Myth of the perfect family: An interview with Elisa Morgan

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Former president of Mothers of Preschoolers International confesses that all families are broken--even hers.

Former president of Mothers of Preschoolers International confesses that all families are broken--even hers.

Former president of Mothers of Preschoolers International confesses that all families are broken--even hers.

Former president of Mothers of Preschoolers International confesses that all families–even hers–are dysfunctional.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect family.”

This phrase, printed across the top of Elisa Morgan’s new book, The Beauty of Broken: My Story and Likely Yours Too, caught my attention. While most people might tell you they agree with this statement, many of us don’t believe it. That’s why we covet our friends’ families as children and struggle to accept our own family’s flaws as adults. In The Beauty of Broken, Morgan pulls back the curtain on how messed up most families really are–including her own.

It’s an interesting message for Morgan to champion because she is President Emerita of Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) International. If you’re the leader of a Christian organization that inspires and equips mothers, you might understandably succumb to the enormous pressure to present your family as flawless. Not Morgan. Here, we discuss the destructive myth of the perfect family.

JM: In this book, you’ve told the truth. Give us the dirty. In what ways is your family decidedly NOT perfect?

EM: In every way? Well…depends on your definition of “perfect.” To begin with, I come from a broken family – broken through divorce and addiction. My husband comes from an intact, conservatively Christian family. We both brought certain “expectations” with us into forming our second family. As our family was formed by adoption, early on I became aware that my children would arrive in my arms with certain wounds of their own. While my husband and I poured our efforts into raising an intact, “perfect” family, we unexpectedly encountered issues like teen pregnancy, substance abuse, legal issues, financial problems, disease and death…and…and…and…revealing that we were surely not a “perfect” family after all.

JM: Say something about the myth of the perfect family. What is it and why is it?

Image courtesy of Thomas Nelson

Image courtesy of Thomas Nelson

EM: Every parent surely wants to do their best with their children. But headlines like “How to Be an A+ Parent” delude us into believing that everybody has perfect families – that such a thing is normal and achievable by just following a certain formula. When our kids detour into the everyday realities of stuff out there, skipping school, struggling with drugs or alcohol, unhealthy sexual choices, etc, we conclude that we’ve messed up the formula.

In the more private corners of our parenting, we tend to define ourselves by our children’s choices, whether cheering from the sidelines of their sports events or reviewing their grades or tallying up their invitations to slumber parties. When our kids are happy and whole, we are happy and whole – and successful as parents.

Reality is that most kids struggle at some point, and we as parents need to let them struggle in order to form. Like the age-old illustration of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. Their struggle doesn’t make them bad and it doesn’t make us bad, though sometimes the struggle can involve really bad stuff. The process is super uncomfortable and we can end up defining them and ourselves as losers when life looks different (way different) from our expectations.

JM: Can you give us a specific example of how you might have perpetuated the myth by presenting your own family, to others, as close-to-perfect?

EM: To be honest, I didn’t realize I was holding on to a mythology until our family fell and “broke.” I just desperately wanted to invent for myself something I’d never experienced as a child: a family that was whole. The entire time I served as CEO of MOPS International, my “platform” was that our deficits are our offerings. I truly tried to be as vulnerable as I could be. I never thought I had it together as a woman, a mom or a leader, but I surely believed that my best efforts would yield kids who wanted to serve God the way I did, to live life the way I did, to be “good” and to have as their final goal: an intact family as well.

JM: Describe the “break” your family endured.

EM: When my sixteen-year-old daughter became pregnant, I came to a kind of new place of being. I had to figure out how this new “real” would work in my world – both privately and publicly. I can remember actually wishing that instead of being pregnant, that she had cancer instead. So that people would ring our doorbell with casseroles and pray for us – and I wouldn’t feel like it was somehow my fault. I’d assumed I’d done life “right.” Being a “good, popular, cool girl” was my survival technique. And for many years it pretty much worked. Sandwiched between my mom’s alcoholism and my daughter’s rebellion, I saw myself as the faithful one. That season brought me face to face with my own need for forgiveness. I was proud. God revealed – lovingly, but clearly – that until I saw my own need for forgiveness, I’d be unable to truly receive his love.

It was in this season that I began to realize that the concept of a perfect family was a myth. Unattainable. And not really even what God has in mind for his people. What God wants is for us to let him know us, see us, love us as we are: imperfect.

JM: Is there a reason why the “perfect family” myth has had such traction in Christian circles?

EM: Somehow in the church, the mythology that we’re supposed to create a perfect family is heightened. If you know Christ, somehow you’re supposed to be above sin and failure – and when you live to be obedient to God, you figure he “owes” you a good result through your efforts: like a perfect family. We go to church, hold Jesus Times with our kids, bubble-wrap them from watching Miley Cyrus freaking out and BINGO! – we expect them to turn out believing what we believe and doing what we do. Problem is, we’re not responsible for our children’s choices; we are responsible for our responses to their choices.

Especially in American Christianity, there is a “transaction” expectation in our faith. If I give my life to God and follow him, he’ll deliver a good life to me. God’s definition of “good” is very different from ours. God brings beauty out of broken.

JM: What do you say to the younger parents that read your book and want to live more authentically?

EM: Do your work to understand yourself and your first family: what you received and what you lacked – and why. Then honestly set your expectations for your second family. You may never face some of the issues of brokenness that I’ve faced – or others like me – but most likely you will face some kind of brokenness. When such moments come, bend with them and let them teach you. Be aware that God is writing his story in your life and in the lives of your children. He is revealed in our brokenness – just as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:7 – “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

The great hope that brings healing for all who are broken is two-fold: God loves the broken and God uses the broken. Rather than disqualifying us, when put in  God’s healing hands, our brokenness can actually qualify us for his work in our world.

  • I have seen bloggers and others suggest on several occation that pastors that had children that were not walking with the Lord (adults or not) should step down and take care of their family.

    I think many of them meant well and were trying to take seriously I Tim 3:4-5. But there is some point where children act independently and except for prayer there is little that can be done, especially when they are adult children.

    This theology I think also seriously questions the reality of sin as a Christian. How much sin would be enough in a child for a pastor to need to step down? Talking back, shoplifting, drug abuse, rejection of Christianity?

    We are sinner saved by grace and short of the New Heaven and New Earth we will continue to be sinners.

    That is not to say no pastor should ever resign to deal with family issues or to suggest that pastors should not take seriously the needs of their family.

    But I think we need more leaders like Ms Morgan to speak specifically to this.

  • Chuck

    My wife and I raised our kinds during the 80’s. In looking back it was a crazy time as we were assaulted with a plethora of surefire parenting methods that were guaranteed (almost) to grow our kids God’s way. The 90’s were a wake-up call as many of these perfectly raised kids went over the edge. I am encouraged that today there seems to be more realism and honesty about our brokenness. Ms. Morgan’s book will hopefully add to that realism for this generation of parents.