Care and Feeding

Can This Friendship Be Saved?

I’m an atheist, and my Christian friend thinks I’m going to hell.

Photo illustration of a woman looking shocked while playing cards.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by mheim3011/iStock/Getty Images Plus and AaronAmat/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I live on an amazing street with three other families who all have children in the same range as ours (1 through 5 years old). We take turns hosting everyone for dinner, we’ve gone on weeklong vacations together, we celebrate each other’s holidays (and holy days) and birthdays, etc. It’s the village every parent dreams of, but something happened a few nights ago, and I cannot get it out of my head. While playing cards with the other moms, one of us who was dealt a bad hand said, “Jesus!” We all try to avoid doing this because one of the moms is a churchgoing serious Christian, who once told us the only swearing that upsets her is when people take the lord’s name in vain. Still, accidents happen. When this one did, I joked that our friend was going to hell. Christian-Mom said, “Funny you should say that. Our pastor’s sermon last week was all about how hell is a literal place that people can end up in.”

I was taken aback and said, “Yikes, how can I avoid that?” She responded, “Accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.” I am bisexual and an atheist, and one of the other moms is Jewish and married to a Muslim. Christian-Mom of course knows this. The only thing that stopped me from asking her if I was going to burn for eternity for being bi was my Jewish friend grabbing my arm. The card game ended soon after and everyone went home. But I cannot stop thinking about what she is teaching her children and that she thinks we’re all going to burn in hell! How can she spend time around people who are doomed to that? I know her kids will eventually say something to mine about it. (I remember being told at age 7 that I wasn’t going to get into heaven!) It makes me feel ill. I love our neighbors and our neighborhood, but I am dreading seeing Christian-Mom this weekend and wondering how we go forward from here.

—Friendly Neighborhood Atheist

Dear FNA,

I say this with all the love in the world, because I too am a friendly neighborhood atheist whose social circle includes Christians who believe that Jesus Christ is their lord and savior, but you kind of asked for it. What did you think she would say when you asked a direct question: “How can I avoid [going to actual hell]?” Yes, I know you were joking. And I know it popped out of your mouth the same way “Jesus” as curse word spontaneously popped out of your other friend’s mouth. As you say, accidents happen. But how can it be so great a surprise to you that your Christian friend believes in literal hell and that anyone who doesn’t believe as she does will end up there? She has been politely, thoughtfully not talking about this in what I suppose could be called “mixed company” (just as you and the other friends have politely and thoughtfully avoided saying things you knew would offend her). But when you asked her a question that cut to the heart of her beliefs … she decided to answer it frankly.

For a moment, then, everybody’s efforts to keep a lid on these profound differences in worldviews, beliefs, and identities broke down. Of course, your friend could have said, laughing—matching tone for tone—”Oh, I’m sure y’all have your own ideas about that!” and (for the time being) that lockbox could have remained tightly shut. But let’s be honest about what’s been going on up to now. She has been doing the same thing you have: a complicated set of mental gymnastics in order to maintain a friendship she values.

I understand where you’re coming from: Sometimes I look at my lovely friend and wonder, given what I think I know of her belief system (which we also politely don’t talk about), how she makes room in her heart for our group of flagrant nonbelievers, heathens, Jews, gay people, blasphemers, et al. What does she tell herself about us that makes it OK for her to love all of us as she obviously does? Does she secretly wish that someday we will see the light? Does she make exceptions for us according to some formula I don’t understand? I ask myself similar questions about the homophobic parents of gay friends who have somehow created an exemption for their children and the people their children love. But in the end, the answer—for me, anyway—is that what matters is not what their mental gymnastics are, but the love itself.

So how do you keep spending time with this friend? The same way you’ve done all along, when you made the decision to pretend you didn’t know what has now been stated openly. If you can’t bear to do that anymore because the cat’s out of the bag, then say goodbye to her—and to your enviable little community. I’m not being sarcastic: It is enviable, especially right now, when most of us have aligned ourselves in tribes and have as little as possible to do with those who don’t think about the world the same way we do. This woman enjoys your company, and you enjoy hers.

Up to now you’ve both managed to set aside the vast differences between you and appreciate everything you like about each other. And it has been working (for you and her—for all of you in your village). Can you continue to do that? Can you allow your children to be exposed to ideas that make you uncomfortable, that will force you to have difficult conversations with them about the many different ways people live and the things they believe that your family doesn’t? I, for one, hope so. I think it’s the only hope any of us have.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My spouse and I are first-time parents of a 4-month-old. My question concerns the small but crucial difference between the words my spouse and I use when we’re comforting our crying child. I say, “It’s all right,” and my spouse says, “You’re all right.” I don’t think we’re intending to communicate anything different (we’re probably both repeating what we were told as children) so I’m almost embarrassed to say that my spouse’s version is beginning to get under my skin. Of course, right now our child is preverbal, so this tiny linguistic difference isn’t even registering with them. But this won’t always be the case. Am I completely imagining that these phrases carry different emotional charges? To me, “You’re all right” feels sort of dismissive of the child’s underlying emotional state, while “It’s all right” feels more accepting. But does it really make any practical difference which version our child hears growing up? I can’t tell whether this is a very silly thing to be hung up on, or totally crucial to our child’s emotional development.

—We’re All Right

Dear WAR,

As I read your letter, I was suddenly reminded—I hadn’t thought about this in many years—of how after hearing me murmur “It’s all right” to our infant daughter for approximately the 437th time during the first week of her life, my husband groaned and asked me, “But what is it? What’s all right?” (His own instinctive preference was to say, “Shh, shh” in a soothing voice, which drove me crazy.)

I don’t think it’s silly to pay attention to the subtle messages imparted by the words we choose (or that, as you suggest, seem to choose us, depending on how we were raised). And I read the difference between your words and your partner’s in the same way you do. I can’t tell you whether that barely perceptible alternate message is going to turn out to be an anomaly—a bit of linguistic trivia—or a clue to a fundamental difference in the way the two of you teach your child to deal with setbacks, troubles, grief, and so on.

But I can tell you this: While you find your message to be preferable, your child’s other parent is not always going to align with your way of thinking and is going to teach your child different ways of coping (and being) than you will. And this is all to the good, since children (and the adults they will someday become) need a whole array of tools for coping with what the world throws at them. The combination of these two distinct messages—it’s all right and you’re all right—isn’t a bad place to start.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have one child, a daughter, “Annie,” currently a senior in high school. A few weeks ago she turned in her early decision application to the college of her dreams, many miles away from where we live. If she isn’t admitted there, she is poised to apply to a number of other schools, nearly all of them some distance from home. I’m excited for her and I wholeheartedly support her in her plans. But—here’s the rub—she and I have always been very close, and I find myself full of anxiety about her leaving home. Not for her (she’ll be fine!) but for me.

My husband thinks I’m overreacting (personally, I think he is underreacting). He points out that I have an interesting and demanding career, and that I was just fine in the years before Annie came into our lives (when he and I were both over 40). This doesn’t soothe me. Nor does reminding myself that her growing up and moving away is inevitable and good. And when I read something recently about mothers reframing the idea of the “empty nester” as a “free bird,” it just made me angry and sad. Is there something wrong with me? Do other people really feel “freed” when their kids leave for college?

—Sad, Not Free

Dear SNF,

Some people do, yes. And some people feel freed up and sad at the same time. And some people feel freed up and not sad and then feel guilty about that. And some people feel the way you do: happy for their child, sad for themselves. (And there are plenty of other permutations, too.) There’s never one way—or one “right” way—to feel about anything. So your husband isn’t underreacting, and you aren’t overreacting. You’re both just reacting.

You have come to the right place with your anxiety. I too am the mother of an only daughter with whom I have always been close; I too was no longer young when my child was born; and I too have an interesting and demanding career. And I was happy for my daughter when she made her college plans. I was pleased and proud that she felt secure enough to fly the coop even as I was simultaneously miserable about it. I knew how much I’d miss her. I knew I’d have to make some changes in my life if missing her was not going to flatten me with grief.

So it should come as no surprise that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you. You love your daughter and you’re lucky enough to have a close relationship with her. And because you had a couple of decades worth of adult life under your belt before she came along, and your life got richer after she did, you are (paradoxically enough) perhaps more anxious about what this next period will look like than a much younger mother—who has been waiting for a chance to spread her own wings—might be. In other words: You have been a free bird. And then you had 18 years in a nest that you really liked being in. So now what?

I’ll tell you what I did because it worked. I decided to look for something big to add to my life—something that went beyond simply requiring my attention (there were already plenty of things that fit this bill; they were of no comfort to me) or filling hours of my time (I had plenty of that, too). What I felt I needed was something that would make new demands on me I would be glad—grateful—to fulfill. So right around the time my daughter’s college admissions results began to roll in, I started searching for the thing that might fill the big daughter-size hole in my life.

I’d suggest that you start making a list now of things you’ve always wished you had the time to do, or wished you knew how to do … or perhaps once did with pleasure and set aside, in the way one does as time passes. Investigate the possibilities. My own way of approaching this was to think in terms of something that would require an emotional and psychological investment, that would challenge me, and that would also be fun. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that I would have been a wreck that first year if I hadn’t found it. For me, it was becoming involved with an amazing organization in my town that couples singing (which I hadn’t had the chance to do in public for years) with community service and engagement.

It’s true that joining it didn’t stop me from getting tearful when I walked past the Vitamin Water or salt and vinegar potato chips in the supermarket, or from outright crying each time I left my daughter at the airport after a visit home—but otherwise, I was in pretty good shape. And in the eight-plus years since she first left home, I’ve added other major commitments I would never have had time—or the energy—for when I had a child at home. And I’ve learned how to be the parent of an adult, which requires a whole different array of skills and a new mindset. I can report that life on this side of the divide is pretty damn interesting. Give yourself a chance to find out how you want to spend your years as the parent of a grown child.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is 8 years old and in the fourth grade. She is a gifted student who skipped first grade. She is mature for her age, which made the grade skipping possible (her little sister is also very smart but socially age-appropriate, so has remained on the regular track). But looking ahead, I’m wondering about her transition to university. As things stand now, she will graduate high school at 17, and she has already begun to talk about which university she wants to go to and how she’ll major in engineering. But I don’t know how it works with students who are not yet legally adults going off to university. I have thought that maybe she could do a year of community college while still living at home and then apply to university, but my husband thinks this might hurt her admission chances or potentially exclude her from scholarships offered to high school students. Does it actually work this way? We want to give our daughter the best chance at higher education, but I’m also not really comfortable with the idea of my 17-year-old going away and living on her own. It probably seems too early to even be thinking of these things, but she started to bring up college herself, and now I can’t stop thinking about it!

—Worried Mother of an Ambitious Child

Dear Worried,

Just because she’s “planning” her future doesn’t mean you have to be, or should be. She’s daydreaming—let her enjoy it. Talking about where she wants to study when she grows up is no different from talking about wanting to be a firefighter or ballerina or paleontologist. Many things will change over the next nine years—including, possibly, your resistance to letting her go off to university at 17. (I was only 16 when I started college, and one of the reasons my parents insisted I go to school locally and continue to live at home was my age. Looking back, I believe I would have done just as well away at college as I did living at home, and I am pretty sure I would have been a lot happier.)

In any case, your daughter starting university at 17 is (at least in the U.S.) not all that unusual: The “legality” will no doubt vary from place to place, but I encounter plenty of 17-year-old first-year students at the university where I teach. Still, it is drastically premature to be worrying or even talking about this right now. Start a college savings account if you’re able to, but otherwise put this subject to bed. Seven or eight years from now, you can knock yourself out with worry.


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