Crosses to Lay Down

Guest author Elizabeth Cranford Garcia’s most recent work has appeared in Tar River Poetry, Portland Review, CALYX, Tinderbox Poetry, and Anti-Heroin Chic, is the recipient of the 2022 Banyan Poetry Prize, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She is the author of Stunt Double and serves as the current Poetry Editor for Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought. Read more of her work at

My four-year-old daughter is leaning her whole body over my arm from the back seat, waiting to be dropped off at preschool, reaching to press the “skip” button on the music for the tenth time—a need she’s developed in my habit of allowing her to choose the music in order to persuade her to go to school at all. I’m hungry, eager to get a bite after drop-off, having chosen to exercise, shower, and put on makeup this morning instead of eat (because all my experience with mothering three kids has taught me that to skip my workout will lead to late afternoon burnout, tipping the domino that leads to a depressed and grumpy mommy at bedtime)—and my daughter’s body pressing in on me suddenly evokes a barrage of irritation at all the ways in which I’m expected—by them, by whatever idealized image I have in my head—to go without, to put myself second, in order to mother them. That when I metaphorically raise my hand to protest (“Could you please fill my glass of ice water at the dinner table after I’ve laid it with homemade hot food?”), it’s like I’m suddenly asking for an appendage.

And now I’m thinking of the scripture in Matthew in which Christ precisely tells us to deny ourselves, that “whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it”—and I realize this is perhaps the one scripture I just can’t reconcile with the master healer, the one who showed so much compassion for the woman with the twelve-year issue of blood, or the one whose tears bathed his feet, all the women he called his daughters, whose pains he knew and grieved for. Where is the caveat to this commandment that is meant to save his daughters from the depths of despair in bearing their children, or from the extremities of mental illness? Where is the footnote that says, “Here is the point at which your cross is too much to bear, and you are allowed to set it down”?

I am thinking here of my own heaviness after having a second child, dragging myself up the stairs for the bedtime routine, wondering how my body can handle another night of rocking the baby to sleep, only for him to wake ten minutes later, and on and on through the night. (I could go on.)

I am thinking of my sister, who who was hospitalized at each of five pregnancies, who once confessed to collapsing in a weeping ball on her kitchen floor when she had three small ones. (I could go on).

I am thinking of Emily Cook Dyches, who was hit by oncoming traffic after exiting her parents’ car, lost in the throes of mental illness after her fifth child. What was it that carried her so far down the path of cross-bearing that she was beyond help, despite the best efforts of her family? Was she an exception to the pattern of women bearing up under their burdens in the name of being Christlike because she had a mental illness? Or did this cultural obligation lead her straight into that wilderness?

I realize this example implies that I believe she should have said NO sooner, she should have asked for help sooner, therefore it’s partly her fault—an implication which horrifies me, and which I would certainly renounce if called out. But don’t we itch to analyze such cautionary tales, to find out where the fault lies, to find who is to blame? And if we discover her family family tried everything they could to help, where else do we look? They coined a term for this slippery slope of PPD— “The Emily Effect”— calling attention to the phenomenon as a pattern that merits our attention, not an isolated incident.

I am likely projecting my own resentment of martyrdom in our culture onto this story, using it for my own ends. I certainly believe in every effort to diagnose mental illness, to utilize all that science and the secular world can offer to help women survive, to help them cope. But do we treat these instances like the exception, which may prevent us from recognizing the warning signs soon enough to remediate them, or do we open our eyes to the brink many mothers stand at the edge of, and believe—that, too, could be me?

The night I held my baby, who wouldn’t stay awake to nurse at two a.m. (post-mastitis, in the midst of a yeast infection), at arm’s length in frustration, wanting to shake her—I knew: that could be me. That clarity woke my conscience just enough to remind me: put the baby down and walk away. How close I was to something tragic, I’ll fortunately never know. 

But that anger and frustration is something that has reared its head more times than I can count. It resurfaces when I notice that the hours of my day are disappearing into filling other people’s needs. When the part of myself that is made alive by devoting time to anything creative that primarily benefits me—that requires that my kids go without something (homemade food, or attention)—is starting to disappear again.

As I ponder this scripture against this backdrop, I am filled with a need to validate the caveats that I need to be there. Where are the scriptural examples that would help us lay down the burden of total and utter martyrdom? We have conference talks for mothers praising our sacrifices and devotion, which help many of us to feel seen, and we have talks (finally) addressing mental health issues, providing comfort and validating the need for secular sources of help to supplement spiritual ones; but where are the talks that help steer us away from the edge of anxiety by allowing us to say no? Where are the scriptures that put limits around self-sacrifice? If the entire bent of our religion is to make us more Christlike, and the narratives of motherhood are peppered with descriptions like “my angel mother who never complained, and never yelled,” how is it possible to put down the cross you’ve been convinced to bear and reach out for relief? When Christ says “deny” yourself and “bear your cross,” this is a very different message from “take my yoke upon you.” It leans towards self-sufficiency. The footnote for “deny himself” points to “self-mastery,” not healing. When you have chosen to bear and raise children, there is no end to this burden, no putting down of this cross. This thought alone can send one into despair, can keep one in a depressive state at the thought that your life—that the measure of your creation—is a long tunnel of darkness.

I take heart from King Benjamin, who provides some guidance on this subject, reminding us to “see that these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength” (Mosiah 4:27). I have often referred to Elder Oaks’ talk “Good, Better, Best” when trying to juggle priorities, reminding myself that I don’t have to do everything.

But how comforting it would be to see a scriptural example of women saying no to the demands placed on them. In this regard, his experience with Mary and Martha is telling. When Martha requests that Mary help her with the food preparation and domestic chores in order to “serve” Christ, he kindly reminds her that Mary’s desire to hear the word—to focus on it and set aside the cultural expectation of acting as hostess—would not be taken from her, because it was good. What she desired—to be spiritually fed—was a holy desire. In the equation of “losing” vs. “finding,” it was not expected of her to set aside her needs. Rather, she had to “lose” what was expected of her by society in order to “find” spiritual sustenance. 

This scenario in a sense unravels the dichotomy many of us set up as what motherhood requires: that losing ourselves requires putting last all our desires in order to put our family’s first. Instead, what this incident suggests is that in order to carry out our mission, what we must sacrifice is not our desires for our souls to be fed, but whatever clutters the path between ourselves and our goal of sanctification. That what we must “lose” is not “the self,” but the trappings of identity that create stumbling blocks for us. Perhaps we ought, as mothers, to read the phrase “lose his life for my sake” and infer that anything we lose in the pursuit of feeling closer to God is not crucial to a sense of self at all. Thus, bearing the cross of motherhood does not mean losing our sense of who we are as daughters, as beings with desires for knowledge (as Eve was), but might mean letting go of habits or crutches we’ve become accustomed to that don’t directly impact our true identities. Are there inclinations my natural man wants to hold onto (like a quick temper) that I’ve told myself are part of my identity, but are holding me back?  We ought to evaluate what is asked of us in this light—will it lead my soul towards Christ, or into self-pity, resentment, and despair? 

In this regard, I would argue that getting an education in whatever field feeds the soul and serves our fellow man is in service of God, and should not be sacrificed. That obtaining a vocation that feeds the soul, and not merely when an economic back-up plan is needed, can qualify as being in the service of God, and ought not to be “lost.” 

In order to feed my own soul, I have let go of some of the house cleaning. (I long ago decided not to fold my kids’ laundry, and I have yet to meet a child who cares about wrinkles). There are days I go without showering because I have decided that my need to organize things (and thereby declutter my mind) is more important than smelling good. There are days we eat chicken nuggets and tater tots because I need time to ponder the universe. There are other days I spend time cooking my family’s favorite dinner because (as the story of Babette’s Feast teaches), sometimes the joy of the senses opens us all to the joy of each other’s presence, to immediacy, letting go of our worries about the past or future. But in each case, I must remind myself that the opportunity cost must not be something that my soul can’t live without. 


  1. I really appreciate this reflection. Thank you.

    Courting controversy, I’m impressed with the idea that “deny yourself” and “bear your cross” is a masculine divine voice which speaks in absolutes and always asks for more. And a concern that the paucity of limits and times to set down the cross corresponds to the few examples of the feminine divine in scripture and worship (Mother in Heaven, Wisdom, Goddess — your preference as to vocabulary).

    Although King Benjamin is clearly presented as a man speaking, I sense a shift to feminine divine voice at Mosiah 4:14-27 beginning with “And ye will not suffer your children . . .” and ending with “all things must be done in order.”

  2. I learned of Emily Cook Dyches story a few years ago when my husband was serving as a bishop while in medical school and we had three very young children. I related to her story and struggles a lot, and when I read that her husband was serving as bishop at the time of her death I wondered why on earth he hadn’t been released some months prior when she was admitted to an inpatient mental health facility. I realize that I am projecting my own resentment and exhaustion onto her story, but I am so angry for her. We push people so far past their limits.

    You articulate so many good thoughts in this post. I will be re-reading it and digesting it for a while.

  3. Beautiful. Thank you. You put into words the feelings that I’ve been struggling to articulate. Caring for young children can be so demanding that any work done to better one’s self can feel selfish. Scriptures about losing one’s self only exacerbated those natural feelings.

    I recently went back to work after a decade of being home. It has been very hard to let go of the voice in the back of my head telling me I’m being selfish for learning a skill and enjoying it. Am I trading my eternal happiness and the spiritual security of my children by trying to develop my talents? It’s hard to constantly justify what I’m doing since the world doesn’t “need” one more person in my competitive science field and I don’t “need” the money to avoid living on the streets. But those thoughts only lead to feelings of uselessness and being trapped in a set up that doesn’t work for me.

    When I hear talks about building the kingdom and the importance of community I feel so calm and empowered. I know what I’m doing is good. Something in me tells me that for me and my skill set, this is the gospel – this is loving God and loving others – being in the world, getting to know people outside of my usual circles, building useful skills, and nourishing my mind all while glorifying Christ who gives me strength and makes change and growth possible.

    So I appreciate you taking the time to rethink what has always been a difficult scripture for me to swallow.

  4. Michinita says:

    Thank you so much for this. I also have struggled with feeling like I’m supposed to run myself into the ground to follow that scripture, and am only now beginning to believe I’m allowed to step back to take care of myself. My change in paradigm came through therapy. I’m grateful for this scriptural analysts to back it up.

  5. Maybe the scriptural caveats could be the example of Christ in withdrawing from his ministry from time to time.

    I remember a FP message in an Ensign from my early days of motherhood, probably in June for Father’s Day, that talked about men’s needs to take care of themselves so they could in turn take care of their families. That part of the article kept getting brought up in church and during visiting and home teaching. It really irked me, not because it wasn’t true, but because I felt I had never heard that message directed at women. Instead we get praised for running ourselves into the ground. I’ve never heard a Mother’s Day talk praising a woman for taking time for herself or saying no to one more unreasonable request.

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