Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers
Finding Freedom From Hurt and Hate
“If our families are to flourish, we will need to learn and practice ways of forgiving those who have had the greatest impact upon us: our mothers and fathers.”
Do you struggle with the deep pain of a broken relationship with a parent?
Leslie Leyland Fields and Dr. Jill Hubbard invite you to walk with them as they explore the following questions:
- Why must we forgive at all?
- How do we honor those who act dishonorably toward us, especially when those people are as influential as our parents?
- Can we ever break free from the “sins of our fathers”?
- What does forgiveness look like in the lives of real parents and children?
- Does forgiveness always require reconciliation?
Through the authors’ own compelling personal stories combined with a fresh look at the Scriptures, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers illustrates and instructs in the practice of authentic forgiveness, leading you away from hate and hurt toward healing, hope, and freedom.
“An excellent resource for the journey…The authors’ gracious approach does not minimize the pain adults feel about their relationships with parents who have hurt them. Neither does it offer platitudes. Instead, Fields and Hubbard outline concrete steps to do the necessary work of forgiveness in order to move forward into a life of freedom. An excellent resource for the journey."
"A call to very hard, but very vital, work of the soul."
—Dr. Henry Cloud, leadership expert, psychologist, and best-selling author
"Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers is essential reading for anyone who wants to deal with those hurts in a constructive, healing, and God-honoring manner."
—Jim Daly, president, Focus on the Family
"Leslie Leyland Fields and Jill Hubbard take us into raw, messy stories so we can be transformed by that mysterious and painful grace in the force called forgiveness."
—Scot McKnight, Northern Seminary
Some excerpts from Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers:
So began the return of my father to my life. Or rather, my return to his life. And the real travel I had put off for so long – the walk down the road of forgiveness – began. I did not want this particular expedition in my life. I had no room or time for a man who had caused nothing but harm in my life. But I know now that had I not listened and attended to this pull toward obedience, I would have missed the most staggering displays of God’s character and heart.
Often, we think the cost of forgiving is too high. But we do not consider the cost of not forgiving. We do not see who we’re becoming. We’re so busy trying to extract our debt from our parents that we do not see what it has done to us.
We are not God, nor shall we ever be, but in these small ways that feel enormous for us, we can be like God. And like God, we can give so much joy in welcoming a prodigal mother or father who doesn’t even know how much he or she needs it.
Though pain is ever present in most people’s lives, it is not pain itself, finally, that diminishes us; it is our response to it that determines the kind of lives we will live, the kind of people we will be. We can choose a bitterness and an anger that will diminish us, or we can let our pain lead us toward God and one another.
Here is freedom: to release ourselves from the roles of prison guard, jury, and judge over those who have hurt us and to hand the gavel and the key back to God, who was always the only rightful possessor.
We will feel then the full force of forgiveness, its power to lift and strengthen and move us from a land of bondage out into a full, spacious country with open gates, our hands open to all.
In the Desert
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said: “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter-bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”1
When we pulled up to the VA housing complex in Sarasota, in our rented van, Duncan saw him first. “There he is.” He tipped his head to point. I turned my eyes slowly to follow his gaze, almost not wanting to look. A man was standing under the awning of the complex. It was him. I saw his dark skin, his head, nearly bald, distinctively square, with a barely visible neck. He was just as I remembered, but bigger, maybe forty pounds heavier than the last time. He was wearing shorts and a striped jersey, the shirt taut over his belly. I stared at him, suddenly frozen. What do I do? I thought.
How do I play this scene? Loving daughter greeting long-lost father? Kind daughter bringing her children to meet their grandfather for the first time? Angry daughter wanting just a few words from her silent father? The van stopped. I got out slowly, carrying my youngest, and opened the side doors for the others. The rest of the kids piled out, five more, one after another, like some silly cartoon scene with an unending stream of people erupting from a tiny car. My father stood there, looking past the kids, not seeming to see them, as if they were inconsequential to his life—which they were. When the last one jumped out, suddenly I was on. I knew what to do. I put my toddler down and came and smiled, then hugged the strange man, patting him on the back with my fingers, keeping our bodies separate. “Hi. How ah ya?” he asked in his Massachusetts accent.
He smiled a little, showing his few remaining teeth, all broken.
“Good. We had a little trouble finding this place,” I said with false brightness. It had taken us two days to get there. We had flown in from Kodiak, Alaska, from the far northwest corner of the country to the far southeast corner. From squalls and stormy ocean to palm trees and traffic. It was March 2006, our spring break. Through some impetus I don’t remember now, I had decided we needed to go to Florida. We would do the usual vacation things, but mostly this was a trip to see my father. He was eighty-four, so I knew this would be my children’s only chance to meet him. I had never talked about him to my kids. They didn’t know anything about him, and they never asked. He knew nothing about them. But over the then twenty-eight years of marriage and fifteen years of parenting, I had learned from my husband and from my children what fathers might be for, so I wanted them to know who my father was, for themselves. Someday they would care. I had warned the four older kids, ages nine to sixteen, that he probably would not talk to them or even ask their names or ages. They shrugged, accepted this as routine. I worried most about the two youngest, one and a half and three, who thought all grandfathers were like their grandpa back home, an old man who wanted you to sit on his knee, who played hide-and-seek with you, and who asked you questions and gave you hugs. I didn’t tell them he was their grandfather. I just told them this man was my father. Even that felt like a deception. We decided, finally, on a trip to the beach and loaded into the van, nine of us now, and drove to Sarasota Beach, on his suggestion. I had no idea what to do on this visit and felt saved by this beach. It was blindingly white, as deep as it was wide, bodies massed on sand and in water. I walked slowly with my father out onto the sand—he walked like the old man he now was. I did not give him my arm.
Duncan and the kids ran ahead into the water while I staked out a stamp of ground for our blanket. Finding one, I spread the blanket and plopped down. “Can you sit?” I asked, looking up at my aged father as he stood above me. “No, my hips are bad,” he said matter-of-factly. He couldn’t lower himself onto the sand. I had no idea what to do. I hadn’t considered this possibility. A man nearby heard our dilemma and jumped up to offer his own folding chair; I felt a sudden bright heat—yes, kindness. I understood as I set up the chair. Later I would get my father a hot dog, then an ice cream. Maybe I could pity him. I could feel pity for this old man. And I could pretend that this was all of my grief, simply the diminishments of age. We sat there in the white sun on the white beach, just he and I.
This was my last chance to know who he was, to find a fissure, something to take me down into that frozen stillness. I asked him about the war, about his mother and father, about his childhood—I knew so little. He didn’t remember much, answering in short, vague sentences spoken sideways, his eyes always away, looking to the ocean. I was bothering him. He wanted to sit in the sun, watch the water, and be quiet. I kept asking questions, trying to store some of his words in my head to write down later, but they evaporated almost as soon as he spoke them. Two hours later, we were headed back, the day at the beach already exhausted. I was quiet and grim.
Had we really spent all that money to fly down here for just two hours? He hadn’t asked the names of my children or spoken to them, except to ask the older ones about the weather in Kodiak. Wanting something to claim from this visit, I suggested one more stop before we let him off—ice cream. We stood in line for our cones, then ate them under a tree as we watched the traffic. Just before we left the soft-serve stand, I told Duncan to take a photo. I wanted to remember this moment, the last time I would see my father. He sat at the wooden picnic table with a slight smirk, looking utterly content. I stood behind him, deciding not to arrange my face. I would let it be.
My lips taut, mouth clamped shut, containing as much emptiness and want as I could hold. And anger at myself and him. How can I still want? I mused. How can I forgive him for all the years past, for this moment even now? He is utterly content with his ice cream, while his daughter sits beside him, starving to death—and the ice cream is pretty good today, isn’t it? I would not come back, I decided. It was the same as always. He had no interest in being a father and less interest in his third daughter. I was done. I felt a kind of relief that I could finally close that door. *** Four years later, I was reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I was awake—I feel sure I was awake—when I came to these strange words: Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us (Matt. 6:12 NLT). I stopped, eyes wide.
What was that word doing there, that “as”? What was I asking?
How many times have I said these words and not heard this? I wondered. I am asking God to base his forgiveness of me on my forgiveness of others? Surely that’s a slip, a scribe’s slide of the pen.
How can my forgiveness qualify me for God’s forgiveness? I did not want to, but I immediately thought of my father, that inanimate bulk of a human being who kept getting in the way. There was more. I kept hearing the commandment, “Honor your father and mother.” And I wondered as I thought about my apathetic father, How do I honor this man? The question came as a deep puzzle to me, as it did to all my siblings. But I was not so cut off in my hurt that I did not know how many others were in the same dilemma. So many other daughters and sons, regardless of age: middle-aged adults, young adults, teens. Does “Honor your father” apply to us, I questioned, those of us who have been hurt and deceived and abandoned by our mothers or fathers, or even both? Surely if they are dishonorable, we need not honor them! We’re off the hook. Neither did I care to forgive my father and all that had been done in the rooms and houses of my childhood where he sometimes sat and walked—and walked away from. And suddenly, the way such things happen, all the world felt abuzz with this issue. I chanced to sit beside an acquaintance on a plane just as I was returning from a visit with my father. She told me about her own father, who was schizophrenic and institutionalized, who had made her life miserable. She was relieved when he died.
“How can you be so serene about all this now?” I asked.
“I’ve forgiven him,” she said, simply.
While I was in Memphis to lead a seminar, the woman who was housing and feeding me told me about her father, how he had left her family when she was in high school, without a word, to live with another woman. And after ten years of silence, he wanted back in her life.
“I don’t want to let him in,” she shared. “I know I should forgive him, but I can’t.”
A friend is taking care of his elderly mother. One day he shared his feelings with me.
“She’s an alcoholic,” he told me, darkly. “It’s hard. I know I need to forgive her, but I don’t know how.”
Another time, I talked to a counselor at a Christian college.
“You wouldn’t believe how many issues young people have with their parents,” she said. “This is the time in their life, when they first leave home, that they really see what they’ve come from. Most want to forgive their parents, but it’s very hard for them.”
“I left home very young, “ a young man told me. “I couldn’t live with my mother anymore. I don’t even want to forgive her.”
An online friend wrote, “Can I talk to you about this—forgiving my father? I am so in trouble on this issue!”
One of my students, Allison, wrote an essay about her alcoholic mother: “I believe that lament is a common story for all of us. Bad things happen. Mothers (and fathers) fail. But I’m wondering if I’ve lived in the land of lament too long, and if it’s time to piece these stories together in a different way. I wonder if it’s time to forgive. I have no idea how to do this.”
The messages were everywhere. I could not seem to escape them or the media. Every form of it—radio, e-mails, magazines, online articles—carried messages on forgiveness, words like: When you cling to bitterness, you are caged in emotions you cannot control. You need to set yourself free. A more specific message, from psychologists and mental health professionals, went like this: You can’t grow up and be full adults until you can forgive your parents. End the cycle of hurt and disappointment that stalls you and keeps your children continually needy and continually bruised by the parent who can’t meet their needs. Messages from pastors and priests said: You are to forgive others as God has forgiven you. TV talk shows opined: If you really want to be happy, you need to forgive those who have hurt you. It’s the true road to freedom and happiness! The medical profession has discovered the health benefits of forgiveness. They’ve found that people who were able to release their offenders from their own anger and judgment improved their health, lowering blood pressure and heart rate and decreasing their levels of depression, anxiety, and anger.2 In the political realm, within the last thirty years, the practice of forgiveness has been embraced by government leaders all over the world as the best hope for healing fractured peoples and nations. South Africa, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda are some of the hotbeds of bloodshed and violence where forgiveness projects are releasing tribes and peoples from generational cycles of revenge and retaliation, changing the culture.
In the United States, forgiveness has become a legitimate and hopeful area of academic study. In 1994 Robert D. Enright, along with the Human Development Study Group at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, founded the International Forgiveness Institute in the belief that “forgiveness might be useful in helping those who have been affected by cruelty, crime, and violence, and . . . might play a valuable role in reconciling warring parties and restoring harmony between people.”3 Enright used a twenty-step forgiveness model in Northern Ireland for mothers and relatives who had lost family members in the sectarian violence and whose lives were stuck in grief and hatred. More recently, the Stanford Forgiveness Project, begun in 2001, began researching and exploring ways that forgiveness could end social and familial ruptures. In America, we face a daunting need for forgiveness, especially within our own homes. And the need will only continue to grow. As the American family evolves, more than half of all children are born outside of marriage,4 leaving an increasing number of children fatherless and living below the poverty line. Both of these increase the chances for child abuse and neglect, which are at record numbers today. And the numbers continue to climb.
Authorities received more than three million calls concerning more than six million children at risk in 2012. The United States has the worst record among industrialized countries: more than five children a day die from abuse and neglect, and likely the numbers are much higher.5 These are tragic statistics, and they remind us, in the words of Christian editor and author Rodney Clapp, that “every night we lock ourselves behind doors with the people most likely to hurt us.”6 What does all of this have to do with forgiveness? Clearly, as a nation, within our families there is much to be forgiven. If we are to thrive as human beings, if our country and our communities are to prosper, if our families are to flourish, we will need to learn and practice ways of forgiving those who have had the greatest impact upon us: our mothers and fathers. Most of the time this will not mean simply our birth mothers and fathers. Many of us have an array of parental figures in our lives: parents-in-law, stepparents, foster parents, adoptive parents, godparents, and those who were charged to mentor us in motherly and fatherly ways. Some excelled in these roles. Others did not. Many inflicted hurt instead. As I first began to listen and take notes, forgiveness sounded so necessary and so alluring. (Freedom? Happiness? Better health? No longer under my offenders’ emotional control?) But because I’m slow and stubborn, and because my life is so busy—only gradually did I begin to reach the simple conviction: I must forgive my father. There were others, too, I knew I needed to forgive. They suddenly sprang full-bodied before me as I wrote—a man no longer living, a former pastor, a long-ago friend—but my attention was first seized by my father. I knew at the same time that forgiveness was a necessary passage for all sons and daughters. And that my own path, though at times it would feel lonely, would not be singular or solitary. Many were walking along with me, lots of them ahead of me, some behind, some hesitating and balking at the start line, as I did for so many years, but most of us believing we should forgive our parents. And in moments of stronger conviction: we must forgive our parents. I know even now as I write these words that challenges will come.
For those who have suffered at the hands of the very ones who were to cherish and nurture them, the first question is, why should I forgive? It’s one of the best questions I know. I have asked it myself, sometimes in anger, other times in sincere disbelief. Often after hearing stories like the ones in these pages, we are compelled to ask, “Why pluck these mothers and fathers off the hook of their own guilt? Why let them go free from the judgment and consequences they deserve? Is that what forgiveness means?” There are answers to this, I have found, profound answers that shake the very ground we stand on, answers that will likely affect all other relationships around us as well. These aren’t the only questions. We also ask: “How do I honor parents who are dishonorable?” “Can I still forgive my parents even though they’re no longer living?” “I don’t want to be reconciled to my mother. Does forgiveness require reconciliation?” “If I am supposed to forgive, then how do I forgive?”
This book will address all of these, not by simple proclamation, but through show-and-tell. I will provide the “show” through my own story and through the lives of others, People like Viola, Jan, Jimmy, Robert, and many more, real people who are wrestling with the same questions you are. I will follow their stories and my own with as much honesty as we can allow.
Dr. Jill Hubbard, a clinical psychologist, Gold Medallion–nominated author, and radio and television personality, who has practiced in the mental health field for more than twenty-five years, will provide the “tell,” concluding each chapter with clear application and study questions to guide you in your own walk. Her passion for joining me in this project is rooted in her belief in the therapeutic healing benefits and necessity of an intentional process of forgiveness. She has walked countless clients down this path and has embraced it as her own life-stance for navigating through difficult and very personal forgiveness issues.
Between the two of us, we are writers, editors, researchers, teachers, counselors, and mothers. We will include our considerable research and interviews, but what qualifies us most for this work is that we are both daughters—daughters who have been immersed in our own work of parental forgiveness.
A question comes to me even as I am writing this: Do we really need another book on forgiveness? My need to write it—and the fact that you’re reading these pages now—tells the answer. The topic does not go away because we keep on hurting one another, failing our most essential relationships, and being plagued, even haunted, by the events in our past. But it does not go away for a deeper reason, I suspect. I am wondering at the quality of our forgiveness of one another, and specifically of our fathers and mothers, the purview of this book. I can speak to the quality of my own—how temporary and superficial it often is, dependent on emotions and circumstances. I think of how selfish my motives have been—to forgive my father for my own sake. I know this is important. I know we must do it for ourselves, but as I began to consider forgiveness more deeply, I became troubled by the messages I was hearing, from the general media and the religious media alike. Even in something this divine and holy—because we must admit: forgiveness is, in many ways, against our natural human inclinations—even here, we hold fast to our self-focus and are enticed to forgive for our sakes, because it frees us. We are counseled to work at a small, private forgiveness, not for something much larger than us that reaches from our individual lives out into the larger world.
This book will begin at the point of our greatest pain and will move us, chapter by chapter, beyond, into a place of freedom that we cannot even imagine now, a freedom that promises to begin to heal the brokenness of the world itself. To get there, we’ll be following stories that are far from simple. They will be as complicated as the people telling them and living them. But lest you open this book ready to flinch at horrific stories of abuse and despair, let me reassure you. This book will be neither a catalog of dysfunction and despair nor a competition for the most vile transgressions visited upon a child. The news already contains too many of these realities. Yes, there will be some hard stories here—and there will be some easy stories. Not all is life-and-death, hurt and despair. Sometimes what catches in our throats is a word, a gesture, a meal of mackerel we couldn’t face every week for a year, the buckled galoshes and boy clothes we girls had to wear to school. (Ah yes, Laurie and Jan, remember the boy galoshes and how we were endlessly teased about them?) The ordinary injustices that grow from a rub into an irritant, something we can’t quite shake. Sharon’s mother fed her frozen mixed vegetables nearly every night, she thinks. “To this day I can’t eat them,” she told me, laughing. “You know: those little cubed carrots?” But my hope is that among these stories of the everyday and the exceptional, you will find a way to move forward in your own necessary journey.
There are many reasons to begin this path: To silence your memories. To forget what’s been done to you. To unlock your own hard heart and walk about free. To do good to someone who doesn’t deserve it. To restore a relationship. Whatever your motives, you are the one to do it. You cannot wait for your father and mother to do this for you. You cannot wait for them any longer.