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When Children Arrive (Part Two)

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Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

There are many challenges that couples face just before and immediately after the children arrive. In addition to the challenges that single faith couples encounter, intermarried couples face a host of additional challenges related to their religious and cultural differences. Part One of this two-part article featured a couple discussing some of these challenges. Part Two will identify and discuss some of these challenges in more detail.

Some Typical Marital Challenges before Baptism

If intermarried couples failed to decide where their children will be baptized before marriage, and in which church they would be raised, some conversation regarding these questions will likely occur after marriage and around the time the children arrive. "I was surprised at how much conversation was required when we finally got around to discussing baptism," stated one participant from the Interfaith Research Project (IRP). "I really didn't think this issue was going to require so much energy. I guess that's why we didn't discuss it before marriage. But I was wrong."

The degree of attachment each spouse has to his or her religious tradition will affect these conversations. In cases where both spouses have equally strong attachments to their religious background, couples can expect to struggle more with this issue. However, such couples might also take comfort in knowing that results from the IRP suggest that their faith in God will generally assist them in reaching a mutually satisfying resolution. "We're both very committed to our religious backgrounds, so when we started talking about starting a family the topic of baptism came up. It was really an upsetting time for us both. Fortunately Father Nick and our faith in God helped us get beyond this issue."

Some couples will also struggle with the cultural tradition that necessitates Greek parents to name their first born son after the Greek Orthodox spouse's father. "I love my father-in-law. He's a precious and sweet man. But when John informed me that if our first born was a boy, he wanted to name him Panteleimon, well let's just say I wasn't very happy."

The Greek Orthodox partner may feel a deep need to honor his or her parents in this way, while the non-Orthodox partner frequently views this tradition as intrusive. "I had a real deep need to honor my Dad by naming our first son after him. He slaved to put me through school, and he didn't want anything in return. The least I could do is honor him in this way."

Finding ways of striking a balance between personal, couple, and extended family needs in this situation can generate marital, family and extended family tension. This challenge is not insurmountable. Time, prayer and a desire to make things work are imperative. "After considerable conversation, we resolved this issue peacefully, and with God's help. But making everyone happy was a real delicate balancing act."

Extended Family Challenges

Grandparents' yearnings to see their grandchildren baptized and raised in their faith community can also present some challenges to intermarried couples. Couples will be challenged to find respectful ways of (a) honoring their parents, and (b) drawing healthy boundaries between themselves and their extended families as they attempt to resolve this issue. "We've tried to respect our parents opinions and needs, but we've also made it clear to them that our decisions will be based on what's good for our family and the children."

If the couple elects to baptize their children in the Greek Orthodox Church, the non-Orthodox partner's extended family may feel somewhat short changed. This is often the case, because Orthodox pastoral guidelines prohibit non-Orthodox participation in the Sacraments. Additionally, the Orthodox partner may feel varying degrees of pressure and resentment from their non-Orthodox in-laws to explain the Orthodox Church's position with regards to non-Orthodox participation in the sacraments.

Finding ways of not personalizing this resentment will be helpful to nuclear and extended family stability and well-being. "It was kind of hard putting up with some of my in-law's questions about my church's rules," stated one Greek Orthodox IRP participant. "Sometimes, I felt as if they were attacking me. So I had to keep reminding myself that they weren't really angry with me, but were disappointed that they couldn't be more a part of their grandson's baptism. I finally asked Father Lou to offer some clarification, and this really helped."

Challenges as Children Mature

As the children mature and grow, and in order to meet children's growing religious and spiritual needs, couples normally choose to attend the church where their children were baptized. When intermarried couples determine to baptize their children in the Greek Orthodox Church, and subsequently determine to attend the Orthodox Church, the non-Orthodox partner may struggle to avoid feeling like the odd-man-out when the family attends Divine Liturgy together. This sometimes happens because non-Orthodox cannot participate in the Sacramental life of the Orthodox Church. Being aware of this potential pitfall can help both partners work through negative feelings and thoughts that might undermine family members religious and spiritual development.

Challenges Related to Children's Cultural Development

Lingering hurt feelings related to children's cultural development can be unhealthy for a couple's marriage and their children's development. Finding ways of addressing hurt feelings can be challenging. Failure to assuage hurt feelings could be detrimental to marital and family religious well-being. The following remarks form one of the participants from the IRP reinforce these observations. "Steve comes from a mixed background. So he doesn't have any real attachment to his ethnic roots. I'm from Greece, and have a deep attachment to my background. It's also been important to me that our children identify with their Greek heritage. Steve has never really prevented me from doing this, but he's also never really supported the idea. This issue has caused some tension and problems for us for time to time. I fear that these arguments have had an ill effect on our children's cultural development."

Concluding Remarks

Couples who come from different religious and cultural backgrounds should expect to encounter some challenges and potential pitfalls when they begin thinking about starting a family. A familiarity with these challenges and potential pitfalls, together with a strong and abiding faith in God, can positively enhance marital and family well-being.