Every family has them, right? It’s just how things happen in this American culture, especially in the generation before mine, which I often call the “sweep it all under the rug” generation. My mother was a pro at this. It always seemed so bizarre to me that she would preach to me about my siblings and I getting along better, when she kept so much from her own sisters. I would argue that it wasn’t really getting along and loving if you didn’t really know one another, but it was an argument that never saw resolution, because my priority was being known and loved, while hers was having “peace.”
I remember when I was around 10 years old and a cousin told me that she had visited the cemetery with her mother and there was a headstone with the name, “Baby McDowell,” (my maiden name). When she asked about it, her mother told her that my parents had lost their first child, a girl, when she was born. I was blown away! I had a sister! I know it sounds ludicrous, but with four brothers and a mom who wasn’t super chummy with me, I was thrilled that I wasn’t alone on some 10 year old level. When I went home to ask my mother about it, probably not with an abundance of sensitivity, I was met with such anger, I didn’t know what to do with myself. She refused to answer any of my questions and told me it was none of my business and my aunt had NO business telling her daughter about it. In the over 40 years since then, she’s never discussed it with me.
Later, as a young adult, I had to keep mum at extended family gatherings when another family member was in jail, for months at a time – not only once and not the same person. My mother was adamant about this, so the rest of us fell in line and helped keep up the facade. This meant telling our children to also lie to their relatives (because that’s healthy…). When I tried to explain how uncomfortable I was, asking my kids to do this, I was berated for telling my children the truth in the first place, as if I had done something completely idiotic and detrimental to my offspring and my family of origin all at once.
I was 19 and in college, dating the boy who would become my first husband, when I became pregnant and, as a result, had an abortion. My husband and children are all very aware of what my experience was and how it’s affected my entire life. While I wish this was not a chapter in my story, it is, and I believe the only way to change the trajectory of my children’s lives and their children’s lives, and so on, is to bring my secret sins out into the light and talk about what led up to and what happened because of those awful choices I made. I can say with some disgrace and a bunch of freedom that I have been relentlessly upfront about my bad choices with my children and that the good that will result from my transparency far outweighs the shame I’ve experienced.
“But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 14 This is why it is said: ‘Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:13-14)
With so many wounds, secrets and lies layered upon one another through the years, eventually my family of origin imploded. Secrets of abortion, miscarriage, a shotgun wedding, an illegitimate child, affairs, stealing money, the list goes on. It was both heartbreaking for me and somewhat of a relief. The carnage is still scattered all over the place and I’ve collected all of the pieces of the implosion that I want to keep. The ones I left behind are not pieces I want to include as I go forward.
The irony is that you’d be hard-pressed to find a family that doesn’t have these same or very similar skeletons in their proverbial closets, and yet, we all freak out and try to hide it when it’s ours. THIS is normal. We Sin. We make terrible choices. We are HUMAN. The goal isn’t to get through with less embarrassing sin than your other family members or the neighbors. The goal is to know each other and love each other through the good and the bad choices. The goal is to take the bad stuff and help others to not take the same detours, because if we don’t use that junk to cause some good, what in the world is the point?!
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” (Isaiah 61:1-3)
When my husband betrayed me several years ago, I remember so many things going through my mind. I felt horrible shame because my husband turned to someone else after I had tried so hard to be a great wife in every way I knew how. I did not want anyone to know about this and possibly take pleasure in it at my expense. I reached out to our church and they connected us to another couple who had gone through something similar a few years before us. They advised us to tell our children immediately. We did NOT want our children to know anything – which is ridiculous when I think of how I didn’t leave my bedroom for 2 solid weeks and they must have heard all of the crying and screaming I was doing on the regular. After a lot of prayer and some time, we took their advice and told our children. We also shared with them that this had happened with other family members in the spirit of getting it all out into the light and moving forward in freedom. It was one of the most devastating nights of our lives. I honestly didn’t think we would ever recover from all of the horribleness.
I’d love to tell you that we instantly became better than ever before, that once the truth was out, we all instantly forgave one another and moved on in perfect harmony. I could lie, but then I’d be starting that crap again and what would be the point of this post?! We did couple’s counseling, individual counseling, teenage counseling, and in the process of working toward health with boundaries and all the glitter, there was lots of fallout and sadly, some of it has not been resolved, yet.
I know one of the biggest reasons family secrets begin is because we are concerned about what other people think of us. We want to appear better than we are. I often refer to the time before the betrayal as our Stepford Family years because we worked SO hard to make it all look perfect – and by we, I mean me. On some level (and this is where my 2-ness came into play, HARD. * See Enneagram) I always believed that if I did enough for the people I loved, they would keep me in their lives because I wasn’t worth loving just because I was me.
SO, if you pour all you’ve got into being the perfect wife, then you finally burn out after 20 years and in your exhaustion your husband turns away because you’re not revolving around him anymore, all of your worst fears are pretty much confirmed. Which is why I found myself rocking back and forth immediately after the discovery and chanting, “I always knew I wasn’t worth it.” Satan had been whispering this into my ear my entire life.
In my diligent and often treacherous pilgrimage back to who I was always supposed to be, I discovered that I’ve always been worth it to My Father and that is more than enough. As the layers of lies were peeled off of my self, my marriage and my family, I could finally hear the voice that mattered most, the voice of My Father. Instead of the lies drowning Him out, His voice now drowns out satan’s lies.
Once I could hear His truth and accept His love, I was able to face my own “less-than-lovely’ traits and begin to work on replacing them with healthier tools. This meant more counseling, attending a Destiny Project weekend, working through the 12-Steps (again), inter-healing prayer, revisiting boundaries and how they are healthy, and loads more time with Him throughout.
In the year after the discovery of the betrayal, I was betrayed by one of my oldest and dearest friends (the only one I shared this horrific news with), some people in my husband’s family began (and continue) treating me awfully, and my parents requested that I stay out of their lives forever (and so I do). There were also many other incidents that were challenging during this period, and I can say it seemed more than I could bear at times, but mostly I had a peace like never before and because I FINALLY knew I was loved fully and unconditionally, I was able to not allow the rejection of me by other people’s brokenness to be my scale of self-worth. It was all very painful, but I can now look back and see that God was preening my life. In order to grow He has to trim away the unhealthy stuff, so that we can move forward without that unnecessary weight dragging us down.
In the past I would continue to insert myself into the lives of family members and friends regardless of how they treated me because I thought this is what good, christian women were supposed to do. I have more broken relationships with extended family than I would like to have, but I know that this is a chapter in my life and theirs, not the whole story, and if I continue to be in My Father’s will and follow His lead, then things will work out just as they should. Sometimes there will be reconciliation and sometimes there will not be, and in the meantime, He is growing me and preparing me for the next step on the path He has for me.
The other thing I want to say about bringing secrets out into the light is that you don’t have to share your stuff with the anyone who feels unsafe, especially if you are still working through the pain of it. Mrs. Smith, down the street, doesn’t need to know that your niece had a baby out-of-wedlock, especially if she is prone to gossip! But, if it’s about someone in your family, you should probs tell your family. The thing is, that too often those family secrets affect the way we parent, or love, or live. We may not even realize it, but once it’s out in the open and some time has passed, we may very well notice that we are living more from a place of freedom than ever before and that’s just better for everyone. I often wonder if the reason my mom didn’t really seem to get close to me as a child is because her first precious baby that she lost was a girl and since I was the only other girl, maybe I reminded her of her profound loss. Maybe that’s the reason it was easy for her to walk away from me several years ago over something very trivial. I don’t know. I probably never will, because family secrets.
The last thing I want to say about family secrets is: Just ask. Don’t do it like 10 year-old me probably did, but ask with gentleness and grace. If you think there is a family secret that you should have knowledge of, go IN LOVE to the person you think it involves and ask for the truth. Help him/her bring it out into the light and then extend grace.
I’ve had people come and ask me about choices I’ve made with such grace that confessing to them was a blessing for both of us. I’ve experienced other people coming at me with such judgement and condemnation that the only result was broken relationship and betrayal. We’ve all sinned. We all need grace. When we remember that and approach the people we LOVE in humility, God can make miraculous beauty out of our messiness. I know this because, many years after that horrendous night of bringing our devastating secret out into the light, my marriage is more authentic than it ever was and my husband & I have walked numerous others through this devastating journey to healing on the other side. Our three youngest children will always carry the pain of that chapter of their lives with them, but they have chosen to use it to help others and to grow with a kind of dependence on Our Father that often only comes from walking through a period of anguish from facing hard truths.
While the temptation to have others see me as having my stuff together is always lurking, I don’t ever want to go back to living in the dark. I know that living with my junk in the light is how I can best follow Jesus. It’s where He lives and even when my junk is in the dark, He knows, RIGHT?! In those moments of shame or rejection when I’m tempted to hide a detail or two, this thought will usually cross my mind, “HE ALREADY KNOWS!!”
“God, you know what I have done wrong; I cannot hide my guilt from you.” (Psalm 69:5)
– and it isn’t the fear of Him that steers me back onto the right path as much as the knowledge that living in truth and transparency is living in freedom. Living with hidden secrets and festering heart wounds is a life of imprisonment. I’ve lived there and while I struggle daily with how I appear to others, ultimately I want to be able to come to My Papa day after day, more and more in the identity He has for me. This isn’t a straight road with no detours or break downs, but it is a well-worn path of persistence, humility and surrender with light and freedom along the way.