How I Left My Parents’ Home

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on September 2, 2013.

Several people have asked me about actually leaving my parents. It’s kind of hard to explain exactly what happened, because there was not one day when I decided to leave.

When I was 16, I was still attending a conservative church with my parents. In my family we were still expected to wear head coverings all the time, but the church we attended only expected them in churches. So in December of 2004 (when I was 16) I decided to stop wearing one at all – to me you either follow that verse 100% or not at all, and I wasn’t going to be the only one. I also secretly purchased jeans and changed into them on rare occasions when I was allowed out with church friends.

The summer of 2005 around my 17th birthday, I went for a week to visit my very secular grandparents in another province. They asked me some questions about what I wanted to do for a career.

I had not been asked that question, as my destiny was to get married and be a homeschooling mom even though I didn’t want that.

My grandparents mentioned that I couldn’t go to university without a high school diploma, and explained that I probably couldn’t even get a GED with how little schooling I’d had. This was news to me since I’d always been told our way was the best way to do anything, but it had the ring of truth.

When I got home, I looked into schools. I found I needed to have parental signatures to attend at age 17, so I privately convinced and cajoled my mom to sign, which she did, although it is my belief that she thought I would give up. My father refused to sign when he found out, and no one told him my mom signed, and the school accepted one signature and none for the bus (as I recall) because by then my mom was too scared to sign anything else. What is confusing about this is that in the summer my father drove me to take an ACT test (useless in Canada) which seemed to encourage academia, but it was with a bunch of homeschoolers so maybe it was the in thing to do for homeschoolers.

Miraculously my parents did not physically prevent me from going to school on the first day, I think because they knew it would probably be noticed if I didn’t go after all the trouble to sign up and get placed into many different classes across all four high school grades. I was expected to wear dresses. That lasted for a few weeks, and then I pulled out the secret pants. My parents tried to force me to change but I refused, and I ran out to catch the bus in a whirlwind of shame.

I quickly made friends with Christian kids at school that were mostly my age, some a bit younger. Two friends I made were sisters, and I would go to their house sometimes for ‘homework projects’. We were on the same bus route so it was easy to do, and their parents drove me home if they asked.

I was invited by other friends to a youth group at a mainstream Pentecostal church. I asked my parents for permission and they said yes sometimes and no sometimes and sometimes would drive me and other times refused when it was too late to find another ride. This was about November.

During this time I opened up a bit to the family I mentioned above with the two sisters. Once at their house I mentioned how hopeless life was with my family and that I was very upset (I didn’t really know what depression was). They told their parents, and somehow I ended up staying at their house for the weekend and just never went home (about November or early December 2005). I know that their dad went to several meetings with my dad and his church friends, and the consensus from my dad’s angle was that at 17, CAS would not force me to return home and it was better not to get the police involved to try and get me back since I was too far gone in rebelliousness anyways, and CAS might take a hard look at seven younger children who were not attending school.

I was able to get a few things from my parents’ home, but my father didn’t waste any time to completely pack up my room, junking most of it and putting lots of my stuff into the damp garage. I basically started life over with the family, I continued going to school, getting decent grades, going to church and youth group, and spending time with friends.

I’ve never really talked publicly about this before, but I need to talk about mental health here. I believe that I spent my first 17 years in some kind of survival state of mind. When I got out and was living with another family, I experienced a whole different lifestyle. The parents worked and provided for the family. I had a few chores like some laundry and dishes, but my job as a student was to do school.

There was also this whole unconditional love bit, and for the most part the emotional state of others in the home was predictable.

Children got pats on the back for doing something well. There was a certain expectation for behaviour and no one really crossed it- it just wasn’t optional. There were no out of control behaviours, because they were taught how to behave when they were younger.

One big problem I had was that I was so used to being told no that I assumed that parents just said no to be nasty. I had to learn at 17, at home and at school, that some stuff was ok and other stuff wasn’t,  and how to tell the difference. I had to learn in a flash how to use judgement because I was never taught that. My philosophy had just been ‘do whatever you need to do to stay out of trouble and try to enjoy life’. But in school and normal family life there are rules to follow so that you don’t violate the rights of others and everything runs smoothly.

I didn’t know that.

It was very hard on me to experience this “culture shock” and to realize how bad I was at relationships.

I had to go to grade 9 math, which I found very shameful. I didn’t know what the bells meant at school. I didn’t know how to share tasks at home. I realized I was very selfish after years of looking out for myself for all those years, and it was impossible to just switch that off when I was in an environment where there wasn’t too many people competing for too few resources. I also realized by comparison how chaotic, unreasonable and toxic my home environment had been. I didn’t know. And then it hit me that I still had siblings there.

It was a very difficult few years. I fell into depression for a while, but I somehow continued school because in this family school wasn’t optional so thankfully if you weren’t sick you went. The family also supported me in making regular calls to CAS over the next two years, so by the fall of 2006 my next brother and sister were enrolled in school at CAS’s recommendation, and the following fall my father was forced to leave the home by CAS for non-compliance and all the siblings were enrolled in school.

I also had many excellent teachers over my three years in high school who seemed to look for the good in students and were compassionate as long as I was trying. Between being granted some credits and earning the rest in three years, I graduated at 20 with a real diploma and I was given a plaque from the principal at commencement – a student leadership award. After graduating high school I was able to go to university and get both a BA and a post graduate degree in four years, and graduate from university on the Deans list.

I no longer have any kind of relationship with my father at all, and my relationship with my mother is complex, as do many of my siblings still live with her.

There is no one reason why I left. Obviously I had quite a bit of help, and there must have been a certain obstinate streak for me to seek out that help.

I have been free for 8 years now. It’s great. 

Voices of Sister-Moms: Part Three, Maia’s Story

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HA note: This series is reprinted with permission from Heather Doney’s guest series on her blog, Becoming Worldly. Part Three was originally published on July 5, 2013. “Maia” is a pseudonym chosen by the author. If you have a Quiverfull “sister-Mom” story you would like to share, email Heather at becomingworldly (at) gmail (dot) com.


Also in this series: Part One: Introduction by Heather Doney | Part Two: DoaHF’s Story | Part Three: Maia’s Story | Part Four: Electra’s Story | Part Five: Samantha Field’s Story | Part Six: Mary’s Story


Part Three, Maia’s Story

My family started out in a pretty normal way.

But where most families stop creating new children and start raising them, my parents forged ahead having more. I don’t know what came first, but my parents got excited about having a lot of children (being Quiverfull, as the Bible says), homeschooling, and being very literal Christians.

I am child #2, the oldest daughter. My daily activities were pretty normal until I was 8. I was asked to do a few chores but not too many. We were somewhat effectively homeschooled until that point, and my parents were ramping up their enthusiasm for radical religion.

Then came child #6. I was 8 years old. 

It was explained to me by my father that my mother had cervical cancer during the pregnancy and was at risk of losing the baby, and therefore I needed to step up and help. She was born in May. As I understand it was a difficult labor. My father’s way of parenting during my mother’s recovery time was to lock us outside to fend for ourselves except for meals.

This was for about several weeks. It is important to note that this is also when my father stopped working.

He interpreted some of the ATI based teachings to mean that it was improper for him to be under a woman’s authority in a workplace.

When we were allowed back, my life was totally different. Overnight I learned how to cook meals for my family and clean bathrooms, etc, under the tutelage of my father.

That was also the end of effective homeschooling.

Child #7 came when I was 9, and child #8 when I was 11. I was present for both these births, one in the hospital and one at home. In that time my parents fled the province to escape from a CAS investigation. #7 and #8 were mine. #8 was born with the cord wrapped around his neck, and did not breath for almost ten minutes after birth. My father was still in hide-from-CAS mode [HA note: CAS are Children’s Aid Societies, similar to CPS).

So he didn’t seek medical care for him until day 3 when he started having seizures. 

So I learned how to administer medication to a baby. I got them dressed and fed them and loved them and rocked them — knew what they liked and didn’t like, and they called me mom. My parents encouraged all of this — except if they heard the boys call me mom. Then I got in trouble (I didn’t discourage them from saying that, it made me happy).

When I was 13 child #9 came along. By then I was very established as a mini-mom. My parents didn’t work but would frequently leave the house in the morning and come back late at night.

To this day I have no idea where they went.

So I would cook, serve and clean up three meals a day, care for an epileptic toddler, care for a new infant, and teach child #6 and #7 the best I could. When they didn’t leave the house they would often lock themselves up in their bedroom and yell at each other. When child #9 was an infant, my mother went to have gall bladder surgery and then went to recuperate a family member’s home.

There was some help in the house through some of these times, but I was still the trophy oldest daughter.

My father was proud of showing other people how much work I did in the home.

One day a young woman who was over was asked by my father if she also fed meals to her younger siblings when they were infants, and she said no. So I didn’t have to do that when we had company anymore, but still in private. I believe that my mother had a lot of health problems and post-partum depression, and that is part of why so much of daily life fell to me to run.

I wouldn’t even mind it so much if it wasn’t that she completely denies that this took place.

She thinks she was home that whole time and cooking, etc. I know for sure that some of what my parents were doing when away from home revolved around conservative ideology and reading parenting books, because one day they came home with a set of dowel rods in various sizes and tried them out on my younger siblings to see what was the most effective size for spanking each child.

I believe this comes from the Pearl parenting books.

Leaving my siblings when I was 17 to go to school and pursue my own life was the hardest thing I ever did. My three youngest siblings still live with my mom to this day and they have no understanding of the feelings I have about them based on what I did when they were infants/toddlers. I pushed so hard to get them into school, coming over at night to confront my father and pressure my mother into signing so my next youngest siblings could go to school, which she eventually did.

When I moved out, sister-mom duties immediately shifted to Electra, the next girl in the family, who is #4.

(HA note: Tomorrow, we will share the story of Electra, Maia’s sister.)


To be continued.