“Mom, why do you always want to move?” my son asked. His question surprised me. We had recently built a new home within the boundaries of the family farm. We weren’t moving anywhere.
That was the problem.
Ethan overheard comments I’d make driving through other communities. I’d notice quaint neighborhoods and say, “I could see myself living here.” The daydreaming exposed my internal struggle. I didn’t really want to move away; I wanted to be myself where I was.
I was young when my family moved to our town which is set in a rural, homogenous Amish and Mennonite community. Being half-Italian, my name stuck out among the Yoders and Millers on the class rosters. I often felt different among my friends. We went to a non-Mennonite church and didn’t have family in the area like others did. My mom wore earrings and lipstick to church, which was different from other women, who often wore prayer coverings to their Sunday services. Those differences bothered me. I simply wanted to fit in.
The longing to fit in intensified as a teen. I wasn’t petite like other girls and I felt out of place with my animated, outgoing personality. A comment about my weight in seventh grade triggered a deep fear of rejection. I started exercising and restricting calories so I could blend in with other girls whose personalities and physiques were tamer than mine. Within months I went from 115 to 88 pounds. I was diagnosed with anorexia and eventually became bulimic. From middle school through college, I had a love-hate relationship with food and my body. When I binged, food provided comfort. Purging provided the thin body that made me feel accepted. On the outside, I created a wall of perfection so no one could see inside. These boundaries protected me from hurt and rejection.
I first learned what healthy boundaries felt like when dating Dave, a Mennonite farm boy, in high school. Dave accepted me as I was, despite the mess inside. We both attended the same university, where I flourished on the diverse, cosmopolitan campus. But my bulimia grew worse in the secular environment where our different upbringings collided. I felt pulled between differing expectations of our families and their cultures. I was raised in an independent, egalitarian family of all girls that conflicted with the unwritten rules for women in Dave’s faith community. I didn’t know how to set boundaries with either family as I tried to figure out who the adult me was. I pushed towards an early marriage so I could relinquish the conflict between the two cultures. Being a Yoder, I would finally belong.
Once married, I took down the walls of the eating disorder, but created different protective boundaries by conforming to the expectations of womanhood around me. I canned, quilted, and taught in the primary department while staying home full time with our young kids. No matter how hard I tried, I still felt there was something was wrong with me, that I didn’t quite fit in. One day after church, I asked God, “Why did you make me the way you did?” He answered by saying, “I made all of you, your strengths and weaknesses. It’s not a mistake.” God put a boundary around my whole person and called it good.
Psalm 139 says we are fearfully and wonderfully made, yet for years, I loathed my natural self, internalizing messages woman absorb which violate the unique qualities God creates in us. Messages which say being passive, quiet, and nurturing are the acceptable traits for Christian womanhood; being a leader or being strong or assertive are unacceptable traits. I believed every one of these lies, negotiating the boundaries God put around my created self as I conformed to be someone else.
I didn’t realize how damaging these messages were until I started teaching high school History soon after our youngest was born. Teaching ignited my passion and creativity, making me feel alive. My strengths were affirmed and encouraged by my students and peers. The classroom became my sacred space because I allowed all of me to show up.
However, a lack of boundaries by trying to be all to everyone, both personally and professionally, left me emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted. At 40, I left the classroom and became a full time graduate student for counseling while also exploring ministry. I felt further trapped inside the boundaries others put around me when misogyny prevented my calling and gifts from being affirmed and used in my congregation. I wanted to run away to any place where being myself wasn’t such a struggle.
More than just daydreaming, I often asked God to take me away to a different place where I could be myself. But God didn’t call my husband and I away from our church or community. Instead, God called me to take down my protective walls, establishing healthy boundaries with myself and others. He called me to be who I was, where I was.
At forty, I travelled with my parents to my grandparent’s village in Sicily. Here, God removed all boundaries of who I thought I was supposed to be. Women of all shapes, sizes, and personalities carried themselves with a positive, confident beauty. Seeing them gave me permission to feel comfortable in my own skin. God, again, asked me to trust him with the person he wonderfully made.
But it’s hard. We women spend most of our lives trying to fix ourselves when we don’t fit various family, faith, or cultural contexts of womanhood. We reject God’s healthy boundary of just being ourselves. We don’t know how to simply be.
I finally accept myself, though my body, personality, and location haven’t changed. But I still seek approval from those I love most. I recently asked one of my sons if he was bothered by the social media posting I do as an author. He smiled and said, “Mom, you do you.”
Simple truth. You do you. God’s perfect boundary.
This article originally appeared in Timbrel, Summer 2018. Timbrel is the official publication of Mennonite Women USA.