“Miss Susan! Today was a good day at school! I didn’t slap, scratch, or bite anyone!”
“Well, that is certainly a good day when we don't do those things. Great job!” Everyone within earshot of this boy cheered. “Yay! Good for you!”
I looked at this four-year-old and saw how excited and proud he was to please his mother who bragged on him as she grinned from ear to ear. The magnitude of this news may have been lost on an outsider. It really was a big deal that no one had been slapped, scratched, or bitten that day because lately, any one of those things could happen – or maybe even all three. Again, yay!
As I leaned down to give him a hug, the boy's mother stood behind him with an expression that showed how much she loved him. This little family has struggled to overcome lots and lots of trauma, most of which would cross over into the category of “horrific”. I could only imagine how she might want to relish this moment as long as she could because there is still a lot of work to be done, and it is not going to be easy. Trauma for a young child leaves a lasting impression and can manifest itself in lots of ugly ways. Fortunately for this family, through Blue Monarch, this boy and his mother are getting counseling and intense support to recover from their wounds. Progress is steady but can sometimes feel very slow.
As I looked at this little boy and how eager he was to make his mom proud, I couldn’t help but imagine her as a young girl. I was aware of the atrocities her own mother subjected her to when she was growing up, and I realized she probably never saw that same pride on her mother’s face. Does she even know what that looks like?
This time of year, there is something that always catches my eye and reminds me of women like this young mother. I often feel blessed to work at a beautiful farm in the country where, during the summer months, I drive between beautiful cornfields to get to my job. Every year, I spot one tall corn stalk that outgrows all the others. It towers over the other rows and stands completely alone. To me, this represents some of the courageous women we serve. They often stand alone as well.
Sadly, a lot of our residents do not get any family encouragement or recognition for their amazing accomplishments. I remember how stunned I was to witness this for the first time. A mother attended her daughter’s graduation at Blue Monarch one year and was not shy about showing her overwhelming disapproval. She fumed over her daughter’s achievements and made no effort to hide her feelings as she fidgeted, huffed, and groaned. This bitter woman sat on the front row at our graduation ceremony and glared at her daughter the entire time. She did not clap, she did not smile, and she did not congratulate her daughter. As soon as the event was over, she stomped out the door. I still remember the hurt and embarrassment on the daughter’s face on this day that represented the first thing she had ever successfully completed.
Little did I know this dysfunction was something I would witness many times in the coming years. In fact, we once had a woman who resented her daughter’s success so much, she tried to get her kicked out of our program by planting drug paraphernalia under her mattress, for crying out loud.
It is not uncommon to hear our residents on the phone with their mothers, desperate for a pat on the back, but getting nasty ridicule instead. There are lots and lots of tears, and hours and hours of counseling over this very thing. For reasons like this I am grateful our program is so individualized and long-term.
So, how do we understand this? How can any mother be angry when her daughter gets stronger and healthier? How can she resent her own child’s recovery?
I am no expert, but I truly believe it is because the family structure is crumbling, and no one knows their roles anymore. It is like shaking the family tree until limbs begin to split and fall off.
Perhaps the mother has always felt like the heroic rescuer, and when the daughter no longer needs rescuing, she is left confused about her role in the family. Or, what we often see, is that the mother is struggling as well, perhaps even in prison herself, and she is jealous of her daughter who is getting better. Maybe the mother’s failures become more vivid as her daughter learns what it means to be a healthy parent. And then there is also the mother who has selfish needs and wants her daughter to take care of her. (Like the mother who felt she was too old to be an exotic dancer any longer so she wanted her daughter to pick up where she left off…)
We also see siblings who resent the recovery and success of a sister. Perhaps the sibling has always been the good child and the bad one made him look even better. But now that the bad child is doing well, where does he fit in? This often reminds me of the colorful parable of the Prodigal Son. (Luke 15:11-32)
In this parable, the younger son goes off and lives a reckless, chaotic life – much like the women we serve. When he finally hits rock bottom and decides to change his life, he returns home to find a father who immediately embraces him and celebrates his “recovery”. But the older son is angry and resentful of the attention the Prodigal Son receives after all the poor choices he made. It’s just not fair.
Of course, in this parable the father represents our Heavenly Father who will always be there. But what if the Prodigal Son returned home to an empty house? What if there was no one there to receive him and lift him up, not a parent, not a sibling - no one. It makes me think of a race held one year to benefit Blue Monarch. The organizers of the event did not think about a plan to celebrate the winner, so the poor guy ran through the finish line with not one person watching or cheering. I have always wondered how that made him feel.
That is what often happens to our remarkable women. They work, they persevere, they cry, they struggle, they fight the temptation to give up. They do this day, after day, after day, until one brilliant day, they see things have changed. Their children are listening to them for the first time. They aren’t shouting at each other anymore. They aren’t having “using dreams” and they no longer crave their drug of choice. They have a sense of peace and literally feel the presence of God throughout the day. They are excited about their futures for the first time. They are healing. Isn’t it only natural to want a family member to share in the excitement?
At Blue Monarch we try to celebrate our residents' successes as much as possible. From time to time we have even been accused of spoiling them. But you know what? We do it anyway. We present them with charms when they accomplish something notable. We invite them to share their incredible stories of recovery with others. We acknowledge their amazing journeys in the bags of granola we sell. And we try to always remember that “great job” goes a very long way. As hard as it is to imagine, some women hear those words right here for the very first time.
We realize this will never replace what some of our residents so desperately want from their mothers. But we do our best to make sure the children we serve get the real thing from their moms, in real time – even if it’s for simply going through the day without slapping, scratching, or biting anyone. After all, that deserves a “great job” for sure! And the truth is, it's always easier to say it when we are accustomed to hearing it.
Thank you, Lord, for granting us the amazing privilege and honor of delivering an important message to the women we serve. Let us never forget to say "great job", especially when they need to hear it the most. Amen