Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I will try to make this short; I am a non-believer (atheist).
I recently got engaged to get married with the mother (Christian) of my son, I have known her for over 3 years. She as always known that I am an atheist, and our relationship has not always been easy at times, and is very hard, like now. I love her and respect her Christian beliefs. When we got together, I told her that I would support her in her religious beliefs and would also support her teaching my son about Christian beliefs. For example, I went with her to service, just to show support.
We broke our engagement, little over a month into it. As newly engaged couple, we where mapping our marriage rules. One of my rules that she didn’t like and was a deal breaker, was; I was not going to allow praying at the table. I told her that I did not forbid teaching Christian beliefs in my house, just not at the table.
So I said, “No praying at the table.” I did not want my son to ask, “Why isn’t daddy praying with us, mommy?” My son is too young to understand why daddy does not pray. I think this will cause more harm to my son than not having it at all.
So, I don’t know if I have made the right decision in not allowing praying at the table. I still love her very much, and sure she does too.
Thanks for any advice
I think you might be trading away a big thing to gain a little thing.
Praying at the table is a very important issue to both of you for the same reason: Everyone in the family sees everyone else either doing it or not doing it. You’re all on display. For believers, it demonstrably unifies the family, and for non-believers, it demonstrably separates them from the family.
You said that you support your fiancée in her religious beliefs and her teaching your son those beliefs. So you have agreed to structuring a family that has a separation built into it. He and she will have a commonality that you do not share. That is not by necessity a bad thing. It all depends on how you and she handle it.
I think you are anxious about how deeply that alliance they share might divide you from your son, and you’re also anxious about that scary first time he asks you about it.
You have traded your engagement for a brief postponement of that uncomfortable, eye-to-eye moment. When your son is old enough that he would notice and remark about your not praying at the table, very soon after that he will notice and remark about you having a different level of participation in the religion in general. Unless you participate in every other religious teaching, activity, rite, ceremony and ritual, including accompanying him and his mother to every service that they attend, he’s going to notice the disparity and ask questions. He’ll want to know how these differences affect Mommy and Daddy’s relationship. Kids notice hairline cracks in their world.
I don’t think his age is a factor in whether or not seeing this dissimilarity will hurt him. This isn’t about him not being ready, it’s about whether or not you are ready. What will hurt him is if you and his mother are not fully prepared to explain to him that your differences in belief do not affect your love for each other or for him. You will both have to credibly assure him that in this family, belief is not required for love. If that isn’t actually true for you and his mother, then it will ring hollow.
Praying at the dinner table could be a good place to demonstrate to your son that belief is neither universal nor mandatory, and that asking frank questions is permitted in this family.
“Yes, Daddy does not pray because he is not convinced about God the way Mommy is. And that’s okay, son, because we all get along and love each other even though we think about some things differently. What’s most important is that we care about each other and treat each other well.”
Most likely he will continue to believe along with Mommy, because of all that teaching and indoctrination that you have said is okay with you. What will be important for his well being is to know that he is not “betraying” one parent by siding with the other on this issue. That kind of conflict of loyalties can tear kids deeply.
Later in life he will probably begin to have some doubts about his religious beliefs, as so many normal young people do. If he has had a father who has always loved and respected him regardless of such beliefs, a father who has always encouraged him to ask the awkward questions straight out, even at the dinner table, then he will be more able to make up his own mind freely.
Jason, You have said that you and your fiancée love each other very much. I don’t know if the rest of your relationship with her is compatible enough to compensate for having to tolerate praying at the table. By itself, after all the other concessions that you have said you are comfortable with, it seems to me to be a trifling thing for which to sacrifice so much love. It may actually be just the tip of a larger set of irreconcilable differences. As you said, it has been easy at times and hard at times. I cannot tell from your letter.
Several weeks have passed since you wrote your letter. Take all of these things and balance them on your scale once again, and see if the “deal breaker” is still too heavy for you to bear. If it is, then it is probably part of larger divisive issues. If it is not too heavy, then allow it, get back together, and use the dinner table as a teachable moment for tolerance, open-mindedness, and asking brave questions.
Married or separate, you will be linked to this woman by this boy for your whole lives. Whether or not you share a roof, you share a treasure. You will both want to enjoy life with him, to guide and to witness his development, and to instill some of your values in him. The two of you can cooperate, compromise, and show him how people who have differences can work together for a common precious goal. By focusing on his benefit, both of you can learn to be less self-centered and more solution-centered.
I hope that all three of you can give each other your very best.
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