The Story of the First Wild Woman Retreat

“Calgon, Take Me Away!”

Have you ever needed to get away from it all? Those of us who are old enough may remember the popular television commercial from the 1970s, in which the harried working mother retreated to her bathtub, calling, “Calgon, take me away!” as if a box of scented bath crystals would make everything better. We may joke about those moments, but sometimes we really do need to retreat, to pull back from the rest of the world to focus on ourselves. I know I do sometimes, and I never needed it more than I did a little over a year ago.

I was at my wits’ end. My husband and I were living on a tight budget in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment, struggling to regain our footing after a serious financial setback, and my young adult stepson was crashing on our floor (we didn’t have room for a couch) every weekend. On top of that, in searching for the root cause of my lifelong depression and anxiety, I had recently uncovered a deep wound – the mother wound.

What’s the Mother Wound?

“The mother wound is the pain of being a woman passed down through generations of women in patriarchal cultures. And it includes the dysfunctional coping mechanisms that are used to process that pain.” – Bethany Webster,

By mother wound, I mean the pain of mother’s rejection and/or inability of her child to meet social expectations, the pain of the mother’s ambivalence for one’s true nature caused by cultural pressures.  Psychologically, the mother wound may begin with our actual mothers in childhood. However, for adults, it is perpetuated by the internal construct of our mother as she was in our childhood, yet inextricably combined with the social and cultural expectations of us and our mothers at that time.

This pain was passed on to me in the form of harsh and oppressive attitudes towards myself, which I had adopted unconsciously as the internal construct of my mother. That voice was constantly berating me, to the point where I believed its lies and often felt too crushed to pursue my dreams more than half-heartedly, if at all. It was the voice that told me I wasn’t good enough, or strong enough, or simply enough. It was the voice that had for years kept my own voice, my writing, my artistic expression, blocked.

The author at the first Wild Woman Retreat.

I had come across the words to explain what I was feeling while re-reading the “Ugly Duckling” chapter of Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run With the Wolves. In the version told by Estes, the duckling’s mother makes many new mother mistakes. She has no guidance from older, more experienced mothers. She is ambivalent when confronted with her child’s social rejection, and tries to get the child to conform to cultural norms that deny his true nature. She gives up and collapses in defeat just when the duckling needs her most. Finally, the duckling leaves to seek a new family of his own people, undergoing many trials to find his spiritual home with the swans.

This story beautifully illustrates the problems with our current culture, which isolates generations of women from one another and cuts us off from our authentic selves by imposing all manner of unrealistic expectations for our appearance and behavior. As we begin to wake up to our true essence, we are drawn to others like us. As women waking up to our authentic selves, we find strength in sharing our common experiences and stories with other women. We learn from Estes’ analysis of the fairy tale that we need relationships with strong, authentic, supportive women in order to build our confidence and coping skills, but that ultimately, we alone are responsible for changing our inner voices to something kinder, one that can support us by getting in touch with the wild, instinctive mothering nature that is our birthright.

“The archetype of the Wild Woman and all that stands behind her is patroness to all painters, writers, sculptors, dancers, thinkers, prayermakers, seekers, finders – for they are all busy with the work of invention, and that is the instinctive nature’s main occupation. As in all art, she resides in the guts, not in the head. She can track and run and summon and repel. She can sense, camouflage, and love deeply. She is intuitive, typical, and normative. She is utterly essential to women’s mental and soul health.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves

In the pages of Women Who Run With the Wolves, I was also reminded of the value of the archetypal Wild Woman as a symbol of strength, courage, and authenticity. Estes’ book values the old stories for their archetypal wisdom, the sharing of our personal stories, and community with similarly Wild Women, something I had found in limited amounts, but was craving more and more since I’d been sharing my small space with two men for some time.

Does Anyone Else Need a Retreat?

I can’t say exactly when my “Calgon, take me away!” moments turned into the more specific, “I need a retreat!” moments, but it definitely gelled for me when I tried to talk with my husband, Charlie, about the mother wound. No matter how sympathetic he wanted to be, he simply couldn’t relate to the trauma of being a woman in the same way a woman does. By Valentine’s Day of 2014, I had approached three friends – Amy Hilton, Katherine Roberts, and Brenda Starwalker — to ask if they needed a retreat as badly as I did.

Two of our Wild Women gathered around the sacred fire.

To my great surprise, they were excited about my idea, particularly the part about calling ourselves Wild Women and working together to heal the mother wound, both individually and collectively. Things came together quickly and smoothly. Within a week of Katherine putting it out there, our first Wild Woman Retreat – Learning to Mother the Authentic Self was popular on Facebook and almost booked to capacity. Though we were disappointed she wasn’t able to attend in person, Katherine also designed an amazing brochure for the event attendees. Brenda offered her property, Sukavah Bodeh, as our location for the weekend of March 15-16, led our yoga practice during the retreat, contributed food, and made us delicious carrot dogs for dinner, with banana boats for dessert! Amy led a DIY workshop that got rave reviews, introducing us to sustainable and safe personal products like shampoo, conditioner, and facial wipes. I coordinated the food, led a circle reading and discussion of “The Ugly Duckling,” and facilitated the sharing circle.

Sharing our Stories Changed Everything

We arrived at the pinnacle of the two-day retreat on Saturday night around the campfire. That night, each woman had the opportunity to hold the talking stick and share her story, or whatever was on her heart, with a fully present audience and no interruptions. As our laughter and tears flowed together, we were all brought to an awareness of how isolated we had been feeling, when in fact we shared very similar experiences. I was profoundly transformed by our sacred circle, and have been healing the sources of my depression and anxiety at an accelerated rate ever since. That healing has come, in equal measures, from both new and deepening bonds of friendship with my Wild Woman sisters, and learning to replace the harsh inner mother with the voice of my nurturing instincts.

The Wild Women of the first retreat gather around for a DIY class.

Though at first his feelings were hurt when I said my retreat needed to be for women only, even Charlie grudgingly admitted I had more energy and seemed more balanced after my return. The truth is, we could not have had the same experience if men had been there. Men change the dynamic of groups.  Due to the same forces which cause the mother wound, women in mixed groups tend to exhibit the following dysfunctional behaviors: allowing men to dominate the conversation, praising what men say but not what women say, being afraid to speak the truth for fear of ridicule or reprimand, flirting (which diverts the focus and purpose of the group), or worse, they may be unintentionally triggered due to previous traumatic events. None of these things would have been helpful to what occurred around our campfire at the first retreat. For many, it is only when a group of women agree to hold one another in sacred trust that their authentic selves can emerge freely.  Possibly the best argument for women-only, in my opinion, is the effect it has on how I get along with the men in my life. My relationships with my husband and my son have improved significantly since I began taking the time to nurture myself in women-only spaces.

Looking to the Future

Wild Woman Retreat has come a long way since our first event. Unlike the first shoestring budget events, for several months my sisters Amy Hilton, Katherine Roberts, and I have been planning not only Nourishing the Soul by the Sea, but a whole calendar of women-only programs to foster individual growth and support collective healing.  From our humble beginnings of charging just enough to cover our costs, we have now emerged with a website, a new summer mini-retreat event, and a goal to eventually acquire a property as a suitable permanent location for Wild Woman Retreats.

I’m so grateful for all of you who joined us on the first Wild Woman Retreat, those who supported us along the way, and those who will be a part of Wild Woman Retreat in the years to come.

Love & laughter around the sacred fire.

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One Comment

  1. Sarah Crooks Flaire

    I really appreciate hearing about this gathering . I love the work of Estes and am happy to be reminded of her wisdom .
    Thank you .

    I have space in Jacksonville that would benefit from meeting you. Contact me if you are interested.

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