Picture Perfect: Thoughts on Forgiveness, Family and the Future

A picture is worth a thousand words.

English language adage

Picture This.

This is my “family photo” from Julia’s graduation.

It is not the family photo I envisioned taking with my family. The one planned out in my head looked quite different.

Originally, I wanted all five of our young adult children in the picture, each one holding a chalkboard sign with the year they finished high school, from Maddie and Joel who finished in 2018 to Julia who is part of the Class of 2021.

Jon and I would hold signs too. His with the words, “Finally our nest is empty!” My sign would read, “Officially Retired Homeschool Mom.

In my mind’s eye, I could clearly see all of us, standing close together with big smiles. The image in my head was sentimental yet cute, trendy yet witty. It would definitely be a social media worthy photo.

Unfortunately, that photo was also not meant to be.

None of our kids were eager to take a photo in the first place. There were various comments and complaints from the oldest right down to the graduate herself. At best, they were an ambivalent, uncommitted group who didn’t seem to appreciate their mother’s sense of humor..

One day as I washed up the lunch dishes, I asked myself, “It it worth it to try to beg and plead just to get this photo?” As much as I loved the idea of that cute photo in my head, I also didn’t really want to have to convince my mostly grown children to do this one thing just for me. The truth was I wanted them to want to do it too. I wanted them to share in my excitement. Unfortunately, I could tell that really wasn’t the case.

I told Jon, “I really don’t want to have to beg our kids to take a special photo for me, because then every time I look at it I will remember how no one really wanted to be there. Furthermore, the last thing I want is a picture of a bunch of fake smiles because I don’t want us to just look like a happy family. I want us to actually be a happy family. I’m not sure this a photo where I had to force people into participating will truly reflect that.”

Jon understood my perspective, and so it was decided that we would just take a picture of whoever could be with us — and we would definitely not use any cute or trendy chalkboard signs.

A Well-Captured Photo

Obviously, the above photograph looks nothing like the family picture I originally envisioned. Yet, I am not unpleased with the way this photo turned out either.

Why? Because this picture is worth a thousand words.

A long time ago, in what feels like another lifetime, I was married to a different man.

My heart shattered into a million little pieces when our marriage ended. The young lady proudly wearing the cap and gown had just celebrated her 4th birthday. She cannot even remember a time when her mom and dad lived in the same house.

Over the years, with a lot of counseling, the intense grief subsided and my heart began to heal. And yet, forgiveness didn’t come easily to my wounded heart. I wanted to forgive, but the struggle to actually do it was hard and real.

When the graduate was still a little girl of just 7 years old, I remarried. While my new husband certainly brought a lot of joy into my life, being married again didn’t help me forgive my former spouse. I wanted to forgive. I prayed about a lot about forgiving. But my wounded heart still struggled to let it all go.

You’ve probably heard it said, “Forgive and forget.” Logically it seems like forgetting would be the more difficult part of that process, but for me forgetting actually came much easier than forgiving! For periods of time, I would actually forget about the pain of unforgiveness in my heart, which oddly enough fooled me into believing I had also forgiven my ex-husband. Unfortunately, just as soon as I saw him in person again those old wounds felt fresh all over again.

Forgiveness might lead to forgetting, but forgetting doesn’t mean that you’ve actually done any forgiving.

I complained to my counselor about my inability to forgive my former husband. “Detach yourself,” she said. I wasn’t exactly sure how to detach from someone you have to be around as you co-parent your children, but I decided it couldn’t hurt to try.

And so I pulled back. My kids were teens anyway. It was easy enough to just step back and let them handle their own interactions with their father. The more I detached, the more I wanted to detach. The distance grew and I suddenly discovered I felt less stress and worry than I had in years. This detachment idea was working!

But unfortunately, every time I saw my ex-husband in person, my heart felt all bruised again. Forgiveness seemed awful slow in coming.

As the months passed by, my counselor remained full of advice:

  • Give it some time. You have been holding onto the pain for a long time. It’s not going away by tonight either.
  • Practice focusing on your positive attitudes and emotions. What you spend your time thinking about will influence the way you feel.
  • As much as possible, let your children manage their relationship with their father. Your main goal is detaching.

Due to his military career, my children only see their dad a few times a year. Furthermore, for the past couple of years, he had opted to fly the kids to visit him in Kansas instead of traveling down to see them in Louisiana. As my daughter’s graduation approached, I wondered how seeing him in person would make me feel. After his last visit, I could tell that in spite of all my work on detaching and letting go, I had still not truly forgiven him. Even though I hadn’t seen him in over two years, I sort of assumed it would be the same this time around, too.

My ex-husband was due to arrive in town the day before graduation. As it happened, I was out running errands when he showed at my house well before lunch. Jon sent me a text to let me know, stating, “I told him to make himself at home.”

When I walked in the door, the first thing I noticed was he was doing exactly that. My former husband was sitting on the sofa, talking and laughing with his children and completely enjoying himself in my home. For the entire weekend my ex-husband spent most of his time hanging out with our family. It surprised me that I didn’t feel put out by his presence.

On Sunday morning, my kids left for a week of vacation with their dad. As I waved them off, I realized I had just spent the majority of the weekend in the presence of my ex-husband, and yet emotionally I felt okay. No annoyance. No anger or bitterness. My emotions were totally in check and I felt in control of myself, instead of being strung out or tied up in knots like I normally felt after interacting with him..

For half a moment, I wondered if maybe I had actually forgiven him … but I still felt too uncertain to believe it could finally be true. And since we were also in the midst of moving house, I truly didn’t think much more about it over the next several days.

A week passed before the graduation photos came back. The very first picture in the digital file sent by the photographer was my family photo. I clicked to open it up, feeling excited to see the photos of our special day, and yet as the picture loaded on my computer screen, all I could do was stare in amazement.

How could I have not noticed at the time the photo was being taken that my ex-husband was standing right there? As we all crowded around my daughter, I didn’t even see that he was standing in the group too?

I pondered this for a second, and then looked to see if we had taken another group photo with just my family. Nope. Just the one big group picture.

The strange thing I noticed was not only did my ex-husband not seem out of place in the photo, but there was no rush of negative emotion within me about having him included in my family photo either.. While both of these things certainly surprised me, what I noticed next surprised me even more.

Before graduation, all I wanted a family picture where the people in it weren’t faking smiles. I wanted a truly happy photograph — one where I wouldn’t look back and remember how I had to work hard cajoling people to participate. In fact, I wanted it so much, that I willingly gave up all my plans to try to force it happen.

And the end result was this unexpected photo, where everyone looks happy to be together. There are no fake smiles here! In fact, I’m willing to bet that if you didn’t know the backstory, you might just think all the people in this photo were part of one big, happy family who had gathered to celebrate a person they all loved.

The more I stared at that amazing picture, the more it dawned on me that my focus was finally right — and that’s when I knew forgiveness had come at last.

Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends.

Proverbs 17:9

A Picture with Words

An idea for a new picture came to me two days before graduation, sort of a spin off from my original idea.

At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it but when I mentioned it to Jon, he said I should go for it.

With a little bit of hesitancy, I asked my graduate what she thought. When she said she would be delighted to take the photo with me, I think I nearly fainted. I was hoping for just an ambivalent agreement. Instead, she gave me her full enthusiasm.

I already had the chalkboards and the chalk marker. I just needed to find the time to pull it all together. Even though I had a million small task to complete on my graduation to-do list, I happily added the words “make chalkboard signs” to it.

Late on the night before graduation, I sat down and wrote out my three simple chalkboard messages.

The first for my daughter: “I’m done! Class of 2021”

The second for Jon: “College costs more than homeschool.”

And the last one for me: “Officially Retired Homeschool Mom”

Immediately after our family group photo, I asked the photographer please take a second picture. This time it was just the three of us … me and Jon and Julia … posing together for a picture.

And this time, the photo captured a thousand words wrapped up in my heart. It was the perfect combination of sentimental and witty; creative and silly. It’s probably even social media worthy.

Even though it is not my original idea, it’s still close enough so that it made my heart smile, intentionally and creatively demonstrating my personal decision to embrace the end of one season in anticipation of the next.

Finally, I didn’t have to beg or console anyone else to go along with my idea.

Win-Win-Win!

Life in Proper Focus

My counselor once told me I needed to practice embracing reality, regardless of whether I liked my reality or not.

Like it or not, as of May 8th, I am no longer a homeschool mother. The end of this part of my life has been coming for a long, long time. Therefore, I might as well embrace it with as much grace as I can muster.

The truth is part of my issue with unforgiveness was the fact that I felt forced into being a single mother, as if everything I ever loved about my life was stolen from me. I couldn’t see how things would ever feel right again.

I could have accepted the reality of what was happening, choosing instead to embrace the new gifts God placed in my life. But I didn’t, and that inability to accept reality cost me 14 years of pain in my own heart.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Ephesians 4:32

Once again, I’m being forced to leave behind one season of life and head into the next.

Whether I like it or not, many things I have loved and treasured about my current life are coming to a swift end. I can choose to kick and scream or moan and cry, but I cannot stop what is happening. My past experience tells me that if I choose to focus on this negatively, I will only prolong the pain of moving forward.

This time, I’m determined to embrace the next season as an adventure, even though it means I leave must behind what I once loved so dearly in order to step into a reality that I do not yet know.

As I gave Julia her high school diploma, I encouraged her with the following scripture:

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Ephesians 2:10

You see, my daughter freely admits to feeling somewhat anxious about heading out to college in the fall.

“Mom,” she said to me recently, “I love my current life — my part-time job, hanging with my friends, taking long walks in our neighborhood, cuddling with my dog in bed every night. Every time I think about going away to college, I get sad because I’m going to miss so much about life right now!

Who can blame her for not wanting to trade a life she loves for something new and unknown?

She’s not alone in her anxiety.

I am anxious about upcoming changes too. Suddenly I’m not going to be a homeschool mom, which means my whole world is turning upside down. Part of me is jealous of my daughter. At least she knows that she is going to college. I still have no idea what my next season includes!

But I can choose to willingly embrace this time in my life because God already prepared it for me. He knows my life’s path and I can walk in it with Him, knowing that He is going to be there with me through every twist and turn.

So the truth is, I picked this Bible verse for me too!

Here’s to a new seasons — to accepting the reality of my life, to forgiving myself and others, to moving forward into the unknown, and to embracing all that is to come.

Most of all, here’s to knowing God walks with us so we are never alone.

Refuse to worry about tomorrow, but deal with each challenge that comes your way, one day at at time.

Matthew 6:34 (The Passion Translation)

A Letter to My Graduate

Dear Julia,

You are my surprise blessing.

In 2003, I was already a mother of two small boys. Another baby was the last thing on my mind. But God knew I needed a third child.

A few months later I was both surprised and delighted when the doctor said you were a girl. I was certain you were going to be another baby boy, but God knew I needed a little girl and so He gave me you.

After you were born, I was surprised at how different you were from your big brothers. You didn’t sleep through the night for the entire first year of your life, didn’t walk until you were nearly a year and a half old, and didn’t talk much at all (except for the word NO) until after your 3rd birthday. 

As you grew, the surprises continued – for example, I was surprised how the same little girl I didn’t think would ever learn to talk had to sit at a table all by herself in 1st grade because she wouldn’t stop talking to her classmates.

When you were in jr. high, you surprised me by suddenly becoming a vegetarian – and then I was even more surprised when you stuck with that diet for several months.

I could tell a lot of stories about how you’ve surprised me over the years. In fact, you surprise me so much that now I feel surprised when you aren’t surprising me!

But Julia, as surprising as you are to me, it’s important to know that you’ve never once taken God by surprise. Not one single time.

You see, God didn’t just decide on a whim in 2002 to create you.   

The Bible says in Ephesians chapter 1 verse 4 that God chose you as His own before the foundation of the world. For something to be chosen means it must be known because logically you can’t choose something if you don’t know it. Julia, this means that before God spoke the sun and the moon and the stars into existence, He already knew you. You were not a mystery to God.

Furthermore, the same God who knew you before the foundation of the world, created you in His image.

Ephesians 2:10 says that you are God’s workmanship. Another word for workmanship is masterpiece. Often, we talk about things like sunsets, mountain peaks, or Saturn’s rings as being God’s masterpieces, and yet the Bible never refers to any part of nature God’s masterpiece.  That title goes to you and me! Only humans were created in the image of the Creator.

A masterpiece is not just any old thing thrown together, rather it’s created with great care and intention. That’s exactly how God created you …  with intention. He gave you those beautiful green-gray eyes and your contagious laugh, and even though all your pediatricians said that based on your childhood growth charts you were going to be a very tall person, God ensured you would stop growing at 5 feet 3 ½ inches because that was exactly how tall He wanted you to be.

God took as much care creating your personality as He did with your physical features. He was the One who put that love for all animals in your heart and He gave you an overabundance of creativity. Julia, you are exactly who God intended for you to be.

But God just didn’t choose you before the foundation of the world or create you with intention, God also gave you a destiny.

The second half of Ephesians 2:10 says that you created for good works which God prepared beforehand so that you should walk in them.

For us, the future is unknown., Anything that is unknown has a way of making us feel anxious, and that’s why going into a new season of life can feel scary. And yet, God who knew you from before time began and created you to be a unique reflection of Himself, has also promised that He has a good plan for your life.

It’s important remember is that God isn’t orchestrating your life as you live it. He doesn’t wake up each morning and willy-nilly throw together things for you to do, nor does He let you go along doing your own thing until you run into problems and then step in with a solution. Instead, Julia, God planned every single detail of your life out beforehand, from the big moments to the small ones. He even planned out that you would be right here on this stage at this very moment receiving your high school diploma!  

That’s why as you think about your future, you can trust God already knows everything that will happen to you. And girl, if God’s got all the tiny details planned out, then you can trust He’s got it all under control too. No need to fret or worry!  

Proverbs 31 verse 25 says, “She laughs without fear of the future.”  My sweet girl, as you head out into this great big world of God’s, this is my prayer for you. The future is bright. Go with confidence.

God’s got this … and He’s got you too!

Love, Mom