On parenting and religion

This afternoon, I was intrigued by what I saw in a New York Times newsletter. It said,

“Consciously or not, many parents either replicate or rebel against their own upbringing.”

This pretty much sums my up entire childhood and how I feel as an adult, as a parent of two kids. I am a rebel, so to speak.

I was born into a Catholic family and baptized at two months old. This baptism somehow solidified me into the religion so I grew up reading the Bible and memorizing them. I even went to a Catholic preschool and attended church every week dutifully. When I was about seven or eight, I experienced my last rite of passage–my first communion.

If you’re Catholic then you know that the first communion is a pretty BIG deal. It’s almost like the quinceanera or the bat mitzvah. There’s a ceremony in which you get to stand with other little kids your age and recite things you don’t understand just because the adults want you to do it. You also do a lot of bowing down and kneeling. Basically, you’re committed to god now. You’ve given yourself to him.

That’s me getting baptized

I remember around the same time of my first communion I also experienced my first confession. Again, as a seven year old, I didn’t really understand why I had to confess. Was I a bad person? Did I do something wrong? What was I supposed to say to the priest in the confession booth?

So I did the only thing I could think of at the time–I made it up.

Yep, I told the priest that I stole something from another kid, even though I hadn’t, and I felt bad about it. He told me to recite ten Hail Mary’s and think about my actions.

It’s that easy? I thought. Once you committed your sins and you confessed, all you had to do to repent was say a few Hail Marys?

It wasn’t until much later in life that I finally understood that justice was not like that at all. To truly repent is not just to demonstrate your guilt and shame and promise to not do it again. It’s a much more complicated thing.

Years later, in high school, I had a friend who got pregnant during her senior year. She wasn’t that much older than the rest of us–it was a crew of about five Asian girls (I also had a Russian best friend) who stuck by each other. So it was a surprise when we found out that she was pregnant. It became hush hush. Nobody ever talked about it. What was she going to do with the baby? Was she going to graduate? What about the father?

First communion

Because religion typically dictates people’s behaviors, it creates a feeling of being immoral when you want to do something that the religion deems as “sinful,” such as sex before marriage. As a teenager, nobody told me that it was perfectly natural to feel sexually attracted to someone and want to do things with them. I never got the birds and the bees talk. It was such a closed door policy. And I truly believed that my religion — or my family’s region — played a big role in that.

In high school, I rebelled. I started thinking deeply about religion and why I had to go to church all the time. I questioned the horrible things that happened, like 9/11–if god did watch over us, then why did he let these things happen? Why did he let my friend get pregnant? Why did the Holocaust happen? Why do humans seem to want to dehumanize each other?

I think it’s ironic that people use religion as a moral backbone to dictate their behaviors, and yet, at the same time, they also use religion to justify the injustices that they bestowed upon other humans. What was the Ten Commandments for if not a great fallacy? It didn’t make any sense to me.

I didn’t tell my mom any of this. I just wasn’t comfortable enough. Even after college and after I got married and now that I have kids, my mom would once in awhile, sit on my dining room table chair and declare that abandoning my religion is turning towards the devil, and because I have done so, I am turning over a satanic leaf.

My husband told me to ignore these comments, but he doesn’t get it. My mom is one of those people who wholeheartedly and truly believe that whatever religion you’re born into you must remain in it, no matter what. She’d say, “Your husband may not be Catholic and that’s okay–he just doesn’t understand…but you–YOU are a Catholic girl! You must stick with our god! You must! Or you’ll go to hell!”

Young Catholic life

So when I read Julia Sheeres’s article in the New York Times about raising her children in a non-secular way, I was reminded of myself. For as long as I’ve been a parent, I’ve rarely taken my kids to church or steered them towards any particular religion. We don’t say grace or Hail Marys in our house. We have a statue of the Buddha in our home that drives my mom crazy even though the reason we got it was not to worship him–we simply thought it was neat. My daughter has seen me naked plenty of times. She knows the roles that women play with their body parts. I don’t hush her when she asks about girls bodies. I simply let her ask the questions, because that is what I would have wanted for myself. I wanted to have a mother who was more open to discussing safe sex, relationships, our bodies, and religion as a choice especially the fact that there are more than one religion in the world, that Catholicism is not the dominant one. I would’ve wanted her to listen to my fears and reaffirm them with wisdom and kindness. But that was not what I had, and therefore, why I rebelled against my religion. I want my kids to understand that religion is a choice that only they can make. It was a choice that I did not have.

Sundays with Grandma, or a tale about a toddler who accepts bribes

My mother is a devout Catholic. This fact has not changed since I was born.

What has changed is the fact that I am no longer a devout Catholic. This fact, by itself, poses a threat to my mother. It’s one of the many things that we disagree about—why I don’t go to church, and why I shouldn’t “abandon” my religion, because after all, I was born into it.

Yes, my mother is one of those people who believe in lifelong loyalty to a religion. I think of it as a supercilious affection to an institution that as of recently, bores deep, dark secrets that nobody can justify other than it being horrendous and traumatic. Aside from that, some might even say that it is cult-like.

But I’m not here to talk about my views on religion, or my experience with it. I can assure you though, that it did not involve any trauma, besides the fact that I was never allowed to choose my religion. Simply put, I was born into it, and thus I must remain in it—that is what my mom believes anyway.

What I am here to say is that my mother has found another contender, a supporter of her religion—my five-year-old daughter—and together, they go to church every Sunday—without me, of course.

This alone is a source of  glee for me. I see it as a win-win, and I can’t wait for Sundays to come, for my mom would show up at 10 a.m. (religiously on time) and take my daughter Lily to church. Afterwards, they’d go to the usual sushi restaurant adjacent to the local Fubonn shopping center in town—a simple conveyor belt style kind of place—and together, they would have sushi for lunch.

But that’s not all. Usually Lily would insist that Grandma, whom she fondly calls “Ba Ngoai” (which means grandma in Vietnamese), take her inside the shopping center, where she can ride those mechanical animals—the ones where you’d put in 50 cents to ride for a few minutes. Then, before they head home, she would also insist that Ba Ngoai purchase another “treat” for her, usually a sweet one, such as these Yan Yan sticks or sweet, crunchy crackers. Sometimes, she’d come home with more than one treat.

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This, I assure you, is no accident. My daughter is the perpetrator of all of these events. You see—many months ago, when my mom suggested that she take Lily to church with her as to get used to our religion—I reluctantly agreed to let Lily go. Little did I know that it would release me of one kid (so I only have my son to watch), and that she would manage to convince my mom to buy her sushi every single time they go to church. Sushi after church is their new ritual.

It’s a fair deal, I think. My daughter is a very smart little girl who can barter better than I can. Like many children, she loves sweet treats. Unlike many children, she also loves sushi. By agreeing to go to church with Grandma, she is in theory getting what she wants while at the same time, my mother gets what she wants—which is to introduce my daughter to Catholicism, and hoping she’ll turn into a lifelong believer.

IMG_6213IMG_6214This morning, when my mom came over to pick Lily up for church, she commented on how much my daughter resembles me when I was her age. This is where I say, “Maybe,” because although Lily holds certain personality traits similar to mine (her shyness, for one), she is still her own person, and we are more different than alike, I think. This morning, she wore this ridiculous white dress with puffer sleeves and a bow tied in the back (similar to a 90s wedding gown), something I hated wearing as a child but was made to wear constantly; Lily, on the other hand, loves dresses of any kind, and she’ll wear them wholeheartedly, especially if it’s one that is gifted from a family member. (No surprise, my mother bought her that dress).

The way I see it—they’re getting quality time together, something I wish I had with my grandparents but unfortunately never did. Because of that, I want my daughter to develop a relationship with my mother. Their time is theirs to decide. I just wish I had the same treatment when I was young. But I also wished that I was smart enough to bribe my own grandmother (or mother) to buy me things that I like when I was little, in exchange for going to church. Perhaps then I might’ve stayed a true lifelong believer.