ours has recommended this book (which I borrowed at one time, but haven’t read), but I’m not sure that making up your own ceremony and inviting friends from around the world would work in quite the same way. If there wasn’t a tradition already in place that we show up to these things, no matter what, would people show up?
When Kristin and I reflect on our wedding, we often talk about one of the most powerful elements being this idea that everyone in attendance is there in support of this life-altering choice you’ve made. And one way or another, their presence is their way of saying “I commit to supporting you in this life together.” There’s often some acknowledgement in the ceremony that the couple will need that support, because marriage is hard sometimes. Having a child is such a transformative experience, so fraught with challenge and uncertainty and fear and sometimes loneliness. It seems like a gigantic miss to me that we don’t have a ritual in place, all faith identities aside, that does something similar when a child is born or adopted. When I imagine what it might have been like to have people we love from around the world show up to meet our babies and welcome them and to commit to supporting us through the challenges of raising children, it’s such a wonderful vision. That’s a ritual that I would carry out without question (well, except for the part about essentially planning a wedding immediately after having a baby, on very little sleep, not having showered for days…that doesn’t sound quite as idyllic).
I feel like we need it though; we as a culture, I mean. A ritual that acknowledges the challenge and transformation that parenthood brings, where we all show up for our people and say, “I’m here and I’ll be here when you need me (for you and your child), and you can do this because you have all of us in your corner.” Becoming parents feels every bit as powerful as getting married, doesn’t it?
Did you baptize your children (or will you), or carry out another ritual for them? Why did you choose what you did?