Ask Richard: Of Mothers and Mothers-in-Law, Part One June 28, 2010

Ask Richard: Of Mothers and Mothers-in-Law, Part One

Note: Writers’ names are changed to increase their privacy.

I’m in a bit of a quandary. My wife, a Christian-lite, has a desire to want to raise our newborn (first child) daughter in a church environment. We have a few years yet before our daughter would know any better but the discussion has begun. She’s not a regular churchgoer herself but feels it would be important for the fellowship aspect of having a so-called “positive” group of people for influence.

Though agnostic, I’m not adamantly opposed. It’s important to my wife and she’s important to me. I understand compromises are of utmost importance in a healthy marriage. However, I have stipulated to her that I will not allow for our daughter to partake in an environment I feel will brainwash her and alienate her from me so we must be in agreement with the church. As a recovering Catholic, I want my daughter to be able to discern for herself what she wants to believe.

In trying to support my wife’s needs, I started researching various non-denominational churches and learned more about the Unitarian Universalists. For a religious sect, they have very liberal leanings and are not Christian-specific but rather encompass a wide arrange of believers in some great deity. I feel comfortable giving them a shot.

My wife said she tried this church, but her overbearing formal Pentecostal mother cried and pleaded with her not to go because she felt they were the anti-Christ and certainly not Christian. My wife ceased going due to this pressure. This all occurred before I entered her life.

My wife leans towards wanting to find a Christian-based liberal church as a result and I’ve really never come across one that sounds acceptable to me up to this point.

My request for advice is this: If I am to be supportive of my wife’s needs and desires and feel that the UU’s may potentially be the best compromise, how could I convince her to give it a shot knowing her history with her mother? I suggested we just not tell her mother as it’s our business but they have very few secrets if any between them and I could see her mother wanting to join us from time to time or at a minimum, ask all about which church it is and look it up on the internet. We could lie and have a backup, but why? Should we worry about her mother’s paranoia as she is ultimately a good person and means well? She is one stubborn lady and they fight often. As strained as their relationship is, it’s hard to want to put up a further divide between them and I do not want to be the cause for a potential demise in their relationship.

Thanks in advance.

Dear David,

This is a wider issue than a difference in religious preferences. It’s about your wife needing to decide if she is going to be an adult or a child. I say this with great respect for her. This is a common and difficult problem. But if this central question is not resolved, I’m sure there will be many other contentious issues besides what church to attend. If she’s not doing it already, your wife’s mother will encroach with more and more attempts to control your wife, and through her, you.

When she married, your wife was making a statement that she is an adult, and that her primary relationship is with another adult, her husband, not her parents. You and she seem to have an equal and respectful partnership, and that is good.

But based on your letter, she seems to be stuck in the kind of relationship with her mother that one would expect of an adolescent, a constant struggle of freedom versus control. You say that they fight often. Such fights are only happening because your wife is still responding as if her mother has authority over her. Neither of them seem to know how to have an adult-to-adult relationship; they’re still operating as parent and child.

Your wife is giving her mother power and authority, and her mother is not going to spontaneously relinquish it. Your wife will have to assertively stop giving her power away, and demand the respect she’s due as an adult. In her own words she’ll need to say something to the effect, “Mom, it’s sad for you that you disapprove of the church that I’m attending, but that’s my choice to make, not yours. If you keep giving me grief, then I won’t be coming over to take it. Think about it. Goodbye for now.”

She should keep her statement brief and to the point, with a steady, businesslike tone of voice. Do not get into another back-and-forth argument, which only adds credibility to the idea that her mother’s opinion is authority. Nope, it’s just an opinion, and your wife’s opinion must be the final authority in her life, not others’.

I acknowledge that this is not easy. Your wife is up against a formidable personality, and she will need encouragement and rehearsal. She can do this with your backstage support, but it has to be her taking this stand, not you. Even though the two of you have made the agreement together, she’ll need to say things like “the church I’m attending,” not “we’re attending,” “my choice,” not “our choice.” If you are mentioned in her assertive stand against her mother, then her mother can attribute it to your influence rather than her daughter’s own choice, and your wife’s emancipation will not be as clear and complete. Remember, this is about much more than the choice of a church. This is about your wife taking ownership of her life and her will. She may have to assert herself on several other issues before her mother learns her new role as fellow adult instead of parent.

I agree with you that trying to deceive her mother would be a mistake on several levels, not the least of which would be to perpetuate the child-parent relationship. People only sneak around people who have power and authority over them. Equals tell each other what they intend in a straight forward fashion.

As far as deepening their divide and causing the demise of their relationship, the relationship as it is is already doomed anyway. It cannot continue to increasingly collide with your wife’s relationship with you and eventually with your child. If she can successfully affirm her position as an adult with her mother now, it will be easier for both of them to adjust to their new roles as adults together. It will be challenging and will require a great deal of patience, but putting it off only increases the likelihood that the final showdown will be so destructive and hurtful that they might be estranged permanently.

Before she starts to assert herself about this, go to some UU meetings together, so that you both have a clear understanding of what it is like, and a firm confidence that this is indeed what will serve your needs. That way your wife can present going to UU as a fait accompli to her mother, rather than inadvertently slipping into what might sound like asking for permission.

Some time later, after the adult-to-adult relationship is beginning to grow, the two of you might invite her mother to join you at the UU meetings as a guest, gently challenging her to not pre-judge and condemn something about which she knows nothing. Being able to participate in your lives, including her grandchild, is the carrot to reward her for treating all of you civilly and respectfully.

I want to refer you to two previous letters that I have answered. In one, the parents are behaving like children, and in the other the mother is just being downright nuts. But both have more examples of how to respond calmly as an adult, stating clearly and briefly what kind of treatment that you expect, and using your company as a reward and your absence as a deterrent to establish appropriate adult-to-adult relationships.

I wish both of you a very happy life together with your child, and I hope that your wife’s mother can be a positive part as well.


Thursday in Part Two, I will respond to a letter from another person with a mother-in-law conflict, but with a different set of circumstances.

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a very large number of letters; please be patient.

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  • Meredith

    I was amazed that my in-laws (and family) were more opposed to one son’s affiliation with the Universal Unitarian Church than our family’s lack of church going altogether.

    When pressed for an explanation, I was simply told “We would rather you not do anything that believe in the wrong thing.” To this day, I still don’t get the logic, dare I call it that.

    I hope that this family can come together and do what is best for them and leave the grandparents on the sidelines, where they belong.

  • Kate

    UUs have Christian groups within them.

    The overbearing mother in law problem is not specific to religious issues. And that, IMO, is the bigger problem here.

    Best of luck!

    -A UU atheist

  • Gib


    Sounds like the old “I was OK that you didn’t believe in God – but not with you being an atheist!” logic.

  • Robert

    I don’t understand why she feels so filial. All she has to do is cut ties, since she already hates her mother-in-law so much. I’m not American, so I have no idea if, if the mother comes and attempts to reconnect, she can take a restraining order out against her if she causes a commotion. But if so this would be a good threat to use.

  • Joyfulbaby

    I think Richard has hit the nail on the head. This woman never went through the typically adolescent fights with her mother in order to find her adult self separate from her parents and gain independence. Instead, she’s going through them now, but with no resolution as she ages. Terri Apter writes about this issue in a couple of her books. It may help this woman to read them.

  • Will

    I agree with Richard but it seems that his wife does want a Christian based group. I would suggest the Quakers. The liberal groups are cool, they don’t preach or sing or anything. They sit in silence and meditate on the inner light. His child wouldn’t be brain washed and even he could participate since it is basically just meditation and normally they don’t really care what you believe.

  • The first thought I had here was maybe an Emergent Church…. There are not that many, but there is at least one in every large city. (There are many more UU churches around). Anyway, they are more Christiany – but of a very liberal variety. We went to one for a time and were not made to feel uncofortable, even when we express some of our “less than Christian” beliefs. They usually refer to the Bible as a narrative – not as the absolute truth. Anyway – Brian McClaren is the name to google if you are interested.

    Again, I am not trying to push the Emergent Church here, but just throw out another option.

  • JodyM

    Oh, I hadn’t thought of Quakers. Yes, I would recommend checking them out, too. I am not, but my advisor in college was a Quaker and one of the most liberal and accepting people I’ve ever know. Good idea.

  • Kurt

    Assuming David and his wife can get past the mother-in-law issues (using Richard’s excellent advice)… I would just caution him to be careful what he wishes for. His wife may discover she really enjoys and/or believes it, and take it further. I’m willing to bet she has her own hard-headed side, and that will then come out. Even in a liberal church, and even if they give up on David, your child will indeed be subject to brainwashing (if that’s not too impolite a term for being told at a very impressionable age to accept certain things without question). And it gets harder to back out over time.

  • Aj

    She’s not a regular churchgoer herself but feels it would be important for the fellowship aspect of having a so-called “positive” group of people for influence.

    Does she think that only religious people who go to church are “positive”? You can find a fellowship in many kinds of activities, it might be more valuable to find something that you as an agnostic can be involved in.

    I understand compromises are of utmost importance in a healthy marriage. However, I have stipulated to her that I will not allow for our daughter to partake in an environment I feel will brainwash her and alienate her from me so we must be in agreement with the church.

    Seems like a fair compromise to me. From what I’ve heard Universal Unitarians or Quakers do create that environment. I can’t say the same for the “Emergent Church” from the articles written by its spokesmen.

  • Eliza

    For liberal criteria look up one of the churches in your area catering to the LGBT community: Try to avoid the Metropolitian Community Church because they tend not to have many children in attendance unless you’re in a larger city. Many of those will surprise you. The most progressive church in my area is Presbytarian, actually.

  • Claudia

    If the wife is incapable of standing up to her mother, another choice could be the United Church of Christ, which is mostly quite liberal and has the advantage of putting “Christ” right in the name.

    However I don’t think this is a solution in the long run. Your mother in law is a Pentacostal who has demonstrated her willingness and capacity to emotionally manipulate her family to get her own way. She may feel she’s doing what’s best for her family but she’s not. Do you trust for a second that unless she’s put in her place now she’ll fail to try to influence your daughter into her type of religion? Even when you put your foot down and decide that your daughters upbringing is a two-way decision between your wife and yourself, I’d stay very watchful of your daughter’s time alone with grandma, who may get up to some well-meaning Pentacostal shenanigans.

  • littlejohn

    While I agree with Richard; you can’t force your wife to suddenly develop a backbone.
    Try another compromise: Episcopalianism.
    Episcopalians replaced actual religious belief with good manners and L.L. Bean clothes decades ago. They’re utterly harmless. But they have the same hymns, stained glass windows, priest costumes, etc, that the Catholics have. They just don’t believe any of it.

  • I was in a very similar situation a few years ago. My “lite” Christian wife wanted our kids to be raised within a religious environment. Her parents, though, had the attitude that “any religion will do”. Anyway, my wife was greatly influenced by an evangelical friend of hers that convinced her to start taking the kids to her evangelical Baptist church. In interest of harmony and compromise, I went along with the decision. Not being raised religious myself, I was curious what all this religion fuss was about anyway. To make a long story short, we went to the church regularly for about two or three years and participated/volunteered in all the expected things. I initially found it interesting to learn about what they really believed (although my lack of belief never changed). I think it might have been an eye-opener for my wife to learn just how extreme the congregation’s beliefs were. (Most of the congregation believed that pretty much everybody but them were going to hell). My kids hated going. I finally put my foot down and said I wasn’t going anymore. The kids fought with my wife about going after that and she subsequently gave up on going herself. We now haven’t gone to church at all for a couple of years. I now view the whole experience as inoculating my kids against religion.

    I can’t say, though, that I recommend taking your kids to an evangelical church. Things might turn out differently. They might become evangelicals themselves. It just worked out fine in my case. Perhaps I passed down some strong skeptical genes to my kids. Or perhaps all it takes is one parent not “doing religion” to let the kids know that going to church is optional.

  • Tom H from Cleveland

    You can try the United Church of Christ (UCC). They are Christians, but share many of the same values of UUs. There’s a joke that goes: “UCC actually stands for ‘Unitarians Considering Christ.'”

  • ash

    To me, the issue does not read as though the option of which church has much to do with anything – sounds like the wife only wants to do the church thing because of her mother, and the mother won’t be satisfied unless the church is one she wants it to be. This is not to do with compromise because the mother doesn’t want compromise; she wants compliance from her daughter.

    Time for the letter writer to sit down and have a really honest chat with his wife. And make it clear that he values her as a human in her own right and will support her efforts in believing it herself, even if her mother would rather just label her as ‘my daughter’.

  • Claudia

    Richard, I’m curious, have you ever dealt with a question the other way around? I’m wondering what you would say to a bewildered atheist parent who finds their child becoming a hard-core evangelical. Of course there’s a difference between child and adult, but I’m wondering how you would proceed with, say, a 13 year old who has been newly converted to being a Pentacostal with atheist parents.

  • My situation is similar, but easier, because it’s my own mother who’s horrified at the idea of atheism, and my husband who has fond nostalgic memories of growing up in a warm, fuzzy Catholic church and wants our son to have the same experiences. We, also, compromised by joining the UU church. And it turns out my mother hates the UU church even more than she hates my atheism. Fortunately for me, I’m battling my mother and negotiating with my husband at the same time, rather than trying to get my “Christian lite” husband to agree with me and then take on the battle.

    That said, I disagree with the idea that David’s wife is necessarily taking on the role of a child. She might be; I don’t know. But if her mother is anything like mine, then she’s used to having to pick her battles, treading carefully, lest her relationship with her mother gets much, much worse. It’s easy to say, “Cut ties with the bitch,” on the internet. But cutting ties with your own parents can feel like a huge loss. Some of us choose to do the intricate dance in order to maintain our relationship with our parents – especially when children are involved. Suddenly, your disapproving mom is your kid’s adoring grandma – and that’s huge. You begin to pick your battles even more carefully and let the small things slide.

    Maybe to David’s wife, church is a small thing. Maybe she has warm, fuzzy memories of a happy childhood in church. To David, it’s a big thing, and to his MiL, the issue is so big she can use it as leverage. You don’t have to be childlike to be vulnerable to leverage.

    David needs to decide if he wants to apply equal leverage from the opposite side to his wife, if she doesn’t side with him readily.

    There’s also the possibility that she wasn’t that impressed with the UU church. Mine is full of stuffy old people, with only a few children and a very disorganized, free-for-all religious ed group. But I found a few things about it worth fighting for. The pastor is black, and it’s hard to find nonwhite authority figures in my area. Plus, she’s a real sweetheart and a geek, and I love her. And so on.

    Maybe before David and his wife start the battle with the MiL, they should church-shop awhile longer and hopefully find one they feel is worth fighting for.

    The liberal Quakers might indeed be one – I belonged for a while to the meetinghouse in Cambridge, MA, so I can vouch for them. You have to be careful, though. They don’t tend to be in phone books, and there are some churches misleadingly named “Reformed Friends Church” or somesuch. Basically, if it has a minister, it’s not liberal Quaker, AFAIK. Try for a liberal Friends meeting in your area.

  • Richard Wade


    They’re rare, but yes, I’ve had a few letters where the parent is an atheist and the child is religious or considering religion. Three come to mind:

    One was a six-year-old picking up Catholic ideas at a private school.

    The second was a couple of young boys showing some Catholic influence, again at a private school.

    The third was a grown man who keeps his atheist father at arms length from him and the grandchildren.

    There’s another letter that I’ll publish soon involving a teen girl being aggressively indoctrinated against her atheist parents by a mega church.

    It’s very difficult to find overarching guidelines to follow in all such situations, because the family history and dynamics can be so complex. For instance, the age of the child makes a big difference in how the parent can and should respond. So my responses to the above three are quite different. We can learn a few general lessons about how to interact respectfully, and how to most effectively influence others, but a lot of it is case by case. I have to scratch my head and brood over each letter for days.

    One recurring predicament that some atheist parents face is if they have raised their kids to think for themselves, then are they willing to accept that the kids are using that intellectual freedom to become theists? Basically, the parents are having their bluff called. Did they really mean it when they said, “Think carefully and decide for yourself, son.”?

    You’ve probably noticed in my responses how I often define interactions according to combinations of “Child,” “Parent,” and “Adult.” This is from Transactional Analysis, developed mostly by Eric Berne in the 1960’s. While no psychological theory or model is ideal or all-encompassing, I’ve found this to be useful for sorting out ways to adjust relationships that are not working for either individual.

    Religion often fosters childish submission to authority, while at the same time it fosters parental domination of others. So it’s not surprising to me that a great deal of interpersonal problems associated with religion involve people acting like children or like parents, when they need to graduate to interacting like adults.

  • Claudia

    @Richard, thanks! I had already read all those columns but have re-read them anyway. The upcoming one you say you have about the teenager being indoctrinated against her own family sounds exactly like the situation I’m wondering about.

    Its something on my mind a lot. I’m still not clear on whether or not to have kids, but I can easily see myself in the bind. On the one hand we are morally bound not to force our nonbelief and our self-identification on our children. On the other hand we have a quite understandable desire to see them grow up and live fully free of the chains of belief. Its a damn hard balancing act, but then, no one said parenting was easy.

  • William

    I would argue that in the case of a teen being indoctrinated against her family that it would be entirely moral to deter her from that environment. You wouldn’t let your teen daughter have sex with someone or do drugs just because she has reasoned it out. As an adult and the child’s parent and legal guardian it is the parent’s responsibility to protect their child and make mature decisions for them. if a child is abducted by a cult you don’t allow the child to stay in the cult. Or an adult for that matter. Most people would kidnap the person and deconvert them. The same applies here. There are instances when it is ok to fight against a particular belief system especially when it is obviously morally wrong and based on falsehoods.
    I would also like to say that any religion that would turn someone against their family really isn’t worth any kind of respect. (or if you like: blood is thicker than wine pretending to be blood.)

  • Baudelaire

    “But based on your letter, she seems to be stuck in the kind of relationship with her mother that one would expect of an adolescent, a constant struggle of freedom versus control.”

    There’s probably enmeshment there and a serious lack of boundaries. I went through this with my mother and my sister is still stuck in it. There are lots of good books about boundaries the wife should probably read. It’s not easy to break away from the mother especially when you’re enmeshed.

  • Carlie

    All the discussion is about the wife and her mother – what about the guy? The one who said he would be open to his wife’s needs, and is ok with her attending a liberal church, but then will only accept one single denomination? He’s really not owning up to his own feelings and morals here. Either liberal churches are ok/his wife’s needs are primary in this situation, in which case they find something they can both deal with, or he’s uncomfortable with her attending anything else other than a UU church, in which case he needs to own it and tell her that no, this is not something that he’ll bend on. It reads to me like he’s trying to come off as the reasonable and accommodating one, rather than the one making the demands.

  • Marta

    I’ve been through something similar with my parents and my grandmother. Based on my experiences, cut ties. This won’t be limited to religion and the child will see the conflict, even if you try to hide it from her and it will be upsetting to her.(Children catch on pretty fast if there’s an issue. You can’t hide to much from kids.) If the child will be around Grandma, don’t let it be to long or just be there with her. Eventually, she might be dragged into the conflict. I’m miserable every time I’m around my grandmother because she tries to turn my against my mother and shit talks my entire family and blames them on her troubles.

  • Fundie Troll

    Unitarian Universalists? Why even bother?? That’s not even Christian-lite, its more like Christian-free. If you don’t want your children learning about Christian doctrine, the Unitarian Church is certainly a safe place to send them…

  • In my experience, the atheist/agnostic/doesn’t-care in the relationship is always the one to compromise, and will be expected to compromise more and more often. Even a nominally-religious woman, in a relationship with an atheist/agnostic/doesn’t-care will demand a church-based wedding just to satisfy her mother, knowing full well ahead of time his views on the matter. Also, the not-caring part doesn’t last long; eventually a saturation point is reached and it’ll be a problem.

  • ddr

    I would suggest that you see if there are any of these guys near where you live.

    They can be a strange mix of conservative and liberal. They are one of the early churches to break away during the reformation. They came to the New Land and mostly lived in small communities. They feel a kinship with Amish and Mennonite. The believe that possessions get in the way of living life and understanding god. They tend towards a “Simple Life” but they are not life style Nazis.
    They don’t have much in the way of dogma or creed. Their stance is simply “ the bible is important and it is your job to read it and work out what it says. We can’t tell you what it means, that is your job.”
    The Church of the Brethren was the last church I was involved in before admitting to myself that I was an atheist. I respect and like the people involved in this church. I just don’t share their beliefs. I think the church would be “old school” enough for the parents while being liberal enough that it could be tolerated by a non believer.

  • muggle

    Here’s the thing, if you marry and/or have children with someone who is even nominally religious, you have to respect their right to expose their children to their beliefs also. His wife would be perfectly justified in bringing the daughter to the Episocopalian church. (Though hopefully she wouldn’t be doing so just to please her mother but, yes, even then.) You married her knowing she was Christian and had retained it somewhat and had a daughter with her knowing this. It’s silly to say I can’t let my child go to her church now! Silly and immature.

    However, there’s no need to freak out. Letting said child attend church does not necessarily equal brainwashing. You do talk and discuss things with your child (if they’re too young definitely not going to understand enough yet to be brainwashed), don’t you? Just as you need to accept, she gets to share her view, you do too and she is obliged to accept that’s your right.

    Your child is in an unique position to grow up with both points of view explained (and hearing from daddy from an early age that it ain’t necessarily so will prevent brainwashing; that’s really all it takes) and find their own way.

  • My apologies, I said it completely wrong. What I meant to say was, “Even a supposedly non-religious woman…”

  • Ayesha

    I realise this isn’t helpful NOW, to the letter-writer, but every time something like this comes up I wonder why people get married without bothering to talk through issues which will probably come up. Presumably ‘David’ knew before getting married that his bride-to-be was a Christian (even if ‘lite’), and presumably he knew that they would have children. (I’m hoping they at least talked THAT through first.) So it doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to work out that it might have been a good idea to discuss parenting styles BEFORE getting married and having a child together. Perhaps they could have come to some reasonable compromise beforehand, or worked out some issues surrounding the different levels of faith in the family before a real, live child complicated matters.

  • Jen

    Carlie is right. This guy needs to decide, is he really ok with his wife picking a place? Or is only one place acceptable? Pick an answer. Neither is wrong, I think, but pretending any liberal church is ok when only the UU is becomes counter-productive.

  • I agree about trying Episcopalian. It has a more formal service, but the ministers at the church I attended were deists. They encouraged questions and doubt. If we ever get in the mood or decide we want a church for some reason, we will probably go for that instead of UU. However, I doubt that Episcopalian will be much improvement over UU in your mother in law’s eyes.

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