Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I am 22 years old, and I have deeply religious Muslim parents from the Middle East who immigrated to western Europe before I was born.
My mother has always had a difficult life. She grew up in a poor village and has always had to struggle hard to achieve anything. She had to fight to convince her parents to let her go to school because she was ‘just a girl’, and then had to struggle to afford small things like pen and paper when she finally got there. She earned a degree and taught for a few years before she got married. Because of all her accomplishments against great odds, you’d think that she would have become stronger, but unfortunately it has all made her more fragile, despite the brave face she always puts on.
Now her struggle is emotional instead of financial. She has rarely seen her family except for the few times she returned to her home country for a holiday. She has a ‘traditional’ marriage with my father, a marriage of convenience and little else. She has only a few close friends that she has developed over the years here in the West. So she has had few comforts and supports in her life. Her two best friends are her religion and me, her eldest child. I also have a younger brother, but she does not look to him for support in the same way she does to me.
I have not believed in god for at least 6 to 7 years. I have not told anyone in my family about this. My closest friends know about my non-belief in god, and they really seem to be indifferent about it either way. The same cannot be said for my mother.
Recently I have told her that to me every idea can be challenged, even the idea of god. She knows that I disagree with many of the ideas of Islam, but that has never bothered her much before. It is only now that the topic of god has come up that I have become worried.
My younger brother (who does not know of my non-belief either) recently told her that he did not believe in god, and that has upset her greatly. I had not known this about him before. He isn’t really as aware of her fragility as I am, and if he were, he probably wouldn’t have told her. Due to the Islamic belief that if the child leaves the religion it is somehow a failure of the parent, she is increasingly blaming herself. She cries at night and seems to have trouble sleeping and eating.
Because of the current situation, I do not think that telling her of my atheism would be a good idea. I genuinely believe that if I break it to her now that I am also an atheist, then that will push her over the edge. She is currently under the impression that I definitely believe in god and Islam for the most part, and I plan to keep it that way as I fear for her mental and physical health otherwise.
I do not know what to do or how I can help her. Please help.
Yours Sincerely and a fan,
In situations like this where young atheists must choose between coming out to their religious parents or pretending that they still believe, there are no prescribed formulae, and no easy solutions. Very complex factors must be weighed, and even after much careful consideration, the chosen response is never a sure thing.
You know better than anyone here about the stresses on your mother that you have described, and you know better than anyone else about the stresses on you, so if keeping up the façade of your faith is what you think is best, then I will follow your decision and work within it.
The nightly crying and disruption of her sleeping and eating has me concerned about the possibility of clinical depression, which is a specific and serious condition that is above and beyond simply being very upset. So the first thing to do is to assess if she is in any danger of harming herself either by deliberate action or by being negligent of her own safety or health. If she talks about wanting to die, or frequently speaks about death and dying, or if she has any other symptoms such as apathetic loss of interest in her daily activities, or a withdrawal from previous social outlets, then you should find some way for her to speak to a counselor or a doctor who is well acquainted with assessing and treating depression.
I know that your mother’s cultural and religious background will quite possibly complicate this. Attitudes learned from her youth in a small village, or from her home country’s customs, or from her particular Islamic beliefs might make the subject of emotional problems and treatment a difficult and delicate thing to discuss. If you think she might have depression, try anyway.
I’m hoping that since she’s an educated woman, perhaps she would be open to speaking to someone like a counselor. Muslim immigrants living in Europe vary greatly in how much they mix with the Western cultures surrounding them, and she might be more open to talking with someone who has a similar cultural or religious background. BUT it is very important to avoid introducing her to anyone who might reinforce her sense of guilt about her apostate younger son.
If depression does not seem to be an urgent threat, then begin having a series of casual talks with her about how her life inspires you. This is because from you letter it’s clear that she actually does inspire you a great deal. Ask her to tell you more details about stories she has already told you, and ask her to tell you about experiences that she has not yet shared.
She seems to have two narratives that form her self-image. The primary one is that life is a constant and difficult struggle, and she is the worn-out remnant of that struggle. The secondary narrative which is underneath the surface is that she is a fighter who has overcome many daunting obstacles and who still can thrive in challenging situations. This is the self-image that you want to bring out to the forefront. As you listen to her stories, respond to her from that submerged image of her as the strong hero who bucked her cultural barriers, and the bold pioneer who built a family in a strange land. Find your own inspiration in this aspect of her, and let her see you doing that.
You might try drawing a parallel between one of her own struggles and the struggle her younger son is currently going through. She had to find her own path and had to be true to her own self when she fought against the prejudice of her parents, asserted herself to get an education, and built herself a career. In a similar way, your brother has to find his own path and be true to his own self, even though that conflicts with his parents’ preferences. Perhaps she can see that some of the rebel that he has to be is like the rebel that she had to be.
As is often the case with the oldest son in a family, it has fallen to you to play the role of the second husband. This is not in any way an incestuous thing, but a very natural and loving response to the mother’s needs when she is not getting much, if any emotional nurturing from her actual husband. This is a role that you have played well, but I think the time has come for you to find a new balance. To remain healthy, you should begin to take care of your own needs as well as hers.
Encourage her to have more friends and to see them frequently. You need to spread the effort around to several people so that she doesn’t continue to focus increasingly on only you for her emotional support. That would eventually be detrimental to both of you. Now that her two sons are becoming more independent, perhaps returning to her work as a teacher would help her to have a focus and a purpose. I do not know if this would be acceptable in this stage of her “traditional” marriage, but she is still the person who has bravely challenged the rules before.
Confide your atheism to your brother. Both of you need an ally in the family. Get an agreement from him that he will not reveal this to either of your parents, or to anyone who might let it slip to them, even when they complain to him why can’t he be more like you. This will help to prevent resentment from building up between the two of you. When his tension about his mother’s disapproval builds up, he can use you to vent. When your tension about having to pretend to your mother builds up, you can use him to vent.
Your caring and concern for your mother and your willingness to set aside being fully open with her speaks well of your compassionate character. Balance that giving heart with a wise and prudent mind, and take care of your own needs as generously and thoughtfully as you do hers. I hope that all of you can together find your ways through these challenges. Please feel free to write again to let us know how things develop.