S. Courtney Nathan, LCSW, is a clinical social worker and co-author of the book, When a Parent Is Seriously Ill, Practical Tips for Helping Parents and Children. Formerly coordinator of the Outreach to Intermarrieds program at Jewish Family Service, she is currently taking time off to raise her children.
The Life Cycle of an Interfaith Relationship: Having a Baby
Becoming pregnant can be the most wonderful, awe-inspiring thing that ever happens to you. A new life forming inside your body is a source of amazement and joy for most women, and for a young couple, creating a new life together often bonds them permanently.
As expectant couples move through a pregnancy, they are often filled with excitement and anticipation at the future they envision with their child. They imagine singing the songs they used to sing as children, and playing the familiar games they used to play, vacationing in the same beach house they stayed in with their own families, and sending their child to their alma mater. It's not surprising that somewhere along the way they also envision replaying their religious traditions with their child.
For interfaith couples, this may present a problem. For example, if a Jewish man has agreed to raise Christian children, he may not be able to attend Shabbat, Sabbath, services with his child, teach her the prayers he says at night, or share certain holidays with her.
For some interfaith couples, the religious issues have been set quietly aside while the relationship progressed with little or no conflict. Other couples make religious decisions about future children when they are still dating. Regardless of when or if religious decisions have already been determined, the nine months of pregnancy are generally a time when religious feelings arise, sometimes in very strong ways. Talking about children in an abstract way is very different from having an actual child growing inside of you or holding a real baby for whom you are making decisions.
One Catholic partner who had agreed to raise Jewish children found that when she had her first child, she felt an overwhelming need to have him baptized. Though she had agreed to one thing prior to marriage, she changed her mind when reality set in. This presented serious difficulties for her husband and for her extended family.
If couples have not yet made religious decisions and are feeling the pressure, they may want to actively discuss their feelings about religion and their expectations for their family's religious future. They have four options: The religion of either spouse, neither religion, both religions, or a neutral religion.
The most helpful way to approach this discussion is for couples to share religious memories, articulate what it is about those memories that was most important, and see how they can offer their child that most important experience. As they discuss their options, couples can try to discover where they feel most comfortable, and then determine how to do what they have chosen. This includes clarifying the choice, explaining what the choice involves (finding a clergyperson; joining a church/synagogue; attending services; celebrating or not celebrating certain holidays). Then they can develop a plan for putting their decision into action.
I encourage couples to begin actively observing rituals and traditions before the child is born if they hope to raise the child according to one religious tradition. For example, if a couple says, "when the baby comes, we'll start lighting Shabbat candles," I say, "Don't wait. Start now." This way, the couple can establish a routine and it will be easier to continue despite the stress and busyness of having a newborn at home.
If the child will be raised in one religion, the partner whose religion is not the chosen one needs special attention. He or she will likely feel a great deal of loss at not sharing his or her faith with the child and not celebrating in a way that is familiar. One couple who had agreed to raise Christian children decided not to have godparents, even though it was a family tradition. They wanted to respect each other but also wanted to prevent other family members who were Jewish and could not be godparents from feeling left out. I encourage couples to thank one another for the sacrifices they have made and to make every effort to ensure that both partners are comfortable with and feel a part of the religious experiences they share.
Some couples report that while decisions seemed easy when they made them, often many years ago, having a child brought about a sense of wanting to do what they were familiar with and they found it very hard to hold up their end of the deal. This change in attitude can create new pressure for couples at a time when marital stress is already high. Sometimes a partner who felt that religion didn't really matter and he would be okay raising his child with no religion, suddenly very much wants his son to have a brit, a ritual circumcision, as he himself did.
Occasionally, grandparents apply pressure when a baby is born. If this happens, couples must consider the feelings of their own parents but make decisions that will work for the new family they have created. One couple that had decided to expose their child to both religions without choosing one faith elected not to tell the husband's Catholic family that they would be having a Jewish naming ceremony in addition to the christening, at which the baby was named at baptism.
The birth of a child opens up a whole array of religious decisions to be made. Will you have a religious ceremony to mark the occasion? If so, where, when, and what will it look like? What will you name the child? Will it be named after a living or non-living relative? What if the father is a Jr. and wants his son to be the third, and his wife is Jewish and believes strongly against naming a child after a living relative? These are very important things to consider.
While pregnancy can be a time of great joy, it can also be stressful as couples wonder: Will the baby be healthy? How will we afford a child? How will we manage to get everything we need? Are we ready for such a huge change in our lives? With stress comes irritability and possibly sadness or anger. Be sensitive to the external factors affecting each partner, such as job stress, physical changes or discomforts, changes in living environment and other things. And be careful not to make decisions impulsively because of feeling pressure to do so.
As with a wedding, for some, decisions made when a child is born may be the first tangible religious actions the interfaith couple has to take. If they have had a non-religious wedding and lived a non-practicing religious life thus far, they may choose to have no religious celebration with their newborn child. Or they may discover that this is an area they no longer wish to ignore. One couple that had a non-religious wedding ceremony and had made no decisions about their religious future, realized upon getting pregnant that they wanted to choose one religion for their child. They were then forced to sit down and discuss seriously their personal feelings about religion and their hopes and expectations about their future.
Whatever your situation may be, remember that you are entering into a beautiful stage of life, becoming a true family. You will have enormous responsibility and opportunity and must take it very seriously. While making religious decisions at this time is not easy, it will pave the way for an easier future for everyone.