Monday, February 6, 2012
My experience as the father of a non-believer
I have written before about the fact that some of my children have chosen to leave the church. (Actually “leaving the church” suggests action on their part: in truth they have simply stopped participating and do not self-identify as church members, but as far as I know, they have taken no official action with regard to their membership.)
In this post, I wanted to explore my feelings as the family member who stayed. My intent is to record behavior, not to justify it.
My children who left the church did so in their teen years, each about the same age. I have other extended family members who have left as adults, and my experience with them was quite different than with my children. My plan here is to tell my story, not my children’s; they can tell their own when and where they see fit.
When faced with my first child who began to walk away from the church, I felt like I was drowning in the ocean. I was that victim of a sunken ocean liner and had neither a life raft nor a life preserver. I became completely disoriented in the cold, relentless, churning sea as I realized that my child was slipping away.
Some of my feelings were engendered by my own testimony: I had a firm testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel and the need for its saving ordinances. I had faith in Jesus Christ; I believed the restoration story; and I earnestly sought the blessings of an eternal family for myself and for my children. My departing child threw that in my face: he – by his actions and his apathy – made clear that what was important to me was not important to him. I feared for him, and for myself.
Secondarily, I felt blame. Surely his choice to walk away was related to something I had done wrong. After all, we had family home evening, family prayer, scripture study; he went to seminary and Sunday meetings (until he stopped). No Success Can Compensate For Failure In The Home. I had obviously failed in the home. I had screwed up the most important role I would ever fill.
Finally, I also felt embarrassment. I must point out that this was completely self-induced. No one ever said anything to me at church that would have led me to believe that someone judged me or my wife for my son’s decisions. In fact, they were sympathetic to us and loving toward him always. (I suppose it’s possible that someone spoke behind my back, but if they did, I don’t know anything about it.)
In this storm of feelings, I am certain that I sent crazy messages to my son. I am well aware that I tried to control his behavior long after he had made his choice. That desire for control is perhaps my greatest human weakness. It is my instinctive response when faced with anxiety or uncertainty, and it has taken me years to recognize it and to improve. I never ever stopped loving my son, but I did stop liking him for a while. And in that period, it might have been hard for him to know of my love.
At the point when I finally let go, he stopped attending church all together. And he became increasingly difficult to live with. He was approaching the end of his high school years, and I concluded that it was all part of his adolescent rebellion, and perhaps one day he would return. My sense was that he was no more comfortable with us than I was with him. He did not like our rules for the house, let alone what he saw as our slavish attachment to church values which he rejected.
I am sympathetic to those who leave the church and feel they are treated poorly by active church members in and out of their family. It shouldn’t be that way. We ought to love one another more, regardless of where we are on the continuum of testimony. But I also understand the panic that parents in particular feel when a child walks away from what the parent feels is really the very best thing for him.
I’ve had more than one child walk away. Each of them went through a period of time where they felt discomfort as they walked away regardless of how I responded. (For instance, I was much better with #3 than with #1 – much more supportive and kind.) It sometimes took years for them to realize that I really did still love them despite their choice to go a different way, regardless of what I said or did.
I cannot explain this completely. Perhaps one day I’ll get enough courage to invite one of them to write about their experience. I don’t know if they felt some guilt (imposed by a lifetime of standards and practices) as they left, or if they felt the discomfort of the Light of Christ or the Holy Ghost warning them not to walk away, or if they simply felt the anger of teenage anger and applied it to this choice among others.