2016-06-30
Tough-minded and empathetic, Beliefnet's new advice columnist discusses her approach to helping women find balance in their lives and the values she's trying to instill in her daughter.

I know that in your life you've overcome a number of major hardships. What gave you the courage to keep on?
I don't think I can say it was one thing, it was depending upon where I was in my life at different points. The most important thing in this stage has been learning how to differentiate what is happening to me from what is happening within me, and to be able to keep those two things separate. I cannot control what happens to me, whether it is personal circumstances-I was raised in a household that was filled with violence and alcohol-or whether it is social circumstances-I am African-American and female, which means I've had my share of knocks and obstacles to confront-or medical problems I've had, like a lot of us have had. There are some things you cannot control, but I can control what happens within me. There is something in me that I would never give up, that real Renita that knows that no matter what happens she's a survivor, she can make it, she's made it in the past, she can make it again. I've held onto that reality.

What drew you to the ministry? How do you minister to people besides in church?
I'm Protestant enough to know that I'm supposed to say that it wasn't so much anything within me, but it was God who drew me to the ministry. I was drawn to it by something much larger than myself. I was sort of compelled in this particular direction. I didn't become a full-time pastor or evangelist, I went the route of becoming a professor of religion. Being a minister for me has meant being able to operate within a number of different venues. I do speak and preach, but I'm a fulltime professor, I'm a writer, I give lectures and workshops, and now Beliefnet gives me another venue. One of the things I love about ministry is that I've not been stuck in one particular path.

I understand that one of your areas of specialization is "womanist" theology. What is that?
The term has gained currency with the academic circles and in the church world. It's the particular angle that women of color bring to their religious life. Similar to what white women have called feminism, women of color call "womanist."

You've spoken to women on issues of balance in their lives. What are the primary areas that women have difficulty with?
The greatest challenge most of the women who contact me have is in balancing their private life with their public life, their work life with their personal life. Single women as well as married women wonder, `How can I live in a way that doesn't allow my job to just swallow up my life?' Living in an era when you can conceivably never leave work-I'm sitting here in front of my computer, I'm tethered to it, I'm always taking my email, I have fax, cell phone-it's conceivable you can never leave work and always find a reason to check in and respond to one more thing. I think for men as well as women, they're struggling with how you strike a balance. You have to be so committed to having a life and not allowing your work to become your life, not confusing what you do with who you are.

How do you manage balance in your own life? I know you're a mom and an extremely busy working woman. Would you say you're a type-A personality?
[Laughs] My family would certainly say I'm a type-A personality, but I don't think I am! But I am incredibly passionate. And my husband benefits from that kind of passion. I do have this ability to zero in on something, and I don't let it go until I'm finished with it. And to me that's what passion is, to throw your energy into something because you love it. How I maintain balance is, I'm pretty much at a place now where I only do the things that I really love. I love being a mom, I love being the wife of this man-I can't say I love being a wife but I do love being the wife of this man-I love writing, I enjoy teaching. So I'm finally able to do things I really enjoy and I'm able to say no to the things I really don't want to do. So the balance is not as painful as it was 10 or 15 years ago when I found myself stretched in different directions, many of which weren't the best use of my time and abilities.

How has becoming a mother changed you?
[My daughter Savannah] represents the one area of my life that's non-negotiable, that I cannot say no to, that will not be put off, that I must attend to immediately. Nothing else I do makes me feel as vulnerable and naked as mothering. I'm not talking about the physical things-feeding her, clothing her, doing her hair, fussing with her about cleaning her room, making sure she's ready for school. I'm talking about the profound spiritual, emotional, and psychological earthquake that takes place in your life when you have a child-that leaves you prostrate, frightened, and perpetually feeling guilty. To be a mother means to feel guilty all the time about something. I've not had anything else in my life .I could rationalize everything else away, I could dismiss everybody else. I could reach deep down inside and hunker down and say no to everything else, but to this young lady I'm raising and who is raising me, it's a different place.

What are some of the questions-the big issues in marital and personal relationships-that people ask your advice about?
Certainly self-esteem, self-confidence, and personal identity are issues at the heart of so many things that women wrestle with and raise questions about. Sometimes there's a little voice inside me that goes, Who damaged us, who did this to us, why are we so scared? It's usually a question of asking for permission. Men are never raising permission questions. One of the things women are so bound by is that they're always seeking for permission outside of themselves. The notion of giving yourself permission to do anything sounds so scandalous, so selfish. Whenever we heard those Sunday school lessons on `Thou shalt not' and `Don't you ever'.girls seem to have just imbibed that in a way that male children did not. When someone told us no, we took it to heart. So at age 20 or 30 or 50 she has a lifetime of no's that you're trying to help her unpack and get rid of.

How do you get rid of them?
One at a time. Most of us want to make these large quantum leaps when it just starts with one step. It starts with saying no to one thing. And then you're like, "I said no and the earth didn't open up, God didn't strike me down, and that person really did live. They figured out somebody else could do it." It's small incremental steps.

The only place women will risk is in love.

Women will take some of the craziest risks in love that they won't take anyplace else. But that same woman can be so frightened about any other area of her life. Romance is the only place where we will be gamblers. And it's where we tend to lose most often. But why won't we use that same kind of energy in our professions, or wanting to take a trip around the world? We use that energy in ways that aren't so healthy for us.

I guess we think that romance is going to transform us and make us into the person we want to be.
If we just look at the classic fairytales, boys find themselves by leaving home, seeking their fortunes, their identity, their calling, away from the constraints of hometown. In all the classic fairytales that girls grew up on, they did not go away to find themselves-girls fell in love to find themselves, to become somebody. So romance has always been our great adventure where we find identity, safety security, excitement, ecstasy. And that's never been held up for men as the place where they would find themselves.

I used to tell my daughter a story about this dancer who one day fell during her biggest performance. She was just so humiliated that she didn't want to get up. But there was her mother on the back of the stage saying, "Get up, try again." And how she stayed down on the floor, saying, "I can't, Mommy! Tell them to bring the curtain down." But her mother kept saying, "Get up, you can do it." That's one of our favorite stories. If I can just teach her, You will fall, you will make bad choices, that's part of growing up. But you can get up and try again, you can do it! Trust those legs, they will bring you back. If she doesn't remember anything else, I want her to remember that.

You've written that your mother left the family when you were 13. How did you overcome your painful past?
One of the books I've enjoyed over the last few days has been Lillian Rubin's Tangled Lives, about mothers and daughters. I'm a sucker for a mother-daughter story, not only because I'm the mother of a daughter, but because of my own complicated relationship with my mother. Lillian Rubin, the author, who is a fabulous psychotherapist, had a tormented relationship with a mother who was not just hypercritical but was an angry, vengeful, and emotionally cruel woman. Two of the things Rubin said helped me understand how I survived in my family. One was the ability that to see myself as an outsider. Children who survive painful pasts tend to be able to imagine for themselves another life.

They tell themselves, I don't belong here, I've got another family, I was adopted.You may laugh about that, but they were able to separate what's happening to them from what's happening within them. They were able to preserve a secret side of themselves that even trauma and abuse and the ugliness of their past was never able to penetrate. They're hurt, they're wounded-believe me, you grow up with your own set of scars-but there was a special room inside you that you never allowed the craziness of your household to enter. They usually have an active imagination and make-believe friends.

Secondly, you have `adoptability'-you tend to be able to get a lot of mentors. You tend to be able to create relationships with other people. So the craziness of your mother or father or sister or grandfather or the foster-care system, they're not the only people who have your ear. You're able to adapt and to be adopted by other people. You have surrogate mothers or fathers. My colored schoolteachers in Atlanta, Georgia, were my lifeline to another world. Though I was a complete failure at home, I was able to shine and bask in those teachers' attention. They may not be in your life forever, but they're in your life at a critical time.

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