I received an email from a Christian woman who told me this:
I am Christian and my ex-husband is Muslim. I have nowhere to turn for help so I’m writing to you even though neither of us is Jewish. While we were married we raised our ten year old girl to observe both religions. Now that we are divorced he is suddenly taking her to mosque and raising her Muslim. I don’t have any control over what he does with her and we never put anything in writing. How can I insist that he stick with our original plan? I take her to church whenever she is with me, which is most of the time, but she is still being told she is Muslim by my ex and his community.
Please help even though I’m not Jewish.
I am answering you because your situation is not religion specific and can happen to a family of any faith. Let me assure you that most of what you are talking about is not religion at all, it is the consequence of a divorce. Often couples when they split find that their children are the biggest conflict between them. There are one or both of these things happening: your ex-husband may be angry with you and using your daughter as a way to punish you. And/or he may be feeling that he compromised his attachment to his faith tradition when he married you and now he is returning with renewed vigor to his ‘true self’. If he is just acting out of anger, time will soon cool his enthusiasm and if he didn’t care to spend time devoted to religion previously, he probably will return to religious inertia. In which case your best bet is to ignore this and wait. If he is returning to what he has harbored as his true place that is within his spiritual community of Islam, you are faced with deciding whether you want to make this a fight or not. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Am I upset mostly because I feel like he is “winning”?
How strongly do I feel that my daughter should be a Christian? (You weren’t pushing that during your marriage.)
Are you “returning” to your true religious self? And will you feel this way for years to come?
Have you started going to church for YOU or for your daughter?
Finally, the most important question of all, what impact will a tug-of-war have on your daughter? If she feels that her parents are fighting for her loyalty she will be in a terrible position. She must ether choose between you, or pretend to be Christian with you and Muslim with her father. That is a lot for a child to take on.
I can suggest several steps. Go to church on your own when she is with her father. Pay attention to your surroundings and how you feel about them. Is there something about the church experience that you specifically want your daughter to have? If there is, put it in words. For example, I want her to feel like part of a spiritual community. I want her to believe in God and God’s goodness. See if a) there is something there, not just taking her away from Islam, and b) you can identify it. Now, is that special thing something that she will get through being a Muslim? If it is, I suggest you step back and process the idea of your daughter being a different religion that you have chosen. Do nothing, just think and by all means, call me to talk.
I want to remind you that the United States is culturally Christian. We get the Christian holidays off, we all know when Christmas and Easter are. We send chocolates on Valentine’s Day and so on. Your daughter will know about Christianity by default. How you comport yourself will greatly impact how your daughter perceives your religion through you. Can you step back, listen, be supportive and loving and include her in your holidays? See how she reacts. See what she asks you.
Your daughter may choose to be Christian based on your gentle expression of your Christian values. She is only ten and you have many years to work on this. I suggest that the first thing you try is to step back and see how things develop. Be true to your own spirituality and heritage. If you always had Christmas, have Christmas. In fact you could think about inviting your ex to come for dessert – if you are able to create a non-combative environment.
Finally, seriously consider sending your daughter to a child therapist. She is being caught between the two most important people in her life. She needs a neutral party with whom she can speak honestly and not risk offending those she loves most.