Exposing my Kids to Ideas I Avoid: The Inelegance of Parenting in the Field (@theTable: Parenting in the Field)
By Amanda Baugh.
“Did you know that Disney Land is in Anaheim?” my four-year old son asked eagerly from the backseat as we began our spring break road trip. Although we were heading toward Anaheim, my husband and I had not mentioned that particular attraction. Instead, we were travelling so I could conduct research on religion and environmental values at Catholic Congress, a religious education and worship event hosted by the Los Angeles archdiocese each year. Since the event was within driving distance of our home in suburban Los Angeles, and happened to coincide with spring break, we decided it would be fun for the whole family to come along.
During the days of the research trip, my husband entertained our two sons at a Science Museum, an indoor playground, and our hotel pool, while I ran around attending sessions, conducting interviews, and building connections with informants. I re-entered family life when we reunited for dinner and bedtime every night. But our neat division of labor broke down one afternoon when my one-year old really needed a long nap and my four-year-old really needed to not be locked up in a quiet hotel room. This occasioned the breakdown of a second neat division I had previously maintained during the trip: my identity as a researcher and my identity as a mom. Not wanting to miss out on an ecological mass that could contribute strongly to my research project, nor wanting to blithely leave my family behind in a state of chaos, I decided that I would conduct the research with my four-year-old son in tow.
My younger son had routinely accompanied me on fieldwork trips as an infant, so in that moment I did not consider the implications of bringing my preschooler along. But as we joined thousands of Catholic faithful in the arena, I realized that this unremarkable excursion in my professional life raised a flood of questions for my son, who had little context for understanding what was going on. Without much reflection, my husband and I have ended up raising our children with an eclectic mix of religious and cultural elements, including components from my family’s Jewish past, southern California yoga culture, and some form of secular humanism. We make construction paper ornaments for the small Christmas tree that sits on a table next to our menorah each December, and we allow our sons to hunt Easter eggs with the kids next door. My preschooler meditates at the end of his aikido class two afternoons each week.
But we have intentionally avoided any complex discussions about Christianity, God, church, or religion per se. So when my son entered the ecological mass, he naturally had a lot of questions. Why are they playing that music? Why is everyone standing up? And even more vexingly, what is that giant piece of wood being carried by those men in funny hats?
As I sat there trying to translate this event into terms my son could understand (The cross reminds people to be peaceful piggies, I explained, drawing from the idioms of a children’s meditation book we read at home), within earshot of Catholic faithful who might be appalled by my explanations, the question that weighed most heavily on my mind was, what will my husband say when he learns that my son spent the afternoon at church? While I have positive childhood memories of secular Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations, and occasional trips to synagogue with my grandparents, my husband has a much more complicated relationship with the religious culture of his own Southern Baptist upbringing. We have not seriously discussed how to broach these topics with our kids. Instead, we have gone to increasingly great lengths to avoid them. But the reality of being an ethnographer of religion and a mom means that my sons will be exposed to religious concepts and ideas that we might not otherwise introduce. And the awkwardness of that experience during mass raises a pointed question about the intersection of my personal and professional lives: how is it possible that I, a person who makes a living researching and teaching about religion, cannot explain even the basic symbols of a Catholic mass to my son?
It turns out that my scholarly orientation to the study of religion has trained me in precisely that type of avoidance. I teach courses on religion and culture at a large, public university, and I tell my students that the nature of their personal religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are not relevant to their success in my class. As Malory Nye writes in my favorite introductory text, Religion: The Basics, religious traditions may or may not be divinely inspired, but scholars of religion “should only claim competence in the field of experience which is known: the human world” (4). Following Nye, my students learn to differentiate between their personal religious outlooks and their own developing, scholarly-analytical voices. They know they can bring personal beliefs and experiences into class discussions, but we will treat their stories as primary texts to be analyzed, not primers on Ultimate Truth.
But my children’s questions are not primary texts. As my sons grow older they will want to hear answers to their questions about God, ultimate reality, and what happens when people die. And they will want to hear those answers from me– not because I am a scholar of religion, but because I am their mom. Colleen McDannell points out the importance of women’s religious leadership in Victorian America, where women took responsibility for creating and maintaining a proper Christian home. Jennifer A. Thompson notes how this gendered division of religious labor persists into the present, as American mothers take primary responsibility for the religious identity and perspectives of the whole family. In my own marriage, many traditional gender norms are inverted. My husband takes care of the hidden domestic labor that enables me to flourish in my career. But similar to other feminist moms, our childrearing practices have followed more traditional gender roles, and I take primary responsibility for the emotional labor involved with raising our young sons; by extension the role of shaping our family’s religious outlook has fallen primarily on me.
As a non-religious scholar of religion taking part in other people’s sacred rituals with my sons, the personal, professional, and political become entangled in ways that it is difficult to parse. Some of my colleagues in other departments are proud atheists who happily teach their kids that God is a fantasy and anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool. But I have spent too much time interpreting how religious practices and beliefs fundamentally shape the lived experience of the people I study to be able to dismiss their outlooks so arbitrarily. While I may not share their particular orientations or understandings of the world, I would not claim that my own unreflective viewpoint is superior. And I am not willing to convey such an idea to my sons.
Whether I plan for it or not, the religious worlds that my husband and I so carefully avoid in our personal lives will overflow into the lives of my sons. Despite the rigid boundaries I have tried to erect, I am the medium for a two-way flow of information. Just as my family’s stories influence my encounters in the field, my informants’ stories influence the spaces of my daily life: my teaching, my parenting, my marriage. The intersubjective nature of ethnography takes on a profound sense of urgency now that I enter the field not as an individual, but as a mom.
Amanda Baugh is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at California State University Northridge, and Director of the Program in Civic and Community Engagement. She is the author of God and the Green Divide: Religious Environmentalism in Black and White (University of California Press, 2016).