Mattie Jo Cowsert
The Fourth Commandment
Updated: Jun 15, 2020
“Honor thy father and mother” - God (or Moses?) When people hear I’m the daughter of a pastor from a teeny town in the Midwest, their immediate question is usually “So what do your parents think of you?” When they read my blog, the question intensifies to “So have your parents disowned you yet?”
The questions are jarring, mostly. As I hope my parents would not “disown” me simply because I moved to a different part of the country, did a lot of things they’ve never done, and have questioned religious “truths.” Unfortunately, I think I’m lucky to be confused by these questions.
What I mean is, the parent-offspring relationship standard is that if you don’t live life exactly how your parents lived or abide by their exact beliefs, they will metaphorically abandon you aka stop taking interest in your life, stop speaking to you, only speak to you condescendingly, etc... The result is usually a kid who feels very limited in life and/or rebellious, but always always resentful. And will also probably develop daddy issues of sorts.
Parents are supposed to raise little whiny humans into big awesome humans. But I’m afraid most are really out to raise up big familiar clones. I was taught to honor my parents, but does that mean I have to be just like them?*
They don’t know this, but probably the hardest part of coming into my own in this whole “recovering Evangelical” process has been the fear of losing [my parents'] approval and love
*I’m not suggesting this problem only occurs in small town, religious homes. I have worked in many a household in New York City, and let me tell you, this pressure to be clones of our parents knows no religious identity or tax bracket. Rich kids are experiencing this Hell too. Just with more interviews at Ivy League schools and less freedom to “follow their dreams.”
If I’m being totally honest, I was indeed scared shitless my parents would lose interest in me as a human if I stopped aligning with their beliefs and worldview. The thought of not “honoring” them haunted me every time I asked a question about the validity of Christianity, scripture, and/or if masturbating was actually a sin. Not because I was scared of them, but because I really like them!
They don’t know this (I guess now they do. You reading, mom and dad?!), but probably the hardest part of coming into my own in this whole “recovering Evangelical” process has been the fear of losing their approval and love.
For starters, being a Christian is just part of being a Cowsert (at least in our branch of the Cowserts. Some of my extended family though, not so much. They're more Winter’s Bone, less Jesus Camp.) So if I wasn’t a Christian, could I even be a Cowsert? It sounds dramatic, but the fear was very real.
I know Mark and Val love me like, a whole lot. And not just because they say it or because parents are supposed to love their kids. But because some of my earliest memories are of them being exceptionally good at celebrating me and my individual quirks.
For example, I was an elementary school teacher’s nightmare because I talked incessantly and corrected my teacher’s grammar (I mean COME ON. You “seen” my dad at the store? Nah girl, you “saw” him.** Def got a timeout for that one). I excelled academically but always got my name on the board. My mom was a kindergarten teacher, so it was not exactly a good look for her kid to be a chatterbox-know-it-all. But I don’t remember getting into a ton of trouble over this at home (Or maybe I’m remembering wrong. Either way, I’m 28 and still get hella excited if a romantic interest uses an Oxford comma in their texts and isn’t totally exhausted by my frequent storytelling).
**That being said, I realize this blog is not grammatically perfect. So in order to preemptively avoid the criticism, please know my punctuation and structure is for a specific effect. Haters.
Maybe I didn’t get in much trouble because my dad was so elated to have a chatty kid after my older sister, The Mute (lookin at you A.C.). Maybe because my parents knew being smart and talkative was not a punishable offense. Or maybe they were just tired of parenting by their 4th kid. Who can know. Even if I am the result of a 4th-kid-parenting-tapout, great job mom and dad! I’m awesome! Go Oxford commas!
Through junior high my mom started showing her teeth to the faculty when my principal was legit bullying me. My dad let me try out for cheerleading even though I knew he thought it was a waste of my point-guard height on the basketball court. I once won an impromptu writing competition amongst a bunch of gifted and talented kids and couldn’t wait to get home and tell my dad. I knew he’d be so proud that these random ass thoughts of mine deserved a medal!
Well, my parents probably think I’m going to Hell, but they really like me. They’re enjoying our togetherness while it lasts #halfjoke
By high school I was so close with both of them, I dared not disappoint. I thought the world of my mom and dad and just wanted them to be proud of me. I wanted to be an exceptional daughter (Enneagram 4, anyone?). I graduated top of my class, played sports and participated in drama/choir, and promoted the shit out of See You At The Pole. Not to mention all those Bible studies I was in AND led. Good girl MVP over here.
By the time I moved to NYC at age 22, my parents and I had a good thing going. I knew they loved me, the good girl MVP. But what if I started to do things they wouldn’t love? Like have sex, stop going to church, or date Jews (oh my!). Would they still like me? Would they still take interest in my life? Would they still celebrate me like they’d always done?
The answer is yes, my parents still think I’m the bees knees. In fact, when I (jokingly) told my parents I might need a new purity ring because the diamond fell out and the metal is all bent, my dad said “Well, I think we can get you a new one!” And my mom said “Oh Mark don’t you think she’s a little past the purity ring thing?” Lol to their very clearly defined personalities in those responses. Also, phew! Thanks mom.
So I don’t abide by the religion with which I was raised, I publicly speak out about purity trauma/sex, and I have a forever underdeveloped filter. They still think I’m great. My parents don’t always have to understand or agree with me in order to intentionally love me.
Despite being super offended by these questions about parental abandonment, I usually decide to play it off with comedy and say some version of “Well, my parents probably think I’m going to Hell, but they really like me. They’re enjoying our togetherness while it lasts.” #halfjoke.
I recently read this quote by a famous therapist:
“Functional families allow for the individuality of each member. People are free to express their needs, their wants, and their feelings. Those expressions are met with respect and love.” - Katherine Woodward Thomas
And I thought “Hmm okay. Why isn’t ‘allow for individuality of each member of your family’ the fourth commandment, damn.” The answer, I assume, is because Moses was not in therapy. My vote is for Katherine Woodward Thomas to rewrite the fourth commandment and perhaps families would function better on the whole.
Take control of your life. We can’t blame our parents for everything forever
As I’ve grown into a different person than who my parents maybe thought I was going to be, I do have less in common with them. But Christian or not, my dad still thinks I’m hilarious. Virgin or not, my mom is still constantly wowed by my courage. Collectively, they love (as my dad says) how “full of life” I am and always have been. This much I know: My parents really do love the hell outta me (see what I did there?).
I guess I say all this because, if at the heart of Christianity is a God who supposedly loves us, deeply loves us, and wants us to love each other in the same way simply because we were created, why is that not what Christian parents are known for? Why instead are their gay and trans kids committing suicide at alarming rates? Why are generally liberal thinking adult offspring struggling to maintain a relationship with their parents because “the Bible says A, B, C…”? Why do people assume my parents have “abandoned” me for being different?
And I’m not saying things have been perfect with my parents. I’ve definitely had my fair share of therapy sessions figuring out how I’ve internalized shit from my childhood and then began creating a new narrative for myself as an adult. Which is also important, adult kids. Take control of your life. We can’t blame our parents for everything forever.
I’m just saying, being a parent is the hardest fucking job in the world which is probably why people are mostly shit at it. So I don’t take for granted that I’ve become a great adult person due to my parents always celebrating me in my pursuit of living my fullest life. Because they have, just like Jesus, loved me unconditionally. Because they showed me the best way to honor them is to be the best version of exactly who I was created to be.
And maybe that’s really all it takes, parents. Loving your kids like crazy and then minding your own beeswax. Unless they're like addicted to heroin or something and then maybe don't mind your own beeswax and schedule an intervention.