Question: I have a very good relationship with my in-laws. They’ve been in my life for almost five years and they’ve been a huge support to me and my partner. They helped pay for our wedding and they also gifted us a significant sum towards our mortgage deposit. I’m agnostic and they’re staunch Catholics so we agreed to have a church wedding, really just to appease them. Now I wish we hadn’t.
recently became a mother to my first child and my in-laws are now insisting that we get our son baptised because they believe strongly that baptism cleanses us of original sin. My husband thinks we should do it, again just to make them happy, but this isn’t the message I want to send to my child. At the same time, I feel beholden because they have given us so many financial gifts. What should I do?
Answer: I think you’ve touched on an issue that many Irish people have experienced. While not everyone can relate to being financially supported by their in-laws, those with no religious affiliation often feel as if the Catholic faith is forced upon them by parents and grandparents in the lead-up to milestone life events.
According to figures from the CSO, ‘No Religion’ accounted for 9.8pc of the population in 2016, up from 5.9pc in 2011. This cohort, and more alongside them, typically opt for non-religious christenings, weddings and funerals, yet they often run into conflict with older family members who may have strong opinions about the role of the Catholic Church when celebrating key events.
I shared your question with psychotherapist Amy Plant who notes that your dilemma, like most issues with in-laws, comes down to “boundaries and priorities”. “If your priority is not to rock the boat with the in-laws, then that’s fine,” she says. “But if your priority is to stand in your own integrity and be clear about the messages you want to send to your kid, then that’s a different thing.”
Setting boundaries with in-laws is important, says Plant. Yet while it is never too late to set boundaries, it’s harder to establish them when you’ve already “set a precedent”. “Once you start saying ‘yes’, it becomes a lot more difficult to say ‘no’,” she says.
You’ve already set a precedent by agreeing to have a church wedding, says Plant, and this precedent will become even more entrenched if you agree to a baptism. “[By agreeing to a baptism], the in-laws might think they have a very significant voice in major life decisions and the decisions this couple makes around their kid,” she notes.
“There is a very good chance that this is not going to be the last time this happens. The next thing is communion, confirmation and so forth… That’s something to really think about, because trying to extract oneself from that is quite difficult.”
I also shared your dilemma with psychologist and author Dr Malie Coyne, who says it sounds like you and your partner didn’t have a full discussion about your in-laws’ religious beliefs before getting married. She advises you to start the conversation as soon as possible. “They need to have a discussion on what baptism is about and whether they want that for their child. Because with baptism, you have to meet a priest and make a commitment that you’re going to bring your child up in the Catholic religion. It’s not just an event or a one-day thing… If they are going to make a stand and not go down the religious route, they need to do that now. They can always delay the decision because the child doesn’t need to be baptised immediately, but they need to start the discussion.”
You’ve already considered the message appeasing your in-laws sends to your son, but perhaps, during this discussion, you should think about how exactly that message might be received. “Is the message, ‘We’ll just say yes to keep you happy? You give us money therefore you have a huge amount of control and influence?’” asks Plant.
Likewise, it’s important to consider what happens if you refuse to baptise your child. Have you and your husband discussed the impact the potential conflict might have on your relationship with your in-laws and, more importantly, your relationship with one another? Have you considered the possibility that your husband might be more inclined to appease his parents than you are?
Your dilemma also poses questions about gifts and expectations. Are some gifts conditional and, if so, should we think long and hard before accepting them?
“I don’t know if there is an implication that they are beholden because the in-laws have given them so much, or is it just something the writer feels?” notes Plant. “Even so, the thing with gifts — and I understand it’s more difficult with larger gifts — is that they are something that is given freely and that you let go of. Something given with expectations or strings attached is not a gift.”
And yet this isn’t always the case when it comes to large financial contributions towards weddings, notes wedding planner and celebrant Darragh Doyle. “Some parents won’t demand anything [when they make a financial contribution], yet there are others that will. And while I’ve never come across anything as extreme as this situation, the biggest expectation among parents who contribute is that they can invite whoever they want to the wedding and that can create a problem.
“If parents tell you they want to financially contribute, then that is the time to sit down and have the discussion,” he says. “Ask them, ‘What are your expectations, who do you want to invite and do your expectations go beyond who you want to invite?’ Get it sorted early or it can create problems later on.”
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