By Neylan McBaine
Founder, The Mormon Women Project, and Contributor to Patheos.com
Mormon motherhood has had a distinct look about it for the past fifty or so years: aggressively eschewing any paid work outside the home, a Mormon mother has dinner on the table each night, plans the family’s vacations, camps, extracurricular schedules, while reading or playing on the floor with her children or driving them around in the minivan. She also cleans her own house, faithfully attends every “additional Relief Society meeting,” bakes homemade treats for the sisters she Visit Teaches, and brings meals to the pregnant and the elderly. Reaching deep into the stereotype, she cans fruit, sews quilts, and does her own flower arranging.
What will Mormon motherhood look like in the future? Will it be similar to this retro stereotype? If not, how will it look different?
I believe an important difference for Mormon mothers in the future will be that we no longer describe them by what their lives look like. For too long, Mormon women have dwelt on what prioritizing motherhood should look like, rather than what it should feel like. Somewhere along the way, the visual images of bread making, carpooling, and ironed shirts became our cultural touchstones for judging how successfully a woman prioritizes motherhood in her life. This standard for judgment is simply not sustainable in our growing, modern church.
It is easy to blame our church leaders for this suffocating cultural paradigm of perfection and uniformity that we’ve been operating under for so many years. It’s true that many a talk has been given over the Tabernacle pulpit equating motherhood to homemaking and self-sacrifice, but even more talks have been given about the supreme importance of personal revelation in our lives and the responsibility each of us has to craft a life that fulfills our mission on this earth and makes us happy. No talk I know of has stated that motherhood should devour the pursuit of happiness, nor that the pursuit of happiness should devour the prioritization of motherhood.
And yet a conundrum is inherent in this varied instruction: Does the divinely-appointed role of our female bodies contradict the doctrine of free agency we hold so dear? Like Eve, who relied on her own judgment to weigh her contradicting instructions, I believe it is the mothers of the church who shoulder the burden of unraveling that conundrum, not our leaders. We are the ones who live the daily balancing act, finding what works for us as individuals. Mormon mothers now and in the future must rely on personal confidence, assurance of our individual missions, and ability to receive personal revelation so that we can be at peace with the balance of self and sacrifice that defines our routines.
My observations as a mother in the church today lead me to believe that Mormon mothers are more boldly asserting what prioritizing motherhood should feel like, and less rigidly asserting what it should look like. Compared to my own mother’s generation, Mormon mothers today seem to feel more freedom to define “being a good mother” in their own terms, rather than feeling pressure to conform to culturally expected activities and schedules. In fact, taking time for ourselves by enlisting husbands, friends, or paid help is now refreshingly accepted as a necessary ingredient in successful mothering. This is a needed development in our maturing as a church. Our membership now reaches into cultures where the act of mothering is so different from what we experience in the United States that imposing the expectations reflected in our stereotype would make our paradigm irrelevant to a new member’s daily functioning.
Because Mormon mothers today understand that we are still individuals with unique talents and skills that can and should be used beyond the reproductive abilities of our bodies, we are on a path to becoming a vital force for good as we engage in the world around us. As the founder and editor of the Mormon Women Project, I have a formidable group of volunteers, many of them mothers, who stimulate their minds and serve outside their families by contributing their skills to the MWP. I see many of my peers engaging in worthwhile and fulfilling projects professionally and in their communities, and this leads me to believe that Mormon mothers in the future will constitute a happy, balanced, and productive workforce that engages with the surrounding world and magnifies the best that that world has to offer.
But in the same breath we discuss the increasing power of Mormon mothers to offer a model of fulfilled and balanced womanhood, we must also discuss the role Mormon mothers will play in fortifying the importance of dedicated and self-sacrificing raising of children. Motherhood will always be the cultural and doctrinal focus of our gender role. It is not impossible to imagine a time in the near future when bearing children becomes a life path fewer and fewer women choose for themselves. With children no longer economically valuable as they were before the urbanization of our society, having a child is now simply a checkbox on a culturally established list of accomplishments that lead to a happy and successful life. The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”
The problem is that more and more people are seeing that the emperor has no clothes: children do not necessarily make one “happier.” A recent article in New York Magazine reflected deeply on this idea that children contribute to our sense of well-being:
Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. This finding is surprisingly consistent, showing up across a range of disciplines.
Instead of contributing to the family farm or business, children are now viewed in our broader culture as our bosses, requiring at their parents’ great expense the grooming, instructing, enlightening, and educating needed to get ahead. And when the emotional payback parents expect from all this work doesn’t come, either when the child is small and loud and exhausting or when the child is older and rebellious and rude, the question arises, “Why have children at all?”
It will be the responsibility of Mormon mothers to answer that question with resounding faith and dedication to our doctrine. It will be Mormon mothers who continue to value their children’s worth above rubies or any other measure of economic value. It will be Mormon mothers who continue to value their children in spite of the fact that they might not make our daily lives “happier.” Mormon mothers will declare through words and actions that children are the heritage of the Lord, valuable for the overarching sense of purpose, joy, and fulfillment they bring to dedicated parents who offer the gift of a physical body to a pre-earthly spirit.
The conflict between our bodies’ role and our right to exercise free agency will not be resolved by the future mothers of the Church because the solutions are as varied as the mothers who tackle them. But I believe the confident, self-assured women raising our children today will offer a more balanced, individually-determined approach to the conundrum. Each prayerful and self-possessed Mormon mother will come to the conclusion that there might not be a right answer for our people overall, but there is a right answer for her.
Neylan McBaine has been published in Newsweek, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Segullah, Meridian Magazine, and BustedHalo.com. She is the author of a collection of personal essays — How to Be a Twenty-First Century Pioneer Woman (2008) — and the founder and editor-in-chief of The Mormon Women Project. She blogs at neylanmcbaine.com.