To Heck With the Waltons

26 Nov

I was once invited to a home where they had little wooden folding chairs which might be made in china for a penny. I’m no skinny-Minnie, so I was concerned about where to sit. There was an older lady present who was larger than me. She sat down on one of the chairs and I followed her lead. We not only ate a meal sitting on these little wooden chopsticks, but we also played a card game. 

Two hours into the feat, the older lady looked at me with fear in her eyes and said in a low raspy voice, “I can’t feel my feet.” I asked why. She said she had locked her knees and was hanging onto the table for dear life. I was about say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Before I could say it, our 90 lb hostess fell to the floor. She landed on top of her chair which now resembled a stack of kindling. We all had a good laugh and then my chair broke and I fell into a box of bread for the food bank that we’d been sorting. Through it all, the poor dear–the largest lady in the room just hung on with all her might to the sides of that table and never fell.

There were expectations in our family to be like the Waltons. That meant we smiled through our pain and pretended we were a happy family. Emotionally, it was like that woman hanging on to the side of the table. People in recovery call this, “white knuckling,” but the problem with white knuckling is you can only do it for so long before you fall.

I am writing this post so you know you’re not alone. There are thousands of people like you who will be white knuckling through holiday dinners. Some will feel depressed afterward, while others will stay home and drown themselves in the temptation of their choice. But the truth is there’s no reason to freak out—it’s just a meal.

What makes all those commercials with happy families so irritating is it feels like they are lying. Many people do NOT have joyful meals with their relatives no matter what time of the year.

All happy families are alike,
but every unhappy family
is unhappy in its own way.
-Leo Tolstoy

Perhaps Tolstoy was on to something. Maybe perfect looking families are run by stepford wives creating the appearance of uniform happiness. I appreciate the fact that unhappy people are honest enough to admit life sucks. As far as I can tell there are three reasons why holiday meals with the family are so painful—expectations, expectations and expectations.

1. Expectations to Have the Best Holiday Ever
You wanna know what killed the American dream? Expectations. And the expectations are even higher if you are the host or hostess, then you need to make sure you have the perfect food on the perfectly set table with the perfect children and the perfect guests so everyone can have a perfectly boring and stressful time. If we could just lower our standards say to “Let’s grab a bite to eat and have fun,” then the holiday meal might mean something. Comparing success notes with each other steals our gratitude and sets us up for failure.

2. Expectations to Get Along with Everyone
It’s not possible. The only people who will have fun this holiday are those who have already been hanging out with their family on a regular basis. Seeing people once a year does not a relationship make–it just sets everyone up for all kinds of rude awakenings.

Not everyone wants to try Aunt Matilda’s homemade bread with slices of peach and green beans in it. I refused it and I am not sure if I was ever forgiven, but at least she is dead now and can’t read this. There are people who will go shopping by dawn’s early light and people who will sleep until the relatives leave. Some people hate Christmas music while others will force their favorite tunes on everyone else.

The biggest problem with such family gatherings is they require a bunch of people to hang out who do not have anything in common except a bloodline. Whoever said blood is thicker than water forgot that thickened blood can cause strokes.

3. Expectations to Pretend Sucky Lives are Great
If you were molested as a child and must now eat dinner and act happy in the presence of the abuser—you have few choices—speak up, leave or numb out. The majority of people will just numb out. It’s also hard to smile if there’s been a family brawl and you are wearing bruises on your heart. Minor details like people who come half way through the meal, get drunk or rudely tell others off ruin the ambiance of the occasion. For some of people, it’s like dinner with the Munsters–but let’s face it, at least the Munsters were funny–and make believe. Most family gatherings make the Munsters look like Thanksgiving on Plum Creek.

It’s hard to pretend you are happy in the middle of a divorce or if you just lost your job. The expectations for people to never share what’s on their hearts is why so many people shun their families during the holidays. Which is weird because sharing our hearts and breaking bread together is what Jesus taught us to do.

Think about Jesus. He was going to be arrested, given an unfair trial and would die within a few hours, yet He didn’t hide his pain. He shared as much as He thought they could take. He knew Judas was going to betray Him, but He still washed Judas’s feet and served him the truth. He served the truth to Peter too. No one ran screaming from the table because Jesus was shared what was on His heart.

To be honest with you, I am not sure how to reconcile with family members who lie about me. Or how to combine our meals and keep the peace between the turkey eaters and the vegans. Or how to have a conversation with people while religious programming blares away on the TV. I love my family and I would love to have holiday dinners with my family, but it’s been a bad run and I don’t see it changing.

Probably the worst part is when people paste smiles on for the new generation and lie through their whipped cream that they’ve never minded dairy or turkey or Amy Grant Christmas music. Yeah, it’s like my former life exists in a time warp that no one can remember but me. But I no longer wish to emulate the Waltons–if we can’t embrace each other with grit and apply a lot of grace, it’s just a waste of time.


Gratitude Manifesto

21 Nov Gratitude-Tree

Worst Thanksgiving Dinner

20 Nov

This is a popular post from last year.

If anyone tries to tell you Thanksgiving is all about the food, don’t believe them. Giving thanks takes us beyond ourselves and turns our thoughts toward our Life-giver. Focusing on the menu makes the holiday about gratification and gratification is the polar opposite of gratitude. I’m not saying we shouldn’t cook up some great gastronomical delights, but it’s important to remember why we are giving thanks in the first place or we might wander off the gratitude track. It’s been over ten years, but I will never forget my worst Thanksgiving dinner and the lessons learned.

After living in another state for several years, my husband and I moved back to the Northwest. We were excited to host Thanksgiving dinner for my family. We eagerly decorated the house with Christmas lights and planned the menu and invited everyone. Of course a lot had changed in the years we were gone.

My parents had raised us to be what I call oscillating vegetarians; we would be vegans for six months then we would go back to eating cheese and milk products, then we went back to being vegan again. In childhood our diet was a constant tottering back and forth, but two things were for certain:

1. My parents never had an egg in their house (because they believed eggs cause cancer).

2. When it came to holiday meals we always broke the vegan rule because many of our holiday favorites contained dairy.

I was still a vegetarian, but two of my siblings had started their own traditions with turkey and decided not to join us that year. I understood their absence because in our family it is really important to not break the rules. There was shame surrounding the eating of a turkey. My brother was the first to break with all our family traditions and when certain family members ate dinner at his house one year they complained how the smell made them sick.

So while we were going to miss two of my siblings, it still looked like we were going to have a good ol’ vegetarian Thanksgiving. We were renting an old farmhouse with a leaking oven and no dishwasher, but my heart soared in anticipation of hosting dinner for my parents and my remaining vegetarian sister.

I got up at five in the morning, the day before Thanksgiving. For those who have never made gluten steaks, let me just say it’s an arduous process. First you make a thick dough out of gluten flour, then you slice it into strips and boil them. After they cool, you bread and fry the “steaks.” Then you sauté lots of onions and mushrooms and add it to sour cream to make a gravy which you pour over the steaks and bake for an hour in the oven until it browns. No, it’s not that healthy, and it’s certainly not gluten free, but that was our signature dish for holiday meals while I was growing up. I am pretty fast at making gluten, but the process takes hours–especially if you are cooking it for a crowd.

Next I made two crusts for the pumpkin pies and added the filling and made ambrosia–all with dairy of course. I made vegetarian stuffing to keep my husband happy, then baked sweet potatoes, cutting them up and spreading butter and brown sugar on them with pineapple tidbits. I washed dishes for what seemed like hours without a dishwasher. The last thing I did was peel and cut up the potatoes. I covered them with water and struggled to find a place for them in the fridge. Finally everything was prepped for the morning. After mopping the floor and putting away the dishes, I sat down to rest my painful feet and aching back. I noticed it was eight o’clock at night. That’s when I called my mom.

She said that she and my dad had been thinking about their diets and had decided to go vegan that year. I didn’t know what to say to her, but what I wanted to say was, “After all these years of oscillating back and forth, can’t you just wait one more day?” It wasn’t like the concept of being a vegan was new to any of us. She went on to explain how she had “experimented” and she and my dad planned to eat her non-dairy gluten steaks. Exhausted from all my hard work, I wanted to cry. I had slaved away all day making food for them, but I knew now they wouldn’t eat it. I felt like her message to me was it didn’t matter how hard I had worked, I would never be good enough.

After she hung up, I didn’t have time to tell my husband because the phone rang again. It was my sister. She said she had decided to go vegan also and that she was bringing a vegan pumpkin pie and vegan potatoes. Her voice faded in and out while I silently screamed in my psyche. Apparently they had been in communication with each other long enough to prepare their vegan food, but neither had the consideration to call their hostess to let her know the menu had changed. I felt all the hard work I had done was unappreciated by them. I knew it wasn’t my cooking, because no one has ever called me a bad cook. When I hung up, all my intentions of having a wonderful dinner with my family evaporated because it felt like they were more concerned with controlling the menu than enjoying a meal with me.

© Rolf Jansson/Licensed from

The next morning, I was still determined to make something my family would eat so I got up early to make homemade dinner rolls.

If only I could go back in time to have a talk with my younger self,

I would ask why her self-esteem was so caught up
in cooking food for her family’s approval. 

As the guests arrived, someone moved my rolls to the top shelf so they could put their casserole in the oven. When the rolls burned, I couldn’t hide my feelings any longer. Tears streamed down my face as I told my family how it hurt because nothing I cooked seemed good enough for them to eat. There was silence for about a minute, then my dad told me to stop being so sensitive before he asked someone to pass him the vegan casserole.

I still have no idea how I got through that meal. When they left, my husband and I went for a walk. He was angry at my parents’ lack of respect. He said he was through having them over to our house and he would not put up with them again. Then I started to cry. I had no other parents to compare them with and I wanted to have a relationship with them. He said they didn’t know what a relationship is. I cried harder and he yelled louder. He said,”No one but your family can make you feel so miserable? Why do you even want spend time with them?”

For years I had been in the habit of defending my parents for everything from their beating me with a belt to not allowing me a high school education. I defended them by saying that he didn’t know what love is. He said yeah? Well I love you, but your family has a noose around our necks and it’s like they are pulling us into the undertow of the river. We both stared at the Columbia River flowing next to us. Then he said it. “I won’t stand by and watch while they abuse you, so you’ll just have to choose between me or your family.” I screamed back that I couldn’t do that. How could he ask me to do that? To emphasize he was serious, he threw his keys into the water.

We had to break down the back door to get inside the house. Thank goodness, I had an extra set of keys. We were both too sad to talk for a while so we sat down in peace with each other. Then we each had a huge piece of pumpkin pie and loaded it up with vanilla ice cream and cool whip. The pie was delicious because that was the day we decided we lived too close to our family for comfort. (You’d think I’d learned my lesson, but before we moved away there would still be the incident where I put an egg in a birthday cake, but that’s a story for another time.)

If anyone ever tries to tell you that Thanksgiving is all about the food, don’t you dare believe them. Sure, some people will try to make it about the food, but it’s really about love, respect and gratitude. Without those ingredients, you might as well be serving cardboard.

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink.
-Colossians 2:16

The man who eats everything
must not look down on him who does not,

and the man who does not eat everything
must not condemn the man who does,
for God has accepted him.
-Romans 14:3

What a Child Lives With Will Follow Them

18 Nov

Many people have heard of Brené Brown because of her TED talk on vulnerability. After her TED talk she was devastated by the criticism people posted about her on online forums. None of it was true of course, but the words still hurt. One day, she sent her kids to school and binged on peanut butter and watched Downton Abbey until she ran out of episodes. Then she googled to find out what happened during the Downton Abbey era and came across the famous “Man in the Arena” speech by Theodore Roosevelt. Brown took the words to heart and wrote a wonderful book called Daring Greatly.

For Brené Brown, this peanut butter/Downton binge lasted for one day; but for people like me, such days have been a regular occurrence throughout my adult life. I struggle with the criticism I grew up with–not words from strangers who don’t really know me, but my own parents.

This criticism was not always directed toward me. It was meant for pastors, teachers, grandparents, neighbors and just about anyone. But the negative comments are stuck on a tape playing through my head. Even today, when I remember how my mom made fun of overweight people walking into a store, I am afraid to get out of the car.

For a long time I felt the only way to shut up these voices was to numb out on chocolate. No one has explained this better than Dorothy Law Nolte in her famous poem Children Learn What They Live. “Children who live with criticism learn to condemn.” What the poem doesn’t say is they might learn to condemn themselves. One explanation for obesity is anger turned inward–doing violence to self.


I have been criticized for listening to classical music, Christmas music and Contemporary Christian music. I have been chastised for putting an egg in a birthday cake, serving turkey to the homeless and giving a piece of apple pie to my cousin on Christmas. I have been judged for buying a sofa and giving gifts that seemed frivolous to other people. I have been talked about and criticized because I do not see eye to eye with them about God.

My choice to live out the teachings of Jesus and not ostracize ex-family members because of divorce has caused my parents to talk negatively about me in front of my entire family. When I told the truth, they wrote a letter to the judge to defame me. I was hesitant to speak the truth for years because I didn’t want to hurt them.

I told a friend how they stopped talking to me for four months and I decided to call them because I missed them. He leaned over and gently asked, “What did you miss?” His question haunted me for months while I struggled to find an answer. These last few years have been nothing but miserable whenever I have contact with them because they want control over me–what I write, how I spend my money, how I worship, etc. How different our relationship might be if they could accept me as an individual and let go of their need to fix me or control me.

The main compliment I received from my parents was to be called “thoughtful.” Far into my adult life, I felt responsible for their bills. I was raised to give them whatever was mine–even ignoring my own needs to help them at times. Thoughtful seems to mean meeting their needs, while the flip side–calling me “selfish” happens when I don’t comply with their wishes.

For years, I thought selfish was the worst thing I could be called because it was synonymous with not being a good Christian. I was raised to think there is nothing more selfish than a daughter who does not please her parents, but I was wrong. There is something worse than being called selfish–not being your own God-created self because you are trying to please others.

Because of such judgment and criticism, I have often felt paralyzed in my life. I am a talkative person, but I have often struggled to find my authentic voice when it comes to speaking the truth about what really matters. When you grow up in a family with secrets, you learn to lie because you are forbidden to speak the truth. As I grew older, I was not only discouraged from writing about my childhood, but sometimes even speaking of my childhood among my siblings at a family gathering was considered taboo.


It’s not selfish to tell stories about your childhood. It’s not selfish to cook the way you chose. It’s not selfish to spend your money the way you feel is necessary. It’s not selfish to be yourself even if it goes against the family rules. It’s especially not selfish to follow your conscience or worship the God you have come to know.

Why is it not selfish to live as yourself? God didn’t create us to be an extension of our parent’s personality. Just like God created every snowflake and flower to be unique, He gave us individuality. God intends for us to tell the truth, share our stories and be ourselves.

If you too grew up with criticism and judgment, one way to overcome negative words is to remember the names God calls us. If you are a parent who has shown a critical spirit toward your children, it is never too late to change. Here is a list of God’s names for us. God calls us His beloved–the question for each of us to answer is–will we listen to the voices of the past, or the voice of our Creator?

Listen to the One who created you…
the one who formed you says,
“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.”
-Isaiah 43:1

Children Learn What They Live by Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.

16 Nov

Children Learn What They Live

If children live with criticism,
they learn to condemn.

If children live with hostility,
they learn to fight.

If children live with fear,
they learn to be apprehensive.

If children live with pity,
they learn to feel sorry for themselves.

If children live with ridicule,
they learn to feel shy.

If children live with jealousy,
they learn to feel envy.

If children live with shame,
they learn to feel guilty.

If children live with encouragement,
they learn confidence.

If children live with tolerance,
they learn patience.

If children live with praise,
they learn appreciation.

If children live with acceptance,
they learn to love.

If children live with approval,
they learn to like themselves.

If children live with recognition,
they learn it is good to have a goal.

If children live with sharing,
they learn generosity.

If children live with honesty,
they learn truthfulness.

If children live with fairness,
they learn justice.

If children live with kindness and consideration,
they learn respect.

If children live with security,
they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.

If children live with friendliness,
they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

Copyright © 1972 by Dorothy Law Nolte

Book Review–Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers

27 Oct

A few months ago I would not have read this book. I wouldn’t think it applied to me or my mom, but now I see how it could apply to the relationship of many mothers and daughters. The main factor being any daughter who feels she is not good enough and any mother who lacks empathy for her daughter’s childhood pain.

According to the author psychologist Karyl McBride, narcissism has a spectrum and not all narcissists have a show off, self-centered personality. Many mothers might be borderline narcissistic because they hold their children to a standard of their expectations and religious beliefs while not allowing them to be themselves. This is where many of my readers might find this book relevant.


McBride talks about how even questioning the motives of our mother is taboo in most cultures. This causes a lot of dysfunction to continue because no one dares to go against mother’s wishes even if she is self-centered or mentally ill. Because she is put on a pedestal, even when our mothers are wrong, we have a tendency to go along with their plans. We should honor our mothers for bringing us into this world and the things they have done for us, but we won’t honor God if we allow our mothers to run our lives or tell us how to worship.

Many mothers think more of themselves than their children. It is the combination their self-righteousness and self-protection along with their inability to have empathy for their children that destroys relationships. The saddest part of the dilemma is most narcissistic mothers will never realize what they are doing, nor will they care. For the narcissistic mother, life is more often a game about being right than building a relationship with their children.

And before we get too hard on mothers like this, it’s important to note most narcissistic mothers were raised by a narcissistic mother themselves. This pattern often repeats for several generations. I can see how this happened in my own family tree and how my own mother was light years ahead of her mother and grandmother both who manifested some very narcissistic tendencies. I can even see how I might have done this myself if I were a mother.

The author is very clear that we should not blame our mothers or ourselves but seek ways to build better relationships where we can. Sadly, there will be people who need to do this without their mothers because their mothers have no ability to see how they might be part of the problem. After all they believe their grown children should do as they say and meet their needs and they have nothing to offer but judgment and criticism.

This book outlines three parts to recovery. The first is to acknowledge the ways your mother did not meet your needs both as a child and as an adult. The second part deals with understanding your mother’s patterns and grieving over what you may never have with your mother–a wholehearted relationship where she respects you as an adult who make your own choices. The third section is about empowering women to not be a victim, but take responsibility for their own lives and how to do so joyfully.

The truth is most people with narcissistic mothers will never experience the relationship they wish to have–not because they won’t try, but because their mother is not capable of seeing outside herself to meet their needs. Even in this situation there is hope.  We can become our own nurturers. We can take better care of ourselves and we can find healthy people to bring into our lives. By doing this we might find we are healing and no longer in need of our mother’s approval.

The author has been a counselor for over 30 years and has survived a narcissistic mother herself so she is well qualified to aid in your recovery. If you have ever felt not good enough and are often criticized or sent on guilt trips by your mother, you really need to read this book. It will set you free from the mother censor in your head, allow you to have a better relationship with your actual mother today and if that is not possible, it will help you reframe and build your life.

Will I Ever Be Good Enough?
Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers

The Quilt of Integrity

18 Oct Quilt-7

Among the voices telling me to forget about the past, my own was the loudest. My husband and I once bought a Dr. Phil book which required making a timeline of our lives. We went out for coffee to fill it out, and found ourselves swallowed up by a dark cloud.

We discovered both of us felt so much shame, we couldn’t talk, write or even think about our childhood without drowning ourselves in indulgent amounts of chocolate and pastries.

This first attempt to understand ourselves lasted as long as the mocha in our cups. We went home, shut up the book and tried to forget our memories for another six years. Meanwhile our past continued to affect us.

We can never avoid the truth,
we can only prolong the day
when we will have to deal with it.
-Dr. Tim Jennings

Just as not all who wander are lost, not all who examine the past are sad. The past is our friend. It reveals who we are, where we came from and why we do the things we do.

There’s big a difference between living in the past and understanding your past. The first includes resentment for what can’t be changed, but the latter seeks understanding.

I read once that we don’t really grow up until we stop living our lives to please our parents. It was hard for me to stop this because I had been programmed to please them before I thought of myself. The biggest compliment my parents ever gave me was that I was thoughtful and so I tried to do everything they asked me–whether it made me happy or not. And part of that deal was to never bring up the past.

In the last couple years, I have decided to give myself permission to remember. My pastor had a class a few years ago about how our emotions affect our spirituality. I went home determined to fill out my life’s timeline, but it took weeks. Part of the complications included the fact I had moved over forty times before I was twenty and some of those places were not in houses, creating even more confusion.

My life stories were like a big wad of tangled laundry where the whites were not sorted from the coloreds and the sheets were twisted into the mix. I felt like a little kid who hates to clean their room because they don’t know where to start.

I started by saying a prayer for courage, then I wrote down one memory at a time. The first memories were good ones. As a little child, I felt loved and cared for by both parents. It seems they started with the best intentions to give me a good life and teach me about God. I found comfort in remembering the first few years of my life.

The past reveals new information–but not new memories. My memories had always been there, but I’d been afraid to acknowledge them. It was like matching up socks—some parts were missing, so I wrote what I could and moved on. Sometimes later in the pile, I would find a missing part and go back and match it up.

We all have a right to our own memories and no one can take them away from us. They also don’t have the right to judge us for remembering. God created us to remember so we could grow up. To deny our past is to forget our good times and our mistakes. We need both. To ask someone to forget their memories is to ask them to play dead for those years. It is a denial of life at the basic level.

I ran into events which seemed shameful and I wanted to avoid them, but I began to realize the things that happened years ago can’t reach out and bite me today. As I progressed through my life, I took some time to mourn the sad events before I moved on. Reflecting on these events turned out to be cathartic. As I revisited each event, I noticed things looked different from maturity than they did when I was a child, teenager or young adult.

As I collected my stories I began to see the general shape of where I’ve been and how I want to improve the pattern. I began to see my entire life from God’s perspective. I realized that no matter where I have lived or how I was treated or how lonely I felt at times, Jesus has always been right beside me–only a prayer away. This gave me a lot of peace.

Healing comes when we place all the pieces of our lives next to each other. It’s like lining up quilt blocks. Some lives appear to be filled with neat and orderly quilt squares, but mine resembled a crazy quilt with jagged edges, odd shapes and mismatched colors.

The more we understand our past. The more we understand our own choices and accept our healing–part of this process is to share our stories with each other. Brene Brown says the antidote to shame is empathy. By telling our stories to trusted people who reflect empathy back to us, we can stop feeling sick from the toxic shame of our past and a new picture will emerge.

I think of this process as creating a quilt of integrity. The root word for integrity is to integrate. My life quilt includes pieces of a little girl beaten, a teenage girl denied a high school education, a young adult struggling to help her family, and now the middle aged woman who is trying to stitch it all together to make sense of it.

Integrating my entire life has brought peace. I accept the past, I forgive my parents and myself and anyone who has hurt me and I am able to live wholeheartedly because the mysterious baggage of my past has been sorted out.

If you have been discouraged by family for remembering your childhood, you might have been raised in a controlling family. I hope by sharing my story, you will find courage to explore your own stories. It’s okay to remember–that’s why God gave you a mind. And if people make fun of you for remembering something sad, God won’t. He keeps a record of our lives—not to condemn us as some people believe, but to reassure us of how much He has been leading us all along.

You keep track of all my sorrows.
You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
You have recorded each one in your book.
Psalm 56:8


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