Exponent II Classics: Guilt Trips

by Marilyn Curtis White
Provo, Utah
Vol. 10, No. 3 Spring 1984

Guilt trips, for sins omitted or committed, are an inescapable part of a striving church whose goals are numerous and exacting.  We in the Church have even come to hold certain guilt trips sacred.  “Never say no to a church calling found me nodding every time I was approached until one day, as Relief Society president, I discovered that I was also herding twenty-seven Cub Scouts as the only Den Mother, visiting teaching ten families, examining ward genealogy sheets, and substitute teaching the three-year-old Sunday School class, a one-shot job which had already lasted two months.  In addition, I had six children of my own and an absentee husband who served in a university stake presidency.  There was no joy in righteous doing, there was just doing, doing, doing.  I and all around me were suffering.

At the same time, each week I could go to Relief Society class and receive boosters to my guilt.  The number of self-improvement lessons a Mormon woman receives is staggering.  I quit going to Mother Education lessons after a while, tired of blushing brides telling me to set my table with my best china and crystal so our children would be raised with the finer things of life.  Mine had been raised with those nicer things.  That’s why there is no longer any china or crystal at our house.

There’s even a holiday for guilt. It’s called Mother’s Day.  The Primary sedately parades to the front of the chapel, arms akimbo, belts out two choruses of “Mother Dear, I Love You So.”  Angelic voices rise from the same kids who earlier shredded the Sunday newspaper, spilled kitty-litter all over the family room floor and ate handfuls of cake baked especially for today’s dinner.

Husbands give tribute to wives they obviously haven’t married yet.  I wonder why Brother So-and-So can not be proud of his wife for what she is: a quiet woman with a charming, tentative smile, who seldom yells at her kids, cooks the best brownies on the block, and understands Whitman.  Instead there he is, eulogizing a saint that I think even he would have trouble living with while she feels more and more guilty for not being as he describes.  Then they give you this little struggling plant.  What every mother needs—something to take care of!

After the hoopla of the holiday is past, a Mormon woman faces more serious, long-term loads of guilt.  The question of how many children, how many years of child-bearing, has to be confronted.  For us, there never seemed to be a compelling reason to stop, so we continued to have children.  I loved all those babies, but after each delivery I asked, “Lord, isn’t this enough?” and wished the doctor would tell me, “It will kill you to have another child,” taking my decision away.

When we finally did say the magic words, guilt-ridden, I still could not make the decision, and as my prayers went unanswered, I got pregnant again.  The ensuing pregnancy and delivery were not normal, but baby I lived through it with blessings and prayers.  Then I was plagued by wondering if I had done it once and beaten the odds, wouldn’t the Lord bless me if I tried again?

These problems we face in life are difficult, and each incident accompanied by guilt can be permanently crippling, not just a quirk of conscience betterment, but a tool of Satan bringing discouragement and depression.

It was at this time that I began to wonder, what exactly did the Lord expect of me?  I went to the scriptures and talks given by the prophets, and my vision of a woman’s role grew and expanded as I studied.  I began to realize that there is no typical Mormon mold; Mormon women could do what the Lord expected of them in a variety of acceptable ways.  One sister could do it within the four walls of her home, deriving fulfillment from housekeeping duties; another who must work could do it with quality time with her family; and I could do it in my own way, too.

I had to define my own pathway to perfection but felt that I had to measure myself against my neighbor.  The Lord had given me talents different from others, which, when I quit trying to excel at everyone else’s, began to develop and lend a real sense of accomplishment and fulfillment to my life.

I streamlined my life by learning to say, “no.” I had to practice it in front of a mirror, and it was still difficult the first time my bishop came to me with a new church assignment in addition to the one I already had.  Practically speaking, I could do it if I dropped my community involvement, or quit writing, or took some more time away from my family.  I thought about priorities: family first, church second, community third.  I had developed a balance in my life to include each; now that balance was being threatened again.  I made my decision, and the Lord, knowing better than anyone else what actually was needed, bore witness to me which callings to take and which ones to pass for another time and season.

Keeping my eternal goals in mind, I began to set achievable goals closer to home, more in tune with my station in life, and then those idealistic Relief Society lessons became less threatening.  We still have several plastic dishes years ahead of us, but I can still try to make the table attractive.  These things have helped me to face the guilt that comes in other areas.  Now when someone questions why I’m not having more children, I first forgive them their thoughtlessness due to their lack of understanding and express how thankful I am for my eight children and the time I now have to spend with them.  What a blessing it is!

I still wish I could enjoy Mother’s Day more.  If we in the Church could only admit what a mother really is…not so perfect but struggling, and if we were to accept families as the imperfect collections they are, how much greater could be the acceptance of ourselves and those around us and how much less the guilt!

It is because of my new understanding that I take guilt trips less frequently, but it is a conditioned response and not easily overcome.  Now when it creeps in, I can face it and dispel much of the negative influence it has on my life, and there is a reassuring peace in knowing the Lord loves me as I am, as I struggle, as I become.

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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20 Responses

  1. Angie says:

    What a sad post, describing years of obvious torment. At what point does an individual put up a barrier between her sense of self and the expectations of others? Eventually, at some level, each of us has to say, “Who cares what anyone else thinks! I’m going to make a decision for myself!!!”

  2. ZD Eve says:

    It’s an excellent article, and I completely agree with Angie’s point that each of us must learn to make her own decisions. But I found myself stunned by this line:

    Now when someone questions why I’m not having more children, I first forgive them their thoughtlessness due to their lack of understanding and express how thankful I am for my eight children and the time I now have to spend with them.

    People are asking this woman with _eight children_ why she doesn’t have more?

    [Deep breaths.]

    Thank you, thank you heavens that we’re now living in a different era. At least, I sincerely hope we are.

  3. Karen says:

    In 1978 I was 22 and 7 months pregnant with my second child. After a doctor’s appointment I called the Stake Young Woman’s President to tell her I would be unable to attend the Girls’ Camp pre-certification meeting. She questioned me closely about the reasons my doctor wanted me to take it easy. She pooh-poohed his concerns, “as a mother of 8 and as a nurse.” She asked me to exercise “a little” faith” and to “fulfill my calling.” She reminded me that the girls from my town would not have a ride to the event without me, and that this might compromise them. She guilted me into going. And the next day she told me I looked great and encouraged me to participate fully. I lifted, I squatted, I leaned. I went into labor that night, and delivered my poor little son, who suffered his whole life, and died the next day. The Lord expects us to do many good things of our own free will and choice, and we all need to learn to say “No.” I did not learn the lessons in Marilyn’s beautiful essay well for another couple of decades. Thank you, Marilyn for articulating this so well.

  4. Jenn in Boise says:

    I enjoyed you article very much. I have to say I can’t stand Mother’s Day in the Church and I do not attend Mother’s Day Sundays.

  5. beck says:

    Karen, your story broke my heart. I have to wonder now what that stake YW’s leader’s attitude was toward you in the following months and years?

  6. Jana says:

    I refuse to be a martyr-mother, if only because I don’t want that type of behavior modeled for my children. I believe that both men and women deserve to have meaningful and self-fulfilling lives. IMO, having a large family is fine for those who desire that, but is so unfair to anyone who’ve done so merely out of guilt or obligation.

  7. Kim B. says:

    Wow. Thank you.

  8. EmilyCC says:

    Angie, I’m with you. This would be a hard life to live!

    ZD Eve, I had to do some deep breathing when I typed this up, too. I liked this post because I think (well, hope!) that this is a piece from a bygone era. I think we still struggle with guilt trips, but overall, I like to think it’s better.

    Do others think this would be a historical piece or still fairly representative of how women think today?

    Karen, I’m so sorry to read of your loss and the situation around it. Stories like your’s make me so sad and angry, and I worry that oftentimes, it is other women who send us on our guilt trips.

    Jenn in Boise, Mother’s Day is tough! Is there any woman who hasn’t felt guilty that day? I’m at a loss as to how we, as a Church, can handle it better (though I’ve thought a lot about it). Any ideas?

    Beck, excellent question! I hope Karen’s situation helped this woman rethink how she treated Karen and others.

    Jana, I try not to be the martyr-mother, too, because I’ve seen so many women in my family do it. But, I slip up often. Do you have tips on how you’ve done this?

    Kim B., you’re welcome! It’s so fun to look through the archives and find something like this 🙂

  9. Emily U says:

    Oh my gosh, Karen, that is so sad. Did that woman ever apologize to you? I do think other women are the worst at laying on the guilt much of the time.

    I don’t think the kind of comparison to some un-attainable model of perfection that this essay talks about is done quite as often as it used to be. I’ve never heard anyone tell me to use china every night for dinner. Sister Beck’s infamous talk leans in that direction, though, so we’re not totally past it yet.

  10. Carol says:

    I’ve served in the Church for 43 years now and still see some Church leaders “guilting” women into accepting callings. We need to hear more talks about women’s agency, caring for ourselves and our families as a top priorities, and having the right and obligation to say “no” to a calling when we do not have the strength to fulfill it.

    We hear so much over the pulpit and in lessons about loving and serving others, and most women (and men) are very good at doing that. We don’t hear so much about loving ourselves, yet the Savior taught that we should love others AS we love ourselves. We need to emphasize self-care along with self-sacrifice.

    For all women who suffer because others demand that they do more than they can do, we need to remind ourselvs that God only asks us to do our best, to become whole, not to do everything perfectly or accept every calling/request/demand. Bishops are not always inspired when they issue a call. They are not omniscient and do not always understand our circumstances unless we educate them.

    I believe the high incidence of depression among Mormon women–and, yes, it is high regardless of what one or two studies say–results in part from too many women demanding more of themselves that is wise, healthy, or prudent.

    Karen, I am deeply sorry for your loss. Jana, amen. I wish I had not been a martyr/mom. It was not a good example for my children–sons and daughters.

    To those who cannot enjoy Mother’s Day, I understand your pain. I now go to celebrate the life of my mother, who although imperfect, is precious to me. I miss her, and I can now attend that meeting with gratitude for all the imperfect mothers everywhere who sacrifice so much and are sometimes so overlooked. So what if the talks are sometimes a little too effusive. I think we deserve a BIG pat on our backs for working so hard as women, daughters, sisters, and friends. (Our ward doesn’t give out flowers or plants anymore. We give chocolate-covered strawberries. Much better, since I can kill almost any green thing given me and since most plants are half-dead by the time we return home from Church any way.)

  11. ZD Eve says:

    Karen, I’ve been thinking about your heartrending story all afternoon. It’s going to stay with me for a long time.

    The 22-year-old me might very easily have done exactly what you did. I was 22 when I went on my mission, and I internalized a lot of the guilting to which I was subjected. It took me more than another decade to completely cast off the idea that a church leader knows better than I do what is best for me.

    Several years ago in connection with my calling at the time, I was cc’d on an email from the stake Relief Society secretary addressed to all the ward RS presidents about a stake activity the women (evidently) weren’t excited enough about attending. The email instructed the RS presidents that they needed to make the women understand how incredibly important this activity was to their spiritual lives, and make them realize how hard everyone had worked on this activity, etc. etc. I was so angry at the guiltmongering that I was sorely tempted to write exactly what I thought of her behavior and hit “reply all.” My head was not particularly level at that moment, so it’s a good thing I didn’t. But I still sometimes wish I had found a calm way to object.

  12. Cindy Adams says:

    I am sad for you. We have an amazing ward with great women who make it a practice to be “real” with each other, to mourn with those that mourn, and laugh together about the silly things we get tied up in knots about. Blaming the church for my natural propensity to be guilty has never been a place I wanted to spend my energy. I appreciate the standards that are taught, the blessings to serve and learn, and feel quite comfortable saying no when I need to and talking things through for greater understanding. I have no trouble admitting what a mother really is and all heads will nod as you share your struggles – we are all in the same boat. Goals are things to strive for and aspire to, not sticks to whip yourself with. Help your little community evolve rather than blame them for being unenlightened.

  13. EmilyCC says:

    Emily U, I hadn’t thought of the Julie Beck talk–thanks for bringing that up!

    Carol, thanks for sharing your experiences. I like what you said about celebrating imperfect mothers on MD. That seems a good way to go about, to realize we are all imperfect yet still remember that we try and make sacrifices.

    ZD Eve, I’ve never understood using guilt to get women to Enrichment activities. Sigh…

  14. Ziff says:

    I wonder if guilting women to go to Enrichment activities isn’t an attempt on the part of the planners to feed their own egos (or assuage their guilt). After all, if they’re able to get lots of attendance at their activities, it can be taken as evidence of how wonderfully they’re doing their callings. As my wife has pointed out to me, perhaps in this case it would be better to try to plan activities that women actually want to attend, but perhaps that’s more difficult than just laying on the guilt.

    Karen, I’m so sorry. How heartbreaking! Thank you for telling your experience, though.

    Eve, like you I’m struck by the question of guilt over how many children Marilyn felt she should have. Her wish– “after each delivery I asked, ‘Lord, isn’t this enough?’ and wished the doctor would tell me, ‘It will kill you to have another child,’ taking my decision away.”–clearly suggests that what the Church taught her was that she should keep having children until she was either dead or it was physically impossible to continue. Scary!

  15. Alisa says:

    Karen, I am heartbroken at your story. Thank you for sharing.

    I think this post is still very relevant today. Only a few weeks ago in RS I heard a response that we should never say no to anything a church leader asks of us. I have a different take on it, having had to set some limits based on some illnesses and breaking points. However, I think when we find what’s sustainable (and we’re the best judge of that), our service in the Church can be magnified, which benefits everyone.

  16. Kelly Ann says:

    I think my recognition of the use of guilt trips in regards to Prop8 and instances in church history are what really pushed me away from the church. I’ve dismissed a great many in my life but also succumbed to others. As I am trying to re-approach full activity, being more aware of the frailties of men in this regard helps me to know that “the Lord loves me as I am, as I struggle, as I become.”

    Thank you for sharing this archive. It still has great applicability today, even though not necessarily in the same regard.

    A note to Karen, I know many stakes in California no longer ask pregnant women to go to Girl’s Camp. It may seem unfair but I unfortunately think you are not the only one out there with that type of story. So at least the institution tries to address some of the implications even if not necessarily in the right way.

  17. D'Arcy says:

    I don’t think it’s quite the bygone era yet, but maybe we are moving in that direction. When I attended BYU I had five of the most wonderful roommates. All five roommates got married the same year (boy, was that a fun summer for me!) and now all of them have four or five children and they are each 31 years old. Again and again, after each child, several of them would voice how tired they were, how little money they had, how they wanted to be done, but they just didn’t think that they could “get off that easy” and that they owed it to God to have more children. It has been pretty disturbing for me to witness. And while all these women are amazing mothers, they are also tired, poor, alone (husbands still in school or not very helpful in parenting) and often overwhelmed. Did they do it because they wanted kids, or because they felt guilted into it?

    I have a perfectionist attitude and thus lived with extreme guilt most of my active years. I felt I had to be perfect at all the big callings I was intrusted with. It led to a lot of unhappiness that I am now glad is over.

  18. EmilyCC says:

    Cindy Adams, I’m so glad to hear your ward is uplifting and supportive, but I don’t think this piece blames the Church, only seeks to look at a cultural underpining many of us struggle with. As we talk about our experiences with guilt and figure out ways to deal with it, I believe we can rise above it. I do appreciate you sharing your viewpoint here; it’s a fine line between blaming the Church and working for change. Something I constantly try to watch out for as I post. Thanks!

    Ziff, I think your analysis of Enrichment attendance is spot on! I never thought of it that way.

    Alisa, great point! I don’t know how we can get over the over-the-pulpit guilt at saying “no” to callings because it could seem to some that certain people do need a little guilt :). When DH talks about asking 5 different people to fill a calling, I can see the temptation to use this tactic, but I hope there’s a better way.

    Kelly Ann, I love that quote! Where is it from?

    D’Arcy, I felt the same way about callings (and still, actually, struggle with this). I’m a little better since I’ve decided that if they don’t like the job I’m doing, they can get someone else, which has helped me cut myself more slack and do things like teach a verse of “Follow the Prophet” that goes, “Deborah was a prophet, she judged Israel…” 🙂

  19. Kew says:

    Emily- I’d love for you to finish that verse!

    I said no to a calling this year. My husband and I were new to the ward and called as ward missionaries. I was not excited. My husband has bordered on inactivity for much of our marriage, so I told him I could only accept the calling if he was going to be excited and dedicated to it. He couldn’t give it his all, and I knew I couldn’t handle it without him at 100%, so we said no. It was a strange mixture of crushing and empowering. I am working on saying “no” and it is currently going pretty well. 🙂

  20. EmilyCC says:

    Kew, I wish I could take credit for that awesome verse, and there’s even more!:
    http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/?p=1042

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