Dr. Paula Brody, Ed.D., LICSW, is director of Outreach Programs and Training for the Northeast Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the Reform movement), where she develops and coordinates a wide range of programs and services to welcome interfaith families into Reform congregations.
A Very Difficult Thing to Do . . . Telling Your Parents That You Are Raising Your Children in Your Partner's Faith
Many interfaith couples delay telling their parents what their decisions are regarding the religious identity of their children, or avoid making this critically important decision altogether, due to a fear of hurting one set of parents. The fear of disappointing parents or not knowing how parents may react to decisions keeps many couples from resolving the religious identity issue. Indeed, telling parents about the decision may be one of the hardest things a person has ever done. Yet, it is very important to make parents aware of the decisions made for their grandchildren.
In my professional role as the outreach director for the Reform Movement in the Northeast, I've been privileged to work with hundreds of interfaith couples, helping them make these important life decisions. In my opinion, the partner who decides to raise his or her children in a partner's faith is giving that partner an enormous gift. This is a gift that must be given freely, lovingly and for the right reasons.
Partners considering giving this tremendous gift--raising their children in their partner's faith--undoubtedly have many concerns: How do I tell my parents what I have decided? Will they feel I have betrayed them? Do they feel I made this choice for the right reasons? Will this distance me from my parents? Will my parents feel left out of our lives? Will I not be able to continue the family celebrations that were such a joyful part of my childhood? There are no easy answers to these questions. However, here are some suggestions that may be helpful when you have this conversation with your parents.
- If you are giving your partner the tremendous gift of raising children in his/her religious tradition, clarify and express what you need for yourself and your family in order to do this. Be sure that your partner understands these needs. This is essential to enable you to feel you are giving this huge gift willingly without giving too much of yourself away. You need to feel this is a decision you have made out of love, a choice you made for the right reasons.
- If you are the partner receiving this beautiful and loving gift from your partner, listen carefully to what your partner needs to maintain from his/her religious tradition. Make every effort to meet these needs.
- After you have made your decision, live with it for a while. For how long? Perhaps for several weeks, maybe even several months, until you are sure it feels right for both of you as a couple.
- When you have "lived with" your decision, when the decision feels comfortable and right, it is important that you tell both sets of your parents what you have decided. To not tell both sets of parents, or worse, to not tell the parents whose religion was not chosen, keeps them in the dark. If you do not tell your parents, you close down the opportunity for clear and honest communication about religious issues in the future. Not telling your parents keeps them guessing about your decisions and, possibly, imagining "the worst case scenario" anyhow. Interestingly, no matter which religion you choose, both sets of parents will probably feel relieved that they now know what you've chosen to do.
- If you are the partner raising children in a faith other than your own, your parents will want to know that you came to this decision freely--that it feels right and comfortable for you. They will want to feel reassured that you have indeed made this choice for the right reasons, and were not pressured by outside influences, most especially your partner's parents. Reassure them. Continue to reassure them at appropriate moments in the future.
- Your parents need to know that they will not be "left out" of your life. Let them know that you will, in fact, go out of your way to include them in your family's religious celebrations. Invite them to your home and your in-laws' home, even knowing that they may choose not to accept these invitations. Be an ambassador for your parents and extended family into the traditions of the faith you have chosen. Provide information and encourage questions.
- Plan to be part of your parents' holiday celebrations and life-cycle ceremonies. Reassure your parents that they are not going to lose you and your children for these important family moments. Let them know that your partner and children will learn about their religious celebrations in order to honor and respect them.
- Choose to spend "extra" time with your parents for non-religious times such as July 4th weekend, Thanksgiving, your child's first dance recital or soccer awards ceremony, Mother's Day or a fun family vacation. Remember that religion is just one aspect of your children's identity and that there are many ways to create cherished shared memories with your parents.
- Find meaningful ways to reinforce your parent's legacy in a non-religious way. Pass on a family name. Celebrate ethnic traditions. Introduce your child to your parent's favorite hobbies, books and music. Create non-religious special moments that will strengthen the bond between your children and your parents.
- When you do have children, you must talk with your partner in terms of what you both feel comfortable with regarding your parents' role in teaching their grandchildren about their faith. Is it okay for Grandma to teach your child a holiday song? Can Nana give your child a gift for her holiday? Can Grandpa take your child with him when he goes to his worship setting? Can your parents talk to your children about their belief in God? It is important to set appropriate parameters with your parents before Grammy teaches your child her favorite bedtime prayer. As parents, you must set these guidelines for grandparents and communicate your wishes.
- Lastly, when I work with interfaith couples, I ask them to reflect on "the most valued aspect of their religious heritage" given to them by their parents. Think about your answer to this question. Share the answer with your partner. I always encourage interfaith couples to find ways to integrate this "most valued aspect of their religious heritage" into their marriage and family life. You may be able to pass on what you value most to your children, even in the context of another religion.
At the appropriate time, have a conversation with your parents and let them know what you value most from what they gave you. Assure your parents that this is a precious legacy. This will be a meaningful conversation. Your parents will realize that you value them and value what they gave to you.
Always remember that honoring your father and mother is at the foundation of all religions. Continue to honor them and show respect for the legacy that they have given to you. This will help your parents begin to accept your choice of raising your children in your partner's faith. With time, your parents will come to realize that you have given this beautiful gift to your partner for the right reasons.