After I became a new mom at the age of twenty-nine, my entire life was built around fear.
When my daughter, Ezra, was six weeks old, I went back to the gym for the first time since giving birth. A mother of four — who can deadlift way more than I can — wondered why I hadn’t brought my newborn with me; the gym provided free childcare.
“I’m too scared to drive my daughter anywhere,” I blurted out. “I don’t want her to die.”
Her expression made me think perhaps it wasn’t normal for a new parent to have such thoughts. I’d been hoping she might have some advice about how to avoid interstates for moms who couldn’t stop panicking over the possibility of a high-speed collision.
Living with fear was nothing new for me. As a child, before falling asleep each night, I would ask Jesus to enter my life and save me from eternal damnation. I’d learned the words in Sunday school, where parent volunteers at our evangelical church led students in a salvation prayer: We would all close our eyes, and those who were admitting their sins would go to the front of the room to be saved. I often peeked and noticed the same students going forward each week. Sometimes I joined them, and together we recited, “Jesus, enter our lives and forgive us for our sins.”
Faith leaders at our small North Carolina church cautioned that people who didn’t place their trust fully in God were not truly saved and would be condemned to hell. After praying for my salvation, I always worried: What if I got the words wrong? What if my heart was not sincere? My relationship with God and my eternal fate appeared to depend on how earnestly I repeated those ten words.
My anxieties grew so great that in second grade I built an altar in my room: I took the basket that held my stuffed animals, flipped it upside down, and covered it with the floral tablecloth that my mom used for special occasions. Three quarters from my wallet served as the offering. I closed my eyes, bowed my head, and prayed, “God, please reach down from heaven and take this offering. If you do, I’ll know that I’ve earned salvation.” I opened my eyes, hoping to see a bright light shining down from heaven to beam the coins up, but no light appeared. The quarters sat there for months.
In tenth grade I began studying Christian apologetics — the discipline of defending faith as the ultimate truth — in preparation for future conversations with non-Christians. My youth-group friends and I bonded by going over potential arguments together. We thought living a life of faith was as simple as not drinking alcohol or having sex — and we were very good at avoiding both. We went to conferences to hear celebrity pastors argue the dangers of atheism. I liked the reassuring idea that everything happened for a purpose — including bad things — even if I could not fully feel the truth of it. I wanted to feel the same level of certainty in God’s salvation that our faith leaders appeared to possess. At church and on foreign mission trips I listened to believers’ fervent testimonies and waited for a similar dramatic transformation in my own life.
Around this time my doctor placed me on an antianxiety medication — after pointing out that having panic attacks over eternal damnation is not normal for a teen. Still, I wondered if the real problem was that I lacked faith. My youth pastor said, “Cast your anxieties onto Jesus. Give all of your worries over to Him!” But could Jesus remove the weight of my fears and give me peace if I needed daily medication to keep from panicking about hell?
In college I learned that there are no examples in Scripture of people reciting a salvation prayer to achieve eternal life. This calmed my anxiety a bit. Still, it was difficult to break free from the thought patterns of my formative years. I also experienced manic episodes in which my racing thoughts felt divine and important. I’d work furiously in my dorm room at night, writing essays and painting landscapes, but by morning everything that I’d created would look like trash, and I’d realize I hadn’t been experiencing spiritual epiphanies at all. Instead I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
I stopped going to church for five years. I no longer felt truly safe in religious spaces, knowing firsthand the harm they could cause.
But despite some problematic teachings, my church upbringing also provided me a deep sense of belonging that I long for even today. I’m nostalgic for summers spent at camp and mission trips with friends. I still need that camaraderie. Whenever I drive by local parks in summer, I reminisce about church picnics with tables filled with grilled food. And then I remember those events were also where I participated in skits about demons.
Although I still identify as a Christian, I am endlessly unpacking and discarding the church teachings of my childhood. My belief in God is no longer built on the fear of what will happen to me after I die. (Not that I don’t think about it sometimes. I still cannot read the Bible without spiraling into anxiety.) Despite what certain parts of the Old Testament say, I now believe in a loving God who doesn’t demand unwavering belief. I believe taking medications isn’t an indication of a lack of faith. And I believe uncertainty goes hand in hand with faith and is part of what it means to be human. But believing all this doesn’t mean I know how to live with it.
After college I cycled between long periods of feeling content with the unknowability and mystery of God and being restless for answers. Whenever a big life event occurred, like getting married, I would channel my growing panic into revisiting my religious beliefs in search of something more concrete to base them on.
Then I got pregnant. In the middle of a pandemic.
Though marriage had made me want to go to church again, as my pregnancy progressed, I questioned if it was even possible to raise a child in a church without traumatizing them. I didn’t want my daughter to spend her life worried about winning God’s approval. At one point I insisted that my husband and I go to couples counseling to better prepare for becoming parents. During our first session the therapist asked what frightened us the most about having a daughter. I said the first thing that came to mind:
“I don’t want to disappoint God.”
My therapist and my husband both appeared unsure how to respond.
Growing up, I was taught to believe that mothers and fathers have a responsibility to raise their children in a godly way. Now I didn’t know whether my husband and I were meant to do that, or how my doubts about my faith might impair my ability to do it. As usual, every belief I’d held since childhood seemed worth revisiting. I began perusing my bookshelves in hopes of finding a text that would finally clarify my beliefs. I’d refrained from reading books about pregnancy — I didn’t need more reasons to be anxious — but I thought, at least by the time my daughter was born, I might find something to help me make up my mind about heaven and hell and what it means to experience salvation.
By the second trimester my belly was too big for me to sit comfortably on the couch, so we bought a large beanbag chair and placed it in the center of the living room. I spent evenings there, reading books about the afterlife, the Crucifixion, and feminism. I kept envisioning my unborn daughter as a teenager asking me about these topics and my being unable to give her definitive answers.
My husband gently reminded me that such definitive answers don’t exist.
For the first few months of my daughter’s life, my husband oversaw her feedings until midnight, while I took the late shift. By 1 AM I was inevitably awakened not by the sound of my daughter’s hungry cries but by my own intrusive thoughts. I worried that if I wasn’t grateful enough to have Ezra, something bad might happen to her. It had taken us three years to get pregnant, and I didn’t want to take parenthood for granted. I tried praying over my daughter as she slept in her bassinet, but I became frozen by uncertainty about what to pray for and whether my prayers were even heard. When I got back into bed, my mind reviewed every bad thing that could happen to her. Those moments reminded me of the times I’d gone days without sleep in college.
Given my history, I knew that I was at risk for a mental-health crisis during pregnancy. My past experiences with bipolar disorder made it difficult for me to trust my own instincts, and this distrust was heightened postpartum. Since I’d given birth, my psychiatrist had tripled the dosages of my medications. My doctors assured me that I had a great support system, but nothing could prepare me for the sensation that my racing heart might burst out of my chest. I couldn’t tell if I was about to enter into a season of emotional instability, or if this was just what it feels like to love someone while also recognizing that you can never keep them completely safe.
By the time I was exhausted enough to fall back asleep, my daughter would cry for another bottle. The sight of her cradled in my arm was just enough to make me forget for a moment all the bad thoughts circulating in my head.
Once Ezra turned three months, I started a small church group that met at my house during her nap time. Due to the pandemic I hadn’t had friends over in two years. For most of my adult life I’d met weekly with a group of fellow Christians to speak about deepening our relationships with God, but this group was different. I joked with my pastor that membership was reserved for people who’d been hurt by the Church. During the first meeting I made sure everyone knew that swearing was allowed and there was no pressure to give Sunday-school answers to difficult questions. I didn’t even want people to pray aloud. We chose a book to read together about the role of women in the history of Christianity. I began learning about female saints and preachers, individuals who’d never been mentioned during my evangelical upbringing. It gave me comfort to imagine teaching my daughter about these women.
Our discussions often veered into the struggles we had with our faith, especially now, as Christian nationalists were making news for storming the U.S. Capitol, challenging critical race theory, protesting LGBTQ events, and following Donald Trump the way Christians are called to serve Jesus — all while claiming to believe in the same God we did. It turned out everyone else in the group was as unsure as I was about what it means to live a life of faith today. It felt liberating to ask aloud all the questions I know I’ll never receive answers for in this life. Together we tried to navigate the tension between mystery and belief — the very essence of faith.
The new openness I was experiencing began to play out in how I parented. The more I was able to let go of my desire for religious certainty, the less concerned I was with controlling my child. Things that normally would have sent me over the edge began to wash over me with ease. As Ezra began crawling, she opened every cabinet and threw their contents onto the floor. She became so obsessed with our pit bull that I wondered if she believed she was a dog. Sometimes I even found her chewing on a bone, which terrified me. But instead of viewing her explorations as a threat to my control, I welcomed her wonder as a gift.
The other day I took Ezra for a walk, and a neighbor stopped us to say hello and admire my daughter, who was biting her favorite green dinosaur toy.
“Don’t you ever wonder what this world will be like when she’s older?” the woman asked.
She walked away before I could answer. It was the day after yet another mass shooting. Ezra’s first year of life has been marked by record-breaking violence and political unrest. Do all new parents feel more aware of the injustice and hatred in the world and how much they threaten the life they’ve just brought into it?
During Ezra’s afternoon nap my husband will sometimes stay home with her while I go to the store. These days I enjoy shopping just for the mental stimulation. Even though it’s my break from being a stay-at-home mom, I’ll pull up the baby-monitor app on my phone to make sure that Ezra is sleeping soundly. I’ll watch her toss and turn while the people around me browse home goods seemingly without concern. I have no idea how to carry all my anxieties about what could happen to my child or to this country.
Shortly after the mask mandate was lifted, our church organized a group dedication ceremony for the growing number of pandemic babies. The service was held in the middle of the infant-formula shortage, when my husband and I were struggling to find food for Ezra, and just days after the Southern Baptist Convention announced that for nearly two decades it had hidden credible accusations of sexual abuse against more than seven hundred ministers and church staff. I stood in church that Sunday morning feeling hopelessness over the future and dismayed by how theology has been used to oppress women throughout history. Though the other children lay perfectly still in their parents’ arms, Ezra wriggled in mine. I finally gave up and placed her on the floor, then watched as she crawled across the red carpet, in front of the whole church, and sat down next to our pastor in the middle of his sermon. I laughed harder than I had in days.
The more scared I become about the future, the more compelled I feel to show my daughter that the world doesn’t have to be a frightening place. Part of what made me want to become a mom was this desire to teach my child what I wish I had known — and also, maybe selfishly, to re-parent myself.
As Ezra grows older, I see her noticing more and more details around her: the shadows on the wall during feedings, the blue sky on our walks. One night my husband drove us to a Chinese-lantern festival. We walked through a tunnel of bright lights as our daughter reached for them in awe. For every fear and sorrow that I experience, there is a moment of joy and peace like this. Perhaps the faith that I am striving for is about believing that, regardless of how hopeless life gets, these joys will still occur.
After the festival I decided that my desire to show Ezra the beauty of this world might help me conquer my fear of driving with her in the car. I drove (on back roads) to a nearby public garden, where I pushed her stroller along the cobblestone paths, stopping at beds of flowers with names I could not pronounce. When no one was looking, I even let her grab the petals and inspect each one before tearing it apart.