The Meaning of Children: In Our Image

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In May FDW is hosting a new series on  stories from people in all walks of life and their observations of children and what they make us. Click here for more on the series and a list of the contributors. This post was written by friend from seminary days, and absolutely one of my favorite writers and preachers, Matt Gough.

It happened after a really hard day.  My, then 6 year old, son had been especially nasty to his mother and I. He was caught in a downward spiral of irritation and vitriol that I had hoped I wouldn’t see until he was an angst-ridden teenager. As we tried to talk to him about his behavior, tell him how it made us feel and explain consequences, he melted down and began bemoaning ever being born.  While this was a tougher day, it wasn’t the first time he exhibited this attitude. It was becoming clear that this was a pattern, and as that fact sunk in, I went into my room and lost it.  I entered into what I can only describe as guilt-fueled grief. I was also angry that I never once thought it possible that my curse would be passed on to my children. Now I realized that having kids was one giant selfish gamble. I got mad at myself and I was mad at God too. I could forgive that my faith failed to fix me, but I wasn’t ready to forgive God for allowing my kids to be cursed.

I call it the “curse”. However, as a kid and young adult I didn’t call it anything, it was just who I thought I was. I have labels and diagnoses now, Persistent Depressive Disorder (changed from Dysthymia), and attention deficit. However growing up, the only labels I knew were: weak, lazy, loner, spaz, sensitive, shy, all compounded with the persistent thoughts that no one liked me and that I let them down. As a kid, I felt constant shame and guilt over who I was and about the ways I tried to make it better. No matter how hard I tried, how far I ran, or how fervently I believed, I could not escape the overwhelming sense that I was a disgusting failure of a human being to all who met me. I never trusted people’s words that said otherwise and if I did I felt like I was fooling them. I bounced between working hard to prove it wrong and resignedly living into it. It took me a long time to name this, let alone begin treating it in a healthy way.

As I considered that my son’s perpetual irritability may be a sign of a depressive disorder, I projected the 40 years of my struggle into his life and I couldn’t bear it. Part of my hope in having children was that they would have it different.

When I was able to climb out of my pit of despair I reminded myself of some important things: First, he is not me. He may have PDD, and he may not. He does not have my story. He has not suffered the contributing trauma I did nor is he growing up in the environment that I did.  Second, he has me. His father is now much more aware and attentive to how to treat and live with depression. Whatever his struggle may be, he has a father who will talk to him, one who will tell him his own story, one who will guide him. Lastly, he is of me. I had to learn to believe that this disorder does not negate all my positive traits, accomplishments, and abilities even though I didn’t feel that. He has inherited and learned some wonderful traits from his mother and father. No challenge or struggle will be allowed to overshadow those, as we will always be ready and armed with flashlights.

There is a persistent depressive disorder present in many theologies or Christian rhetoric. It never lets us forget that there is something wrong with us. Those that perpetuate this seem eager to name the curses of humanity and brand even what is good as despicable. No loving father would want his children to to think of themselves this way.  Instead, God laments the curses that blind us to love and cause us to struggle to see the beautiful image of God within. I will do whatever it takes to shine light in the places where curses cause shadows in my children’s lives, and this helps me to understand God’s heart all the more.


Matt GoughMatt Gough is a Presbyterian (USA) pastor and currently serves as the Head of Staff and Teaching Elder at First Presbyterian Church of Corvallis in Oregon (1stpres.org). He is a better man, pastor, father because of his spouse Christine Gough. The two of them have two sons ages 4 and 8, Andrew and Alex.

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