(Read Part 1 here.)
Standing in the kitchen of my parent’s home thirteen years ago, I listened to my dad speak about an adult sibling’s moral choices and how there was nothing he could do to stop them. I responded to the darkness in Dad’s voice with something like this: “______ is not dead, Dad, and there is always hope.”
Dad’s response: “It would be easier on your mom and I if ____ were dead because then we wouldn’t have to deal with how ____‘s choices make us look as parents.” Muted by the callousness of his words, I simply walked out of the kitchen.
At the time, my mind could not reconcile Dad’s public image—kind, personable, Christian leader—with the reality that he wished his own child dead to protect his reputation. Sadly, in oppressive Christian systems, protecting the family image is a matter of life or death. The ‘rules’ of the family—whether openly stated or implied—reinforce loyalty to the desired image, which varies from system to system according to how the parents define success.
Since the family image trumps individual identity, the children grow up with little to no healthy support and love. Children who cater to the parent’s desires, make them look good in public, or remind the parents of themselves in some way, often receive better treatment, while children who address injustice, favoritism, or hypocrisy are neglected or controlled through demeaning words, punishment, and a lack of support in their interests or accomplishments.
For example, one narrative that shaped my scrappy orphan identity was being neglected when sick while another sibling was served in bed, cried over, and read to. With a temperature of 104, I walked into my mother’s bedroom and asked her to make me some orange juice, to which she replied: “Make it yourself.” So, I did. I learned through a pattern of experiences like this one that taking care of myself was up to me.
Years later when I brought up this betrayal, mom laughed and told me I was “making a big deal out of nothing.” In oppressive families, naming parental betrayals is habitually met with minimizing, outright denial, and, in some cases, the child is punished for ‘disrespect’ or ‘lying.’ As a result, she learns caregivers can’t be trusted and she is better off not addressing harm.
To survive, the child counters the lack of parental love with self-reliance and downplays her desire for connection. She walks through life with an ‘I don’t need anyone” mentality and trusts no one. Unless there is some intervention, when the child grows up, she responds to the lack of care and support in a myriad of unhealthy ways (depending on personality, education, gifting, and culture), including but not limited to: push herself to be successful in athletics, academics, or a career; attempt to craft the ‘perfect family’ of her own; engage in drugs, alcohol, partying, or risky sexual behavior; fiercely attach to various social justice causes; attempt to rescue or be rescued by an unhealthy spouse or partner; join controlling religious systems that offer an illusion of the love she never had; wallow in self-pity and victimhood; or, any combination of the previous. These destructive coping mechanisms are ways the orphan numbs the pain of being unloved while attempting to escape feelings of worthlessness and shame.
For an orphan to finally name the family sins is to expose a lifetime of hiding and covering up both the sins of her parents and her responses to those sins. Orphans are conditioned to reject such vulnerability in favor of self-protection. As one of my counseling clients put it, “I feel resistance to admitting the ways my parents have done harm to me because that means I have to eventually look [at myself].”
For the adult orphan, admitting her human weakness and vulnerability feels like facing a tsunami alone. Therefore, it’s common for orphans to deflect and minimize the ways their parents sinned against them, saying: “My parents did the best that they could with what they were given” or “Well, I really was a difficult child to raise,” or “The past is the past, no point bringing it up now.” Frequently, it is only when “an orphan is without resources or an avenue of escape [that] true healing can begin.”*
When an orphan comes to the end of herself—when success seems elusive or illness strikes or loss looms—she is forced to enter into the vulnerable spaces she avoided for so long. To name the harm, the orphan must trust that someone will be there to care for her as she grieves her losses. Often this process of learning to trust begins with safe human beings who imitate Christ through careful listening, withholding judgment, and sitting with the orphan as she learns to speak the stories of harm.
With the help of safe community, the orphan begins to trust that Jesus, unlike her earthly parents, will never leave her or forsake her. For me, a turning point in the healing process came when I confessed to my husband and a few soul-sisters: “My parents don’t love me and never could. They love their reputation more than anything, and if given the chance would destroy my character to save their own skin.”
Admitting your parents’ inability to love, though deeply painful, frees you to turn to Christ for the acceptance, love, and healing your heart longs for.
*Dr. Dan Allender, Redeeming Heartache, pg 65.