The following article addresses the topics of child abuse and strained familial relationships. While we believe the gospel breathes new life into all relationships and experiences, we recognize the sensitivity and nuance required in discussing these topics. We strongly encourage anyone who has experienced abuse to seek counsel from your local pastor, an older woman in your church body, or if necessary, a trained biblical counselor.
“So, when can I see you and the kids?”
I deflate like an air mattress after a night of camping. This conversation has been looming over me for months, heavy with dread and anticipation. I’ve been trying to avoid it, but I can’t any longer. I quickly and silently remind myself that I’m an adult, and I have my own life now. Her hold over me is broken.
I made the phone call. “Mom, I really don’t think that’s a good idea. Our family is still in the thick of a really stressful situation, and I can’t expose my kids to that. Maybe once I can see some real change, we can start spending more time together.”
In years past, I would’ve automatically pulled the phone away from my ear, steadying myself for the torrent of raised voice that would soon blast through the receiver. Now, however, all that comes through is silence. I take a sip of water and wait.
You see, my relationship with my mother is anything but typical. Growing up, it wasn’t something that I could articulate well, even to myself. My dad, brothers, and I would try to explain it by whispering to each other about Mom’s “temper problem.” It wasn’t until college, sitting in a psychology course and learning about emotional abuse, that I started to be able to name my experience.
“Abuse” is a hard phrase to use for someone you love, so I avoided it for a long time. It felt too harsh, too dramatic, too attention-seeking. And yet, I think I always knew something was wrong. Something within reminded me this was not the way things were supposed to be.
Now that I’m a mother, I worry about how my experience as a child will affect my two, small children. My mother grew up in a home beset by mental illness and abuse, and she carried that legacy into her parenting. How can I keep the sins of the fathers from once again being visited upon the children? How can I possibly mother when my very frame of reference is broken?
By adopting a new one.
The Bible tells us that everything in God’s original creation was good. Humans existed in perfectly functioning relationship to God and each other. It was only after sin entered the world through that very first act of disobedience that everything changed. Like a drop of dye in a glass of water, sin quickly spread throughout God’s good creation, until nothing was untouched. Human relationships were poisoned. People began to quarrel, murder, and blame others for mistakes instead of treating others as God intended.
I remember being about ten or twelve, staring into my mirrored closet door and asking my reflection, “What do I really have to feel bad about?” Others certainly had it worse than I did. And yet, I policed my words and actions to avoid provoking an angry outburst. I gritted my teeth and let tirades wash over me, no matter how badly the words stung. Attempting to fight back would only make it worse. I apologized profusely whenever something went wrong, whether it was my fault or not. I jumped when anyone spoke to me unexpectedly. I was intimately acquainted with the stain that sin and the fall left upon my relationship with my mother.
Fortunately, God did not abandon humanity in its broken state. Almost in the same breath he used to pronounce judgment upon us for our sin, he gave us hope. Right in the midst of that very first curse, he gave us the first gospel message: the promise of One who would deal a death blow to Satan and the pollution of God’s good creation. By his perfect life and death upon the cross, Jesus paid the penalty necessary for our redemption, thereby crushing the head of the serpent that reared itself so many years before. In doing so, he secured for us an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance which waits for us, even in the thick of our suffering. When our hearts ache because our earthly parents failed us, it’s this hope that we cling to. Even though our pain is still there—reminding us every day of the brokenness of creation—we don’t despair, because we know that we await something much better.
Revelation 21 speaks beautifully of this future reality. We look forward to a new heaven and earth, and life in a city where God will dwell among us. Every tear we have ever cried will be wiped away, and death will no longer exist. There will be nothing to mourn or cry over, because the old way of things will have faded. It’s a hard thing to picture now, but even the pain that comes with being raised by an abusive parent does not run so deep that it can’t one day be healed.
I’ve been longing for this restored creation lately. My mom’s behavior has forced me to distance myself to protect my children. Though this is the culmination of many years of heartache, I still mourn losing the illusion of a happy family. Whenever I hear someone describe their close relationship with their mother, I rejoice with them in their happiness, but I also grieve because that’s something that I don’t know.
Still, God has been gracious to me. He’s given me a loving, long-suffering husband to share in the great responsibility of raising two children. He’s given me the hope of being a better mother to them than my mother was to me. He’s given me, and all those who have been adopted as his children, membership in a new family: his church. And he’s given me hope that this is not the end of the story.
Because of Jesus, we’re all set free from the cycle of abuse. We now look to God as the example of the perfect parent, rather than looking to the broken, earthly one we experienced. Because our old selves were crucified with Christ, it’s now he who lives in us through the work of the Holy Spirit. We’re all continually sanctified with the ability to raise our children with his love and wisdom, revealed to us in scripture, as our guide. This is a process, one that takes time and will look different for everyone, and for some, this will include professional help in healing our wounds. Though we still feel the painful effects of our fallen world, we have reason to rejoice. The God who says, “Behold, I am making all things new,” is working in us as well (Rev 21:5).
Alissa Griffin is a stay-at-home mom living in Detroit with her husband Zach, son Dalton (3), and daughter Emery (1). She is a graduate of Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, MI, where she received degrees in Bible and Theology and Interdisciplinary Studies. She returned to writing after a hiatus, and is currently working on a memoir of her experience with her mother's mental illness and abuse. Alissa enjoys reading good books with no pictures, winning trivia games with her wealth of otherwise useless knowledge, and finding forgotten cups of coffee in the microwave. You can find more of her work on her blog, Instagram, and Facebook.