Facing Your Past
About the Guest
Elizabeth Oates, author of "Mending Broken Branches," recalls her troubled childhood marked by abuse and loneliness and tells how that emptiness eventually led her to a deep and abiding relationship with Christ. Oates shares how hearing a news reporter describe the bleak outcome for children of divorce made her determined to prove him wrong.
Elizabeth OatesElizabeth Oates is cofounder and vice president of Project Restoration Ministry. She and her husband are raising their five children (three biological, one adopted through foster care, and one they are currently fostering) in Waco, Texas, where she blogs and mentors women who’ve experienced brokenness in their family trees.
Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
Elizabeth Oates recalls her troubled childhood marked by abuse and loneliness and tells how that emptiness eventually led her to a deep and abiding relationship with Christ.
Facing Your Past
Bob: When you are a child, growing up, you think whatever is happening in your home is normal because it’s all you know. Elizabeth Oates remembers realizing later that the experiences she had as a child were not normal or healthy.
Elizabeth: My brother and I were alone a lot, and I thought that that was normal. Looking back, that’s not normal. It’s not normal for an eight-year-old to be by themselves four nights a week. I think it was when my mom remarried, when I was in middle school and all of the violence occurred—the police were coming to our home—I knew that that was not normal.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, June 4th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. What do you do, as a mom, yourself when you want to make sure that the family your kids are growing up in is very different than the family you grew up in? We’ll talk more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. There are a couple of powerful ideas I think we need to start off with today. One is that the family that you grew up in and the family that your kids are growing up in—that’s going to mark them in a profound way; it marked you in a profound way—but it’s not determinative. It may have a powerful impact on your life and your thinking, but it doesn’t determine your destiny. We need to remember, as we raise our kids, this is marking them; but we need to also remember, for ourselves, that the family we grew up in doesn’t determine what our future looks like.
Dennis: It doesn’t have to define you. We say that many times on this broadcast, and we’re going to talk about what’s happening in the family tree today.
A number of years ago, I gave a message to the staff—
—I talked about how the family tree was designed to provide shade, protection, beauty, [and] grandeur as it matures and stands strong in a field; but the family as we’re viewing it today—unfortunately, some families have experienced divorce; so you’re dealing with something that is a less than perfect ideal.
And we’ve got a couple of guests here on the broadcast today. One, who has built his ministry around families that are less than ideal—although they are not always formed by divorce—Ron Deal joins us, who heads up FamilyLife’s blended initiative. How many ways do you say that a blended family is formed?
Ron: There are 67 different types of stepfamilies—just stepfamilies alone; for example, it depends on the couple: one could be divorced / one could have never been married; both could be widowed; both could be younger; they could be older / both divorced—something like that. One could bring a child; both could bring children. What if they have an “ours” child together?—
—any of those combinations. Then, you add foster kids and adoptive children.
Dennis: —and children out-of-wedlock.
Ron: Yes; obviously, there are too many variables for me to do the math; so we hired somebody. [Laughter] We came up with 67 different potential configurations.
Dennis: That’s why we’ve hired you to address these issues that are created. [Laughter]
We’re also joined by Elizabeth Oates from Waco, Texas, which has become an iconic spot. [Laughter]
Bob: We were talking about this earlier, Elizabeth. Now, you can hardly go anywhere without some Magnolia reference in the city; right?
Elizabeth: That is true. That’s our claim to fame now.
Bob: That’s right.
Dennis: Elizabeth has written a book called Mending Broken Branches, so we’re talking about the family tree here. She is the cofounder and Vice President of Project Restoration, a ministry to those who have experienced the broken branches of the family tree. She is the mom of five children—three bio kids; two adopted children from foster care—
—hope we get a chance, over the next couple of days, to talk about that—and is married to Brandon, who is an attorney in Waco since 2001.
As you begin the book, you start with where you were, as a young lady growing up, in high school—very, very alone. Describe your situation to our listeners.
Elizabeth: I grew up mostly raised by a single mom. My parents divorced when I was about two years old; so I was mostly raised, just my brother and me, by my mom. When I was in middle school, she remarried; and that relationship was very tumultuous. There was a lot of abuse—mentally, physically, [and] verbally. My brother and I just kind of stood back and watched all that happen; so it was a very, sort of, lonely time—confusing/scary—and then, in my early high school years, they divorced. Then, as I watched my mom rebuild her life, that sort of left me on my own to rebuild mine; so that was a lonely time.
I will say, though—that was the time when I found the Lord. When we were growing up, we hadn’t really been active in the church. We were those—I call them CEO’s, Christmas and Easter Only Christians. My mom, though, upon this second divorce—she took me to the Baptist church down the street and said, “We’re going to start going.”
Dennis: You weren’t too happy about that.
Elizabeth: I was not happy at all; no. I was a pretty independent kid, I think, because of the way I was raised—you know, by a single mom who worked a lot. I think a lot kids from divorced families tend to be pretty independent and kind of grow up a little bit before their time. I was pretty independent—had always been a pretty strong-willed child. Yes, I wasn’t happy about this at all.
I was also a straight-A student, so I was pretty used to having all the right answers. Then, you throw me into a Sunday school class, where I knew none of the right answers, and I didn’t know where any of the books of the Bible were.
I didn’t know any of the stories they were telling, so I felt very behind the curve.
Dennis: You actually described yourself as an F-student.
Elizabeth: Yes; yes, I was. I didn’t feel smart for the first time in my life and felt very behind, and I didn’t like that feeling at all. I just, honestly, too—I felt like youth group was a little cheesy; but it was just a new environment for me, and I felt very out of place and very uncomfortable. I just didn’t want any part of it; but I also think that’s one of those things, where God was chasing after me. I think I was just scared and was just trying to run away a little bit; but I always tell my mom: “That’s the best thing you ever did for me—was you kept making me go.”
Dennis: I want all of our parents to hear that.
Elizabeth: Yes! [Laughter]
Dennis: When you see the heel marks—all the way out over the sidewalk, all the way to the car, and from the car all the way into the church—
Elizabeth: Yes; yes.
Dennis: —you may be doing the best thing you could possibly be doing for that young person.
Elizabeth: Yes; now, she did say, “I won’t make you go on Wednesday nights; I won’t make you go on Sunday nights; but you’re going to go on Sunday mornings.”
Over time, my attitude changed. I think I realized the depths of my loneliness; I realized, “I am not going to make it through this without Jesus”; and I realized what the gospel was all about. You know, I had been in and out of these churches; but I never understood the gospel. I had heard of Jesus, but I didn’t know who Jesus was.
Going to church on a regular basis—sitting, Sunday morning after Sunday morning, and listening to the preacher—I finally understood who He was. I accepted Christ that year; I was baptized. That was the beginning of my faith journey and sort of took ownership of my faith and made it my own. Then, it wasn’t a question of—“Do I have to go?”—but I actually wanted to go.
Bob: Elizabeth, a lot of kids, who are growing up in homes that are troubled—like the one you grew up in—they don’t know it’s troubled—
Bob: —because it’s the home they are growing up in.
Bob: It’s just all they know. When did it dawn on you that the home you grew up in was a less-than-perfect situation? When did you go: “This is not how it was supposed to have been”; do you know?
Elizabeth: Probably when she remarried. Up until then, she was working a lot. She had, I say, a very active social life; so my brother and I were alone a lot, and I thought that was normal. Looking back, that’s not normal. It’s not normal for an eight-year-old to be by themselves four nights a week. It’s not normal to put yourself to bed every night—or four to five nights a week. It’s not normal to fix yourself dinner four to five nights a week—that kind of thing. You know, lots of other issues that came with all of that.
I always joke that my mom never knew my grades, or never looked at my homework, or helped me with homework. When—now as a mom, I know how much I help my kids with their homework / how much I’m signing papers and things like that.
I always think, “Like who was signing my papers?”—you know?
Looking back, now, I’m noticing, as a mom, things that were not normal; but I never realized that back then. I think it was when my mom remarried, when I was in middle school and all of the violence occurred—the police were coming to our home—I knew that was not normal.
Dennis: You also had some news that came to you—that I want our listeners to hear this story. You were nine years old, and you heard a term that defined how you were living. You were given a little bit of a descriptor. What was that term, and how did you process it?
Elizabeth: The term, “broken home”?—yes, I heard it on the news. It was describing, I think, children of divorce or divorced families. It said something about broken homes, and the news reporter started talking about statistics. Again, I had grown up in a single-parent home for so long that that’s all I knew.
I didn’t ever have a dad living with me, and my dad had not really been a part of my life. It never occurred to me that I was broken. I think I had such a great self-confidence, as a kid, that—and again, I was a straight-A student—I never thought there was anything wrong with me.
When I heard this news reporter use that term, “broken home,” I was a little bit taken aback and a little offended—even at like nine years old. I remember standing there and pausing for a moment and, again, just being a little offended and thinking: “Well, I’ll show!”—you know—“I’m not broken,” and “How dare you say that about me or anybody else who comes from a divorced family?” and then just quickly turning and walking back up the steps; but that always stuck with me that: “How dare anyone say somebody who comes from a divorced family is broken, or second-class, or less than? Children that come from divorced families are capable of anything that any other child wants to accomplish in life or wants to do.”
Now, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned the statistics. I’ve learned that girls are more prone to promiscuity; and kids are more prone to try drugs, or drink, or have sex at an earlier age. We are not as likely to go to college—you know, all of those statistics. I understand that now, as an adult—I understand where that reporter was coming from—but my idealistic, childlike self would still love to believe that we are capable of the same things that other kids are. The part of me that loves Jesus would like to believe the same thing—that God can redeem us.
Ron: So, now that you are older—
Ron: —and you’ve processed that—
Ron: —and obviously, you heard something very pejorative in that term, “broken family.” How would you advise somebody, listening to us right now—who is in ministry, or influences kids, or a teacher who works around children in various family situations—
—what language would you give them to use that’s sensitive to the situation kids find themselves in but doesn’t carry the judgement that, perhaps, “broken” does?
Elizabeth: Ron, I think you do a great job with your blended family ministry. Blended family is a much better term than stepfamily. You know, stepfamily carries that stigma. Single-parent home, I think, is a great term. There are certain terms that we can use that are more sensitive.
I think—if you have a student in your classroom, or your youth group, or your neighborhood—just wrapping your arms around them and just encouraging them. I remember having a friend’s dad—my senior year, we were doing a project or something—and him making the comment of: “You are really intelligent!”—like almost surprised. I remember thinking: “I wish he had told me that sooner,”—like—“I might have tried harder in this class”; you know? When we recognize those traits in kids, from single-parent homes, encourage them; because they might not be getting it at home.
Bob: Ron, let me ask you—as you hear Elizabeth’s story—and as you think about kids, who are growing up in homes where one parent is gone—where it’s a single-parent, who is maybe trying as hard as they can; but there are deficits that are present in that situation—and then, we hear the statistics—I’m thinking of the single-parents, who are going, “This is my reality, but I don’t want those statistical outcomes.”
Ron: Yes; right.
Bob: What are the things that a single-parent can do to help mitigate against those statistical outcomes?
Ron: Yes. Well, first of all, my little soapbox about “broken”—and I’m so glad you brought this up, Elizabeth—is that it somehow implies that intact families don’t have any brokenness; right? We all know everybody’s dysfunctional; right?—you just have a certain family configuration—some more [dysfunction] than others. But family structure does lend advantages: God’s design—one man/one woman, for life, raise their kids, then you bury one another [after death]—sort of—
—that does lend itself to some advantages to the family—it builds some internal strengths for the home.
A family, with a single-parent or a blended family, has a few disadvantages—things that they’ve got to kind of work through. It doesn’t mean that they are broken, or dysfunctional, or second-class. It just means: “Yes; there are some things working against you in some ways.”
I think what we do is—we just recognize that and—to your question—say: “Okay; so I’m a single-parent. What do I do? How do I bring some other people alongside me in this parenting journey?” I’m a firm believer—we were never made to parent alone; it’s too hard!
Ron: We need help; so a mentor—grandma fills the gaps; other people from church. It occurred to me today: “It takes a village to raise a child; it takes a community to raise a parent”; you know? [Laughter] Every parent needs somebody to come alongside of them.
Dennis: —give hope.
Ron: —give hope, encourage, speak into who you are. Single-parents—got to be proactive in finding somebody who can come alongside them.
Dennis: Elizabeth, your book is written in, really, three parts, helping to mend the branches of the tree that’s broken. The first one is dealing with the past.
Dennis: I’ll toss you the same question Bob just tossed Ron: “What does a listener need to do, who identifies a little with your story or, maybe, a lot with your story? Where do they need to begin?”
Elizabeth: Well, like you just said—first, they need to go back and dig into their past. I think this is something that a lot of people don’t want to do. Ron is the counselor, so he might be able to speak to this. A lot of people shy away from counseling, because it’s really painful. It’s hard to go back and revisit those difficult memories / those difficult situations. It’s hard to deal with our pain.
You know, if you have a splinter, no one wants to dig that splinter out; but your wound is not going to heal until you get the splinter out. It’s going to keep festering. It can get infected, and it’s going to hurt worse; but if you just do that little bit of difficult, painful work—that’s temporary—and get the splinter out, it will feel so much better; and you will heal.
If we can just encourage people: “Just get that splinter out. Go to a counselor. Read the books. Do the hard work in prayer”; but you have to start by digging into the past and work through those difficult times.
Then, once you work through the past, then you can work on the present. I talk, in the book, about how the present is all about setting healthy boundaries. We talk about conflict resolution, and healthy communication, and connecting with the Holy Spirit—all of these things—but you can’t do any of that until you have healed from the past.
Ron: Identifying what’s going on in your past and connecting that to your present is really huge. I heard, just recently, that psychologically/neurologically—even down to the brain wiring of our body and mind—the most destructive thing you can do to yourself is constantly avoid the truth.
Isn’t that fascinating?—that if you constantly live in a state of denial about something—about yourself, about a problem in your marriage, about your past—whatever that is—it keeps that thing—it’s almost like going swimming with a beach ball. You’re trying to keep the beach ball below the surface of the water—you can’t enjoy the pool / you can’t swim around and have fun—you’re too busy managing this beach ball. How much effort does it take and energy does it take to keep a beach ball underwater?—right? That thing constantly wants to come out; but if you are fighting it, in avoidance, then, it completely manages your life.
When she says: “I’ve got to let the beach ball up / I’ve got to find the courage to sit and look at that and go: ‘What is this? What is it?’” it hurts. Sometimes, that beach ball hits you in the face and splashes water over your friends, and it’s not a pretty sight; but if I don’t do that, then, I’m not free to even begin to explore swimming around the pool.
Elizabeth: I tell people: “Dysfunction—it’s a range. You can come from a family, where the dysfunction is very noticeable—where it’s abuse, addiction, depression / things that we can’t hide—or it can be something that is a little more undetectable—things like, maybe, your parents were just a little controlling; maybe, they were a little critical; maybe, there was some sibling rivalry that was never resolved. You know, those are things that are pretty easy to hide on a Christmas card.
Based on how you’ve dealt with it, your process of dealing with your dysfunction will look different from my process, or your friend’s process, or your sibling’s process. My process was—and it’s been a long journey, and I don’t know that I’ve arrived. Just like sanctification—you know?—who knows when we have arrived?
Elizabeth: Everyone’s [process] is different. I think it’s a combination of things. I think it’s a lot of prayer; I think it is reading different books that will equip you; I think it is counseling; mentoring—all those things.
Bob: Along the way for you, there have been moments of breakthrough,—
Bob: —spiritually and emotionally, that have helped unlock some of these patterns of the past. You’ve gotten clarity, insight, and some freedom to say, “I can, now, live in a different way than how I thought I was supposed to live.”
Ron: Yes; I like the analogy she made to sanctification, because I think it’s exactly right. As a matter of fact, I think it’s the same process; right? I recognize something about myself and my past—I go to work on that, and God uses that to show me something about who I am and how I relate to Him. I recognize, “Wow, there’s more I need to trust God with.” Sanctification and healing are happening simultaneously. By the way, that then opens up a new piece of my life: “Oh! Here is another thing I didn’t see before; but now, I can see that.”
I think, this side of heaven, we’re just going to spend our lives growing in the Lord and, at the same time, healing, and discovering and uncovering, and committing over to God and confessing.
All of that is, in fact, sanctifying us—making us more into the image of Christ.
Dennis: The greater tragedy is someone, who has had the beach ball submerged their entire life, and they think that’s normal. The wiring of their brain knows exactly how to keep the beach ball under the water—
Ron: That’s right.
Dennis: —and it is like, “Oh, I don’t want to have to face down the issues that occurred in my life and have to deal with them; because that looks too scary / that looks too painful.” That, to me, is a bigger tragedy than what has happened to you, originally. It’s like it’s time to recognize the triggers—you talk about the triggers in your book—
Dennis: —that show that there’s something below the surface taking place that: “You know what? You need to address this. You need to let some other people into your life and give them a chance to speak truth to you and be a mirror of God’s love to you.”
Bob: Yes; and you may look at your life and say, “The beach ball keeps popping up,” or you may look at your life and say, “I’m managing this just fine, but I know I’ve got pain from the past that has never been resolved.” It is a courageous step to get a copy of the book, Mending Broken Branches, and get a highlighter and start going through it and just pay attention to the things that may be showing up in your current relationships that are patterns, and habits, and scars from your past.
We’ve got copies of Elizabeth’s book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. The book is called Mending Broken Branches: When God Reclaims Your Dysfunctional Family Tree. You can order copies from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order at 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. Find out more about the book, Mending Broken Branches, by Elizabeth Oates; or call 1-800-358-6329—
—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, our goal, here on FamilyLife Today, is to regularly provide you with insight, with hope, with biblical answers for the issues that you face in your marriage and your family. We want to effectively develop godly marriages and families, who change the world one home at a time; and our goal is for every family to be a godly family. We appreciate those of you who partner with us to make all of this possible and especially those of you who are Legacy Partners, supporting this ministry. Thank you for your ongoing financial support of FamilyLife Today.
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We hope you can be back with us, again, tomorrow. Elizabeth Oates will be here again, and we’re going to talk about how the dysfunction she experienced during her growing-up years began to show up as she was a young wife and then a young mom. We’ll hear about how these patterns from the past spilled into her adult relationships tomorrow. Hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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