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Teachers, Learners, Moms

A Retreat for the Whole Woman

As an expectant mom, I’ve been actively researching this new role I’m plunging into headlong. One friend shared with me that although many people prepared her for the pain of childbirth, no one could prepare her for the joy of having a baby. Another told me that I was heading for a lifetime of split-consciousness—a state in which I would always be myself, of course, but also someone’s mother. Additionally, I’ve been told that even though my husband and I have always lived out our marriage according to our shared vision, no “project” to date would come close to approximating our greatest joint undertaking yet: the raising of a little child.

I’ve also learned that transitioning to motherhood has been difficult for some women. Many have told me candidly that although they see the privilege of parenting as their highest calling and first priority, they often miss the intellectual stimulation, adult exchange, global orientation and involvement in ministry that having small children often precludes. Frankly, I’m a bit afraid of this. I’m at the point where I want to be a mother more than anything, and it is a desire rooted deeply, undeniably, in my spirit as well as my gut. But I also want to be the same woman I was before I was someone’s parent: A woman engaged in the world around me, not dismissed because I have children and thus a pre-packaged and restricted set of interests and convictions. Sure, I want to talk pediatricians and pak-n-plays as much as the next mom, but, also, I do not want to forfeit thinking about and acting on political issues, social concerns, community involvement, cultural analysis and spiritual formation.

Sadly, the modern church has limited offerings for women generally and moms specifically. Though there are support groups for new moms that fill a certain important role (fellowship with other women, a playtime for children, etc.), for many of us, they just do not set our hearts racing. We can see their benefit and yet feel distanced. In my experience, typical women’s events, be they retreats or weekly meetings, not only focus on domesticity to the exclusion of other broad areas of interest to women, but also tend to promote, even tacitly, ideas of traditional male headship. As a person committed to egalitarianism in marriage and biblical equality in church life, this leaves me feeling very alone.

Recognizing this, I began to reflect, prayed and received inspiration. Indeed God nudged me in a small voice: Be proactive and do something different! Don’t bellyache the limited options; create new ones. Soon after, I got on the phone with a number of like- minded women, who are also moms and floated the idea of a “retreat for the whole woman.” The response was positive; so we simply began to plan. One woman agreed to co-chair the event with me, and soon after we picked a date, wrote a concept letter, and began to solicit input from the other potential participants.

The concept was simple. Seven women met at my house for a three-day weekend during which we had seven one-hour “workshops.” I asked each woman to fill one of those slots by preparing a presentation on a topic of her choice—the only requirement was that it be of interest to them. Instructive, inspiring or just plain interesting, the themes chosen ended up being as diverse as the group: The vaccination debate, children and poverty in the U.S., a theological topic examined from a feminist perspective, artistic motherhood journals, prayer positions in worship, how to involve your children in world missions, and ideas for remaining involved in the wider community and nation through the power of letter writing. We sat down to each session with open hearts, hungry to learn from the wide range of interests we represented.

The purpose of the presentations was multi-layered. To begin, each person was encouraged to choose a topic close to her heart or to take advantage of the built-in timeline of the upcoming retreat to begin researching something that she wanted to learn more about. This happened! All of the women took serious ownership of their topic— spending time reading books, visiting the library, even conducting interviews—simply because of the inherent accountability of “having to teach something to someone else” about what they cared about.

Secondly, the presentations gave each person a forum for practicing skills in group presentation and leadership skills. Many of the women had previous experience in leadership, and nearly all reflected that speaking to a group is a skill that must be continually practiced and refined—a fact not helped by the fact that women generally are given far too few opportunities to exercise their gifts in the church. This small group experience reminded participants of their talents, built confidence and gave us an opportunity to affirm each other. In addition, by drawing on our own resources and setting high expectations (and not looking to an outside “authority”), we benefited from the considerable (and in some cases, unexplored) talents already present in the group.

Lastly, all of the presentations opened new windows for us in areas that we might not find in typical settings for moms. As we embraced these new ideas, the dialogue was earnest, and the questions were substantial. In addition, we stated (otherwise assumed) norms at the start of the event that guided our interaction: A spirit of teachability, encouragement, and openness colored the entire weekend. Freedom marked the three days as well. No one was apologetic about talking “parenting”; indeed, a significant aspect of our retreat was that we were likeminded women who were also connected as mothers. As such, all of the expected “children” topics emerged during the week, and we attacked those with similar passion.

Though the workshops formed the “hard content” of the weekend, we added other elements as well. The first night we introduced piles of materials we each brought for the resource tables that ringed my living room. From children’s authors to creation care curriculum to international music to literature on CBE (!), we each gave a plug for the information we brought, and then spent the balance of the weekend leafing through each other’s contributions. The second night we prayed for our children by name (some like mine en utero!). The third day we worshiped together: Each person brought a prepared piece to create a truly collaborative service. Finally, we had fun. We ate wonderful meals by candlelight, gave each other backrubs during the breaks and eagerly passed around the infant one breastfeeding mom brought to the weekend, thereby not sacrificing the nurturing, warm atmosphere a group of women can create.

We formed new and strengthened old relationships, let our minds roam over social, political, theological and artistic ground, celebrated our roles as moms, and left truly inspired. It was so simple. I encourage you to do the same—create something special and stimulating for the whole woman. And please let me know how we can assist you in your pioneering efforts.

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