I'm a homeschool graduate, complete with the many stereotypes most people associate with that. I have ten brothers and sisters, used to wear long skirts and dresses all the time, used to be able to recite whole books of the Bible, and considered myself too mature and spiritual to hang out with most of my peers as a teenager. Although I was shielded from most of pop culture growing up, I caught up pretty quickly as soon as I moved away from home at age 19. So I guess I'm pretty normal now, but you can decide for yourself. Ha!

I was raised to seek God first in whatever choices I made. But I didn't fully embrace this with my whole heart until I was 9 years old. Before Jesus Christ became real to me I was bitter. I'm a type "A" control freak who wants to boss everyone I meet, easily holds grudges, vainly cares about what I look like more than anything else, and whose main talent is the art of verbal abuse. I know. That's a huge list of negatives about myself. My parents were very patient with me and they tried really hard to explain to me in a deeper way why I should be selfless, forgiving, and avoid cruelty. I tried hard to accept Jesus and live for Him, but I just couldn't. The whole gospel story seemed fake and contrived to me. I couldn't believe that He was anything more than a God who was unapproachable and too perfect to relate to, if He even did exist.

I'll never forget Mom softly sharing with me the story of Christ's crucifixion in an effort to explain to me forgiveness, that I might forgive those who hurt me because of the forgiveness I was shown by God. It wasn't until she made clear that Jesus felt every pain and temptation the same as a human that I started to consider whether I could accept the gospel story and believe that God could relate to me. As the story droned on, I could envision it in my head and was awestruck that even when Jesus could feel all the pain, and even when God watched His Son feeling all that pain, they still made those sacrifices for mankind out of love. For me. The tears rolled down and I felt broken. The beauty of what Jesus did for me was finally clear to me and I knew then that a personal relationship with God who loved me so unconditionally was what I wanted my life centered around and focused on above all else.

The control freak in me still flares. The type "A" tendencies still manifest and I lose my temper. But I am free of grudges and I am walking in the grace of His forgiveness. And I am as awestruck of this now as I was then.

As I began to cultivate a personal relationship with God, I realized that I wanted my whole life's purpose and goals to be centered around Him. I began to look around me at what needs there were and think about how God could use me to fill those needs. Growing up in a family that does everything contrary to what the rest of the world does, caused me to see firsthand how people can be unjustly treated just for being different. I watched my family be questioned about the legalities of their home education choices, their birth at home choices, their decisions not to immunize their children. And yet, I saw that those who understood the law were not easily taken advantage of or pushed around. They could protect themselves and did not appear vulnerable.

One of the verses I clung to when deciding what to do with my life was Isaiah 1:17:

Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

I sped through high school and finished when I was just 16. I worked for a year to pass CLEP tests and earn enough money to pay my way and be qualified to go through a year long paralegal program through a Christian law school.  I eagerly started a juris doctorate program at 19 while working full time at a Christian military style vocational school that my brother was working for at the time. I did administrative work, some public relations work, and eventually became the registrar. However, I had a few setbacks that first year in law school and realized that I needed to get more serious about law and look for a paralegal position.

I became a paralegal at a christian advocacy group for private education and finally felt like I was doing exactly what I first dreamed about when I was 12 years old. And then I met my now husband. I was 22 and he was my first boyfriend. He was in college and also a homeschool grad, so we shared a lot of the same conservative views. We were oh so in love.

During this time of falling in love I started to focus all of my energies on supporting Chris's dreams. His favorite verse was the same as mine and his goal was law school after he finished his under grad. It seemed like a match made in heaven, and all of my own plans turned into short range plans like planning our wedding and then having our first baby.

We got engaged right after I finished my second year of law school. I put law school on hold to plan my wedding and help Chris pay his college tuition so that we wouldn't have any more debt than necessary when we got married.

Marriage was bliss for me, but for the first time I started thinking more about myself than ever before. How could I please my husband? How could I make a house nice for us? When should we have children? We had a baby only a year and a half after we got married, and I decided that returning to law school was not an option for me.

God was always there. He watched Chris and I build our family and make our choices as newlyweds.  And life started for us. That is when my family started taking precedence so much so that I started to forget about what I could do for the Lord and just focused on what I could do for my husband, children, and myself.

I was working from home as a paralegal at 25 with my new baby. I had no plans to go back to law school. I was going through a bit of an identity crisis, trying to figure out who I was now that I was home alone with a baby and tied to my computer working all day. I became a runner at this time, but I also became a blogger. I wanted the blog to be my outlet for creativity. My sister helped me start the blog and we called it Domestic Sophisticate, hoping we could inspire other stay-at-home moms to maintain their style on a tight budget even when no one was watching them but their husbands and kids. We posted about nonsense (beauty and fashion) and then I started posting pictures of what I wore every day as I navigated my way through style on a tight budget. Most of the time I looked ridiculous. Very rarely did I get an outfit right, and just about never was I actually "fashionable."

A few years ago I started realizing just how much I had pushed down inside of me in my efforts to be a good wife and mother, and had to face the fact yet again that life is not about pleasing people on earth, but pleasing God. Why do I always forget this?! It was only until I started asking God again what I could do for Him that I've begun to really understand what it's like to have my identity back. My identity is in Christ. Not as a wife. Not as a Mom. Not as a runner. Not as a blogger. But as a follower of Jesus Christ.

As I started seeking God more I found that the call I had in childhood was still there, so I went back to law school in January of 2015. I had resigned from my work-at-home paralegal position in December of 2011, and had only worked a few months here and there up until 2015 so I could focus on homeschooling my children. With only homeschooling on my plate, I was able to take on law school, and I graduated with my juris doctorate from Oak Brook College of Law in December of 2016.

I hope to take the bar at some point so I can pursue a legal career once the children are grown, but for now I am still homeschooling my children while working from home as the Project Director for  the youth department of The RIDGE Project. The RIDGE Project is a faith based nonprofit organization that strengthens and supports Ohio families by teaching character and leadership education to middle and high school students, at-risk youth, incarcerated parents, couples, and families of all kinds. I'm honored to be a part of a mission that so closely mirrors my own.

I still need my creative outlet on the side, so Domestic Sophisticate the fashion blog is no more, but lives on in Along the Way. There is no rhyme or reason for this blog - it's just an outlet for me to share my thoughts, photos, and dreams. I am always learning, always evolving, always stumbling, and always eager for what God has in store for me next. It's an exciting adventure when you are loved so fiercely and promised eternal life. I will do anything for God and am enjoying the journey and all that's along the way.

-Vanessa Ridley