The Trouble with Retreats
On the liberation of womanhood and motherhood ...
A “retreat” has always sounded good in theory.
Picture a cozy hideaway in a wood, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Inside, it’s all roaring fireplaces, stone-crafted mugs, baskets piled high with plaid woolen blankets.
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There’s coffee and tea and women draped in sumptuous fabrics talking in hushed tones. There’s a blonde wood floor with rolled up purple yoga mats and just the suggestion that yoga might be done, though no expectation that you have to do it at any particular time.
There’s couches that are perfectly worn-in, and rocking chairs, and wide windows overlooking mountains, hills, snowy outdoor paths, and maybe even a babbling brook.
Or maybe you’re viewing a desert scene: cacti, absolute stillness, a blue sky with clouds high in the sky and red rocks in the distance.
Retreat. The word itself suggests rest and relaxation, a step away from the world with its noise, busyness, anger and violence.
Retreat. Back up. Slow down. Move away.
And boy am I a sucker for a retreat. I have been on many. The idea of a retreat plays into my escapist fantasy; my assumption that a break from the worries and cares of the world is only a short drive or plane ride away.
I should also note that I’m coming at the perspective of retreat from a particular white American Christian subculture, though men also take retreats on occasion, and retreats have also grown in popularity in non-white communities.
But the particular framing of retreat that I want to discuss here has its roots in a particular understanding of womanhood and of motherhood. What the retreat often does is spiritualize or individualize broader problems facing women and mothers in America today - and the solution it offers is sorely lacking in addressing these very real problems (aka the patriarchy and a white Christian culture steeped in racism, sexism, and even abuse).
Let me say more …
I have been on many retreats. The first ones I went to were as a teenager connected to churches. One was a Teens Encounter Christ retreat that took place at the church where I grew up. I signed up at the last minute for this retreat after I found out the senior boy who I wanted to ask me to prom had asked someone else, and he told me about the very romantic way he asked this someone else, who happened to be a basketball teammate of mine. So I went to this retreat rather than the prospect of sitting at home with my parents while my friends went to junior prom.
At the TEC retreat I met another awkward teenage boy from another school and I think we had short-lived crush on each other that my youth pastor embarrassingly found out about, but that’s about all I remember from that retreat.
A year later, maybe, I attended another church retreat with an Evangelical church where I’d been attending youth group. A positive that came out of this retreat was a challenge to read the Bible for 30 days. I continued to read two chapters of the Bible for approximately the next four years of my life, including, oddly, nights when I’d come back to my dorm after a college frat party to continue a ritual of Bible reading and sit-ups while probably slightly drunk.
I am very grateful to have read the Bible multiple times at this formative time in my life, but thankfully the routinized and ritualized practice I’d developed lessened when I met my college boyfriend, Ben, who is now my husband.
I remember a few other retreats early in college that were connected to campus ministry groups. There was always uncomfortable beds, a 15-passenger van on its last legs, and vague warnings about premarital sex or being gay. At the time, neither of these warnings applied to me, but I still caught the generally misogynist and intolerant drift of the retreats and speakers at the retreats.
Still, I kept going.
There was something, again, attractive about the concept of leaving your everyday world for a moment of rest and relaxation, and perhaps an opportunity to learn something new or grow spiritually.
I had a “retreat” break for a few years while I finished college and worked in Florida as a sportswriter. I think I was invited to a retreat at the Baptist church in Fort Myers where I attended briefly, but I didn’t go. This was in 2008, and I was growing weary of the increasingly conservative and political messages I heard at the churches I’d attended during the candidacy of future President Barack Obama, who I voted for twice, unlike most of my church friends.
I’d read about Obama’s spiritual journey and even attended his church in Chicago while visiting Ben there. I was moved by the Christianity in America that stemmed from the Black Church and ignited the Civil Rights movement. The reactionary white Evangelicalism that was so popular among my peer group and among the football coaches and athletes who I covered was paltry, uninspiring, and even hateful in comparison. So while I grew in my faith as a journalist, and ultimately came to live with the pastor of my Lutheran church in Naples, Fla., I didn’t “retreat” for a while.
In 2009, I started study at seminary to become ordained as a Pastor, and over the next few years I would again attend more retreats. One took place early in my tenure as an intern Pastor in Las Vegas. It was located outside Vegas halfway up beautiful Mount Charleston, and it started with several hours of silence and a command to turn off our phones (which mostly didn’t get a signal up there, anyway). The retreat was filled with so many good people from my church, but something about it really turned me off. Even though I had just spent two years studying the Bible and theology, I was now being instructed by people who were steeped in a very different Gospel than the one I’d learned in seminary. I heard undertones of what seemed to me to be teachings that prescribed very traditional gender roles. New to ministry, working at a church where one of my pastoral colleagues and several of our staff and church members came from conservative Evangelical traditions, my antennae was up, and coupled with the rustic mountain surroundings, I started to feel like I was trapped on the side of the hill with no way out. When I told the organizers (and my husband, whom I was separated from during the retreat), they made me feel guilty because they said it seemed my husband was really enjoying the retreat. (He wasn’t; he just had a much better poker face than I did - which later came in handy on the Vegas Strip). But ultimately I ended up calling my internship supervising pastor, and he came and picked us up early. It was kind of a retreat disaster!
Months later, I was in more mountains outside Vegas, this time in beautiful Zion National Park, helping lead a women’s retreat. It was - fine. But I still found myself dreading the group activities, even the ones I was leading.
More retreats: I led a daylong retreat in the Twin Cities in 2018 on a sports theme for women, called Cheering for Ourselves. I’ve never gotten to use the curriculum again, and maybe I’d find some of it cringey now, but that was a good memory.
I also keep applying for writing retreats and occasionally attending some of them. And again - as much as I looked forward to and planned for these retreat experiences, I often found myself exhausted and disappointed.
I talked to another mom and writer friend who told me she too often felt the same way, which inspired me to write on the topic.
I think part of the reason retreats are ultimately disappointing for so many of us, especially fellow women and moms reading this blog, is that they attempt to solve a problem whose solution is going to take so much more than a weekend away in the woods.
Women and moms are uniformly exhausted. We don’t have enough support: at home, in the workplace, and financially. Much of the world still functions as though families with young kids have one parent at home (assumed to be the mother) whose sole function is to take care of the home and the children, ignoring the financial reality that requires two working parents to afford middle-class life in America, and often that still isn’t enough. Don’t get me started on the exhaustion of single moms and women who are caregiving for multiple generations.
And as a solution to this mental, spiritual, and physical exhaustion: we get band-aids, especially from white conservative Christian America, the subculture in which so many white Midwestern moms live.
We get MLMs: the promise of “buttery” leggings and “creamy” face potions that will substitute for a good night’s sleep. We get energy drinks and Keto and Kombucha and eyebrow gel and blue-light glasses.
And we get retreats: the elusive promise of a few days away.
Honestly, I think most of the women to whom these retreats are marketed to would actually benefit the most from a retreat that was simply a well-furnished room, a nicely appointed bed, a locking door, a functional bathroom, and meals delivered with snacks as desired. Working WiFi.
Instead, what we often get on “retreats” is another responsibility to perform the rituals of white “Christian” womanhood and motherhood. Everyone is, sadly, often still putting on a show. The dining rooms at these retreats are filled with superficial and surface-level conversation, with everyone sizing each other up and trying to figure out how much and what might be appropriate to eat.
And maybe it’s just my overly sensitive, introverted brain talking here - but I don’t find any of that relaxing.
Then there’s the pressure to perform release and relaxation.
Don’t believe me? You can actually see this happen in real time on Bravo, where a frequent mainstay of the Real Housewives shows is the cast trip, which has become less likely to be a sightseeing trip and more likely to consist of a spa or “spiritual” journey. Through some spiritual practices, you’ll often see the cast members supposedly opening up about some deep wounds, and then “releasing” with sobbing and/or screaming.
Again - maybe it’s my overly sensitive, analytical, introverted brain talking here, but I don’t like the pressure of the retreat to become emotionally vulnerable immediately to near-strangers.
It reminds me way too much of cults, where this pressure to reveal your deepest emotions becomes a form of “collateral” for other cult members to hold over you and keep you in the cult. That’s not relaxing, releasing, or fit for a retreat at all. It’s straight-up manipulation.
Anyway, like I said - I have a long history with retreats, I know all of this stuff, and I seem to keep signing up for them anyway, only to end up disappointed or regretful. If this is you, too, and you’re perpetually exhausted and keep seeking out that elusive forest bathing experience that will renew your soul - here’s my two cents of advice for us both.
My favorite retreat I’ve ever done was actually a hermitage about an hour from home in Northern Minnesota. They brought beautiful meals to my cabin, and I had lovely conversations with the staff in the lodge on my days staying there, but other than that there was zero pressure to socially conform in any way. I did my own yoga upstairs in the attic. I drove (when I wanted!) to a trail in the woods for a run. No one told me to put away my phone or be silent. I FaceTimed my kids and husband whenever I wanted. I watched the aforementioned trashy Bravo shows at night in my cabin by tethering my phone to my laptop, despite the lack of WiFi. I also got a ton of writing work done, working on a book proposal and finishing most of the new material for the 2022 edition of Red State Christians.
So yes. Highly recommend the hermitage. Otherwise, I recommend a two-pronged approach. First, make room for moments of retreat in your everyday life. I didn’t actually want to leave my home and my kids. I just wanted to find a little way to renew my soul each day, while still kissing them goodnight and getting breakfast ready in the morning.
I’ve noticed that it seems lots of men/dads do this instinctively. My husband will make himself a fun little lunch even if he notices a full dishwasher in need of emptying or hears the laundry ding at the end of its cycle. I, on the other hand, respond to the laundry end of cycle like a Pavlovian dog.
So I’ve started to make more room for moments of retreat in my every day. Maybe a cup of tea. A warm towel around my neck. Hand lotion. A little snack. Breaking up my workout into manageable pieces. Texting with a friend or family member.
All of these things are admittedly little, but they can make a big difference.
And then here’s the big piece. In order to bring change to the perpetual exhaustion that is a part of too many women and moms’ lives, we have to work together. Acknowledge that my struggle is bound up in your struggle. So after we’ve renewed ourselves individually, we have to come together. Not for “retreat” or performative crying and screaming, but for activism and real solutions. To meet with or call legislators. To protect access to necessary women’s healthcare, including options for women’s health needs around pregnancy and abortion. Equal pay. Compensation transparency. Advocacy for traditionally women-dominated professions like teaching and nursing and supporting striking workers. Support and solidarity for women in male-dominated fields. An acknowledgment that “working moms” and “stay-at-home moms” and all other kinds of moms, including LGBTQ moms and transgender moms — all of us are on the same team and we have to stop fighting each other in order to gain a small piece of privilege for ourselves while ignoring the real oppressors in our lives.
That’s my suggestion. And if you don’t like it, well at least you didn’t have to take vacation from work and drive to a remote location with bad WiFi, uncomfortable beds, and weak coffee to hear it.
PS: Are you a church leader or a Pastor reading this? For the love of God, end the infernal practice of Church Council or leadership or staff “retreats.” Nobody wants their volunteer position at church to bleed into a weekend away. If you want to bond, grab dinner or do a ropes course or an outdoor activity. Don’t “retreat.” Please. Nothing about debating a “church mission statement” or budgets or programs is relaxing or retreat-like. Call a thing what it is and get it done without the frills and let everyone get back home to their loved ones. Just my opinion.
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