I think there’s a high probability that every woman since Eve has at least thought about hurling an object or even running away. Perhaps serene, mild-mannered girls have envisioned just tossing a wooden spoon wickedly into the sink or running into the bathroom, alone, for a full fifteen minutes, while the more demonstrative types have imagined heaving large stones through plate glass and impromptu trips to the Bahamas.
Feeling stressed out with responsibilities and frustrated with the juggling act of being a woman in today’s world, or yearning for appreciation from the family or attention and understanding from a work-focused husband is somewhat universal. Is it any wonder that some women are tempted to grab the nearest object and send it sailing?
Take Carol for example. She didn’t mean for things to get out of hand, but they did. Literally. Her son ran next door to his grandmother’s house and, without knocking, threw open the front door. The conversation went something like this.
“Grandma, come fast!”
Grandma got up quickly from her computer and hurried to her grandson.
“Why, what in the world is wrong?”
“Daddy’s got Mama down on the floor.”
“What?” The startled grandma’s mind raced.
“Grandma, he’s pinnin’ her down.”
Grandma’s eyebrows shot up.
“Not a full nelson or anything,” he continued. “Well, almost a half nelson. He’s sorta holdin’ her back, gentle like.”
“Holding her back from what?”
“Your mother broke a dish?”
“No . . .” His eyes got round as saucers. “She broke half the set!”
Grandma gasped and tried to imagine her intelligent and certainly well-raised daughter and her gentle, mild-mannered son-in-law in such a situation. Surely her grandson was mistaken.
But he wasn’t. When she walked in, things were just as Tad had described. Sure enough, a pile of shattered glass was strewn about the floor against one wall, and there sat Jim . . . on Carol. Sort of. He was indeed restraining his wife, gently, as gently as he could while still managing to stop her from hurling dishes through the air.
Carol was not pleased.
Now up until this moment, the entire family and all of their friends would have described both Jim and Carol as nonphysical, lovely people. Carol is extremely articulate, a great verbal jouster who uses words skillfully, never as a lance. Jim is a warm man of few words. Apparently the few words were the problem. He’d done something she disagreed with, and when she began verbally engaging him, he chose to let the matter lie. Like men across time, he remained silent. Failed to engage. Zippo response to her well-worded rebuttal to his actions, which infuriated her even more.
What she wanted was simply to get his attention. As she took dishes out of the dishwasher, she thought how she might accomplish this as her steam began to rise and her dishwasher unloading got louder. Suddenly, plate in hand, it occurred to her what a lovely attention-grabber that dish would make crashing into the wall. But she couldn’t. She was a reasonable woman. Highly irate but completely reasonable. Yet, if she threw it just so, aiming for the far wall, nothing else would get broken. So she let it fly. Crash.
She was not prepared for how good that felt. She glanced at Jim, who simply looked at her. Silence. Not the right response, Jim! she thought. She sent another plate crashing across the room. And another. Somewhere between the first plate and the end of the set, she got Jim’s attention. By the time Carol’s mother arrived at the scene, Jim was simply trying to rescue the dinnerware and calm his wife.
Carol’s mom felt the situation needed some wise counsel, so she stepped around the entangled couple and across the glass to phone her other daughter, Sharon. She explained the scene.
“Has she lost it, Mom?” Sharon asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. But how can you tell?”
“Well, what kind of stuff did she throw?”
“Did she throw the good stuff or the Corelle?”
“Uh, the everyday, I think.”
“Oh, she’s fine then.”
Now, we don’t know exactly how Jim and Carol disentangled themselves from the floor and their dramatic disagreement, but we do know they’ve returned to their calmer selves, and I daresay Jim listens more and Carol throws less. The moral of this story? We should never underestimate the possibilities of a woman headed south, even if her trip is short.
Sometimes in spite of our best efforts we find ourselves heading somewhere we never intended, doing things we never intended, and thinking and feeling things we didn’t expect. Sometimes Mama goes south. Not geographically (like Cancun—don’t we wish), but figuratively. Sometimes there are seasons when we find ourselves heading south—experiencing a downward, negative turn in our lives where we fall short of living the way we desire or being the person we want to be. Sometimes life can go south through tragedy or terrible events beyond our control, and we need people who can help put our broken pieces back together again and serve us in practical ways. During such times we also need the strong arms of our heavenly Father to comfort us and see us through as only he can. But that kind of south is not my focus. I’m discussing when we go south; when I go south personally as a woman because of my choices or my complacency.
If someone says, “Have you seen Melba lately? She’s really gone south,” I doubt Melba would take this as a compliment. A mama who’s headed south just might watch Sesame Street for mental stimulation and think the slogan “eat five a day for good health” means five selections from a box of chocolates. But seriously, when a woman is heading south it’s not usually a laughing matter.
On the other hand, maybe you enjoy helping yourself to the chocolates only occasionally and you’d never actually throw something in anger or frustration, so you wouldn’t consider yourself heading south. In fact, you’re not doing too badly.
But maybe, deep inside, you long to grow as a woman. Whether you’re heading south, yearning for growth, or lying somewhere between the two, this book can help you tap into your growth potential mentally, physically, and spiritually.
The road south is a gradual slope. Sometimes we scarcely realize we’ve lost our visions, laid aside our dreams, or settled into mediocrity in an effort to get by with a little energy intact. But if we’re not careful, we may open our bleary eyes to the fact that we’re on our way to being far less than we once thought we’d be.
Have you ever needed a change of direction? We all face stresses and distresses, but not one of us ever purposely sets out on a downward journey. We don’t get up one day and decide, “Today I think I’ll begin to let myself go. I want to look as haggard, unkempt, out-of-date, and wrinkly faced as I can in five years, so I’ll start today.” We don’t wake up and say, “I want to lose it emotionally as often as possible, so how close to the edge can I live?” or “Sanity is so relative. Clear mental processing and intelligent thought just take too much effort.”
And we never premeditate so distancing ourselves from God that we begin to question his involvement in our lives or even his existence. No. No one intentionally sets out to deteriorate physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. But . . . it happens. The road south is deceptively alluring and surprisingly simple to meander, because it is always the path of least resistance; we usually are on it long before we are even aware we’ve detoured from the path of ideas and ideals we’d envisioned for our lives.
So how does that happen? How do we begin heading south? Often with a gradual descent along one of the many routes that deteriorate body, soul, or spirit—negative habits, poor attitudes, insane schedules, a continually fruitless spiritual life, lack of tranquility, or sin. We do, say, or think hings that tear us down, not realizing that our gradual inclination to berate our husbands, daydream about the “if onlys” in our lives, or compare ourselves with others can sap the life out of us.
We go south through the things we choose to hate about ourselves—our body, our accomplishments or lack thereof, and our present circumstances, or even our lot in life in general. We go south through negative things we choose to do and positive things we choose to ignore. Some roads head south because of our lack of knowledge or awareness in a matter. At other times it’s because of apathy or bad choices. We have plenty of maps with lots of beautiful routes for life’s journey; we just decide it’s too difficult to navigate. We lay the map down and opt for an easier route, the path of least resistance. At other times, our trip south is just a side trip, a momentary detour because of unavoidable situations, circumstances out of our control, spiritual attack, or temporary roadblocks we encounter on this life journey.
Some roads south are extremely dangerous. They can lead to a nervous breakdown, nonfunctioning depression, crime and prison, suicidal thoughts, physical or mental illness, even abuse. In the movie The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and in the Italian film Bread and Tulips, both main characters are mothers struggling enough to make them run away.
They ditch their responsibilities and their families and just leave. And while a part of us may sympathize, deep within we know this is not right. Mothers aren’t supposed to leave. These are examples of mothers who have gone south in an over-the-edge way. But many of us struggle, don’t we? Some dramatically, others in minor ways—and neither is pleasant.
Other roads south are less grave but still troubling. We find ourselves forty and flabby, wearing far more mileage on our faces than we ever pictured when we were eighteen, spiritually anemic, culturally dead, creatively stifled, bone weary, and painfully undernourished in our souls. These are some possible disappointing destinations when Mama heads south. I know, because I’ve been there.
It was a time in my life that was as palatable as bran cereal without milk—possible to get through but tough to swallow. I’d felt myself slipping, struggling, groping to cope for a long time. I had three major life projects happening at once—we were building a house and doing much of the work ourselves, I had writing deadlines, and I was attempting to classically educate my four children at home. Any one of those jobs combined with running a household and being a mom is pretty much full time.
On top of that, the six of us were living in 1,097 square feet with one dog and two evil cats who took to using the carpet for a litter box. One thousand ninety-seven pleasestay-off-my-square-foot, square feet. Oh, I did what I could to juggle timing and prayed about what I was doing that I wasn’t supposed to be doing (translation: God, what can I quit?), but the bottom line was that God was not releasing me from anything at that point. And to top it all off, I was attempting to do all of that while recovering physically and emotionally from losing a much-wanted baby to miscarriage.
The stress was suffocating, the projects demanding, the children needy, and there I was—depleted, depressed. I could feel myself heading south. I didn’t even have the energy to hurl a plate.
Here are a few staccato thoughts scribbled in my journal then.
I’m sad about the baby.
Overwhelmed at the three projects. So what aspect of what project do I do first today?
Worried for Tim, he’s working so hard. Angry at the feeling of being a single parent too often in his absence.
I’m physically, emotionally, and spiritually down.
My son is needy, and I have no emotional reserves to do anything. There is no fun, planned or spontaneous.
No family time. No reading aloud. Few family dinners.
I miss these things. Alli needs to go shopping, and I have no physical energy. I’m dry spiritually.
I want to cry. I can’t manage my house very well. Can’t keep groceries stocked. In fact, I can’t stand the house.
At church, a friend told me she went to bed for a year after her divorce. You can do that? Someone told me this is all impossible. Another friend said my life is very hard compared to hers. Susan said it would put some women in a home. Really? Now that’s something
I haven’t tried yet.
I’m going south and taking the kids with me. Lord, please show me how to change direction.
Why does it matter if we take a little jaunt south? Lots of reasons. Personally we face a loss of contentment, we have less joy, we fall short of the abundant life that Christ has for us, which is a miserable way to live. A woman who’s going south also faces lost potential. Who knows what could have been? What she could have become?
And most importantly, a woman headed south has lost some of her impact for God’s kingdom. But that’s not all. Like goslings following a goose, our children take our lead.
One fall day long ago, I walked through the beautiful Public Garden in Boston, enjoying watching the swan boats on the pond and the ducks eating the peanuts the passengers were throwing—a scene that’s been happening in Boston for over 120 years. The air was crisp and the leaves were coming into their glorious colors, while back in my Southern hometown things were as hot and green as ever without a hint of a cool breeze.
Then I spotted the famous duck family sculpture, and the day became perfect. Little bronze ducklings followed the mother duck in a line, straight from the pages of my favorite children’s classic—Robert McClosky’s Make Way for Ducklings. I was standing in the book’s setting, and it moved me as I looked at the sculpture and thought of my own brood. McClosky had captured a literal and figurative truth that resonates with me as a mother: ducklings follow Mama—across busy streets, into lovely gardens, even south.
I’ve always been fascinated with the phenomenon called imprinting. Newly hatched ducklings and goslings form an indelible attachment to their mothers—or whatever moving object they encounter if Mother is absent—within days after birth. Imprinting is so powerful that the little birds will follow the mother or mother substitute even through adverse circumstances. If they imprinted on a mother substitute (including humans and wooden decoys) they will continue to follow it in preference to a live duck or goose introduced later. In the movie Fly Away Home (loosely based on real research) a little girl adopts a brood of orphaned goslings. She’s there when they hatch, so they imprint on her and follow her everywhere. Later when their instincts kick in, telling them it’s time to fly south, they have no mother goose to lead the way. So the little girl flies an ultralight plane, and amazingly they follow her . . . south.
Now, if we were to head to sunny south Florida, southern California, the South of France, south of the border, or even south of the house on some days, chances are somebody’s going to want to go with us—most likely each and every one of our progeny. These are, after all, the same dear children who for the first few years of their lives thought we needed travel companions to the bathroom. If Mama goes south, they’re all going with us! But when the south we’re facing is a state of being instead of a warm destination, we’d better take notice.
One night during my “south season,” after a week of high anxiety and stress, my kids fell apart. One, in a tearful outburst, ripped up his schoolwork, another suddenly developed a sore throat, a third one came down with a debilitating migraine, and a fourth developed a serious case of bad attitude. All at the same time. What I was dealing with didn’t exactly cause the sore throat or migraine; perhaps there were logical connections like poor eating and sleeping patterns and spillover stress. Yet it never ceases to amaze me. When I come unglued, they seem to also.
Brenda Nixon, the author of Parenting Power in the Early Years, told me one reason why.
There is nothing, nothing, moms go through that does not in some way affect their children. Job loss, illness, separation, remarriage, depression, and spiritual struggle—young ones living in the home perceive everything. Children often don’t understand what’s going on, but they know Mom is different or preoccupied. When Mama “goes south” her parenting skills (patience, humor, perspective) are compromised, which then affects her responses to her children.
A vicious cycle is often set in motion of the children misbehaving in an attempt to reconnect with her, and then Mom overreacting.
Our mental and emotional states have been proven to affect our children, especially when we have severe, lingering depression.
When Douglas Teri and his colleagues conducted a study of fifty mother and baby pairs and fifty-four mother and preschooler pairs, they found high rates of insecure attachment among the children of depressed mothers. Eighty percent of the babies and 87 percent of the preschoolers were insecurely attached when their mothers suffered from depression.1
The God-given bond between a mother and child, particularly formed early in their life together, is so important that it affects the child’s other intimate attachments and their self-identify. In The Power of Mother Love, Brenda Hunter says, “Our children will someday leave our presence with core messages about their worth, whether positive or not. And these messages will influence every important decision they make, as well as their capacity to nurture their children.”2
Our choices have consequences, and our choices as mothers are magnified, because we were designed with the power to shape a life. I call that the trickle-down effect. We influence children physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. If we stuff our cabinets with junk food and set poor examples for healthy eating, we shouldn’t wonder when they develop a weight problem. If we use atrocious grammar or are seldom seen cracking a book or discussing a thoughtful idea, we can expect them to follow suit. They also learn matters of the heart and the power of a life on fire for God (or not) from us.
It’s true that some kids outshine their upbringing and their education and surpass their parents or succeed against environmental odds stacked against them, but they are most often the exception, and they usually do so with strong motivation and encouragement from someone in their life. But because this sometimes happens does not negate the power of our influence.
Another viewpoint to the trickle-down principle is the argument that says, “Wait a minute. Don’t hang the entire responsibility of my child’s life on me. He’s an adult now telling his therapist he’s screwed up because of me.” Sometimes parents suffer when their grown children find it easier to blame them than to forgive if needed, or to take personal responsibility for their own choices in life. Our influence eventually does give way to their personal choices. Once when my mother was troubled by my brother’s actions after he’d left home, she hung a yellow sticky note on her mirror that said, “My children are now responsible for their own choices.” She needed to remind herself that she’d done her job. Yet forty-one years after my mother had me, the thought of her still influences me.
Brenda Hunter describes this process as internalization —“our children internalize the image of mother that we give them.” I love how the writer Jean Hendricks puts it: My children tell me that at those times when I was no more than a photograph on the dresser two thousand miles away, I talked in their consciences. I showed up in their habits and decisions. I was there in a front row seat. What an assignment!
In everything from the high chair routine to the bridal parties, I had been teaching something . . . and I had the inside track. Because I was “Mom,” I was different; I walked in their hearts whether I wanted to or not. It was critically important that I went in the right direction.3
Because walking in our children’s hearts is such a privilege, we need to do everything possible to ensure the direction won’t be south. I have a tiny figurine of a goose with her goslings lined up behind her; it reminds me to make way for my ducklings, to be careful where and how I walk . . . for my children are following. It’s also become a visual of our influence as women; we were designed to impact those we interact with, whether we’re mothers or not. As my friend and author Lael Arrington teaches, we can move beyond the small story of our personal lives and make an impact in God’s kingdom story.
So where are you on this grand journey? Are you struggling with stress? Are you content with who you are as a person and with what you do each day? Are there some areas of your life where you see yourself slipping or where you’ve settled for mediocrity? Are you accomplishing the things you used to dream about? Do you ever spiritually feel like a gourd in the desert . . . dry, dry, dry? Do you wonder if what you do makes a difference, if you make a difference? If you feel like “Mama’s going south,” take heart.
God doesn’t want us to live this way. He has such a better plan for our lives, one to give us a future and a hope.
An Escape from Going South
During my “southern period” I struggled with much of the above. Stress had a stranglehold on me. I desperately tried to be content, but I had such pockets of longing; I wasn’t accomplishing what I wanted to, even though I was doing too much, and my spiritual life was choking on desert sands. I could relate to the woman in I Don’t Know How She Does It who discovered the fine art of hitting store-bought tarts just so with a rolling pin so they looked homemade, except I was doing good if I even remembered to buy the tarts.
Thankfully, God is merciful, and he didn’t keep me in that place. Like the gentle Father he is, he gradually led me to a sweeter place, and with hindsight I can now say I learned a great deal. Don’t you hate how so often our greatest growth comes through adversity? God gradually answered the cry of my heart I’d penned in my journal, but it was a process; I wanted a quick fix, but God chose to do some character chiseling. One of God’s good gifts to us is logic and common sense, so I applied some to find immediate relief—I evaluated my situation, eliminated what I could, delegated what I couldn’t, got help where possible, and did only what I was really able to do. It wasn’t easy, but I eventually got through that time.
But during it and afterwards, I kept dwelling on some of those questions that make us really evaluate our lives, peeking deep into our souls. I didn’t simply want to solve my problems and live a happy life, I wanted to know who I really was and believe I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I wanted to live in the fullness of the life God had for me, somehow making a difference in my corner of the world. I wanted to grow as a woman. How about you?
Children are delighted with the idea of physical growth. Birthdays are celebrations that mark growth, literally, from my nephew’s point of view. On Artyom’s sixth birthday he went to the wall that held his growth marks, and his mother measured him. When he turned around and saw the new mark, he suddenly burst into tears. Seems the line had barely moved, and he’d expected to wake up on his birthday and find a big jump on the chart to accompany his new age. He’d anticipated visible physical growth. Of course, we know better as adults—we grow up and discover our desire for visible growth shifts from the physical to the delight of mental, spiritual, and personal growth, which is really the antithesis of going south.
A woman who is growing and learning in body, soul, and spirit is not going south. Oh, we may feel like hurling a plate or running away once in a while, and we will no doubt go through times of difficult life circumstances that detour us from where we want to be. But they can be just that . . . detours, not destinations.
I love these definitions of growth: to spring up and develop to maturity; to be able to grow in some place or situation; to become larger (ignore that part!) and often more complex; to progressively develop; and to obtain influence. A woman who is growing is not just a woman avoiding going south. She’s a woman who is developing maturity, growing in whatever situation she finds herself, gaining complexity, progressing in her life, and increasingher ability to influence. Influence for kingdom purposes.
What a beautiful contrast to a woman who’s gone south, because that woman has often stopped growing. And if she stops growing, perhaps she might be beginning to die.
In the film The Sixth Sense, a little boy says, “I see dead people. They don’t even know they’re dead.” Like the little boy, some of us encounter people who haven’t seen growth in their lives in so long they don’t even know they’ve begun to die, at least on some level.
Plants grow. Babies grow. And to do so, both need the right nutrients, tender care, the proper environment, and plenty of time in the sun. So do we, in order to grow as women. We need to provide our body, spirit, and soul with things that nourish us, with tender care, with an enriching environment, and we need to soak up life-giving time in the Son. That’s what this book is about.
Walk into a Barnes and Noble, grab a latte, and check out the self-help section. You’ll find lots of books about self-improvement, self-fulfillment, self-actualization. They talk about growth, but they center on self. Personal growth certainly involves our “self ” as we develop, mature, and continue to become, but unlike that country song line, it’s not “all about me.” There’s a reason to grow besides just for our personal benefit—it’s the idea of growing to give, of living for something, someone, besides ourselves and for someday besides the here and now. Romans 8 in The Message puts a “self-focus” in perspective:
Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored. But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him.
Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. . . . God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!
Growing as a woman is about being all you can be, being more than you are now; it’s about becoming. Becoming what God intended, becoming more than you think possible.
It’s about wondering who you might become in five years, then letting that vision propel your tomorrow and even your today. It’s about avoiding apathy and negative habits that take you south and replacing plodding, hurrying, and surviving with purposeful living, fine-tuning, and a recapturing of dreams. When we grow we are saying “I want to be a better person than I am today; I want to know more than I do now, to improve, learn, discover, taste, experience, enjoy, and give.” Even if you’re in a good place in your life without any traces of going south, can you say, “I don’t want to stay the same”? Women who grow, can.
Nobody wants to go south. Our little “ducklings” are too important, our influence in the world is worth too much. In the following three sections we’ll look at growth in spirit, body, and soul. Maybe you long to keep from going south, to grow, but you’re not sure how to do that from where you are now.
How do we even begin to grow when we’re running on empty? Growth from a place of emptiness needs to first be tackled in the realm of our spirits, as we’ll see next.