Transcript: Mormon Women’s Whiplash

This transcript of the first episode of the Third Hour podcast has been lightly edited for length and clarity. You can read more about how the podcast got started and listen to the audio here.

Richelle: Joining me today are Natalie Brown in Boulder, Colorado; Carolyn homer in Washington, DC; and Emily Butler in Cleveland, Ohio. Welcome, friends. So Natalie, let’s start with you. I’d like to jump right into your whiplash post. What inspired you to write and share it?

Natalie: So someone I’m close to sent me a news article about the new General Relief Society President, Camille N. Johnson, and pointed out that she had practiced for thirty years as a lawyer and was the president of her law firm. I know that this person sent me this article in order to make me feel better and to point to the progressive options that women increasingly have in the Church because I have been experiencing a lot of angst about what to do in terms of a career since mine has not gone quite as I planned, or as I had hoped for. But rather than making me feel happy or optimistic, it actually made me feel angry and overwhelmed and frustrated. I had reactions ranging from, “Well, why didn’t you support me like ten, twenty years ago when I was making these decisions?” And to be clear, the person who sent me this article has supported me in very many ways, but there are also many encounters I’ve had in the Church that have been less supportive of women’s careers. And at the same time, I wanted to scream because I’m now a caregiver who had to like, teach her children remotely during the pandemic. It’s like, “Well, are you saying that caregiving then isn’t enough to be a Relief Society president, that actually we do care about all those skills you learn on the job?” And so I felt that the caregiving that I’m now doing that is perfectly on-script with what a Mormon woman is supposed to do is still undervalued and unpaid, and that those skills are not recognized. So I felt a lot of whiplash and mixed emotions.

Richelle: Carolyn, you commented on the post, saying you “spent years dealing with existential angst” on this topic. Tell us more about that.

Carolyn Homer: I grew up in a very conservative, “of course women stay at home” family. That was the role model of my mother, my sisters, most of my aunts. And I just assumed that would be my narrative too, that I’d be like my sisters: I would meet some boy my senior year in college, I’d get engaged, I’d get married right after college, I’d have a kid within a year and a half, and I’d be a stay-at-home mom for the next twenty or thirty years. And that didn’t happen, right? I graduated without a boyfriend and decided to go to law school. But I still felt like that was kind of like, “This is selfish, I’m having fun,” you know, “and I’m gonna be willing to drop everything the second a man enters my life.” And then I got a job at a high-powered law firm at the same point that I got married and graduated from law school. And even then I was like, “I have, like, two years to knock this out of the park. Because I can’t be a selfish career woman forever, I gotta get pregnant, I’m gonna quit my job. This is it. This is my one opportunity to have a job.”

At the end of those two years, my first marriage was falling apart and I got divorced. And that was just this absolutely tectonic shift in my perspective. I had to rewrite the entire temple, Young Women, family gender-role narrative. This is the period where I became a feminist because my life hadn’t turned out that way. And I just remember this overwhelming feeling. I said at Thanksgiving that year that my number one thing I was grateful for was the feminist revolution of the 1970s because it had enabled me to have financial independence and a job with a real future. Oh, and no-fault divorce.

It’s been ten years since then, and I am now a fairly senior lawyer in a fairly lucrative position, and I’m remarried, and I just had my first child, and I’m planning to keep working. And I don’t know if it’s gonna work, but I just have realized that it has to be possible to do both. I grew up being told that it was literally impossible to do both to the point that like, women I know aren’t having children because of how strong that rhetoric wasthey don’t think they can do a service to their children because they were told it was impossible. And now I’m gonna try. The big turning point for me in realizing it might be possible was when my husband told me over dinner one day a year ago, “Well, you’re closer to your dad than you were to your mom, and your mom stayed at home and your dad worked full-time. So obviously, it’s possible to have a really deep relationship with a parent who’s working.” You know, there’s no reason it can’t be that way for our son. So we’re gonna try it.

Richelle: I think that a lot of people who commented on Natalie’s post really feel deeply what you were talking about, Carolyn, about those received messages. And Emily, I want to bring you into the conversation. One of your great contributions to the whiplash thread that really spoke to me was your comment about scripts and narratives. Can you break that down for us?

Emily: I was noticing that there were a lot of comments where people were referencing things that had been part of Young Women lessons, or certainly rhetoric that they felt was directed at them at that period in their lives. And, you know, the thing that always makes me think about is singing, “My life is a gift, my life has a plan” and thinking about exactly the kinds of things we’ve already touched on a number of times: how difficult it can be to figure out which which things you’re supposed to try to plan on in the broader context of the Church. We really emphasize script as a way of figuring out how to move through the world. In terms of our Sunday worship, we don’t do that much that’s heavily ritualized. But the whole fabric of our teachings on the plan of salvation and seeking for revelation and inspiration suggest that there’s a particular thing that you’re supposed to be doing, and maybe you don’t know it. But it’s known by somebody, and you’re just trying to figure that out. Or the temple, which is a much more ritualized site of worship and which we’re taught is kind of the pinnacle of our access to the divine and this crucial stage of progression. But that’s where everything is heavily, heavily scripted.

Even on a more kind of meta level, you have people repeating verbatim something that has just been said at several points during [the temple ceremony], or maybe a little bit more flippantlybut I think it’s also very telling of the broader Church culturethe ways that correlation has us moving sort of as a herd through not just Sunday worship but also what people are expected to be doing as part of personal or family study during the week, or the way that you progress year by year through different sections of scripture and all of that. And I think the whiplash comes from the ways that this is in tension with an emphasis on agency that is also woven throughout Church teachings.

One example that has always felt really striking to me is patriarchal blessings. I mean, it could be any other thing that we hold up as inspiration in the Church. But patriarchal blessings, I think, is a topic that can be really, really unsettling for a lot of people when you realize that it doesn’t always happen exactly like you thought you understood that blessing was going to play out. What role does your agency play in that? Can you do something that’s contrary to this? Or does it mean that you’re ultimately going to end up with that? Do you have to try to want what’s in the blessing? And I think that’s something that can be really tricky for people, especially when you’re trying to think, “How do I plan a life in this context?”

Richelle: I think that was why that resonated with me so much, Emily, because I remember feeling that. Part of how I got drawn into this conversation was remembering a phone conversation I had with our very own Carolyn. I was nearing the end of my master’s degree, and I didn’t want to be a stay-at-home parentthat wasn’t something I aspired to on its own. But I also didn’t necessarily know what it would take to get a job that would have family-supporting wages. I was studying comparative literature, which is the thing I was good at. And speaking of scripts, that’s part of the Millennial script: that you’re supposed to pursue the things that you’re good at and that you enjoy, and that everything will come together. And so I was doing that. But I kind of kept waiting for life to call my bluff and be like, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to make the big bucks with this because you’re going to have a partner who has a much more lucrative and family-supporting job.” I was just kind of biding my timeand that’s not to denigrate why I pursued those degrees, but unconsciously in the back of my mind, that message was there. I wasn’t being very intentional about my financial future, and that is going to have resonances deep into my life, including, you know, my retirement savings, which feels very non-existent as a contingent worker for all of these years.

I wrote this in the thread: “The marriage imperative changes the calculus for Mormon women in so many ways, including shaping how single women think about themselves and their possible futures in ways that rarely serve them.” So I was kind of there to rep for the YSA because I think that being a young single adult in the Church is a huge source of whiplash. You’re told to prioritize marriage and family from when you’re just a little kid, and prioritize it at all costs. But then when it doesn’t pan out for you by your mid-20s, early 30s, mid-30s, the messaging at church suddenly becomes, “Well, don’t worry, you’re enough on your own. The Lord must have a different plan for you.” And you’re like: “Different from what? My patriarchal blessing (like Emily was saying)? What about those promises? What about everything that I was told in Primary and in Young Women? What about all of my friends and colleagues where this is working out for them? Who am I and where do I belong here?” You just become effectively a second-class citizen at church. And, really, when you didn’t follow the script in that sense, I think it’s extremely disorienting, and it’s extremely disappointing. So it just adds insult to injury to have been told to want something your entire life and then told it’s totally okay that it didn’t work out when it inevitably, for some people, doesn’t work out that way.

Carolyn: I’m just gonna quickly chime in here with a thought, which is: we did have some role models growing up of Latter-day Saint women who had careersbut they were all single, right? We adored Sheri Dew. Sister Oaks, who didn’t get married until she was in her 50s, had gotten a PhD, she had been academic administration. And then, more recently, I think some of us have felt this whiplash because the Church is touting Elder Renlund’s wife as a woman who had a career, but even in her public appearances, you can feel this little bit of shame of “Yes, I was a lawyer, but I figured out how to do it with a couple of kids.” Like she’s still making the justification, and yet it feels like movement that we’re allowed to admire her at all.

Richelle: So we’re covering a lot of ground already. We’ve got education, we’ve got career, we’ve got marriage and partnerships, relationships, and childbearing and rearing. But these are actually just the tip of the iceberg in some ways. I know that there were a lot of things that came up on the post. Natalie, what other kinds of messages were you seeing in that thread? And were you surprised at the huge response to this post in the first place?

Natalie: I am not surprised. Partly because everything you guys have said, I’m like, “Yep, that was how I made my educational decisions. Yep, that was how I justified getting a PhD.” And this just feels so familiar. This feels like a conversation that I have had with almost every woman I know who was raised as a Latter-day Saint prior to, let’s say the year 2000. (I’m less familiar with the younger generation.) And I’m also not surprised because I feel that our church has a history of asking women to make sacrifices and to conform to certain ideas and then not really addressing what happens to them once those doctrines might change or evolve. I’m thinking about polygamy. Women asked to make enormous sacrifices, and then, you know, what really happens to those polygamous wives or families once we move on from that?

The other example that came up a lot in the comments was the recent revisions to the temple ceremony. I will not discuss the content of those, but they were revisions that I think people felt created more gender equity within that space in a very positive way. But that did not mean that there was not some feelings of people then grappling with what it meant that they had to go through the prayer ceremony. I actually want to read something that I wrote in response to those temple revisions and that I did not previously publish because I was worried about it hurting the feelings of those close to me at the time but that I think captures better than anything I’ve said today what whiplash means to me and what’s really at stake. So I wrote:

The text that defined my life as I struggled with it is now extinct. No longer living scripture, it exists in a historical register. Along with the joy of longed-for changes comes an urge to record how I feel before I, too, become extinct. Whether the changes are explained as clarifications of what we already knew or admission that what we came before as wrong, the emotions I felt and the lingering consequences of that text to my life will soon be incomprehensible in a world, church, and feminism that will move on to other things. I am glad for that. But the old words will linger in me, my life reflecting traces of them, whose consequences will not be easily rewritten. Does that make me a relic? What do you do? How do you live once you get the change you want but are not yourself so easily changed? Will people recognize the pain I felt when I was told that I was unworthy, disrespectful to my family, and dangerous to others because of how I felt about the original temple ceremony? When I cried throughout my wedding day because I was not comfortable with everything that transpired in the temple? When people responded to posts I wrote at By Common Consent about gender in the Church by telling me I simply did not understand, asking me to bear the burden of explaining and justifying to them again and again how I felt. Some will tell me that these changes mean they were rightall along, I had nothing to worry about. Others will tell me that they mean I was right, the words are wrong.

And then I go on to explain how I no longer care because I have made peace with that and my relationship to God. But I think what I wrote there just reflects the unacknowledgementthis fact that people have deep experiences and often pain associated with things that the Church have pivoted course on, and yet, there’s never discussion or acknowledgement of what it means to live through those pivots. It’s to be internally, privately processed.

Richelle: I love what you wrote there, and it just goes to show why we had to do this podcast with you, Natalie. I hear so much of what you’re saying as having two threads: there is the generational issue at stakethat question, you know, “Will I become a relic?” and the ways in which whiplash is processed differently by different generations. New generations come along and they maybe don’t understand the old pain, and the older generation is still living with that whiplash resonating in their core, and some of the pain from it. But it’s also about the ways in which, as with many things in the Church, we’re actually strangely asked to process it individually, even though there’s so much benefit to doing it in a community-based way. And I think that’s part of why we wanted to have this conversation. I wanted to pivot back to Emily and Carolyn for you both to chime in on this as well.

Emily: So one reason why the initial conversation we had kept spiraling was that a lot of it was stuff that we hadn’t really talked about with very many other people. I know there was a lot of stuff that I had been very careful who I talked to about because on the one hand, it had to be someone who knows the Church well enough to have some idea why it would even matter to me what’s happening, not just sort of like, “Well, why do you even care if this bothers you that much?” And the other hand, it has to be someone who isn’t scared by the fact that things might be a struggle. And in some ways, I feel really lucky; I grew up in a family where it was really normal that you might be on the way home from church talking about something you were frustrated about—something that somebody said or things that you have concerns about. But like Natalie was alluding to a minute ago, there’s a lot of ways in which you can be really hurtful to people if it feels like you’re suddenly opening up a topic where they maybe are in a different place than you are or they’re kind of counting on your feeling a certain way as sort of an anchor for them or something like that. And so I think that was one reason why this really spiraled. Suddenly, we were all going, “Well, there’s this thing, and then there’s this other thing…” I know I definitely left feeling very emotionally wrought up by the end of it; it took me a while to kind of settle down, you know, try to get to bed that night. I’ll let Carolyn speak to other things, of course, but that for me, I think, was a big part of what was circulating inside as we were doing this.

Carolyn: I think it’s interesting as Natalie talks about the script of this, like that narrative suddenly is gone—and it’s gone for a future generation. One thing we mentioned earlier is that we all have degrees in English and/or law. And text matters. When I really started having my feminist crisis, it was because I was in a bad marriage but was under the old temple script. And I literally thought it was impossible, given the way I had grown up, for my husband to be, like, ordering me to do things in the name of God that the Spirit was telling me were wrong. I could not handle the disconnect. When I started confiding in some friends that I was struggling with the temple, for example, they would say, “Well, that’s not my experience, but I feel differently.” And I would always come back to, “But the text says X, and the text matters.” That’s just the way I thought about it. But there are a lot of women who don’t think about it that way. They think about their feelings and experiences. And certainly, you know, when I’m on temple grounds, or in the celestial room and divorced from text, I have had extremely powerful personal spiritual experiences, so I understand how that could override some of the narrative. But I do think it’s interesting, as I would bring up my concerns, how many women processed it as a threat to them, because if they had bought in to the narrative, if they, you know, were all emotionally in on being a mother (God bless them), and I was sitting here talking about how due to a mini faith crisis, I had rejected that narrative and was pursuing a different route, like, you could see in their eyes: “Wait, was there a different option for me? Or does this mean that my sacrifice is now less valued?,” and I can really feel that pain.

Richelle: I wanted to kind of snowball off of something Emily was talking about, and really all of us, that part of what makes these topics so complex and needing to be dealt with in a forum like this is that there’s so much inside baseball to Mormonism. For example, my partner right now is not a member of the Church—he never has been, he’s atheist and grew up atheist—and there are constantly times when he’s like, “Well, isn’t it the rule that you’re not supposed to drink any caffeinated beverages?” And it’s like, well, maybe, but it’s just this kind of “wink-wink, we don’t actually care about that” rule. I felt like I saw a lot of that, especially when I kind of transitioned from growing up in rural Michigan. My parents were converts, they were like 0th-generation Mormons, which I think gave me a pretty different experience. There’s no zealot like a convert in the sense that we were very strict about things like Sabbath obedience. And then I go to BYU, the mecca of Mormons, and I saw people just kind of doing whatever they wanted on the Sabbath. Once they’d gone to church, everything after that was fair game: you can go on a road trip and eat out at a restaurant, you can watch whatever movies you want, participate in whatever media you want. And I was floored. I was like, “This isn’t a real rule? What?”

Obviously, that’s a little bit of a low-stakes example. But I think in some of the higher-stakes examples, you have these things that were rules at one time or for one generation, something that if you broke it, you could be disciplined for, and nowadays, it’s just a wink and a nod and a shrug, and Actually, that doesn’t matter to Mormonism. And so I think that that’s also part of the whiplash: the changing sense of what really matters, what’s high-stakes and what’s low-stakes, what’s cultural versus what’s “doctrinal” (quote unquote). And I think that that’s what brings us into this conversation needing to really flesh it out because you live your life thinking that this is what’s being asked of you. I knew Carolyn when she was a teenager, and I get the impression that many of us were Molly Mormons. I get the impression that many of us were rule-followers and studious and letter-of-the-law in a way. And it just feels like that’s a recipe for disappointment. Natalie, I want to bring you back in since you’re the one who got this all this chaos started. What are some of your thoughts now that you’ve heard us process what you’ve written?

Natalie: Well, my first thought is just, like, “Thank goodness, other people share these emotions, are struggling with the same thing”—that’s just very therapeutic to me. I have two thoughts. One is the policy direction I’d like to see us go in. And the other is a spiritual direction I’d like to see us go in. For me, I think a lot of the roles we learned about gender growing up are also really, really deeply embedded with American capitalism. I not only internalized roles about how I should be a mother but I also internalized that being a mother was not financially valued in our society. And I guess as I’ve grown older, what I’d really like to see is for us, both as a United States of America and as a church, to provide more real, practical support for caregiving, including financial support. I feel like if that financial support were there, people would be able to make choices that they found more fulfilling and that were perhaps less tinged by these ideological questions. A lot of the whiplash I think I feel now that I have two kids is about people that are like, “Well, you should stay home, but you should also be bringing in as much money as a law partner.” And that, I think, is another further discussion that we could have about class and Mormonism.

For most of the pandemic, I did not attend church in-person; I listened on Zoom when that was available. And it was odd to me as a rule-following Molly Mormon to have to confront that I might have to, in the future, be a Latter-day Saint who cannot comply with the script. I might not be attending in-person in certain times. I think spiritually it’s been a useful exercise for me to see, you know, what does it mean to be a Latter-day Saint when some of these rules that have been so central to your religious identity [are suspended]? Modern Mormonism is very much a rule-based culture in which a lot of Mormon identity is caught up in following the rules, and that’s what kind of distinguishes us from other Christian faiths are these rules and cultural norms. But I really had to confront what it might mean to be a Latter-day Saint who doesn’t attend church in-person every Sunday and what that might mean for me spiritually.

Richelle: Well, Natalie, you brought us into what is going to be my last set of questions for the day because we wanted to make sure we wrapped up this conversation by talking about the “now what?” Carolyn, let’s start with you: what would you like to see from the Church when it comes to career and family and women’s roles?

Carolyn: So I agree with Natalie on setting up daycares in the church or setting up more formal networks or lobbying nationally for better social welfare or child-support programs. But before we even get there, which I agree with as a matter of both religious and social policy, I just want an acknowledgement of where we’ve been. For too long in Church history, you know, a decade goes by and all the rhetoric shifts and the Church just relies on institutional forgetfulness. But we’re not that forgetful as a people when we have committed our identity to studying general conference talks like they’re scripture. I was looking up Ezra Taft Benson’s famous “To the Mothers in Zion, please come home from the workplace” talk (it was given a month before I was born), and he has two lines in there that define my entire life, from the day I was born: a mother’s calling is in the home, not in the marketplace, and heavenly motherly teaching cannot be done effectively part-time. Like, those are what was interpreted as prophetic dictates, right? Those have weight, they have rhetorical weight, they’re actually very well-constructed sentences, they stick in your head. And I just need somebody to stand up and say, “That’s not true” or blatantly acknowledge that the path can be different—and not just like sideline it, you know, by anecdotally giving one example of one woman who was working and maybe that was okay.

I feel like too many women are like me, who thought it was literally impossible to both be a mom who loved her children and to have any sort of ambition at all. I’ve written elsewhere on By Common Consent that I feel like for the women who worked, their careers were valued in inverse proportion to how much they were paid. Because if they were working as a local secretary or as a substitute teacher or something, then that was because they’d been forced into it and it was the best they could find. But if they were, like, a consultant at Deloitte, they must have pursued that intentionally, which meant they were sinners. I need a different narrative that says that education and ambition and careers are allowed to be fulfilling, and that this is compatible with spiritual growth, but of course, there must be balance in all things, and you should love your children and you should, you know, once you have power, advocate for paid family leave for all women and men and children. That would be a narrative I would love to hear.

Richelle: Emily, what’s on your wish list for things the Church might do to address this whiplash issue?

Emily: One thing I will jump off of from what Carolyn was just saying is that, you know, part of acknowledging what has happened is also thinking about why someone like Ezra Taft Benson felt the need to say those things. The implication is that they knew or at least feared that women were, in fact, working outside the home. And so I think it’s partly on us, but also it’s partly on the Church. That acknowledgement has to be honest about the conditions out of which that kind of rhetoric was coming.

Thinking about some other things going forward, I’d love it if we had some serious rethinking of how we can encourage members, especially women or anybody else who’s been marginalized in the Church in various ways, to use their hard-won skills and knowledge in the service of the Church. That touches on a lot of other really big topics that I don’t think there are any easy answers tobig topics like, should we be paying people to do things for the Church? Or should we have a paid staff, like you have janitors or, you know, the nursery essentially becomes a job that somebody’s doing? That kind of stuff. But also: who’s suitable for what kinds of roles? Can a woman be an auditor? You know, things like this. So there’s big things where I don’t know if there’s any kind of clear one right way to do it, but I’d love it if we were a little bit more thoughtful about some of those kinds of things. What skills do we welcome from which people?

I’d love it if we thought about this too. I don’t know where this would go or what exactly this would look like, but, you know, this is just a really difficult question: How can we rethink the role of the Church either in members’ lives or in the broader society? You know, how can it really be a force for good? If we think we’re the hands of Christ on earth, well, what are we doing with that? And just I think, in general, embracing the limits of our understanding.

Richelle: I really love callings as a subtopic and can’t wait until that’s the topic du jour because I have a lot to say. I think it frames a lot how we think about what’s labor in the first place. There’s this kind of recent pandemic-inspired recognition of unpaid labor as being labor. What are we going to do with that now when it comes to callings and when it comes to things that we have always done as volunteer positions at church? Maybe we can rethink that and reimagine that.

I also wanted to put in my little plug on rethinking how we talk about families. I think that there are a lot of people in the Church who didn’t have that narrative of getting married at a certain age and starting to have kids and having the number of kids that’s expected and all of these different things. When the topic [at church or general conference] is families, I often feel excluded because I’m not married and I don’t have kids. However, I still have a family. I have a mom. I have many siblings, actually. I have lots of nieces and nephews, I have aunts and uncles and cousins, I have grandparents. And I think that it would be wonderful to think of family in this very capacious sense so that when we talk about this, we talk about: what does it look like to be an adult daughter or son of parents? You know, what are your responsibilities to them? What are your responsibilities to your siblings, your biological siblings and your other siblings on this planet? So I think just having a more capacious definition of family instead of honing in, and suddenly we’re only talking about the (quote) “nuclear” family as we’ve imagined it in the States since the 1950s. I guess because we are, all of us, as Carolyn said, kind of text-based, language-based people, it would mean a lot to me just to hear that rhetorical shift to where family meant something much bigger and had a bigger umbrella that it was covering.

Natalie, what are some of your final thoughts on what you would like to see from the Church moving forward?

Natalie: You guys have covered so many things, and I’m just sitting here nodding along thinking, “Oh, I wish I had said that, that’s really smart.” I would say a final thing is that we should be cautious to prescribe gender roles or other rules over the pulpit. I think we’ve realized that when persons in authority say these things, they get perpetuated, they carry a great deal of weight, and it is very difficult to discern doctrine from current cultural practices. And so I would just say that we should be mindful of our rhetoric, of what we say, and make sure that we are not importing current cultural norms into what we consider doctrine and divine truth, but allow for people who are closer to those experiences to have their voices heard a little bit more—to hear from more women, to let them have a bigger voice in deciding what it means to be a Mormon woman and what’s essential to that.


Cover photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Comments

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is easily the biggest struggle in my life right now. Through an unexpected series of events, I just landed a well-paying corporate job. It’s my first real job after college, and I have NO IDEA what I’m doing and feel guilty about becoming the family breadwinner because I’m not adhering to the model I was given at church.

    I’m 23. If any of my YW or RS leaders work(ed) outside the home, it was never mentioned. My mom and grandma got college degrees, and then became stay at home mothers. I don’t have a model for how to be married with a career (as is my case), let alone have a family and career.

    It’s a relief to know I’m not the only one dealing with whiplash as my life circumstances don’t line up with the church model, and as the church can’t seem to decide what it wants women to do.

  2. Great conversation. One that probably needs to happen a thousand times over with different groups of women. I like Natalie’s closing, “to hear from more women, to let them have a bigger voice in deciding what it means to be a Mormon woman and what’s essential to that.” This conversation seems to me an important contribution, a valuable set of voices.

    At the same time, and not meaning to take away anything from this discussion, I want to also have a conversation about what needs to change for men, and to let Mormon men, and women, reframe the messages the church and larger culture has given us. Sometimes we talk like the burden is all on women to figure out how to do it all, where men come up in the context of family leave and not much more. I want to also talk about the dynamics of an economy that seems to require at least two paying jobs for a family, about the possibility and reality of men being the primary or go-to child care person, about very male-biased church callings that demand too much and could be subdivided, about needed shifts in thinking for men who grew up expecting their last name to be the family name, who grew up expecting to be the primary earner, who grew up expecting to be in charge, who grew up expecting to have the highest public profile.

    We have work to do when a whole generation has grown up with the words of the Proclamation on the Family. “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” I know it’s heresy in some corners, but I don’t see this as a recipe for happiness and success for women and men and families in the 21st century.

  3. Carma Bylund says:

    Thank you for this great discussion. I have had a successful academic career while raising three kids with my husband. I am the primary breadwinner. I use my maiden name (often correcting people at church). You touched on so many points that I have struggled with for my whole adult life, including as an undergrad at BYU training for a career which I was told at church I shouldn’t have. I grew up in the 70s and 80s where these messages were very strong. It was clear to me that the only noble path as an LDS woman was to stay at home and raise her children. Yet, I got a PhD and worked in academia anyway, despite all the judgement and comments.

    The point about woman’s careers being inversely valued to how much they were being paid – YES! I have often thought and told others a similar thing – however focused on how much a woman liked her career. If a woman was working in a job she didn’t want to be, but had to be to support her family, then that was seen as noble and justifiable. I also hear a lot of praise for women who after they raised their kids went and got a master’s degree or a PhD and had a career.

    It is worth emphasizing that this is very much a Western, perhaps US, phenomenon in the church. We spent 4 years living in Doha Qatar and attended a very international ward. The only stay at home mothers were the American women. Indian, African, Filipino women work to help to support their families. I wonder in part if that is why there is a downplaying of this message now. We are an international church and this “mothers of zion” messaging just doesn’t work.

  4. I noticed and appreciated your matter-of-fact kind confidence in your path, Carma and others, and how you lifted up stay-at-home moms, too. Thanks to all who were ahead of their time.

  5. I agree with Christian’s comment about reframing for men. Whenever I have talked to women about priesthood ordination for women, someone always says I would never want that. I have on much to do as it is without adding more. The thought of men stepping up and taking more responsibility at home to allow women to serve doesn’t even occur to them

  6. A Poor Wayfaring Stranger says:

    I didn’t get married until I was in my 30’s and was only able to have one child. The issue of my age when I got married was a source of great embarrassment for my mother who got married at age 19 and for my siblings who all got married between the ages of 21-23. Being an “old”new mom made it difficult for me to relate to the other new moms in my ward who were usually somewhere between age 19 and 22. Even though I was glad to give up my job teaching gifted 5th grade students at an elementary school in a poor and dangerous part of our city I had a difficult time making the transition to full time motherhood. As the oldest child in my family I’d helped to raise my younger sibs plus I’d done a great deal of babysitting from 7th grade until the time came that I left home for college so I had all of the skills that were necessary to raise my child.

    According to all of the lessons in YW and in Relief Society in my YSA ward plus all of the conference talks about becoming a mother it should’ve been the easiest and most enjoyable thing in the world to do because, according to our church leaders, this was my God given, foreordained purpose in life. It wasn’t. Instead, my pregnancy was miserable due to 6 months of nonstop nausea and vomiting plus carrying my baby caused permanent damage and other problems with my spine. The post partum depression was beyond horrible. And on top of that my baby was extremely fussy and demanding. How could something that was talked about nonstop as total bliss be so traumatic to mind, body and spirit? Nothing had prepared me for the reality of my situation. When I talked in private with friends and other ladies in my ward who had also dealt with similar physical and/or emotional problems like I’d been struggling with during and after my pregnancy I drew strength from being able to actually tell my story out loud. Unfortunately, straight talk was not welcome in our Relief Society because our RS president and the bishop felt that our honesty would scare other sisters away from having more children or starting a family at all. (This was also at the time that the Q15 were still preaching that couples should have large families and not use birth control.)

    I was extremely upset that the physical and emotional well-being of mothers were never discussed when the church leaders started lecturing on those topics. Because they were/are men they had/have absolutely no clue about what pregnancy, childbirth, caring for a helpless infant and being put in almost sole charge to raise a child is like. Not every married woman can bear children or do so safely. Not all women are innately born with an instinct to raise and nurture children. Some women like my maternal grandmother who hated being a mother and being a grandmother and only did it because “it was a commandment” verbally, emotionally and physically abused 2 generations of her offspring on a regular basis thereby causing years of emotional turmoil in our family. Commandments be damned, the woman should never have had children. What would the Brethren think about that?

    Fortunately for my sanity I was already a freelancing professional musician. I taught lessons in my home and gigged at night or did recording sessions. Being able to get out of the house for just a few hours during the day or in the evening and to be able to talk to other adults was exactly what I needed to become mentally healthy again. I no longer felt trapped at home. Mothers should never be guilted because they work within or outside of the home.

    Regarding the role of men…I have several men friends who are stay at home dads while their wives work outside the home. This hasn’t been a choice made out of necessity but because the husband genuinely enjoy being domestic and rearing the kids. One of my friends actually designed and sewed the junior prom gowns that his daughters wore to the dance! Another friend told me that he never truly understood God’s love for His children until he took over caring his kids while his wife works as a professor.

    I recently found a wonderful anonymous quote that says “Tradition is peer pressure from dead people.” In the case of men’s and women’s roles as laid out by our church leaders this is especially true. Let’s allow people to have the freedom to make decisions regarding marriage, having a family and what roles within the family fit best with each individual and that allow for them to grow and flourish and become all that they can be.

  7. I can’t even read through all of this because it all makes me so upset (not from reading this today but for several years now from many of the examples you start with), but thank you all for talking about this and addressing these problems.

  8. So much of church doctrine is a reflection of the times in which the words were spoken. President Benson confronted a world where women were being encouraged to leave their family responsibilities behind and find themselves. Having watched the children of these women try to cope with the literal desertion of one parent, of course he felt the need to warn people not to get caught up in the current fashionable rhetoric. Just as he felt the need to warn about the dangers of Communism to those who had not seen first hand what life in Russia was actually like. And had no vision that it lacked the ability to produce a dynamic society and real material progress.
    May I point out that women seem to be looking for permission to achieve. Men just assume they have this right. But they also had to accept the very real worries that people would starve if they could not provide. Something only single mothers face as females.
    I also strongly take exception to state provided child care. I am not interested in accepting the tax load this would require. And why should some women, generally less educated, be expected to work for wages less than yours so you can both work and raise children? Shouldn’t we be funding their higher education, not your convenience?
    Raising children is a sacrifice. I assume even Heavenly Father and Mother sometimes want a day off from our needs. A spa day in a different universe. If you want to be part of that work eternally, you might try to learn to love it here.

  9. Roger Hansen says:

    Many minority women have had a double whiplash. Native Americans up until recently were told that the BoM was a history of their ancestors. That they were Lamanites. Unfortunately, DNA and archaeological evidence proved otherwise. Blacks have to deal with historic and institutional racism. Some members still believe that the priesthood/temple ban was from God. There is still the issue of “white and delightsome.”

  10. Kristine says:

    “Having watched the children of these women try to cope with the literal desertion of one parent”

    Is it “desertion” when fathers go to work?

  11. “And why should some women, generally less educated, be expected to work for wages less than yours so you can both work and raise children?”

    When a society values childcare, and the resulting benefits to women, families, and the entire society, enough to fund it … why would that society not pay childcare workers what their labors are worth?

  12. Thank you so much for posting the transcript! This topic resonates deeply with me, and I appreciated the eloquent and articulate discussion.

  13. Kristine, the women who were being encouraged to find themselves did not leave to go to work. They left their families behind while they moved, generally to coastal big cities, to live lives without their husbands and children. I had a cousin married to one if these women. And a friend whose mother was one of these women. There was so much rhetoric at the time denigrating the work and roles of mothers. Perhaps you are simply too young to have experienced it and are now assuming it was not what it was. It was part of the entire 60’s movements, glorifying “free love” and experimentation with drugs. Of course President Benson wanted the Saints to see through the garbage that was being preached then. Of course he did not want children growing up with parents who one day packed a bag and left, never to be heard from again. All in the name of “finding themselves” insteading of making themselves.
    And I have to disagree with the fantasy that society will ever pay childcare workers what they are worth. Only transferring the economic cost of childcare to taxpayers could even get these women a raise and it would never equal what we pay doctors or lawyers. So why should other women sacrifice their economic well-being for the benefit of your children? So you could send them a Christmas card once a year after they retire to let them know you are thinking of them? At least long enough to sign the card and stamp it. I have friends who are nannies. It is hard thankless work performed so the mothers can pursue their self-interest. But boy do those mothers resent it when the children prefer the company of the nannies to that of their parents. If you want children, stay home. Don’t try to hire, usually a Hispanic woman who had to leave her children with relatives, to look out for your children. So you can fulfill your career goals. Talk about racist.

  14. I have some experience of working as a nanny. Perhaps mothers have never considered how people whose job is childcare actually approach it.
    It is a job. I used the income for rent and food. I was not willing to risk my paycheck for your child’s well being. I would never tolerate the kind of behavior from my children that I accepted in other people’s children because I am concerned about long term consequences in my children. If your children get into trouble in later life, that is on the parents. So everything is not reported to you. Because childcare is a job and parents have become selfish monsters who do not want to know that their children need them home. And keeping my job mattered more to me than the welfare of your children did.

  15. Francine says:

    Sue, thank you for pointing out the economic inequities and the racism implicit in the idea that professional women should keep their jobs when they have small children. Of course, this can only be done if we have working class women willing “to be paid what they are worth”, which is always much less than the professional women make, to take jobs with no upward mobility, no job security, and no future.
    Sounds like the antithesis of Zion. Sounds like progressive politics glossing over reality with pretty words designed to sooth the consciences of those exploiting these women for their economic advancement.

  16. Kristine says:

    “the women who were being encouraged to find themselves did not leave to go to work. They left their families behind while they moved, generally to coastal big cities, to live lives without their husbands and children.”

    Sue, I’m very sorry that was part of your personal experience. But statistically, it was and remains extremely rare, and overwhelmingly more likely to occur in families in financial distress than in those with mothers seeking personal or professional fulfillment. The highest rates of parental desertion in the United States were in the late 19th and early 20th century.

  17. Being a bishop or stake president or Gospel Doctrine teacher might get you respect, but it is also unpaid labor. Why do you equate valuable work with monetary compensation?

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