Tag: Grace


The Outcome

Part IV
(Preface here, Part I here, Part II here, Part III here)

Since leaving home, I have struggled my way to forgiveness countless times. Each memory starts the struggle over again, so my mind has gotten pretty good at sticking its fingers in its ears and chanting “La la la, I’m not remembering this!” So why, in my effort to forgive and forget, am I bringing up the past I don’t even want to think about?

It’s for women like my mom who may not particularly want kids or have the ability to teach them well but who are being guilt-tripped into thinking that God wants them to birth and educate an unlimited procession of children.

It’s for men like my dad who take as gospel that God is giving them both the responsibility to control their children and a Get Out of Jail Free card to use whatever means necessary.

It’s for parents who think they are supposed to ignore the mental anguish of making their own babies suffer because souls are on the line.

It’s for sincere-hearted people who are told they are unworthy to interpret God’s influence on their lives and agree to let more charismatic people tell them what to believe.

It’s for children who feel in their heart of hearts that they should never have been born because that is the message imprinted every day on their bodies and minds.

I have gotten in touch with some of the other survivors to come out of the cult that influenced my childhood, and the behind-the-scenes truth could not be farther from the idyllic appearance that drew my parents in. It was much as you would expect knowing my story. There was rampant abuse perpetrated by church leaders and parents alike. Families were threatened, coerced, and manipulated into staying on the compound. People with illnesses or injuries were forbidden from seeking medical help. The families that looked so pristine at church meetings hurt each other horribly behind closed doors. The one that particularly inspired my parents recently escaped the group’s confines and fell to pieces on the other side; the parents are now divorced, the children that left with them are bitter, and the children and grandchildren that stayed behind have disowned the rest.

Another family that we had close ties with also crumbled. Their situation was not as extreme as ours, but they took the doctrine of isolation very seriously and crippled their children’s relationships outside the family. Their oldest daughter, now in her mid-twenties, is pregnant with her third child and going through her third divorce. She does not have custody of her other two children, and she wants nothing to do with her old home. One sibling has taken her side; the others look as lost in photos as her parents.

And my family? Before my parents finally abandoned their crusade against imperfection, one sibling attempted suicide multiple times. One became an expert manipulator and a bully. One acted out on friends with the same violence we encountered at home. One became an unapologetic atheist. One suffered from a compulsive stress-related disorder. A few developed learning disabilities. I had unrelenting nightmares. Holidays and special occasions were battlegrounds. To this day, we don’t discuss personal things, and we don’t bring up the past. We’re a far cry from the shiny, happy family my parents envisioned, and I understand all the more why God doesn’t use force to make us into better people: because it simply doesn’t work.

When Christians use the word “grace,” I don’t fully understand what they mean, but I know I experience it every day, both in my ability to wield it and in the gentle way God is centering my life around hope. I have to think that if my parents had encountered that kind of grace (or understood it for what it was), our family would be drastically different today… none of us condemned by impossible ideals, none of us trapped into violence, none of us terrified or broken by each other’s hands, none of us still living under the thumb of that old bully Shame. The scandalous truth is that perfection is a myth and that’s okay. I believe our capacities for kindness and understanding increase dramatically when we accept that, and it adds one more poignant hope to my list: that my family’s story is not yet finished.


Additional reading:
Sparrows Flutter
by Hillary McFarland
Why Good People Do Bad Things Inside a Cultish Church
by Elizabeth Esther
To Those Who May Be Shocked, Disappointed, and Hurt by the News of My Apostasy
by Vyckie Garrison
Barry’s Post
by Barry Bishop
Patriarchy and Our Daughters
by Taunya
In Which I Discuss the Unthinkable
by Laurie M.
Christian Brainwashing?
by Betsy Markman
Word Games
by Lewis Wells
Christian Families on the Edge
by Rachel D. Ramer
Antidotes to Spiritual Abuse
by Eric M. Paździora
Moving On
by Darcy

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (by Jesus)


Gentle Tsunami

I was walking home from the park three days ago hand-in-hand with my daughters, smears of frozen yogurt on our cheeks and playground gravel under our fingernails, when it hit me. Grace. Like a gentle tsunami, it washed over that moment. Then, at half-past-naptime in the afternoon. There, under the silver-glinted olive trees. My hands clasped with the two little girls who make me crazy with love (and sometimes just crazy)… and I whispered “Thank you” into the springtime sky.

Mommy with her girls 1

I remember another Sunday years ago when I sat in our church’s youth group after a particularly terrifying lesson. I was already a veteran victim of religious terror, and our church had raised the bar impossibly high with the unit study on demons when I was in 5th grade. Still, this particular Sunday’s message was the most frightening of my life: You are doomed to commit the same sins your parents did. It was an interpretation of Exodus 20:5 that many Christians accept, and it scared me into a hopeless panic.

“Please, God, no!” I prayed over and over like a character in a scratchy black and white film. “Please, God, no! Please, God, no! I don’t want to hurt my own children one day, I don’t want them to end up like me. Please, God…” I muddled through vague resolutions not to ever fall in love or get married, not to ever, ever make a baby. I was heartbroken. Damned.

In college, I met, kissed, and married my husband within ten short months, irreversibly losing my anti-marriage resolve. However, my fear was still alive. I felt it in the secret passageways of my anatomy every day of married life. I tasted its metallic bitterness. It compounded in my chest when I leafed through Anne Geddes books, wondering what kind of monster a baby would unleash in me. I did not want to find out. I adored children, so I was particularly cautious not to have one myself.

Another Bible study turned the tides. I worked through Beth Moore’s “Breaking Free” with a group of college friends and learned that faulty translation had created all this mess. Exodus 20:5 in the original language says that the “sins of the fathers” (oh, what a sinister phrase) are taken into account by God. As in, God understands how the misdeeds of older generations affect younger generations. Other Bible passages such as Ezekiel 18 go into greater detail on how people’s choices and consequences are solely their own… but this isn’t meant to be a Bible study. It’s the story of how my fear let out a surprised “Oh!” and vanished in a wisp of smoke.

That very next summer, I got pregnant with Natalie. And while I still had some freakouts and hyperventilations to work out of my system, I welcomed her to the world with a fuzzy, warm, king-sized happiness. I met my baby and turned into a mother.

Meeting Mom

Four years and two months later, I played with my daughters all afternoon at the park. We picked Sophie’s favorite miniature daisies and flew on pink horses that Natalie conjured up. We ran all the way home for a potty break and then back out for frozen yogurt topped with white chocolate, strawberries, and heaps of colorful sprinkles. We walked home giggling, and I realized with the full profundity of a once-afraid soul that God answered. For all my faults—getting frustrated with the incessant toddler messes, blocking out every third hour of the incessant preschool chatter, saying “We’ll do that later” far too often—I have been spared the pain of becoming an abusive parent. My own hurts are even healing under the skilled touch of grace. The fear is simply a forgotten nightmare; grace is my here-and-now. Grace is why today, I can hug those little girls with a heart full of our delicious memories and say, “Happy Mother’s Day to you too.”

Mother's Day toes

Headless Is Hot Right Now

For the past week, I’ve been mulling over Rebecca Woolf’s post about whether marriage or motherhood is harder than the other. At first, it felt like a terrible question to consider at all… Is chocolate or raspberry gelato more likely to make me throw up? Do I hate the guts of fresh spring mornings or crisp fall evenings more? Would I take greater satisfaction from strangling my husband or strangling my babies? But perhaps it is a legitimate question after all. Relationships are not always easy, especially among people who live in the same house, and especially when life throws itself in the blender (as it is so wont to do around here).

The answer was simple at first, and I’ll give you a few hints:
1)      Surgical removal
2)      Breast pumps
3)      Explosive diapers
4)      Projectile vomiting
5)      Screaming fits
6)      Teething
7)      If it is liquid, it must be spilled
8)      Preferably on the rug
9)      Or even better, on the sofa
10) Did I mention the explosive diapers?
Motherhood is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. We parents sacrifice a lot of freedoms for our children, including going out at night and shutting the bathroom door. Little ones have too many emotional and physical needs to count, and my idea of an exhausting day is hanging out at home with my girls. My precious, beautiful girls who have oh so much in common with tornadoes.

But then I thought about conflict. Let’s say (hypothetically of course) that I yelled at my three-year-old for grabbing toys out of her little sister’s hand for the 7,415th time yesterday. One big hug and a “Mommy’s sorry,” and our relationship was back to its typical giggly state. However, let’s say (also hypothetically) that when Dan came home for lunch last week, I said “hi” and then snapped his head off and swallowed it whole. And while we may both know I was reacting to unrelated stresses, our relationship requires more than “sorry” to get back on track. We need shovels and flashlights and hardhats and paper for sketching a map as we dig. Then, once we finally unearth whatever tricky, deep-rooted problem that made me eat my husband’s head in the first place, we start the science experiments to find a solution. And then, once we’ve taken care of the problem, we still have a head to replace and a tunnel to crawl out of and some revisions to our daily routine to institute so that it doesn’t happen again… and I now need a nap.

The point is that both motherhood and spousehood are draining. Complicated. Scary. Hard. And far, far lovelier than I deserve. I feel wildly fortunate to live with three relational guinea pigs people who let me hang around despite my mistakes… and laugh at my jokes… and let me tickle them silly… and cuddle close… and say crazy things like they love me. As much work as these relationships can sometimes take to maintain, they are more precious to me than all the freedoms in the world. Yes, even more than shutting the bathroom door.


In Hiding

I just realized I’m in hiding. I haven’t been to church in three weeks, and I’m feeling nauseous at the prospect of tomorrow. We haven’t entertained guests in even longer; I actually cancelled an invitation to have lunch with friends last week. Grocery trips broadside me, the unfamiliarity of aisles and aisles, the threat of another language. I’ve been grasping at solitude, even tucked away here at home. An hour alone, headphones on.

Is it just cowardice? Maybe I’ve depleted my stores of bravery in these last ten months of culture shock. Or could it be dysfunction finally taking over my sense of logic and social responsibility? All I know for sure is that I’m tired. Inspiration comes in fitful bursts but never stays long enough for me to build up energy. I have projects on the burner, but the pilot light is out. No more fuel.

Sweet Dan gave me the afternoon to write my short-short fiction piece for a contest next week, but the instant I sat down, I slammed into a brick wall. It doesn’t feel exactly like writer’s block since I’m bursting with ideas. It just feels like can’t. So I bit my nails and beat myself over the head with guilt and read bits of Jen Lemen’s beautiful blog in search of inspiration until I found this paragraph in her archives:

Sometimes an internal monologue of shoulds is a sign that some little voice is calling the shots, and it’s not me. At least not the me that understands deep down that love is always the way, that TRUST melts into opportunity, that the joy of discovery is the most creative, fruitful enterprise every single time, that I always finish best in an atmosphere of grace not just pressure.

I desperately need that atmosphere of grace. I suspect I am the only one keeping myself holed up in isolation until the imagined pressure of church and guests and writing deadlines is too hard to face. So here’s a teeny flutter of a plan:

  • Tomorrow morning, I’m going to go to church without worrying what I look like and say hi to people because at least that I can do. I will breathe.
  • Right now, I’m going to feed my crying baby and put the computer open on the table in front of me. Maybe I’ll come up with a sentence in between spoonfuls. Maybe I won’t, but it’s okay. This week is not my last chance to write.
  • And later? I’m going to go to bed early. I’ll stretch out and make happy, comfortable noises and not worry about a single thing because all I should be doing at night is getting enough rest. So I will. It’s a start.

How to Be a Parent

When I was a teenager, I babysat several times a week. I loved every minute, and if I had written an essay called “How to Be a Parent” at age fifteen, it would have said this:

First, you play princess Barbies with your adorable four-year-old, then put her in her princess jammies to read princess stories before tucking her into her princess blankets for the night. Then you feed the baby his bottle while watching a romantic comedy and eating sugar by the spoonful dinner. Once the baby is asleep, you’re free to spend the next several hours taking sexy bubble baths, or whatever adults do with their copious spare time. The end.

In the 1,141 days that I have actually been a parent, I have taken exactly three bubble baths (none of them particularly sexy) and learned a few things. Like, the moms of the children I babysat were probably cleaning frantically for seven hours before I came over. Also, the parents had probably lost a cumulative year of sleep training that adorable four-year-old to stay in her princess bed all night. And normal adults, those with actual responsibilities during the day, don’t stay up until 2 a.m. drinking wine in their lingerie by candlelight. At least not often.

The relative who came to visit us when we brought Natalie home from the hospital was just trying to help, I know. But everything about her help got under my skin, crawled around, and gnawed at me like a swarm of chiggers. I scratched back pretty hard, I’m afraid.

I felt like all those years of babysitting had earned me a PhD in childcare, but I had no idea what to do with my own daughter. My mind boggled at the fact that this tiny person was completely dependent on me. What if I didn’t dress her warmly enough? How could I know if she was eating well? What was making her so miserable that she had to cry? I felt like I should be confident and relaxed, but I doubted myself at every turn, and my relative’s comments further prevented me from finding my own way of mothering. They made me feel 200% a failure.

The “I would nevers” started innocently enough: I would never leave my baby strapped into a swing all day. I would never use the television as a babysitter. I would never ignore my children. I wasn’t trying to be supercilious at all. I just knew I loved my little girl and wanted to learn from all the parenting mistakes I’d seen.

But then, the third trimester of my pregnancy with Sophie lumbered down and squished out my energy overnight. My energetic two-year-old was suddenly a pig-tailed tornado, and I kept falling asleep three words into story time. “Sesame Street” and “The Backyardigans” became very, very important to our survival. I started falling asleep at night under a palpable cloud of mother-guilt.

Natalie and I went out on a mommy-daughter date this week. We walked through a park, Natalie chatting incessantly about everything she saw (“Look, there’s a flower! And a bird! And another flower! Ooo, look, there’s grass! Did you see the grass, Mommy? The grass, over there? Did you see it?”), and then shared a cup of ice cream. It was perfect. I hadn’t paid attention lately to what an amazing little girl she is, bubbling over with sweetness and enthusiasm, and I was blown away.

I wish so much that I could do more for her. Maybe if Sophie cleaned the house for me, I could give Natalie the one-on-one time she deserves, but you know babies–too busy lying around, being cute. But despite my imperfections as a mother, my daughter has a vast, beautiful heart. She is happy and creative, and she knows I love her with everything I have. She knows, and that is enough for now.

We’re on the journey back into the sunlight, but this time, I’m not looking at other families for validation (At least our daughter eats her vegetables, yada yada yada). Instead, I’m deeply humbled by the other moms and dads who are struggling to be the right parents for their children. I’m encouraged to see other families who, through their aching, ache for one other. I’m so grateful to know I’m not alone in this shaky business of being human.

Things change. Children learn their way in life as parents temporarily lose theirs. “I would never” becomes “I’ll do my best,” and we fumble our way through apologies. We learn honesty and grace. Our rose-tinted glasses crack; we see our children for who they are. And through each struggle, each fight for the relationships most precious to us, we dive deeper into the mystery of unconditional love.


Shrek the Not

Last week, I was an ogre of a mom, and not the endearing, crusty-with-a-heart-of-gold, Shrek type. I was the hormonal, worried, perpetually frustrated type of monster who showed fangs whenever her two-year-old daughter acted two years old. My snarky mood came squealing to a halt, though, just after I spilled a bottle of orange juice all over Natalie. She looked up at the thunder cloud hanging over my head and sweetly said, “I’m sorry, Mommy!” Mommy, of course, quickly melted into a pathetic puddle of guilt.

The most exasperating thing about situations like this is that only minutes later, redemption is skipping around the room with a contagious smile. I’d prefer to wallow in the guilt for at least a few days, to pay mental penance for unleashing my inner monster on my daughter’s precious heart. But all Natalie requires is one look from me that shows I really, truly like her (a big bear hug doesn’t hurt either), and all of my actions to the contrary are forgotten.

Grace is hard to accept — agonizingly hard — but it’s what inspires me to keep doing my best at mommyhood. Really, it’s what inspires me to keep doing my best at personhood. If God and my little girl still think I’m great at the end of a hard week, it’s keep acting monstrous toward anyone, even myself.

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