How Do You Know Who To Be?

Two years ago for International Women's Day I was asked to speak at a local college on what being a woman meant for me. Here it is in full, and as true today as it was then.

Knowing how to define yourself as a woman in a 21st century first world country is probably a more baffling task now than it ever has been before. I’m incredibly grateful for all the women who have gone ahead of us and broken down boundaries that our predecessors lived with for centuries. We are now free to be more than we’ve ever been free to be before. Yet we still manage to find ways to hem ourselves in and be defined by the society around us.

Growing up in the 90s, I found I didn’t really fit in any of the boxes I saw my female counterparts putting themselves in. At school there was a lot of emphasis put on who you were ganging up with, and who you are ganging up against - defining yourself seemed to have a lot to do with tearing down other people and distancing yourself from them in ways that were so small and petty, there really didn’t seem like any point to them. 

In relationships, there was a lot of girls willing to define themselves by their boyfriends - who they went out with, how well that boy did at tuning into their unspoken needs, and how much drama they brought to the daily life of everyone else who liked to talk about it. I couldn’t really see the point in trying to find my worth through trying to perfect myself to someone else’s image of who I should be, and so my relationships just weren’t as fervent and dramatic as other people’s. I got close to people who were headed the same direction as me in life; I kept my distance from people who were either trying to turn me into someone else, or to pin all their hopes and happiness for the future on me.

Neither did I try to find my value in my image. I don’t buy women’s magazines of any kind, because their prime objective is to make people think they need to be different in order to be better. The only time I allowed myself to look at them on a regular basis was when I spent a lot of time in hospital and I found myself picking them up regularly out of curiosity. Never have I been more unhappy with my figure, my complexion, my diet, my home and my relationships than when I was feeding myself with the trash that I came across in them. I soon realised why I was feeling that way and put them back down. 

As a parent, the amount of opinions on how you should raise a child and people offering you ‘proof’ that any flaws in your child have come about only as a result of your lack of parenting skills is abundant. While I am extremely glad that there is more support around than ever, and resources available that means you have more options than just “I will parent exactly like my parents did’ or “I will parent exactly the opposite to how my parent did”, it still means that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by trying to perfect a role that it is utterly impossible to perform perfectly.

And the list goes on. Your career, your long term plan to achieve your hopes and dreams, your unresolved conflicts of the past, your creativity, your marriage - all these things are offered as foundations on which to build your life and define the person you will be for the rest of your life.

But this has never rung true with me. How can you find your identity in your job when you don’t know what will happen in the economy or what your future family will turn out to look like? How can you find your identity in your shape, diet or physical achievements when you never know what’s going to happen to your health in the future? How can you place all your value on somebody loving you, when you can never guarantee that person will always be there for you and will never let you down, and that even if they stick by you faithfully, eventually one day they will die? How can I build my expectations on my own self-worth and ability to get through anything, when I still struggle with the same bad habits I can’t kick, and I have no idea what mistakes I will make in the future, and can never guarantee that I won’t have problems with my own mental health?

No matter how hard we’ve looked on this earth, and I think in the last hundred years we’ve given it a darn good go, there isn’t anything we can put our trust in that is immovable, unshakeable, completely constant, will definitely bring us joy in all circumstances, and will never let us down.

And for me, the reason I’ve never wanted to put my faith in any of these things is because I’d already found my faith in something greater. 

I didn’t need a man to make me feel loved or complete. I’d found that long before in my heavenly Father who already knew me inside out, yet loved me anyway. I’m grateful to have been blessed with a great husband to partner in some incredible adventure together, but our future right now is incredibly uncertain. His spine is full of tumours that are resistant to chemotherapy, and the doctors aren’t able to give us any reassurance about another way forward. But if he dies, I won’t be left unable to function and having lost my identity and purpose. I already had that before I met him, and it will continue long after, because my identity and purpose is found in God, not in a man.

I love my kids dearly, and they’ve stretched me and shaped me hugely, and taught me so much more about love - how to give it, how to receive it, and the depths to which it can go. But when we walked through one of our kids for two and a half years suffering under a debilitating disease, to the point where he couldn’t walk or use his hands anymore, and sat with him while he died at aged eight, we didn’t lose our desire to live, or lose our hope for his future. We knew his life had been mapped out at the beginning of time, and would continue on into eternity, because we know the God who created Him and is loving him better than we ever could, and that we will see him again in the future. I can continue to hold the future of all my children with an open hand, knowing my purpose is not in being their mother, it’s in being God’s child, and I just need to rest in Him and know that He’s got their future all covered.

When I found myself mother to five children, and it seemed that one of them was probably going to end up being disabled for life, and I thought I would be his full-time carer for decades, I found myself wrestling with all my previous hopes and dreams for the future. There were lots of dreams and ambitions in my heart that I thought I would get an opportunity to do while juggling motherhood, and then in even more depth when my kids were older. But as tough as it was, ultimately I was able to let all of those things go. Yes, because I love my kids, but more than that - I’ve grown up knowing that God has a plan for my life that was significant, that was perfectly shaped for me, and that it would give me ultimate satisfaction - more than the plans for my life that I came up with myself. There was a huge amount of freedom that came in letting go of all of that, and putting it in God’s hands, and He totally unexpectedly started fulfilling loads of those dreams in my life anyway, in a different and better way than I’d imagined them to be.

I don’t need to find my value in how I look and how well I’m keeping up with the changing views of society. I like having the freedom to choose what to wear and to be creative with my hair or my makeup, but that’s not because I’m trying to attain to some idea of beauty. It’s because God created me with a desire to be creative and to see beauty in the world around me. I’m not using it to try and create me in someone else’s image - I’m using it because it’s fun and because we’ve been given permission as women to do so. But my true beauty comes from knowing that I am loved and appreciated by God, and that He was willing to give up His own life for me to make sure it was possible for me to have a relationship with Him. So I don’t need to panic about my post-baby shape or my skin that still gets spots and that is showing lots of signs of stress right now, or that one day I will be old - I’m loved whatever shape I come in!

I’m really glad that women in the past have fought for change so that we live without the restrictions they grew up with. But let’s not replace the old restrictions with new ones. I don’t want to be tied to a constantly shifting, unforgiving, unattainable standard of womanhood offered up by society that will bring me misery; I want to be part of something bigger and more certain, that is greater than my ideas and desires for my life, but is actually part of something eternal. I don’t want to find my purpose and happiness in human roles and relationships - I want them to be the icing on the cake, knowing that the real way I can learn love and give love is through the One who created love.

Having faith in God is not about returning to past restrictions; it’s about being free to be the real you, fixing your eyes on someone whose acceptance of you is based on what He’s already done, not what you need to earn, and that He is alongside you through whatever life, society and circumstances throw at you. I am so glad to be the woman God created me to be, and to be blessed with what He’s given me - the good and the bad - knowing that there is even greater to come in the future.


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