On Books and Covers etc

by JES

JES is a good friend of Amri’s and a loyal reader of BCC.

We all know about that “righteous checklist” of yore. Marry young, have lots of kids, stay home with your children at all cost, plant a garden, grind wheat, make bread, sew your own clothes, be frugal, store dried beans, and do your family history. Fortunately we’re moving away from the idea that doing those things equals righteousness and that if you’re not doing those things you’re going straight to the Terrestial Kingdom. I think our church is becoming more tolerant and accepting of differences; that we each make our choices and that’s okay. But in the process, are we becoming less tolerant of those women who continue to choose to do those things on the “righteous checklist”?  Do you see the bland mother herding a bunch of kids down the hall at church and assume you know exactly which box you can stick her in?

Imagine you’ve just moved into a new ward and are scoping out the members there, hoping to find a new friend or two. You find out that there are only a couple women your age in the ward–namely Sister A and Sister B.

Sister A married at 20 and had her first child 10 1/2 months later. She now has 5 children and is a stay-at-home mom. She and her family drink powdered milk and she makes most of their bread, using freshly ground wheat. She plants a garden every year, bottles fruit and makes applesauce and jam each summer. She has a good amount of food storage and is actively working on storing more. She was excited when a friend gave her a pressure cooker so she could bottle vegetables and try cooking dried beans in a more efficient way.

Sister A loves to trade tips on getting good deals at stores, is grateful for hand-me-downs and makes-over old clothes into new (turning pants with holes into shorts, etc). She wears little to no make-up and rarely buys herself new clothes; trendy she is not. Other hobbies she has include quilting, sewing and scrapbooking. She’s also cross-stitched many of the temples her family members have married in. In learning about her family history, this friend has expressed her admiration for her great-great grandmother who was a 2nd wife in a polygamous marriage.

In addition to taking care of her large family, she is the Primary president and ardently advocates for the children in her ward. She has never tasted Coke or Pepsi. In her spare time, she enjoys reading. In fact, she read each book in the Twilight series within about 12 hours of checking them out from the library.

Sister B is a fledgling environmentalist. She recycles as much as possible, composts, and uses a rain barrel to water her garden. She plans on getting several more and linking them together in order to limit the run-off from her gutters. Sister B also enjoys home improvement and home maintenance projects. She’s fixed leaky toilets, replaced window moulding, re-screened doors, fixed broken door frames, replaced old weather-stripping, repaired a rather large hole in the wall and other miscellaneous tasks. She does scrapbook a little, but they are very minimalist. Stampin’ Up holds no attraction to her. Sister B also enjoys reading. After several people recommended the Twilight series to her, she read them and decided that they were a good, quick read but not the best books she’s ever read.

She’s also a bit of a know-it-all. She has an opinion on everything.  She earned a degree in History teaching with a minor in Math education, which plays to her love of teaching and being in front of a group of people. As part of her history major, she dabbled in Mormon history and enjoys discussing some of the more difficult aspects of it, such as polygamy.

She is registered as a Democrat, planned her pregnancies carefully and freely uses birth control. As a youth, she did not earn her Personal Progress award. She attends church, but her husband does not go with her. She currently has a calling in the Primary and finds it challenging and fulfilling, usually, but can’t help but look down the hallyway towards Gospel Doctrine and Relief Society and wonder what she’s missing.

What images do you have in your head as I describe these two women? Does one seem like the friend you’re looking for, while the other has some skills you’d like to learn but is probably one of “those” women that you’ve never really had a lot in common with? Do you assume the SAHM is firmly under the thumb of the LDS patriarchy and the other is a little bit more enlightened and open-minded? After learning the above details about someone, would you write one of them off, figuring that you already knew everything you needed to know about them; that they weren’t really “friend” material? Would it surprise you to learn that these women are actually different characterizations of the same person?

My friends would be able to guess that I was describing myself in the two characterizations. But, I sometimes feel as if people who don’t know me see the way I look, see the number of children I have, attend one of my bread-making demos and assume they know exactly why I do the things I do, when in reality, they might be surprised by some of my interests.

I love projects where there’s a tangible result that can be admired at the end–thus the quilting, scrapbooking, home repair, canning, etc. I do believe that the prophets have been inspired in their counsel to learn how to garden and use what’s produced. But I don’t have a garden out of duty. I love to be outside and “play in the dirt”, as my mother-in-law says. I give away most of what I grow in my garden because I really don’t like vegetables, although I’m working on learning to use them more. I also give away a lot of the jam that I make because I don’t like jam; it’s fun to make and other people love to eat it, so it’s a great gift at Christmas time. In addition to my joy in watching things grow and being outside, growing a garden and composting and using a rain barrel all fit into my desire to make better use of the world’s resources.

The reality of having a large family means that I do have to do things to be frugal. But, using secondhand clothes fits into my concern for the environment as well. I use powdered milk because it saves us $500/year, but it’s also a funny kind of luxury in that I don’t have to worry about dashing to the store for milk and bread if a storm is coming (and I’ve discovered a better-tasting powdered milk that is palatable to almost everyone). By storing food, it helps us out financially, and it’s convenient to have ingredients on hand when I haven’t planned well for meals. I love good bread and it felt like a real accomplishment when I finally learned how to make it. I’ve conquered homemade pizza as well (thanks Tracy M!) and that’s a big deal when you have 4 boys who will soon be eating us out of house and home. Frugality is a time suck and does limit some of the other things I can do, but we won’t always have children at home and someday I’ll be able to focus less on my children and more on other things.

People see that I’m highly invested in my Primary calling. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t enjoy another calling or that I don’t understand when Primary isn’t someone’s favorite calling in the world. This calling has been very rewarding at this time in my life and I mostly enjoy what I do, but Primary was never top on my list of callings I wanted. For some, Primary is a little bit of heaven. For others, Primary is a learning experience that you hope to leave behind you sooner rather than later. Everyone’s talents are different. Just because it’s my job right now to think of the children first, and I take that stewardship seriously, doesn’t mean that I adore being around little children and don’t have my own unofficial list of “coveted callings”.

As for the lack of Coke drinking, it might seem like I must be self-righteous because I haven’t ever had Coke or Pepsi, but it’s mostly because I hate any and all soda. I can tolerate fruit-flavored soda, but the carbonation still bothers me a lot. I do have a personal dislike of getting addicted to anything (except my Chapstick–that’s the first thing I’d miss if the world fell apart), but I have no problem with other people choosing to drink whatever kind of soda they want. Don’t judge my ice cream eating and I won’t judge your soda drinking.

So, why do we judge people spuriously, based on a few observations of the things they do and then we assume we know everything about them? Perhaps the SAHM who does all the “righteous” things is doing them not because she hasn’t figured out how to break the partriarchal mold, but maybe it’s because that’s where her talents and interests lie. That lady in the ward, that you’ve assumed is as conservative as the come, may have some interests that would surprise you if you got to know her.


  1. A-freaking-men.

    (Hopefully that language didn’t offend Sister A. Or B.)

  2. JES, all your personalities are a rock star. Thanks for this thoughtful, compelling reminder of the multiplicity of souls within the Kingdom.
    And am I right in thinking that JES stands for Jonathan Stapley?

  3. Julie M. Smith says:

    “Would it surprise you to learn that these women are actually different characterizations of the same person?”

    Oooh, I didn’t see that coming. What a fun post.

  4. Julie M. Smith says:

    Er, just to be clear, #3 is NOT sarcastic.

  5. yeah, surprise Sam! J. Stapley is a registered Democrat!

    I’m surprised how often JES gets written off as one of “those” women, whatever “those” means.

    I see her frugality as a huge environmental commitment but people immediately think she’s some poor Mormon country bumpkin baby maker.

    I wanted to name the post Don’t Judge a Sister by her Jumper, but JES didn’t go for that.

  6. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Actually, in a non-Mormon context these different characters would both have a reasonably good chance of belonging to the blue-state urban culture…

  7. living in zion says:

    We all make snap judgements about everyone. Over time, we (hopefully) get the chance to see a fuller perspective of each other. I, for instance, was intimidated by the descriptions of both sisters. I thought, “Holy cow! What could I contribute to their practical and intellectual knowledge? I would be a loser to them. ” Thank goodness it turned out to be one person. Now I am bowing in awe to only one superstar.

    Invite me over for some awesome homemade bread with yummy jam and I will share my wicked sense of humor. I know lots of great jokes.

  8. It’s awesome that people are so surprising. The hard thing, though, is getting to a place in our relationships where we can surprise someone.

    Also: what is this better-tasting powdered milk brand? Such information needs to be shared. ;-)

  9. Wm-I’m pretty sure she gets it from MN.

    JNS–it’s true, very blurban (I just made that up) except the Mormon with 5 kids part.

  10. Thanks for the compliments guys. I’m really not as cool as it sounds.

    The powdered milk comes from Plainview dairy near Rochester MN. Unfortunately they got caught up in a salmonella scare (nothing traced to their plant, but b/c products from other plants that use their stuff tested positive for salmonella, they had to shut down production and are currently jumping through numerous hoops to get FDA approval again).

    My hope for this post was to get people to give others a chance. Just the other day I had a new girl in the ward come up to me and say, “wow, I guess we might have something in common after all” after finding out that my husband was inactive. We’d never had more than a “hello” in the hallway but she’d already figured I had nothing in common with her b/c of appearances. I was irked that she’d written me off until something sparked her interest.

    And, living in zion, I once thought “Holy cow! What could I contribute to their practical and intellectual knowledge? I would be a loser to them.” about someone as well, only to find out later that she was dealing with obsessive disorder and on the edge of committing suicide. So, someone might look put together, but you never know!

  11. Stephanie says:

    Thanks for this post. As I started reading it, it was very painful as I recognized much of myself in Sister A and wondered where this was going. Then, as I started to read Sister B, I recognized much of myself again! How wonderful that I can’t be boxed into one or the other. And then to read that you are both Sister A and Sister B was icing on the cake. It causes me to reflect on how I “box” people at church. Thank you.

  12. I think any woman who makes homemade bread should get an automatic ticket to the Celestial kingdom, especially if she shares it with me. That’s how I see the righteous checklist–it must have bread on it!!

  13. Great post. I was so pleased that Sister A and B were the same person, because I also recognized myself in both and didn’t want to feel like I had to be boxed in.
    I remember going to Costco once with 4 of my young kids and a girl about my age leaned over to her friend rolled her eyes and whispered loudly, “typical Mormon Mom”. What was that supposed to mean?

  14. StillConfused says:

    I think upon closer look we find that no one fits into the stereotypical molds on either side of the equation. That is why it is vital to get to know individuals rather than make bigoted assumptions (that goes for all sides of the spectrum).

  15. This is a great post. And smb made me laugh out loud.

  16. Also, it goes both ways. I’ve had people lean in close to me and make disparaging remarks about someone who doesn’t seem to be a “typical” Mormon because they think I’ll understand. I don’t.

  17. Steve Evans says:

    “I don’t like jam”


  18. Bro. Jones says:

    Both Sisters A and B sound cool. We’d probably be friends with whichever one was the friendliest.

  19. #17- Amen, Steve. Homemade bread tastes great with jam!!

  20. If you want to see how fast people put you in a stereotypical box, try being a Utah Mormon mom with a full-time job.

  21. I’ll admit to being guilty of figuring out which women I wanted to befriend at church based on their family size and appearance (to be fair, I was looking for things we might have in common, but looking very superficially). It wasn’t until I moved into a small branch that had only 3 or 4 women close to my age that I learned to branch out and look under the surface. It was a real blessing to become close friends with women I may have never bonded with under different circumstances. Hopefully I learned a lesson. This blog post helps to reinforce that lesson.

  22. I have to confess that I thought both Sister A AND Sister B sounded like annoying overachievers. Um, but I’m sure you’re very nice! There’s someone just like that in my ward and she’s so much fun that one can easily forgive her for being way too perfect. Plus, the jam is DELICIOUS.

  23. #21 – Melissa – EXACTLY! So often we limit ourselves in our friendships based on work status, child status, and clothing tastes. Of course friendships seem to happen more easily when we have common interests, but we often assume interests without taking the time to get to know the reality. I admit that I’m often intimidated when I see a trendily dressed woman with beautiful hair and nails, whose children are all dressed in the latest fashions and talk myself out of approaching her b/c surely she won’t be interested in me. But how do I know, based on her dress, anything about her likes and dislikes other than the fact that she likes to be well-dressed? It doesn’t really say anything about whether she likes to read or go running. If she’s into art or gardening, what she studied in college – if she even went to college, etc.

    And philomytha, I promise I’m anything but an overachiever. I like to say I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. I dabble in this and that, but a lot of those home repair projects, scrapbooking, etc have been spread out over the past 10+ years. I don’t change the workings of my toilet everyday! And since I started reading blogs, too many projects have gone by the wayside…

  24. Karen M, I thought about writing a little caveat acknowledging that the snap judgement goes both ways. I have a friend who’s been judged for being a SAHM (wasting her life) and for choosing to go back to school (sacrificing her children on the altar of her vanity). And single women are often left out of conversations with married women, working mothers vs. SAHM, liberal vs. conservative.

    The impetus for this post came from an enrichment lesson where one of the women talked about struggling with the “righteous checklist” that she was raised to follow but that she didn’t enjoy doing. She eventually came to terms with it by deciding that she didn’t need to earn God’s love by doing those things on the checklist. I’m glad that, as a church, we’re moving away from that list as an outward sign of our devotion and that women have more choice in what they do (still condemned by some people, but I think it’s lessening overall). But, I wondered, what happens to people like me who appear to still be checking things off the list? Now women who bake and sew and garden, etc are often the ones who are judged.

  25. JES, I think your post was just fine without the caveat. I think you’re right that those of us who choose more traditional roles can often be seen as unenlightened. Thanks for posting about it.

  26. marjorie conder says:

    I enjoyed reading this. Before you disclosed that both women were you, I was already going to say, that with just a few minor alterations for both Sisters A and B, I was/am both. I had further decided I wanted to be friends with both, assuming either or both could look beyond my now senior citizen status. We fall into stereotyping each other in so many ways.

  27. Are you from the Rochester area JES? I grew up there :)

  28. Nope, not from Rochester. A relative who had an in with the dairy people recommended the powdered milk to us. I drive a good distance to pick it up, but it’s worth it.

    Marjorie, I do have to admit that I’m still struggling with the age stereotypes. I’m having to come to terms with it, though, as I get older and no longer fit in that “young mom” category that I was in for so long…

  29. Wonderful post. (I saw myself in neither of them, btw). I really will remember this post for a long time.

  30. Cynthia L. says:

    Love this. Like others, I was uncomfortable with the direction I thought the post was taking, because I enjoy many of the things on Sister A’s list. Then I saw so much of myself in Sister B, too. How fun.

  31. It’s a wonderful post, EXCEPT FOR THE POWDERED MILK!

    I grew up on powdered milk which my sister and I called Blue Death. Almost as bad was the Blue Goat, a mixture of powder and milk from the goat we had for a few years. Yeah, seriously. I used my school lunch money to buy several small cartons of real milk every day in fifth grade, and the happiest day of my pre-pubescent life was the day the health food store in town burned down. To the ground. The drive to the next source of BD was too far to bother, so we started drinking store-bought skim, which seemed like heaven.

    But anyway, great post.

  32. Norbert, you made me laugh out loud. My cousin’s family had a dozen kids in it and all they drank was powdered milk. Whenever I felt underprivileged growing up, a visit to their house quickly reminded me of my blessings.

  33. We grew up on atrocious powdered milk too. Sort of metal grey and tasted like dirty water. I have heard, though, that there are a couple of high-quality powders, and I suspect JES has discovered one. Strong work, JES.

  34. chococatania says:

    Good post, and it’s true – there are so many assumptions and stereotypes that we tend to cling to when meeting people.

    I have to admit that my most fulfilling relationships have been with people that I originally thought were not good “matches” for me. Even though we didn’t share surface interests (music, clothes, etc.), I have found these relationships to be so fulfilling because I’ve learned SOOOO much from them.

    Thanks again! And as I’m new to my current ward, I’ll remember to keep my mind and heart open. :)

  35. I promise, this is decent stuff! Amri will vouch for me. I’ve had people who won’t touch milk from the cannery try this and say, “This isn’t bad.” You can bet that when we happen to have store bought milk in the house, though, that I make sure to have a big glass or two of the good stuff. :)
    When your kids drink at least a gallon and a half of milk a day, using powdered milk not only saves money but it cuts down drastically on trips to the grocery store. I was surprised by how thoroughly converted my kids are when we got some 2% milk for some reason, I added it to the powdered milk and my kids all complained that it was too creamy!

  36. I loved this post. I spent most of the time thinking–yikes, its me. Both of them. I like to quilt and think rain barrels are awesome. I have food storage and tend to bring up some of the difficult stuff. Its a great reminder not to instantly “type” people.

  37. Yes people make opinions about people hastily. No you shouldn’t worry some much about it. It sounds like you really are concerned about your self-image. I think you are afraid to be stay-at-home mom with a large family because you yourself have prejudices of it, and you have to some how reconcile that with being a modern woman. Just embrace your own life and be happy with it. People don’t care that much about what you do.

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