September 14, 2015 / Praxis
Pain and trauma can lead us beyond the limits of our conceptual frameworks to new ways of connecting with God and others.
November 10, 2016
I yelled at my daughter the other day. She got distracted playing a computer game and spilled chocolate milk all over my writing desk. It splattered on the screen, then seeped into the keyboard, and finally dripped down to a brown puddle on my ivory carpet.
“That’s why I don’t like you having drinks over there!” I said. “You’ve got to PAY ATTENTION to what you’re doing,” I scolded. “You’re ELEVEN YEARS OLD, for crying out loud! How many times do I have to tell you to BE MORE CAREFUL?”
As my voice got louder, her stature grew smaller. She went from happy and carefree to pitiful and loathsome in half a second, but I couldn’t stop myself. I apologized later on, after I calmed down and she finished cleaning up the mess, but I’m afraid the damage was already done. Ten years from now, what will my daughter remember more, my apology or my yelling?
I remember my own mom yelling at me when I was a kid. And while I remember her apologies too, the message that rang in my ears sounded something like this: “You’re such a stupid idiot! Why can’t you do anything right?” I heard those thoughts so often, they became like recordings on a mental CD. Then adolescence came along and turned those messages into an endlessly repeating loop, a loop that became louder than all the good things I’d ever heard from Mom.
Even now, if I trip while carrying a basket of laundry downstairs, my immediate reaction is anger. What a ridiculous klutz I am, I’ll think. On really bad days I’ll demean myself out loud, saying things like “Way to go, loser,” and “Nice job watching where you’re going.”
A perplexing truth I’ve learned over the years is that the grace and love I give other people is only as good as the grace and love I give myself. Unfortunately, for me and for those I love, I tend to see grace and love as gifts I don’t deserve.
“You are known, you are special, and you are loved,” God whispers to my heart, but I take one look in the mirror and fire back with venom, “Yeah, right, Mr. Perfect. No freaking way.” Why? Because sometimes believing a lie is easier than believing the truth.
Because it’s much easier to believe I’m worthless than to believe I’m the beloved child of an eternal being who sustains the universe, one who levels entire forests using nothing but the wind, who spun a yarn of galaxies from the wool of infinity yet claims to know each and every hair on my head (Luke 12:7). One who “knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13 NIV), who saw my unformed life before I was even conceived. Indeed, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me” (Ps. 139:6). It is too great, and I will never comprehend it fully, this side of eternity.
Belief in this kind of love is an act of faith, every single day, sometimes every single minute. It takes so many reminders, so many barely-there prayers, to allow myself to be loved, to receive perfect love into this imperfect heart. Yet it’s no different than what God asked of Abraham all those thousands of years ago. “Believe what I say more than what your eyes can see,” God says, and when I muster up enough faith to do that he tells me, “All right, Janna, you’re good now. You can stop trying to be so perfect all the time. I already did that for you. Remember?”
The book of Romans says that when we accept redeeming grace into our broken hearts, God credits us with righteousness in return. Even though we go on to sleep with strange handmaidens. Even though we tell lies and try to fix everything all by ourselves. Even though we never deserved it in the first place, that credit never gets taken away. We continue to belong to God, and the promises continue to multiply.
My mom is a statuesque beauty whose wavy, blonde hair, coffee-brown eyes, and caramel-colored skin are next to perfect, but I’ve always looked more like my dad. From day one, Mom tried to get my hair to do something other than lay flat. She used honey or Karo syrup, whichever was handy, to shape my fine black hair into a single ringlet; then she stuck a tiny pink bow on top. I’ve got the pictures to prove it.
Years later, I slept with my hair in sponge curlers, or Mom put it up in braids and ponytails, but choosing to wear my hair straight and stringy seemed to irritate Mom. Pierced ears on young girls were frowned upon by some churchgoers, but Mom did everything else she could to make me look feminine and pretty. Ruffled bloomers and lacy socks, shiny patent leather shoes and can-can skirts—I was her own little angel, a perfect doll. So what if I didn’t have the face for it? Who cared about the blotchy pink birthmark beneath my right eye or the countless freckles on my nose? Mom would make me look cute in spite of my lackluster mane and buck-toothed smile. She was always up for a challenge.
Looking the part was important to Mom, and the singular life lesson she meant to impart to her children was this: it doesn’t matter how you feel on the inside, so long as you look happy on the outside. She was a second-generation pastor’s wife and knew instinctively what it took to impress people. Her mother had taught her that what matters absolutely, more than anything, is what the congregation might think. So you were always supposed to look your best and wear a smile. Your house should be clean and inviting, with a pitcher of sweet tea in the fridge in case company comes over unexpectedly. This was how you helped other people learn to love Jesus. First, they would see how perfect your life was, and then they would begin to want that life for themselves. Or perhaps Mom just wanted the people at church to like us so they wouldn’t send Dad packing sometime in the next year. Either way, she played her part like a pro.
By the time I graduated high school, the longest we’d lived anywhere was three-and-a-half years; so growing up, my greatest fear was moving again, and I was constantly terrified. Every time Mom and Dad said we needed to have a family meeting, I knew what they were going to say: Time to say goodbye to all your friends. Time to pack up everything you own. Time to see how much of your heart is left to take with us.
When I was in fourth grade, I decided I wanted to be a cheerleader. I’d never been interested in anything Mom liked before, so she was excited we finally had something to do together—so excited she volunteered to coach my squad. But instead of bringing us closer together, her coaching drove us further apart. Mom had high expectations for me and my team. Sure we were only cheering for elementary flag football, but that wouldn’t stop us from being the best squad in the league. We practiced and practiced and practiced. Mom taught us dance routines set to the music of the Beach Boys. She helped us build pyramids and taught me how to do jumps, kicks, and cartwheels. I didn’t have very good form though, and she was forever pushing me to do better.
“No spaghetti arms, Janna. Lock those elbows into place!”
“You’ve got scarecrow fingers again, honey. Pay attention to your hands!”
“Make it pop, Janna! I know you can do better than that.”
But I wasn’t sure I could, and eventually I stopped trying. I just wanted to wear a cute skirt and have fun with my friends, so I continued to disappoint Mom, and she continued to push me harder. But it wasn’t just cheerleading anymore. Soon it became what clothes and shoes I wore to school, how well I curled my bangs, and whether or not I remembered to put on lipstick. I began to feel like she was no longer talking to me but at me. And like a family pet who’s been teased too much, the more she picked on me, the meaner I became.
It started with something very small. Instead of saying “Momma,” like my siblings and I had done our whole lives, I shortened it to “Mom.” Instead of saying “OK, Momma” when she asked me to set the dinner table I whined, “What are we having Ma-uhm? Why spaghetti again, Mom? How come I have to, Mom?” Then in middle school, it changed to Mother, as in, “Why should I have to put the dishes away, Mother? It’s not like the president’s coming over today, Mother.” And finally, when I was a senior in high school, I tried calling her “woman,” as in “What did you do with my tennis shoes, woman?” That one didn’t go over too well with Dad, but it didn’t stop me from trying, as often as I could, to push her many, many buttons.
Like most mother/daughter relationships, ours grew to be complicated. Mom knew what it was like for me to have to move all the time, to grow up in a preacher’s house, living in small towns in the South. But she also felt like she could help things turn out right—and better—for our family. She would be a different kind of mother than her mother was. She wouldn’t quit on her husband when the times got tough. Her faith was stronger and more real than that. She would make sure everything was as it should be for her family; that we were all perfect.
When my first son was two, I started meeting with my pastor for some counseling. One day in his office, Ron asked me to pull out my driver’s license. I got it out and handed it across the desk to him. He took it and looked at it for a minute. Then he looked up at me.
“Is that you?” he asked, pointing to the image in the corner.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s me.”
“Really?” he asked.
“I mean it’s a picture from last year,” I explained.
“Oh, I know that,” he said. “But what I’m asking is whether or not it’s really you?”
“Of course it’s me!” I said. “Who else would it be?”
“So, you’re telling me that this picture,” he said, holding it up in the air. “This little square that I’m pointing at right here—that’s who you are?”
“Well, no,” I admitted. “Not when you put it like that.”
“Yeah,” he said kind of smugly. “I didn’t think so.”
“This picture right here. That’s just an image of you, right? Well, so is this idea you still carry around about yourself from childhood. That’s not who you are anymore, Janna. You don’t have to keep trying to be that perfect little girl.”
It took several months to sink in, but eventually I decided Ron was right. Redefining myself was worth it. It was hard to see myself as more than the preacher’s daughter, but I slowly realized I didn’t need to worry about getting Dad fired—there was no need to impress a congregation now. It was no longer in my power to control what happened with his job. In fact, it never was. On top of that, it really didn’t matter what Mom thought about the clothes I wore or how clean I kept my house. We didn’t even live in the same state as my parents. My current friends didn’t see me as a Goody Two-shoes who knew everything there was to know about God and religion. And the people I sat next to in church, believe it or not, had not come there in order to find fault with me.
Finally, my vision began to change. I now saw myself as a wife and a mother. I’d gone to college and graduated, all on my own. I was a grown woman—I could behave however I wanted, and the only one responsible for my behavior was me. I was a good friend, and I had good friends who knew me and loved me, just as I was. I was a child of God, the God who cared about my pain and longed to heal me, the God who knew my hopes and fears: that I wanted to be a writer and to stop being so scared all the time. But most importantly, I was a work in progress. And I had the rest of my life to keep on becoming, whoever it was I most wanted to be. Because it’s not the life we’re born into that dictates who we become. It’s the decisions we make, day after day, after day.
When it came time to decorate for Christmas that year I bought some oranges and a can of cloves for Sam and I to create some homemade ornaments. It was a tradition Mom had taught us when we were kids—she took some bright plaid ribbon, wrapped it around the oranges, and then tied it off so they could hang from the ceiling. Then she sat us at the table with bowls of cloves and told us to push them into the skin of the oranges. Sometimes we made patterns and sometimes we drove the cloves in randomly. The job became easier the older we got, as smaller softer fingers don’t work so well when pressing prickly bits of wood into a tough orange rind. But even then, the spicy citrus aroma that filled our house in the dead of winter seemed well worth it.
As I helped Sam with his orange, I thought about my relationship with my mom. Just because we had a rough time in the past didn’t mean it had to be that way forever. I’d been holding onto an idealized notion of what mothers looked like, and that perfect mold was one neither of us could ever fit. Perhaps it was time to let go of those old ideals, time to accept my mother and me for who we really were, the prickly bits and the sweet scents.
So I decided to write Mom a letter. I sat down at the kitchen table one afternoon and scratched my thoughts on an old legal pad. The truth might hurt initially, I’d learned in counseling, but it never creates any lasting harm. I confessed my hurt and anger to Mom. “I thought maybe you loved me,” I wrote, “but because you were often critical, it felt like you didn’t really like me.”
A few months later, we were standing in the kitchen of her house in Colorado. The sun was shining warm and brightly outside, but inside it was dark and cool. Sam and I had come to visit for a week that summer, and my grandfather was downstairs taking a nap while my dad and brother were at work.
Mom was now the primary caretaker for her dad, who’d been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Papaw John was getting harder to handle. He would go for long walks and end up getting lost. In the evenings, he had spells where he became paranoid and accused my parents and my brother of trying to hurt him or steal his stuff. Mom did the best she could by him, but it was hard to see him behaving like a confused child. He’d also become verbally abusive, even when he was in his right mind. That afternoon he’d chewed her out for not folding his T-shirts properly.
Mom told me how frustrating it was to try and please him.
“I can’t seem to do anything good enough for him,” she said. “Not the laundry or the cooking. He doesn’t even like the music I play for him on the piano.” Then she stopped talking for a minute, put down her dish towel, and looked straight at me.
“I guess you know how that feels, huh?”
The switch happened so suddenly that I didn’t catch on at first, but as she stood there waiting for me to answer, I realized what Mom was getting at. It wasn’t the first time she’d admitted being too hard on me, but for the first time, her words sank down into the soft flesh of a new heart, rather than bouncing off its old bitter edge.
“I know what you mean, Mom,” I finally answered. “But I’m sure Papaw loves you very much, and he really does appreciate all you do for him—even if he’s not very good at showing it right now.”
Our relationship was not instantly repaired, as it’s not easy work, transforming a mother/daughter relationship into one where we’re sisters in Christ. I’m sure I’ll have a hard time getting used to it myself one day, when my own daughter stops being the little girl in the silver picture frame on my desk and begins walking away, down the road toward her one true image.
Forgiveness takes time, and it took awhile for me to stop treating Mom like she owed me something. I had to remind myself, again and again, every time I remembered harsh words from her—those words were like cheap coins and paper bills I’d been holding onto, but there was no longer a need to spend them. No one else was standing there, waiting for me to turn around and pay for something; it was OK to let my debts go.
Once I loosened my grip and the bad memories began to slide out, I started remembering more of the good things about Mom. Like the times I saw her in the mornings drinking coffee, still dressed in her velvet, purple robe, sitting in a rocking chair and reading her Bible; the times I heard her sing, at home and in church. I remembered how she wrapped her tired arms around me. I tasted the food of love and life she served me, how she kept on putting all of us kids first. I remembered the softness of her lips against my cheek as she kissed me goodnight. Her love for me had been real. Over and over, day in and day out, she cooked, cleaned, and held our little family together the best she could—while Dad faced one church turmoil after another.
When we were kids Mom used to tell us a story about a mom who loved her little boy so much that she tucked him in every night, for his whole life, even when he grew up and moved away from home. The mother in the story always sang this one song over and over for her son, and when Mom got to that part in the story she’d sing her own version of the song to us.
After Sam was born someone gave us a book that tells the same story. It’s called Love You Forever, and every time I read it, I remember Mom’s alto voice singing that melody.1 It’s a great memory to have back on my good side, with me in her lap, as she sits in her rocking chair, humming, until we both fall asleep.
I’ll love you forever
I’ll like you for always
As long as I’m living,
My momma you’ll be.
The grace we’ve been shown only begets more grace. The forgiveness Jesus gives me for not being perfect frees me up to let others be imperfect as well—others like my Mom, who was only ever guilty of doing the best she could, just like I do with my kids.
Janna Barber grew up in the various homes of a nomadic preacher and his Southern belle wife. Her essays have appeared on several websites, and her nonfiction story “Cinnamon” was recently published by Rabbit Room Press in volume 4 of the Molehill. Barber serves as a coeditor for the website Foundling House and is currently writing her first book.