It was a pretty predictable Father’s Day. My husband had exclaimed over his new tie. There were squeals and hugs from our two little girls. The sacrament meeting speakers had paid tribute to righteous, loving fathers. And, to end this year’s rendition of “I’m So Glad When Daddy Comes Home,” the Primary children had thrown resounding kisses in the general direction of their adoring daddies. We smiled and began filing out of the chapel for our next meeting.
Then I saw Jenny, her face red and wet. Talented, cheerful, faithful Jenny—she was the kind of Laurel every mother hopes her daughters will grow up to be like. Why was she crying? Because Jenny’s parents were divorced when she was small. And because hearing about the ideal family hurts when the ideal is what you want the most—and what you don’t have.
Jenny’s tears brought back a flood of memories for me. I remembered trying to make it all the way through the first verse of “Love at Home.” But every time we hit “Time doth softly, sweetly glide,” my voice would crack—along with my composure. At my house, time rarely glided. It lurched from one emotional blowup to the next. In between, my brother and sisters and I walked on tiptoe, our nerves tightly strung. I guess we thought that if we were careful enough, maybe we could avoid setting off the next explosion. We could never be careful enough. And always the brief sunshine was followed by a terrifying storm of rage that threatened to swallow us up.
I remember going to church without Dad during the years when he was in and out of Church activity. When he came, I hoped no one would detect the smell of smoke on his breath. When he didn’t, well-meaning friends would sometimes ask me where he was, shattering my hope that no one had noticed.
Then there was the week he didn’t come for our family’s speaking assignment in sacrament meeting. I couldn’t stop the tears as I waited for my turn to speak. At moments like this, the unthinkable fear came to the surface: maybe we would never be an eternal family.
Always there was that fear, which over the years grew into a terrifying certainty. My clearest, most cherished childhood memory—of being sealed to my parents shortly after we had joined the Church—would ultimately mean nothing.
When my parents were divorced, I was in my twenties. But still I felt like a frightened child. All the happy parts of my past life with my family seemed suddenly canceled out—invalidated—no longer relevant. What joy could the present hold for me or for those I loved? And eternity? I felt eternally orphaned.
Now that I’m in my thirties, understanding and peace are healing some of the wounds in my soul. And one of my greatest desires is to offer some of the peace I’ve found to those of you who are living in turbulent, unhappy families.
“Is It My Fault?”
“If you aren’t happy, you are doing something wrong.” I’m sure when my Sunday School teacher told us this, he never imagined how I would misinterpret it. I wrote it down and posted it on my mirror, knowing I wasn’t very happy. I cried in my room many nights—out of fear, disappointment, and self-pity. So I began to feel that I must be doing something terribly wrong. Even though I couldn’t exactly pinpoint it, I knew I must have some fatal flaw.
Of course, I wasn’t perfect as a teenager. But now I know that my feelings of unworthiness were not justified. Most of my sorrow came from the choices of others. And their choices were almost completely beyond my control. I was a child in my family. And as a child, I was not responsible for the overall success or failure of my family. Nor was I responsible for my parents’ choices.
The same is true for you. You may have an alcoholic parent or parents who fight or parents who violate the commandments. True, you need to do your best to not be part of the problem, but try not to complicate your situation with false feelings of guilt.
Sometimes making it through a divorce or another kind of family difficulty is a matter of simply hanging on. Hang on to the reality that your Heavenly Father loves you and your family deeply and eternally.
Often, my prayers for my family seemed to go unanswered. Sometimes, the more I prayed, the worse things seemed to get. I didn’t know then that, though the Lord shares our sorrow, he will not force change. But over time, his love can often find a way to bring even greater blessings than we had prayed for. So many of those fervent prayers of long ago have now been answered. And I now know that he has never ceased trying to bless my loved ones.
Hang on to the scriptures that fill you with faith. For example, “Let your hearts be comforted; for all things shall work together for good to them that walk uprightly” (D&C 100:15).
Find music that feeds your spirit. How many nights I found peace by singing to myself, “When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high, and don’t be afraid of the dark. At the end of the storm is a golden sky and the sweet, silver song of the lark. Walk on through the wind. Walk on through the rain, though your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone. You’ll never walk alone” (Rodgers and Hammerstein, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” Carousel).
If your family’s unhappiness includes abuse—physical, sexual, or emotional—you may need to ask for help. Find an adult—a parent, Church leader, social worker, school counselor, or physician—whom you trust and who will take you seriously. This may be embarrassing and very difficult. But sometimes intervention from outside the family is needed to protect you and other family members.
Hang on to leaders and friends who encourage you and help you keep your faith and standards. Brother Cherrington, a stake patriarch in our ward, always made me feel that I was someone special and that I would make it.
Hang on to your patriarchal blessing and the vision of yourself it gives you. Its promises, however distant they may seem, are real and eternal. The Lord knew all about your present difficulties when he gave those promises, and they will be fulfilled.
Hang on to the reality that you are not alone in your situation. As a teenager, I felt that my family and our problems were unique. When my best friend spent the night at my house, I worried that she would notice what I wanted to hide. Not until we were adults did I discover that her family had very similar problems to mine.
Don’t be fooled by appearances. The most confident, witty, and popular of your friends may face problems even greater than yours. Even the most faithful families may have deep challenges. Knowing this can help you break out of the prison of being totally absorbed with your own problems. Let it also prompt you to reach out in love to your friends, even when your own problems seem great.
“I Have Not Forsaken You”
In times of difficulty, how can we possibly keep a positive attitude? In August 1831, the Prophet Joseph Smith and ten elders were returning to Kirtland, Ohio, from a missionary journey to Jackson County, Missouri. On the third day of their trip, they had a perilous canoe ride down the Missouri River. They must have been tired and shaken, possibly homesick as well. Then the Lord reassured them with these gentle words: “Be of good cheer, little children; for I am in your midst, and I have not forsaken you” (D&C 61:36).
We, too, can be assured that the Lord will never leave us alone. During my teenage years, I did not always recognize his presence. Now I know that when my way was the most perilous, he was always with me.
We need to also know that our Heavenly Father’s plan of salvation is infinitely more just and merciful than we can possibly comprehend. He will leave nothing undone for the blessing of his children. Truly, there are no eternal orphans in his loving plan.
Although we must live in the present, we can also live for the future. We can live for the day when we can go to the temple to receive greater understanding and blessings than we now enjoy. We can live for the day when we can make a home of our own—a home where we can strive to bring love, peace, and the Spirit. We can also live for the day when we can nurture others as we may not have been nurtured ourselves.
For me, this day has come at last. I know that it can come for you.