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How Idealizing Motherhood Hurts Mormon Women

“All I’ve ever wanted in life is to be a mother,” she sobbed as she slumped over burying her hands in her face. Through her tears she muttered, “My whole life I’ve been taught that being a mother was the most important role. Now, I’m getting so old that I will never be able to have a child. What meaning is there to my life without the role of mother?”

I’ve heard sentiments like this over and over again in my twenty years of clinical psychotherapy work with LDS (Mormon) women. In our efforts to acknowledge and validate the crucial contribution of mothers are we unintentionally sending a message that women who aren’t able to bear or rear children in this life are somehow less valuable to the Church and to God? A deeper understanding of our doctrine reveals that this is not true; we know that “all are alike unto God” (2nd Nephi 26:33) and that an individual’s worth is not dependent on his/her accomplishments (is there not something strange about considering children an accomplishment?).

LDS doctrine teaches the vital importance of creating bodies for God’s spirit children and of raising children up in the Lord. None of us would be living if it weren’t for the sacred work of mothers. I personally am forever grateful to my mother, to be a mother to four children, and for the opportunity to teach them and learn from them. However, there is something about certain discussions regarding motherhood that leaves me feeling uneasy. We often pedestalize motherhood. We often idealize motherhood. We talk about how noble it is—how important it is. And it is…but there’s a point at which overemphasizing and pedestalizing motherhood and its importance backfires, creating division and distress instead of celebration.

Part of my concern is that we often talk about motherhood as if it is women’s only valuable source of identity and meaning for a woman. Being a mother is an important aspect of my identity as an LDS woman, but it is not the entirety of my identity. While mothering my children is an important contribution, it is not the source of my worth. When we talk about motherhood as the defining aspect of a woman, the core of her identity, or the only valuable contribution, it can isolate and alienate women who are not able to, or who haven’t had the opportunity to, or who have no desire to bear and raise children in this life.

Here are a few key ways that overemphasizing and idealizing motherhood can hurt us culturally, socially, and spiritually:

1) When we categorize women only or primarily in the sense of mother or not a mother, we may unintentionally pit women against each other and create a sense of separateness instead of connection and unity.

I have heard the heart-wrenching stories of women – married or single—who feel that they are on the outside of most Mormon social circles. In some way or another, (almost) all of us feel like we don’t belong; let’s not exacerbate this painful feeling by inadvertently categorizing ourselves based on our family status. Children or not, there is so much that women in the gospel have in common. We are all individuals, sisters, and we are trying our best to lead righteous lives and be close to the Lord.

2) When we idealize motherhood, we risk diminishing the worth and contributions and of women who do not have children.

I believe that one of the purposes of our efforts in the Church to elevating motherhood is in response to the perceived devaluation of it in the broader culture. It’s clear that the work of creating families is not the most highly valued and certainly not the most highly compensated monetarily. So the question becomes, how can we value motherhood without overidealizing it? How can we value the work of mothers and the importance of motherhood while also highly valuing the contributions that all women make to our society – at home, at church, in the community, in the workplace, in the world (I’ll suggest a few possible solutions later in the article)? Do we fear that if we value women’s contributions outside of mothering and homemaking that women will choose not to become wives and mothers? How can we more effectively convey that women are valuable as individuals, not solely based on their reproductive status?

3) When we idealize motherhood, we run the risk of setting young women up for unrealistic expectations, disappointment, and depression when they experience its realities.

Perpetuating the belief that “if you get married in the temple and start your family, you will find never-ending bliss, and the deepest yearnings of your soul will be satisfied” sets our young women up for unrealistic expectations. To be clear, I am not saying that we should abandon teaching the importance of temple ordinances and covenants, of marriage and motherhood to our youth. What I am saying is that painting a romanticized picture of motherhood as the path to bliss, the cure to loneliness and suffering, and the only path to a purposeful life, is doing our young women a great disservice. Instead of idealizing motherhood, we would be wise to arm them with a deep testimony of Jesus Christ, a strong sense of their individual worth, and relationship and emotional skills that will contribute to resiliency and fortitude.

Can we teach that motherhood is a godly pursuit and will also come with the unpredictability of all other areas of life? Can we teach our young women resiliency skills to help her navigate a variety of family situations she may experience? She may not get married. She may get married and not have children. She may get married and get divorced. She may marry someone with an addiction or someone who leaves the faith. She may marry and have children who have health or mental health problems. She may have a child without a marriage. And the list goes on.

Motherhood is important not because it will magically complete you as a human being, but because it will provide many soul-stretching growth experiences that will help you become more like your Heavenly Parents. And…there are many other valuable paths that provide tremendous growth experiences, too.

4) When we define a woman only by motherhood, we may neglect the development of other important parts of a woman’s life.

Sometimes in a sincere effort to praise and honor women who have children, we inadvertently diminish other creative contributions they might make as individuals. Several years ago I spoke to a stake women’s group about self-care and preventing burnout. We were talking about the activities that bring us joy. One woman who found joy in painting and was a gifted painter, told of how she made a poster to advertise a community event. Her young child was in awe of the artwork on the poster and commented, “Wow mom. Did you make that?” This woman was surprised to realize that her children had never seen her paint. She had been so consumed by motherhood that she hadn’t shared with her children this important aspect of her life.

Women are multi-dimensional individuals and have unique strengths, talents and callings! Understanding that although motherhood may be a central aspect of a woman’s experience, there are other parts of her life to celebrate. Perhaps a woman (young or old) is learning a new skill, pursuing further education, running a company, developing a new product or theory, or creating something “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.” Let’s make sure we value these qualities, aspirations, and contributions as well.

5) When we pedestalize motherhood, we may be unintentionally diminishing the value of involved fatherhood.

Children need mothers, and they also desperately need engaged and involved fathers. Young people whose fathers are intimately involved in their lives are more likely to thrive in all areas of life; they are more resilient, more likely to excel in and enjoy school, less likely to be sexually assaulted, have more positive peer relationships, a higher sense of self-worth, are more empathetic, are more economically stable, and generally grow up to have more satisfying and successful lives. The temporal and spiritual advantages of having an engaged father are truly endless.

In LDS culture, starting at age 12, our young men are taught about priesthood responsibilities, but are they being taught how to be engaged and nurturing fathers? The Young Women are taught the importance of motherhood, so it makes sense to me that the Young Men would also be taught the importance of as well as the practical skills of engaged fatherhood.

Suggestions to Balance the Motherhood Discussion:

Motherhood is a relationship not a role

1) Motherhood is a Relationship, not just a Role

I’ve noticed that talks and discussions about womanhood and motherhood are often linked with the word role, yet manhood and fatherhood are rarely linked with the word role. I think that is a fascinating difference that feels significant and adds to my discomfort in how we talk about motherhood.

A few weeks ago I was pondering the topic of motherhood in preparation for an upcoming TV segment. All of the sudden it occurred to me: motherhood is a relationship, not just a role! When we define motherhood as merely a role, we also attach socially prescribed behaviors and societal functions that may feel restrictive and narrow. I prefer to focus on talking about motherhood as a relationship, an emotional bond with another human being, instead of a list of prescribed duties. For example, my grandmother died twenty-five years ago, when my mother was around my age. My mother still has a mother, even though she is not living, even though her mother is not currently playing a certain role in her life, she is connected to her mother through a relationship bond.

2) Redefine “Good Mother”

When we pedestalize motherhood it often comes with unattainable expectations: women who sacrificed all of their own goals for their children, who never complained, who never raised her voice, and who was always there for her child. When we think of the definition of a “good mother,” it’s often an idealized image based on societal roles, behavior or tasks – the happy, well-dressed mom with milk and hot cookies waiting for her children to arrive home from school. Maybe you think of a woman who has never missed a day of family prayer, or who makes organic home lunches every day for her 10 children, or who attends every sporting event.

The older I get, the more I tend to define “good mother” on the quality of connection between my child and me and less on the execution of certain tasks and behaviors. Being a “good mother” is more than a checklist of good mother activities and traits. I find myself reflecting more on questions like, “Does my child know that I am there for them? Do they feel known and understood by me? Am I tuned in to their lives? Do they feel comfortable coming to me for help and support?”

Pedestalizing motherhood unintentionally diminishes the value of involved fatherhood

3) Emphasize the Importance of Parenthood, including Fatherhood

What would happen if we consciously included fatherhood in our discussions about nurturing and raising children (instead of focusing primarily on motherhood)? What if we balanced our discussions about being a worthy priesthood holder with those concerning how to be a loving and nurturing father? What if we talked to our Young Men about the importance of fatherhood as much as we talk to our Young Women about the importance of motherhood? Given the importance of family relationships, these seem like important questions to consider.

I know that the topic of motherhood is a sensitive subject that brings up many varied emotions. You may have had a mother who was absent, neglectful, or abusive. You may have children and yet not always be the kind of mother you would like to be. You may long to be a mother and have not had the opportunity. You may not want to be a mother and feel guilty because you should want to be a mother. Whatever your circumstance, let’s try to be sensitive to the varied experiences of our sisters and value all of their contributions. We know that “the worth of souls is great” in God’s sight (D&C 18:10), and this includes every individual woman (and man) on this earth.

For additional resources visit DrJulieHanks.com.

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Originally Published http://ldsmag.com/is-there-a-downside-to-idealizing-motherhood/

About Dr. Julie Hanks, LCSW:
Dynamic self & relationship expert Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW loves to make a difference for women. She owns Wasatch Family Therapy and regularly contributes to KSL TV's Studio 5, and her advice has been featured nationally including Wall Street Journal, Parenting, Fox News, and others. Connect on Facebook & Twitter. Her books The Burnout Cure and The Assertiveness Guide are now available.

Comments

Mynn

I would like to add one key detail that I’ve come to learn through my journey with infertility: motherhood is not synonymous with bearing children. The fact that a person is born as a female means that they are a mother. I do not have to bear my own children to magnify this calling. Instead, I must be creative in doing so, as well as rely on my Father in Heaven, because of the limitations I face in mortality. God gives us so many opportunities to be a mother, and visiting teaching is key to the magnification of this sacred calling. That said, I very much agree with this article. Thank you so much for sharing!

Allyson

Thank you for your article. My daughter and son-in-law have gone through infertility treatments. My daughter hasn’t found comfort in the knowledge she will “someday” have children, but that she can be a mothering example to the YW in her ward. Also, please remember the fathers. My son-in-law has grieved also.

Wendy

If you have the chance to look into the National Parents Day Organization, I’ve had a little difficulty finding much about them online, but there are some great people there with a great mission and great ideas that sound much like some of your great points here. Thank you for your thoughts!

Chalesse

Very well thought out topic that concerns all women and how we can value each other. Women have been the focus of what they wear to how aesthetically pleasing they should be and to the expectations of motherhood and careers by society in positive and negative ways. Honestly we don’t need one more thing to tell us we are not enough or as pointed out unknowingly pit us against one another.

I know that in the LDS community we are trying to protect the value of motherhood but I find this article and your article on modesty in the church that you address that these topics do include men as well as women. Thank you! The values of parenthood belong to all individuals father and mother and whether or not they have children. Every positive adult role model in a child’s life is important and creates advocates in that child’s life building up self-esteem.
I can see there is a need to be more inclusive in our lives of different life experiences. It’s a good thing to be aware of others perspectives and challenges and to be sensitive to that.

KG

I do not like this Sam-I-Am.

Warning: Long post that some people are likely to disagree with.

I think the LDS church gets mothers exactly right. First off, the article misrepresents what LDS women are taught about motherhood with phrases like “When we talk about motherhood as the defining aspect of a woman, the core of her identity, or the only valuable contribution,” I have never heard an LDS speaker much less a church leader say any of these things. In fact, all of the problems she has with things the church says aren’t things the church actually says. They’re a misinterpretation of them. She says that we overemphasize motherhood and thereby under emphasize fatherhood but I just don’t see it. Probably because I go to priesthood where we talk about it all the time.

We don’t say that motherhood is the most important thing a woman can do in this life(the ideal) to hurt women who aren’t mothers. We say it because it’s true. There are many other valuable things a woman can do in her lifetime and saying that motherhood is the most important does not make them any less important than they are(very important). It just states the priority and truth that one is more important than some others. To say something is the most important thing is not the same thing as saying it is the only important thing.

The argument that a standard of behavior or a should hurts people is an argument against ALL standards and all declarations of importance. Should we not say theft is bad because saying so may make the thief feel guilty? Should we not say that giving to the poor is good because saying so might make people who don’t feel bad? Should we not have the admonition that “All worthy young men should serve a mission” because some people who don’t will feel bad?

The fact is that if you declare anything to be ideal then have set up categories of meeting or being the ideal and not. And some people will feel bad about that. But that isn’t a reason to not state the truth about what IS ideal. If it was a valid reason then it would be reason to not have ideals at all!

When you make any declaration of the type: this is right, this is wrong. Some people will inevitably fall into each category. They may feel bad about that but to argue that that is reason to not make declarations of right and wrong is a recipe for moral relativism.

It’s part of much larger misunderstanding people are having about the church these days. The title says the thesis of the article pretty succinctly, that idealizing motherhood hurts some mormon women. She makes good arguments to support that position and I won’t even argue with it. What she doesn’t say, but what she really means is that therefore idealizing motherhood is bad and we should stop doing it. People make that connection with other issues as well. The churches doctrines and policies on homosexuality and gay marriage hurt people so they are bad. The churches stance on pornography cause people to feel guilt and shame so they are bad.

Let’s talk about that connection that is an assumption of her argument. Hurt=Bad.

The scriptures show about a God who asks people to do hard things to prove themselves. To cross wildernesses, oceans and plains. Joseph Smith taught that “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”We worship a God whose defining moment was of willingly submission to greater suffering than we can comprehend. Hurt isn’t bad. Suffering brings us to the cross-roads where our character is determined. And that’s where the LDS church NAILS motherhood. Eve in the Garden had the wisdom to expose herself and all humankind to suffering. Elder Holland’s declaration last conference(which I can only assume the author is at least somewhat referring to with her criticism) that “No love in mortality comes closer to approximating the pure love of Jesus Christ than the selfless love a devoted mother has for her child.” may leave some people feeling lonely, wishing they weren’t single, but that loneliness is an opportunity to share that suffering with the savior and draw closer to him. Willing suffering is the greatest testimony of love there is and the very genesis of love. We love that for which we suffer.

I’ve heard multiple LDS leaders say to the members, “The greatest work you will ever do will be within the walls of your own home.” When they say that, I don’t think they’re just talking to the rank and file members of the church. They’re talking to CEO’s, legislators and to each other. I sincerely believe that the greatest work Thomas S Monson, Jeffrey R. Holland, Sherry Dew or Linda K Burton will ever do will be within the walls of his own home and we will never see it.

So yah, I’m a single 30 year old Mormon and to be honest that sucks. I want to be a husband and father more than anything on earth, but I’m not. It hurts, but that hurt doesn’t have to be accompanied by blame. Being a father isn’t any less ideal for me not being one and the hurt I experience because of it. The church’s unique emphasis on family being the ideal is one of the reason’s it’s uniquely true and that shouldn’t change.

Dr. Julie Hanks

KG, Thank you for taking the time to comment. For clarity, I am talking about nuanced cultural interpretations and systemic interactions in actual relationships. If you’ll read the article again you’ll notice that I made no claim that anyone has overtly said these things over the pulpit or that this is what the “Church” says (motherhood defines women, you’ll have a perfect family, etc.)

Much of the cultural messaging for women is subtle and is influenced as much by what is not said. Since you are a male you’ve had different messages and I don’t expect you to have concern around the idealization of motherhood.

My message is that as a culture we tend to frame things binary ways that don’t honor the complexity of women’s lives.
My intended message is not hurt = bad. My intended message is…
reflection & awareness = empathy & compassion for others.

Please take a moment to ponder the possible distinction between idealizing/pedestalizing motherhood and valuing/honoring motherhood…

If you’ll read the post again with an openness to seeing things in a different way, you will see I never said putting forth an ideal is itself bad. However, I do suggest that pedestalizing an ideal without any awareness, acknowledgement, or sensitivity to actual people around you who don’t “fit the mold” does contribute to unnecessary suffering.

KG

Thank you for a well reasoned response. You make some good points, but I don’t think they were said in your original post. I agree with your entire suggestions section by the way.

I took a moment to ponder the distinction you suggest and I’m going to take a few more because it’s a very good question.

I may have done the same thing I accused you of and mistaken what I perceived as implied subtext as your actual intent. My apologies.

Emmie

I really like Sheri dew’s comments on this is her November 2001 talk: “For reasons known to the Lord, some women are required to wait to have children. This delay is not easy for any righteous woman. But the Lord’s timetable for each of us does not negate our nature. Some of us, then, must simply find other ways to mother. And all around us are those who need to be loved and led.” There are lots of women who have never had children of their own who are awesome mothers! However I feel that a mother’s role is very down graded in our society and I think it is important to help young women see the amazing roles mothers have and how their influence can last generations. Of course being a mother is not easy but society is constantly sending them messages that being a mother is nothing to be proud of.

Lou

I am 81 years old. I raised 6 children. I know I was not a perfect mother but I tried hard to do what I could for all of them. However, having and raising six children was not the only thing I did in my lifetime. I finished college. I had two responsible jobs in my lifetime. I tried to develop my talents in art and music. As I near the end of my life, I am happy to say I am a mother, but I sure hope someone says, “She was a fun person,” “She loved God.” “She was a good friend,” ” She had interesting things to say.” etc.

Amy

I agree with Emmie. We have to stand up for motherhood and champion it as the ideal. What happens when we stop idealizing eternal marriage? Motherhood (and eternal marriage) is a fundamental principle of God’s plan for every woman–and a blessing available to EVERY righteous woman. What we need is more faith in God’s plan for each of us. I’m grateful for women who taught me about the ideal scenario of motherhood. Without those examples and lessons, I would have chosen a different path that would probably have ended with a successful career, but not an amazing husband and three beautiful daughters.

Lynn

My baby was kidnapped at 9 months old by her dad. I never saw her again until she grew up and found me. After I lost her I was diagnosed with cancer and was never able to have another child. As a convert many years later I often felt so empty when in the company of the many beautiful moms at church. I still cry at church on Mother’s Day. I felt like an outsider. I’m not saying the church added to my sorrows, maybe I’m just too sensitive. But over time I learned that the children and parents in my ward have enough love to make me feel like the favorite auntie to lots and lots of kids. Thank you to all the loving moms who embraced me and shared their babies with me. Especially Charitie, the amazing mommy of Kamie and Spencer, and Rich, their sweet daddy. Love you all so much.

Anonymous

Julie,
Thank you for taking the time to write this. As a young, infertile wife in the church a decade ago, this is something I was longing to hear from church culture. It may not have kept me in the church in the long run, but it would have helped to prevent a decade of depression. It is harmful. It does hurt. And girls are brought up to believe it is the most important thing they can ever do with their lives and that you will not be whole unless you bear children. It’s incredibly damaging and not fair. Thank you for speaking up for so many of us.

SB

I love this article. As a single, 50 year old woman in the church, never having married or having borne children, I have felt much of what you put into words. At times I have wished for children, I have felt like an outsider, I have celebrated being an aunt and a friend but felt condescended to and lectured about how I “should” feel. Then, when I was 39 years old, I adopted a child and a few years later adopted another. I also have a successful career and many other things that I enjoy and that I do well. But interestingly, since becoming a mother I have felt, again, many of the other things you expressed. I’m not a perfect mother, I don’t make organic lunches or have daily scripture study, as I hoped I would, and I often feel that I am not worthy of my “role” of a mother, which I worked so hard to make happen. However, I also find that on some days, I miss my independence or my time of being without children. I don’t find every day of motherhood a joy. But of course I feel that I can’t say that aloud…after all, I chose to become a mother in a “less than ideal” situation – as though that means that I can’t have times that I experience real life feelings. That has been difficult for me… To have this grand blessing after many years of thinking it wouldn’t be my path, to cherish that path as I fully do, but to also give myself permission to be human as I go along the path…doing the very best I can as a woman, a daughter, a sister, an employer, a friend, a human and yes, a mother.

Ashley

I’m pretty sure God brought you and your specific talents, hard work and accomplishments to this earth to really share His vision of womanhood and motherhood to the earth. Everything I’ve read from you lately feels incredibly inspired. I hope you realize that the work you do is super appreciated and valid and beautiful. Thanks for helping me (and probably thousands of others) be able to vocalize our feelings, cope with life, and find happiness in each of our respective paths. Bravo.

Bonita

KG – From your post: “Should we not say theft is bad because saying so may make the thief feel guilty?” You highlight an EXCELLENT point women in the church feel when they aren’t able to have children, haven’t had the opportunity, or as some people also are told – that the amount they have aren’t enough. You have equated not being a mother to being a criminal. This is the hurt that so many women are feeling, and members continue perpetuating as a way to motivate women to value motherhood, assuming that if they aren’t mothers that they are in some way bad or don’t value the “role” they way they should.

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