Mother’s Day is an amazing opportunity to honor and recognize the women who work day-in and day-out to keep a family system running smoothly. So often this effort is underappreciated. Most mothers deserve far more recognition than they receive.
But for some, the parent holidays – Mother’s Day and/or Father’s Day – are not cause for celebration. They are sad reminders of complicated, painful relationships. Often they are laden with guilt and a deep sense of undeserved obligation. The unpleasant reality is that not all mothers are the warm, nurturing presence shown in jewelry, floral, and baking ads, and not all fathers are the fun-loving, lawn mowing gentleman represented in hardware store commercials.
The culture of family
Every family has its own unique culture. These cultures develop over generations based on geography, experience, individual personalities, genetics, economics, and outside influence. No one exists in a vacuum. We are all a sum of our parts.
As families develop over generations, they form patterns of coping and response to circumstances. Without even realizing it, the way we respond to life has been inherited from family who came before us.
No family is perfect. But most, despite their shortcomings, develop a certain level of stability grounded in mutual love, honesty, and respect. Individuals who grow up in these types of families continue to pass these traits on to their own children.
Other families are not so lucky. Many suffer generationally from a culture of secrets, pain, shame, and chronic dysfunction. Because our family culture is so deeply ingrained in our identities, it is extremely difficult to break free from the cycle of dysfunction and avoid passing it on to future generations.
In order to free oneself from a generational shame cycle, individuals must make a conscious, continual effort to change the very fabric of their thinking. This can be nearly impossible to do if the person remains enmeshed in the drama of his or her dysfunctional family. Sometimes hard decisions must be made to avoid passing on the culture of shame.
The shame cycle is preserved by secrets. The only way to break it is to tell the truth. It takes incredible courage to speak the truth against one’s own family. It is a lonely, isolating process. Not only does the rest of the family typically turn on the person, but so do the friends who have been misled by the secrets for so long they find the truth unbelievable.
Sometimes the truth is communicated directly. But sometimes the best means to communicate this truth is by silence, distance, and escape. When family relationships break down, they are rarely spontaneous. There is a painful history that is unseen to outsiders; years of pain, disappointment, manipulation, abuse, and a complete lack of boundaries.
Life shattering secrets
The choice to distance oneself from a dysfunctional family has nothing to do with ego, spite, revenge, or an inability to forgive. These aren’t petty disagreements. What lies behind the secrets is life shifting, earth shattering brokenness. Distance is sometimes the only way to preserve the physical, emotional, and spiritual safety of the person breaking free.
This can be difficult to understand for those living in healthy family cultures. Understanding isn’t required. All that is required is the grace of non-judgement.
How can you help?
What does it mean to be nonjudgmental? What does grace towards broken family systems look like? First, recognize that in order for the family to break apart, there is likely much more to the story than you realized. Remember that there is pain on all sides, not just for the family, but also on the side of the person who chose to break away.
Friends of the family often only see the external impact of the brokenness. Perhaps the most common judgements made relate to the children of dysfunction. “How sad that cousins must grow up without their cousins,” or “The children didn’t get a say in this decision.”
Again, keep in mind that there is much to the story you do not know. It is possible that the parent of these children agonized over these very concerns. Perhaps it was decided, after years of trying to heal the dysfunction from within, that distance was a far healthier option than raising the children in a culture of secrets.
If you are lucky enough to live in a healthy family system, how can you be supportive of broken families during these difficult holidays? Reserve judgement – remember that there is more to the story than you know. Give the families space – don’t jump into the ring with opinions based on only part of the story. Don’t take sides – learn to support your friends without engaging in the drama.
Truth and grace
For those who struggle through Mother’s Day and/or Father’s Day due to broken, dysfunctional relationships, know that you are not alone. If you are still struggling inside the dysfunction, stay strong, be well, and seek grace from supportive friends. If you have taken a stand for truth in the relationship, than you are courageous beyond measure.
published May 11, 2018