What Is a Normal Family?

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.—1 Corinthians 13:7

My husband came home from work one day and mentioned he had to go to my birthplace, Washington, D.C., on business for three days. Would I like to take the opportunity to go see my dad an hour outside town?

I had prayed for a chance to see him. It had been too long. We decided to rent a car and drive up, allowing me to commandeer the rental car to spend time with my dad in the country while my husband worked in the city.

On the long way north, I began to read Shawn Thornton’s book, All But Normal: Life on Victory Road, a story about the childhood chaos he experienced under a mother who had suffered a traumatic brain injury years earlier. Pastor Thornton wrote about how he had long been afraid to talk about what was happening in his home because no one would understand. But I do.

I would not talk about my mother’s struggles with mental illness and addiction until I had nearly reached adulthood. I was too ashamed. It was long after that when I told my father about the things that had happened in our home. He never suspected. He and my mother had separated when I was 6 weeks old, and she had forbidden visitation once I turned 2. My sister was allowed to go stay with him, but not me. Never me.

My father spent much of his childhood in an orphanage, so he never really learned how to connect in a family. But over the years, his heart has grown several sizes, and loneliness resulting from the death of his second wife has resulted in sentimentality. He freely gives hugs and kisses, and he freely tells me he loves me. Having never heard that from my mother, that is a priceless gift.

He is not a perfect father. Ours is not a normal family. How can it be after so many years of separation and after so much trauma on all sides? But it’s my family, and he’s my father, and that is worth everything.

Reading Pastor Thornton’s account of his childhood while reflecting on my own caused me to wonder what a normal family is. Like most people, I intended to give my kids a better life than I had. Through the Savior I had come to know, I intended to give them the unconditional love I had not known as a child. Try as I did to make our family a normal family, we somehow settled into our own cycle of dysfunction. Maybe that’s normal. But as I’ve heard it said, normal is a setting on a washing machine.

Maybe you, like Pastor Thornton, have longed for a normal family. Maybe you’ve tried, and failed, to establish your family on a better footing. I remember the treasured words of a wise older friend: “You can’t expect people to give you what they don’t have to give.” I have since sought to apply that with my father and with others in my life, and even with myself.

My father has given me what he has to give, and that is love. For me, that is enough. If we can give our children love through Jesus, that is more than enough. And no, that’s not normal.

2 thoughts on “What Is a Normal Family?

  1. Dennis says:

    Unfortunately, I have never met the Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, etc. type family in my many years upon this planet, but I have seen some who came close.

    Great article and one that hits home.

  2. Ann Marie says:

    Great article, Cheri!
    There is not one family that isn’t dysfunctional. Even seemingly “perfect” families are dysfunctional. There is no perfection outside of paradise. I like how your friend said, “You can’t expect people to give what they don’t have to give.” It is a lesson I am still learning. People can be hurtful, even family members.