Start Naming Strength While She's Young

The outfit I have chosen is discarded in the clothes-swamp floor of her room. Jeans and a sensible t-shirt strewn among sparkly dresses, floral skirts, and chunky sequined sweaters. I know this walking down the hallway before I even enter. “We are going to be late,” my voice rises in warning as my footsteps fall heavy on the hardwood floors.

From Cheering on the Sidelines to Playing: Raising Girls while we Raise Ourselves

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From Cheering on the Sidelines to Playing: Raising Girls while we Raise Ourselves with Tracy Johnson

I had no idea that I would become more of myself for having had children, and my four daughters have each called out differently to the best in me. In helping them discover themselves I have often been faced with choosing how to more fully embrace my own self.

My second born, Allison, is the feeler in our family and I mean “feeling all the feels”, all the time. She is my extroverted, passionate, artistic wild child and she was also diagnosed with a learning disability in first grade. Growing up behind her academically high achieving sister was a challenge.

To be honest I struggled to understand the sister dynamic, as I didn’t have a sister growing up. The girls had an interplay of intimacy and animosity that was mind boggling to me most of the time. Sometimes I felt frustrated by their bickering and other times I felt like I had somehow missed out on something so beautiful it ached inside of me.

When Allison was eleven or twelve we were driving home from school one day when she began talking about how she wanted to get the cartilage in her ear pierced. I asked her why and she proceeded to talk about one of Katy’s friends and how she really felt Carly got her because she was an artist and wore interesting clothes and was the second born in her family, like Allison, and she had her cartilage pierced. She went on to make a comment about feeling alone in our family and like none of us understood her. I wasn’t sure how to respond, but I found some words and said, “I love that you see things in Carly that tell you that you belong.” Katy rolled her eyes and I quietly worried that I was losing Allison.

I pondered that whole conversation for days. I hadn’t wanted to come off churchy or with some sort of predictable response like, “Well you know you belong in our family” or “You’re not alone Al, we all love you.” I knew those words would just hit some hollow place inside of her and roll around leaving her sure that she was right and I didn’t understand her.

I had my own ear piercing story and it was a far cry from wanting my cartilage pierced. The whole process of simply getting my ears pierced had felt like a battle between good and evil and clearly ear piercing was evil and highly questionable. While I had often thought it would be sweet to have my cartilage pierced I never really considered doing it, sure it would garner raised eyebrows and judgment.

A week or so later I took a trip to visit a woman who was a mentoring presence in my life. As we stood in her kitchen talking one evening I shared about the kids and told her some of my current favorite Allison stories. She listened and said, “You know Tracy, it seems like you really cheer Allison on and I love that; and I see you on the sidelines and I wonder what it would be like for you to get out on the field and play with her?”

I remember standing there and feeling like I had been invited to something good. I didn’t have an answer in that moment, but I knew in my gut that I wanted to get out on the field with my girl and play.

I flew home pondering the possibilities and decided that a great way to play with Allison would be getting our cartilage pierced together. I picked her up alone from school one day and she was surprised and curious, “what are we doing Mom?” I told her we were going to the mall to get our cartilage pierced together.  She was shocked, and filled with joy. She couldn’t stop smiling and asking me, “Seriously, Mom, seriously. Why? Why are you doing this?” I told her that I loved her creativity and uniqueness. I told her I knew she was different from Katy and I told her that I’d always wanted to do it and how glad I was that we could do it together.” Her eyes danced as she listened and she was just a bit tearful.

It wasn’t as easy as I had thought it would be to get it done together. State laws prohibited me from getting her cartilage pierced without her having a military or state issued form of identification, which we didn’t have. Allison wasn’t bothered at all, “Well, Mom you should get yours done so I can see how bad it’s going to hurt!” So, I did. And, I was determined to find a way to get Allison’s done too.

A few days later with a piercing gun borrowed from a friend I pierced Allison’s cartilage in the parking lot of the conservative Christian school she attended, which did raise a few eyebrows and garner some judgment, somehow making it even sweeter.

It’s a fun story that marks the day I stopped cheering from the sidelines and began playing with my daughter to validate who she is and the uniqueness of her heart and soul, to let her know I was with her.  The beauty of it is that the validation I gave to Allison came from parched places inside of me that were watered in the process of loving her well.

Allison and I have continued to play and mothering her has taught me much. Today, she has her masters in leadership and works as a resident director at a college where she is passionate to see and care for each of her students as she pushes them to engage with topics of diversity, self-care, intentionality, and identity. I remain grateful for the wise woman who invited me to get out on the field and play - it’s wisdom I have passed down many times to other women trying to figure out how to mother their girls well.


Tracy and Allison

Tracy and Allison

Tracy Johnson is passionate about nurturing communities where people experience healing, hope and celebration.  A certified lay counselor she has written curriculum and traveled the world speaking on healing in the context of abuse.  Married for 30 years, she and Mark have five children. She is the founder of Red Tent Living and can be found on Instagram and Twitter @seizedbyhope.

Raising a Phenomenal Woman

The Year of Phenomenal Women with Tamara Cook

When I was a teenager, I had the amazing opportunity to hear Maya Angelou tell her story live. I had been blown away by I know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her poetry including the beautiful and a bit cheeky Phenomenal Woman with the famous refrain, “I’m a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me”. I loved the strength that Maya Angelou projected in her story and especially in this poem. So, when my husband and I decided to design a coming of age process for our twins building up to their 13th birthdays, I was inspired to call the process with my daughter the “year of phenomenal women.”

As I thought and prayed about how I wanted my daughter (and me!) to grow, the fruits of the spirit from Galatians 5 seemed a beautiful guide for our journey. During a silent retreat, I sketched images linked to each fruit and brainstormed scriptures, books, movies, songs, inspiring women and related activities. I then reached out to an artist at Kitengela Glass to commission small round stained-glass circles to represent each fruit. Each outing began by giving my daughter a stained-glass which now all hang across her bedroom window. Our outings ranged from extravagant nights away to a simple lunch on the way home from the salon but each holds a special place in our hearts. Our conversations ranged from the silliness of crushes to the deep complexity of cross-racial adoption and identity. We laughed. We cried. And we each grew more into the phenomenal women that God made us to be and become.

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Here is a taste of our experience during the year linked to each of the fruits of the spirit:

 Love: We kicked off the year with a night away including a sushi-making class. We studied the famous love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13 about love as an action, not as a fairy tale. The stained-glass was a simple but powerful heart. We stayed up late watching movies linked to love (one from her generation: Catching Fire with lots of examples of selfless love and one from mine: Pretty in Pink with several different angles on what love means). I tucked her into bed by reading our worn copy of I Love You as Much and singing The Rose, a song I used to sing at bedtime.

 Joy: We considered the joy of our salvation in Psalm 51 and the line in Amazing Grace “the hour I first believed” that always brings a smile to my face. The stained-glass was a smiley face. The outing was a lunch out where we spent time joyfully staring at the clouds and imagining what shapes we could see.

 Peace: We explored the armour of God described in Ephesians 6 and especially what it means to have our feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. The stained-glass shows a dove in the shape of a hippy peace sign. Our shoe shopping outing was perhaps a bit too silly of a connection but we had a deeper conversation around I am Malala.

 Patience: We listened to U2’s 40 inspired by Psalm 40 and the idea of waiting patiently for the Lord. This stained-glass is an acacia tree reminding us of the patience of Wangari Maathai who embodied peace in her fight to bring the green belt movement to Kenya. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, the same year we adopted the twins while living in Kenya.

 Kindness: We pondered the words of Isaiah 58 to loose the chains of injustice, share food with the hungry and provide shelter for the poor. The stained-glass was a sunrise recalling verse 8 “then your light will break forth like the dawn.” We also learned more about the work of Jane Addams and the Hull House.

 Goodness: What better description of goodness could there be than the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5? The stained-glass was a mountain and I had hoped we would go for a hike but she wasn’t interested so I didn’t push it and we still had a good talk.

 Faithfulness: In a world where faith can be so misunderstood, Romans 12 especially verse 2 reminded us that faith is not about conforming but about being transformed by the renewing of our minds and testing and doing God’s will. The glass was a simple cross reminding us of how Jesus embodied faith as well as all the other fruits.

 Gentleness: The imagery of Psalm 23 reminds us of God’s gentleness as he leads us beside still (and gentle) waters. The stained-glass was a stream and we read a stunning rendition of Psalm 23 interpreted for an African-American urban community.

 Self-control: We used Paul’s self-discipline metaphor in 1 Corinthians 9 of training for a race as we prepared for a 5k and our last night away. The stained-glass was a rainbow finish line accompanied by a silver necklace with all the fruits inscribed. We ran the 5k on our own because the race we registered for was the same morning as the baptism service. Both twins had decided to follow their steps of faith into the pool that morning where Daddy dunked them with tears in his eyes.

It has now been almost a year since we finished the Year of Phenomenal Women. The teenage years continue to come with the expected and some unexpected challenges. But those stained-glass windows still glisten in the window to remind us both what it means to be phenomenal women.

~Tamara Cook

Tamara and Kayla

Tamara and Kayla


Tamara is a follower of Jesus, wife of an amazing man who happens to be a pastor (, mama of three very cool kids, and head of digital innovations at Financial Sector Deepening Kenya ( She was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, studied international affairs at George Washington University, got an MBA at INSEAD in France and has lived with her family in Washington DC, Nairobi, Paris and Seattle while working to increase the value of financial services for people living in poverty. 

Read more from Tamara in A Voice Becoming: A Yearlong Mother-Daughter Journey into Passionate, Purposed Living.

Where Have you Come From: Restorying the Past

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Restorying the Past with Jenni Lillie

She and I flew to the small coastal town in the evening. My anxiety grew as we descended into the airport. I hadn’t been back in 12 years. The city was full of loaded memories for me. I knew she needed to see where she was born and hear the story of our brief time there that included her first year of life. I was ready to face the city with all of the underlying weirdness from the dark memories of that season. 

She had seen the photos from her birth and the day she was born. She had never questioned why her dad wasn’t in any of them. I hadn’t told her the full story yet.

The first full day was a surprise of her learning where she came from and full of stories. Our first destination was a retired battleship that you can tour and walk through. We ventured into the guts, galleys, and various decks ultimately ending up on the very front of the ship. As soon as I saw the enormous anchor, I knew it was where I would tell her the hard stuff of her beginnings with our little family. I looked around and it appeared to be just us on this huge ship. My heart started racing and I knew it was time.   

We sat down on the anchor and I pulled out a photo album from when I was pregnant, the day she was born, and her first few months of life. We flipped through the pages and I walked through the beauty and joy of finding out she was a girl and how excited we were. I paused, took a deep breath, and shared about life being a battlefield with hard things and no matter what happens in her life God is and will always be her anchor. He is good and loves us so much.

I held on to her when I told her that her dad and I were separated while I was pregnant and he wasn’t there when she was born. She was shocked. Her dad had written a note for me to give her when the time was right. She read it and we cried. She asked me a lot of questions, we talked, and for several minutes we sat quietly on the giant anchor in the silence and stillness of the sunshine. We stopped in the gift shop on our way out and she picked out a necklace with an anchor to remember.

I took her to the beach where I would go with her as a baby and we had a picnic lunch in the afternoon. She ran, played, and splashed in the waves. The ocean is her happy place.   

Later that evening, we went for a drive before dinner to visit the hospital where she was born. It was dark outside like when I had arrived there 12 years before to deliver her, but it was different too. The main building where she was born was there, but there were new buildings surrounding it. We walked inside and made our way down the hall towards the gift shop. A surprise gift was planning to be there - her dad. She ran to him when he walked in and jumped into his arms. It was beautiful to watch. This time it wouldn’t be just the two of us leaving the hospital together. The three of us were leaving the hospital with a new set of memories as a family. God makes all things new.

The anchor has become my daughter’s symbol of her journey into womanhood this year and part of the foundation of her becoming year. My prayer is she will put her hope in God all of her days and He will be her anchor in all of her joys and sorrows of life. 


God makes all things new. Jenni and Anna.

God makes all things new. Jenni and Anna.

Jenni has lived in France, auditioned for The Amazing Race, and started a photography business. These days she is growing two kids with her husband in Colorado and leading an outreach into strip clubs. She can be found on Instagram @jennilillie or Facebook @jenniowenslillie. 

Read more about Jenni in A Voice Becoming: A Yearlong Mother-Daughter Journey into Passionate, Purposed Living.