Healing Martha, Fortifying Mary
Years ago I had a conversation with an old friend that changed my view of sisterhood. Julie and I had been bridesmaids at each other’s weddings, which occurred in the same year. She and her husband had several blessings that I envied. They had completed their education, and they had owned their own property. However, she had found married life to be somewhat difficult. Early in her marriage, her husband’s faith fell apart. He struggled to become established in his career. They had a child, and she felt it was best for her to stay at home and brave the financial difficulties. There was even a few months of separation before she and her husband decided to reunite. I can’t imagine how hard it was for her.
By contrast, my marriage had gone relatively smoothly up to that point. We were struggling with a serious family illness and other hard issues, but I had completed graduate school, and I was working full time while DH finished his graduate education. We were living in our third rented apartment so far in our marriage, and I was considering taking an additional part-time job so that we could put some money away to pay tuition, pay off student loans, and save for a down payment on our first home.
When I told Julie of my additional job plans, she responded in a way I hadn’t anticipated. She chastised me for “not following the prophet and having kids right away.” I’d like to say I responded with compassion, particularly given my knowledge of how difficult the last few years had been for her, but that wasn’t the case. Becoming defensive, I went to the argumentative side of my brain and began to pick apart her statement. I told her that rarely did we hear that we should throw caution to the wind and have kids unprepared. On the other hand, at least at some point in every General Conference the Prophet speaks about avoiding debt. I told her that we were counseled to do three good things as young married couples in the Church: get the best education and grades we can; avoid and/or get out of debt; and have kids, preferably with one parent staying at home full time to take care of the kids. I told her they were all good things, but without large scholarships, a trust fund, or years and years to pursue education slowly (not an option for DH’s program), it was hard to do all three of those things simultaneously. Doing any two of the three is a more realistic mix. I pointed out that we had decided to put off having one of us stay home full time with a child to focus on education and debt management, but that we might change up that combination sometime in the future.
Julie responded in sobs. She said she felt bad that she was struggling financially. She expressed helplessness and fear, and I sensed that she felt my defense was actually a rebuke on her choices (I didn’t intend it that way, but I had been defensive, and I can see why that hit her where she was hurting). At that point, my anger at having been judged for my procreative choices dissolved into more of an understanding of her pain. Perhaps she told herself that while her life was incredibly difficult and her marriage was fragile, at least she was doing “the right thing.” And to show herself that it was right, she needed to find women whose choices contrasted with her own so she could build a case to make herself feel validated. But it all came from a place of hurt and her need to try to mitigate the very immense pain she felt in her life.
Given a different turn of the conversation, it might have been me crying to her about the frustrations I felt that I had to postpone children in order to do what I felt was right for my family – even my future family – at the time. I would have told her how I wished I was the one getting more education, and that work seemed to be a distraction from my PhD goals. She might have heard how hard my job was, and how I felt uncomfortable talking about my job at Church because I felt I’d be judged for working. How I felt ostracized from the other women in the ward who were, in my mind, privileged enough to be SAHMs (the grass is always greener, right?).
Both Julie and I had made hard choices that inevitably had sacrifices. The good news was that things change. Life changes. Finances can change. We don’t have to have it all right now. It’s a timeline thing, and we each have our own. As James E. Faust said of women in the Church, “She need not try to sing all of the verses of her song at the same time.” (“A Message to My Granddaughters: Becoming Great Women”) In fact, in the years since this conversation, we have both taken several turns with happy and sad news, both in finances and in marriage.
Unfortunately, I let that old conversation become a theme in my Church life. I’m often afraid of being judged by SAHMs for my work, and when they ask me questions about it, I hesitate to go into detail. On the other hand, I look at them and think they’re lucky to be in their situation, as difficult as it may be. I am aware that most of the judgment I fear is made up in my head – I am serious when I say I can’t think of one SAHM in my ward who isn’t an amazing, gracious woman. I guess that while I’m such a proponent of diversity, I have a hard time when I am that diverse person who doesn’t fit the rest of the group. And therein lies my insecurity.
I can’t help but think of Mary and Martha in this situation. We have two sisters, each making a choice about what they think is best. One chooses to keep Jesus company, while the other decides to make sure Jesus is fed. Both are good choices, and probably each choice is becoming to the personality and needs of each sister. Jesus’ soft rebuke of Martha stems from Martha’s judgment of her sister for making a different good choice. His compassionate, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things” helps me recognize and have compassion for the somewhat defensive Martha in myself. (Luke 10:41)
I look back at Julie and me having this conversation, and I believe we were both Mary and both Martha. We are Mary when we let the Spirit tell us what is needful and correct in our lives and direct our lives accordingly, and we become like Martha when we try to validate our own good but difficult choices by comparing our decisions to those of others in an effort to prove that we made “the right choice.” The right choice just isn’t the same for all of us.
And when we’re feeling like Mary, satisfied in our own groove and feeling good about our life decisions, there are bound to be some Marthas on our path. They may blindside us with their criticism, telling us that we’re not doing the right thing because we didn’t make the decisions they would have made. At that point, it is essential to remain grounded in our own truth and path, and lovingly acknowledge the pain that would bring one sister to criticize another. I hope we can then turn on our Christlike switch and extend compassion and grace to those women who need to know that they have a good, if different, path as well. A little compassion and grace might do wonders in helping us value the diversity of each other.