I used to think it meant constant bruises, possibly a few scars, or maybe even a broken bone. I thought abuse meant that someone was constantly beating you up. I couldn’t figure out why anyone would stay with someone who was only ever mean to them. I didn’t understand that abuse can take other forms, and that abusive people can be just as kind and generous as anyone else. I couldn’t grasp the significance of a phrase Mom quoted from time to time, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Subtle warning and even a glimpse of my life today were both wrapped up in that short phrase.

“I don’t have to come home. There are other places that I could go.”

I was in elementary school when those words were yelled at me. As a parent, I can appreciate that sometimes the noise that comes with kids can get on your nerves, especially at the end of a long day. But also as a parent, I can’t quite imagine saying that to my own kids, tired and frustrated or not. As a child, I took those words to heart. I was convinced that if I didn’t behave well enough Dad might leave, and that it would be my fault. I had to be good enough.

When I told my husband that the most humiliating and hurtful things ever said to me were all said by my dad, I think it surprised him. He knew more than most what I’d been through, but it’s still a pretty shocking thing for someone to verbalize.

Like everything, there’s a flip side though. The same guy who once told me that he’d never wanted kids and that he was disappointed that I’d been born a girl, is the same guy who found a beautiful telescope in a second hand shop, restored the wooden box it came in, built a tripod for the telescope, and presented it to me one Christmas. I’d always wanted a telescope, and it was through that one that we watched comet Hale-Bopp in the night sky. The guy who told me that I wasn’t really smart because I lacked common sense, is the same one who watched Star Trek and Doctor Who reruns with me, and was thrilled when I was accepted to flight school. The guy who disowned me a year ago, is the same one who wrote me a thoughtful, sweet letter on the eve of my wedding. It wasn’t all bad.

It wasn’t all bad.

That’s why I couldn’t see just how not good some of the bad things were. For years, I used softer words to describe it: “We had a difficult relationship,” or “Things are a little dysfunctional.” It was only recently that I could bring myself to say, “It was an abusive relationship.” It was a relationship that drove me to bouts of depression, physical illness, and even contemplation of suicide. It was a relationship that made me scared to form close relationships with anyone, yet still desperate to find someone who could like me, flaws and all.

People always told me that I was just like my dad, probably because we have similar interests and personality traits. That thought terrified me beyond belief. I couldn’t even consider the idea of marrying someone. What if I treated someone that badly? What if I said horrible things to someone I loved dearly? Wasn’t it unavoidable if I was just like him? Worse, what if I had children? I vowed that I’d never make someone else grow up in the same environment that I did. That’s when a wise man told me something that’s stuck with me for the past 20 years:

“It can stop with you.”

Regardless of how many generations back the difficult relationships went, I was not condemned to continue that pattern. I’d never considered that possibility before. This is where Aaron and a whole lot of grace came in.

At age 19, I did what I’d sworn I never would… I got married. There but for the grace of God indeed. Many girls who grow up with the kind of relationship that I had with my dad end up in a similarly abusive relationship as an adult. I ended up married to a guy who is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. I can only credit this to the hand of God. Aaron knew how much emotional baggage I came with long before I realized it. He’s spent the past 17 years carrying one end of that steamer trunk when necessary, and helping me to unpack all of the junk when I was finally ready to.

Even more astounding is the fact that Aaron and I are raising four kids these days. The girl who would absolutely never have a child of her own, has four of them watching Star Trek reruns with her. In some ways I am like my dad. I discovered that while I was my dad’s daughter, I was also my mom’s daughter too. Mom’s faith made an impression on me, and God has used her influence in my life to make me a better mother.

Does the idea that I might screw up these four precious kids worry me? More than you know! Here’s where the grace of God comes in again though… He can change my heart, my attitudes, and my default reactions. Now, I’m far from the perfect wife or mother, but apologizing and asking forgiveness can do amazing things in relationships. Admittedly, there’s nothing quite so humbling as apologizing to a 3-year-old. Thankfully, kids are quite gracious when you sincerely ask them to forgive you. I never once heard my dad apologize to anyone, let alone me. On the days when I worry that maybe I am just a little too much like him, my husband reminds me that I do apologize to the kids when necessary. He reminds me that my relationship with the kids is very different than the one I had with my dad. All of that is because of God at work in our family.

You know what amazes me the most? God has helped me grow through all of this. Sure, I have some pretty bad memories from growing up, and even from recent years. Would I change any of that now though? Once upon a time, I would have said yes without hesitation. Now, I don’t think I would change it. I wouldn’t be the person who I am today without everything that’s shaped me, good and bad. If nothing else, it has made me more conscious of the kind of relationship that I have with my own kids. I parent more carefully than I would have otherwise. Not perfectly, but that’s where God’s grace will come in for my kids. He can cover those mistakes with the blood of Jesus and make something good come out of it. Just like He has for me.

My dad has his own story. One that probably explains a lot of the things that he’s said and done over the years. I’m not saying that excuses anything, but it helps me to remember that the person who hurt me the most, is also hurting. I have no idea what the future holds with regard to my relationship with him. I know that miracles are possible, and I also know that sometimes we don’t get the miracle we’re hoping for. Right now, I’m content to let it rest in God’s hands.

It’s time to start telling my story. Not the story of a girl who overcame her past, but one of how God overcame it for her.