[Note: this series is dedicated to Quivering Daughters by the former-Quiverfull moms at No Longer Quivering.]
I was only 19 when I arrived at Christianity’s door, bruised and highly impressionable and, because of my family situation, determined to do a better job of sorting out my life than my parents had done. Victims of abuse in their own homes, my parents had learned very early to dissociate from their emotions. Our home was an emotionally sterile one and, although I know now that this is not true, as as child I believed my parents did not love me. I decided that when *I* had kids, if they grew up knowing nothing else, they would know for sure that I loved them more than breathing.
I became the kind of Christian mother other Christian mothers looked up to in awe. My numerous children were admired wherever they went: smart, lively, godly and absolutely obedient. Women used to call on me and ask advice, yearning to be able to produce the kind of wonderful ‘fruit’ I was enjoying in abundance in my children. I would explain the difference between violent abuse and the loving application of ‘the rod’ which turned children’s little hearts away from sin and toward God. I would explain that I spanked sparingly and always in the context of a warm, loving expansive relationship, as part of a ritual that included healthy confession, repentance, and loving forgiveness. Anyone who knew my kids could see that following these biblical parenting principles was paying off big time.
As committed as I was to following the principles I’d come to believe would help me to raise wonderful and godly children, and as invested as I was in the outcome, I was blind to the true state of my children’s hearts. Forbidding certain, and indeed numerous, beliefs and practices which I now see were absolutely benign didn’t make my children lose their taste for them as I thought it would – it just drove them underground. In order to indulge perfectly normal, harmless preferences and cling to some semblance of separate identity, my children were forced to construct a secret inner life to which I had no access and which, of course, added considerably to their guilt burden.
Despite many, many lessons about the love and forgiveness of a generous heavenly Father, I realize now that my children were not able to reconcile the horrors of personal guilt and the fear of punishment against abstract concepts such as Christian integrity and the grace of God. In an effort to explain the kindness and extent of a grace so great it could save even sinners like us, I inadvertently buried my older children in the shallow grave of shame, self-loathing, and later, deep, deep rage. They came to be appalled at the lurking sin monster that evidently resided in their hearts, and endured an abiding self-disgust that their natural bents seemed often to be precisely what God deemed evil.
My older girls were damaged in particularly sad ways. QF standards of modesty caused them to wonder just what was so disgusting or dangerous about their bodies that they needed to keep them so carefully under wraps. Witnessing my unreasonably energetic efforts to submit to their father, my girls learned that even when a man is stupid, petty and a bully, God wants Christian women and their children to bear it with a smile and a prayer. I taught them that heroic hypocrisy was more important than honest misery. Their determination not to repeat my marital nightmare ultimately caused them to question their sexual orientation. Frustrated in the belief that the whole world was conspiring to strip them of their sense of self and squeeze them into a mold for which they were not fitted, my daughters generated lakefuls of underground anger which eventually exploded into terrifying geysers of self-destructive energy.
But I was oblivious to this at the time. I adored my children, poured my life out for them, and simply could not imagine that my best and most sincere efforts at applying what was, after all, God’s methodology might be harming them in anyway.
But it was.
While I thought I was training my children for godliness; they thought I was denying them the right to exist as independent and valuable entities. I thought I was shielding them from evil; they felt I was controlling their every breath. Although I knew I loved them more than my own life, they believed that they were to be sacrificed to a domineering God they already knew for certain they would not choose to serve.
I am certainly not perfect but I can truthfully say I was a near-perfect example of QF parenting techniques kindly and lovingly applied. I was getting it *right* and my kids were nearly destroyed by it – one of them almost lost her life before my eyes were fully opened. Of course there were other factors, my children’s personalities, their father’s legalism, my mistakes, but the fact remains: if you ask my young adult children what hurt them the most, it was the very elements that are still held up as ideals in QF circles that caused profound and lasting damage – the ‘loving discipline’, the sheltering, the super-high standards, the training in godliness, the microscopic control.
Fingers in my ears
I know that when I was in QF, before my children’s pain became so huge that they couldn’t keep it out of sight, if I had read a post like this, two mechanisms would have come into play. First, I would have re-read the post and searched for evidence that this woman was not like me, that she was laboring under a different methodology, or clearly had sin issues which were the true cause of her apparent catastrophic failure as a parent. I’d have spotted that she didn’t manage to pull off biblical wifely submission and have sighed with relief. She was flawed. Those terrible things wouldn’t happen to me and mine. We were *really* doing things by the Book.
But nagging doubts would trigger the second mechanism: fear. I would secretly begin to dread that despite all my excellent efforts, despite the tireless application of biblical principle, despite the dying to self, despite all my sheltering and all my training, that it may just be a little too early to call my fruit ‘good’. Maybe even a QF guru like me could produce a child who would ultimately ‘depart from the way he should go’.
But the cure for those fears was simple: I’d redouble my efforts, re-read those books and remind myself of little principles I’d inadvertently let slip. I’d increase the scope and extent of my prayer and Bible study regimes. I’d make the whole family miserable with my missionary zeal. And I’d know better than to go reading disturbing websites where disgruntled failures got to vent their spleens.
Here, take this shovel
So let me help you dig. There *were* aspects of my personality that made me a dangerous prospect for QF parenting dogma. I was a relatively new Christian when I first came to QF, pathetically malleable and earnest in my desire to be as pleasing to God as it was possible to be. If you told me how I could achieve that end, I would go for it, outstripping the very authors of the latest ‘life-transforming’ best-seller in my zeal. From this distance, what used to look like whole-hearted if slightly extreme religious enthusiasm now seems pathological.
Further, as I’ve already mentioned, I’d learned from my parents to behave beautifully while suppressing annoying and inconvenient emotions. My parents had both learned this skill from my grandparents who, in turn, each grew up with religious, rod-waving fathers. My Mom and Dad, determined not to repeat the mistakes of their forebears, rejected religion and almost never spanked us kids, but suppressed their demons by denying that an emotional being existed inside any of us. We simply didn’t do emotions at our house. Because of this, ‘putting on the mind of Christ’ and ‘bringing all things under his subjection’ were easy for me…in so far as that meant faking it (and very nicely too) until I made it. For someone like me, fundamentalist Christianity constituted an institutionalised hypocrisy. I fit right in.
Another trait that contributed to the picture was my naturally rebellious nature. Like my father, I’d grown up swimming against the mainstream. Dad had rebelled against his parent’s rigid religious conservatism, I rebelled against his empty secularism. Diving into the conservative Christian pool was, to me, a radical act of self-assertive rebellion. So was moving from relatively orthodox Christianity into super-conservative QF fundamentalism. That natural rebelliousness, combined with what I now see as an inherent self-righteousness, meant I was perfect fodder for a modern-day gnostic cult. I liked having access to special top-shelf knowledge about super God-pleasing practices. And I was going to throw all my energies into being good at them.
Most importantly, I think, was my burning desire to raise great kids – healthy, whole and loving the God they would joyfully choose to follow. The very worst thing I could possibly imagine was that one of my children would not follow me to heaven. I loved my children and my God so much – to think that we wouldn’t be together for eternity was more than I could bear to contemplate. Fortunately, I believed I had found a fool-proof plan that would ensure an excellent outcome. Others had been before me and they had left a trail of books and articles for my instruction. I consumed them with fervor. A zealous love for my kids, and an irrational fear of potential outcomes were further cultivated as I consumed QF dogma making me increasingly susceptible to slavishly accepting and applying QF methods in my home. Scaffolding our lives with the framework of the ‘old ways’, as those QF authors had done – just as they said the Book advocated – would not only give my kids a wonderful childhood but prepare them for a happy, fruitful Christian adulthood. Or so I then believed.
I am not saying that anyone who practices QF methodology is going to have such a disastrous time of it as we did. With all my heart I hope that other children and their mothers do not suffer as we have. But I now believe that QF ideals need to be handled with extreme caution. It is my view now that patriarchal Christianity and QF fundamentalism, just as they are and at their best, can be destructive of children’s souls. I would give anything if I could go back and undo the damage QF patriarchal fundamentalism and I inflicted on my children.
The light at the end of the tunnel
The past three years the kids and I have spent picking through the wreckage and deciding what’s salvageable and what we want to leave where it lies. Almost all of my energies have been devoted to helping my oldest children navigate their way out of what had become crippling, mental prisons, holding their hands as they take baby steps towards some kind of healthy adulthood. It’s been a horrifying journey but it’s been a much more honest one.
Life for my younger children is very different to that their older siblings endured. They enjoy the opportunity of exploring who they are and who they’d like to be. They are free to have their own opinions and emotions, to disagree and to make mistakes without it being a moral issue. They are allowed to be themselves. I treasure their childishness, value the messy process of growing up, and acknowledge their uniqueness. We may still screw up, but we’ll do it honestly, on our own terms, and not buried beneath a mountain of finger-wagging disapproval.
Frankly, we’ve still got a hellava long way to go and a veritable valleyful of poop to shovel away. But we are finding our own way out of the horrors of patriarchal fundamentalist Christianity. And just being on that path is truly a wonderful, wonderful thing.
We have already discussed Steadfast Daughters on the NLQ forum here ~ comments for this post are open below.
This series is written by Vyckie Garrison with the help of many ex-QF moms on behalf of Quivering Daughters.