To the Ladies Living Strong in their Skin
A few weeks ago a new book came out and several of my friends posted about it on Instagram. I didn’t know the author, but they did and they were excited to celebrate the release, and the woman who wrote it. Because several people I knew were posting, I took an immediate interest. I leaned in (as Sheryl Sandberg would have me do), and then I saw the title – “The Third Option: Why a Woman Doesn’t Have to Choose between a Career and Family, but Can Actually Have Both and Succeed.”
Ha! I’ve written a similar book in my head over and over again, only it goes back and forth between – “Nope, you can’t have it all.” And, “Of Course You Can, Just Don’t Expect to be Happy Too.” Shannon Miles gets all the credit for actually writing a book, which means she sorted her thoughts and wrestled them to the ground and created something helpful.
I’m still stuck in the snark phase of the conversation. And if I’m really honest, the ugly part of me is even stuck in the dismissive phase where I see a book like Shannon’s and immediately look to see what her career is, because surely it can’t be the same as mine. Women – we’re our own worst enemies, and I am so sorry and ashamed for my participation in that.
I struggle with the “fairer sex,” whatever that means. I’ve always gravitated toward the guys in the room. In high school, my best friends were guys. In college and grad school – I hung out with the guys. Even now, if you put me in a room with couples, and the women and men naturally gravitate toward their own circles, I’m more comfortable in the circle with the guys.
This may explain why I don’t like women’s ministry. I’m not against it. It’s just, by definition, all women, and I’m not comfortable in that space. See also women’s retreats and “Magnificent Mom” mornings at school.
It’s not that I don’t like women. I even have really good friends who are women. One is a pediatrician, one is a kindergarten teacher, one is a foster mom, and one owns and operates her own business (her employees include her husband and a homeless man named Ronnie). These women are game-changing, gravity-defying, faith-filled giants. When I sing along with Kelly Clarkson to “Whole Lotta Woman” – these women are the ones I picture, along with my mom and my sister (more on them later).
Women like these, and so many others, really do run the world as Beyoncé intones – only I’m not sure it’s because they’re women. I think it’s because they’re living on purpose, and the most extraordinary among them are refusing to have their life and role defined in comparison with others, male or female. They are comfortable in their own skin, or at least trying to be.
I believe God made men and women different – and that it’s good. I gave birth to my second son with no drugs (and yes, I would like several gold stars for this feat even though centuries of women have done the same – they can have gold stars too). I know my husband could not have endured the pain I felt that day, and it’s not because I’m better or stronger or more powerful than him. It’s because I’m built for the task and he is not.
Women and men are different and there should be lots of space to celebrate those differences, but we shouldn’t need to tear down one to build the other. We can help each other in the best possible ways. We can also make each other bananas, which is why dating has been the source of the greatest literary and cinematic comedies for years.
I have a friend who used to tell me that when it comes to dating women, there is sane, pretty, and smart, and you can only get two out of three. His theory was that finding all three is like looking for a unicorn, so when you find someone who fits two of them, you should stick around and probably marry her. Take his theory for what you will – he was mostly kidding. Personally, I feel like most women have all three, just rarely in her possession all at the same time. Which brings me back to having it all…
I don’t think you can. You can have a lot. Certainly families and careers can co-exist and I reference you back to the likes of Shannon Miles and Sheryl Sandberg who’ve done the legwork on that tandem. But we need to own the fact that whatever we decide we want also means deciding what we don’t want, or at least what we’re willing to sacrifice to have the other.
My sister is upper management for an international paper company. She has worked for the same company for eighteen years, having started with them immediately out of college. Her years with the company have included four moves, numerous promotions and department changes, one major recession, a complete overhaul of their industry, and lots and lots of travel. The company has not yet had a female occupy a VP role, but my sister will likely be the first, and likely before she turns 45 years old. Basically, she’s awesome. She has done all of this while maintaining a healthy marriage for the same amount of time, and giving birth to three children who by all accounts are surviving and thriving at the ages of 14, 11 and 10. Her stout resume also includes three Avon Breast Cancer Walks, multiple half marathons, and the running of numerous ministries in their church and community, including the women’s ministry at her church in their last town (that part I can’t explain).
She will be the first to tell you she misses a lot. She misses baseball games and swim meets and dance recitals and school programs. She misses family dinners and sleep – lots and lots of sleep. Her husband doesn’t work full-time outside of their home. He is a brilliant teacher and historian, but he gave it up when the birth of child number three ran right into move number three. It’s a privilege for their family to be able to make that decision, but it’s also a sacrifice, and one they continually navigate.
It would be easy for people on the outside to judge the decisions my sister and her husband have made. It’s not lost on them that others may think she is a bad mom for the number of things she misses, or that he is less of a man for staying at home. I struggle with the women in this conversation more than the men, myself included, because instead of allowing space for others to make decisions and sacrifices, we assuage our own varying levels of career envy and mommy-guilt by trying to find more women to mirror our own decisions and sacrifices. We feign confidence but we’re desperate for reassurance.
I often find myself stuck between wanting to feel special for the work I do that few other women do, and wanting to deny my womanhood completely so it doesn’t have to be a thing for me to defend or empower. I don’t want to be a woman in ministry, I want to be a person in ministry who happens to be a woman – especially since my calling isn’t specifically to women’s ministry. But I’m also lonely a lot of the time because there is something different about being a woman in the role I’m in, and darn it all if I don’t desperately want people to see it and to get it – and, ouch, affirm it.
I talk a big game about knowing I’m doing what God called me to do, but most days I wonder if I’m wrecking my kids, holding back the church, and basically a complete and total hypocrite. I wish I had a bit more gumption, which brings me to my mom.
My mom took herself to church as a little girl. She grew up in the city and decided she wanted to check it out. So one Sunday morning, she got up, put on a dress, and walked a few blocks down the street and through the doors of the closest church. I can’t imagine what the people who saw her must have thought. She liked it though, and kept going back. Eventually her twin sister came along, and then her mom, and soon enough, on rare occasions, her older brothers and her dad would come too.
I love that about my mom. She’s by far the quietest one in our family (quiet being relative – we’re a pretty loud bunch), and in a sea of strongly-held opinions, she is the peace-maker who simply wants to make sure everyone is included and having fun. But without prompting or even invitation, she took herself to church as a kid. I like to picture her doing it. I would have gotten dressed really loudly and made a production of my decision to try something new, and be “different,” but that’s not my mom at all. She probably got dressed as quietly as she could and slipped out the front door and back in as inconspicuously as possible. She didn’t go to make a point. She went because she wanted to – for her, and for someone bigger she could sense even then. She didn’t feel the need to impress. She just felt the need to go, and so she did.
My mom and her twin sister went on to be the first in their family to go to college. Mom got a degree in music and education. She sings like an angel, which you can tell just by hearing her laugh. She could have done a million different things. She chose to marry my dad and move into the old slave’s quarters of an estate in Princeton, NJ, and work at a bank to help support my dad while he finished seminary. She chose to take job after job as a teacher’s assistant so she could freely move with my dad whenever necessary. She said yes to a life in ministry even though no one ever ordained her or paid her to do it. She spent years directing the church choir as a volunteer and leading Vacation Bible School. She started the prayer ministry, and when churches first began gravitating away from Sunday School and toward small groups for adults, my mom paved the way and led a women’s group that stayed together for over a decade. She also planned and led multiple women’s retreats (yes, the same ones I would avoid like the plague – clearly, the issue is mine).
My mom became the quintessential pastor’s wife, and she did it on purpose without anyone telling her it was the role she was supposed to fill, and she did it while raising two daughters with the gift of her presence at home and also her permission and encouragement to do otherwise – as long as we were listening to God above everything and everyone else. None of this is to say she doesn’t at times regret the opportunities she may have had, or things she may have missed. But we all make choices and we get to own the growth that comes from them.
Also, worth mentioning – my mom started running when she turned 60 and has since done multiple half marathons and other races. She is my hero in every sense of the word!
A few years ago, our local newspaper named me a “Woman to Watch.” It came with a picture and a write-up and a reception where we were honored and given gifts. My favorite was the “Women to Watch” drinking glass with the logo of the ob/gyn on the back who was sponsoring the event. My kids were ages 3 and 1, and I was a few years into planting a church that still had the opportunity to succeed and break new ground in the church world, or implode without warning. I was equally flattered and mortified by the “Woman to Watch” moniker. While the other women being honored brought family members and friends to the reception, I told no one, brought only my husband, and slipped away early.
As I said, I’m still struggling. I’m long on snark and short on certainty, but grateful for the skin I’m in and the incredible women who amaze me every day as they walk their walk and live on purpose.