Wendy Weltman Palmer M.S.W, is a licensed clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in interfaith couple counseling. Her "Dear Wendy" advice column has been seen in these pages.
The Invisible Parent
Years ago I was conducting an interfaith couples group in which the topic was deciding how to raise the children. One young man raised his hand with a comment. Paired with his decidedly Jewish wife, he had already identified himself as a "recovering Catholic." Now he had this to say: "I'm okay raising my future kids as Jews, but I'm afraid of being the only goy in my family." The group erupted in nervous laughter. Even those who didn't understand this young man's Yiddish reference (goy is a slang term for a non-Jewish male, sometimes referring to any gentile) immediately grasped his concern. He did not want to be the odd man out in his own family.
This young man had succinctly given voice to a tension felt by most interfaith couples. At its most superficial, it appears to be about winning and losing. And indeed, for some couples it's a bit like a pitched battle. If we choose to raise the children in your religion and not mine, you have won and I have lost. However, look beneath the battle and there emerges loss of a different kind.
What happens to my traditions, my rituals, and my special memories if we choose your religion as our family faith? How do I relate to my children if I can't refer to the religious values and beliefs with which I grew up? People fear a diminished connection, the possibility that their heritage, all that they stand for, will be diluted. They fear becoming invisible to their children in their own home.
When a parent consents to raise the children in a religion other than his or her own, that parent functionally becomes the "out-parent," a term coined by Petsonk and Remsen in their wonderfully comprehensive guide, The Intermarriage Handbook. Petsonk and Remsen remind us that the out-parent has an obligation to be involved in the religious upbringing of the children AND that the other parent has a responsibility to not exclude the parent who doesn't share in the family religion. They underscore the importance of sensitivity to the parent who seriously practices another religion. Helping this parent celebrate his or her rituals and accompanying this parent to worship services on occasion are ways the family can show support for the out-parent.
In the case of a Christian parent committed to raising Jewish children, what exactly is appropriate for this parent to teach his children about his own religion and background? In other words, how "visible" should this parent be?
The answer is, completely visible. To begin with, all parents exert influence on their children whether they intend to or not. Children absorb their parents' values, their perspective on life, and even their corny sense of humor along with the very air that they breathe. Without debating the question of nature versus nurture, we can all think of examples of how children develop certain facial expressions, take up a particular kind of hobby, or learn to cook food that "tastes just like Mom's," without having been explicitly instructed by their parents.
In the case of an interfaith family, it is incumbent upon the parents to teach their children explicitly that even though the family may practice one particular religion, the children enjoy a dual cultural heritage. To separate religious identity from cultural identity can be enormously helpful for kids in an interfaith family. In today's world, one may choose to be of a certain religion, but one's cultural identity is always a given, a birthright. There is no disputing, for example, that Dad's Catholic paternal grandparents came to America from Ireland to enjoy a better life. Dad's ruddy complexion and pioneer spirit are surely related to his ethnic and cultural background. Dad's kids deserve to hear stories about their Irish ancestors and their customs. They need to know that their grandparents faced religious persecution themselves and to hear about a renegade great-uncle who struck it rich out West. They need to know so that Dad and all that has made him who he is, including his predilection for Irish shortbread, will be more "visible."
Nor should the Christian parent refrain from discussing his religion and religious beliefs, especially if he is actively practicing. This parent should be prepared for hard theological questions--children do have a way of going right to the core of things. They sniff out inconsistency in a heartbeat and aren't reluctant to ask "Why?" Depending on their age and stage of life, children respond to clear, thoughtful answers, even on such weighty subjects as the nature of God.
The challenge for the religiously faithful out-parent is to be able to speak about the core concepts of his beliefs without glamorizing on the one hand or confusing the child on the other. The key is for this parent to be able to talk about why he holds true to his particular religious perspective without undermining the singular religious framework the family has chosen to put in place.
Ultimately, healthy interfaith families become good at talking about and honoring religious and cultural differences. Acknowledging a dual heritage allows both parents to feel represented and on equal ground in the developing personality of the family. No parent need fear becoming "invisible" because each parent is helping to create and shape the customs and memories of the family. Children are less troubled by problems of loyalty because they learn they stay connected to their parent and their parent's past even if Dad practices another religion. Openly discussing the contrasts between the family's religion and Dad's religion gives the children a context for understanding the decisions that the parents have made together. The family can then join together in a different, more conscious way. Some might even say it's a win-win situation.
Wendy Weltman Palmer, M.S.W., is the Director of Outreach for the Southwest Region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the Reform Movement) in Dallas, Texas. She is also a practicing clinical social worker.
Yiddish for "gentile," or someone who is not Jewish. Some use this term with affection, however it's still largely understood to have a derogatory connotation.