What do you do when your mother-in-law is so unhappy with your parenting decision that she threatens to stage a surprise infant circumcision?
As an unhappy mom explained in a letter to Slate’s Care and Feeding advice column, she is a “casual Christian” and her fiancé is a Reform Jew. Though a bris (a Jewish circumcision ceremony) is traditional in her fiancé’s faith, the parents-to-be made the mutual decision not to have their son circumcised.
But her future in-laws are deeply unhappy with the decision to forego a “rite of passage” that is important to them. The mom wrote that she has tried to explain their decision, but it hasn’t made a difference:
I’ve tried reasoning that I won’t be up for hosting 20-plus people seven days after giving birth; I’ve tried explaining that we just won’t be circumcising; I’ve tried making the argument that it’s not sterile for a random rabbi to cut our newborn on the dining room table. I’ve done everything short of saying “Because I don’t want to host a penis party to expose my son to the world.”
Now, the mom has learned that her mother-in-law is so determined to have a bris that she’s secretly planning a “surprise” bris to be held at the new parents’ house after their son is born.
Furious, the mom wants to know how to handle her future mother-in-law and what to do about the planned surprise bris:
This isn’t completely out of character for her, but it seems like a new level of crazy and violation. My fiancé has intervened in the past, but never on something of this magnitude. I feel that as the baby’s mother, this is not a situation I should just leave to him.
In response, advice columnist Nicole Cliffe made the case that it would be more effective for her fiancé to talk to his mother about the surprise bris. Cliffe pointed out that it’s likely that the mother-in-law doesn’t really believe that this was a mutual decision not to circumcise:
I guarantee that she does not think the decision was mutual. She thinks that you, “a casual Christian,” have pressured her Jewish son into forgoing something intensely important to his cultural heritage (not just the bris, but the circumcision itself), and nothing you say to her on the subject is going to make a dent in that.
Cliffe recommended that the fiancé explain to his mother that this truly is his choice. What’s more, she suggested that the letter writer try to meet her future in-laws part way, perhaps by having a naming ceremony.
Though she agreed that the mother-in-law was in the wrong, Cliffe also felt that this was a response born out of fear. Because the mother-in-law may be afraid that her side of the family will be cut out of celebrations, Cliffe recommended approaching her with kindness and reassuring her that they “plan on keeping his Jewish heritage alive in his life.”
The subject of infant circumcision can lead to intense online debate, so it’s no surprise that many of the comments revolved around the practice itself. However, there were several commenters who wrote to reassure the mom that it isn’t possible to have a “surprise” bris — no reputable mohel would perform one without the parents’ consent.
Several commenters agreed that the son is responsible for addressing the problem. One wrote:
As usual, the SON needs to address his mother’s interference. They need to argue it out. Unless he’s wavering — then the couple needs to argue it out. Quit blaming the mother so much and focus on the son being a wuss.
There was general agreement that the mother-in-law was in the wrong, but commenters disagreed on how badly she had overstepped and how it should be addressed. There were some who felt the threatened surprise bris warranted cutting the mother-in-law out of their lives:
The father should call his Mother but only to explain that due to her actions she will never see him or any of his children. If she shows up on their property she will be arrested. (Ideally, all of his siblings will go no contact with their parents.)
While it seems no one took the mother-in-law’s side, there were some who understood her fears about a grandson who grows up without his Jewish heritage. One commenter noted that the letter writer’s tone about the bris seemed “flippant,” and suspected this attitude had persuaded the mother-in-law that the mom will be “dismissive of traditions and holidays important to their family’s faith.”
Another commenter tried to explain to the letter writer why the family is taking this so seriously and advised an honest heart-to-heart:
My mother-in-law told me that in their family’s tradition, a man’s bris is more important than his wedding because it symbolizes his covenant with God that has been carried down through thousands of years of ancestry. So the importance of the practice to my wife’s family easily overcame any reservations I had about it. [Letter writer] and [Mother-in-Law] really just need to have an open conversation about how the family plans on expressing the kid’s faith and cultural upbringing, because refusing any sort of Jewish ceremony upon birth (and there are plenty of options other than surgical) sends a pretty clear message.
What do you think? Is the letter writer being too dismissive of her fiancé’s faith tradition? Does the mother-in-law deserve to be cut off for her interference?