My dear daughter.
I remember where I was standing when I thought it and the life circumstances that precipitated it.
I’d invested years I’ll never regret into you and your brothers. But I realized because of that choice, the ability to maximize another dream had passed. I was belabored, discouraged.
You were probably 10 at the time. You were beginning to spitball about future careers. As you’ve grown in that beautiful mind and tough little heart, I’ve tried not to appear overly awestruck.
But that day, some wounded part of me wanted to limp in front of you, arms waving. Don’t do it! Dream reasonably. And maybe even … dream smaller.
I should tell you this was more about the death of my dream than it was about you. I get excited by your dreams—even the weirdish or far-fetched (like the time you and your brother dreamed about starting a restaurant in Indonesia that also provided clean water).
I’d experienced the pain of reality rubbing up against our American ideals. No one tells you all your dreams can’t fit into one life. Like an Olympic runner, you can’t live the dream of bagging both the gold medal and a bag of golden potato chips. Our desires conflict, no matter our gender.
We’re all choosing the best noes to get to the best yeses.
But dreams for a strong woman can involve an elaborate dance of work and home. These weren’t always separate and opposing for women—just like home and discipleship of kids wasn’t always just a feminine thing (that happened around the Industrial Revolution).
Someday you may find yourself wrestling with whether it’s really “strength” to wipe everything (from noses to kitchen counters) all day long (and through the night), or if a pair of power high heels are stronger. You may wonder if a strong woman follows or leads. You may wonder what to do with that dream to be a movie director or graphic designer—and what God thinks about it. Or you might wonder if you’d have to make the same decisions if you were a boy.
That’s where strength for us as women gets tricky. And it’s different than we’re told. In The Right Kind of Strong, Mary Kassian writes,
I was strong in all the ways the world admired.
But … I began to suspect I wasn’t nearly as strong as I made myself out to be. The more I read the Bible, the more it challenged my idea about what it meant to be truly strong … I was strong enough to demand my rights, yet not strong enough to relinquish them. I reluctantly concluded that what I extolled as strength was often little more than stubbornness, insolence, self-sufficiency, and prideful self-promotion.
She talks about the “brash, sassy, self-serving, demanding kind of strong”–and reminds us instead of the “hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:4).
Christian standards for women have sometimes felt like they needed more teeth, more sturdiness to compete with not only women’s desires, but the biblical picture of womanhood—women like Jael, Deborah, Esther, and the brave women at Jesus’ tomb.
Looking at you now, daughter, while looking back on all the choices I’ve made, here’s what I want you to know. From one strong woman to another.
1. Don’t let society fool you into thinking your ambitions are more important than your relationships.
I will tell this to your squirrely brothers, too, if they plan on careers that peel layers from the quality of their life’s fabric. Because as 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 reminds all of us, no matter what we do or have, if we have not love, we are nothing. Or as Galatians 5:6 puts it, the only thing that counts is “faith working through love.”
And though love through work is imperative, several scriptures exhort us to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2; see also 1 Timothy 5:8, Isaiah 58:7). There may be many people who can do our jobs. But only one person can be your husband’s wife (or your wife’s husband), the parent of your children. The woman (or man) stellar at work but lousy as a friend won’t just be dealing with others’ dissatisfaction. She’ll be encountering her own.
Don’t let your life be shiny, yet hollow.
2. And yet, your identity is higher than “wife” or “mom.”
During that time when my dreams and my love for you guys were in a tug of war, someone pointed out Luke 11:27-28: “As [Jesus] said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!’ But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!'”
This was clearly a culture where women derived their value from the men and kids in their lives whom they nurtured. But note Jesus’ response: More valuable than being the mother of Jesus—than whoever you raise–is to hear God and obey Him.
I still concur with the words of Andy Stanley: “Your greatest contribution to the kingdom of God may not be something you do but someone you raise.”
But someday you may not get married or be able to have kids. Neither will mean you can’t fulfill God’s highest calling for a strong woman. Because it’s not wife or mom, but follower of Jesus. That calling might take either of us through the laundry room or the school room or the board room (or like me, all three).
To paraphrase John Piper—love your family more by loving them less (than God).
3. Position ≠ strength.
Jesus was the most powerful man on the planet. But isn’t it interesting that He didn’t live like it?
He was essentially homeless. He didn’t pander to the favor of the religious gatekeepers even though He wanted to influence the religious. Jesus could have kept Himself from capital punishment, yet didn’t. He didn’t cower in the face of abuse or injustice, yet didn’t sling insults in the face of it.
He reminds me there is true might that lies in poverty of spirit, submission, meekness, purity (rather than the crassness from a “strong woman” in a Twitter feed). In serving to the point of death.
He described Himself as a person under authority; “the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). Contrary to American thought, you don’t have to be the top dog or the leader to be doing exactly what you were made to do.
The word God uses to describe Eve—that suspicious “helper” word (ezer)—everywhere else in the Old Testament describes a military ally or God Himself.
It’s not a small, diminutive word. It’s a foxhole word—a word of shielding and protecting, not Instapots and spray mops.
But remember: Jesus washed feet. Having a mean Instapot game is nothing to be ashamed of.
Let’s not be “above” anything, because He wasn’t. Being pro-women doesn’t mean you have to be anti-man, anti-baby, anti-homemaking, etc.
In all honesty, I don’t believe God gave half of the population desires just so they could have the chutzpah to not do them. Or that it’s men’s desires that really matter, and it’s the job of a strong woman of character to set hers aside to help him pursue his. God says the greatest among us is the servant (Matthew 23:11).
If, as men or women, we don’t see ourselves as people under authority, we’re choosing weakness, stubbornness that doesn’t admit our need for others or their guidance—even when that leadership is flawed (check out 1 Peter 2:18-23). Strength for both genders looks like service and following Jesus.
4. Be a little uglier.
So one more thought, between us girls. Reading a women’s magazine recently, I discovered I need not only a beautiful face and a neck that does not resemble a wattle; I also need beautiful hands.
I need to apply special anti-wrinkle and anti-spot treatments to my hands, I am told. Because my hands should agelessly resist the natural effects of the sun and gravity and life. They should not look my age.
So here’s the thing: You and me—let’s be okay with ugly hands.
Not just because you said no to a bunch of not-so-essential beauty products (and maybe rolled your eyes. Atta girl). I want you to have hands that serve people all your life.
Have the kind of hands that need to be sanitized because changing diapers isn’t beyond you. Let them need a little lotion because you’ve washed dishes in a place where you can’t easily get a dishwasher, or because you made a meal for someone who could use a pick-me-up.
Sure, have fun painting those nails. But every once in awhile, let the cuticles get a little rough because you took the time to listen to a friend instead, or read a kid a book, or pushed him on a swing even if you forgot sunscreen. Or you planted something and felt the dirt. Maybe chlorine dried them out because you got in the pool with a child, caring more about shaping memories than the lines of your bathing suit.
Grow a callus from writing notes to encourage or thank someone. Let those fingers clench every once in awhile because someone else without a voice isn’t getting justice.
And you know what? Use those hands to wave over a few friends. Explore what breathtaking, powerful women—intent upon a higher calling than self—really look like. Because together, God made us girls on purpose.
Let’s be this kind of beautiful. This kind of strong.
Copyright © 2019 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, on spiritual life skills for messy families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.