A Voice Becoming: A Yearlong Mother-Daughter Journey into Passionate, Purposed Living
I am out to wreck my daughter.
I am out to create a new paradigm of raising girls who love God, know their voice, and can envision a life of the two intertwined. To call my teen daughter to something of these proportions, I need to break her heart the way Jesus’ heart breaks, help her see herself the way He sees her, and create a framework of womanhood that can hold her as she develops, doubts, and excels into the future.
There is too much heartache in the world for her voice to not be heard and too much glory in her soul to not be unleashed. If I do one parenting thing right, it will be to raise a young woman who knows her voice is valued, needed, and essential. I will not relinquish her to the fabricated delay of childhood called “teenager” and let culture and peers shape her identity and then expect her to enter adulthood secure and equipped to make a difference. I believe she is vital to an epic story and I play a vital role as her mother to remove the blinders that deceive and seduce her age group. Casting this vision is my antidote to the teen obsession with bodies, boys, and besties.
I call it Becoming. It is a rites of passage process like no other.
Listening to the messages in teen fiction, movies, music lyrics, and advertising aimed at shaping the next generation, I am not surprised when I see parallel storylines in the teens I am around. “Your value and worth come from being a sex object” plays out in girls’ poor body image, clothing choice, and behavior with boys. “To be cool, you need a boyfriend” permeates every young and short-lived romance as our kids stack up heartaches and betrayals. And perhaps worst of all, the belief “Teenage years are for fun, friends, and delayed responsibility” has created a decade of twentysomethings who have failed to launch. They are simply unprepared to navigate adulthood. As a parent, I am unsatisfied with raising children who live such a small story. Not only do I believe young people are capable of more, I believe the journey toward passionate and purposeful adulthood begins in adolescence.
I do not think I’m alone.
Ideologically, I straddle two generations. At the outer edge of Millennials, I find myself an older mother with younger friends who have different perspectives than women my age. My peers and role models who are just ahead of me in parenting herald from Generation X, to which I officially belong. Theirs is a more traditional and defined faith, church expression, and parenting style. The Millennial movement in the evangelical church, or rather outside of it, is one I relate to and live in the tension of. God is no longer in a nice and tidy box. Nor is Scripture, the way we do church, the expression of our worship, or the orthodoxy of our American Christian culture. Today’s Christian parents are having conversations about gender identity and same-sex marriage, creation stewardship and the philosophy of short-term missions. We are no longer worried about worship style used in service or as concerned about the differences between dating and courtship.
Given what our children are facing in the culture they are growing up in, the relevancy of these debates is ridiculous. My daughter was in the third grade when we faced a classmate who transitioned from a boy to a girl over summer. We hosted a thirteen-year-old girl in our home for a month who had already been sexually abused in church and raped by a boyfriend. Purity talks take on an entirely new dimension.
Gone are the traditional families and roles that the previous generation esteemed. Our neighbors’ homes are run by stay-at-home dads. Friends and family members reverse stereotypical roles because they enjoy it, are good at it, and no longer carry any cultural baggage around it. This isn’t a book about the glass ceiling for women, but rather a new approach to raising girls in light of our current culture. I want to usher our daughters into womanhood in a meaningful and intentional way that they can relate to!
This generation of girls will grow up playing with engineering toys such as GoldieBlox and humanly shaped Barbie dolls. They will be in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) elementary schools, recruited with an outpouring of engineering and athletic scholarships, and reading magazines that have vowed to not Photoshop their images. Dove and Always ads will change the way they see themselves and define beauty. And they may worship at a church in which women speak and lead and pastor. We almost saw our first female president.
Like it or not, my generation of women has struggled through the mommy wars, the career-versus-stay-at-home dilemma, and all our other identity issues to birth daughters who know with all their heart they were born to bring their gifts to the world in a purposeful and intentional way. What we tearfully wrestled through, our daughters know innately. They have been born into a culture and to mothers who nurture if not breed it:
They are needed. Wanted. Valued. Purposed.
How then do we usher them through the transition to womanhood?
I interact with teens all the time in my work to prevent human trafficking. Through arts, photography, and leadership development, the organization I direct seeks to empower those most vulnerable to being trafficked to become peer leaders. I listen to these kids and I hear the whisper of culture’s influence on their self-worth. Boys are considered cool if they’re called a pimp, defining norms for how they behave in relationships. Girls are sleazy if they’re called a ho, yet also acutely aware of their sexuality and the power it yields. For many, they have come to believe their value lies in this power. They get caught up in sexting, offer too much too soon in relationships, and are tempted to dance, strip, or more for money. These are my daughters’ classmates, friends, youth group buddies. If this is what engulfs our youth, how can books that merely skim the surface of the reality they face adequately help parents?
This generation of girls might enjoy the traditional rites of passage programs many churches offer, but it is not where they will draw meaning. The framework of our girls’ sense of femininity places relatively little significance in these events. They have no schema for purity promises and crowning ceremonies. As meaningful as these might have been in previous generations, our girls need more. While they may still hold value, they cannot be the pinnacle of rites of passage for our daughters.
My oldest daughter stands at the edge of womanhood. A teen in middle school, we are discussing the expansion of her hips, the need for a bra, and how to discern when the boys are flirting. She is the middle child and the daughter of a counselor. Her dad is the founder of a nonprofit that architects experiences for men to heal their wounds, know their God, and restore their world. Eradicating fatherlessness is part of their mission that has led to intentional fathering materials, expeditions, and a yearlong rites of passage process for our older son. In essence, our home is saturated with chatter around puberty, adulthood, and intentional experiences for youth.
A few summers ago, we were sunning on our ragged beach towels during a swim break. My fourteen-year-old son sprawled on his back and cradled his head in his hands, armpit hair plainly visible to his shocked sisters, the youngest of whom exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! Aidan!” The siblings had begun watching for little sprouts years prior and had celebrated together when “peach” and “fuzz” burst forth from my son’s “pits.” With the first noticeable signs of puberty, they continued to openly chronicle his height gain, voice deepening—giggling at his expense when it squeaked—and the new struggle with acne. It had apparently been awhile, though, since they had seen his “pits.”
Just as public as his journey through puberty was the rites of passage process my husband orchestrated. Dubbing it the “Man Year,” he crafted twelve months of experiential challenges in biblical qualities of masculinity, inviting six men to each spend a few days with our son culminating in a test and a ceremony. The year commenced on his twelfth birthday and involved some pretty incredible opportunities: he sailed in the Pacific and flew in a Cessna with one uncle; he backpacked for four days with a good friend; he flew alone to Florida to be with one of his grandpas; and his dad took him on a ministry trip to the Middle East.
Needless to say, our daughters have been watching. And waiting.
I have an incredible task before me.
What I lack in my own experience (for who among us experienced a rites of passage process as a young teen?), I know this to be true: my daughter is incredibly different than and yet strikingly similar to my son. She is developing physically sooner, maturing in her relationships and inner doubts earlier, and in need of our intentional validation more than my son was at this age. Her passage will look different than our son’s rites of passage. Yet she too needs physical challenges and adventure latent with risk. She too longs to be altogether called to a larger story. What draws her most to her brother’s Man Year is that he was deemed able. She aches to prove she too has what it takes, that she has the strength needed to be a woman in today’s world.
Indeed, it is the very thing I find lacking in many rites of passage books and programs available to moms like me. Special ceremonies and crowns, rings and promises, princess language or retreats with other women are not inherently bad. But I find them deeply lacking. My generation has fought so many battles to create a climate in which our daughters’ voices are valued. Now we need to teach them how to use it. Too many rites of passage models re-create the cages from which girls have already been freed. Honestly, I have no desire to create a model at all. I want to create a conversation, a way of thinking, a new paradigm of being rather than another prescription for Christian parents to follow.
Our girls need to be called to something greater. The weight of their femininity is needed in our culture. It is needed in the kingdom of God. His story for His daughters is far larger than we could ever imagine. Why shouldn’t we create a space for girls to experience it?
Architecting such a space will take time. The primary goal is not to impart everything my daughter needs to know to be a secure and godly woman (am I?), but to create a scaffolding on which she can hang future doubts and questions, experiences, and successes. As my husband did for our son, I hope to fashion for our daughter a framework of womanhood that honors her and God and is sturdy yet flexible enough to remain constant in adulthood. I want to invite her to become, as we are all in the process of becoming more like Christ.
I want to invite her to the company of women, to the art of becoming.
It has taken me forty years to realize the real art of living is messy. There are no scripts we rehearse or play out day by day. No one method of marriage or parenting or ministry is the secret to fulfilled and meaningful living. Fellow believers work out their faith in various and beautiful ways, valuing diverse aspects of God’s heart to the neglect of others. And I cannot embrace them all. I fail and adapt. I grow bored and switch things around. I read and am challenged and begin to think differently. We are on a journey, all of us. Not rigid, but flexing as we listen and (hopefully) follow the Spirit’s leading. It has taken me decades to realize that life is art. It is sacred and it is participatory. We are cocreators with God in what He has purposed for us to do. If we have eyes to see, it is a messy beautiful process in becoming.
To this I invite you and your daughter. To a paradigm of being, not a prescription for living. Not to a life of obligation, but to one of grace and whimsy. What does a theology, what does femininity, look like full of grace and whimsy? Can we find this together?
THE ART OF BECOMING STARTS WITH MOM
Beyond Periods and Purity
My first attempt at grace and whimsy was a royal failure. She was far too appreciative of my effort to say so at the time, but weeks later in a moment of exhaustion and sibling rivalry, the truth came out. She DID NOT want her “woman year thing” to look like THAT. Ahem.
I’ll be honest. It all seemed daunting. I did not feel nearly creative enough nor did I desire to reinvent wheels that already existed and had worked for some. I had found a series that would provide intentional time with me and Dad while covering some of the issues I believe girls face: beauty, modesty, boys, and friendships. These were topics I deemed appropriate for her eleventh-to-twelfth year, her first year in middle school, the year before the official launch of her rites of passage.
In the early stages of figuring this all out, I welcomed a plan. This offered one so specific I could memorize the script if I wanted! I knew it was girly and planned for it to be a mere launchpad, but I had no idea how badly I would miss my daughter’s heart by executing it.
Despite her warnings that she did not want to have a tea party, our inaugural date started at a Victorian teahouse. I was excited. I love tea and scones and all things British. The teahouse was supposed to serve as a live object lesson as we discussed the quality of our words, actions, dress, et cetera. We dressed up and found an adorable place, but there were all sorts of distractions that mirrored the ways in which I was missing her heart. For instance, she hated the tea, even with lots of sugar and cream. She kept fidgeting with her skirt (the only one she owned), uncomfortable in the forced attire. And we were the youngest and quietest patrons, eventually requesting to move into an empty alcove to hear ourselves above the loud ladies’ groups. She felt out of place—not special—on every level.
Had I really thought about my daughter, Ella, I would have known all this. We had never ever played tea party. She owned zero dolls that she dressed up and perched in little chairs around a pink tea set. The only Barbies in our home were mine from childhood. We did have one plastic dollhouse set, but my son played with it more than the girls, knocking dolls off the roof and running cars into the front door. Ella had stopped choosing to wear dresses at the age of three and even at age eleven was uninterested in makeup, hairstyles, and other bling. My daughter is not a girly-girl. Certainly not one to relish the finery of an English tearoom.
Of course, the failure of my first activity might very well be the success of another mom. But that is the point. Our daughters are different, yours and mine. Stereotypes have formed that say all girls should enjoy what I tried to create for mine: dress-up, pampering with special foods in special places, dainty china as a meaningful metaphor for godly speech and action. We are told all girls ask the fundamental questions: Am I lovely? and Do you see me?
Archetypes exist to categorize and explain behavior. Tests abound on Facebook these days, assigning just about anything to a personality. I suppose we have a need to feel like we belong to a group with a set of descriptions, something that justifies our feelings and excuses our actions. As parents, perhaps we long for these labels even more. I took comfort in my son throwing the dolls off the roof rather than dressing them or doing their hair. “Boys will be boys” assured me that my son was “normal.” But are my girls normal? And what does “normal” even mean?
I have two daughters and they are very, very similar. The youngest prefers to play spy over any other pretend play. She has bags, notebooks, crumpled newspapers full of possible codes, and old keyboards and cell phones, which aid in her spy world. She prefers to read animal mysteries over American Girl Doll, Anne of Green Gables, or Little House on the Prairie. While she loves stuffed animals, her favorites are endangered and wild species that become part of an elaborate fire, earth, water, and air duel.
While an archetype for girls might suggest they are asking, Am I worth fighting for? I believe my daughters are asking, Am I fierce enough? Instead of Am I lovely?, mine are also asking, Am I strong? So what do we do if the archetype doesn’t fit? How do we embrace the truth that God designed girls and boys differently and that male and female reflect Him uniquely while still validating each child’s complex design? Indeed, both sides of the spectrum reflect His image.
For as many parents who are raising girls like mine, there exists an equal amount raising girls who perfectly fit the typical example. The question is how to find the right language to ascribe meaning to our daughters. If the tearoom missed her heart, where would I find it?
Periods and Purity
When my first attempt at intentionality failed miserably, I sought the counsel of other women. I created a survey and heard from women with older daughters, younger girls, and no children at all.
Interestingly, in answers to questions regarding rites of passage, most women assumed I meant the onset of our period. And most could not recall their own mothers addressing this monumental change with them at all. It seems my mom was not alone in her embarrassment around intimate topics. Across the board, each woman thought of either puberty or purity when it came to “rites of passage” conversations. Of those who had celebrated this rite with their girls, all of them described an event or a gift: a weekend at a hotel, a dance, a special ring, et cetera. Only one woman mentioned she thought it was a multiyear process.
I find this interesting. It is true that rites are by nature, events. They signify a ceremonial act or ritual. Rites of passage are markers of before and after: marriage, baptism, graduation, et cetera. When talking about girls, the most natural marker in the transition to womanhood is indeed her period. And in the Christian culture, the most natural ceremonial act between a daughter and her parents has been a purity covenant. I get it. But I’m deeply dissatisfied with it.
Though our society may lack significant rites of passage for girls and boys, they are deeply imbedded in other cultures. The Luiseño Indians of Southern California used to publicly announce their daughters’ onset of menses through a ceremonial burial in heated sand. Several girls would go through it at once while the older women of the tribe taught them various things about being a good woman. At one point they ate tobacco as a test of their value: if they swallowed it they were good, if they vomited, they were bad. The sand ritual was followed by several months of various restrictions, the donning of a special headdress, and culminated in the girls painting on large granite boulders, some of which can still be seen today.
In Africa, rites of passage are considered “critical in nation building and identity formation.”1 It is the transition from child to adult that inculcates them to group norms and expectations. For the Twa tribe, girls celebrate their menses (which is considered a blessing) by spending an entire month in a house with elder women instructing them on their history and future roles as a woman, namely being a good wife and mother. When the girl emerges from the home, she is deemed a woman and eligible for marriage.
Though spanning continents and history, most rites of passage have a lot in common. The girl’s physical change is celebrated in the community of other women. She is welcomed into the greater company of women, past, present, and future. And she is deemed ready and worthy of her future calling at the passage’s conclusion. While they might commence at the onset of menses, they encompass far more personal formation than body change. And yet this is all that we have distilled from these ancient rites of passage traditions: periods and purity.
In our current culture, girls experience a variety of “rites.” At some point, younger and younger, they receive a smartphone, opening them to the world of social media pressure and instant online access to videos, photographs, and strangers. Here begins the confirmation of what Disney XD has already taught them: their value is commensurate with trendy fashion, knowing how to dupe parents, and toying with a boy’s emotions to get what they want. Inundated with unmitigated advertising “promoting the idea that certain products—not family, community, personal goals, or achievements—will lead to being cool,”2 our kids’ self-worth is wrongly shaped. If our girls do not receive a counter-story, they will be led to believe they need what culture tells them they need to have any worth at all.
Soon after the rite of the coveted smartphone, she attends her first school dance. With lights off, slow music and awkward coupling encourage her to “date” for the first time, lasting a few days and mostly via social media. As she grows, the expectation to have a more serious boyfriend increases as well as social pressure to lose her virginity. By the time she gets her driver’s license and graduates high school, two major rites of passage for modern American teens, most girls will have already come to believe that their value and self-worth come from being a sex object. This is what music lyrics and videos, teen fiction, movies, and commercials have been telling them for years. It is what they saw played out on their phone, in Snapchat and on Instagram, at the school dances, and in the hallways.
In fact, by the time she puts on her cap and gown, 8 percent3 of her friends have harmed themselves, 9 percent have attempted suicide4, 64 percent have had sex5, 7 percent have gotten pregnant6, and 40 percent of sexually active girls have had an STD7. If she’s not confused about who she is as a woman, many of her peers certainly are. They are careening into college and marriage unclear as to where their value derives, looking to men to affirm them, and deeply insecure. Eventually, married for ten hard years and mothering a few toddlers, they limp into my husband’s counseling office unsure how they got there and with little idea how their story has impacted their present reality.
We owe our daughters more than this. And the cure is our intentionality.
Conversations around periods and purity may be a portion of what we impart to our girls, but it cannot be all. They need us to cast a vision of who they are becoming. Why have they been created? What story is being told through their lives? If we succeed at lifting their eyes out of the teen drama of bodies, boys, and besties then we have painted a picture of womanhood that captures them: they know they are needed and valued in God’s kingdom, starting right now. They know they are being invited to join a global sisterhood that reflects the image of God.
We need to build a framework of womanhood upon which they can hang all future doubts, experiences, and questions. They need a framework to reference when culture tells them otherwise. Our daughters need a rite of passage that invites them to join the company of women and prepares them to join us. If this sounds at all intimidating, you are in good hands. If you’re overwhelmed, you’re in good company. So am I. I’m a fellow sojourner, stumbling through this with you out of deep longing for something more. I believe this is so vital that with God’s help and one another, we can change the trajectory of our daughters’ lives. Will you join me? I think it’s worth it.
I call it Becoming.
I was twelve and something was happening.
We were a full day’s car ride from home and surrounded by all the relatives. My grandparents’ house was nestled in a wood with cornfields behind and a mortician living down the lane. The small town felt isolated, stalled, and like their home, frozen in time. The baby-blue toilet with the padded seat cover was my hiding place.
In the kitchen, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and the mortician neighbor enjoyed happy hour. It was Christmas and we were all together. There was no privacy, though I pulled my mother down the hall to the baby-blue bathroom next to the thirteen-inch TV with Miss Piggy sitting atop. I was horrified. My underpants were brown and sticky and I had absolutely no category for this. My mother paused. An embarrassed smile was gone as quickly as I detected it and she brushed it off. “Too much chocolate” she said.
Six months later it was spring and the sticky returned red. Now, from health class I presume, I knew what this was. I knew what to ask for. I knew what was happening. Years later, on the eve of my wedding, when the same smile returned to her face, I recalled the baby-blue toilet. I remembered that at age ten, I had asked what French kissing was and she said she had no idea. I remembered another toilet at age fourteen, from which I received coaching from a friend. She handed me a tampon and mirror and closed the door, not letting me out till I was successful.
And though I managed despite my mother’s embarrassment around intimate and feminine topics, what I recall her telling me that Christmas at my grandparents’ has framed the bulk of my parenting: There will be no topic too intimate to discuss candidly (and age appropriately) with my kids.
I tried this philosophy out when my son was five. I found him in the bathroom with the contents of the vanity all over the floor. Two-year-old Ella was on the tile floor with eye shadow and lipstick above her eyes, around her lips, and near her ears. Half of her foot was covered in nail polish. Next to her on the floor were several tampons, unwrapped and unrolled. Of course, “What are these, Mommy?” followed.