By Kristen Levithan
When my husband and I first started dating in college, the subject of religion came up all the time. We stayed up late, chatting in his dorm room over Wawa subs and barbecue potato chips about how he—a Conservative Jew, the son of a rabbi—and I—a lapsed Catholic—could ever get married. How could we pull off a wedding? And what would we do about the kids?—children then as theoretical to us as our upcoming art history exam was real. How would they answer the question, “What are you?”
For a while, I thought the only choice was a binary one: as a couple, we would have to pick a side. So for the next few years I learned more about Judaism. I memorized the rituals of Shabbat, the motzi over the challah, and the choral songs his family would sing during the Seder, fists pounding on the dining room table in time to the music. I agreed to keep a kosher kitchen. But the more I considered conversion, the more I realized it wasn’t the right answer for me or for us. I didn’t really feel like a Catholic anymore, but I didn’t feel Jewish either.
In time our reservations about an interfaith marriage gave way to the force of our years together and our youthful optimism that we could make it work. After considering ways to make our wedding ceremony reflect both of our traditions, we decided to dedicate our celebration to one religion we had in common: our love of words. We stood before our family and friends and shared original vows and selections from poetry and literature. There was no priest, rabbi, or cantor, but there were Jane Austen, Matthew Arnold, and Sappho and promises to love and nurture each other come what may.
As well as our wedding went, the idea of starting a family dredged up those dorm room conversations. When I became pregnant and my belly started to swell with the promise of our oldest son, we sketched out an approach: our child would be neither Jewish nor Christian from birth. There would be no bris and no baptism. But we would make it our duty to expose our kids to the rituals of both of our traditions. We would celebrate holidays with our families and teach our kids the stories that are central to each. And, above all, we would do our best to create a home for them in which the religious values that we cherished—love, community, wonder—would be honored. And then, eventually, if and when they wanted to, they could choose a path for themselves.
For the first few years of our kids’ lives, our plan hummed right along. Living in a rural Ohio town hundreds of miles away from our families, we often traveled to be with them on holidays and those occasions reinforced the values we’d hoped they would. Our boys, especially our oldest son, seemed to know that they were different somehow from the other kids at their Nazarene preschool, but I’m not sure that their religious differences ever felt all that much more weighty than the other differences that feel important to a preschooler, like favorite baseball team or favorite Avenger.
Earlier this year we moved to a New England community that is much more religiously diverse than the Ohio one we left. Instead of a Nazarene preschool, our youngest two go to a Jewish one and our oldest to a public school where his own religious hodgepodge—an atheist dad, an agnostic mom, a kosher home—seems the norm rather than the exception. In many ways, we are perfectly placed to raise our kids to come to their own answers to the question, “What are you?”
Last month, though, something happened that shook my certainty that we have got this interfaith thing all figured out. Someone dear to us—really more family than friend—died. He was the first person that my kids knew well who had passed away and it’s clear that his death shook them. Since then our four year old has been asking many of the Big Questions: “Am I going to die?” “How old will I be when you die?” “After I die, will I get better again?” Our oldest has responded with occasional tears mixed with long, lingering hugs, as though he doesn’t have the words to express how he’s feeling, but wants physical reassurance that’s he still here—that it will all be okay.
And therein lies my worry about raising our children outside of either of our religious traditions: without faith, how will they know that it will, indeed, all be okay?
I don’t think of myself as a religious person anymore; I’m not even sure I still believe in God. But I do have a sense of inner security honed, I think, through an early commitment to religious practice. I grew up with a traditional religious education: I went to Catholic school for nine years and went to church every Sunday until college, loving the rituals and the singing, the candles and the community. I was never sold on the dogma—on transubstantiation, the ascension, the Holy Trinity—but I believed in a benevolent God and I prayed to Him every night before bed. I asked Him to protect me, to look after my family. And—it seemed—he did.
Now I’m raising my kids in a world filled with entropy—where good men die too young, where people hurt children and kids say mean things on the playground—and I’m doing it without offering them the same blanket of safety that my faith gave me. I’m giving my children a pick-and-choose experience of religion, but by letting them pick what they like and ignoring the rest, will they ever experience the greatest gift that religion gave me: the faith that, to paraphrase Julian of Norwich, all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well? Without religious practice, how can I make my children feel safe?
I’m not sure that I know the answer, but I suspect the best I can do is to borrow a page from our wedding planning playbook: start with love and go from there.
Kristen Levithan writes about motherhood, women’s history, and mother-writers for print and online publications. Currently at work on a non-fiction book about writers who were also mothers, Kristen lives in New England with her husband and three children and offers cultural commentary and musings on modern motherhood at her blog, Motherese.
Read Kristen’s essay in This is Childhood, a book and journal on the first ten years of motherhood.