This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Emily: Today, we’re excited to welcome Elyse Fitzpatrick to the Risen Motherhood podcast. Elyse’s interview is part of our series “Faithful Motherhood,” where we’re talking with women whose children are grown about how the gospel has impacted their motherhood over the years. These are not meant to be prescriptive interviews for how to do motherhood, but just a glimpse at one woman’s unique walk and lessons she's learned as she's lived out her calling in the Lord.
Today we’re talking with Elyse about what it was like to be a first generation Christian and what pressures and fears she faced as a young mom. She also opens up about what she wishes she would have done differently. Elyse holds a Certificate in Biblical Counseling from CCEF, San Diego, and a Master’s in Biblical Counseling from Trinity Theological Seminary. She's authored 23 books on daily living and the Christian life, many of which you can find on our resources page at risenmotherhood.com. Let’s get to the show with Elyse, Laura, and myself.
Laura: Hi Elyse, thanks so much for joining us on Risen Motherhood today.
Elyse: Thank you, I am glad to be here.
Laura: We are super excited. Emily and I have been reading your books before we became mothers, [laughter] but one of our favorites is Give Them Grace. We love that book, and so it’s just a delight to have you on and to get to speak with you, because I know so much of your work has shaped us as moms and as women of God, as well.
Elyse: Thank you so much. I am really glad to hear that.
Laura: To start us off, can you give us a little picture into what your life looks like today – how many children you have, what your days look like? Give us a little glimpse into the life of Elyse.
Elyse: I am almost 68, and what that means is I am an empty nester. I have three adult kids and six grandkids. All three of my kids live near us in Southern California because, I mean, Southern California. [laughter]
Elyse: Why would we leave? My kids and grandkids all live about 20 minutes away from us, so we get to see them a lot. What I do during the day, when I am not going down to watch one of them play some sort of sport [laughter] or something like that, is I write. And just generally pester my husband. [laughter]
Laura: I love that. I look forward to being retired and pestering my husband. [laughter]
Elyse: It’s the best.
Emily: You have really shaped us in our ability to think in a gospel-centered way. That’s something you have a real gift for and have really benefited the church at large—your ability to keep us focused on the cross as the most essential piece in that, and our behavior and living flows out of that as we honor God. Therefore, as we were thinking about someone to talk about motherhood, we were like, “Oh, our show is all about the gospel and motherhood, so of course we want to hear about what you’ve learned related to that.”
Can you tell us a little bit about your early years of motherhood—where you were living? Were you involved in any kind of work or ministry commitments during the little years of raising children? Give us a little picture of what that season of life looked like for you.
Elyse: I am glad to do that. Let me back it up a tiny bit though [laughter] and just let you know that I was not raised in what we would call a Christian home. My mom worked outside the home and my parents were divorced. When I became a Christian, which wasn’t really until right before my 21st birthday, I had made some sort of decisions about the kind of mother I was going to be. Basically, what that meant to me at that time was that I was going to be right up in my kid’s business all the time. [laughter]
Laura: Sounds like a lot of us. [laughter]
Emily: I know, that sounds familiar. [laughter]
Elyse: It wasn’t really her fault, but it was just the way things work out, but my mom was really pretty much an absentee. But starting in my early teenage years—again, Southern California—I fell into a life of debauchery and unbelief. Then just before my 21st birthday, the Lord saved me; really at the time of the Jesus movement in California, and I made the decision that I wasn’t going to be like my mom. I was going to be really involved, and I was going to make sure that my kids were Christians. I came into my marriage to Phil—Phil and I have been married about 44 years.
Elyse: Well, proves that there's a God [laughter]. I came into the marriage; I already had a little boy, James, when Phil and I got married, and we didn’t have a lot of money at that point. We both wanted our kids to get a Christian education, and this was really the beginning, in some ways, of the Christian education movement.
I got a job teaching in Christian school so my kids could go to school. The primary reason was so that I would get free tuition. I did that for a number of years—maybe six or seven years total—but then when our middle child, Jessica, was in sixth or seventh grade, which was right at the beginning of homeschooling. It was the beginning of the homeschool movement in Southern California, which makes me sound so old. [laughter] Honestly, the primary reason I homeschooled was I didn’t think that I was able to control what they were learning enough, even though they were in Christian school.
I want to hear that there's this overriding motivation that I had that I was going to make sure that my kids didn’t live the kind of life that I lived. Therefore I thought like, “Alright, I can’t control what's going on in the middle school and experience even in Christian school.” I decided to homeschool, and at that point, there weren’t a lot of people who were homeschooling. There were some, so I was able to join a co-op and all of that sort of business, but I was I was pretty much on my own as far as all of my friends and everything were concerned.
I homeschooled them, and I am sure that there are women who listen to your podcast and think like, “Oh, homeschool.” I’ll just be really honest; every year it was a, “I don’t think that I am going to be able to do this again.” That’s how I spent my time; basically I was focused on trying to make sure that my kids were not going to live the kind of life that I lived.
Laura: That’s something so many of us can relate to, whether it’s in schooling or just in how we control their diets or what they wear or what they're involved in. So Elyse, can you walk us through how you discovered that fear and your eyes were awakened to it, and how God met you there or transformed your mind to have gospel hope in the midst of those challenges and that desire to control everything in their environment?
Elyse: Let me talk about kind of the bad fruit that came out of that. What came out of that was, anytime that you try to control any other human being, you're going to end up either feeling sorry for yourself or angry or proud. That’s really the only way that it’s going to go. Some people probably know Jessica Thompson. She's married, she’s a Christian writer, and a mom. Joel is a pastor in the PCA.
They’ve turned out well, but they haven’t turned out well because of me. This is my primary message to the women who are listening to this today, hoping that somehow they're going to hear maybe a secret to having kids who grow up and are in ministry. I mean, we can all see our kids being the pastor, and what I want to say is it was just the grace of God. It is the grace of God that they will even talk to me at this point because quite frankly, I was very controlling and when I saw them doing things that I didn’t like, I was angry and demanding. Or, I felt sorry for myself. Or, I was angry with my husband because I didn’t think he was doing everything he ought to do.
Laura: Yes. It’s easy to blame the other person. [laughter]
Elyse: Absolutely. My husband, Phil, came out of a Christian home, but they weren’t crazy like I was [laughter]. Phil was really the normalizing influence in the home. Whereas I would have been the person that would have been really controlling about everything, Phil was not that way.
We ended up doing a lot of really fun things with our kids and, primarily, that was not me. That was actually Phil. His desire to make childhood fun for the children has had a huge benefit in their lives. I watch them now and how they are with their kids, and they're all about having a good time with their kids. That doesn’t mean that they don’t discipline or aren’t serious—they totally are—but I had to ask them to forgive me for the ways in which I tried to make them into being Christians and really never gave them grace.
So yes, we wrote that book. We wrote Give Them Grace, but it wasn’t because that’s what I did with them. It was because I was beginning to see that the gospel was really central to the Christian, which is a funny thing to say because you would think like, “Yeah, duh.” [laughter] But no, it really wasn’t. When I became a Christian, I was thrilled about the gospel, but then it became all about me and how I was supposed to get the bus down the road.
That’s what I did with my parenting. Therefore with my kids, I have apologized and asked for forgiveness from each one of my kids for the way that I rode them because it was all coming out of my fear—the fear that they would do the kinds of things I did.
It really wasn’t all that; I mean to be honest here, yes I really loved them, but what I wanted was my own righteousness. I wanted my reputation as a mom to be good because I am trying to make up for the fact that I was such a train wreck. It was really all about trying to approve of myself and get other peoples’ approval that I was a good mom, and my kids were going to make that happen.
Emily: One of the reasons why we wanted to do this series—about faithfulness and motherhood from women who are on the other side and have grandchildren now and can look back—is so that moms who are listening and who are at our stage with young children can hear there isn’t a formula, and it’s by God’s grace alone. I think we want a formula; I feel that in myself. I could describe myself like that a little bit [laughs]—before I was saved at 20—like a train wreck, and I look at my kids and think, “Okay, what can I do to make you not do what I did?” [laughs] Then I’ll pursue that versus going like, “No God. How are you asking me to parent them with grace and entrusting them to you?”
Regardless of what decisions they make, I am not in control of that. I just want to be faithful to what he's asking me to do and not parent in a reactionary way. I think so many young women can relate to that and need to hear this word that’s so hard it makes you want to stamp your foot a little bit. Of, aarg, there isn’t like, “Just do A, B, and C and your kids will be protected or turn out a certain way.”
Elyse: And every mother who's listening to this knows that when you're called on to perform in a certain way, it’s not a wonderful thing. I used to take my kids and parade them in front of the pastor [laughter]. I swear to you. And make them tell the pastor the verse I taught them. Quite honestly I know now that well, yes, did I have a desire for my children to serve Christ? Of course I did. That was the way that I baptized my idolatry.
Laura: Elyse, can you walk us through then what you would have done differently? If you could go back and have a do over, how would you train your children now? And how would you direct them in the ways of the Lord? How do you separate your own messy motivations with desiring from a pure place for your children to know and love the Lord for their own sake and their own relationship with him?
Elyse: Let’s take your last question first [laughter]. You're not going to have pure motives, so let’s settle that. There is not a person on the planet aside from the Lord Jesus who ever had a completely pure motivation. Therefore you may look at your children and say, “I really love them and I think my motive in loving them is good.” Well, it is good. That’s good, but it’s never going to be pure.
We therefore don’t want to spend a ton of time trying to figure out, “Is this pure? Is this not pure?” Just assume that part of what you're going to do is have a selfish motivation. You’re going to know that you have that by the way you respond when they fail. You know what your motivation is not by spending a lot of time trying to figure out your motive, but actually by looking at the way that you respond when they fail.
If you get overly angry, if you feel sorry for yourself, or like you just want to give up—and everybody feels like they just want to give up sometimes— but I am talking about that, “Okay, you guys just do whatever you want. I am tired!” That [laughs] kind of response is going to tell you.
Here’s another way you can know—when you walk into church and here’s the Von Trapp family [laughter]. I used to say the Duggars but I don’t say that anymore [laughter]. Here’s the Von Trapp family; all of the little kids are dressed perfectly and they're all perfectly obedient. There's the husband and he's just perfect and you're supposed to be the perfect mom. They sit so sweetly during church and actually take notes on the sermon and all that sort of business. When you look at that family and you're jealous, then you know.
Or, here’s another way; when you look at a family that’s a train wreck—the kids are leaping off the pews and all of that. Or you hear that there are older kids going off the rails and you say to yourself, “I am so glad I am not like that.” Okay? That. Then you know, “Alright, Lord help me to have the right motivation.”
You asked me, “What should I have done?” What I should have done was realized that salvation belongs to the Lord, right? The salvation of my children and their children is not something I can control. Are we called as moms to be people who faithfully seek to teach, nurture, and discipline our children? Yes, we are. We’re called to do that, but only because God might use us. And you understand I said that word, “might.” God might use us as means and the way that he will draw our children. But that’s not guaranteed. I am not going to look at how my child responds then from day to day. I can remember we would sit there and, let’s say we were going to have a time of prayer as a family. If they were messing around, which they're always messing around, right?
Laura: Yes, always. [laughter]
Elyse: I would look at that and I would think, “Oh, they're lost.” And then the next thing I would think is, “That means I am a terrible mother.” Or, “Phil’s a terrible dad.” Or, “We’re both terrible.” Then I would double down on what I wanted them to do, which of course, we always respond to the law in the same way. So if the law says to you, “Don’t wiggle when mom is reading Proverbs,” in your heart, you’re going to automatically want to wiggle, [laughter] right?
That’s our heart’s response particularly to some sort of person who wants to control you all the time. So what would I have done differently? Honestly, I watch my kids raise their kids—and just to say, my kids are not perfect at all, and their kids are not perfect at all. I mean, they're not even close [laughter]—but I watch how they interact with them and my kids’ reputation as parents is not the primary motivation for the way they interact with their kids. They're seeking to be fellow sinners with their children who run to Jesus together.
I’ll give you an example—Jessica’s eldest son, Wesley is 19 now, and Haden, his younger brother, who's now a senior in high school, was three. This happened a number of years ago; Jessica was in the other room and she heard this blood curdling scream which every mom has heard that scream [laughter]. And you come running out of the bedroom, you find Wesley straddling on top of Haden, just basically pounding him. Let’s just say that’s what little kids do [laughter]. She looked at Wesley and he had this big bite mark on his back.
What had happened was Haden had messed with Wesley’s Thomas Trains [laughter]. As a first child, Wesley was all into making sure that his Thomas Trains were lined up perfectly, right? And then Haden, of course, is the second child; really probably relished, messing up his trains [laughter] just to make him mad. So he did.
Jessica picks up Wesley up off of Haden and says, “Wesley, you must love your brother.” When she does that, what is she doing? She’s telling Wesley the law. This is the law; you have to love God with your whole heart, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. She's giving Wesley the law, and that’s the appropriate thing to do. We give our kids rules and laws because they need to know what is expected of them. But that’s not the only reason.
She picks up Wesley off of Haden and says, “You must love your brother.” And through tears and anger, Wesley looks at her and just basically screams, “I can’t!” How do we respond to that? I know how I would have responded to it. I would have said, “Oh, yes you can, and I am going to make sure you do. And if you don’t, I am going to know the reason why.” But the way she responded to him [laughs] was, “He says, ‘I can’t’, and she says, ‘You're right, flee to Jesus.’” Do you hear that? That’s the difference. And I never would have said that.
Emily: It is just a phrase difference, but the heart of the response is so different. I know I am so tempted to threaten my kids into good behavior. Sometimes my response in that situation would be, “Yes, you can and if you don’t, here’s the consequence. So behave so that you avoid consequences.” And while it’s helpful to present consequences; that acknowledgement piece of, “You're right, you cannot love, obey, or follow all these rules. Now what are we going to do?” There's only one good answer to this, and it’s Jesus. It takes some real mind shift, but once we see it for ourselves, it is like, “I am desperate for this too.” I therefore want to give this same desperate Christ-hungry response to my children. Yes, really good example. [laughs]
Elyse: Yes, that’s the thing. Instead of Jessica being self-righteous like I was and saying, “Oh yeah, you better, and I can’t even believe you're acting that way as if I don’t myself have trouble loving my neighbor [laughter]—i.e. the children right now.” Instead of that, she's encouraging them to run to Christ and ask for grace and mercy. That’s what makes our message different. What makes our message different from what any kind of moral, fine, upstanding parent would do is we’re saying, “There is a law, and the law can’t make you good. But what it can do is tell you that there was one who was good in your place, and you can flee to him.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t discipline your children. Of course you do; you discipline them in whatever way in your family you do. But you don’t depend on the rules to make the children good because rules don’t make kids good. Only Jesus Christ can change their heart and make them want to love their brother.
Laura: And for any young mom who's listening, let me be the first to say, and I know Emily will join me in this, this takes practice and a mind shift. This is something that I feel like, as you were saying Elyse, our natural inclination is self righteous parenting. It is to immediately go, “Let’s go to consequences. Let’s mold a child’s behavior to exactly what we want immediately,” instead of stepping back and reminding yourself of the gospel and the moment. I know, at least for me, my natural inclination isn’t to love that child in the middle of something where they're misbehaving and I feel embarrassed, frustrated, or inconvenienced.
So just an encouragement, this is such good truth that you're sharing Elyse. I know we have a lot of new believers that are listening, and a lot of first generation Christians, so I just love that you’ve also shared your story in that because I know we've been asked a lot for shows or discussion points on that. But if you are new to this, this is real.
I want to plug Elyse’s book here—Give Them Grace. You're getting a taste of what's in that book, and she walks through a lot of scenarios in that. It’s just very helpful to get a little deeper dive into what she's discussing today. And then, don’t be afraid to practice because it’s only going to come by digging in and doing the hard work of applying these types of skills. Elyse, as we close here, can you give some steps a mom might be able to take today to behold God and to enjoy him more fully?
Elyse: The thing that I want to encourage moms in today is that they would see Jesus. That they would remember Jesus. What that means is as they're going through their day, they would remember that Jesus, who was the second person in the trinity, became a human being. Jesus was a little boy and he had to learn language, table manners. He had to learn all of this stuff because he was completely human, so he understands that first of all. This is great news for the children. Jesus understands what it’s like to be a child and what it’s like to have brothers and sisters, because he did.
Jesus understands, and this is for moms who maybe are single parents or feel like they're all on their own: Jesus understands what it’s like to be the single head of a household because at some point after age 12, his father died. So he became the male person in the home who had to care for his mom and siblings. And we see him doing that all through the gospels—interacting with his mom. Then at the very end of his life, there he is hanging on the cross and what is he doing? He’s caring for his mother.
Therefore Jesus was a single head of a household, and for all of the women who are listening today who feel like God couldn’t possibly help them or understand, Jesus knows exactly what you're going through and he can help you. He lived a perfect life; you see, in a sense, he had to parent his siblings. He understands what it’s like to parent little sinners [laughter], and he had disciples who really never listened to what he was talking about. They were completely clueless [laughter] and at the resurrection, I mean, really, these guys.
He understands the frustration that we feel when we feel like we've been saying the same thing over and over again, and it just never penetrates their little hearts or minds. Jesus understands that, because at least five times in the gospels, we know that he said, “I am on my way to Jerusalem to die, and I will be raised again.” It went right over their heads. They didn’t get it. What they were doing, right before the betrayal, when he's going to be hang on the cross, was fighting about who was going to be greatest.
Doesn’t that sound like our family? [laughter] Who's the best? Who's the best at this sport? Who's the best at this game? [laughter] Who has the most stuff? Who’s the greatest? Who has the most friends? Who's the best? We need to see him. He understands all of that and he did his parenting perfectly. My primary message to moms today is this: you may struggle, and you do, as a mom. But the really great news, if you’ve put your trust in Jesus Christ, you have his perfect record of being a perfect parent. So when God looks at you, he doesn’t see the ways you’ve blown it and he doesn’t see your sin. You are completely forgiven and you are completely righteous. Therefore you don’t have to try to work out your guilt about being a bad parent. You don’t have to try to work that out somehow. You are forgiven and you are completely righteous. And then the really great news is Jesus who understands everything you're going through, not just because he's God but also by experience, is praying for you right now.
What do I say to parents? What do I say to moms? Remember the gospel. And you know what? Listen to me; I've written x number of books about the gospel and how to remember it in your daily life, and I forget it [laughter]. Okay? I mean, seriously. We’re in the middle of moving and I am all freaked out about where we’re going to move. And here’s Jesus who said, “I have no place to lay my head.” He understands, and he will care for me and get us to where we need to be when we need to be there.
Relax a little bit mom, enjoy your children. Be free to enjoy them, and when they fail, which they will, and when they sin, which they will, take their hand as a fellow sinner and run to Jesus together because he loves to pour out mercy on sinners.
Laura: I think this needs a slow clap right there [laughter]. Thank you, Elyse.
Elyse: And you know one other thing to say to your kids is, “Don’t think that you're going to be good enough or bad enough. I am your mama, and I am not good enough. I've certainly sinned enough, and the reality is Jesus has it all. Just flee to him, and I’ll go with you.”
Laura: Thank you so much Elyse for coming on the show today. We really appreciate you sharing your wisdom. I am sure there are many moms who have been touched by your words today, and hopefully feeling more relief as they know they don’t have to work through all the guilt. But they can walk in freedom because Christ has already banished that and already given that eternal hope that we can trust in today. Thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate it.
Elyse: Thank you.
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