Not Without My Siblings

Not Without My Siblings September 6, 2011

This post is in answer to the following questions: “Have any of your siblings left fundamentalism?” and “Has there been any spectrum of response from them to your choice of leaving the family’s religion?”

When I began to question my parents’ views and my father’s authority, my parents were very upset with me and applied heavy doses of religious guilt and emotional manipulation as they worked to bring me back to the fold. The situation was not healthy, but there was a problem: breaking with my parents completely meant potentially losing my siblings. My parents might decide that I was such a bad influence that they must protect the children they still had at home by simply cutting me off entirely. After putting up with more than I should have from my parents, I stopped coming home. I made it clear to my parents that I was going to forge my own path and would not obey them. I was halfway through college at this point, and no longer a child. And yet, I had to make a very real choice, a choice between my freedom and my family. I chose my freedom.

Every daughter of Christian Patriarchy must make this same choice if she questions her parents’ beliefs or contemplates leaving. This is especially hard because we daughters so frequently have half a dozen or more younger siblings. Leaving means leaving everything you’ve ever known and everyone you’ve ever known, but most of all it means leaving your siblings behind, siblings you’ve helped raise. In my case, there were a dozen of them. The youngest couldn’t even talk yet. How would the younger ones remember me if I was cut off? They wouldn’t. For some daughters of Christian Patriarchy, this becomes reality. In fact, one such daughter has actually written a book about sending balloons of hope to estranged younger siblings.

Whether I would be allowed to visit or not was up in the air for a while and there was a very real chance my parents might not allow me to visit or see my siblings, but in the end they told me I was welcome. At first I did not take them up on the offer because it would mean walking into a lion’s den and facing possible manipulation and definite guilt trips. It was too much. Once I was married and pregnant with my child, though, I felt confident enough to return to my parents’ house, a home that had been so pleasant for so long and had so suddenly several years before become a living nightmare. These visits were tense for both me and my parents, but at least I could see my siblings. I love my siblings, every last one of them, and there are a whole lot of them of every shape and size. Visiting my parents’ home may be stressful – and it always is – but when it comes to my siblings, it is infinitely rewarding.

At the same time, though, it is hard for me to watch my siblings being raised with beliefs and methods I have come to so oppose. I have to watch my sisters being taught that their only role is in the home, and to see my siblings expected to obey and conform. The hardest part is watching my sisters. I hear them talk about the blessing of fatherly protection against the evils of the world and their future plans to eschew all kinds of birth control and have as many children as possible. I watch them and wonder if they will ever, like me, break free.

I walk a fine line, for I have to respect my parents’ right to raise their children as they see fit. After all, it’s not like my parents are beating my siblings, or starving them, or keeping them uneducated, or breaking the law. Furthermore, I know that (a) if I want to continue to have access to my siblings I must not seek to “corrupt” them and (b) I would be a hypocrite if I tried to undermine my parents’ methods of raising my siblings and at the same time expected them to respect how I am raising my daughter and not seek to undermine it. This makes my relationship with my siblings complicated, but at least I can be in their lives. And there are little things I can do, like encouraging my sisters to study hard and praising their abilities.

This only holds true for my siblings who are under age, though, and by now a number of my siblings have come of age and left home. Of those who are grown, about half of them remain in my parents’ beliefs while the other half have questioned and left these beliefs. They are not atheists, but they are now feminists, and they believe that people are more important than doctrine. You might say that they are spiritual rather than religious. They think that my parents were wrong with how they dealt with me when I came of age, and they, too, have had to face problems and conflicts with my parents. Furthermore, they have no problem with my beliefs and support me completely. In fact, we serve as each other’s support system, as dealing with my parents has driven us together and made us close in ways we never were before. I know I can depend on them, and we frequently field each other’s late night conversations and moments of freak-out.

In contrast, it is difficult to deal with those adult siblings who still share my parents’ beliefs. They don’t think my parents did anything wrong in how they raised us or in how they handled my “rebellion.” They think I was the one who was wrong, and they are upset at how much hurt I caused my parents when I left their beliefs. Furthermore, they plan to live their lives with my parents’ lives as a model. I look at them and wonder if someday I will need to pick up the pieces when my future nieces and nephews come of age.

I wonder about the future sometimes. I wonder what will happen to my siblings who are still at home. I try not to think of it in terms of “sides,” but in some sense I can’t help it, and so I find myself wondering whether they will grow up to be on “my side” or on “my parents side.” I have very little idea what they think about me now, because I can’t exactly ask that. Some, like me, appear to be accepting my parents’ beliefs wholesale while others appear to be more skeptical and level headed. This gives me hope, but only time will tell. For now, all I can do is be there for them and wait for them to grow up. Once they’re eighteen, I no longer have to walk on egg shells with my parents as they will no longer be minors, and if they come to me for help I will be ready and willing to give whatever aid and support I came. Until then, there’s not much I can do besides try to stay in their lives.

These are struggles that every daughter who questions or leaves Christian Patriarchy must face. After raising their siblings as a second mother, they face the possibility of losing them completely. Some are cut off, effectively excommunicated, and others, like me, are allowed to still visit but must face tension and walk on egg shells that never seem to disappear. There is no good answer here. I have to say, though, it is sweet indeed to have siblings follow you out of the legalism and rigidity and open their arms to questions and diversity. Those siblings become your best friends. And so I would say to the daughter who faces the possibility of losing her siblings, there is always hope.

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