“You are a strong woman, and you come from a long line of strong women.” It may not have been the answer my mother was looking for at that moment, standing in her kitchen in the December morning light, the ravages of a sleepless night on her face. My father had passed away less than 24 hours earlier, suddenly but not unexpectedly, right there in their home. After my own nearly sleepless night, I had travelled there with my husband; other siblings were arriving one by one. And when my mother looked at me imploringly across the small room and said, “I don’t know if I can do this,” I said the first words that came to my mind – words she had spoken to me on more than one occasion.
The affirmation I gave her was true. Stories had been told: a grandmother who endured through the Great Depression, feeding her family on ration stamps and what the garden provided. She took in the infant cousin whose mother died and wet-nursed her, and later went to work in a factory to help support both the family and the war effort. And there were the Great-grandmothers who survived still-births and sent sons off to war, some of whom did not return. Alongside their strong men, these faithful and diligent women modeled the resilience that became legend in our family. My own dear mother lived her story of strength before me – married at 17, birthing seven children in the next 11 years, working tirelessly in our home, nurturing, gardening, canning, sewing, reading to little ones. Later working tirelessly outside the home too, along with my dad. They were not perfect, and their lives were not free of hardship, but neither ever complained even for a second about the way they spent themselves on behalf of our family.
I recall some of the times I heard her speak the “strong woman” phrase to fortify me, like the first time I sent a child to another continent with his other grandparents. It was spoken when they encountered difficulties and delays getting home and my emotions got the better of me. It visited me again when a young son was hospitalized with severe recurrent bouts of debilitating pain, and my fear and exhaustion felt like an insurmountable wall. And again when another son suffered a terrifying complication following sinus surgery. Sometimes the words were not exactly the answer I was looking for in the moment, not the permission I desired to dissolve into my pity-party du jour. But they never failed to remind me of the crucial truth: if those women could do it, so could I.
When push comes to shove, you rise to the occasion and do what you have to do.
I notice a change over time in our conceptualization of a strong woman. In my great grandmother’s day, it was a matter of both physical tenacity and mental/emotional grit – you did not shy away from the task that was before you, and you got the job done. These elements remain, certainly, and yet the twenty-first century interpretation of female strength has expanded to include concepts of vulnerability and of compassion, not only toward others but the self. We forgo isolation and perfectionism, embrace the knowing and being known, and allow the synergy of our healthy connections to blossom into an entity that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The passage of time has afforded me opportunities to share those bracing words from my mom with my own daughters – when one faced catastrophic adversity while serving in ministry overseas, when another stared down crippling anxiety while adjusting to college life. Honestly sometimes on a random Tuesday, when life is just hard. I’ve even been known to whisper these same words in the ear of my tiny granddaughter as we dance and sway. The words are never meant to minimize or invalidate another’s struggle, but to encourage – others have gone before you, they have wrestled with calamity, and they have persevered.
In the weeks and years following my dad’s death, my mother persevered, and she prevailed. Ever the student, she learned the skills she needed to get by and she leaned in to her community, consisting mostly of her many descendants. Her strength served her well to the very end, surpassed only by her love. Recently, in a light-hearted moment, my daughter teased that we were all “becoming our mothers, for heaven’s sake”! In many ways, I hope I am.
Katrina Cowen resides in Kentucky with her beloved husband of 31 years. She is finding delight in her latest adventure as a graduate student in mental health counseling, thankful for having been prepared by many years of marriage and parenting! She is a big fan of Jesus, family time, knitting, and audacious love that fuels bold authenticity.