My son isn't baptized. I'm okay with that and he hasn't missed out on any blessings.
My son's mother has refused to provide permission for his baptism and I'm not only okay with that, I support her decision.
I wasn't okay with it at first. When his mother and I decided to separate, I knew it would become an issue and I was troubled and confused with how to approach the topic with him and his mother. It would not be appropriate to represent her side without her personally contributing to this article. What I have felt is appropriate to share, I wrote in my blog post, "Because I loved her I left her".
However, there is some risk to not including details. Generally, when I share my experience with why I am okay with my son not being baptized, someone almost always dismisses my experiences because their divorce and ex were hostile and not agreeable in the least. My not sharing the details in all its messiness, pain, resentment, years of court and finical ruin is with purpose. The absence of my sharing isn't to be mistaken as an absence of those trials. Rather, it’s an example of how I personally decided to model healthy behavior to my children.
Learning with every Opportunity
Today, as my son and I drove home from church, he did what he does every Sunday afternoon drive home: he was reviewing what he learned in Sunday School class. Today after sharing the particular lesson he also reflected on how it's sometimes difficult to hear the teachers get excited about his class graduating primary this year. They mentioned how the boys will be able to start passing the sacrament. He said, "I wanted to raise my hand and say, not everyone will get to pass the sacrament." But he didn't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. We used the opportunity to revisit the meaning of baptism, priesthood and looking forward to when he turns 18 when he can get baptized.
The conversations are always wonderful. Sometimes the conversations are started as a result feeling left and sad, like today. Sometimes that feeling continues throughout the conversation and sometimes he has a rekindled hope that his mother might provide her permission. What makes it a little more difficult too, is his older brother is baptized. He is the only one in primary and in his current family dynamic who is not baptized. Whenever and however these conversations come up, we explore and validate his emotions and feelings, without removing them. We also never frame the conversation in any way that suggests his mother is wrong or bad for her not providing the permission.
Over the years, we have prayed and fasted many times that his mother would be willing to change her decision. But this was not the prayer we should have been having. Although it’s appropriate on occasion to have faith that others will change their hearts, this was not the only prayer we should have been having. In a divorce especially, there is a huge problem with each separating spouse "parenting" the other. This is often done through divorce decrees, court, manipulation, threats, using children as "pawns," and "righteous indignation" (which is a form of spiritual abuse).
Not only as a divorced father, but as a therapist who routinely works with divorcing couples in the church, I've routinely seen good parents become so fixated on demanding their child's other parent accommodate religious activities that they become abusive. One parent had become convinced that her child would be denied all the blessings of the church if they couldn't get baptized. She spent years in therapy, court and tens of thousands of dollars attempting to get her child's father to grant permission for baptism. Her child during this period began to mirror their mother’s anxiety and fear of losing blessings. The child also started to view their father as an evil man who hates god.
Why is it spiritual abuse? When we place ourselves in a position of power to control, dictate or parent someone in a way that removes, blocks and prevents their choice, it's abusive. When religion is used as that vehicle of control, its religious/spiritual abuse. We don't get to parent, control or demand how our ex decides to parent. Their house, their rules. Our house, our rules.
Isn't it spiritual abuse to deny a child's baptism? No. It could be abuse if that parent is denying baptism out of a desire to hurt the child or the other parent. But this is problematic. Because we don't get to read people’s minds and hearts. But what if the ex SAYS they are doing it to get back at them? Well, pay it no attention. Some people are more married divorced, then when they were married.
Abuse is a serious accusation. I have no tolerance for abuse in any form, as a parent or therapist. If the child is in emotional, spiritual or physical danger there is no gray area. What I have seen however, is the word "abuse" used to describe a behavior one doesn't like or agree with in the other parent. Neglect is another word that is sometimes lightly used too. For example, the child's other parent is being "neglectful" by not agreeing to be consistent with church attendance or agreeing to let the child be baptized. Divorce is already difficult enough for us and our children. In most divorces, there are going to be clear differences in how each parent decides to parent or not parent. The best thing we can do is teach our children how to thrive in this environment.
Pray and Fast to Change Your Heart.
Through our frequent prayers and fasting, it became clear my son was becoming overwhelmed. Overwhelmed in not seeing his mom's "heart change", feeling like he was not having enough faith, feeling like he must continuously ask/pester her for permission and fear of getting her angry. Also, I was communicating a subtle and sometimes not so subtle message that his mom was "wrong". Quietly, our prayers have never stopped for her to change her heart. But now we pray for a change of our own heart. In this hyper-focus to change his mother’s heart, we were missing beautiful opportunities to learn and prepare for baptism. Whenever that might happen.
When he would ask questions like, "why won’t my mom let me get baptized?", instead of focusing on the differences in parenting, we would validate and explore how he can love and support his mother. We also explored how God will never deny him any blessings and that we should find ways to serve, and strengthen OUR OWN faith. This has radically and wonderfully changed the spirit of our conversation. Religion has not become a divide in my son and his mother’s life. Where pain could have thrived, beauty and love flourished. Neither I nor my son get to "tell" his mother how to parent. But we have taken the opportunity to learn Father's will in our lives, in our current situation.
Changing our Heart will Increase our Love for Others
Some parents decide to leave the church and that's okay too. One of the most destructive things parents can do to their children is engage in "holy wars". Whether that's a parent who decides the LDS faith is bad and requests their name be removed from the records or one whose religiosity changes over time. Or a parent who insists on unwavering church attendance and service. There is a place for each of these parents in parenting well-adjusted and healthy children. But regardless of one's belief in God or the LDS church, what are we teaching our child if they can't love the parent who thinks differently? To a child, you have placed them in an impossible situation. You are communicating that if they stop believing as you do, they will experience the same rejection you are showing the other parent.
Sometimes the situation is reversed. Some parents who believe the church is hurting their child will go to the same lengths to prevent them from attending. But regardless of which parent it is, this divisiveness teaches children how to hate. Or at the very least, how to condition their love based on someone else belief system. Learning how to change our own heart restores confidence and expands our ability to love and value others.
No Blessing is Ever Prevented or Delayed
My son will not be passing the sacrament when he turns twelve. But that is not to be confused with a denying or preventing his blessings. As sacred and symbolic as the sacrament is, the act of passing should never be confused as the blessing. My son knows and is intimately familiar with the covenants made in baptism and passing and taking the sacrament. He has been blessed with a spiritual growth, insight, maturity and faith that is far beyond what I had at his age. Sure, it’s difficult at times for me and him, to know he's not going to be passing the sacrament or doing temple work with the other youth. But we use that as an opportunity to have our hearts changed and our faith strengthened.
I encourage those in similar situations to exemplify to their children who don't have permission to be baptized to find ways to love and grow. How to lovingly honor their other parent’s decision. How to expand one's faith beyond controlling others, but how to use faith to increase one's agency.
For those serving in callings over youth in similar circumstances: find ways to model the same love. Frame the conversation in ways the youth can participate versus focusing on what they can't do. There is never anything wrong with exploring or understanding a child's situation. But generally, do that with their parent. What I do recommend avoiding is asking "why" questions like, "why do you think your mom won’t let you get baptized?" But rather, explore with the child what they are doing to grow in the gospel and emphasize that our loving God will bless them fully in their desires.
Daniel A. Burgess is the author of the forthcoming book on LDS Sexuality. The creator and Admin at the Facebook Group "Improving Intimacy in Mormon Marriages" and content developer at its accompanying Blog, "Mormon Marriages".