From Stinky Closet to Mother’s Room: A Quest

While pregnant with my now 5 year-old son, I moved near a chapel with the tiniest, stinkiest Mothers Room I have ever seen.

I think it is important that lactating mothers assert their right to feed their children wherever and whenever necessary. However, I appreciate the extra respect and courtesy some institutions show for nursing mothers by providing comfortable breastfeeding rooms where mothers can nurse their children without worrying about noise, distractions, or perceived modesty.

My local chapel had such a room, but it would more accurately be labeled “Mothers Closet”.  It only had room for one rocking chair.  That would have worked well if our congregation had only one baby, but nearly everyone who attended this Mormon chapel was Mormon and Mormons like to have babies.  Mothers and their screaming infants were frequently sighted checking the room, finding it occupied, and then searching for another location.

The one rocking chair in the itty bitty Mothers Closet was shoved against the changing table.  Imagine the smell! I should also mention that there were only two changing tables in the building–in the Mothers Closet and in the Women’s Restroom.  Lucky dads! They got Sundays off from diaper duty.

I silently endured this arrangement until my son weaned, but when I became pregnant again, I decided to be more assertive.   After all, priesthood leadership was probably unaware of the inadequacy of the breastfeeding facility.  As males, they were not allowed in there.

Using the church website’s handy form for emailing your local bishopric or stake presidency, I sent both an email describing the problem.  I suggested that they convert another nearby classroom that was already wired to chapel audio into a new Mothers Room.  I also suggested that the existing Mothers Room could be converted to a changing table station that all churchgoers, even fathers, could use.

The very next Sunday, a bishopric member approached me and let me know that they had received my email and were looking into the problem.  I was thrilled.

NursingThe thrills stopped there.  Nothing happened.  My baby was born.  I spent many Sundays searching for places to feed my hungry baby when the Mothers Closet was full.  The strange thing is, I  could usually find vacant classrooms where I could nurse my baby on the floor or on a folding chair.  With so much unused space in the building, the inability of my priesthood leaders to provide an adequate nursing room was inexplicable.

Every few months or so, I brought up the issue again. My bishop was eventually replaced and I talked to the new bishop about the problem.   My husband spoke up about it as well with equally little effect.  Should it gratify my feminist sensibilities that they ignored him, too?

I also tried talking to a member of my ward Relief Society presidency, who told me that I didn’t understand how complicated these things were.  No, I didn’t understand. After talking to her,  I sent another email suggesting a simple 5-step process for establishing a new Mothers Room quickly and inexpensively, in case they really were bamboozled by the complexity of it all.

1.  Move the sign that says “Mothers Room” from the closet to the classroom.

2.  Move the rocking chair from the closet to the new Mothers Room.

3.  Put a note on the door of the new Mothers Room like this:  “This room has been converted to a Mothers Room for nursing mothers.  If your class used to meet in this room, please contact your auxiliary leader for assistance locating a new room.”

4.  Put a sign on the old Mothers Closet labeling it, “Baby Changing Station”.  If funding is not available, a paper print-out will do.

5.  Add more rocking chairs over time, as funding permits.

That email was sent shortly before Mothers Day.  It began, “Dear Bishopric and Stake Presidency, as Mothers Day approaches, I would like to suggest that an even better way for the priesthood to show respect for mothers than gifts of candy or flowers would be providing an appropriately sized Mothers Room…”

One Sunday, after I nursed my baby on the floor while the Mothers Closet was occupied and able-bodied male priesthood holders occupied every single lobby chair, another mother suggested I start a petition about the Mothers Room.

But over the two years that I had taken up this minor battle, the quest had changed for me. Originally, it was about more conveniently feeding my baby.  Now, my baby was getting older and soon wouldn’t  need to nurse at church anymore, but I needed to know if I could get priesthood leaders’ attention about a uniquely feminine issue without resorting to pickets and petitions church leaders seem to dislike so much.

Throughout my life, I had questioned how a system with all-male leadership could possibly address the needs of its female populace.  After all, look at the subjugation women endured until female leadership became a norm in government and the workforce.

Those worldly institutions are different than God’s church, other church members explained to me. Men and women are equally blessed by the priesthood.  Priesthood authority is not about power, but service.  Women in the church have all of their needs met by the priesthood without taking on any of its responsibilities. I doubted the veracity of these explanations, but I had a “desire to believe” and now I was ready to experiment upon their words. (Alma 32:27) If the church were really as different from other worldly institutions as I had been told, certainly it wouldn’t require worldly remedies such as demonstrations, petitions, and more demographically diverse leadership to meet the needs of its members.  I continued to wait for the priesthood to disprove my assumption that because none of my church leadership could lactate, they could’t show as much interest in the Mothers Room as they did in the church basketball court.

One Sunday, after failing to appease my toddler with Cheerios and a sippy cup, I gave in and took him to the tiny, stinky Mother’s Closet. A new sign on the door said, “Baby Changing Room (Men and Women)”.  The Mother’s Room sign had moved to the door of the next room. I opened the door of the new Mother’s Room and found a beautifully decorated, spacious room with comfortable seating for six women and no nasty smell.

I sat down in the new room and lactated and thought and cried.  After the meeting, my stake president, a genuinely nice man, apologized to me for the slow response to my concerns and asked to see my baby.  His eyes widened when I informed him that the big toddler in my arms was that very baby who was still  in utero when my quest for a Mothers Room began.

Reflecting back, how would I evaluate the results of my faith experiment?

1.  I learned that a powerless woman could get the attention of her priesthood leaders about a local woman’s issue through the traditional methods of letters and face-to-face requests (nagging).

2.  It took about two years to bring about change this way, although this particular issue was completely uncontroversial and addressable at the local level.

3.  I have since rejected the idea that there is anything doctrinal about the Mormon social norms that limit women to written and face-to-face nagging of local priesthood leaders to influence change.  Norms that silence women ease bureaucratic complexity for male leaders and preserve status quo, but they do not build Zion.

4.  I planted the seed of belief that an all-male leadership structure, managed by kind, well-intentioned men, could meet uniquely female needs, and waited patiently for it to “swell within [my lactating] breasts” but it didn’t.  It was a bad seed. (Alma 32:28)  The Church needs gender diversity in leadership.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is an advocate, mother, professional, lover of the arts, hater (but doer) of housework and seeker of truth. Podcast: Religious Feminism Podcast Twitter: @aprilyoungb

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22 Responses

  1. Em says:

    I started a similar project in my ward. Like you our ward has a mother’s closet. There is barely room for two chairs, both of which are filthy and ancient. Like you, it also has the changing table and no windows or ventilation so it smells disgusting all the time. I drew up a list of proposed changes. The issue is that I don’t have children and am not pregnant so really, I have no personal stake in this. It just seems wrong, but what authority do I have on nursing? Other than I think it is despicable that women are sitting on the floor in a dark unadorned closet because they have nowhere else to go? I gave my list to a friend who was my helper in this to take to Mommy and Me, to see what young moms would say, or what changes they would like to have made. And that is where it ended. But I feel inspired, maybe I’ll try again. The iron is hot, our bishop is an OB/GYN so if not now, perhaps never.

    • WI_Member says:

      But women (especially mothers) have moral authority, which I am to understand is equal to priesthood authority. How could this have happened? 🙂

      • Olea says:

        So, this got me thinking. Yes, women have moral authority (as do men). But that doesn’t allow us to override someone else’s agency. Because a woman cannot be an authority within the church, we are always subject to someone else’s agency.

        Yes, most people are. But all women are.

        Maybe this is just stating the obvious, but it reframed things for me a little.

  2. MKOH says:

    I had a similar experience with a small nursing room that had two chairs in ward with a lot of babies. The first several times I nursed my first baby at church I had to do it on the floor. As I explained to the Bishop, learning to nurse on the floor in a skirt is frustrating and demoralizing. There was space for a third chair in the room but when I asked a couple times about getting one, the Bishop looked at me like he was confused about why I was talking. Soon after that the Bishop changed and I brought it up again, but nothing happened. I brought it up yet again when I was pregnant with my second baby. This time the Bishop sincerely apologized for letting it fall off his to-do list and we got another chair quite quickly.

    I was grateful for the chair and the apology but I’ll never forget the look of confusion and annoyance from the first Bishop, who I believe was a genuinely good man. I just felt so dependent and powerless over such a ridiculously small thing.

  3. spunky says:

    I agree wholly that the church needs gender diversity in church leadership, by far. To be honest, I think the request probably, like MKOH’s comment addresses, was forgotten- or at least put on a “not a fire” list. That in and of itself leads me to believe that gender diversity is necessary– so that the RS and primary presidents can be empowered to do more as they choose without needing “permission” from bishops for basics like YW weekly activities so bishops– male or female- can be liberated and spend more time on their families and on the little things that right now are institutionally rated as “not a fire,” like nursing rooms.

    Powerful post, April. Thank you.

  4. EJM says:

    I’ve come across pretty disgusting “mother’s Rooms”. We have one in our building; it’s small, smelly and uninviting as far as decor is concerned. I have to wonder if any letters have ever been sent to the General Relief Society President? I think that’s where the complaints should start. One would hope that they would make it a priority to see that each church building is accommodating with a Mother’s Suite – designed by mothers!

  5. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Even before I had a child of my own, I knew there was a problem with my ward’s Mother’s room. It was nice and large (and tucked back through some twisty corridors, and at least one unnecessary door) and wired to the chapel. There were two chairs and a couch, which wasn’t too bad until the couch legs broke and the solution was to just leave it on the floor. Also, the sink was on the opposite side of the room from the changing table.

    We needed some signage to help people find the room. (It would also have been better if we could have converted something on the ground floor for use because it was unnecessarily and inconveniently far from the chapel.) It would have been nice if we could have painted it a nice color (it was just bare white and cold, especially in Canadian winters) and maybe brought in some inspirational paintings (like the ones that hung in the hallway) – though some of the wall was cinderblock and I understand that’s hard to work with, decorationally speaking. It would have been trivially easy to move the counter/changing table to the wall next to the sink to make a convenient changing/cleaning station and to leave the other side of the room (as far away as possible from the diaper pail) to be arranged as a pleasant nursing area.

    When I brought this up with the Bishop, nothing happened. It was a long time ago now, but I believe he said something about needing permission from the ward building something-or-the-other. Later our ward was dissolved, the building was closed and we were meeting somewhere else entirely. When I announced that I was expecting, my now ex-bishop made a joke about knowing now why I had been so concerned about the mother’s room. It still kinda makes me want to flick him on the nose.

    Next time, I’m not asking permission. I’m just doing. Personally, I’m not a radical. I don’t feel the church needs to ordain women, though I do think the leadership needs to get better at listening. (I about cheered when I heard President Monson being so pointed about listening to the Relief Society and Primary presidencies at Conference this October.) But I don’t see why this has to go through the leadership anyway. A teacher can do what they need to make their classroom suit their students needs. So why shouldn’t the women (or men, or ANYONE) be able to make a few changes to make the mother’s room more suitable?

  6. Lori says:

    I love this! Kudos to you for not backing off and for finally winning. Fortunately, the mother’s lounge in my ward has been very adequate with three chairs, a place for changing diapers and a sink. And right next to the chapel. We must have lucked out with our building design. Our problem is that the Primary room became the family history center and the Primary meets in the gym.

  7. Corrina says:

    Way to stick with it!! I gave up the battle to get rid of the nasty, torn-up, old, uncomfortable stinky chairs in our mother’s room. Still, I was successful in getting a quality diaper pail and a new changing pad in there (I bought them and then got reimbursed by ward). At the time when I was working on this, I was YW president and had easy access to the Bishop and RS President. I should’ve pushed harder and followed through but lost my ambition after bringing up the problem 5-6 times. For a church that celebrates motherhood so much, you would think our mother’s rooms would be pimped out!

  8. Leslee says:

    Thank you for this post, April! It was after having my first child and experiencing the same frustration and helplessness about the mothers-lounge issue that my mormon-feminist awakening began! 🙂
    I feel like I got so many blank stares and confused “why are you making such a big deal about this?” faces when I would bring it up, but it’s exactly the simplicity of the issue that makes it such a perfect example of the doublespeak we experience as women and/or mothers. You are so important! Motherhood is the most important work you will ever do! We need you! We love you! and less loving injunctions not to put off having a family for “selfish” reasons, or strong reminders that God expects us to have as many children as we can, blah blah blah. You would think if young families were so important to us that there would be more support for them in our meetings! When young mothers are expected to crowd into a stinky closet with (at best) second-hand armchairs in disrepair to feed their infants, or when young fathers and mothers spend the first 18 months of their child’s life wandering the halls because there is not the least accommodation for infants in our meetings, etc etc, it makes me feel physically ill!
    And this is not a situation borne out of malice or any kind of mal-intent! Most bishops I’ve known are wonderful, kind and thoughtful men who are doing the very best they know how. And it’s no wonder that so often their to-do list consist of things “on fire”. The pile of responsibilities they have on top of their family life (which suffers) and their careers (which can also suffer) gives me nothing but pity for them and I completely understand why pimping out the mother’s room doesn’t make the list for them! But that’s exactly the point! It shouldn’t be on the bishopric. The people most affected should be able to make changes without having to resort to nagging, picketing and petitions! Which is exactly what makes this issue a perfect example of WHY women need more autonomy and authority in the structure of the church. Because it may not be a fire, but it’s NOT a little issue to the handful of people in any ward who are affected by it.
    I’ve seen brilliant solutions to this issue in other churches and I have often wondered why our “family first” church is so far behind on this. One church I saw had a raised dais at the back of the sanctuary that was separated by tinted glass to give nursing mothers privacy while they could still stay and watch the service. The area was fitted out with about 10 very nice (not second-hand and not broken!) rocking chairs with extra blankets and burp cloths available and a clean, well-kept diaper station. Another church had a large room with 6 or 7 nice rocking chairs and at least as many pack-n-plays for napping babies (!!) and dimmable lights.
    And we’ve got stinking closets with broken chairs.

  9. OD says:

    Women aren’t the only ones stymied in such efforts. As a father and Ward Clerk / Executive Secretary, I lobbied for 4 years in one Ward to get the mothers room transitioned from a small dark alcove in the women’s restroom (with no door separating it from the restroom) and into an unused room in the building. It never happened.

    To this day I am baffled by why the Bishopric never moved on making the change because I came with full plans and recommendations of exactly how it could be done, evidence from many sisters that it was necessary, and a demonstrated willingness to provide the labor and supplies necessary to make it happen.

    My only guess is that you have understand what influence the FM group (Church employees with responsibility for maintaining the buildings beyond the general cleaning) has over any physical changes within a building and the bureaucracy that it represents for a Bishop who decides to follow the rules in making such things happen. The steady rule keepers will run into layers of interference. Those who act independently may incur the wrath of the FM group but that can be resolved while still making the mothers happy.

    • sar says:

      I’m glad you brought up the FM group, because they can make a big difference. We basically can’t get any improvements (and in some cases repairs) made in our building because the FM guy refuses to allocate the funds.

  10. rs says:

    kudos to you and the other sisters that have fought this battle for nursing moms. we don’t have a room at our chapel. i openly nurse in sacrament meeting or class so i haven’t fought for a room. no one has complained about me openly nursing and i wouldn’t care if they did.

  11. ANON says:

    The mother’s room issue drives me crazy as well. Last time I used the mother’s room to nurse I fell out of the chair (because it was broken).

    I no longer nurse in the the mother’s room. I either stay home or nurse where I feel comfortable. I have been given the stink eye many, many times during RS because I dared to nurse my during the meeting. And once a woman a church told me how scandalized she was that a mom was nursing during sacrament meeting and she was so happy to pass on this gossip to me but little did she know that I was actually the one who did it and I was completely covered. But honestly, it surprised me that anyone even paid attention to me as I was in the corner, against the wall out of range of most people–must have been a boring talk.

    Of the seven buildings I have attended meetings not one had an acceptable mother’s room. Some were definitely worse than others.

    Another problem I have with the mother’s room is moms bringing non-breastfeeding babies in there. Our room can only accommodate two mothers and it is incredibly burdensome to some breastfeeding moms to nurse anywhere else. For me personally I nurse wherever I please (I do cover up–I have no desire to expose myself) but I know a lot of women aren’t comfortable doing this. If the mother’s room is completely occupied they end up having to go out to their cars as there aren’t any rooms available as another ward will be there using those rooms (there are at least 3 wards who meet in my building and the times overlap).

    And don’t even get me started on moms who bring their toddlers to change their diapers in the mother’s lounge while I am trying to breastfeed (another reason I no longer use the lounge). I don’t want to smell your three-year-old’s diaper while I’m trying to nurse my small baby. It is so inconsiderate.

  12. Melody says:

    This is a remarkable story – for all the reasons you list at the end of the post. Well done, April. Thank you.

    My youngest child is twenty-five years old, so I’m not currently personally affected by the mothers lounge issue. But this post has raised my awareness about the fact that in our chapel, the two nursing “chairs” – comfortable, upholstered rocking chairs – are next to the changing tables and stinky diaper pails in a section of the women’s restrooms. . . I rarely see a woman nursing there. I believe they all go elsewhere and I’m not aware of any other room provided elsewhere in the chapel specifically for nursing moms. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open, so I can be supportive of my younger sisters. Thanks again.

  13. Naismith says:

    I find this horrifying. As a proponent of complementarianism, it is unconscionable that a mother would not be supported.

    I had no idea that this was still an issue in places. Most of the buildings in our area are new and have adequate facilities, while the older building that was refurbed came back with a changing table in one men’s room, and a nifty design for the mother’s room. When you walk in, there is a curtain from the ceiling, like in a medical office, which blocks the hallway view of nursing mothers. Immediately to one side of the entrance is a changing table, so that anyone could enter and change a diaper without going through the curtain. That was done as standard refurb, like adding the white noise generator outside the bishop’s office.

    But clearly those changes have not been implemented churchwide.

    I am not following how item 4 came out of this story, though. Clearly, your female leaders let you down. If those same people were called to a bishopric, what makes one think that they would be any more tuned into these needs than the male leaders?

    It makes me sad that your RS did not do more. They are supposed to be your advocates in ward meetings. I wonder how this was presented to them–if you had already contacted leaders and made it your project, they might have assumed that you didn’t want their help.

    Although the church has strict rules on how space is used, they also accept the notion of pilot projects. When we radically redid our nursery situation, we tried it out for some months before formally requesting the physical changes to be more supportive and permanent. The months of trial provided data for the needed change.

    I do understand how slow PF can be. But so what? A lot can be done without making a permanent change. A sign taped to the door is not causing problems. A while back, a woman in our ward tripped over a bit of sidewalk around the church, that had been pushed up by a tree root. Fortunately, she had health insurance to treat her significant injuries:( But the day that happened, my husband ran home for yellow spraypaint, painted the dangerous concrete, and pulled out orange cones from the custodial closet. They stayed there for something like nine months, preventing further injuries until PF finally ground down the concrete to be level, removing the yellow paint in the process. I don’t think we were supposed to wait and let more people be hurt.

  14. Ziff says:

    Great post, April! I particularly like one of your summary points:

    “Norms that silence women ease bureaucratic complexity for male leaders and preserve status quo, but they do not build Zion.”

    I think this is so true. I think there is so much done in the Church that is motivated by simplifying complexity for leaders. Heck, I suspect this is a major driver of all the obedience rhetoric, even propped up as it is by pointing to scriptures and stories. But as you say, this approach isn’t building Zion, particularly when it functions to keep women’s voices from having any effect.

  1. October 26, 2013

    […] Read More about… Mormon News […]

  2. July 23, 2016

    […] is no policy requiring mothers to nurse in tiny closets, and after two years of battle, the mother’s  lounge in my local building was moved. Likewise, there is no policy […]

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