Thursday, February 27, 2014

What is a Strong Woman?

I mentioned in my last post that I'd spent a lot of time over the past six months thinking about and reflecting on just what it meant to be a wife and a mother.    My entire life, I'd felt called to do just that - all I ever wanted to be when I was growing up was "a mom."   I learned pretty quickly in life, though, that this answer wasn't good enough for the people around me.   I'd always had good grades and excelled in school, so it seemed to be the mission of everyone around me to make me see the error of my ways and motivate me to "live up to my potential."  (Oh, how I hate that phrase!)   I know they truly were looking out for what they thought were my best interests at the time, but over the past six months, I've thought a lot about those times and those conversations.

I learned pretty quickly to change my answer from "a mom" to something a bit more, umm, impressive (?), when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up.   People were satisfied when I answered "a veterinarian" (I held to that answer for a long time) or "a doctor" or....pretty much anything else that came to mind when I was put on the spot.   It seemed that anything that required a college education would satisfy those around me  - so, for a long time, I followed their plans.   I went to college.   Floundered a bit with choosing a major (because there isn't a degree in "motherhood," believe it or not), but eventually ended up graduating with honours, in about 3 years time.

College wasn't a huge loss, even if it wasn't a smart financial move on my part, because I met my husband there...pretty much right away.   We started dating shortly after beginning our freshman year, and a few months after graduating from undergrad, we were married.   Again, those same well meaning people around me often counseled me on being "too young" or not dating a couple different guys (at least, I guess) before settling down.  We never wavered in our decision to get married at just barely 22, but we did spend a lot of time talking about whether or not we were truly ready, so those conversations weren't in vain, in some ways.

The past six months, during which I was forced to slow down and simplify, allowed me to "take a step back," if you will.  At times, I felt as if I was watching my own life through a camera lens - a "The Life of Heidi" movie, I guess you could say.   I may have seemed distracted or flaky to those around me (sorry!), but I was living in a continual state of surprise and, well, learning.    I've never been one to "slow down."   Even my slow days were chaotic by the standards of most:  lots of field trips or running around, pushing myself to exhaustion every day with chores or projects or volunteer commitments.  A "slow" day was one with only two errands to run, in addition to homeschooling.    This pregnancy, and all that came with it, dictated otherwise.  

For the first time, ever, I dealt with morning sickness so severe that I could only eat apples and drink water, and spent many, many days as horizontal as possible, watching the boys learn and play.    I'd dictate homeschool lessons from a mostly-fully-reclined position on the couch, stopping every few minutes to run to the bathroom or lay down flat.   I'd fall asleep, watching the boys create movie sets out of boxes and videotaping their toy bugs attacking the cardboard cities.    I watched them just be themselves, with no expectations placed on their shoulders except for the expectation of staying healthy and alive.

I learned a lot about how the boys learn.   About their natural inclinations and interests.   That new information changed  how we homeschool (more on that at a later date).  But more than anything else, it changed ME.

I began to realize that until now, I'd only had one understanding of what it meant to be a "strong woman."   My understanding, shaped by 32 years of American culture, left me feeling completely weak and inadequate unless I pursued the impossible:  the magazine-worthy family.   The kids meeting every "your child should know" guideline published.   Extracurriculars coming out of our ears.   Hiring babysitter after babysitter so that I could never have to say "no" when asked to volunteer.    A full, homecooked meal on the dinner table every night (and breakfast table....and lunch table...).   Kids wearing matching outfits (without holes) and never with shaggy hair.   A clean car.   A clean house.

All of this because I could never live up to what I grew up learning was the ONLY strong woman option:   a prestigious career that followed a degree at a "good college," and only marrying after that career was established.   If I couldn't be a strong woman by those standards, I was going to have to be the only "strong" at-home mom I knew of:  the magazine mom.

(Now, before I go any further, please don't get me wrong:  I am NOT wanting to start a working mom vs stay-at-home-mom debate.   I do NOT mean to imply, in any way, that women who feel called to a career or work out of necessity are not strong women.  That is not, in any way, my point of view.)

What I *am* saying, however, is that I grew up believing that this kind of woman, the career-minded, professional woman, was the *only* kind of "strong woman."   It may not have been intended (and I don't believe it was intentional, truly), but all of the discussion about living up to my "potential," or the "But what do you *really* want to be when you grow up?" response to my truthful answer of wanting to be a mom, formed this idea in my head that the only way you could be a successful, strong woman was to have a career.

As I spent the past six months reflecting on what it meant to be a wife and mother, I realized that this image that I had formed in my head over all of those was completely wrong.     There is more than one way to be a "strong woman", and it would probably be a good idea for us to recognize the other women in our lives who model and witness to strength.   I'd guess that I wasn't the only one out there wearing herself to the bone to prove to the world (or herself) that she was strong.    Or more importantly, that she wasn't weak.   That she wasn't a failure.     Because, in all honesty, I'd be willing to bet that she doesn't believe that.

You see, I've come to realize that strength isn't necessarily defined the way that we Americans define it.

Strength is not professional success.

Strength is not measured in financial income.

Strength is not independence.

Can it include those things?   Sure.   But it is not limited to these things.

Strength is sacrificial.   Strength is living with love and compassion.

So, I can be a strong woman.   Even in my pajamas for the third day in a row.   Even as I close the schoolbooks early to spend time reading with a kid on the couch instead.   Even as I forget to brush my teeth.   Even as I don't add income to the house.   Even as I say "no" to the volunteer requests.   Even as I rest on the couch during this pregnancy, with a sink full of dishes.

Every time I put someone else's needs ahead of my own, I'm allowing God to shape me through my vocation.   Every time I sit through another painful rendition of Dr Seuss (performed by my beginning reader), God is using my vocation to increase my virtue.    Every laundry load I carry up and down the stairs is a little mortification, fighting my root sin of sensuality.   Every middle-of-the-night wake up call is a chance to die to myself and sacrifice for someone else.

Strength is allowing God to change our hearts.   Allowing Him to sanctify us, a tiny bit more.    That's true strength.......and it can be done, no matter where you are.

Even if you're in your pajamas in a dirty bathroom, forgetting to brush your teeth.



  1. LOVE this post! Mind if I link to it on my blog? You've made me want to write about my own experience. When I was in nursing school, which I chose in large part because I believed it was a "flexible" career for a working mother, I got all kinds of pressure from professors to go on to grad school because I was too smart to waste my talents as "just a nurse"! I think it took a good deal of strength to resist that pressure and drop out of the career path completely, not even completing my degree.

  2. Go right ahead and link away! I almost went to nursing school, too - for the same reason. It would be a good "mom" career. I never felt really called to it, though, and I'm glad I didn't. I think I'd feel really guilty about putting in all the time and money and NOT working.