I spent a lovely Saturday (the whole day, away from my squalling, nursing twins) at a conference for maternal health. There we discussed cultural disparities across many different lines–race, social status, income, and education. The issues presented concerned women who were black mothers, poor mothers, minimum wage mothers, undereducated mothers–they concerned Mormon women. The mothers in my community. In my culture. The stereotypical Latter-day Saint mother, with her brilliant teeth and bottle-blonde hair and department store makeup–that’s not me. That’s not my friends. We don’t live Ann Romney’s life. We have two cars that combined are older than our parents. We live in houses that saw better days under President Carter. These are the mothers I see at church. These are the women that live next door to me. We bring each other meals, we share our stories, and we bear one anothers’ burdens. They are my people.
As the presenters spoke, questions were answered, anecdotes were given and I took notes with a fury not seen since my SAT prep days. Some of the pages were stained with tears.
I choked up at the picture of a premature baby on a ventilator with an IV in her precious hand. I stared in disbelief at stories of care providers who were disrespectful and unkind to women simply because they were a different race, spoke a different language–were another kind of person. I bowed my head to hide that I wept when a mental health professional spoke of how a mother could think her baby will be better off without her. When the women we learned from led us in song rich with joy, I cried again. I cried because I felt worthwhile. I felt needed, valued, useful. I felt loved.
How many of our sisters stand in need of such validation? How many will be sitting next to us in church on Sunday, wondering when Heavenly Father will call them to their glorious errand? How many beat their spirits down until it fits into the mold of a Mormon mother? How many will break when they do not fit?
I stayed in the home not because I wanted to or felt it was better for my family, but because the situation I was in made it the only choice I could see. I was nineteen when I became pregnant. I was wed a month before I turned twenty. I dropped out of college, quit my job, and became a housewife. I’ve enjoyed the last five years. I have been reasonably fulfilled in that role. Though more honestly put, I’ve made the most of it.
I have also been desperate. Searching, screaming for a chance to be made good use of, to learn, to be challenged. I have poured over every article, study and book I could get my hands on, devoured every forum and blog I could find. I have more secondhand textbooks than a medical student. I have written more words on birth and breastfeeding and postpartum support than your average pediatrician has even read.
I wanted to be helpful. I wanted to be put to work. I wanted to be needed. I thought the sweat of my brow and the ache of my back could be used for more than washing and folding, sewing and mending, sweeping and scrubbing. I needed my mind and my thoughts to be used for something besides stories and songs, for my time and talents to serve those who needed more than a maid, a driver, a secretary, a complaint line operator. We have the Relief Society and visiting teaching; Young Women’s presidents and Sunday school teachers; Primary pianists and church choristers. We have temple work and service missions. I have happily and joyfully served my family. Still, I crave a broader purpose.
Yet over and over, I hear from my priesthood leaders that my place is in the home. Unless forced by tragic circumstance, my duty to God, the prophet, and my husband is to meet the needs of my family before my own. I have covenanted to have faith. To be obedient. To endure. As a girl, I was to choose the right. As a woman, I am to endure to the end.
What a curious choice of words–endure. Obstacles and struggles are to be overcome. Drudgery is to be endured. Is this how my time in these latter days is to be spent–enduring? Nothing but one difficult day after another, days of rocking and nursing giving way to chases and tantrums, followed by school and homework and cars and college? What is to become of me when my task is done? What am I to do–who am I to be–when mothering no longer consumes my days and my thoughts and my life?
No wonder the childless in our church feel so alone. No wonder the barren feel so hopeless. The only comfort given them is that they will one day be blessed with a family in paradise. But they do not want the bliss of a fantasy. They do not dream of perfect, celestial children. They ache for one heavy in their wombs and in their arms. They think about nurseries and handmade quilts, the sweet-milk smell of a baby’s skin as one sleeps on their chests. The mystical, mythical design of eternal families is one of great meaning, but it brings little joy to a woman who must wait a lifetime to have it.
It is not the road to the kingdom of Heaven that is paved with good intentions. The intention of our beloved leaders is not this. They do not mean to be cruel. They do not want us to feel unvalued and unworthy. They do not wish for their fellow children of God to feel so alone. I learned today that intentions are only as good as they are effective. What women effectively learn in the church is that they are to content themselves with the joy of motherhood.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has something to answer for: they have failed women. They have failed mothers and they have failed daughters, failed our elderly grandmothers and our unmarried aunts. Most of all, they have failed the women who yearn to carry out the errand of angels, as is our sacred charge. Every time a woman hears that service in the home and to the church is the more worthwhile, the unspoken conclusion is that it must come at the price of every other. We are endowed as queens while we beg for the crumbs of ours masters’ tables. The duty of motherhood, held equal to the honor of the priesthood, is not given its proper respect. Our contributions are given second billing to those of every priesthood holder. A boy of twelve is handed the keys to ordinances and given responsibilities denied to the women who birthed his mother, his father, his aunts and uncles and cousins, the righteous women who served their callings honorably and brought up a God-fearing generation. She shepherded them onto the way and through the narrow gate–yet her gifts are seen as lower and less noteworthy.
A pedestal may give you a good view, but it is difficult to do much good from. Until women are encouraged and empowered to do good in their communities, to serve outside of their homes and beyond their callings, they will continue to wonder if this is all the Lord has in store for them and what good will come of their service to Him. We will continue to see our sisters stumble and fall. Shall our church stand idly by as they mourn what could have been?
As sisters in Zion, we’ll all work together
The blessings of God on our labors we’ll seek.
We’ll build up his kingdom with earnest endeavor
We’ll comfort the weary and strengthen the weak.
The errand of angels is given to women
And this is a gift that, as sisters, we claim
To do whatsoever is gentle and human
To cheer and to bless in humanity’s name.
How vast is our purpose, how broad is our mission
If we but fulfill it in spirit and deed.
Oh, naught but the Spirit’s divinest tuition
Can give us the wisdom to truly succeed.