About 10 years ago, I was asked to assist at a work release/court-ordered drug treatment facility who were suddenly experiencing difficulty dealing with an increase in women inmates. I worked there for 5 years; teaching Life-Skills, providing Staff Trainings and completing Mental Health Assessments. Most of the women had children who would visit if they were fortunate enough to live close by or had relatives who would bring them. 90% of the women incarcerated in jail or prison have had to leave behind young children when sentenced. If no relative or friend steps in to help out, the state temporarily takes over mom’s parental rights. In order to regain custody, these women have to beat almost insurmountable odds by getting jobs earning a sufficient enough income to provide food and shelter for them & their children.
During that time, I read “The Tending Instinct,” by Dr. Shellye Taylor who describes a pattern of behavior in women that “From an evolutionary standpoint …is a plausible account of female responses to stress.” She states that as social animals, women produce increased levels of oxytocin, a brain chemical that helps them feel safe & secure, after spending time in the company of other women. Tending & befriending includes the act of coming together to share stories, help out, empathize & sometimes mentor the young or those in need. Dr. Taylor goes on to build the case that women are hardwired to connect with each other and require ample opportunities to express and satisfy this instinctual need.
Private practice has shown me that we live in a society that inhibits tending & befriending through its devotion to safety, competition and independent lifestyles. Men & women live, often isolated, behind locked doors and children grow up feeling the fear.
A few years later, someone suggested that I read Anita Diamant’s novel, “The Red Tent.” By then, I had incorporated Dr. Taylor’s information in my workshops; teaching others that the need women often felt to talk through problems with loved ones or professionals was instinctual & that satisfying this urge would ultimately benefit families and communities. Reading “The Red Tent” reinforced my belief that something needed to be done; preferably a grassroots effort to encourage and empower women to schedule in & protect time spent in the company of other women. Diamant’s story, which is set during Biblical times, described a red tent where women could stay when ill, depressed, alone, grieving or afraid, a place where young & old women or children could share stories, wisdom, and compassion. Where is our red tent now? What happened to this tradition that benefitted men, women & children and brought about a sense of community & togetherness?
Six months ago I walked a block & a half from our house to shop at an estate sale. Within 10 minutes I realized that something about this sale was odd; it felt as if the owner had left one morning & never returned. I asked my neighbor if he knew the story behind the sale. He told me in a low voice that the woman who lived there had killed herself recently & that her daughter was sitting by the front door, managing the sale. Everything was for sale; the comb that still had her hair in it, her worn-out teapot & even a 1/2 bottle of her favorite perfume. Before I left, I walked through her bedroom to get a better understanding of why she had taken her own life. There on her nightstand was a copy of “The Red Tent.”
Her book now sits on my office shelf; reminding me that this woman might have made a different choice if there had been a red tent to go to when the world closed in on her. Since that day, I have worked to provide women with a place to come together; my own small attempt at creating a red tent where women could reach out for help, share stories and mentor the young & in need. In other words, a safe place where they could come to tend & befriend.
At this point in time, The Red Tent Women’s Initiative offers classes in a local jail where female inmates come together to learn new skills, create art, benefit from guest speakers who share their wisdom; in other words “tend & befriend”. My hope in 2013 is to create a Red Tent in the community for women of all walks of life to share time together, offering female felon offenders a place to come to when released, spending time in the company of other women, young & old.
We welcome your questions and support. Please Contact Me with any thoughts, questions, concerns or requests for more information; I’d be happy to assist you. Thank you so much for your interest in the Red Tent Women’s Initiative.