Can you love authentically if you were raised to be toxic?

Can you love authentically if you were raised to be toxic?

It’s not easy to be hated by the person who is supposed to love you most, and unfortunately, being toxic has become normalized in our culture.

Many see misdirected aggravation, gaslighting, physical abuse, and more as “love tactics.” When a child only knows pain as a source of love, then they too love in that way and any other form of healthy love seems abnormal.

However, the question is, can a person ever love authentically if they were raised to be toxic?

The assumption is no. When someone is exposed to consistent, toxic stress, they are vulnerable to mental and physical illness that can sometimes develop into a genetic trait, according to Hey Sigmund; therefore this behavior is biologically passed on through generations.

However, despite the science behind the effects of toxic love, there is always hope for a better life.

Fighting for Love

“I just felt like I wasn’t loved by my mom, says Monique, a woman in her 40s who was often told she wasn’t good enough. “I felt growing up in my mom’s house I wasn’t allowed to be me, an individual.”

To suit her mother’s perfect image of a family, Monique, was to participate in certain activities without any consideration of her talents or desires. While at the same time, her brother was given free reign to participate in activities of his choice throughout their childhood.

And to make matters worse, Monique’s father suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and would often abuse her. She recalls him touching her to satisfy his physical desires and severely beating her when she reported it to her incredulous mother.

Fortunately, Monique found refuge in her grandmother’s home, where she found the kind of love her mother envied. Monique remembers her mother punishing and verbally abusing her as a result of the love she received from her grandmother.

Like many girls, Monique found herself looking for love in empty relationships during her teen years that lead to a forced, terminated pregnancy and physical and emotional abuse similar to the treatment she received from her own father.

Eventually, Monique met a gentle and caring man named Laz. However, Laz’s compassion and gentleness were unfamiliar to her, which ultimately lead to Monique returning to one of her previous, toxic relationships.

She went on to marry a former flame named Xavier and stayed in her abusive marriage for eight years.

Towards the end of my [3rd] pregnancy, I found out he was cheating and when I confronted him, he hit me,” says Monique who recalls her toxic relationship that mirrored her childhood. “He asked, ‘Who are you to question me?’…It felt like because of the way I grew up, if I wasn’t getting hit, then it wasn’t love,”

After her divorce, Monique fought against her toxic past. She made the decision to rise above her father’s mental illness, her mother’s jealousy and apathy, and their collective effort to make her their emotional punching bag for their marriage troubles.

Although the struggle did not end after her marriage when it came to love, her children, and health, she remains hopeful enough to fight for the love she deserves. She charges her will to carry on to God, because without Him, she would have taken the final blow to end her suffering.

Turning Off the Gaslight

Bella was born to a Catholic family that rejected her mother for having a baby with a man that she later learned was married. The rejection caused her mother to make multiple attempts to prove her worth to the family by making Bella seem exceptional, but in private her mother was spiteful and unloving as the list of accomplishments grew.

“[My mother] did everything for me to prove herself, but not for the love of me,” Bella explains. “She worked hard to put me through private school and extracurricular activities, but at home I was repeatedly told I was nothing; sometimes she even called me a waste of a human being. To this day, she has never told me she loves me.”

Whenever something would go wrong in Bella’s life, she would automatically blame herself as a result of her relationship with her mother. Even when her husband and father of their two children committed adultery, she took the blame.

As time went on, Bella lost the love of her life, her job, and believed that she would never be loved which drove her into a suicidal state .

Until one day, Bella decided that she had enough and began to fight for her life, beauty, and self-love through therapy. “Once I figured out that I wasn’t this awful, unlovable monster that I was made to believe as a reality by someone who was unloved, it turned my world upside down in a great way,” Bella says. “It never would have happened without me doing the work in therapy.”

As a result of her treatment, Bella was led to a love that she has been enveloped in for the last four years. Even though the pain of rejection transcended through two generations, love won in the end.

“In the middle of all of this, I met a man who just rained love on me,” Bella joyfully exclaims.

Is there hope after a toxic upbringing?

“But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of [your abuser], which I also hate” (Revelations 2:6, NIV).

In the beginning of this article, the question was, can a person love authentically if they were raised to be toxic? The answer is yes, but you must fight for it.

It is easy to nurse the scars of someone that you love, because love is to be unconditional, right? But what good is unconditional love when a person’s pain has replaced the spirit that you desperately want to love?

That is spiritual warfare and it is best to back away and allow God to handle it if they are unwilling to get help. It is important to recognize the signs of someone who has been abused and trying to regain power, which can include verbally sharing memories of their toxic loved ones.

Fortunately, Bella and Monique worked past those painful memories found a way to defeat them so that the tradition of toxicity ended with them and a reign of love could begin.

Calling All Moms

Calling All Moms for Urban FaithWhether you’re a teen mom, a divorced mom, a stepmom, a stay-at-home mom, a foster mother, a mother of a special-needs child, a mom who has lost a child, a mom who is struggling with addiction, or a perfectionist mom who’s realizing she’s not perfect, here’s the most important thing you can do to be a good mother …

This Sunday is Mother’s Day. If we’re not careful, this commemoration can go the way of other annual observances — like Earth Day, Columbus Day, and Presidents Day, to name a few — and become nothing more than a perfunctory nod dictated by the calendar. Moreover, with all the intense concern about teenage pregnancy, abortion, foster children, child abuse and neglect, and single parenting, the significance, honor, and privilege of motherhood can get lost in the mire. I’d like to make a concerted effort to not let that happen by sharing some thoughts and giving some shout-outs on motherhood.

Being a mother is a biological fact. Being a good mother is extremely challenging, especially in the face of so many competing priorities, societal pressures and cultural shifts. Everything from the price of diapers to how much water we drink can impact our effectiveness. And I’ll be honest, there are times when I’d rather not be a mom.

I have a reputation as a serious, self-sufficient girl and that often clashes mightily with the goofy antics of a teenager and the occasional depression of a chronically ill young adult. Right now my biggest private joke is what a motley crew my sons and I are: a prematurely menopausal woman, a hormonal teenager, and a twenty-something with a brain injury. Sometimes I count my blessings just to get everyone where they’re supposed to be, and that I haven’t given my oldest son my estrogen pills instead of his own medication. Did I mention I also have a teenager? Hmm … where was I??

Anyway, all of the pressure and responsibility sometimes weighs on me and distorts my view of what it really means to be a successful mom. I get caught up measuring myself against the typical litmus tests: attractive, winsome kids who are good students and active in many extracurricular pursuits, and who don’t smoke, drink, curse, or have sex, who are respectful of authority, and who love church and youth group; a family that follows an orderly but appropriately busy schedule; a great looking house that shows little to no evidence of children even being present … on and on it goes.

When I feel myself sinking under that load, I remember an internal conversation I had with the Lord when my oldest son was still in high school. Long story short, God reminded me that He’s looking for faithfulness, not perfection. For someone who profiles as a perfectionist on just about every personality assessment known to man, that’s a hard message to internalize. But I believe it, and I encourage other moms to believe and internalize it, too.

That leads me to my shout-outs.

To all the teenage or premature moms: It doesn’t matter so much how your journey of motherhood began, but it matters tremendously how you navigate through it, and how it ends up. Whether you’re 15, 17, or 22, be faithful. Love yourself and your children one day at a time, or one minute at a time if necessary.

To all the moms struggling against addictions and other life issues: Whether your bondage involves drugs, tobacco, sex, alcohol, partying, self-pity, shopping, depression, rejection and abandonment issues, dangerous relationships, or some combination of these, be faithful. Dig deep and change your focus from feeling better, to being better. Give your undivided attention to recovery so that your mothering can improve. And don’t be afraid to tell your kids your story.

To all the moms in difficult marriages: Having a bad husband or an unfulfilling relationship doesn’t mean you can forego your responsibilities to your children. Be faithful. If you have to read bedtime stories, review math homework, or braid hair with tears in your eyes, do it. The tears and your kids’ childhood will pass sooner than you think.

To all the stepmoms, play moms, foster moms, godmoms, and adoptive moms: Thanks for not letting the absence of a biological tie keep you from being faithful. You’re a wonderful example for us all.

To all the church mothers: Thanks for faithfully showing us the way to God like any good mother should.

To all the moms who have lost a child: Whether it was a miscarriage, an abortion, a stray bullet, friendly fire, an accident or something else that took your child from you, be faithful to remember that progeny and to thank God for the privilege of being the mother of that child.

To all the single moms: Even though you can’t be mother and father, be faithful. Pray hard, because their lives — and yours — depends on it. I’m a witness that God really is a father to the fatherless.

To the moms of special-needs children: You may not be able to cure their disease, raise their IQ, or prolong their life, but you can be faithful. Give them the best physical and emotional care you can, and you’ll have the peace of a job well done.

To all moms out there: Celebrate yourself this Mother’s Day. If you haven’t been as faithful as you should be, it’s not too late.

Happy Mother’s Day, Ladies!

Safe Families: A Refuge of Biblical Hospitality

SHELTER FROM THE STORMS: As Safe Families volunteers, the Meisenheimers have traded in "cookies after church" hospitality for a more biblical vision. Safe Families assists people in crisis by providing temporary shelter to their children.

In 2009, after having two children the old-fashioned way, Toby and Murphy Meisenheimer, of Naperville, Illinois, were considering adoption when someone at their church mentioned Safe Families for Children, an organization that supports families in crisis by providing temporary shelter to children.

“Initially when we got that call from Safe Families, I was extremely hesitant, because to me, it just kind of sounded like being trapped in church nursery,” said Murphy. She thought the temporary nature of the placements would mean she would have “no ownership in a child’s life.” A Safe Families representative listened to her concerns and advised her to follow the organization’s tweets to see how the Lord would lead.

The Meisenheimers received their first placement in 2010 and have hosted 15 children since then. “There’s an element to it that’s kind of addictive in that so often you see the needs of the poor on the TV screen or in your community and you kind of feel powerless, but you know you have some ability to help. …Safe Families gives our family an outlet to do that, which is to very quickly respond to an urgent need and bring some of the most helpless individuals in our society into our home and partner with that person’s parents to slightly alter their trajectory,” Murphy said.

Safe Families for Children is a national alliance comprised of three partners, said Dr. Robin Chamberlain, who holds multiple positions in the organization, including director of operations. Those partners are Bethany Christian Services, Lydia Home Association, which started the Safe Families movement, and Olive Crest, a Christian child welfare agency on the West Coast. The vision of the alliance is to “call the church as a whole back to biblical hospitality,” Chamberlain said, and “to make it as easy as possible for people to volunteer.” Biblical hospitality, in her view is “not cake and cookies after church, but actually opening up our homes and our hearts.”

Host families become like “extended spiritual families,” providing relief to those who may be isolated, which is important because “a high predictor of the incidence of child abuse and neglect is social isolation,” Chamberlain said. Although communities have always had informal networks for supporting families in crisis, she said Safe Families “provides a structure, and a network, and support” for them.

The organization’s website says it operates with three objectives in mind: to provide a safe alternative to child welfare custody, child abuse prevention, and family support and stabilization. There is a screening and approval process for host homes that includes finger printing and background checks, but it is not lengthy or invasive, Chamberlain said.

The Meisenheimers have provided respite to families in a variety of crisis, including  incarceration, homelessness, joblessness, and drug addiction. All of these placements were made voluntarily, Toby said, but for at least one, a county child welfare agency had urged the mother to make the placement rather than lose custody of her offspring.

Toby sees his role primarily as facilitating his wife’s ministry. “I honestly believe she was crafted to work with kids, train them up, nurture them. …Once I could see that our own biological and adopted kids are joining us in this ministry together, it became a family cause,” he said.

The Meisenheimers have two biological children and two adopted children. They say their kids “love” hosting other children, but they do grieve when those children leave. Murphy thinks this experience teaches important lessons. “In life, we love and we lose,” she said. “It’s okay for them to risk a little bit of their security for someone else’s gain.”

It’s not only the children who pay a price though. Toby and Murphy expected to be inconvenienced and were prepared to deal with “unique behaviors” that they didn’t necessarily see in their “home-grown kids” and with “the messiness of interacting with moms and dads who are really in an extremely challenging spot,” Murphy said. What they weren’t prepared for was the emotional and relational expense of their ministry.

Toby likened the impact on their friendships to when someone gets married and suddenly their single friends aren’t quite as good friends, or when a couple has a child and it creates a rift with married friends who aren’t yet parents. “You do pay a price in awkwardness … or lack of empathy, because it is a different experience than what the typical family in America is striving for,” he said.

But they’ve also had loved ones, like Toby’s parents, who live nearby, “lean into” the ministry. “They step up and they realize that Safe Families isn’t for them, but they play a incredible supporting role in bringing groceries by and taking the older two kids for an afternoon on the town…. This isn’t really a lone ranger sort of role,” he said.

The Meisenheimers have also grappled with the fear of litigation and other potential consequences of entering into the messiness of strangers’ lives, but they choose to live by faith rather than by fear, Murphy said. “By and large, all 15-plus families that we have dealt with have shown nothing but gratitude towards us,” she said. “They’re choice other than this most likely is their child gets placed into state custody. Most of them are very well aware of what that means and they would do anything rather than allow that to happen.”

“I do trust Safe Families to have done their due diligence within the contract and in the ongoing case work. They have some duty to defend their families and not leave us high and dry if suddenly there was a litigious birth parent or something,” said Toby.

Because Safe Families works closely with churches, the organization recommends including it with other ministries covered by church insurance policies, Chamberlain said. Additionally, she said volunteers are covered by the organizations’ affiliated Christian child welfare agencies’ insurance policies and by the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997.

The Meisenheimers have had two placements end early because the children needed more intervention than they felt equipped to handle. “That’s where your case coach is invaluable,” said Toby. “As they’re coming to you and you’re building your relationship with them, you’re not an island in this trying to figure out how to relate to somebody who grew up in the inner city and has almost from a different world. You’re seeing them regularly, you’re asking them for advice, they’re praying for you and they’re your counselors throughout the process.”

DEEP CONNECTIONS: Safe Families volunteers become like “extended spiritual families,” says group executive Robin Chamberlain.

The family also takes time to recover between placements. How long that is depends on the “complexity of the case,” Murphy said, and on their own needs. After one of their children was adopted, they took a six-month break. “That might have been longest time without a placement. …We tend to get them back in pretty quickly,” she said. “One of the best parts of Safe Families in terms of a volunteer perspective is that it is flexible. So you can choose what ages you take and how long you will take them.”

“We’re glad we have taken the risk. Our lives have been enriched. We watch our kids grow through the experience to do ministry together with them. It’s worth trying and trying more than once,” said Toby. “If you’ve known somebody who tried something like this and had a bad experience, or you do on your first try, you’ve got to give it a go again, because that’s just the enemy getting in the way of pure and undefiled religion. …This is not a results driven ministry. We are just hopefully improving some brain synapses and showing love early and trusting that a two-degree bend in their direction will yield fruit down the road.”

Safe Families for Children was established by the Lydia Home Association in 2002 after its founder, David Anderson, had an encounter with a mother in crisis, Chamberlain said. The association did not offer temporary placement services for children at the time, so he and his wife (who were licensed foster parents) took her children in to give her a break. “That was kind of birthing the vision,” Chamberlain said. Since then, the alliance has placed more than 5200 children in host homes nationwide.

“The hospitality of the Bible is dangerous, demanding, and must be deliberate,” Anderson wrote in a 2010 article. He acknowledged that there are risks involved in welcoming strangers into our homes, but said, “The blessings run deep when we practice Biblical hospitality and demonstrate to the world that the Christian family, in obedience to Christ, can be a powerful source of change.” More than 5000 children know exactly what he means.

Who Will Speak Up for Murdered Children?

"When their young are threatened, mockingbirds take action," but in the case of Karly Sheehan, there was "a silence of mockingbirds," says author Karen Spears Zacharias. (Photo by Stephen Savage)

In the decade that American troops have been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, 6,397 soldiers have been killed. During that same time, 20,000 American children have died from child abuse and nobody is talking about it, author and journalist Karen Spears Zacharias says. “It’s not making the headline news. There’s no national policy. There’s no outrage from the public.” In her gripping new book, A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder, Zacharias tells the story of three-year-old Karly Sheehan, who was suffering horrific abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend while investigators targeted her father, David Sheehan, as her abuser and medical professionals misread tell-tale signs of abuse. Karly was murdered in 2005. In 2008, Karly’s Law was enacted in Oregon. It mandates that children who exhibit signs of abuse receive medical attention from a specially trained medical professional within 48 hours. In recognition of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, UrbanFaith talked to Zacharias about the alarming national tragedy that her book was written to highlight. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

UrbanFaith: Often the news media fails to report with equal zeal on stories like Karly’s if the victim is a person of color. Although her mother is biracial, Karly was a fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed child. Do you think this book would have been published if she wasn’t?

Karen Spears Zacharias: Karly is beautiful. She is that iconic blond, blue-eyed darling. There’s no question in my mind that there’s a bias toward people of color. I live in a community that is 40 percent Hispanic. If this had been a Hispanic child I was writing about, I probably never would have never gotten this book published. There’s an inherent resistance to these kinds of stories. When such stories involve children of color the resistance is even greater, the biases even more profound.

I wonder if this murder had involved a child of color, would the media have been as drawn to it? Would the community-at-large have related to it? Would legislators have been so quick to respond with a law to protect other children? We are a media-driven culture and the white child plays to a broader audience base. Elected officials are keenly aware of that. I know Rep. Sara Gelser, who sponsored Karly’s Law, so I know it would not have mattered to her. I just think she would have had a much more difficult task had this been a child of color.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 28.1 percent of child abuse fatalities were African Americans, 16.6 percent were Hispanic, and 43.6 percent were white. What, if anything, do these statistics tell us?

A tragic death that led to change: beloved child Karly Sheenan. (Photo courtesy of David Sheehan)

Oftentimes in talking about the rate of child abuse among minority groups, they’re looking at percentage per capita. They’re saying it’s higher in those groups, because you’re dealing with smaller populations. In reality, because their population is larger, the bulk of child abuse is perpetuated by whites. The National Children’s Alliance says there is a certain segment of child abuse that goes hand-in-hand with poverty. We know that when families are under economic stress, as they have been since 2008, child abuse rates increase.

Has that happened in the past four years?

In the counties I’m dealing with in Oregon and Washington, there have seen steady—if not increasing—numbers, but it depends upon the population and the economic development of the community. Where you have struggles financially, you see an increase. For instance, in Benton County, Washington, their abuse center treated 500-some clients last year. That’s been pretty steady for them for the past few years, but they have a steady employment base. In a community like Linn-Benton County, Oregon, where Karly died, since Karly’s Law has been enacted, they have seen a huge jump.

Is that because Karly’s Law mandates better screening?

They’re not exactly sure of all the reasons. They do think that Karly’s Law plays into that. There’s no question that it puts parameters around the reporting, but here’s the other statistic we’re puzzling over: In 2009, 13 children died in the state of Oregon as a result of child abuse and in 2010, 22 children died as a result of child abuse. That’s after Karly’s Law. So, maybe we’re not doing a better job reporting. That’s part of the problem. We have no national policy that addresses child abuse, which helps explain why we have the highest abuse rate of any industrialized nation. It’s not important to us.

How did Karly’s Law come about?

Rep. Sara Gelser was a mother and representative in Linn-Benton County, where Karly was killed. She was reading about this in the headlines every single day. After the case closed, she and Joan Demarest, the prosecutor in the case, who is also a mother, got together and worked to push this law through. The medical director testified that if she had seen Karly, she would have known early on that this was child abuse, but the average doctor gets four hours of training in medical school for child abuse. So they don’t know what to look for and they’re busy. I’ve had police tell me that usually child abuse work in law enforcement is done by rookies because nobody else wants to do it. It’s time consuming, it’s paperwork, and it’s court. So we have Karly’s Law in the state of Oregon, but part of the problem, in the county where I live, is that we don’t have a trained medical professional. There is no doctor or nurse in this whole county who can assess child abuse. So, when we have children that are suspected to be victims of child abuse, they have to be transported to another community up to three hours away.

This is your fifth book, and even though you’ve written a memoir about your father’s death in Vietnam, you’ve said this one is the most exhausting to talk about. Why?

The book about my father was emotionally hard for me. It was a personal journey. This book is combating evil. That’s a completely different kind of exhaustion. I’m bringing to light something that is really dark, that people don’t talk about. Even atheists and agnostics will admit that there’s a sort of demonic evil to child abuse. When I’m speaking, I’m very aware of the importance of helping every individual out there understand the need to be a voice for a child.

What should people look for in the children they come in contact with to recognize signs of abuse?

In Karly’s case, her day care provider did a terrific job of noticing. She was paying attention. Karly’s first sign was that she was more sleepy than usual during the day. She became more whiny. Of those 20,000 kids we’ve lost in the past 10 years, 80 percent of them are ages four and under. These children are being targeted in a way, because either they don’t have the verbal skills to identify their attackers, or they do have the verbal skills and they won’t tell. I asked a medical director why children don’t tell. She said, “Because they love their mommies.” And so, if an abuser tells a child, “If you say anything, you’ll never see your mommy again,” they will never tell.

People who are abusing children aren’t wailing on them in Wal-Mart. Child abuse is insidious. Do you have a neighbor, a friend, or a family member who is constantly bullying their child or perpetually ignoring that child? If so, have you spoken up? Stopping child abuse means living with our feet in the mud. It’s messy, but we have to get involved. We have to be better neighbors. Children are dying.