Steadfast Daughters In A Quivering World: A Series
HA note: The following series will run for the next two weeks. It is reprinted with permission from Vyckie Garrison’s blog No Longer Quivering. Part four of the series was originally published on Patheos on December 12, 2010.
This series is written by Vyckie Garrison with the help of many ex-QF moms on behalf of Quivering Daughters. Vyckie says that she and a friend were recently “discussing the reactions of parents when their grown kids begin speaking out about the abuse of their fundamentalist upbringing. So often,” Vyckie explains, “the parents rationalize, dismiss, or minimize the abuse — they are so defensive that the hurt is compounded and the relationships totally break down. We thought it might be a good idea for HA to crosspost this series from NLQ in which the former QF moms set an example by actually owning our ideological screw-ups and honestly apologizing to our children.”
4. Acknowledgement & Apologies
In this part of our series, the ex-QF moms of NLQ are speaking directly to our own Quivering Daughters. Though we’ve already said our apologies in person, we want to acknowledge the abuse we inflicted on our children publicly for their sake, though we’re doing it anonymously out of respect for their privacy.
Trigger warning: As painful it has been for us to write these confessions down, it may be even tougher for the Quivering Daughters who were on the receiving end of our neglect and abuse to read.
My children were everything to me. I remember the feelings I had when I gave birth to my first child, emotions that surprised me with their ferocity. I’d spent my entire life focusing on me, more than anyone else, and yet now, after a few hours of the most horrible pain I’d ever experienced in my entire life (so much for the pain-free birthing books I’d read and committed to memory), this bloody squalling thing suddenly became the Most Important Thing On Earth.
I looked in shock at my husband, holding that baby that, up until then, I’d never even seen with my physical eyes, and, my gaze wide with amazement at the power of the raw protective urge coursing through my body, said, “I’d do anything for her. I don’t care if it is a Mack Truck on the highway—I’d willingly let it run over me if it would save her life.”
I was absolutely, totally and emphatically in love.
So when a woman from church gave me an innocent looking white book with an Amish-style family on the front cover, telling me it was the best book on raising children she’d ever read, I was interested. Two pages into it, I was hooked. Here was a man telling me that there was a sure-fire way that I could raise my child and guarantee that she would grow up to love and serve the Lord. As a devout evangelical conservative Christian, there was nothing more important to me than that. As bad as a Mack Truck accident might be, there was no “accident” or situation worse than the thought of my child not growing up to follow Christ —because that would mean an entire eternity of Hell. A Mack Truck can’t begin to compare.
So with my mother-love highly aroused and my fears fully engaged, I read, page by page, all about the way to ensure that your children are properly trained so that they will grow up to love and serve God.
If I could sum up the message that this book spoke to a young mother who deeply loved her baby, it was this:
“Momma, your baby is a sinner. He/she will try to manipulate you. Things like a child not liking a diaper change and squirming to be free are an example of a sinful will attempting to dominate you. You may think this is a little thing, but it’s huge. Why? Because if you let the child dominate you, the child will win. If the child wins, the child will learn that rebellion pays. The child will then grow up to probably reject God and go to Hell, because a rebellious heart will not want to follow God. So, Momma, never ever let your child win. Your child’s exertion of will [which includes anything you deem unacceptable—grumpiness, for example] is an act of war, and parenting is about the parent winning any and all battles of wills.”
I loved my baby. How grateful, absolutely grateful I felt, that someone was there to show me the way. Now, at last, there was hope! My baby would get the joy of growing up in a home where things were done right. She wouldn’t have to go through the things I went through! No, she was going to have a godly home where she would be trained properly, and she would grow up happy and obedient and full of love towards God.
It was so exciting — so exciting that I bought ten of those books and passed them out to my friends so that they could all join in the delight of knowing we could raise our children in a way that would ensure both their happiness now and their eternal future in Heaven.
I didn’t know.
If I could go back now and re-do the way I parented that little baby, I would. Out of all the things in my life that I deeply regret, that is the most painful, the most difficult, the most horrific set of memories to revisit. Because the thing is, I love my children no less now than I did then. It’s still a ferocious mother-bear kind of love. It’s still so powerful it is palpable.
But seeing your children as enemies in a war creates a fundamental crack in the parent-child relationship. Even if there is the most powerful love in the universe on the other side of the crack, the divide is still there…including the distortion of communication it causes. I entered into a performance-based parenting model out of love for my child. But that model does not feed love, or nurture love, or engage love.
It creates fear—fear of punishment, fear of not performing properly, fear of not receiving approval. And it also creates shame—shame for not measuring up, shame because you, “should have known better,” shame because you failed (again). It creates a relationship based on hierarchy (one is on top, one is an “underling”), a relationship based on power-over (not shared power), a relationship based on, “because God said so,” and not free will or true choice.
These are not things that create an environment in which to grow happy, healthy, richly nurtured human beings.
If I could put that two year old on my knee—and I can’t, because she’s a long way from two now—I would just hug her. I would rock her to sleep at night. I would sing her songs and tell her stories and I’d not see the flames of Hell rising over her head when she failed to perform properly. I’d giggle at her two-year-old antics and I would applaud the development of her brain when she began to understood that she was not me—an understanding often paired with the frequent use of the word, “No.”
Her, “no,” would not mean rebellion to me, but would mean the beginning sparks of awareness—an awareness of her own personhood, an awareness that I would seek to nurture. If she crossed boundary lines, I would gently and lovingly bring her back in—with firmness, if necessary, because sometimes firmness is, but with a distinct lack of fear that her boundary-pushing was because of some sin or desire-to-dominate that I must somehow quell or be responsible for her eternal damnation.
There would also be an atmosphere of respect for all people involved—not a respect demanded only for the authority figure (who may act disrespectfully to others, which is okay, but must always be respected by all underlings, unless they wish to risk punishment), but a respect that is part of the fabric of family life. A respect that is for everybody, for no other reason than because all humans deserve respect.
There would be none of the franticness of “getting it right.” Instead, there would be the easy rolling rhythm of life, her mommy understanding that some days are fun, some days are hard, and most days are made up of smiles and tears and laughter and groans, all mixed into one big cyclical ball we call life…and no amount of franticness changes that.
In closing, if the years go by and my oldest child stumbles onto what I’ve written here, I would like to finish this essay with a letter to that baby that I birthed those years ago:
I am so very, very sorry. Everything I did, I did out of love. But that doesn’t excuse any of it, nor does it take it away. And I am sorry. There is nothing more important than this, when I look back at the years, that I wish I could go back and do over.
Maybe it seems like I should have known, because mother’s know everything, right? You may not feel like that, but, if you ever do, when you become a mother, you will probably understand just how much I didn’t know.
I was young. I didn’t understand. I didn’t know. I swear to you, I literally didn’t know.
But now that I do, I’m not quiet. I tell the other mommies, when I see them with that book, that its message may cause more harm than good. I tell them my story. I tell them stories of other mommies who followed that book. Sometimes they get mad at me, when I tell them, because the book is often considered, “God’s Way,” and they think it shouldn’t be challenged. It hurts them to have the book’s ideas openly disagreed with.
I tell them anyway. I wish someone would have been brave enough to tell me. When someone finally did, I was angry. I couldn’t believe someone would speak against God…but, slowly, I finally became able to hear them, and when I did, the lights came on and everything changed.
And, as soon as I became aware of a better way, I took it. You remember that, because you were old enough to be aware. We had some interesting talks as I practiced those new ideas on your youngest sibling, didn’t we? What a change! I shared about what I used to think, and why…and why I am doing things a different way now. It made a big impression on you, the idea that everyone deserves respect. It made a big impression on all of us.
Honey, I love you. There just aren’t words strong enough or deep enough to say how much I love you. I’d still happily jump in front of a Mack Truck for you, without even a thought. And as a young mother, I loved you with everything I knew, in every way I knew was best.
I’m glad that “best” evolved and grew into something even better, but I am so sorry I didn’t discover it earlier. I am so sorry that I parented you in a way that wasn’t the best. This letter, and other words like it, are part of my way of expressing that sorrow. I can’t change our past, though I have done and will continue to do everything I can to change our current and future relationship, to do my part to help it be as positive and loving as it can be, a relationship that benefits both of us, a relationship where we each are able to “just be ourselves.” And maybe I can’t go back and re-do the years of my early parenting, but I can work to help change the past for other babies out there who, just like you, don’t need a mommy who is mistakenly thinking that mothering is a war, or that it is loving to make the baby “lose.”
I love you. I am not at war with you. I am your Mommy, so very very proud to be your Mommy, and I will always love you with the same abandoned ferocity that filled my heart the moment you were born.
I’m grateful to be your,
I’m sorry my idealism and fanaticism caused you to lose a great deal of your childhood because you had to take on adult responsibilities in order to help your mother cope with your growing number of siblings. I’m sorry you had to bear burdens I was never called upon to bear at your age and that so much of my parenting was devoted to looking good to people in the QF/patriarchal culture than it was to actually dealing with the situations that arose, and the children you were.
I’m sorry you had to leave home at the ages of 15 and 17 in order to escape the heavy burdens and the tyranny that we were forced to live in by a combination of bad theology and worse practice. I’m sorry that your talents and desires were not honored, but instead we tried to force you into a pre-determined mold that we thought was Christianity, but was really nothing more than a cultural phenomena.
I’m sorry for the seven years I lost with you, and the feeling you had of never measuring up and being good enough and that you were finally abandoned by those who should have stood with you. I’m sorry for the loss of fellowship with the other children, the loss of fellowship between us and the substandard education you received because we were so busy trying to get the laundry done, the food made, the housework done that somehow education always came in last. I’m sorry that we decided girls weren’t worth educating as well as boys since our view of you was that you were to be nothing more than breeding stock and helpmeets for whatever husband you had.
I’m sorry that every child got lost in the crowd and that the only way to make sure everyone got some attention somewhere was to buddy up with another sibling they had affinity for. I don’t regret a single child, but I do regret the stupidity that led me to get into such a no win situation.
I’m sorry children, especially because I love you all dearly. Now please learn from my mistakes.
Having left the QF movement behind I have had to face how injurious a lot of these teachings were to my family. Part of coming to terms with it has been, for me, to admit to how what seemed like very good ideas at the time were actually abusive, and that I was abusive to my children while carrying them out. That I can place blame on the teachings I so devoutly followed doesn’t mean I don’t own the abuse that I meted out to my family. My children don’t want to hear that what they experienced from me, their mom, wasn’t really me it was Bad Ideas. Bad Ideas didn’t wield the rod. So here is a bit of a confession about how QF was abusive at my hands to my children.
1. I used to smack my children with the rod when they were defiant. I remember very clearly how I would see their defiance and something spiritually dangerous that was in that moment leading them away from God. To continue down that road, in defiance and rebellion against what was only GOOD (my instructions) was not something I wanted for them. I knew if that defiance was not nipped right then and there they would go from defying me about chores or behavior to defying God about the rules he had given us for our lives.. and when they got to that point they were in serious rebellion and might even die from their own misdeeds.
I loved my children. I strove to do my best. I meant well but what I put into action was a really really bad idea. I had to apologize to my older children for hitting them with the rod. They would have every right to call this behavior on my part abuse, because it hurt them physically and emotionally. It did in fact make them secretly very angry.. and what should have been childish outbursts of emotion quickly laughed off or dealt with by being told to go to their room and calm down instead became a huge psychodrama in which MOMMY had to win and they had to give up.
2. I viewed a lot of their quirks and personality differences as character flaws. The one that talked all the time, he needed to stop being so self absorbed. The one that was overly dramatic, she was in sin because exaggeration was no better than lying. The hysterical one that screamed to get her own way every time her older siblings got something first, she was selfish, selfish, selfish. I really worried about that last one, she was seriously flawed in my eyes in a way that scared me. Actually what they really were was children, regular children who could be loud, obnoxious, demanding.. things that regular children grow out of and find tempered by life. They don’t need to be lectured, bible bashed, character trained and prayed over though that is what I thought they DID need.
I loved my children. I strove to do my best. I meant well but what I put into action was a really really bad idea. It meant that the sensitive one felt she could never ever measure up, that she was always a bad person inside. It is very hard to be perfect as an adult, to not be selfish and to always behave well– how much harder is it for children when we not only expect that of them but tell them that God is unhappy with them when they fail? It meant that the hysterical one became sneaky and secretively angry because she was unable to express how she always felt she missed out. It seemed she could never say anything that met with approval so she found other ways to get what she wanted.
My children could easily say they were emotionally abused because what was normal childish behavior and expression was continually met with condemnation and exhortation to change themselves–the message was always Mommy is unhappy with you because God is unhappy with you. What a horrible way to grow up, how incredibly stressful especially for some personalities! Now I have younger children again and I see their “defiance” as simple childish anger, their sensitivities as perhaps needing some more sleep! It’s not sin, it’s human beings in a young stage of development. With my younger ones I actually laugh at behavior I would have felt needed to be stamped out with the older ones.
I would like to apologize for trying to fit you into my black and white box. You are made of colors and shapes. I am glad that you want me in your life now. You are gracious and kind. Your little sisters love you so much. I am so glad that you are colors and shapes, because I am only black and white. I can now appreciate and enjoy our differences instead of trying to make you a carbon copy of me.
For My Daughters:
As your mother, I’m heart-breakingly sorry for your Hesitant Years. All those years when, just because you were little girls, you waited for cues from a male instead of being your strong, beautiful, strident selves. How should I look, daddy? How should I walk and talk, daddy? How should I feel, daddy? Is this okay? Tell me my politics. Tell me my religion. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. Tell me what to believe and I’ll believe it.
You learned it from me. You learned to hesitate. You learned that to be female is to forever be casting sidelong glances at the dominant male, wondering whether he approves, letting him define you in every imaginable way—because that’s what your mother did, every hour of every day. Your true qualities, your true selves, lay dormant. Your brothers could say what was on their minds, within limits, but you never could. It was unladylike. You were squelched.
A kinder, gentler Quiverfull/patriarchal father would have been just the same. I hope you know that. It isn’t a manner of bad manners, or wrong approach. Nice Christian patriarchs and tyrannical ones start with the same spirit-killing principle. Girls should be raised differently from boys. Girls should submit. Girls should be quiet. Girls should be less. Whether this imaginary kind Christian good-guy dad of yours called it “different roles” or “male protection” or whatever he called it, every three-year-old girl in the world who is born with a strong spirit and a strong will knows instinctively what this lesson means. It means she is less than a boy.
I remember the first times your toddler spirits were squelched, when you got the Lecture that every little girl knows in her heart to be complete crap, even if couched in terms of God and the Bible, and your spirits rose against it. I remember your little protests and your huge hurt eyes. I remember helping your father to put those protests down. And I am so sorry, my lovely ones.
We found our own selves together, though, once we got away. Like smugglers, we were secretly harboring music and art and public speaking and athleticism and argumentativeness and theater and bad tempers and extreme distaste for housework. We shed what seemed like a ton of guilt and shame and fear. And now here we are. We are we. We have no claims pending for sainthood. We quit grinding our wheat and our wills down to powder. We doubt and misbehave and freak out just like men do. We fall back on love and a deep respect for people as just people. Just folks.
Besides, you know what your future stepfather does whenever anybody mentions women submitting to men, for religious or any other misguided reasons. He laughs from the bottom of his belly; he laughs from the bottom of his heart. That laugh is the sound of reality and truth. Let’s all have a good laugh together. Let’s vow, as fellow women moving forward in this unsaintly wacky family, that we may mess up huge from time to time. We may fail God and each other and all humankind. But there is one thing we will not do. We will never hesitate again.
A ubiquitous theme at Steadfast Daughters is this question of “What do you mean by abuse?”
Here you have our response. It is our hope that Quiverfull moms will take our accounts of the abuse we inflicted on our daughters to heart. Stop and think whether you might unintentionally be hurting your children in similar ways. Please don’t wait until it all falls apart and you find yourself in divorce court. Don’t wait until your daughters are so damaged and broken that they are self-harming and/or refuse to have any contact with you. Don’t wait until your faith is so shaken that you cannot bring yourself to pick up a bible or even whisper a prayer for God to help you. And please do not make the mistake of thinking, “It’ll never happen to me.”
To be continued.