Harvest House Publishers
I pulled my small brown coat tight around me. A sheet of paper crackled on my back.
If you take it off, you’ll be in trouble.
I straightened my shoulders and walked across the playground. Little boys and girls pointed at me and laughed. I walked up the sidewalk to the school entrance. It seemed a thousand miles long. When I pulled open the heavy door, warm air brushed my face.
A little boy stopped and stared at me as I passed. I kept my eyes fixed straight ahead and ignored him. I walked toward my class as the bell rang, scuffing my feet against the tile.
“What is this?” A man’s voice stopped me in my tracks.
I put my head down. All I could see was the tip of his shoes.
The principal knelt down and looked me in the eye. He gently turned me around to read the sign tacked to my back with two large safety pins. He stood and wrapped an arm around me protectively.
His face was dark and angry. I skipped as I struggled to keep up. My heart beat in my chest like a trapped bird. The principal ushered me into his office and closed the door. He knelt and fumbled with the pins, and finally ripped the paper gently away. It felt as if a thousand pounds had been removed from my tiny eight-year-old frame.
The white paper in his hands read, “I’m a Stupid Girl.”
“Why are you wearing this?”
My mom had pinned it on me. To this day I don’t remember why, but I do remember the scarlet letter telling the whole world I was stupid. I was relieved when I realized Principal Shelstead’s face was no longer angry, only sad.
He called his secretary into the room. She paged another classroom, and after a minute my six-year-old sister joined me. He had her turn around.
I sat beside Mindy, my little sister, on the blond wood chairs. My principal shut the door and called my mother. We sat quietly, stealing glances at one another. Finally Principal Shelstead walked out and told us we could go, and I happily skipped down the hall.
Mr. Shelstead would be in trouble instead of me.
Growing up in the small brick home on Latimer Street involved many contradictions. There were happy times. Some of the weekends we spent at Keystone Lake. My brothers and sisters and I fished with our dad. I swam in the lake. We made lots of noise while Mom read a book at the shore’s edge. I explored the woods, looking for arrowheads and pretty rocks. And I loved playing outside with my friends and siblings. We hid in the tree house in my backyard. We explored the playground at Billy Mitchell Elementary. We ran through the sprinkler in the summertime, skipping and running through the spray of water. I was a master at jumping on the pogo stick. I could pogo the entire length of a city block and also jump rope at the same time. All of these are innocent, fun recollections of my childhood.
But those memories are mixed with others that are not so peaceful. I had no choice but to accept the soul-searing punishments like wearing a sign pinned to my coat. I once sat on my front porch with a soiled diaper on my head because I hadn’t attended to my baby brother quickly enough. I gagged on pieces of soap scraped across my tongue. I braced for the belt when I heard the phrase, “Line up against the couch and bend over.” Many times we all took a belt-whipping if the guilty party didn’t confess. I attempted to defend myself when I was whipped with a hairbrush or a hanger. I ran away through the house when things were whipped off the wall to be used in anger. I still hate the giant fork-and- spoon wall decorations that were popular back then!
Life inside the four walls of my house wasn’t always abusive, but perhaps that is what made it so difficult. We never knew what to expect. The physical punishments and emotional chaos were inconstant companions. But when I looked at other families, I knew what was happening inside our home wasn’t normal.
My heart was gentle, and fighting words twisted my stomach. I hated the curse words and names spoken in anger, and yet I embraced each word as if it were mine to hold. I feared the rage, and yet I fought against it, stirring up additional turmoil.
My mother was broken. My dad paid little attention, burying himself in work or behind a newspaper. Like some windup toy that had been left out in the rain, my mother functioned some times and at other times spun off wildly. I had a beautiful mom, the prettiest of any of the kids in my school. But she was fragile—a stained-glass portrait with cracks running deep through the center of her being.
My mother also struggled with asthma. It is as much a part of her as her brown eyes. Whistle in, soft breath out—a sound I will always associate with her. When I was 13, she started a new regimen of medication. Her breathing eased, but a new dance partner joined the fragile waltz of her existence.
As an adult, I understand that the medication had a rare side effect that produced wild mood swings. But none of us knew that then. It was not only frightening for us, but it would plunge my mother into despair. She disintegrated into huge emotional outbursts over small things. She ran out of the house threatening to kill herself. It was a routine that was all too familiar. While she was gone, we cleaned the house; we did homework; we swept the ugly scene out of our minds like dust out the back door.
She always came back with tears and apologies. She confessed she really didn’t mean it, and she would ask for forgiveness. She left tokens on our beds to express her remorse—an all-day sucker was my favorite. But as time passed and new incidences cropped up with greater frequency, it was harder to forgive.
During one of the worst times, her threat of suicide was emphasized with a gun. One day she pushed a gun into her mouth, and I remember I whispered the unthinkable where no one could possibly hear me—“Just do it.” I was horrified by the thought, but I meant it. I wanted things to be normal. I wanted the threats to stop. I wanted her to get well because something inside of me was changing.
My mother’s brokenness was fracturing me.
We can draw lessons from the past, but we cannot live in it. -- Lyndon B. Johnson
Dysfunction is often generational, and that is true in my family history. As I dived into my mother’s past, I easily drew the connection from my grandmother to my mother to me. Seeing my mother through her past didn’t change my childhood memories or erase the events. But it did teach me. There were many benefits gained through this trip into the past. It gave me insight into and compassion for the child who would become my mother. It broadened my perspective— and it helped me understand the “why” behind some of the events and change my own behavior.
It allowed me to ask the most important question: Was I handing the same set of problems to the next generation?
Jennifer Kennedy Dean, author of When You Hurt and When He Heals, calls these sets of problems “flesh patterns.” They are responses, actions, and parenting patterns ingrained in us by the adults in our lives. Dean says, “Your family has formed your flesh patterns, and you are usually drawn to those who keep engaging them because it’s what you know. And even if it gets painful, you probably prefer the familiar to the unknown.”2
We often parent the way we were taught simply because we don’t know better. In my case, pinpointing these generational patterns gave me the opportunity to not only break the cycle, but explore new methods of relating to, disciplining, and encouraging my children. It helped me to view history through the eyes of an adult. I’m no longer the little girl with a sign pinned to my back. I haven’t been for a long time. If I want to truly understand what took place and how to change the course for my own children, I have to look beyond my own experiences. I have discovered three truths in this exploration:
1. Dysfunction is often generational.
2. When dysfunctional patterns are revealed, it is an opportunity for change.
3. Understanding the past expands your perspective.
It is human nature to respond to and view life through your own experiences. When you are raised in dysfunction, it is natural to focus on your pain or on the injustices against you. Those feelings make sense because they are your experience. However, your goal is healing—so this part of your journey begins by viewing the dysfunction you encountered through a perspective larger than your own.
You will ask honest questions. What did the offending person in your life experience as a child? What events shaped them as they matured? Why did they bring unhealthy parenting skills or addictions or abuse into your life? As you explore these questions and more, I hope you understand how powerful a tool such knowledge is in this process.
One generational pattern in my family is alcohol addiction. My paternal grandfather was a kind, loving man, but he was also an alcoholic. He used alcohol to escape the unhappy situation at home. My mother’s dad died at a young age, but his genetic disposition to alcoholism still lives on in the DNA of our family. Because alcohol is destructive in our family, it is a no-man’s zone for me. It is a risk I will not take.
I often listen as women share their experiences of growing up in alcoholic homes. They remember clearly the rage, the out-of-control behavior, and the neglect. Many express anger at the parent who nurtured them less than at their addiction, but it is surprising how many turn to drinking or other ways of numbing themselves to ease their own pain. They do not recognize they are inviting a generational pattern into their own household and into the lives of their children by resorting to a coping mechanism of their past.
Another emotional pattern that emerged in my family history is abandonment. Women in our family fled the scene when things were tough. My grandmother physically abandoned her children for days at a time. My own mother ran from the house or threatened suicide (the ultimate way of checking out of an emotionally overwhelming situation) when life became too big to handle. This is a pattern I could have embraced and passed on.
When I first married my husband, Richard, we had a fight over something trivial. I opened the door to take a drive (abandon the scene). Richard gently stopped me.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t want to fight.”
“Let’s talk then,” he said.
“No.” I went into the bedroom and locked the door.
Soon I heard the scratching of a key. My husband stood at the door, a confused look on his face.
I slipped by him and walked into the living room. For the next 20 minutes we played a game of human chess. I moved from room to room. My husband followed. Finally I sat down on the couch and put my face against the cushions. It seems childish now, but back then, if it was fight or flight, I was going to run, baby, run. So I hid in the cushions, hoping he would just let me disconnect until things were better. Richard wrapped his arms around me gently. My face mashed into the cushions.
“I can do this all day,” he said.
For the next half hour we talked about our disagreement and resolved our conflict. At 21 years old, I had not yet learned the healthy alternative of working through conflict, so I did what was familiar. I adopted the family pattern of abandoning the scene. But I had to learn to deal with the tough times in a way that made me, my husband, and my children feel safe. Fleeing the scene wasn’t an option if I was to break the cycle.
Examining your parents’ or guardians’ history gives you insight into your parenting skills. Are there destructive behaviors or repeated patterns beginning or ingrained in your relationships? Do you use words that once made you feel ashamed to discipline your child? Do you continually cross the line with your child and then grapple with guilt and regret?
If so, are you willing to start fresh?
The good news is, there are effective ways to deal with emotionally overwhelming situations, such as waiting until the situation is no longer heated, listening to the needs of your child or partner, or compromising to find a solution that will benefit each of you. We’ll delve deeper into helpful alternatives later.
The benefit of viewing things from the generational perspective is that it allows you to extend a measure of grace. I never knew the story about my mother being molested at five years of age. This story rocked my world when I read it. As an adult, I was angry that a man had taken a trusting, beautiful child out for ice cream and marked her soul through sexual molestation. Though I may never fully understand why things happened in our home during my own childhood, I do have compassion for that little five-year-old girl who became my mom. It helped me see when her life began to unravel. Refocusing to view her history helped me gain perspective for my own life. David Seamands, author of Healing for Damaged Emotions, gives this picture:
In most of the parks the naturalists can show you a cross section of a great tree they have cut, and they will point out that the rings of the tree reveal the developmental history, year by year. Here’s a ring that represents a year when there was a terrible drought. Here are a couple of rings from years when there was too much rain…That’s the way it is with us. Just a few thin layers beneath the protective bark—the concealing, protective mask—are the recorded rings of our lives. There are scars of ancient, painful hurts.3
I discovered the rings in my mother’s life as I came to know her story. I could point to one ring and say, “Here is where my mother felt abandoned,” or to another and say, “This is where she lost a child when she was only 18.” These rings are the record of her life, and they form part of the pattern of our family tree.
Many of you have experienced sexual abuse, neglect, physical and emotional pain. Perhaps this came about because you were the child of an addict or alcoholic parent. Perhaps your parent is deceased and closure seems out of reach, and you wonder how you can have compassion when there is no opportunity for reconciliation or recompense. Still others of you have parents or guardians trapped in destructive patterns of behavior that continue to affect your life. The thought of allowing compassion into your relationship with them is not only frightening, it doesn’t seem to make sense.
Though our circumstances and experiences are diverse, the reason we study the rings of our family tree is so we can discover where drought and excessive rain affected our parents, and therefore learn from it so our children do not experience the same.
Allowing compassion into your mind-set does not mean you condone or accept a parent’s behavior. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to be angry at what happened. It simply means that you view the person through adult eyes—so you can learn from the past and grow as a woman and mother.
These questions will help you as you begin the process of exploring generational patterns. There are no wrong answers. Take time with each question to look beyond your own experiences and broaden your perspective of the past.
1. Name the parent(s) or guardian(s) who hurt you in the past. What are the rings in their family tree? Were they hurt by others? How did that impact them?
2. Do you see repeated patterns of dysfunction? Name them.
3. With honesty (not condemnation), examine your own life. Are you repeating any of these behaviors or patterns in your relationship with your spouse, your children, or both? Are any of these “flesh patterns” harming you personally?
4. What legacy would you like to leave your children? How is that different from the legacy given to you?
5. Think about this statement: “You can’t change the past or the parent(s) who hurt you, but you have every right to grow as a mother and as a person.” Are you ready to take that step? How do you feel about the possibility?
Right now you might be experiencing conflicting emotions. That is healthy. It means you are probing deep, taking off the mask so you can be real. That’s amazing! But it is also painful, much like removing scar tissue from an old, partly healed wound.
You don’t have to do this alone. At some point, when you are comfortable, I hope you will allow God to be a part of the journey if you haven’t already done so. Faith was an integral part of finding peace and healing in my life and heart. It wasn’t a crutch. Rather, it was understanding that God cares about my journey and me.
You’ve been courageous today! May I pray with you as you take the next step to pushing past the past?
Father, I thank you for this beautiful woman. You grieve over the hurts she has carried for far too long, don’t you? But you have a plan for her, you love her, and you are delighted in who she is. You accept us when we are broken. You love us when we are searching. You aren’t afraid of our doubts and fears and apprehensions—not even our anger. Please wrap your arms around my friend today so she might feel secure in their shelter. Thank you for her life, for her future, and for her bravery in reaching out for something greater for herself and the next generation.
We look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! —2 Corinthians 5:17
I watched movies and went swimming at the naval base. I was considered attractive, and the sailors would whistle and make comments. When I was 14, I started dating a sailor. I wanted to hear someone say they loved me, and he did. At 15, I became pregnant, and I married him.
My husband wouldn’t let me talk to my family or friends. He kicked me in the stomach when I did something wrong. One day he drove me to Texas to live with his family. His mother didn’t want me there because she thought I was flirting with her husband, my father-in-law. When it was time for me to give birth, she drove me to a charity hospital and dropped me off at the door. I was in labor for several hours and eventually gave birth to a girl.
When I was released, my mother-in-law took me to a small, run-down hotel and handed me condensed milk for the baby and some canned goods. Then she drove away. I wrote a letter to my husband, begging him to let me come home. I had no money to take care of my baby or myself. After a month he sent me a train ticket, but as soon as I got back to California the beatings started all over again.
Eighteen months later I had a second daughter. My oldest child was sick, and the doctor diagnosed her with cystic fibrosis. One night I rushed her to the hospital because she couldn’t breathe, and she died. When my husband came home, he beat me and kicked me over and over. He said I had murdered our child.
He took the insurance money and drove us to Texas. He would leave for a month at a time, spending money on other women. One day he moved out, and I moved in with a neighbor. After a month, he sent roses, saying he wanted to come back. When he came to the house, he wanted to have sex, but I told him no. He beat me with the roses. He grabbed me by the neck and made me take my clothes off and have sex on the stairwell. I got pregnant that night with our third child.
He left, and I was alone and pregnant. When it was time to have my baby, my water broke. I looked everywhere until I found a coin so I could call someone to help. I walked down an alley to call my girlfriend so she could babysit my daughter and I could go to the hospital.
One hour later I had a nine-pound-thirteen-ounce baby girl I named Tonya Suzanne.