Care and Feeding

Should I Let My Husband Drag My Kids to Church?

He’s found religion. I’d happily go the rest of my life never setting foot in a church again. What should we do?

A man and his son pray in a pew, while a woman seethes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve been with my husband for over 10 years, and I’ve known him for over 15 (since high school!). When we got together, we were both adamantly secular. A few years ago, my husband started indicating that he was interested in finding a local church to attend while never taking any action to do so. We’ve had two children, and he has struggled with the isolation of being a stay-at-home parent with no daily social outlet other than his immediate family. I believe this isolation is what pushed him to finally seek out religion.

My husband just went to a Catholic Mass for the first time, and he took our oldest daughter. I very much believe that every person should seek out what makes them happy in life, so I don’t begrudge him seeking out something I don’t personally want for myself. I was raised Catholic and was forced to attend Mass and catechism weekly even though I told my parents and religious leaders that I didn’t believe. It was absolute torture for me, and I left the church as soon as I was able to make that choice. It baffles me why he’d choose this outlet of all the available choices, but it is his choice to make.

My concern lies in the future of our relationship and how to handle our divergent belief systems with our children. I let him take our 3-year-old because I think it’s great for children to be exposed to different worldviews, but I also don’t want to force them to attend (as I was forced). After the Mass, my husband started talking about the kids being baptized, and he thinks I should come back to the church. My husband has known for the duration of our relationship that I am 100 percent happy never setting foot in church again, funerals and weddings excepted, and I’m hurt that he is trying to force the issue with me. How do I let him do what makes him happy while also making it clear that I want nothing to do with it? How do I talk to my kids about this once they’re a little older and start having questions as to why Mommy stays at home while Daddy goes to church? How do I navigate respecting his desire to baptize our kids when I don’t want them baptized before they can make that decision for themselves?

—Stay at Home Sundays

Dear Home,

I love this letter because one of the things I’m most interested in as a person is helping find a way that people of faith, atheists, and agnostics can all get along—or at least leave each other the hell alone. It’s perfectly fine that you don’t want to go to a church. It’s perfectly fine that your husband does want to go to a church. It’s not perfectly fine for your husband to try to force you to go to a church even though you’ve made it clear that you don’t want to go.

Religion works for some people. For others it appears to work but is really giving them cover to be judgmental, resentful assholes. And for still others religion is both traumatizing and horrific. If, indeed, there is ever to be a workable coexistence between nonbelievers and believers, all of this must be understood and respected. If someone has tried religion and found it lacking, then it is not only selfish and shortsighted, but downright cruel to try to force them back into it. So, in this case I side with you. It may just be that your husband wants your company or to share his newly converted excitement with you; it may be that he wants to micromanage the state of your soul. None of these are sins in and of themselves, but whatever his endgame is he needs to let it go. You are a grown-ass woman, and you most assuredly get to decide whether or not you step back into a church.

As for what to tell your daughter: I don’t actually think “Dad goes to church, Mom does not” is that difficult a concept and certainly not one that has to lead to a tremendous crisis of faith for her in the long run. Should the situation continue in this fashion, having one religious parent and one nonreligious one will probably just give her a more layered understanding of what religion is or can be. You can certainly tell her why you didn’t care for church but that it doesn’t mean she’ll have the same experience. Also, remember that the period in which she is not old enough to understand or make decisions on her own is, in actuality, very brief. Ultimately, she will make her own choices about how to handle faith. But she should get a chance to decide what she wants to do, which means that she should get a chance to experience both. I might suggest the following compromise: She should go with Dad every other Sunday, like a shared custody agreement. This should continue for a set period of time, say maybe until she’s 5, at which point it can be entirely optional and up to her each week whether or not she feels like going. She may end up liking it, she may end up hating it. She may end up with mixed feelings. Whatever her response is, let it be hers and do not get it confused with your own.

People will have a lot of feelings about this next part, but were this my kid, I would hold off on baptism. I’ve always thought it weird that babies get baptized before they have any say in the matter. I mean I get that that’s how the thing works, but still. In any event, should she decide to stay with the church she can get baptized at a later date; she may even find that she wants to do it sooner because she wants to belong. (I, for some reason, went alone to get myself baptized at 15 at the urging of my mother who was in the midst of a short-lived midlife spiritual crisis. It made her happy and ultimately had literally zero impact on my life, so take that for what it’s worth.)

I might suggest another thing. I’ve seen it many times: Someone finds new direction in the church for some time and then drifts away. Not saying this will happen to your husband, but keep in mind that this may resolve itself before it becomes any kind of crisis. Come a year from now this might very well be a complete nonissue.

More Care and Feeding:

My Daughter Prefers Me to Her Dad. I Don’t Blame Her!

My Daughter Is a First-Class Complainer. How Do I Get Her to Look on the Bright Side?

I Love My Affectionate, Messy Kids, but My In-Laws Are Paranoid About Germs

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son’s father and I divorced amicably two years ago. Neither of us is remarried or in a relationship. My concern is that he doesn’t feel “at home” in either of our homes. My son refers to our house as “my mom’s house” and his and his dad’s house in the same way. He and I are currently moving, and he told someone, “My mom is moving.” Is there any way to help him feel like he has two homes and belongs to both?

—Homeless?

Dear Homeless,

Honestly, I don’t see a problem with your kid referring to your homes this way. Or rather I see the problem for you and your feelings (which are valid) but don’t think it’s realistic to expect otherwise. No matter how amicable your divorce, you must recognize that from your son’s perspective you have taken one home and split it up into two homes. That is just a fact, and no amount of kindness can change that for him. Nor should it. He is exactly right. As a mother you should let him have those designations, because those words validate his understanding of what has transpired.

It’s also a lot to ask a kid to see both homes as being entirely his own. Again, that’s simply not his reality. He does, in fact, go back and forth between the two places. Furthermore, each home exists, while he’s not there, as not his home. And while I’m sure he loves you both, rifles through both fridges, and puts his feet on all the furniture as he pleases, it is nonsense for him to pretend that both houses are one, so why ask that of him?

Children of divorce need a lot of things—love, clarity, support, parents who do not fight over them or badmouth one another—but maybe the one thing they need most is a sense of control over their lives. From their point of view, the biggest decision imaginable has just been foisted upon them, completely turning their existence upside down, without them having any say. This would be destabilizing to anyone, much less a child. So if he wants to think of Mom’s house as Mom’s house (which it is) and Dad’s house as Dad’s house (which it is), then let him. It helps him feel as though he’s being clear-eyed about the situation. The question, then, is: Are you?

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve been married six years to a man who was sweet and giving. He has two kids from a previous marriage, as do I. My youngest daughter is 20 and is the only one of our children who lives at home with us. She’s going to school full time. The problem I’m having is that he seems jealous of her because we’re very close and spend a lot of time together when I’m home.

We argued a lot in the past because my oldest daughter, who is now 27, used to bring her children to spend every other weekend at our house. I’ve got a lot of resentment built up over the last few years because of the way he treats my daughters and how he treats the grandchildren when they are there. He absolutely does his own thing and isn’t interested in spending any kind of time with them. I’m at a loss as to what to do. We’ve talked about it, and he blames me for the way he feels now because he says he told me early on in our marriage the kids got on his nerves.

I’m considering divorcing him because he will change for a while but revert back to the same person he was. And just for the record, he treats his own granddaughter the same way. Do you have any advice?

—Stuck in the Middle

Dear Stuck,

Your husband doesn’t like young people. This is not a crime. You don’t have to force him to play happy dad just because a 20-year-old is in the house. If he wants to skulk around in the basement or whatever, then that’s on him and not, in and of itself, a fireable offense. What he cannot do, however, is try to determine the nature of your relationship with your daughter. I cannot comment on whether that relationship is a healthy one or not—there is nowhere near enough information in the letter to determine that—but I do know with great certainty that no partner is wise to attempt to straight-up disrupt the relationship between a parent and a child.

I read a lot of letters in which the word divorce pops into my head, but I rarely suggest it. However, since you were the one who brought this up, I will address it. The way you describe this guy makes him sound like an asshole. He is taking your relationship with your kid as though it somehow had to do with him and is demanding you adjust to fit him rather than respecting your history and autonomy. These are not good signs for a healthy, loving partnership. If you’ve had this experience for some time (and I’d say six years is enough fact-finding) and you haven’t seen improvement, then I should guess that this is pretty much who he is. You have to decide if this is someone you can live with.

It has less to do with the daughter (who, at 20 years old, will probably be largely out of the picture at some point soon) and more to do with what I’m reading as his inability to respect your own needs. Once your daughter moves out, you’ll likely find that there are other issues with which he is this controlling and insensitive. I’m always loath to flat out recommend divorce, because there are always many more facets to a situation than one can know from a single letter, and I’m sure that’s the case here. But I would say that if you find yourself thinking about it, then at the very least you might want to go to a couples therapist to explore this as a real possibility.

Good luck.

—Carvell