Did I do all I could for my siblings? (guest post by Erika Smith)

Erika Smith grew up in an abusive home in which the parents claimed Christianity. She is still a follower of Jesus in spite of the way she and her siblings were treated by her parents and the casual “forgive and forget” dismissal she has received from churches where she has tried to get help.

Though this post is about children of abusive homeschooling parents—that is, both parents were very abusive and neglectful—this doesn’t mean I think homeschooling is bad; indeed, I homeschooled for 24 years and loved it and took the education of my children very seriously (and not just “character education” that means they will work without complaint). I know that many other homeschoolers have as well.

I’ve slightly edited and abridged this post from the author’s original, which is on her own blog here. Though she gives no details here about the abuse she and her siblings suffered, she does go into great detail about it on a series of posts on Homeschooler’s Anonymous, under an assumed name. If you ask her, she may tell you which posts are hers.

The Bondage of Abuse by Erika Smith

*****

I feel like I abandoned my younger siblings.

As the oldest daughter, I instinctively knew from very early on that I was the protector of my younger siblings. It wasn’t a role that I should have had to play, but one forced on me regardless.

I couldn’t bear to see the younger ones treated as I had been, so if I could take the blame or shift the focus to me, I would. I was stronger physically than my sister, so if a situation arose where I could take the brunt, I did.

By mid-teens I had convinced myself that I had lived it for so long that I was just “used to it” and could take it. If younger siblings were struggling with completing something, I’d jump in to help, often causing my own chores and school to not get finished, and then I’d get in a lot of trouble for it. It was okay though; I was redirecting my parents’ anger and focus away from younger siblings.

My next to youngest brother, J, started his first year of homeschool in what would be my last. My youngest brother, G, didn’t start till at least a year after I was done. When I got my first job right after I “graduated,” I was able to spend more time with them when I was home, helping J with his schoolwork and just being a playmate for G. I also made myself available whenever I was home to help any other the others with their school assignments as well. My thoughts were simply to keep as many of them as clear from my parents’ radar as possible.

I was also doing my best to steer clear of them myself, as they were doing their best to make my existence miserable.

Mom was livid that I had gotten a job. Even at 18 I hadn’t gotten her permission to take a job, and I wasn’t at her disposal all the time anymore. From her point of view, my graduation meant I should have been available to take on full-time homemaking and mom duties so she didn’t have to do any of it.

She talked about how my boss would soon figure out how “lazy” I was, mocked me for not having a plan for my life, told me how unworthy I was as a woman and no man would even want to marry me, and said that if I did “somehow manage to find a husband” he would be an abusive drug addict and I would be miserable.

She constantly reminded me of the whole reaping and sowing thing and how I would end up with terrible and rebellious children because that is what I had been to her. [Blog post about that kind of karma Christianity here.]

When I finally turned 19, I was able to enroll at the tech school without a high school transcript. I took on full-time hours at school and continued to work as much as I could.

But even though it was good for me to be away that much, I always felt guilty leaving my siblings. I couldn’t protect them when I wasn’t there.

Over the next few years as I made tiny step after tiny step that got me farther away from my parents and the miserable situation at home, the guilt only increased. Every step that moved me closer to freedom was another step away from my siblings.

While attending college in a different state, I broke down, both to a roommate and to a work supervisor. When I looked at the pictures of all my younger siblings on the cover of my notebook, I would sometimes start crying.

Eventually I came back home, and things deteriorated even more with my parents. I asked my church college and career leader for help, and I was finally able to get out to live somewhere else.

It was the best thing that could have happened for me at that time, but I still felt like I was abandoning my brothers and sisters.

After Matt and I married, we were able to give my middle three siblings a safe place to live so they could get out. I was thrilled to be able to help them all in that way and would do it again in a heartbeat. But it was hard.

Once we helped my youngest sister spring free, then just the two youngest boys, J and G, were left. They were still so young. When Matt and I got married, G had only just turned 9.

They got the full brunt force of mom and dad’s anger and control . . . and I could not protect them.

After a certain event with my little brothers, I finally reported Mom and Dad to CPS. Two social workers told me to my face that they had enough information on my parents to remove the boys immediately.

But they didn’t.

I was fighting to get custody of them. But I lost them. My parents cut my contact with the boys for over a year. They managed to convince the police that the boys were the problem and were dangerous. Till they each graduated, J especially, my little brothers were treated like criminals.

All I could do was sit, wait, and pray.

J told me later that he was angry at me for what I had done. I could only hope and pray that one day they would understand.

I’ve cried and cried so many times. I’ve rerun the last 8 years over and over, desperately trying to figure out what I could have done differently. How I could have protected them more.

So much guilt for feeling like I abandoned them.

G just finished boot camp with the Marines, and I was able to take him to lunch before he headed out again for another training. It was the first time I’ve been able to really talk to him since he finally got out of our parents’ house. He told me briefly of so many hard struggles he had, and while my head can know that they are not my fault, my heart is yelling something different.

And there in the restaurant I broke down and cried.

So this isn’t a post that I can wrap up nicely. I don’t know how to deal with this guilt. I don’t know how to fix this. I don’t know if this is common in older siblings from abusive households. I can’t find anything that helps. Maybe putting this out there will help something turn up . . .

I can always hope.

*****

Right now all I have to offer Erika is to believe her and to be willing to grieve with her the enormity of what she and her siblings have suffered—things that no children should ever have to suffer . . . and to hope with her that there will be redemption and recovery in the Lord Jesus Christ.

I suggested that since I know quite a few oldest daughters of abusive families, some who are still Christians, some of those who have gone through similar agony might have some helpful thoughts for her. I pray that both here and on her own blog, Erika will receive words of hope and encouragement.  

 

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Sandra Lovelace
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Dear Erika, I was the oldest in a violent, alcohol-driven household … probably identified today as abusive. I went to public school so I had a bit of distance, but never a true reprieve. Living in survival mode left me zero energy to help my three younger brothers. I lived at home while in college, right up to the time I got married. I figured the best I could do for them was to make a safe place for them to go when they could. Nevertheless, I too felt (feel) guilty for leaving them behind.

From this vantage point, more than 50 years later, I’ve come to realize that though it may feel wrong, when we decide to stop the abuse (whether we stand up to it or get away from it) we’re making a strong statement against such behavior – perhaps the most powerful. My littlest brother, 16 years younger, did tell me he felt I’d left him behind. I told him it was the crazy behavior in the house I needed to get away from, that I loved him and would help him as much as possible.

He did come to live with us for a while, but he was all wrapped up in the life he grew up in. When his behavior became risky to our daughters, we had to tell him to leave. I did my best to keep up with him until I realized I needed to leave him to God. My other two brothers are gone now. When my mind wonders if I could have done more or where the youngest one is, I remind myself I did all I could do given the broken circumstances of this fallen world. May the Lord grant you His peace in ways that cause you to blossom in His freedom. Amen <3

Joy
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Joy

Dearest Erika, I’m so sorry for pain. I AM an oldest sister, but the vantage point that is most helpful is being the abused wife/mother. My ex would “discipline” my 7 children several times a day with 50-100 strokes (the whole Pearl/Gothard “breaking their will” thing – always bruised & bleeding) and I tried multiple times to stop him. It had serious consequences for me both physically then emotionally for months after. I felt so guilty, but a good submissive wife wouldn’t go to the authorities, legal or church, so it continued. All I can console myself with now is that I myself was enduring years of violence and I did the best I could with the twisted knowledge I had. I was trying to survive myself. And I know that God will make all things right in the end – Psalm 37 and 73. xo

Sandy
Guest
Sandy

Just some thoughts.
Please understand that a young child, a teenager or a young adult, is not responsible for what happened to her siblings, the perpetrator is responsible, not you.

You were the best mom these kids could have ever had during a time when they didnt have a real mom, but you were a kid yourself and never got to have a childhood yourself. They would have had no contact with any sane family member if not for you. Please dont blame yourself for things that you didn’t do. No one in heaven expected you would be able to become a parent when you were a child or even a parent of that many older children as a young adult. You stayed as long as you could and then you had to leave for your own self care, please don’t feel guilty about that, it wouldn’t have helped them if you had stayed longer. I think what you are feeling is very much like survivors guilt.

Maybe think about it like this- lets say you were in the army and your platoon got surrounded by the enemy but the enemy didn’t see you in the brush. As he saw the rest of his batallion being led away by the enemy he wouldn’t suddendly stand up and shout I’m here too, take me to the POW prison too! He wouldn’t do that because he knows that if he doesn’t get arrested with them he can get away and come up with a plan to get them out later. And you did do that and its not your fault you couldn’t rescue all of them, you did more than most would ever do.

And also try not write off the ones that didn’t get out ok, or the one you had to ask to leave your home, they are probably going through a lot of things because that’s what happens to people in POW camps, they are indoctrinated and brainwashed and it takes awhile for them to recover but many do. I just want to say that you are a brave woman and I applaud what you did and please don’t feel guilt for not doing more, it should never have been up to you to have to do any of that in the first place and you did very well in what you were able to do. Many people would have been unable to do anything but run away and never look back at all, or become an addict, because that’s what abuse does to people.
God bless you and the peace that Jesus gives be with you.

Quietrunner
Guest
Quietrunner

Ericka,
I am so saddened and sorry for all that you (and your siblings) endured as a child. No words anyone can say will ever lessen the pain you carry because of others abuse and neglect during a time you should have been protected and cared for. You mentioning your head knows it was not your fault , but your heart tells you something very different rings so painfully true of many survivors . My heart aches for you. I pray that Jesus will now, as an adult, give you understanding and compassion for that child who never got the chance to experience the care-free days of childhood and that you might learn to be gentle with leftover feelings of guilt or shame of not having done enough… for it seems you carried MORE than any child should ever be expected to carry.

While it makes perfect sense to me that as an “oldest sibling” you would take upon yourself the job of hyper vigilance and protecting your siblings, i am wondering if perhaps your actions were not exclusively because of age or even birth order. Though expectations even in a safe family system often make older children feel more responsible for the well being of their younger siblings, could it have happened with you, in part because you seem to be an incredibly empathetic and caring person and abusers almost always find ways to make that work to their advantage?

Unfortunately, Your maturity, despite your numerical age, was probably pressurized in the environment of abuse, like food is forced to cook quickly in a pressure cooker. Those who recognize and feel the pain of others deeply, often do ALL in their power to keep other loved ones from experiencing the same trauma or pain if there is a way for them to circumvent and take it on themselves.

I was a middle child. Like you, i very much took on the job of parenting and protecting family members at very young age. Often purposing to do things which put myself directly in harms way, hoping it would keep my older brother and younger sister from being harmed. My abuser learned this was one of the most effective ways to threaten and get me to comply… more so then directing physical or emotional threats towards me. Threaten a sibling and i would do most anything asked.

This also creates a dynamic among siblings in which they might “remember” a very different experience of childhood. Then as an adult, when voice is found to speak of abuse, it creates a dynamic where one perspective is discounted as untrue bc those siblings memories of their home experience as children differed greatly from the protective abused child’s. So the added pain of surviving a childhood where one tries your best to protect and shield others, can actually cost them their adult sibling relationships too.

This is an example of the kind of trauma that continues to have long term affects. It can not be ignored or minimized as many say “ why can’t you just get past that… it happened so long ago”. The devastation continues but is often only acknowledged by part of the broken family system.

Your trauma was real. And the fact that you still feel real pain about not doing “enough” to help your siblings is evidence of a heart of sincere compassion. Help where you can… but as with so many other repercussions of living through an abusive childhood, there are no quick or simple answers… be compassionate enough to acknowledge your own feelings and continue to love those safe family members who are also in a place of trying to heal. You were both wise and brave to have recognized self-sacrifice would only have created even more carnage. Hold fast to hope, friend.

Tammi
Guest
Tammi

I’m was the eldest of six children in an abusive, homeschooling, extremely fundamentalist family. You’re welcome to contact me and hear about how Holy Spirit resolved the guilt I felt over siblings.

Stephanie
Guest

Rebecca, give her my info. This is so much like my own story. I have been in the same place, felt the same things. She is NOT alone.

Part of what I think feeds the guilt monster and keeps it happy and healthy is so few people in the culture around us loudly and aggressively pinning the fault where it belongs–on the abusive parents. Without advocates affirming where the wrong rested, in an emotionally present and participatory way, we have such a hard time grappling with the weight of that wrong–the grief and pain it causes–on our own. In order to “deal” with it somehow, to try and resolve it, we take on responsibility for it, in a bid to try to control, mitigate, or make amends for the damage that no one else is willing to address in any meaningful way. Because if we take on the fault, and we are willing to make it better, surely it will help the situation somehow… right? But this is flawed thinking.

Rescuing someone out of this imprisoned, torturous mindset requires the active, outside, substantial help of others: both to clearly and repeatedly name the harm done and its cause, and to name and facilitate the healing that is so needed.

Erika Smith
Guest

I gave my email below.

Erika Smith
Guest

Thank you all for the thoughts and comments, I have been reading them but my 1 year old twins have been sick all week, so getting away to respond has been difficult. I’m definitely in the situation now where younger siblings have a vastly different view of childhood and have not been fully understanding of where I am with all of it. Of the 8 of us, I am also the only one with children of my own now and I also know that this is playing into view points. It is devastating to listen to my 2 youngest brothers accept full blame for everything they went through. I’ve told them all where I am though and that I’m here if they ever want to talk or ever have any questions.

Yes, it is hard not to live in the guilt, but hearing that I am not alone and that this is normal is very helpful. If anyone wants to talk to me more personally, I’d love to email. My email is erikasmith2784@gmail.com (if Rebecca it’s okay for me to leave it here?)

Jessica
Guest
Jessica

Feel free to put her in contact with me as well!

Erika, Please know you are not alone in the experience of much responsibility placed upon your shoulders by people who abused their position of power; people who were supposed to take care of you and make you feel safe – the way you provided that for the other souls your parents were also accountable for. Know that you are not alone for feeling guilt over not doing or being “enough” for younger siblings.

I can so relate. I’m also the eldest daughter and come from a large homeschool quiverfull family of nine children and I was often responsible for those younger than me for much of my entire “childhood”. Having a job was also frowned upon for me as well, mostly because of the stay-at-home-daughter beliefs of young women shouldn’t be working for those who aren’t their families, but also because my parents did not want to drive me almost anywhere, so I ended up being more available to take care of their children and household. Perhaps this was even the ulterior motive of being against me getting a job.

Things ended up escalating fast with my family (interestingly in 5 days it will be 6 years since it all happened) and shortly after I got married, had to escape from my parents and cut them off entirely. Sadly, this meant my younger siblings as well. I know it was the best choice, still however, it was painful…the tears when a little sibling’s birthday came and I couldn’t be there and not getting to see them grow up. I felt bad…like I just “abandoned” them. I know my parents capitalize on this. I know they tell them lies, such as I don’t care about my siblings. They would send emails, asking why I’m doing this to them. It’s disturbing how they act as if I was a teen mother who left my children with my parents and took off. It is so manipulative. It is so evil how a parent can pit one of their children against the other. I can only hope and pray that one day my siblings will learn the truth and understand why I had to break free…that even being in contact with them was not safe because of my parents’ involvement, control and surveillance.

At the end of the day, as hard as it was, I had to remember that I entered a new family and my loyalty was there first, so I could not allow my parents’ toxicity to take precedence. I also had to remember that my siblings were not my children and they are not not mine to raise; as long as they are minors, they will be with my parents and I cannot change that. I did call CPS on them because of an incident after I had already left the house, but CPS ended up siding with them, ignoring what was happening.

It does take time to heal not only from the pain, but also the manipulation, sorting out what were truths and what were lies your parents spoke to make you feel guilty and ashamed. Even though I have healed lots, I still question a ton about myself and feel guilt when I shouldn’t. The control a parent has over a child is powerful. Even though there definitely have been plenty of hurtful things said and painful experiences that took a long time for me to rid from my mind, I think the hardest part is untwisting it all! Things that were instilled in a young, forming mind can become solidified and hard to break, especially when the label of God is attached! I feel like it’s a very intense workout to break through my own mind sometimes.

That guilt of “abandoning” them is false guilt. It’s okay and real to feel sad about not being there, but it is NOT your fault. It is so very wrong and unfair when a parent places that amount of weight on their child, directly or indirectly.

You are not to blame. Your parents made their own decisions and created their own mess. You did all you could and more to give your siblings love, protection and a chance of having a happy childhood. They will make their own ways in this world, and perhaps the circumstances they have been through will make them stronger and better equipped to deal with the challenges they may face ahead. Anything or anyone telling you that it is you fault is one ugly lie. If that’s the only thing I could say to you, please be left with that! God knows your heart, and He is ultimately in control. He is watching you and your siblings. He knows you gave so much of yourself and will see you and them through.

Blessings and love. You will get through this. <3

Jennifer Grant
Guest
Jennifer Grant

In my opinion and experience, guilt and taking on false responsibility can cause health problems. Both need to be let go of and released to the Lord.