Raising Kids when Parents Have Opposing Religious Views

ImagePeople are constantly raising kids in two religion households. I have friends where one spouse is Christian and the other is Jewish and they make it work. What about those couples who have totally opposing religious views, where one spouse believes in god and the other does not? That is something that you rarely read about and a subject that I know about first hand. My husband is a Bible reading, church going Christian and I, on the other hand, do not ascribe to any religion, nor do I believe that god can exist.

I’m sure there are plenty of you reading this right now who are totally shocked and probably some of you are even disgusted that I would admit such a thing. I get this reaction often, but I’m not ashamed of being Agnostic. You have your beliefs and I have mine. That’s the beauty of being an American- we have the freedom to believe what we want and should be able to do so without persecution or judgment.

The first questions people usually ask me are, “what do you tell your kids?” or “what does your husband think of that?” But what people really want to know, but usually don’t ask is, “were you raised to be an Agnostic?” The answer to that question is, no, I was not raised in an Agnostic family. On the contrary, I was raised in a very Catholic family. I made my First Holy Communion and I was Confirmed. I attended church school from the time I was 6 until I was 16. We attended church every Sunday and every holy day. When I tell people this they always wonder how I ended up an Agnostic and how my parents feel about it. Religion was basically forced one me and I was given no choice about it as long as I lived with my parents. When I went off to college I was able to more freely express my different views. I can’t say they were very happy about it, but they still loved me and respected that I had my own view of things because they raised me to be an independent thinker and that’s certainly what I am.

There isn’t any one thing that made me question god and religion; it is something I have always questioned. When I was 6 and in my first year of church school, I asked my teacher, “If god made us, who made god?” She thought my father had put me up to asking that question to try to stump her because they were friends and my father was always a bit of a joker. When she told my father about my question and her suspicion that he had put me up to it, my father let her know that had come directly from me (and that’s when I suspect my parents knew they were in trouble!). My parent’s answer to my question was, “god always was and always will be.” I just didn’t buy that. I have always questioned everything and if someone can’t give me an answer that can be proven, then I probably won’t believe it. That’s just who I am and how I have always been.  

With regard to what my husband thinks, I was honest with him right from the beginning. Prior to our first date we had been talking on the phone and he told me he was attending Bible study classes. It was clear to me then that religion was a very important part of his life. We went on our first date and it was going well and I knew I wanted there to be a second date. I also knew if we were to have any kind of future together, that I needed to be honest with him so I brought it up on our first date. I told him my religious views, or lack thereof, and he was fine with it. He said he had dated other girls with different religious views and from different religions and my situation was no different. I definitely knew I liked this guy and that he was the kind of open-minded, non-judgmental man I had been looking for.

Fast forward to when we started talking about getting married and having kids. This is an important conversation to have before you walk down that aisle and commit to spending your lives together. Religion can tear couples apart, especially when it comes to raising kids, so have this conversation early on. This is not a conversation that should be saved for the last minute. When we had been married a year and half we decided it was time to start trying to expand our family. I knew we needed to revisit the conversation about religion we had had a couple of years earlier, before I got pregnant.

I know religion is something that is very important to my husband and I wouldn’t deny it to my children. I was raised with religion, but I was also raised to be an independent thinker and this is what I wanted for my children. I was perfectly fine with raising my kids to be Lutheran like my husband. To say that my husband was relieved to hear this would be an understatement! We decided that my husband would be “in charge” of the religious portion of the child rearing, but I also made it clear that I was going to be honest with them about my views being different. I was not going to sing religious songs with them, or read religious books to them, or pray with them, and I wouldn’t participate in saying grace at the table. This would go against everything I believe (or do not believe) and would make me a hypocrite and that is not something I was willing to do. Again, my husband understood this, respected this, and accepted this- one of the many reasons why I love this man!

We baptized both of our boys in my husband’s Lutheran church and my husband takes our oldest son to church with him when he has time to go. He has taught him to say prayers before bed and to say grace at dinner. He sings Jesus Loves Me to both of my boys at bedtime. This all makes me a bit uncomfortable because the whole idea of all of this kind of makes my skin crawl, but I don’t say anything because I know it’s important to him.

My oldest has asked me why I don’t say grace and right now I just tell him, “…because I believe in different things from Daddy so I don’t say grace.” There have also been occasions when I have put him to bed and he has asked me to sing Jesus Loves Me to him or to say prayers and, again, I just explain that I don’t say prayers or sing that song because I don’t believe the same things as Daddy. This appeases him right now, but I know as he gets older and more inquisitive than he is already, he will ask more questions. I will always be truthful with him and I will continue to tell him that I don’t believe the same things as his father and that that is okay. I will explain to him that people believe different things all the time and we have to respect each other even if we believe different things. If my children continue to believe in Christianity, then that is fine. If they question religion and the existence of god, then that is okay too. I will force nothing on them as it was forced on to me. If they don’t want to go to church, then I am not going to make them go. If they don’t want to say grace, I am not going to make them.

The hardest part in all of this has been with my in-laws. My mother respects how we have decided to raise our children. She has been supportive of our decision, and respects us enough as adults and parents, to make decisions regarding our children. My father passed away 11 years ago, but I know he would have been supportive too. With my in-laws it’s another story all together. They are ultra-religious. My mother-in-law is constantly giving my kids (and my husband for that matter) religious gifts- books, CD’s, etc. They are also constantly making comments about my husband not taking the kids to church enough. They also insist that we say grace at every meal and hold hands while doing so, even though they are in our house. This drives me totally crazy, but I just keep my mouth shut in order to keep the peace. I accept the gifts and then put them away somewhere. The kids don’t notice, nor do they care, because they have plenty of other things to use. My husband has told his mother to please refrain from religious gifts because it makes me uncomfortable and we are in agreement about how to raise our kids, but she doesn’t listen so his attitude about it now is that if she wants to keep wasting her money, then so be it.

We are comfortable as a couple on how we have chosen to raise our kids with regard to religion. We had conversations early on and continue to do so as new things arise. It is not impossible, nor is it difficult to raise kids when the parents have opposing religious views. It just takes honesty and open lines of communication. We are raising our kids to be honest, caring, polite, respectful, moral, and ethical people regardless of religious beliefs and that is what is truly important. You don’t need religion or a belief in god to be a good person and I am prime example of that.

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Let’s Keep Talking About Sex

Let’s Keep Talking About Sex…

So now on to another important topic: the abstinence vs. birth control/sex education debate. Let’s face it, solely teaching abstinence is not the way to go. It’s not realistic in today’s society. Look how well that went for Sarah Palin’s family! We need to be realistic about what is going on in the lives of today’s teens and preteens. More and more school systems are shying away from providing sex ed in schools so it is more important than ever that we are having these discussions at home! Abstinence should be discussed within the realm of sex education, but it should not be the only thing that people preach.

I am the mental health therapist in an inner city school system and it is absolutely appalling to me that they do not provide sex education of any kind to the students. I am in an elementary/middle school that has pre-k to 8th grade and they get NOTHING at all in any grade! Teen pregnancy is crazy huge in this city and it is also the STD capital of the US and they have no sex ed, are you f’ing kidding me? I kid you not- NOTHING.

I run middle school girl’s groups and inevitably something about boys, sex, pregnancy, or STD’s comes up almost every session! This puts me in a difficult position because I am technically not supposed to talk about “those kinds of things” without specific parental permission to do so. I have to have consent to have kids in my groups, but “sex stuff” requires specific permission. Now, by this time after reading all of my rambling, I’m sure you can guess that I talk about it anyway because someone has to! Parents are not talking to their kids about it at home and these kids are so grossly misinformed, I feel it would be unethical not to properly educate them, so I am willing to take the risk. Sorry, that was my 10 second soap box rant!

How are they misinformed you ask? Well brace yourself, because here comes the really crazy stories. You thought T-Rex threw me for a loop, wait until you read some of this stuff! Last year I had 3 girls in my group ranging from 12-14- all of whom were sexually active by the way (yes, having sex at 12. I told you to brace yourself). During one session something came up about sex being painful and blood, etc. Well, one of the girls who had previously told me that she had had sex with her boyfriend, told me she was still a virgin. I looked at her with a very confused look and said, “I thought you had told me you had sex with your boyfriend.” She said, “I have, but I didn’t bleed so I am still a virgin.” This was yet another, ‘are you f’ing kidding me’ moment that I have had since working in the schools. These girls were always putting so much emphasis on being a virgin and now I knew why! Oh boy, how do I have this conversation?

All of these girls thought that losing your virginity meant that you had “your cherry popped.” This particular girl had not bled when she first had sex so she thought she was still a virgin. I literally had to have an anatomy lesson with them. They had no idea what a hymen was let alone that they all had one! They also didn’t know… wait for it… wait for it… that females have 3 separate holes! They thought they only had 2- they had no idea that we have a “pee hole” and a “baby hole.” I nearly died when I realized that these girls knew next to nothing about their own bodies, yet they were having sex (with more than one person by the way).

After talking to many other girls, I realized that parents just aren’t talking to their kids about their bodies and sex. Most of the girls said that their mothers avoid the topic because they think if they talk about sex it will encourage the kids to do it. Not so! It’s just the opposite actually. The more you talk to and educate your kids, the more kids tend to stop and think and make more educated decisions. This is with anything; not just sex.
These kids know next to nothing about birth control and STD’s either. They are making the decision to have sex without all of the information they need to protect themselves. These girls were begging me to keep discussing this stuff with them. Finally, I had to do something! I asked them if they would be interested in having a class on this topic and they practically deafened me when they all yelled, “YES!” I talked to my principal, who thankfully was totally on board, and I called Planned Parenthood. They came to my school and did a FREE (yes, some things are still actually free) educational seminar on birth control and STD’s for all the 7th and 8th grade students. The kids really got into it and asked some really good questions, but hearing some of the questions really made me glad I had brought Planned Parenthood it to give these kids a much needed education.

Planned Parenthood is an amazing resource for kids and adults. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your child about sex, then make them an appointment at Planned Parenthood- their sex educators will do it for you or they will help you to do it. Planned Parenthood is everywhere and offers so many services and is a safe place for kids to go if they don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents. They are the reason I did not end up pregnant as a teen! When I was 16 and decided I was ready to have sex with my boyfriend, I went to Planned Parenthood and put myself on the pill. My mother didn’t need to know and I was able to take care of myself. After I went, many of my friends did too. We had like a little pill taking club at school- every day before lunch we would all go into the bathroom and take our pills together. So, I personally, am thankful to Planned Parenthood for many reasons.
So the moral of the story is that if you are a parent, it is your job to educate your children. If you don’t do it, it is very likely that they will be getting their information from their friends, which is almost always inaccurate! One of the only ways we can decrease the teen pregnancy and STD rate is to educate, educate, educate and to be open and honest with our children right from a young age. Once T-Rex and B-Man get a little older I will start to talk with them about things pertaining to sex (or maybe I will pawn that one off on my husband), hell they already always have their hands on their penises, but that my friends, is another topic all together…

Let’s Talk About Sex Some More…

Now that we’ve covered the anatomy part of things, let’s move on to the sex part. I have 2 boys: T-Rex is 5 and B-Man is 3 so my personal experience is with boys, but I’ve worked with kids all my life so I know a thing or two about girls as well. When I use the word “sex” I’m not just referring to intercourse; I also mean sexual things. Just wanted to clarify that.

            T-Rex has already asked me where B-Man came from because he remembers when “B-man was living in your [my] belly.” I didn’t tell him the whole sperm and egg thing or the whole parking the car in the garage thing (remember that joke from childhood?), but I did try to give him a realistic explanation that a 5 year old could understand. Don’t go the stork route or the he was a gift from Santa route- that’s just ridiculous and confusing. Tell your young children whatever you are comfortable with, but for fuck sake- make it realistic and believable! They will ask you where babies come from so save yourself a mild heart attack when they do, and have an answer prepared!

            Talking about sex at a young age is more important than ever. Girls are getting their periods younger and younger, kids are hitting puberty younger and having sex younger, and teen pregnancy is being glorified on TV. Having an open and honest discussion with your children, no matter what their gender, is one of the most important things you can do for your child. My mother had the whole birds and the bees talk with me when I was 10 because she wanted me to know the facts. Now if you knew my mother this would surprise the hell out of you! My mother is a tiny, old school Italian woman, who is VERY Catholic. You would think she would have avoided that topic like the plague, but not so! She is a smart woman and knew that I would get all kinds of misinformation from my friends and TV/movies. She is the reason I am such an advocate for sex education myself and I am eternally thankful to her for that!

            She always told me I could come to her with any questions about sex no matter how embarrassing, gross, etc. The woman was true to her word, too! In 5th grade I asked her what 69 was because I had heard the phrase at school and lo’ and behold she knew what it was and drew me a picture of a 6 and a 9 and explained it from there. I was thoroughly disgusted at the time, which I’m sure she was very happy about, but also that was the moment I realized I really could ask her about anything. Now don’t get me wrong- she did not support the notion of me having sex before marriage and basically told me that my very Italian Catholic father would kill me if I wasn’t a virgin when I got married, but she did still discuss birth control and STD’s with me because she wanted me to have all the correct information. It’s important for you to give your kids all of the information, even if it’s something you might not be comfortable with. No one can make an informed decision about anything without all of the pertinent information so educate your children ladies! If you don’t, someone else will and I can almost guarantee it will not be the correct information or the information you would want them to have! As parents, we have the power to be our children’s best teachers, so use that power wisely and whenever you can!

Let’s Talk About Sex

male femaland anatomy! Ok ladies, we all know how easy it is to talk about sex while sitting with our girlfriends drinking wine, but most of us find it difficult to broach this topic with our children no matter how old they are. When is it appropriate to start talking about sex, anatomy, etc. with our kids? The correct answer is as soon as possible! Now, I’m no sex education expert or anything, but if I wasn’t doing my current job, I would be a sex educator. Sex education is so important and not enough parents talk to their children honestly about it.
Now, I’m not saying that you want to talk to your 3 year old about the ins and outs of intercourse (I know, bad joke), but you do want to start labeling body parts by their correct names right from the beginning. Sure it can be embarrassing sometimes to say “penis” or “vagina” to your baby, but imagine the confusion for them if you start calling it a ding-a-ling or a cupcake or something crazy like that (and I work with kids so I’ve heard some crazy shit)! I speak from experience because we use an Italian slangy type word for referring to the backside (it’s a family thing) and my son confused the hell out of his preschool teachers last year when he told them his coolie hurt when he fell on the playground! He knew he had a penis because I had always labeled it that way, but it didn’t occur to me that calling his rear end a coolie could come back to bite me in the ass (I know, bad joke again)!
It’s also important to be honest with your kids about gender differences so that they clearly understand from a young age that boys and girls have different parts. This conversation may come before you plan on actually having it. I mean come on, how many of us have had our kids walk in on us or your husband/boyfriend while getting dressed or showering? Here is another area I can address from experience. When my now 5 year old son was 3 ½ years old, he came busting in on me in the bathroom as I was drying off after a shower. He looked at me wide eyed and said, “Mommy, where is your penis?” So I stammered out an explanation about me not having a penis because I am a girl and what I have is called a vagina. So then he follows up my strained explanation with this gem, “Well how do you pee then?” So I quickly reply with, “Mommy sits down. Now go play with your brother!” I had planned on having this conversation with him at some point soon, but of course, he beat me to the punch as kids often do!
Now, if only this was the only time this type of thing happened to me! A few weeks after that incident, I took this same son (we’ll call him T-Rex) to see The Fresh Beat Band (I know, I should be sainted) and he had to go to the bathroom. I took him into a stall and then decided I had to go too. So we are squeezed into that damn tiny stall and I’m trying to squat as quickly as I can and get out of the sweltering bathroom when he very loudly (of course) said, “Mommy, are you going to go poopy?” Oh dear god, are you kidding me right now? So I very calmly said, “No T-Rex, I am not going poopy. I am just going pee pee like you did.” “But Mommy, you are sitting down, how are you going to pee pee sitting down?” Really, I have to have this conversation again and this time in a public restroom? I very briefly re-explained that I have a different body part then he does because I am a girl and that girls pee sitting down and then I got the hell out of there! So you see ladies, have the conversation early on because it will happen even if you don’t want it to!

{To be continued…}

Who is Mental Mama?

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So who is “Mental Mama” and is she actually mental? Some people may say that I am, but I assure you only a little! I am married and have 2 kick-ass little boys who are 5 and 3. Thank goodness my dog and my cat are females or else I might be totally boxed out in my own home! I have an MS in Counseling Psychology and am a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. I have been in this field for over 13 years now. I work part-time as the mental health therapist in an inner city elementary/middle school, but I am a Mom first and foremost. I have travelled the world; love wine, music, and food; have great friends and a wonderful family. I have a passion for fashion and love clothes, jewelry, and shoes (I have almost 200 pairs) {or maybe I should say “had a passion for” now that I have kids so I’m pretty much broke!}. I learn something new everyday from my kids (both my own and those I work with) and am thankful for that.
I have VERY strong opinions about things and am not afraid to express them. I try to be polite, respectful, and tactful (at least most of the time)… but sometimes people may get their feelings hurt because I’m a “tell it like it is” kinda’ gal! I’m not afraid to curse or use strong language when in an appropriate situation (never in front of children of course) and I’m not one to be messed with. I will defend myself, my family, and my friends, and my beliefs in any way I see fit- so again- sometimes people may get their feelings hurt and I won’t apologize for that! I’m quite feisty (that’s the Italian in me!) Basically, don’t dish it out if you can’t take it because I can take it- I’ve learned, from my experiences in life, that you have to have tough skin to survive!
The important thing to realize with this blog, is that while I am a mental health therapist and I do remain professional when on the job- this blog is NOT a direct extension of my job- it is an extension of who I am as a person and my job is only one part of who I am. I will curse, use strong language, express my (strong) opinions (which some people may consider unsavory), and I may even use insults. If you don’t like that kind of stuff, then I certainly wouldn’t read any of my posts!
Some of my posts will definitely be educational and informative and will pull from my background in psychology, but I do not claim to be an expert in anything and this is not an advice giving blog or the place to come for mental help (so that’s my little disclaimer).
Again, a reminder, I am a mental health therapist, but I am also a human with flaws. Being a therapist does not make me perfect, nor does it mean that I won’t get angry or insulting on here. The one thing I dislike the most is stupidity and ignorance and if I feel someone making a comment is being stupid or ignorant I’m most likely going to tell them so. A close friend of mine has always told me that I should have been a lawyer because I love to argue, but I don’t see it as arguing as much as I do debating and trying to educate people beyond their own ignorance. I’ve made it my mission in life to try help people not be so stupid- just kidding!
This blog, whether anyone reads it or not, is really just a creative outlet for me. I love to write and it’s something I’m good at. Writing, to me, is therapeutic so that’s why I’m here. Anyway, if anyone out there in Cyberspace does decide to read this- I hope you enjoy it, and if not, feel free to never return!
Pace (that’s peace in Italian, in case anyone was wondering)