Care and Feeding

My Parents Think My Husband Is Going to Hell

What do I tell my son?

Collage of a woman worried in front of pink scraps of paper.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by tommaso79/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I could sure use your help navigating a family and faith issue. My husband and I were raised in different religions (he’s Muslim, I’m Christian), which neither of us practice—we are both very secular. Still, we are committed to raising our now-18-month-old son with exposure to each faith, making sure he knows he can make his own choices. My family lives in the South and is all strongly evangelical, and they weren’t very happy about our marriage. For the most part they’ve come around, or at least shut up. Now my sister has told me that our parents have told her that if our son ever asks them about religion, they’ll “tell him the truth,” including the fact that my husband is going to hell, if they’re directly asked. My sister’s not normally an intermediary, but I’m glad she came to me with this. I’m furious. I don’t even know how to start to tell them how wrong that is. How do I figure out which boundaries to draw? To complicate things, I have OCD with waves of intrusive thoughts about hell, which they have never taken seriously because “good Christians should be concerned about hell.”

—Finding Our Way

Dear FOW,

As a secular Jew who raised a daughter with a Southern Baptist (the son and grandson of preachers, to boot!), my heart goes out to you. What you plan to do is much more difficult than it seems in theory, as you will learn soon enough—as I quickly learned once my daughter was old enough to ask hard questions. I have a very distinct memory of her asking, out of the blue one day when all three of us were in the car, whether it was OK for her to believe both that Jesus was the son of God and that “he was just a very good man, a teacher, beloved by his students.” My husband and I exchanged anxious glances before I told her that if she could keep both of those ideas in her mind at the same time, of course it was OK.

I knew the time would come when she wouldn’t be able to reconcile these competing beliefs, and indeed it did. I’ve told the story before in this column—of the meltdown she had during an older cousin’s bar mitzvah service, when my daughter turned to me in a panic and asked, “But what am I?” How lucky I was that a unique pair of family friends, a nun and a rabbi, were on hand to help me: They sat down with her at the reception and assured her that God didn’t care whether she was Christian or Jewish, that such distinctions didn’t matter to him at all. They also told her that she didn’t have to choose between her parents, which both Sister Camille and Rabbi Stu understood was at least part of what this crisis of faith was about.

Note that you are better positioned than I was because neither you nor your husband are believers. I always had to walk a fine line when “exposing” my daughter to Judaism, because while I wanted her to understand what it meant to be a Jew and to participate in the culture of Jewishness (which means a great deal to me), I didn’t want to pretend that I believed in God and I didn’t want to undermine the faith in God that my husband was instilling in her. I put him in charge of reading stories from the Bible to her (Old Testament on Saturdays, New Testament on Sundays), and I was in charge of all holiday preparations and celebrations. I also sidestepped all direct questions, until she was 12 or 13, about whether I believed.

Given that both you and your husband are committed, as we were, to teaching your son about the faiths in which you were raised, but that the issue of what to believe is not one you’re at odds about, you will be able to teach him the principles of each religion and culture, tell him/read him stories from the Bible and the Quran, and observe the traditions and celebrate the holidays of both Christianity and Islam. And I would be completely honest with him about what you believe and the way that differs from what you were taught. If you do this (age-appropriately, of course), what your parents tell your son will not faze him: He will already know that some Christians believe that anyone who is not Christian will go to a place they call hell. (And if your parents don’t wait until they’re directly asked—and I’m not so sure they will—and they decide to spring this news on him before you’ve considered him old enough to tell him about it but when he’s old enough to be frightened, you can tell him then that yes, some people believe this, but it isn’t true.)

I’m sure this news your sister passed along stirred up a lot of old anxieties and resentments and anger. I’m not surprised it has set you spinning. But I don’t think there’s any point in confronting your parents in advance, attempting to set boundaries (which I am 100 percent sure they will not observe) around what they can say to their grandson about religion, or trying to keep them from sharing their missionary zeal with him. It shouldn’t come as a shock to you that your evangelical Christian parents will want their grandchildren to believe as they do; your job is to be clear and firm with your child that you don’t believe as they do. It’s easier—and wiser—to teach our children well than it is to legislate what other people in their lives are going to teach them. (And while you’re at it, you can begin to teach your child how to respond respectfully to those who tell him things that conflict with what he has been taught at home. This will come in handy for the rest of his life.)

Your own intrusive thoughts about hell are a complicating factor for which I hope you will seek help, despite your parents considering this a nonproblem. It is a genuine problem, and there are good treatments for it.

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have two young kids, a son and a daughter. We both grew up with body image issues. My mother suffered from body insecurity—always trying a new diet, always complaining about those last 10 pounds, etc.—and while she never told me anything I should change about my body, she always talked negatively about her own, and this profoundly affected the way I saw mine. My in-laws both have very negative body image issues, and they take things further than my mother did. They are constantly critical not only of their own bodies but of everybody else’s. When my husband was 9 or 10, he refused to eat a piece of his own birthday cake because his mother had told him he was getting fat. (I’ve seen the pictures. He wasn’t fat. He’s always been a slim person.) My husband’s parents are both athletic and slim people. My MIL brags about being under 100 pounds; my FIL loves talking about his intermittent fasting. Whenever my MIL talks to me about my sisters-in-law or her sons, she talks about how they’ve either gained weight or lost weight.

All of this makes me very uncomfortable. Since having kids, I’ve put on 10 or so pounds, and I’m sure she’s telling other people about my own weight gain. The thing that most concerns me, though, is how their talk will affect our children. My husband and I know that we have a long way to go to work on our own body issues, and we don’t want to pass our insecurities on to our kids. We’ve decided not to talk about weight and focus on eating well and daily movement, as well as praising our children for nonphysical attributes. I’ve talked to my mom about this, and she’s on board to support us and willing to do the same. I know we need to have this talk with my in-laws too, but I’m so nervous about it. My MIL has already talked about my daughter’s weight (she’s only 1!), and she talks about how glad she is that my son is “such a slim boy.” And both of them often compliment the kids on their appearance. Any tips on how to bring this up with them without making it about them? I don’t want to judge them for their body issues … but I want to protect my kids from their body issues.

—Weighty Discussion

Dear WD,

I don’t think you’re going to have much better luck having this conversation with your in-laws than Finding Our Way would have asking her parents not to proselytize about their Christian faith (which is one of the reasons I didn’t even suggest she attempt to do so). Your parents’ religion appears to be the “perfection” of the body—one they share with millions of others. That it is a dysfunctional, destructive religion doesn’t make it any less potent for them.

That you and your husband are both still trying to shake off the insidious effects of being raised in this “faith” makes the subject more loaded and upsetting and scarier. I get it. That you are self-conscious about 10 pounds after two kids breaks my heart (I get that, too; I’ve been there—and it has taken decades for me to truly shed the idea that this matters). Because you’re still working on this for yourselves, and because you are being intentional about how you want to raise (and not raise) your children, I think it’s worth the effort to bravely talk to your in-laws about this. Not because it’s going to make a whit of difference to them (I don’t believe they are going to be able to control themselves even if they want to—and I also don’t think they’ll want to: They believe in their “religion” as fervently as evangelicals do theirs; i.e., they are sure they’re right), but because I think that talking this through with them calmly and steadily and reasonably is going to be good for you and your husband. Because no matter what his parents think, this worship of the “perfect” body size and shape is not a religion; it’s a pathology. And the more often you face that, articulate it, and fight the pathology, the better chance you’ll have of raising your own kids the way you hope to.

Tell them the two of you have agreed not to talk about body size and shape with the kids. That you hope they’ll respect that. That you would strongly prefer that they not talk about weight, fatness, or slimness in the children’s presence. You don’t have to mention that you think they have a problem. If they ask what on earth you’re talking about—why wouldn’t you want them exposed to these important facts of life?—you can just shrug and say, “We just don’t.” This doesn’t have to be a long conversation. You only have to stand your ground.

As I say, I’m sure they won’t listen. But that’s OK. Because just like Finding Our Way, you will be teaching these kids at home something that will be dramatically different from what they hear at Grandma and Grandpa’s (not to mention in the media, at school and at play, and everywhere else). Set a good example, teach them well (and your determination to teach them well will help you to set a good example, because you won’t want to be hypocrites), keep working on your own issues, and when your in-laws say something objectionable in your presence, dismiss it breezily. “Careful, Jordan, you don’t want to get too chubby now!” should be met with, “Jordan, honey, feel free to have as much as you want” and a redirection of the conversation to Jordan’s latest milestone or achievement. As the kids get older and they report that Grandma has told them anything about their bodies, you can remind them that it’s exceptionally rude to comment on people’s bodies, and it’s a pity their grandparents have never learned that. And tell them a million times that their bodies belong to them and that they are exactly the right bodies. And then talk about something that actually matters.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have a 10-month-old son. He sleeps in a crib that is right next to our bed. From the start he was a great sleeper. However, a couple of weeks ago he woke up crying at 3 a.m. I checked all the normal things that could wake up a baby—checked his diaper (it was dry), tried to breastfeed (he wasn’t hungry)—and tried rocking him, but he continued to cry. Finally, in desperation, I put him down between my husband and me on the bed. He stopped crying and fell asleep, and stayed asleep until we woke him in the morning. The next night, the same thing happened at 3 a.m. It has been happening ever since. It has gotten to the point where I don’t even check the diaper or try to breastfeed him anymore, I just put him straight in our bed so that we can both get back to sleep. My question is: Why is he content in his crib until 3 a.m., and how can I gently get him to stop wanting to be in our bed before I have a 2-year-old or 5-year-old who is climbing into our bed every night?

—Big Bed Is All That Works

Dear BBIATW,

He’s content in his crib till 3 because he’s asleep. He wakes up, notices he’s all alone, and cries. It’s a phase. It’ll pass, like all phases. Meanwhile, if it doesn’t make you and your husband miserable to have him in the bed with you, go for it. It makes your life easier (which you are entitled to!). And just because he’s getting to sleep with you at 10 months doesn’t mean he’ll get to (or even need to) when he’s 2, much less 5. Not every decision you make is for the long term.

And here’s a parting bit of advice: Go easier on yourself. Sometimes the obvious solution to a temporary problem really is the best one. Get some sleep, all of you.

—Michelle

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