As I went to give my stepmother a hug, last night after Bible Study, she loudly complained about how I did not speak to her or hug her when she got there. She went on and on about how I must submit to her because she’s the first lady of the church (My dad is a pastor, by the way) and not the other way around. (Whatever that means!) My dad was there the entire time and didn’t say much of anything.
Comments like that from her are nothing new. I’ve been hearing them for most of my life. Anytime I’ve ever gotten an award, made a huge accomplishment or received a genuine compliment from someone in her presence, she quickly interjects to talk about her daughters or grandchildren and an award or accomplishment they have gotten that trumps mine. When I was a teenager, we got into countless arguments, one of which ending with her putting her hands on me. Even last week, she was upset that I forgot to call her on Mother’s Day. This is despite the fact that she has never been a mother to me. She’s never picked up the phone a day in her life to call and check in on me. She’s never taken me out to lunch or to the movies. She’s rarely ever done anything for me that is truly mothering to me, but I digress. You would think by now, I would be used to it, but last night I wasn’t. I felt the tears quickly welling up in my eyes. I felt the frustration of wanting to say something in defense of myself, but knowing that if I did it would only turn into an argument and make matters worse. I felt the sadness that comes with wondering why a woman, who could have chosen to play the powerful role of nurturing me and loving me unconditionally, has chosen to constantly berate me and criticize me instead. So with a heavy heart I said, “Ok. Thank you for letting me know that,” and left.
On my drive home, the tears I’d been holding back fell like rain. “God! Why won’t she just leave me alone.” I prayed. “The one place I should feel your peace and presence is in church. It’s so hard to focus on You when I’m around someone who brings so much negativity.”
When I got home, I talked to my real mom and told her the same thing I’d told God a few minutes earlier, “Mama, I just want peace in the one place I should have it: at church.”
My mama replied, “Baby, peace is not without, it’s within. Nobody can take your peace from you, unless you give it to them.”
She went on to say, “This really isn’t even about her. If anybody else had said something like that to you, you would have brushed it off. Sarita, you have to figure out why you’re letting this hurt you so much. Maybe God is trying to show you something about yourself that you really need to see.”
It was like a light bulb flickered on in my head. She was right. The tears that were flowing down my cheeks last night and the constant pain I have felt in my relationship with my stepmother have very little to do with her. All the hurt and the pain I’ve been feeling has everything to do with the relationship I have with my fathers.
See the thing about all of those painful incidents involving my stepmother, is that my daddy has been present the majority of the time. All those times that my stepmother brags about her own children and grandchildren to overshadow my own accomplishments and achievements, my daddy is there not saying a word. That time when my step mother put her hands on me during a heated argument, my daddy was standing right there and didn’t even step in the middle to protect me. Even last night, my daddy was right there watching everything happen but not saying or doing much to stop it. I’ve talked to him on many occasions about all of this, but every time I get told that I have to do what’s right by her despite how I feel. I get told that if she is out of line, she will eventually reap what she sows and the Lord will handle her. He says I should reach out to her more and more, no matter how she reacts. He tells me that he has to focus on keeping his own peace of mind and maintaining a comfortable relationship with her so he prefers to keep his hands off of the situation.
Seems like sound Biblical doctrine. Probably even decent advice, but it’s not what a daughter craves to hear from her daddy when she is hurting and broken. I want to hear that my daddy will be my defender and protector and will do everything in his power to keep me safe from harm. I want to hear that my daddy cares deeply about the fact that I’m hurting, and that even though he doesn’t want to me to react from that place of pain, he acknowledges that pain and is there to offer his strength to me as I work through that pain. I want to hear my daddy encourage me as I treat someone with kindness and respect even when I don’t get the same in return. I want to hear that he is proud of me for attempting to do what’s right even when it’s incredibly hard to do.
The messages a little girl gets from her father during her life are incredibly powerful. His words shape her thoughts and views about herself and her life. His actions towards her shows her how she should allow others, especially men, to treat her. I love my daddy, more than words could ever express, and I know that he loves me. However, he’s let me down a lot. After my parents got divorced when I was four years old, I lived with my mom. Ever since then, our relationship has been up-and-down. There have been a lot of messages that I’ve received from my father, both good and bad, over the years. But the overwhelming message that I’ve heard from my daddy, throughout the years of the tumultuous relationship with my stepmother is that I don’t matter. Though, he rarely ever says anything when my stepmother lashes out at me, his silence almost screams the message that I’m not worth the time it takes to speak up and come to my defense. I am not valuable enough to be protected. It doesn’t really matter what she says or does to me and it doesn’t matter how it hurts or affects me, because I’m not worth it anyway. The times that we have talked about this, his advice-although well-meaning- has given me the message that if something is wrong in a relationship it is because of me. There is something wrong with me. If I just try harder to please that person, continue to tolerate their mistreatment long enough, and keep jumping through hoops until they are happy, then and only then will things work out in my favor. Basically, I must be perfect to deserve of love from others.
Granted, I don’t think that the messages my daddy has given me are intentional or done maliciously, but they still leave their mark just the same. I have lived out those messages that I got from my daddy, time and time again, in relationship after relationship. I look back on nearly every past relationship and see the pattern of not feeling defended, protected or valued in some way. I have gotten the message over and over that I have no value or worth. In every past relationship, I have nearly driven myself crazy trying to accommodate and please and tolerate, no matter how wrong or abusive their actions were because the message I was living by was that it’s always on me to make things right. If things are falling apart it has to be because of something I’m doing. If I just keep trying to be perfect, things will get better because I’ll finally be good enough to love.
I could blame my daddy for giving me these messages, but this isn’t about placing blame. Though he has played a huge role in giving me the messages that I live by, this isn’t really even about him. It’s about me and the daddy I’ve been choosing to listen to. In a perfect world, we could listen to all the messages our earthly father gives us, because they would perfectly mirror the messages our heavenly Father wants us to hear about ourselves. But this isn’t a perfect world, and the last time a perfect person walked this earth was about 2000 years ago. Though our earthly fathers should show us our first glimpse of the messages our heavenly Father has for us, that glimpse is often blocked by our earthly fathers’ human imperfection and brokenness. Although I’m 23 years old, I often still view my daddy through the eyes of that four year old girl who hung onto his every word and thought he was the perfect man. My earthly daddy, however, is not perfect and some of the messages that he has given me are not the ones that my heavenly Daddy wants me to believe. This is about me because I’ve been choosing to listen to the messages my earthly daddy gave me about myself, when I should’ve been listening to the messages my heavenly Daddy has for me.
In all honesty, it wasn’t until now that I realized the messages that my two fathers have for me aren’t automatically the same. In many ways, I’ve operated on the same messages that my earthly daddy gave me when dealing with my heavenly Daddy. For example, I really struggle with forgiveness. I really think that struggle with forgiveness stems from the belief that my heavenly Daddy won’t come to my defense or protect me when I feel mistreated. I assume that I have to hold on to grudges to protect myself because I don’t serve a God who will step in to protect me when I’m hurting and vulnerable. Then there are all the times I find myself cowering and falling into the role of a helpless victim, because I believe nothing I say or do matters. Why stand up for myself or do anything to change my circumstances? My heavenly Daddy couldn’t think I matter enough to care about what I’m going through. If He doesn’t care enough to stand up for me, why should I attempt to stand up for myself? I also treat God as if He won’t love me unless I’m perfect enough for Him. If things start going wrong in my life, it’s because I’ve done something wrong. I haven’t pleased Him or someone in my life enough and now I’m suffering the consequences. It has to be me and my deficiencies. But these messages are so not from my heavenly Father! My heavenly Daddy is a mighty protector and defender. He not only stands up for me, but He deeply cares about my heart when it is broken. My heavenly Daddy thinks I’m priceless and knows that I don’t deserve mistreatment. He values me so much, that He has placed the strength in me to stand up for myself and stand strong in Him when people do not treat me with love and respect. My heavenly Daddy doesn’t think I have to be perfect to get His love. He loves me simply because I’m His child, not because I try hard enough or do anything special. He loves me simply because I’m me.
My prayer is that my relationship with my earthly daddy and the relationship with my stepmother will get better soon. But even if those relationships don’t ever get fixed, it’s okay because none of this was really about them anyway. All of the pain and the tears and the heartache were really just my heavenly Daddy trying to get me to see that our relationship was the one that needed all the fixing. It’s time that I start focusing on Him and all the messages about me that He now wants me to embrace and embody daily. And it’s time to learn to love and trust Him enough to heal every wound that has come from the old messages I used to believe.