I used to be perfect.
Okay, I wasn’t literally perfect. I was practically perfect. Like a dark blonde, homeschooling Mary Poppins.
I became, in my heyday, sort of a poster girl for homeschooling done right.
I responded to the prompting of the Holy Spirit – and my own disgust with Focus on the Family’s publications – and started a magazine called ‘Call to Battle’ for conservative Christian teenagers. My co-editor was my friend (now husband) Luke, who was also perfect (actually he was a procrastinator, but few people know that).
I taught a co-op class with a curriculum I designed myself.
I dressed modestly, played with the little kids at functions, and was respectably awkward around boys, usually.
I was a helpful stay-at-home daughter.
I took the ACT at age 16 and got a 34. I racked up various awards and scholarships, which allowed my local homeschool group to crow about my academic achievements. I was living proof that ‘homeschooling works!’
I went on a few mission trips teaching English.
In college, I began a courtship with my friend, co-editor, and another pride of the homeschool group, Luke. It was a nine month long, no-touch courtship with a picture perfect beginning.
We had a beautiful wedding, where our guests tearily witnessed our first ever kiss.
After marriage I became a stay at home wife, teaching a spanish class weekly to homeschool students.
I was considered smart, well-read, pure, modest, a helpful daughter, a devoted Christian, and a good role model. I appeared practically perfect.
I heard from people who wanted their daughters to be like me.
They had no clue.
No one can be as “perfect” as I was without some serious stress and issues going on in private. I didn’t believe that at the time though.
I thought how freaking HARD I was working at it and how messed up I felt inside was evidence that I was in actuality a stupid, lazy, selfish and very sinful person. I was terrified of failure, sin, and being unloved.
I worked so hard to be good.
Not many people know the behind-the-scenes story.
Yes, I am above average intelligence (blessed genes), but I also studied hundreds of hours for the ACTs and SATs.
I also was fortunate to be a learning type that thrived at homeschooling. My parents got me the tools and gave pointers on occasion, we did history with another family and I took a literature/writing class once, but for the most part I taught myself everything out of books. And I loved it, but few people can succeed as well as I did that way, even with a lot of hard work.
Call to Battle – the magazine – was a great experience and a great stress. I did a lot of ‘preaching’ that I now regret (more on that in another post), and the whole aspect of being a teacher to others my age, while only 17-19 put a great deal of pressure on me to live up to my inherited ideals perfectly, all the time, with no ‘falling’ or reshaping my beliefs. The pressure was incredible, and as the editor of Call to Battle, yelling at my siblings, not wanting to change poopy diapers, and any other selfishness were all considered rank hypocrisy. How could someone who wrote about love be so selfish? I mentally berated myself regularly for what a disappointment I was to my parents
As for purity goes, I was terrified of having a crush on a guy, lest I ‘give away my heart.’ Emotional ‘virginity’ was a huge deal when I was growing up.
I was worried to let my good friend Luke be too close of a friend, in case I gave away my heart and lost a bit of it. I thought if I didn’t marry Luke — as our parents both intended even though Luke hadn’t spoken for me yet — then I would go broken into whatever marriage I had.
I had impossibly high standards of ‘purity’ – which was more disconnection from others than anything – but I still almost lived up to them. Except once, I let a guy hold my hand. He was a friend, there was a little romantic tension there, I was having a sad day. He took my hand, and I let him. For anyone not under so much pressure to be perfectly ‘pure’ it would have soon been a sweet memory. for me, it was terrible guilt. My parents felt that I failed all of us. That I had defrauded my friend Luke by losing my hand-holding virginity to someone else. That maybe I couldn’t be trusted to go to college and be around boys all the time – they even discussed having me drop out.
They were so angry at my failure, and I was so angry at myself. I sincerely felt I might have ruined my future marriage by my impurity. I wondered if I was no longer fit to marry. I was suicidal for a time after this; heartbroken at my own hypocrisy. I felt like a terrible, dishonest person if I didn’t confess my evil sin to everyone, so I disclosed the incident in the next Call to Battle, in the form of a purity allegory..
I still feel sick when I think about telling my parents about it.
And I only had those high purity ideals out of fear, anyways. I was afraid of ruining my life — I was taught to be afraid of that. And I was afraid of making God mad.
I tried to be a good daughter because I was afraid my parents wouldn’t love me if i didn’t try so hard. Mom already said when she was mad that she didn’t like me.
I spent so much time around kids not because I was saintly, but because they were easier to relate to than people my age, and so much time with my siblings because it was required, not that I didn’t enjoy it most of the time.
I dressed so modestly partially because I was afraid of ‘making’ guys ‘sin’, and partially because i was afraid of being raped and blamed for it.
I did go to college, where I got good grades and appeared to outsiders, I think, to be doing wonderfully. However, I was an academic perfectionist who believed my one strength was academics and and therefore I had to be as good as possible at every subject. I tried to balance ‘finding value in God’ with ‘not wasting my talents’. And I was a normal human who struggled with pride and legalism. And I was struggling with severe depression and bipolar disorder. Like I had been for much of my life previously, I felt like a sad failure and wanted to die rather than fail everyone and God. I couldn’t talk to many people about it though, or even admit to myself that it was depression, because I believed that Christians didn’t get depressed.
The “perfect courtship” was the hardest time in my life, with the difficulty compounded by the feeling that I should be only experiencing happiness. Everyone seemed concerned about our purity, about us still fulfilling our family roles, me as daughter first of all. I felt trapped in an in-between life trying to be a perfect daughter and bride-to-be all at once.
The no-touching was only our decision because my parents told us otherwise we wouldn’t be able to trust ourselves and they wouldn’t be able to trust us to be alone.
The first kiss was… well, actually, that part was nice.
The pressure to be perfect at everything, all the time, to not let everyone down, to not ruin my ‘witness’ of God…. that was awful. Sometimes I loved being considered practically perfect — I have pride just like anyone. But it more often felt like a burden.
Every minute of my life, I felt an intense pressure to be worthy of love and the name ‘Christian’.
I felt like I could never be real. I was a sad, sometimes hypocrital, perfectionist who thought she had to — and could — earn love from most everyone. My mother-in-law — mama Susie — has always been a safe person to me. I could tell her my struggles. I could be depressed and self-doubting and God-doubting. I could be real. To almost everyone else, I was a role model for their daughters. I could hardly live up to myself. I felt like a template.
I started this series talking about advocacy. Upon reflection, I don’t think advocacy was the real issue for me. I think that allowing kids to be advocates, young zealots, is not so dangerous as allowing them to be put on a pedestal and pressuring them to stay there. To keep earning it.
Teenagers, even the ones who seem extraordinary, need the same room to fail as anyone else, without being seen as ‘a failure’. We, as a society, are getting better at ‘allowing’ mothers to be not-perfect; to lose their cool, need breaks, and not get everything done. Homeschooling Christians need to let their ‘perfect’ kids be real, too.
Here are a few of my thoughts about how adults can help kids and teens be real.
– Grownups can view teens as young adults without expecting them to be as mature as adults, because they aren’t. They’re still forming. Grown ups can recognize that teenagers lives feel difficult and confusing as they grow into adulthood, and can give them space to be real, confused, and sometimes upset and uncertain. Some ‘perfect’ kids might need your expectations to be lowered.
– Adults should be role models and mentors for teens. Children and teens should not be lifted up as role models for their peers. Young women should be friends with each other; one should not feel like she has to “mentor” another person her own age.
– Adults can give teens space to worry, to wonder, and to make mistakes without discouraging them. They can listen.
That practically perfect kid in your church youth group or at your kids school? She isn’t a template for you to hold up to everyone else and say, ‘Be like her’. She works hard, she yells, she gets discouraged, she gets depressed. She messes up like everyone else, even if you can’t see it. She’s a real person. She isn’t perfect. And that’s okay.
(the title is an homage to Alexander, who used to be rich last Sunday. Alexander is the protagonist of many books, and one of the realest fictional characters I ever met.)