Zoë stumbled out into the living room, weeping softly. “What’s the matter, sweetie?” I asked, trying to conceal my alarm.
“No, they’re j-just…happy tears…” she gasped, gesturing towards the iPad. I relaxed. The Photos app periodically generated slideshows of our family set to cloyingly sweet music that never failed to make Zoë dissolve into a puddle, and in peering at the screen I could barely make out a similar Youtube Kids video of someone else’s family. I stretched out my arms and she snuggled in, watching baby photos turn to toddler photos as the mother talked about her love for her daughter over the generic music.
I sure hope this is building towards a happy birthday message and not an “in memoriam” I thought dryly. The toddler grew into a young girl, and then the video began displaying photos of an approximately eight-year-old child in a white short-sleeved dress, taken during a professional photoshoot. Oh nooooo. A split second later, the mother started talking about how proud she was of her child’s decision to be baptized.
Zoë turned to me, her eyes full of tears, and asked “What’s baptized?” I immediately felt like I’d fallen into an article from the Friend magazine. I knew exactly how the rest of the story would play out — our humble repentance, forsaking whatever worldly distractions or laziness or pride had led us to wander. The tearful testimony I would give the first Fast Sunday after Zoë’s baptism, about how a faithful mother I had never met let her light so shine before her subscribers so that the Holy Ghost could touch my innocent child’s heart and save our family. The smiling congregation, loving and approving the message that confirmed their own sense of rightness, and mine in return.
Even as this narrative played out in my mind’s eye like a Mormon Message storyboard, I felt something deeper underneath: the unshakeable knowledge that it couldn’t happen. What were we going to do — have my wife detransition? Her living as and me married to a man when neither of us wanted that? Nothing awaited our penitent return to church but some extra heartbreak, Zoë’s first religious trauma, and maybe a few excommunications under our belt. We’d be gone again long before the two and a half years passed for Zoë to be baptized, and I would have signed her up for life for the ecclesiastical equivalent of the world’s most persistent “we’ve been trying to reach you about your car’s extended warranty” telemarketer.
“What’s wrong?” Zoë asked with concern. There were tears in my eyes. I laughed — was I crying because I’d begun to dutifully play the role of the repentant mom in the Friend, or was I crying because that story could never be true?
“Nothing,” I responded.
“What’s baptized?” she asked again.
I sighed. “Well, baptism is —”
“No, not baptism, baptized.”
“Okay, well baptized is when you decide to have a baptism!” I snapped.
I took a deep breath. “Baptism is something Jesus started when he was alive. Different churches sometimes believe different things about what it means, but usually people do it to show they’ve decided to follow Jesus and be a member of that church. Some churches sprinkle you on the head like this,” and I mimed flicking water towards her forehead, “but some dunk you all the way under the water in a little swimming pool. Some churches baptize you as a baby, but this girl goes to the same church as Granny and Grandpa, and they do baptisms when you’re eight because —”
I hesitated, decades of memorized Primary lessons and missionary discussions wilting on my lips. I suddenly remembered a conversation I’d had with a new friend the previous week, where I'd described being so anxious about the concept at such a young age. So nervous I’d die in the nine days between my birthday and my baptism. So concerned because I’d somehow been under the impression you could only repent for a given type of sin once, and I knew I wasn’t close enough to perfect to only get one more chance for each bad behavior — but also feeling like anything other than acting happy and excited for my immediate baptism would have been letting the family down. Keeping that all bottled up inside for years, reviewing mental lists of all my sins I wasn’t confident I could stop doing forever yet, hoping that if I died tragically young I would have time to rattle them off in a burst of deathbed repentance that probably wouldn’t be accepted anyways, because they were always talking at church about how that was wrong too. Worrying I’d forget one and get turned away from Spirit Paradise on a technicality, a faceless angel gesturing towards the missing checkmark on the list. “Yelled at my brother over Harry Potter legos,” it would read, and my feet would start sinking into the clouds while my parents cried over the empty chair in Sad Heaven.
I remembered how many times I’d realized how much Zoë was like me. I’d worry about her budding perfectionism and anxiety and read articles about praising effort instead of skill, comforting myself that at least none of that religious guilt I’d penitently eaten up was burrowing its way into her impressionable little brain.
“They wait until you’re eight so you can know what’s going on a little more,” I resumed. I waited for followup questions, but none came. Zoë opened a Minecraft video and leaned away, and I opened up Twitter to message some friends about the bizarre conversation. “How does she even find these things?” I complained, longing for the days when Mormon moms found their fame on blogs too verbose to hold Zoë’s attention.
The whole thing made complete sense, easily explicable without any sort of divine intervention at play. Mormon moms had moved from blogging to vlogging, instagram influencing and TikTok dancing. Zoë had three out of four grandparents and both parents who were easy criers, and while Mormonism attached cultural significance to emotional tears, both she and I had been known to cry during Shrek. I’d finally reached the point where this kind of experience no longer sent me into a days-long guilt spiral, second-guessing whether I’d ignored a carefully timed prompting.
But something still bothered me. Whether or not it was a coincidence, or God carefully stretching forth his hand from a distant star to touch the Youtube algorithm, the story still fit. Culturally or spiritually, I was supposed to take this as a sign to go back to church. The Mormon worldview had worked, the shepherd had found the sheep, and rather than being able to trust the shepherd, the lost lamb had to look him in the eyes and say, “No. I know I’m not one of the ones you’re raising for wool, or even one of the ones you’ve selected for sacrifice — I’m just going to end up in a stew. I am staying right here in the wilderness.” And as happy as I was on my little mountainside, I felt a pang of pity for the church. Its leaders would never know why the shepherd had come back empty-handed.