Recently, BCC received an impassioned response from a frequent reader on the feelings and topics arising from Mike Austin’s post on the gender imbalance at BYU’s Universities. The following is part of a dialogue between some of the women of BCC about how we handle and respond to the rhetoric and pressure of being a Mormon woman
Ms. Blue: The comments on Mike’s post about faculty gender balance at the BYUs have me overall feeling sort of crummy about myself. I was wondering how other women like yourselves are handling the comments, regardless of whether you work, stay at home, are married, are single, etc.
It’s hard to be a scholar. It’s hard to be a patient and wise mother. It’s hard to keep a clean house and prepare nutritious foods that everyone eats. It’s hard to help 100+ students learn to write and think critically. And even though last week I felt like I was at least up to snuff on all these tasks, improving over time and confident in these various roles, today I feel like I am probably just a cruddy scholar, a cruddy mother, a cruddy wife, and a cruddy teacher because I am trying to “have it all.”
Usually at this point I would just channel my inner Lily Tomlin and smile big with squinched up eyes, throwing my head back in that way of hers, and pretend like I’m having tea with Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda (9 to 5 is one of my inner happy places).
But I can’t do it so easily this time. I’m still working on my dissertation (I started my PhD in 2010). My daughter has perpetual snarls in her hair and my newly 3-year-old son is far from potty-trained. I don’t have any publications yet. I work in a place where female voices aren’t always heard or valued.
Is there hope for me in academia? Will my children really be damaged because I’m not at home 24/7? Is this really God’s plan for me, or did I misread answers to earlier prayers? Is my marriage not as wonderful as I think it is? Will my husband eventually resent me for having the tenure-track job first? For sweeping the kitchen floor while I take a break to rant in this conversation thread?
Why does gender have to be SO INTRINSIC to every small thing any Mormon does in life? Why can’t instead of saying, “I got this job because I’M A FEMINIST” or “I stay at home because I’M AN OBEDIENT WOMAN” it was just, “This is what my life is like because this is who I am”?
Ms. Orange: Blue, this tenure-track professor from the rainy midwest is sending you the biggest e-hug in the world. I can’t wait to give you a real one.
Do you want to know one of my biggest secrets? One of the reasons that my life changed? Why I was no longer perpetually uncomfortable in my own skin—always holding myself back from what I wanted? I found female mentors. I finally found strong, capable women doing what I wanted to do professionally. Doing it well, doing it kindly, and being lovely women in addition to professionals. Some were moms, some weren’t. Some were lawyers, some weren’t. But they were all competent, professional, working women. It changed my life.
Your babies get that from you from the first breath that they take. They will never ask the questions you’re asking yourself right now, because a competent professional woman defines their their reality and existence. You made their world bigger just by being you.
And it doesn’t stop there—because you are what I needed 20 years ago. I wish I had a Ms. Blue in my life then—maybe it would have saved me a lot of heartache and pain. I absolutely know that there are women who need you to be you. Not a constrained and gray version of yourself. You’re not going to fix everything, but you are an embodied possibility for them.
You certainly know better than all the internet trolls and haters. I read those comments and just feel sorry for their wives and daughters. But I never question you and the choices you’ve made.
All the love, sister.
Ms. Pink: Listen to Orange. Every inspired word.
Ms. Blue: Orange, bless you, thank you. I’m looking forward to that hug. That was even better than what fake Lily Tomlin usually says to me in my head. Really.
Ms. Yellow: None of my kids was potty trained before the age of four (the four year old was a prodigy), my own hair has perpetual snarls, and I haven’t had a job since 1998. Just saying you can totally screw up without trying to have it all, too. But if I were you, I’d listen to Orange instead of me.
Ms. Pink: Yeah—more than one of my children was still having accidents through kindergarten. Don’t even sweat that stuff.
Hair snarls, accidents, and messy kitchen floors are just products of living life. Raising kids is a process, not a product. In our very “lifestyle” focused modern world, there is a ton of emphasis on your family being a product. Jettison that pressure. Screw it. It’s useless drivel. When I was divorced and juggling full time school with small kids (I still have an unfinished Masters) I realized none of that crap mattered. Were my kids happy? Was there good laughter in our home? Did they trust me? Were there other people who loved them and nurtured them? Did they have role models who were different than me? All good. Let the rest go.
Ms. Red: Blue, I’m a little older than you and further down this path. Victor Frankl used to say to imagine your 80 year-old self as your mentor, which I sometimes do. Your 80 year-old self is going to see this nonsense for what it is. It’s just noise, and it has nothing to do with you. You cannot live your life caring what others who aren’t in your life think. I have a few mantras I have taught myself over time.
If church leaders or others have an opinion about my work life, that’s all that is: an opinion. Our finances are up to us as a couple. Mantra: The person making the money says how the money is made.
Nobody who is questioning my decisions is writing me checks to stay at home. They aren’t picking up the laundry next to me and helping me fold it. Mantra: The person doing the work decides how the work is done.
Financial independence has never been optional for me. My best friend’s mom really struggled as a divorced woman. People weren’t supportive either, not in the church, not at that time. Mantra: Every human being has to have the means to support him or herself independently.
While money isn’t the most important thing in life, lack of money destroys your life like nothing else can. But kooks who say “follow your bliss” without regard to money ignore the realistic fact that you have to retire and live on something, you have to pay rent or mortgage, buy clothes, etc. Mantra: Make as much money as you can doing something you don’t hate. That’s the only balance to find.
Kids are a great part of life and teach us a lot and these relationships enrich our lives, but they aren’t our lives. We are creating people, and those people, just like us, have their own lives. They are mostly taking our focus during the 18-20 years they live at home. And they are expensive. Mantra: You can’t base every life decision in an 80-90 year life on the 20-35 years your kids are in your house. If that’s all you are, you will have nothing to look forward to in retirement. You will be all used up.
Anyway, I have a lot of little mantras like that, life lessons I’ve learned, and I think of them when different things come up. The first thing is to give yourself permission to matter. Just you, as an individual. What you want matters. People who tell you otherwise simply don’t have your best interests at heart, whether that’s church leaders who don’t have to live your life as it looks when you implement their advice or whether it’s your husband or kids who may take your sacrifices for granted. Sacrifices that are taken for granted aren’t the kind I like to make. Judge yourself by what will get you through your 80-90 years intact and enjoying life. The first thing to let go of is what others think of you.
You have to own every choice you make, and if you can’t own it, then it wasn’t your choice. I don’t do things that aren’t my choice. When I’m doing something I don’t want to do, I think about it until I can either choose to do it or choose not to do it.
Ms. Yellow: A lot of women worry about making the “right” choice, but sometimes there is no “right” choice. There’s only the choices you can live with. Everything has a cost. As Red said, you matter. Your children will learn from you and the choices you make. If every choice you make is at your own expense, they will learn that women exist to take care of other people, to facilitate other people’s lives rather than having lives of their own to live.
Also, no one toilet trains in a day. They either wait until the kid is old enough to decide to take matters into their own hands (or can be threatened/blackmailed into doing so), or they randomly pick a day to stop changing diapers and start dealing with accidents.
Ms. Red: Another mantra I’ve thought a lot in my life is that no matter what I do, I am a mother. I am to my kids what a “mother” is. As someone once said, there’s no way to be a perfect mother but a million ways to be a great one. And here’s a dirty little secret, I’m a better mother than any of the Q12. Why would I take their advice on how to be one over my own instincts?
Ms. Yellow: Yesterday’s post and the comments got me started on writing a post about how I hope my daughters make different choices than the ones I did re: education, work, and motherhood. But then my 10yo came home from school and wanted to sit on my lap and I had to make dinner and then my husband asked me to make a potato salad for a party we’re going to tonight and before I knew it, it was midnight and the rest is more info than you need.
Ms. Pink: One of my mantras is: Many people can mother my children. When I was solo parenting I realized the hard truth that not only could I not fulfill everything for my kids, but the gentler truth that I didn’t have to. Many people can and do love them- and they learn different ways of doing things, different ways of approaching the world, and different ways of being heard through those relationships. There is no such thing as too many people loving my kids. They have a deep bench of people who support them, and those relationships are largely independent from me.
This allowed (and continues to allow) me to be a human being with strengths and challenges, and to still be a good enough mom. My kids know I’m a person, besides being mom. There is no illusion of perfection- for them or for me- and I think it’s deepened our relationships.
Ms. Yellow: The best thing that ever happened to our family was that I was forced to hire a woman from our ward to babysit my kids for a few hours every week because I had so many therapy sessions and IEP meetings and whatnot for one kid or another. She taught my sons how to ride their bikes. She got my kids to do stuff they’d never do for me. Sometimes kids need their mom, and sometimes they need someone else.
Ms. Red: My SIL potty-trained all our kids. My husband taught them how to read. Basically, I’ve given them career and school advice more than any of the “traditional” mother stuff. Nearly every decision about how to approach our kids or how to deal with a problem is something my husband & I talk about to figure out before we take action. We are usually on the same page. I was completely flummoxed by the church video of the woman who never talked to her husband throughout the day while she parented solo. I’ve never done that nor really thought anyone did. I found that completely shocking. I thought marriage was supposed to be a partnership, but she had no support, nobody she could talk to, nobody to help her despite everyone using her time for their own needs. That was bleak.
When church leaders give advice, I give it the extra weight and open-mindedness I try to give any foreign idea. If, after extra consideration, prayerful or personal revelation, I feel it’s something good, then I choose to do it. If not, then I assume it’s not for me and I don’t. That’s what we are told to do, to seek personal revelation.
One more thought I’ve had that flipped a switch for me. Nobody asks men how they balance work and family. Literally no one asks them. But when I realized that my husband didn’t ask himself (which he pointed out to me), that’s when I quit asking myself that incredibly dumb question and just decided to live my life.
Honestly, kids are fine. They only know what they know. They don’t come pre-wired with some “ideal” that they judge you against. That’s other people, who in fact have nothing to do with you or your life. My kids interpret the gospel through the lens of a working mother. They don’t see it as incompatible in any way. They see the person I am and the ways I live the gospel.
George Bush once pointed out that when his girls balked at him being the president and putting their lives in the limelight he said “We weren’t thinking about that. Laura and I were just living our lives and making our own choices about what we wanted to do.” Our child-centric chatter in the church isn’t all bad, but it’s mostly bad for women. Child-centric decision making usually means “What should we take away from the mother?”
Ms. Plum: Right. When Mormon men tell women they “can’t have it all,” they are almost always saying “you can’t have what I assume as my birthright.”
Ms. Blue: I’ve noticed a lot of my friends who are SAHMs walked away from the discussions of Mike’s post with similar feelings of frustration, guilt, or deflation because these same conversations have a tendency to spurn women who sacrifice careers to be at home. And as many friends have pointed, single women aren’t given much spotlight or voice in discussions of working Mormon women.
Much of this excellent advice would apply to many of these situations, though, especially the advice to stop caring about what others think, to make choices and choose the things you do, to be confident and at the same time allow yourself to receive support from others.
Ms. Orange: I’m also conscious that this discussion could be hard for stay at home moms. It’s hard to know how to talk about these things in a way that are empowering and don’t get reduced to playing women against each other.
Ms. Red: It is hard for stay at home moms to hear this stuff, but I can’t really do much about that unfortunately. When I raised my hand in my RS to say I felt I had personal revelation that for me working in a career was the right thing for me, and so did two other women that day, another sister who was the bishop’s wife said “I didn’t know we were allowed to question that.” I remember two reactions 1) my heartstrings tugging a bit like they did when I saw Oprah Winfrey get beaten by her husband in the Color Purple, and 2) anger that anyone was ever in a position to feel that their own wishes couldn’t be considered in making their life choices.
For stay at home moms who in fact chose it and would choose it, and who are in agreement with a spouse about it, hey, more power to them. Although for me, I feel that’s too risky a position since you are basically stuck to low paying jobs if things fall through, it’s not my life, and everyone should make and own their own choices. It has nothing to do with me. But for a woman to feel she literally has no choice in her life or she’s a bad person, that’s spiritual blackmail and it is a lie she’s been told and bought, to her own detriment. But sometimes it’s a delicious lie to be told that you don’t have to try so hard or you can just give up. Achieving things is hard work.
Ms. Green: I’m jumping on late because (perhaps ironically), I had the kids all day while my husband was working on his dissertation. However, one thing different for me today than a year ago, is that as soon as he got home, I picked up my backpack and left to a campus office nearby to do my own work.
It’s a strange thing because my husband is about as far from a misogynist as I can imagine, and has been going to counseling to deal with anxiety, partly induced by the guilt he feels in taking so much time (all of our time) to do his PhD. The thing is, that up until very recently, I have not had the confidence to take myself seriously enough to step outside of being a mom to do my own work. When I was writing my book, my editor was an incredible advocate and helped to get some funds so I could hire a babysitter so I could write alone rather with my kids and all the neighborhood kids in a 6-foot radius. Initially, I thought, I’ll just find a way to write and then we can have some extra money to pay off debt. Luckily my husband took the reins, hired a babysitter, and I did in fact write the latter half of the book in silence. The thing that makes me sad though, is that I was not capable of making those choices for myself at the time. I was too ensconced in the expectations that a woman and stay-at-home mom can do it all, and on her own.
Mike’s post and the comments make me feel really sad, because as a bright college student, I honestly never considered I could have a career of import. Luckily though, I did come in contact with several female professors who instilled something in me that I could not shake, and maybe now is just starting to come to fruition. Until the day I die, I will consider one of my greatest blessings to have somehow shown up in all female poetry class taught by Kim Johnson the year before my mission.
Anyway… this is long now, but the thing I want to say is that I care for you all in ways that are hard to articulate, because it is often difficult to articulate even in my own life the ways that I am more confident, a better believer of the work I am capable of, and more aware of the issues that need to be addressed, since I have been here at BCC.
Blue, your kids will love you for the work you do, both in and out of the home. They will probably be grateful you didn’t make them potty-train earlier than they were ready for, or spend copious amounts of time brushing their hair. I never see my child so proud as when he comes with me to do a book reading of one of my children’s books. It reminds me that children are our biggest advocates in so many ways.
Ms. Pink: I can relate to much of that, Green. I’m completely unbalanced right now because I don’t know how to accept the security given to me now in a stable marriage. I know that sounds nuts, but for most of my adult life- at least since I stopped working outside the home when I had my first child, my life has been unstable. I gave up my larger income for my then-husband’s smaller one because we agreed having me home was that important. Add two more babies, and then a terrible divorce, and I have a solid decade of instability.
Now I have an unfinished graduate degree, I’m in my forties, and and I don’t know how to work the math on if going back is worth the ROI. I feel like in every direction lay mistakes- I should have finished my degrees younger, I shouldn’t have given up my career when I had babies, I should have bailed earlier on a sinking marriage… every direction, coulda shoulda woulda…
My second husband is supportive of my writing and academic aspirations- if I want to go back to school, that’s okay. If I want to concentrate on writing, that’s okay. I am sitting in a position of tremendous privilege, and I am petrified to move. I don’t know what to do when the house isn’t burning down, and I don’t know how to move out of that frightened space and claim air on my own to breathe.
Ms. Green: I hear you, Pink. Although our situations differ quite a bit, I find that it is not the men closest to me at this point in the game that are asking me to set limitations for what I can and cannot do. It is the me that spent my whole life watching church structure, and mission structure, and yes, even BYU college structure. I am working through these things and I think making steps in many of them. I am incredibly grateful for the many bold, perceptive and good men and women that surround me now and are brave enough to tell that I don’t have to believe and act according to those beliefs anymore. I remember at one point in writing my book, near the beginning when I was expressing a lot of anxiety and doubt to my editor about not feeling good enough, not feeling like I had anything worthwhile to offer, etc… and he said something along the lines of me needing to take myself seriously, that I could and should do that, and that other people would do the same. Whatever it was exactly, it was a life-changing conversation for me.
Ms. Orange: I might be wrong, but I think that little girls are now getting much MORE of this rhetoric in primary and young women’s than we did. So the chickens are going to start coming home to roost in about 10 years….
Ms. Pink: I don’t think you’re wrong. It seems like the pressure is on more intensely for boys and girls, as if there is a doubling-down, instead of a “inviting” unto Christ. My kids openly dislike the lessons on the The Family and on gender, and it seems like those were the lessons all summer long. One of my daughters opted out of weeknight activities because they weren’t doing anything she found constructive or interesting.
Ms. Blue: “he said something along the lines of me needing to take myself seriously, that I could and should do that, and that other people would do the same” That’s excellent. I’m taking that to my own heart. I had no idea you ever doubted that project, Green—the book is brilliant and beautiful.
Ms. Green: Thanks, Blue. It’s weird because I both did, and didn’t. Deep down I felt guided and inspired and like I was doing an important work, but I still really had to work through this idea of taking up space in the world, which sadly I think has a lot to do with being a woman in a patriarchal culture. It has always been hard for me, and this book seemed like a true test of taking up space. I’m so glad I had to work through it though, it has been invaluable and world-opening to feel a confidence I have never felt before in my life, or at least never felt that I should. That isn’t to say I am free of self-doubt, etc…but I am comfortable saying that my voice matters, and because mine does, other people’s matter as well.
Ms. Blue: And that probably isn’t a gendered thing: self-doubt doing something big, like a book. I think a lot of men would attest to having felt that way before. But it seems like many women are not really taught to overcome that sort of self-doubt, especially since we are constantly reassured that we don’t *have* to feel pressured to provide or create or complete anything not directly related to bearing and raising children. It’s not that we are discouraged against these sorts of accomplishments, but, I don’t know—it’s like, every time the dissertation gets hard, my critic is an invisible voice that says, “This is why you should have stayed home. This is why you should have put your own interests aside for your husband. What are you even doing here?” and it’s frustrating how much strength that pretend critical voice has, and how extra strong it gets after every recent General Conference.
Whenever my family has a rough week, or it’s finals week and my husband and I are both slammed, I am always first to blame myself. We’re stressed because of me. Because I don’t listen to prophets. Because I work outside the home.
Ms. Green: Yes. I agree with the self-doubt not being gendered. But I also believe that there is more supposed value and expectation for women to be humble, which often converts to self deprication.
As for the stress you feel in pursuing your career, I definitely feel that. There have been times, especially over the past year that I have felt incredible and even crippling guilt my husband won’t do as well at his PhD or get the job he wants because I have been running consistently with my own work. He hasn’t made me feel that way, but I have done a lot of my own work to feel that, especially when there are many women around me who have given up everything for this time so their husband’s can pursue a degree. So I guess I don’t have anything but solidarity and my confidence in you.
Ms. Red: No one is immune to self doubt. A while back, I took a severance package from a company I had been at for years. I had been looking for another position, and didn’t want to take a step down. Since then, I’ve had self-doubt. I went through two interviews in which I was assured I was a top candidate each time, and I didn’t get either offer. I became sort of convinced I had a Heidi-Howard problem because the jobs went to men in both cases.
In my moments of self-doubt, I think I’m too old now. I feel like those Hollywood starlets who know that if you don’t look great you don’t get roles. Corporate life isn’t that much different. If I have lines on my face, people will think I’m too old, I’m irrelevant, I’ve been out of the business world for too long. When you have only a first impression to make, you have to look the part to get the part. But then I remember that I’m awesome, that I’m smart and funny and that I rise to the top in every situation, that I’m grace under fire, that I kick ass, that I pretty much dominate everything I try. That helps.
Ms. Pink: See, this scares me. Do I invest in finishing my grad degree, only to not be able to find work because I’m too old? Men become distinguished. Women become invisible…