Family Dysfunction At Its Finest
A little over two months ago, our oldest daughter moved out of our home and went to live with a boy she met on Instagram a few weeks prior. Now, to be fair, she is 18 years old and free to do so. And for my husband and myself, we are not angry at her decision to leave, but what I must take issue with is the way she went about it.
As I was leaving to take another child to piano lessons, my middle child decided to take a ride with us. I offered for my oldest to ride with us too, but she told us she had a lot of school work to do and was going to stay home. About ten minutes after we left, so did she. Instagram boy, whom she had never met face to face, came by to pick her up. And just like that she was gone.
When we arrived back home around 3:15, there was a note on the kitchen counter.
“Mom, I love you, but this life just isn’t for me.
I’m with friends they pick me up. K – love ya”
This life just isn’t for me? What does that even mean? And with whom did she run off? Obviously, the people she went to live with are not people of consequence. They could have been anyone (who wasn’t a murderer) and she would have been more than happy to go with them simply because they are not us. Initially, we were terrified for her and thought that someone had manipulated her into a situation where she was going to be in danger, exploited, or possibly pressed into human slavery. She clearly didn’t intend for us to ever find her – not one of her family or friends knew anything about this boy, not even his name. Thank God for the power of Facebook!
With an effort coordinated by a friend of mine, everyone in our community was sharing the word that our daughter was missing, and we received a call from her “captors” the very next morning. Well, we thought of them as her captors. They clearly see themselves as her saviors. It’s sort of like how one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It’s all about your perspective.
This Life Just Isn’t For Me
Desiring A Culture of Low Expectations
We are a very structured family of rules, and high expectations. Religion is not important to us, but faith certainly is. We are strong believers in the Lord. We also believe in a strong work ethic and the importance of education. In our home, we attend church regularly, volunteer our time in service, and have both family prayer time and Bible study time. When it comes to work ethic, we do not pay anyone for assigned chores. Chores are a way for each member of the family to pitch in and help out. We believe doing chores regularly teaches responsibility. We do offer some allowance in the case when our children go above and beyond their regular chores, but that hardly ever happens. When it comes to education, we generally prioritize school work over social activities. We have never required our children to have straight A’s, but we do expect them to do their best. That includes clarifying instructions and due dates, asking for help when needed, and using best learning practices to achieve the highest level of mastery possible.
Yes, our rules are strict, but we feel they are reasonable and not so onerous as to cause any great level of distress. So what could our daughter possibly have meant when she said, “This life just isn’t for me”? In my mind, there were two, maybe three, real obstacles to our daughter finding happiness in our home. I think first and foremost, she had different values and priorities that were already well established when she first came to live here (she was adopted at age 12), and she did not want the constant pressure of living up to our high expectations for day to day life. One major obstacle for our oldest daughter – she has always hated school.
We were naïve enough to think that was because she was behind, and that once she caught up, she’d enjoy school. It turned out that even when she was capable of working at her proper grade level – even when she excelled in a subject (math is hands down her best subject these days, and I will share how that came to be in the education section some day soon) – she still hated it!
She seems to resent that she was not born one of those people for whom learning comes easily. We helped her understand that she CAN learn, and that there are techniques and habits she could adopt that would help her be successful in school, but they tended to be time consuming and more work than she was willing to do. Any time she did employ our methods, her grades went up and WE were happy, but she would still be miserable because she didn’t want to work that hard. We think that’s why no matter the location or the setting (we tried public school, homeschool, and private school) she repeatedly struggled in school. She kept quitting on herself. The desire to learn is just absent.
Oh, she would talk a good game. Verbally, our daughter mirrored our own hopes and desires for her future; she was going to finish high school, go to community college, transfer to university and become a nurse (or more recently a teacher). She has always been the type to say all the right things, but there was never any follow through. We called them her “campaign promises.” Sure, she might work hard for a week or two, possibly even three weeks at a time, and her effort would pay off with higher grades. Then she would “reward” herself with two or three weeks off – as in, she would stop completing assignments. To be sure, she never announced such an intention. Instead, she would play mind games to confuse me by telling me, “You said I didn’t have to do that,” or “You already graded that (even though she could never find it).”
When she was in public school, she often cut classes and cheated. In homeschool, she missed deadlines repeatedly, turned in fake work, stole the answer keys – whatever she had to do to seem to be doing much more than she actually was. When she was in private school she would string me along with, “I did turn it in, but the teacher just hasn’t graded it yet.” Being as she was in high school, I did not feel it necessary to sit down and complete every single assignment alongside her, but in hindsight, when I did was the only time I knew for certain that her work was being completed (and being completed correctly, which also matters to me a great deal – I am not just a task master; I am interested in deep and meaningful learning).
Trying to Fly Under the Radar
As I said, our stated goals were the same, but in practice, our determination that our daughter would finish high school was diametrically opposed to her plan, which seemed to always be that she would verbally agree to anything and everything we told her, but then did none of it and tried to fake her way out of getting caught. This set the stage for so many of the arguments and tensions in our home. She put so much effort into deceiving us about school that it defies logic. For example, she tried repeating old math assignments over again (which took HOURS) so she would have work to show me. Then she’d earn some social freedom, but later when I would sit down to actually check the math, I would find out that she did not do any new work. I was deceived. Or if she had to read over a section of science and fill in the blanks on a work sheet, she did, using the vocabulary from the unit. That would pass my cursory inspection because it looked “sciencey,” but when I later sat and graded it, every single answer was wrong because she placed the words randomly, without even reading or attempting to make sense of the work. I was deceived. Or when she ransacked my room looking for the answer keys to her assignments so she could cheat to make better grades rather than actually invest time in learning. I was deceived.
Every time I found out that she lied, I responded in anger (by anger, I mean a screaming cussing tirade – like I said, very unpleasant – and if she was defiant or smug…well, nothing good came of that). I’m not proud that this has been the case, but it’s the truth. And as the years ticked by, you would think our daughter would have eventually realized that getting an education is important in today’s society and just relent, but she never did. Education is important to my husband and myself, but not to our oldest daughter. I think that is in part why she left – she has wanted to drop out of school since she was fourteen (and had tried to do so numerous times), but we would not accept that. We were always pushing her to learn, to do better, to try harder.
The Other Reason She Could Not Be Happy – Momzilla
Second, as I mentioned earlier, I am not an easy person to live with. There is a side of me that can be very unpleasant to deal with. Yes, I am a Christian, but that does not mean I am perfect – I have never claimed to be. I have my own sin nature (anger) that seemed directly opposed to my oldest daughter’s sin nature (lying/deceiving). That set up some very nasty battles of wills between us. I abhor lying above all else. I have always felt like we could talk rationally about any issues, so long as we were speaking honestly, but the minute I detect deception, the Momzilla in me comes roaring out. Oh sure, I apologize afterward. Forgiveness has usually been granted. But the cycle of lying and anger had been ongoing for six and a half years. Trust me, it’s gotten old for everyone in our home.
And don’t think it was all about school either. The battle of wills crossed many areas of life. My daughter felt earning privileges was not worth her time. She prioritized social concerns over everything else. Her number one desire in life has been to find a cute boyfriend who will love her, cuddle with her, and take care of her forever so she does not need to worry about finishing school. And for the record, we did let her date, but each time, she would drop out/stop doing school work because the boy of the moment promised he was going to “take care of her,” making school irrelevant in her eyes. Any cute boy who paid her attention was immediately prioritized over God, parents, siblings, and her own best interests. Our daughter’s pursuit of this childish idea of “love” led her to skirt many of the rules in our home on a regular basis. Personally, we did not have any idea how to manage that.
There was no trust in our relationship any more. She longed for the days when we’d believe whatever she said. We were easier to deceive then. More recently, we took the view that we couldn’t believe anything she said without verification. We have endured secret boyfriends, secret text apps, x-rated emails exchanged with different boys, sneaking out of the house for secret dates, and probably lots of other behaviors I’m not thinking about at the moment. Some people will say that is just teenagers being teenagers. Maybe there is some truth to that, but it is the frequency and the intensity of the constant lying and deceiving that really took its toll on us. There is nothing normal about that, and so far as we are concerned, it’s not typical behavior. Her constant lies and deceptions bred nothing but distrust and resentment in our home.
The lack of trust had us monitoring and limiting her use of the internet and social media (though admittedly, once she turned 18, we backed way off on the monitoring and gave her some space to navigate those aspects of her life for herself, which is how she was able to run off with Instagram boy). I know our daughter felt that she was being treated “like a child,” but she could never quite muster the courage to admit that she was often acting like a child. She wanted total freedom with no responsibility. She wanted to hang around our house browsing Facebook and Instagram all day in exchange for doing some basic chores, with no further expectations. She wanted to drop out of school. We as parents could never condone such an unproductive way of life. In that regard, if that was her actual intent, then removing herself was probably the best option for all of us.
God Has A Plan
It has always been my view that while we may not have been the parents our daughter wanted in her life, we are the parents God felt she most needed at the time. I always thought the girls were here so we could help them. But now that I look at my oldest daughter’s choices, I wonder if we really helped her at all. Sure, I could argue that we kept her from getting pregnant and dropping out of school in her early teens. I could argue that we helped her overcome her early propensity for stealing that likely would have landed her in JDC or jail by now. We did keep her in school much longer than we thought we were going to be able to. Perhaps that was good enough for now.
To be honest, being parents to our oldest daughter has been the most difficult job we have ever endured. In an effort to gain control of the situation, I broke my own family rule. I put helping her ahead of God, my husband, and our other children – and for what? We may well have been the family she needed, but we clearly are not the family she wanted. It would be too easy to say that all we got out of parenting her is heartache, but that’s not true. Despite everything that has happened, we love our daughter fiercely! And I’m thankful for her presence in my life for this reason alone: parenting her has forced me to become a better Christian and mother. It’s the truth! She taught me that I cannot do all things, except through Christ, who strengthens me.
Yes, it is my oldest daughter who has finally forced me to learn how to put aside my pride to “let go and let God.” So much of the time we had with her, it was always me trying to fix her problems my own way, according to my own plan. It took a long time, and a lot of courage, to finally step back and admit that perhaps God has a different plan for my daughter than the one I’ve been imagining. The entire experience reminds me of the story of “The Unmoved Rock.” My perspective from where I sit now is completely different. I pray for my daughter daily. I pray the Lord will work in her heart and turn it towards Him always. I pray that she will sincerely seek to discern His plan for her life and help her accomplish it. I pray for the family she is with – mostly that they will be able to help her in the ways that they intend. We are so done with trying to control our daughter; now we just have to love her, pray for her, and hope the best for her. (UPDATE – she has been kicked out of their home for lying, sneaky behavior, and failure to follow some fairly minimal rules. I wish I could say I’m shocked, but I’m not. Thanks to the intervention of some very great ladies, my daughter does have a place to stay for the time being.)
Sometimes You Can’t Come Home
I miss my daughter very much, but the truth is that we are all happier now. For her, she is “living life one step at a time” and trying to figure out things for herself. She will not submit to any living situation that comes along with a host of rules and restrictions because 18 is like a magic number that permits one to do whatever.
She had claimed she would NEVER break the trust of the people who took her in, and granted – they seemed quite gullible – yet even they eventually became suspicious and untrusting of her behavior. But does she care that she was made to leave? NO! She feels free to explore and figure things out for herself, and that makes her happy. So far, she has remained assured that because she plays the act of being vulnerable so well, she can always find someone ready to rush in and help her. For me, I felt like I had been at war for such a long time, and when she left, the war finally ended.
There is peace, calm, and joy in my life again! Dark clouds have lifted for the rest of our family. My husband and other children are getting lots of attention from me after years of neglect. Our home is cleaner, quieter, and happier than it has been in years. In honesty, when she first left, I was obsessed with tracking her, monitoring her, finding out what my oldest was up to (partially out of curiosity, partially out of concern). Now, week by week, I feel a mental separation following the physical separation. And with each passing week my recovery progresses. I say recovery because the toll living with her took on me could be compared to a form of PTSD. Once she was gone, I thought everyone was lying to me all the time! It took months to get to the point where I could see how clearly warped my thinking had become. Time granted me perspective, and with perspective came healing.
I’m at a point where I want very much to maintain a relationship with my daughter – I want us to keep in touch – but I agree with her that it’s best if we do not live together. Some people are easier to love from a distance. Although this is in no way a choice we would have made for our daughter’s life, and we still do not condone the way in which she separated from our family, it is the only thing she has ever tried that has provided us all some sense of relief. Our physical separation will only serve to improve the functionality of our family.