Holes: The High Cost of Leaving
When Jonathan Edwards' father left, his absence left a giant hole in the hearts of his family members. Edwards shares how important it is for parents to be there for their children, and the consequences that result when they aren't, including financial hardship, loneliness, and grief. As Edwards admits, "There is a different pain that comes from being left."
About the Guest
When Jonathan Edwards’ father left, his absence left a giant hole in the hearts of his family members. As Edwards admits, “There is a different pain that comes from being left.”
Holes: The High Cost of Leaving
Bob: Jonathan Edwards grew up in a family where there was tension and hostility between his mom and his dad. Even after they separated, it was still there. Jonathan remembers those feelings very clearly.
Jonathan: There was one night where my dad just was really upset about something, so we had to go over to the neighbors’ house and not be there when he visited. There were some times where my mom’s things were tossed out. It’s interesting to think that, as a kid, even though you see those things, you’d rather keep the presence, and keep the tension, and keep the whatever that is as long as you’re not ostracized again.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, January 10th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Jonathan Edwards joins us today to talk about the power of a parent’s presence in his child’s life.
He looks back on his own experience, growing up, with a dad who abandoned him. We’ll hear his story today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You’ve said, many times over the years, that there is great power in a family—probably more power than those of us, who a part of the family, recognize—power for good and power for ill.
Dennis: Yes; I think we don’t realize how our choices can be life markers, not only on those we love, but it can impact those we love for generations that follow.
We have a guest with us today on FamilyLife Today—Jonathan Edwards, who is about to tell a compelling story of the impact of divorce on his life.
Bob: Now, wait. Jonathan Ed—I’ve always wanted to do an interview with Jonathan Edwards. The chance has finally arrived?
Dennis: It has. Unfortunately, it’s not the one that you were hoping to do an interview. [Laughter]
Jonathan, welcome to the broadcast. Sorry to have a put-down right off. I’m sure that’s never happened to you—people coming up, “I’ve wanted to meet you.” [Laughter]
Jonathan: Yes; this is the first time.
Dennis: Yes; I’m sure it is.
Jonathan has served in pastoral ministry in the church for over ten years—also served with the Docent [Research] Group in developing curriculum. He writes for The Gospel Coalition and a number of other ministries and has written a book, very simply titled, Left. The subtitle is The Struggle to Make Sense of Life When a Parent Leaves.
You begin your book by talking about holes: H-O-L-E-S. Why the illustration of holes?
Jonathan: We know what it is to dig a hole, and we know that stuff comes out—it’s messy. How I talk about that in the book is that there are certain days on the calendar that dig up a lot of mess—
—whether it be how long it’s been since you’ve spoken to a parent, whether it be since your child died, whether it be—whatever it is, there are days on the calendar that really unearth things that we wish would stay hidden.
Bob: One of those days for you happened when you were seven years old?
Jonathan: Yes; my dad left, and I don’t remember much of that specific day. All I remember was, from eight, moving into this random apartment, realizing he wasn’t down the hall/realizing my mom and my sister shared a room—just having to move out and seeing his things go.
I think one of the things I talk about in the book is—there’s so much space that accumulates when a parent leaves. It’s not just their place at the dinner table—it’s their toothbrush is gone, half of the closet has been cleaned out, there’s space in the bed next to my mom, there’s space in the driveway.
I remember not having to back up two cars to play basketball—only backing up one car; only waiting for one car to come home—just an absence, I think, that you realize, “This isn’t happening,” but you don’t realize it until you experience the normalcy that your friends are experiencing.
Jonathan: I was sharing, with a friend the other day, that the absence is only abnormal until you know what is normal.
Bob: Right. Was there not a time when your mom and dad got you and your siblings together and said: “Dad’s moving out. This is a separation that is going to be for awhile. We think it’s best for you and for us”? Was that not a family meeting that you had?
Jonathan: It was. I remember writing an article for the ERLC about how that was communicated—
—as that was what was best for me, that that was best for our family, that that was what was best for my mom. The whole time that I sat there and listened to that, as I took it in, I kind of felt like, “Is this what’s best for you?”
As you experience life and your reality shifts, so much of what is now normal to you and you understand what you’re experiencing—financial hardship, having to wear my sister’s soccer cleats for my baseball season, not getting prayed with, not getting coached, not getting taught things—it starts to really add up; and you think, “Was this the best thing?”
Dennis: Had you noticed that your parents weren’t getting along?—as a little boy, you know—through the ages three, four, five, six—just being a child, hanging around the house and noticing there’s a tension? Were you absorbing that, as a little boy, growing up?
Jonathan: I don’t know if I was absorbing it, but I definitely noticed. I noticed that the camaraderie that my parents shared, the way they spoke to one another, the way we spent time together—it was not as enjoyable or fun-filled. There was this—just tension that was there that I did—for the longest time, I thought, “This is just normal.”
Dennis: I think there are a lot of things we take for granted, just by virtue of presence/two people being there—be in a conversation/be face to face—I don’t hear you having experienced that. The result of that is, indeed, a hole; it’s a gap; it’s a deficit—that you have to decide how you’re going to fill that hole/patch that hole—deal with that hole, going forward.
How have you been tempted to deal with those holes/those gaps that you experienced as you looked at your friends’ families and saw what normal was?
Jonathan: The first hole was identity: “Is there something wrong with me? Do I need to fix myself? Do I need to be a different person? Do I need to go do these things?”
There was a lot of talk, growing up, of measuring me and my failings, as the youngest, to my siblings. That turned to, in high school—whether it would be alcohol/drugs—I just wanted to be noticed by my dad. I thought, “If I do something wrong and he comes and disciplines me…” / “If he gets called to address some things that I’ve done wrong…”—him addressing my disobedience—at least, I’m being noticed by him.
Bob: That happened when you were 15; right?
Bob: Tell everybody what happened.
Jonathan: I was in ninth grade. I had gotten caught for drinking with my friends. My mom, on the way home from church—she was at church/at choir practice, and she was sharing with her friends how thankful she was that I was abstaining and not giving in to peer pressure and doing things I shouldn’t. Somebody approached her, after choir, and said, “I think you need to sit down with Jonathan and talk to him, because he’s telling you a very different story than what I’ve heard.”
She comes and gets me out of youth [group] and says: “Get in the car. We’re going home.” It was the most silent car ride, so we didn’t say anything. We got home, and I told her everything that happened. She said, “You have to call your dad.” I was terrified. There had been some things, earlier in childhood, that made me terrified of angering him. I called him, and I had to tell him what was going on and what I did.
He said: “Well, I can’t say I’m not disappointed. I just wish you would have done it with me first.”
Bob: —“gone drinking with me”?
Jonathan: Yes; there was no punishment; there was no lecture—he just kind of hung up. I just remember feeling, “Do I not have that value to you?—to be disciplined—to correct—to protect?” Because it’s just like the commandments with the Lord. When He puts laws on us/when He tells us what to do, it’s not because He’s trying to restrict us; it’s because we are valuable to Him. If you have a guitar/if you have a very nice possession, you don’t let anybody handle it. You put restrictions on how it is handled. I felt like, in that moment, there was just no concern for me.
Bob: We need to create a context for all of this. Your dad moved out when you were eight years old?
Bob: You and your siblings and your mom moved into a small apartment; money was now tight.
Your dad came back, awhile later—
Jonathan: Yes; he came back, and we were very excited. We thought life was returning to normal. We actually—my sister carved this wooden headstone and wrote my dad’s name on it. We went in the woods and nailed this tombstone to a tree. It was this symbolic act, as a family, that his old life was now gone—that this was his new direction, as a dad. He had started to come back to church and doing all this stuff; and we thought: “This is it! We’re on the uphill.”
Dennis: How much time had passed from the time he left to the time he came back with this apparent renewal?
Jonathan: Maybe six months to a year.
Bob: So, when he came back—when the headstone was planted, when you think things are going to be returning now to how it’s supposed to be: there are two cars in the driveway again and his toothbrush is in the bathroom now—
—tension started to re-emerge in the relationship pretty quickly?
Jonathan: I don’t know if it was quickly. You know, when you look back, this long ago, it’s hard to see the positives that stick out. I know, when he came back, we experienced one Christmas at my grandma’s house in South Carolina, where he came with us to Christmas again. That was the last time that his Christmas stocking was hanging from the mantel, so I was in fifth grade at the time.
You were speaking about presence earlier, Dennis. My dad was always great at giving gifts, and surprising us, and doing these things. I just love the word-play there that exists in the role of a parent. A parent can give presents; but if a parent doesn’t have presence, the former presents don’t make any—they’re not important.
Dennis: I want to go back for a moment to the wooden tombstone to symbolize his coming home—that a new era was in place. Did you go with your sister to—
Jonathan: Oh, we all were there.
Dennis: Your mom?
Jonathan: Yes; we all walked in the woods together.
Dennis: What do you remember feeling as that was occurring?
Jonathan: I was excited. It was almost like that was the gift I really wanted: “This is really happening.”
Dennis: Hope was renewed.
Jonathan: Hope; life; and I would say what I craved most, as a kid, was normalcy. Now, I am not the oddball in my class. It was very public what was happening in my family, and I was probably one of two kids in my class that had a family like that. I felt very different; I felt like I couldn’t relate. I remember a teacher taking me just by the hand, after school one day, and saying, “You realize the things you are wrestling with are things that your friends probably will never have to think about in their lifetime?”
Dennis, that kind of hope—where you’re also waiting for the shoe to drop—I would say that is where it started for me. That return, that then meant nothing, has now shaped my entire life on how I view positive situations.
Dennis: You mention in your book that you had a desire for your dad to show up in armor/in battle gear to protect you, and your mom, and your family and to do battle on behalf of you all. I don’t have a category for that—
Dennis: —I mean, that you didn’t get the armor-bearer; but instead, were disappointed yet again. How did you process that?
Jonathan: I think I just thought I was making a bigger deal of it than it actually was.
And maybe how I was being affected—why I was so sad/why I was angry—I was actually, probably, hopeless, thinking, “This happened; but then, now he’s gone again.” The things that were said to me—you know, it was just kind of: “Hey, we have to keep going. We have to move on.”
Bob: You did what a lot of kids do in this situation; and that is, you assumed: “The problem must be me. There’s something wrong here. Maybe the reason my dad doesn’t want to be around is because I’m defective. Maybe the reason all of this is happening is because I’m overreacting.” Instead of thinking, “I’m in a broken world, and this is not how life’s supposed to be,” you were thinking, “I guess I’m the problem.”
When did you become aware, the second time, that your dad wasn’t staying around? Did you just show up and he was gone?—or were you aware that Dad was going to leave tomorrow, or next week, or something?
Jonathan: My mom told me. I remember she was washing dishes at the sink, and she told me that it was over.
I remember this vividly—of tugging her hand and just being like: “Why? No! Again? This is happening again? No! This isn’t going to happen!” I was confused: “Didn’t we move into this house—didn’t we come back here for things to be okay?”
But up to this point—here’s what’s crazy about that. By the time I was tugging her hand, there were several instances where things had gotten out of hand. There was one night, where my dad just was really upset about something; and so we had to go over to the neighbors’ house and not be there when he visited. There were some times, where my mom’s things were tossed out.
It’s interesting to think that, as a kid, even though you see those things, you’d rather keep the presence, and keep the tension, and keep the whatever that is as long as you’re not ostracized again—
—as long as there’s not a physical representation of: “I’m different,” “Now I know that you really don’t care, because you’re not here.” If you’re here and you’re just engaging with me—fussing at me; saying you’re disappointed in me—I’m still in your life, at some point, and you have to continue to revisit me every day. You have to come home to me. But if you’re not here, then you can do whatever you want and say, “Bye.”
Dennis: I’m listening to your story of your journey; and I’m thinking: “Man, we have a ton of listeners, right now, who are revisiting some of their own choices; and a whole other group that were impacted—adult children of divorce—or some teenagers who are in a car, right now, and they’re reflecting; and they’re trying to sort out all of what they’re thinking.”
As you were talking, I was going—you know, we’ve said, here, on FamilyLife Today that divorce is not a solution; it’s an exchange of problems. A lot of people, I think, do get a divorce for the purpose of bringing peace to their own lives/to their family and think that this is going to bring peace. And yet, what I hear you describing is really the aftershocks of an earthquake that didn’t occur once, but twice. You’re now in your 30s; it’s been a long time, but the aftershocks continue.
Jonathan: The aftershocks of being left and being abandoned are very different than the aftershocks of being completely forgotten about and not even talked to. I think there is an aftershock of: “Hey, my dad’s not here. I’m visiting him on the weekends,” “Hey, I’m going to wherever; and having weekends and experiences with him.” He’s still in my life, at some point/to some degree.
There’s a different kind of wrestling that happens with that than the wrestling that occurs when he just refuses to speak to you and just communicates that level of value: “You are of so little value to me that, not only am I not in your life, I don’t even want to talk to you.”
I don’t know if there are people listening that have that going on, but I would say there is a different pain that comes from being left than the pain that comes with being completely forgotten about.
Bob: So, from the time your dad moved out the second time—when you were 11 through the time you were in high school and into early college—you had regular interaction with him.
Jonathan: Yes; we had a great relationship, whatever that could be.
I would visit him. He would come to some football games; he would experience some of my life. I would take friends to see him. But then, when I was a freshman in college, that was the last time I spoke to him.
Bob: That’s been 14 years.
Jonathan: Fourteen years.
Dennis: We’ll talk more about that story and hear how that came about; but I have a profound sadness that I feel for you, as a man. You’re now married—have a wife, named Katherine—have to be thinking about your own family, if God blesses, can start having children—the responsibility.
I can’t help but think, Bob, of our interview with Josh McDowell—how he decided to take the wounds—you call them holes, but he called them wounds—that his father had inflicted upon him, and he decided he was going to be a different man. He was going to face forward and continue to grow around the stuff that he saw in the rearview mirror.
He decided he was going to face forward and make a better impact on his wife/his family, going forward.
I have to believe, Bob, we’re talking to people today who are also at a pivot point. Will they look forward and do the right thing?—or will they continue looking out the rearview mirror at what never was and perhaps what never will be?—not to diminish that in any way—but to live by faith and ask God to use them and use these wounds to help other people.
Bob: And part of looking forward may involve stepping back into the pain of the past—
Bob: —which, Jonathan, is what you’ve done. Writing this book took you back into the process, emotionally and theologically, what you went through.
I don’t think somebody can fully look forward until they’ve wrestled with and come to some conclusions—maybe not final conclusions—but done some processing around the pains that those holes in your life can leave.
I can imagine a lot of people will get a copy of your book, Left, and read it and go: “This is my story. I’ve experienced this as well,”—whether they’re men or women/whether it was a mom or a dad who left—but that sense of estrangement is profound in our lives, as adults.
Dennis: I would just encourage the listener, who does do that—get the book—that perhaps they think about maybe forming a small group that might meet for three months, six months, or a year with others who have maybe experienced something similar. I think these kind of wounds really demand that we do it in community—a community of faith—someone who can offer hope at the right moment but, also, offer salve and comfort for those wounds as well.
Bob: Yes; Jonathan’s book is called Left, and the subtitle is The Struggle to Make Sense of Life When a Parent Leaves. We have copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go, online, to FamilyLifeToday.com to order a copy; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY. So again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; the phone number: 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-FL-TODAY. And the title of the book by Jonathan Edwards is Left: The Struggle to Make Sense of Life When a Parent Leaves.
I think for all of us, as husbands and wives, when we hear a story like this, we’re reminded of the fact that our marriage matters, not just to us, but it matters to our kids; it matters to our community; it matters in our culture. We need to be doing everything we can to invest in the strength and health of our marriage.
When we get sideways one another, when there’s anger, or when there are challenges in our marriage, we need to address those and work to find reconciliation, and peace, and to come back together as a couple.
One of the things we’re doing, here at the start of the new year, is encouraging couples to begin a habit that will help build a stronger bond between the two of you. That’s the habit of praying together daily. Our team has put together a series of daily prayer prompts—seven days of emails that we’ll send to you—that will give you a little nudge to pray together and help direct you with some things to pray about, as a couple/some Scripture to talk about. The whole thing may take two or three minutes; but listen, you’ll be amazed at how that two or three minutes together in your relationship connects the two of you as it connects both of you with God.
We’d love to send these prayer prompts out to you. All you have to do is sign up—give us your email address. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link that says “Better Together.”
We’ll get you started getting your prayer prompts and helping you build a new discipline/a new habit in your marriage relationship.
And we hope you can join us back, again, tomorrow when Jonathan Edwards will be here again to talk about the impact that his father leaving had on him, as a young man, growing up. In fact, we’ll hear about the reunion that took place when you were in college that did not go particularly well. I hope you can be here for all of that tomorrow.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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