A 13-year-old girl sits in a church pew, baby in her womb, while her father the pastor delivers a sermon about the virtues of abstinence.
That’s just one of the compelling pictures that any one of Sarah Jakes’ life stories might bring to mind. That her father is T.D. Jakes—one of the nation’s most recognizable and beloved megachurch pastors—makes Sarah’s journey all the more fascinating and intense.
Sarah, now 25, spoke to The Root about her new book, Lost & Found: Finding Hope in the Detours of Life, in which she describes those watershed moments in her life that defined much of her youth, including a marriage to an NFL athlete at 19, their subsequent divorce, and the “aha” moment when she realized that she desperately needed to rid herself of the guilt and shame she carried for far too many years.
The Root: At age 13, how did you process and cope with your life as a teenage mother, particularly as the daughter of T.D. Jakes?
Sarah Jakes: I felt a lot of pressure and shame. My father had appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, and was being called America’s best preacher. I carried the weight of that. My parents were disappointed in themselves, but it had more to do with their role as parents, and less with their role in the ministry. The greatest difficulty of it all is that they were still very loving to me, and I didn’t feel worthy of that. I projected a lot of my own thoughts onto others, and it was hard for me to accept that they had forgiven me. I continued to lower my self-esteem and lower my head. I became introverted, and I suspect that I made a lot of detours in my life because I felt the need to clean up my image.
TR: What were some of those detours?
SJ: I had an aggressive pursuit of education. I graduated from high school early and enrolled in college. But then I dropped out of college and began waitressing at a strip club in order to support myself. My parents had a strict rule that they would only support their children if we were in school. I stayed in a relationship that was emotionally abusive. It was all a result of my coming to grips with my teen pregnancy.
TR: Did your parents—your father in particular—feel partially responsible for your pregnancy, because of how his role in public life might have impacted your childhood?
SJ: I’m not sure. I can’t really answer that. They didn’t share that process with me. As a parent of two myself, I’m sure that those were some of the things they considered. As a parent, you can’t help but self-reflect, and ask yourself, ‘How can I have done better?’ But hopefully being on the other side of it, when you train children up right, they don’t depart from [certain values] for long, and eventually return to those lessons.
TR: In Lost and Found, we see how your identity as a preacher’s kid informed your experiences as a child. What is one piece of advice that you might give to other PKs?
SJ: As you begin to discover who you are, there’s the pressure to cave in and be who everyone else wants you be. Fight for yourself. Have your own identity. Be authentic, and be genuine.
TR: How has blogging helped you get through those tough periods in your life, particularly the end of your 4-year marriage and divorce at age 23?
SJ: I started blogging approximately three years ago. I was married and I eventually found out that my husband [at the time] was expecting a child with another woman. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get a divorce and I was in a lot of pain. After having gotten pregnant at 13, I always did what I thought I was supposed to do in order to fix that. I started to write about these emotions and people really began to respond to my transparency. My followers started to share their own stories with me, and through that process I made it my life’s mission to create work that would allow myself, and others, to be more accepting of themselves. I realized that I wasn’t alone and that we were all hurting and broken.
TR: Describe that aha moment when you said, “Enough is enough. I need to stop punishing myself for this pregnancy, and live my life.”
SJ: I was introducing my father at a conference, and began to speak about my journey and how I was trying to loosen myself from the shame of my past. A 50-year-old woman came up to me and told me that she too had a child at age 14 and was beginning to forgive herself—35 years later. At that point, I realized that 35 years was too long to allow one mistake to define me. I didn’t want to carry that shame any longer.
TR: How have readers responded to your book?
SJ: It’s been pretty incredible. They read my story and tell me that they see so much of themselves in me, while others tell me that although they weren’t a teen mom they still identified with how I had low self-esteem. People are seeing bits and pieces of themselves in the story. A lot of people feel isolated.
TR: What’s the best part of being Sarah Jakes?
SJ: [Laughter.] I think that I’m finally really loving myself. This is the first time in my life where I’m not living for anyone else. I’m not paying for anyone’s mistakes. I’m being who I am. It’s very liberating. The most incredible part about that is when you show your authentic self to other people, it feels good to be received so well. All of your experiences make you who you are. It’s been an incredible journey. It’s all a result of me loving myself.
TR: As a 25-year-old divorcee, how might you advise women, particularly those in their 20s, who are looking for a partner to eventually marry?
SJ: You shouldn’t marry who you hope the person will become. Women tend to marry people thinking that they will change—that they will stop doing this or that. I would discourage that. Women need to think, ‘If this person never changed, can I spend the rest of my life with you?’ Of course you and your partner will have ups and downs, but the foundation of the relationship has to be right.
TR: How have your experiences influenced the way you parent?
SJ: It has taught me to be more open and to ask for my children’s thoughts and opinions. That old-school approach of “stay out of grown-folk business” is not something I subscribe to. My children witnessed my divorce. They were a part of that. We explore the emotions in my life and theirs too. My son is 11 and my daughter is 4. She’s a little thugged out. Join me in prayer. [Laughter.]
TR: What were your parents’ reactions to the book?
SJ: My father called me and left a voicemail on my machine, saying “Sarah, it’s flawless. I’m absolutely speechless.” My mother could hardly speak after she finished reading it. She was so happy and crying. It’s been such a great response. My sister told me that it should be made into a movie.
TR: If the book were made into a movie, who would you like to play you?
SJ: KeKe Palmer—we’re about the same age and some people say I look like her. I also wouldn’t mind Kerry Washington. Scaaaaaandalous.
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features experts dishing out situational advice to TV and film’s most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.