My parents have been divorced since I was 8 years old – that’s 19 years now. Within two decades, I’ve moved from Ghim Moh, to Jalan Besar, back to Ghim Moh, to Bishan Street 13, then to Bishan Street 11 and finally, I’m back at Ghim Moh (same block, same storey, just seven units away). Just as I’ve changed addresses, my mentality towards this increasingly common social phenomenon has also shifted as I matured in age, wisdom and spirituality. Did I ever wish that I came from a “normal” family? Yeah, of course I did – why not? But would I trade my family and upbringing for a “normal” one? Not a chance.
There are many things I’ve learnt in these years and over time I’ll share my insights. But tonight, I felt led to share about an often misunderstood subject – roles – especially the roles of a son and a brother, for that’s what I’m most familiar with. (This post is not a testimony of my journey as a single-parent kid for if I were to document God’s grace and goodness to my family, it could only be contained in a book.)
Two of God’s greatest gifts in my life reside with me – my mother and sister. I’d be the first to admit that we’re a dysfunctional family – try removing a pivotal figure (i.e. a father) from a family cluster, and see if this family can function normally; I am confident that their definition of “normal” would be rewritten many times over, just like mine was. And so I’ve already grown accustomed to how life would be “unfair”. I’ve stopped lamenting a while ago and I’ve gotten over my emo days as a rebellious teenager who got angry at just about anything and everything. Each of you are at a different stage of your journey in a single-parent family and the sooner you realise that life is (or will be) different, and the sooner you come to terms with the “what-did-I-do-to-deserve-this” phase, the lighter your load becomes.
First up, to the sons (or daughters):
Are you playing “husband” to your mother? Do you sometimes catch yourself sitting beside her to listen to her woes like a caring husband would? Do you spend time with her hoping that you’d fill the void that was created by your father? Do you spoil her with gifts in hope that she’d feel pampered like an adored wife? May I humbly request, from experience, that you stop role-playing? Let me explain.
For the longest time, I found myself (subconsciously or consciously) playing the role of a husband to my mother. Sometimes out of responsibility and sometimes out of sympathy. I felt like it was my duty as the son who bears the surname of her husband to fill the void in her life created by my father; I simply wanted to replace a husband’s absence. I won’t share why their marriage didn’t work out, but I have learnt to accept that their failure had nothing to do with me. Similarly, I’d say the same thing to you – you had nothing to do with your parents’ divorce – so stop blaming yourself and stop doing things out of obligation or duty. It’s an unwarranted burden to shoulder and you’d be better off not carrying it. Remember, like it or not, no matter what you do, you will never fill the void in her life that was vacated by her husband. Simply put, you will never become her husband. Case closed. So stop trying.
Next, to the brothers (or sisters), especially those who are firstborns:
Are you trying to “father” your younger sibling? Do you sometimes find yourself scolding and disciplining your sister, like strict and stern father would? Do you dispense advice to her, like a wise father would? Do you get riled up whenever she gets bullied, like a protective father would? Do you shower her with presents, like a doting father would? Do you act fatherly so that she could experience what it feels like to be “Daddy’s girl”? Again, if I may humbly request, for her good and for your own good, please stop role-playing. Let me explain.
I found myself playing the role of a father to my younger sister. I would chide her harshly when she made mistakes and I’d demand respect from her just like my father would. When we were younger, I imposed restrictions on her and curtailed some of her activities because I felt that it was my duty to playing the role of the missing father at home. Before she started earning her own income, I would, from time to time, bring her out on shopping sprees because I didn’t want her to feel like she had no one to dote on or spend lavishly on her. But I realised that no matter what I did, I could never become my sister’s “Papa”. I could never pinch her cheeks or rub her face against my bearded face, like my father could. I could never give her that nod of approval, like my father could. And no matter how many times I told her that I was proud of her, I could never make her feel the pride of a father.
And so, whether I liked it or not, no matter what I did, I could never fill the void in her life that was vacated by my father. Simply put, I could never become her father. Case closed. So I stopped trying. And you should too, if you are still at it. You have limitations – learn to accept them.
Freedom comes when you realise that you need not play more than what your role demands of you to do. Many years ago, I arrived at the tipping point of frustration in my family. It was over a casual lunch at IKEA that the Holy Spirit spoke through CX and that caused a breakthrough in my roles in the family. I remember to this day her golden words. She simply said (with that legendary CX-stare), “Joey, I want you to stop playing the role of a husband and a father.” It was an epiphany of sorts for me. I began to relinquish these roles that I’ve been unnecessarily playing over the past decade. And after a month of letting go, I felt lighter and less frustrated.
So I’d encourage you to relate to your single-parent or your sibling like a son or brother would. Make your mother feel like a 世上只有妈妈好 mother. Make your sister feel like a sister that everyone is proud of. Of course you can love them to the best of your abilities, but I’m telling you to care for your mother as a son would, buy gifts for your sister as a brother would, spend time with and listen to your mother’s complaints as a son would, and dispense advice and counsel to your sister as a brother would – you get the idea.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that you should tell your mother about your weekly victories and defeats – for that is something a son does. Be a “Mama’s boy”. Tell her about the people who treated you well and badly at work and proudly show off to her your accomplishments in the workplace and ministry. Allow her to share your burdens, even though you may think that she’s already heavy-laden and overloaded. She’s your mother and she will always care for and love you no matter how tough it gets for her, and nothing’s ever going to change her sacrificial behaviour. Your role then, if I could put it this way, is to reinforce her role as a mother and not substitute yourself as her husband. Make her feel like she’s the best mother in the world – make that your priority.
And for your sister, I’d also go as far as to say that you guide and advise her, and give her a platform to share her life with you – for that is something a brother does. Captivate her with your life stories, inspire her with your exemplary behaviour and make her laugh with your silly mistakes. Become the man that she’d benchmark her future boyfriend against. Be the brother that all younger sisters look up to and respect. In fact, you should also annoy and irritate her – for most brothers do that! It’s all part of being a brother! Your role then, if I could phrase it this way, is to reinforce her role as a sister and not substitute yourself as her father. Make her feel like she’s the best sister a brother could ever have or dream of – make that your priority.
In a day and age where marriages are wrecked by infidelity and financial woes, I can’t help but to believe that more and more of my youths will struggle with their parents being separated or divorced. My heart goes out to them, but I will say that it is not the end of the road – it wasn’t for me. Our God is a good God and His sovereign plan is something that we should come to love and trust. Let me set the record straight – a single-parent family is NOT the passport or excuse to a messed-up life; similarly, a normal family is also NOT the passport to a blessed life. My friend, your destiny is in your hands; it’s got nothing to do with your parents’ successes or failures. Now, get that in your head and start living your life for the glory of God – that’s my current and biggest priority.