Note: This letter is similar to one I published in December of 2010. Both letter writers have some financial challenges, but the first writer was intimidated by bullying parents, while today’s writer has parents who are supportive in important ways, but they are being deceitful. Many atheist parents are faced with the thorny problem of grandparents indoctrinating grandchildren. The details of each situation can make big differences in what might be the best solutions, but there are no perfect or painless solutions.
Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I’m a single mother of a two year old girl. My parents, both (now former) ministers, have been amazingly supportive since I told them I was pregnant and a few months later moved back in with them. I have spent the past two years working and going to school and am set to graduate college next May, possibly sooner. I feel like I’m really kicking ass at this whole motherhood thing (most days) but I don’t know if I could say that if I wasn’t fortunate enough to have such a great support system (and free babysitting).
We have spoken countless times at length about my choice to not raise her in church or as a Christian. They are aware that I don’t believe in God, and I have told them that there is no possibility that I will change my mind. They also know that I think church/religion is NOT harmless, and I want to raise my daughter to be a critical thinker, righteous for the sake of being a good person (as opposed to an ultimate reward), and to know that she is not inferior to a man because some old book tells her so. (Oh, and also their God is kind of a jerk.) They have expressed their disappointment but said they will “do the best they can” to not try to make her love Jesus.
Well, their best isn’t good enough, because they haven’t stopped indoctrinating her. I don’t know if they’re just trying to be sneaky about it or what, but tonight at dinner she clasped her hands and said “I pray! I pray!” This is not the first time she has alluded to god or church but it was the most jarring.
I’m so frustrated, but most of all, I feel helpless. I can’t afford to move out and even paying a babysitter seems like an unnecessary expense. I keep telling myself to make it one more year and then I’ll hopefully be able to find a job with my degree. She’s young and she’ll forget about all their god talk.
Any advice or ideas about how to cope?
You are the girl’s parent, not them. You are in charge of her upbringing, not them. You have made it crystal clear what you want regarding her exposure to religion, and they agreed to it. After speaking “countless times” with them, it is now just as crystal clear that your parents are consciously breaking their agreement. It’s not a slip, not an accident. Yes, they’re being sneaky.
It was very kind of them to help you and be supportive when you got pregnant, BUT if that came with the price of their indoctrinating your daughter against your wishes, the price is too high. It appears that because they’re helping you, they think they have you over a barrel, so they can break their agreement about your daughter.
You are not helpless, even if you feel that way. You do have power. As grandparents, they want to be with their granddaughter. So you have them over a barrel. You said that you can’t afford to move out yet, but then you said “paying a babysitter seems like an unnecessary expense.” That sounds like you could afford it if you rearrange your priorities. It is a necessary expense if your current “free” childcare service includes instilling in your daughter the exact opposite values and self image that you want her to have. If you want her to grow up to be a strong, assertive woman, live that example for her right now when she needs you, long before she’ll appreciate it.
Find other expenses to eliminate. I know this is not easy, but your daughter is definitely being affected in ways that you do not want. Find an acceptable source of secular childcare right away, preferably one where she will have fun with other kids. That will help to replace the company she has been getting from her grandparents.
My first impulse was to advise you to be prepared with a prospective baby sitter and then make one last demand to your parents to stop proselytizing your daughter, but I think that is simply asking for something they cannot deliver. If they think that their granddaughter’s immortal soul hangs in the balance, then in their minds lying to you and continuing to indoctrinate your daughter is perfectly justifiable. After all the times you’ve already spoken to them about this, giving them one more chance is simply asking for more of the same.
In a cool, businesslike tone, tell your parents that you are grateful for their support and help, and at the same time you cannot tolerate them driving a wedge between you and your daughter. They have continued to break their promise to you behind your back. By being deceitful, they’re not setting a good example as people, and they are not representing their faith in a good light. By being dishonest for Jesus, they’re only confirming the negative opinion that you have of religion.
So you will be taking your daughter to childcare elsewhere, and from now on they can enjoy her company under your supervision. Do not even bother to argue if they attempt to guilt trip you, such as saying that if you loved them or if you loved your daughter, then you’d let them continue. Call that kind of thing emotional blackmail, and brush it aside.
From your letter it does not sound likely, but be prepared just in case they imply or overtly threaten to turn you and your daughter out. If necessary, point out to them that that would only bring hardship to her, and still would not result in her “loving Jesus.” She will only learn bitterness toward them. The wedge they drive will be between them and her. You and she will survive, and your career and financial success will only be delayed, not destroyed.
Take action now. Do not rationalize to yourself that you can afford to wait, saying, “She’s young and she’ll forget about all their god talk.” Small children are like sponges. They soak up languages, beliefs, social attitudes, and images of themselves extremely quickly and deeply. They have no guard at their mind’s door to sort out truth from lies, or teaching from manipulation. Another year of this proselytizing will be very influential on her.
Try this experiment: Take a clean, new sponge. Pour artist’s India ink onto it, and then immediately rinse it out. Almost all of the ink will wash away, except for a faint stain. Now pour more ink onto it, and leave it for a few days. After that much time, washing it out will only remove a small amount of the ink, and the sponge will remain deeply and permanently stained.
How much of a stain on your daughter’s psyche is acceptable to you?
Janine, needing your parents’ help with housing does not make you their slave. They sound like they are basically good people, and they have probably done these things out of love for you and for her, but they have already demonstrated that they’re going to persist in this unacceptable behavior. You have power. Use it. You have resources of determination that you have not yet tapped. I agree with you that you are “really kicking ass at this whole motherhood thing.” Sometimes that involves kicking the asses of specific people who think that they are in charge of the parenting rather than you. Hopefully you can establish a relationship with your parents that is built on mutual respect, but that will only be if you consistently enforce your own boundaries.