Awhile back, a nice lapsed Catholic girl named Heidi came to see my show. Afterward she gave me a big hug, and said she totally identified with my stories even though she was raised Catholic and I Protestant.
Heidi had a question for me. Like me, she struggled to navigate the relationship with her parents since leaving their church. Usually they just agreed to disagree, but lately, well, things had gotten out of hand.
After many years of cohabitating, Heidi and her boyfriend had decided to get married.
“Congratulations!” I said. “Your parents must be thrilled!”
“Um, well, not exactly,” she said, “They want me to get married in the Catholic Church. But I can’t.”
“Well of course not!” I laughed. “My mom is constantly trying to trick me into going to church, too.”
Heidi looked at me. “No, I mean I can’t get married in the Catholic Church until I get my first marriage annulled.”
“Okaaaaaay,” I said, not sure where this was going. “What does it matter? I thought you weren’t Catholic anymore?”
“I’m not,” she said. “But my parents really want the whole Catholic wedding mass thing for me.” She looked down at the floor and said quietly, “Otherwise I think they might not come to my wedding.” Then Heidi looked up and asked, “What should I do?”
Choosing between Our Parents and Ourselves
These are the moments in which I realize just how much work needs to be done helping Recovering Christians heal.
Although it may seem obvious to you what Heidi should do – tell her parents to fuck off – the truth is it’s not that simple.
Most of us Recovering Christians experience something similar at one time or another with family and friends still church-bound. Like Heidi, we love our parents, and still want a relationship with them. And yet, even years after we leave their religion, we find ourselves having to choose once again between our values and our parents’.
Why? Because we’re afraid of losing our parents’ approval, of losing their love. If your parents can’t love the REAL you, doesn’t that mean you are inherently unlovable?
And so we walk this fine line between being ourselves and being who they want us to be. We pay a huge price for this inauthenticity: slowly, imperceptibly, our sense of self seeps away. Our values get murky. Our self-esteem and self-worth suffer.
Questions to Ask Your Parents
Would Heidi’s parents actually stop loving her because she wanted a wedding that reflected her values and the love she and her fiancé shared? If so, isn’t she better off without them at her wedding?
I ran the question by several friends — an informal focus group, if you will. Recovering Christians themselves, they each had first-hand experience with this sort of thing. Here are their responses:
“It’s not her parents’ business. Heidi’s an adult – her parents can’t control her anymore. That’s not love, that’s control. It’s time for her parents to let go.”
“They should love her for who she is versus who they want her to be. Trying to make someone into something they’re not is not love, it is not treasuring or cherishing them. It is hating on them.”
“Why not use the old Catholic guilt ploy?! She could tell her parents, ‘It would just break my heart if you decide not to come to my wedding. But I will understand if you can’t possibly bear to watch as I pledge my love to the most wonderful man I have ever met on the most joyous day of my life.’ Ha ha!”
“She could turn the tables to point out how hypocritical her parents are being. Something like, ‘I’m sorry you can’t love me as God made me, for who I am. But I take solace that God does.’”
And from the big jokester in the bunch:
“She’s already going to hell, so why bother with the annulment?!”
Ultimately, though, what I’d like to see Heidi tell her parents is this:
“It’s our wedding and our decision where it takes place.
We hope you’ll be there, but that is up to you.”
If they decide not to go, it is devastating. It is heartbreaking. It is unfathomable. And it’s not the end of the world.
It’s Time to Love Ourselves
Because at some point in our lives, regardless of our upbringings, we need to grow up. We need to move beyond trying to earn our parents’ approval and love, and start giving it to ourselves, instead.
Steve Chandler makes this point better than I ever could:
“I was looking outside myself for permission and approval all day. A very nasty habit that leads to poverty and broken relationships. But a habit all the same. A habit almost every single one of us acquires in childhood. The quest for permission and approval. It’s how childhood is run. It’s how we are domesticated so that we aren’t just running with the wolves. But it’s a habit that does not serve the grown up mature adult at all. In fact, it is the very habit that eventually eats away at the spirit of the grown person.”
Then again, Heidi could always just tell her parents to fuck off. 😉