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InterfaithFamily.com is pleased to offer this advice column for individuals encountering difficult interfaith situations. The column is written by Wendy Weltman Palmer, M.S.W., a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Dallas, Texas. As a former director of Outreach and Synagogue Community for the Union of Reform Judaism, Ms. Palmer helped develop programs for interfaith couples and families throughout the southwest. Ms. Palmer's experience as a partner in an interfaith marriage adds a special dimension to the consultation.
Readers can contact Wendy at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about interfaith issues. Of course, Wendy will not be able to respond to every question, but she will try to respond to as many as she can and sometimes may combine questions on similar topics and address them in one article. She will use pseudonyms rather than real names to protect people's privacy.
My son and daughter-in-law have told me that they are getting divorced. They have been raising their five-year-old daughter as a Jew--I think. She is enrolled in a Jewish preschool and my daughter-in-law actually helps to teach another class at the preschool even though she herself is not Jewish. However, I know that my daughter-in-law still goes to church and I think sometimes takes my granddaughter with her. I am deathly afraid that once they divorce, my daughter-in-law will gradually pull my granddaughter away from Judaism and her Jewish connections. What can I do?
Your question reminds us that divorce is a major upheaval, not just for the couple calling it quits, not just for the children caught in the middle, but also for extended family members. Every one is affected by the change in the predicated “order” of relationships. And, you certainly have your own bundle of concerns.
The many unknowns in this situation are surely contributing to your level of anxiety. Your concern that your granddaughter's religious identity might be affected by the split-up of her parents may be fueled in part by the uncertainty about how she is being raised right now. Beginning to fill in some of the gaps with hard information might help to dispel some of your fears. Could you sit down with your son and daughter-in-law and have a conversation with them about the questions on your mind? While technically some of these things are none of your business, it is your business to be supportive to your son and daughter-in-law as they are going through this crisis. And, the best way for you to support them is to have an idea of what their “plan” has been and what they think their “plan” might be for the future.
Here is some information for you to be aware of and possibly share with your son and daughter-in-law when the timing makes sense. First is that interfaith parents sometimes discover religion is more important to them after divorce than they ever thought it was when they were married. The development of religious fervor (in rare cases, the actual precipitator of divorce in interfaith couples) can add another element to an already volatile mix. One can easily imagine that if Mom becomes a stronger Christian after divorce than she was before and Dad a stronger Jew, then the two of them would face more conflict in raising their children than they did before. This is one reason why it is useful for divorcing interfaith parents to commit to a course of action regarding religious upbringing that they codify in an attachment to the divorce decree. Such an agreement is almost always binding over time no matter what kind of changes each partner personally goes through.
Secondly, there is some evidence to suggest that when interfaith parents separate, the support system that they have built for their child's religious identity tends to fall apart more readily than for same-faith couples. Again, one can apply this trajectory to your own family situation. For your Christian daughter-in-law to continue raising her child as a Jew, she is going to need more support, not less, after being separated from her Jewish spouse. If your daughter-in-law moves out of the orbit of her Jewish job or if she forms a new relationship with a non-Jewish partner, what will help anchor her to her original commitment? Interfaith parents need to work extra hard to build a support system for their children's religious identity that can withstand the inevitable march of time and family change.
What role do your son and daughter-in-law envision for you in the upbringing of their daughter? By asking the question at this time you signal your desire to be involved in your granddaughter's life and also show that you are making no assumptions about the future. If your son and daughter-in-law see that you are not choosing sides and are not invested in a particular outcome, they just might “let you in” further to help them sort out other important issues.
Building connection now insures a greater likelihood of connection later when the formal bonds are broken and you all are relying on a different kind of commitment.