Reading The Book of Mormon as a Young Mother

september50-2850x2138I found out that I was pregnant with my oldest daughter the day after my oral exam for my doctoral degree. It was a stressful and emotional experience, made so much worse by being unknowingly influenced by pregnancy hormones. When I graduated with my Ph D, my daughter was three and a half months old.

A few months later, I was at Thanksgiving dinner and someone opened a jar of pickles while the women were preparing the meal. I ate the entire jar over the course of a few hours. I remember feeling slightly ill and a little embarrassed by my new and unexpected lust for pickles. A few weeks later I would find out that I was pregnant with my second daughter. I don’t normally give medical advice, but I do want to warn you that the mini pill is not an effective form of contraception. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Months later, I found myself with two babies. I experienced depression and anxiety after the first birth, but recovered. I was not prepared for the extreme feelings of depression I experienced after the second. The endless feedings, diapers, and childcare continually overwhelmed me and it seemed that one or both of them always needed me in the night.

One of the best things I achieved at that time was to get my daughters to nap at the same time in the afternoon. Their nighttime sleep was often unpredictable, but I could generally count on a few hours of quiet when I put them down after lunch. I used that time to read, often falling asleep after a short while.

As the girls got older and the younger one started sleeping through the night, I was able to use nap time to pursue various interests. I spent several months in a flurry of family history research online. I discovered that there was a peaceful kind of zen to doing jigsaw puzzles. I wrote a book chapter – my first academic publication. During this time, I also devoted myself to scripture study. During my teenage years and early 20s, I read The Book of Mormon about once per year and I generally read it slowly, with the goal of reading a chapter or two per night. These readings mostly happened right before bed when I was tired and not particularly focused on the text. Local and church-wide leaders were continually instructing me to read the book and that’s exactly what I did. I performed this task well, but it was a duty and something I could cross off of a mental checklist of daily spiritual practices I was supposed to perform. I always enjoyed reading about my hero Nephi, but it got less interesting after his story and I often fell asleep while reading.

It was during my girls’ nap time that I decided I needed to try reading a different way, with a new strategy. I had received a 100-day reading schedule several years before and found it in my scripture case. This schedule started a new phase of reading The Book of Mormon quickly. It was much more dramatic and entertaining to follow the stories closely and to read this book of scripture as though I was reading a long novel that I loved.

The attractive qualities of Nephi started to fade in comparison with the other characters. There was Captain Moroni, who was resolute and extremely righteous. His perfection was appealing, but it was hard to get invested in a person who was so perfect. He never wrestled with doing the right thing, he always just did it. I could see that these were good qualities, but it was hard for me, as a mostly-stay-at-home mom (I was teaching a few classes at the time), to relate to the struggles of a zealous general and war hero when I was feeling continually defeated by the needs of my two adorable little girls. I could see why people loved Captain Moroni, who was absolutely good all the time, but I wasn’t feeling it.

I liked the story of Alma the Younger, a sinner who experienced a dramatic vision and repentance. Alma then became a missionary with his reformed friends and they used violence and other tactics to convert people to God. I did wonder if Alma hacking off a bunch of his enemies’ arms in defense of an unbelieving king was a bit too much. The movie version of The Book of Mormon might be unsuitable for Mormon households, but it did convert the king to God.

The stories of Mormon, for whom the book is named, and his son Moroni end the book. Many of the stories of the other prophets are narratives of sin, usually committed by the people. Sin brings on suffering, which leads to repentance. My early morning seminary teacher in high school called this The Pride Cycle. When we have pride, we sin and move away from God. Bad things undoubtedly follow and this leads to a return to God. The episodes with Mormon and Moroni are different because the sin and suffering of the people are not followed by redemption, but by the utter destruction of their people by their enemies. A series of wars and final battles results in all of their friends, family, and countrymen being killed. It is bleak and dark in a way that apocalyptic movies from the 2000s can’t compete. I tried to envision what it would have been like to be Moroni and see everyone I know and love perish and it has always been beyond my comprehension. It is perhaps the most upsetting thing to contemplate.

I was also drawn to Enos, who committed unnamed and unnumbered sins and prayed all night for forgiveness. He seemed to hold the appropriate amount of shame for his misdeeds while being humbled by their weight. That was kind of interesting, especially when I tried to imagine what on earth he had done that was so terrible. But God forgave him and it was OK. It was always hard for me to understand that last part. Forgiveness was good, but never sinning in the first place seemed to be better. I was sure that this should have been omitted.

Sometimes trying to be a good Mormon looks like completing a never-ending list of tasks that you are supposed to do every day, weekly, and monthly. Good Mormons read their scriptures every day, ideally for 30 minutes, individually and as a couple. They pray continually throughout the day, but ideally at least five times (morning, at mealtimes, at bedtime). They pray daily as a couple and with their families. They always eat dinner with their families and try hard to create a church-like environment in their homes and and only ever watch movies, tv shows, and listen to music that is spiritually uplifting. They have Family Home Evening every Monday night and do their home and visiting teaching every month. They feed the missionaries dinner, fulfill church callings, and attend the temple at least monthly. They spend time working on their family history and building their food storage. They give talks on Sundays and serve the church during the week. They are always patient with their children and the women, who are not supposed to have careers, are lauded for their sacrifices in staying home to care for their handful (at least 4) children. All of these successes are to be recorded daily in a journal, so that your Mormon progeny can benefit from your devout example. This list only scratches the surface and doesn’t include the prohibited activities.

According to this list, almost no one is a good Mormon. When my children were babies and toddlers, I felt the weight this list and only felt negligent in not being able to accomplish it. I felt that my negligence was tantamount to sin. My sporadic journal entries are a continual assessment of my failures to achieve perfection, which I felt was requisite for God’s approval and a general sense of happiness. I didn’t know if God could love me when I truly comprehended my deficit and I felt like continually assessing my defects and trying to work on them would bring me to a better place where I would find self-worth and value.

Something unexpected happened one afternoon. The girls were napping and it was a dark and rainy winter day. I was in our home office reading my scriptures, trying to find the inspiration and direction to help me fix myself. Dear Heavenly Father, I prayed, what do I need to work on? This prayer was one I had prayed many times, and I waited for an answer. Instead of that quiet space being interrupted with reminders of things I needed to do, I received a clear and unanticipated answer. Nothing. I love you as you are.

I didn’t know what to do with this. I had never heard this before, not at home, not at church, not ever. This news felt terribly sad and comforting at the same time. Having been told that God’s love was unconditional, I had always been taught that there were many conditions, lists of expectations and prohibitions to qualify for it. I had thought that God’s acceptance was dependent on all of them. My worthiness had been assessed in prayers, journal entries, and interviews with bishops, but had never produced real feelings of worth and value, only slips of paper that declared I was living suitably as to attend the temple. But there it was, a few abrupt words, all of the sudden. God loved my imperfect self. 

Nancy Ross

Nancy Ross is an art history professor by day and a sociologist of religion by night. She lives in St. George, Utah with her husband and two daughters and co-hosts the Faith Transitions podcast.

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11 Responses

  1. Amy says:

    I love this, Nancy.

  2. Ziff says:

    Wow! I love that you had this experience. I’m totally with you on feeling like much of my Mormon experience is a huge checklist that I’ll never get to the end of.

  3. Heather says:

    Love this. So much.

  4. Violadiva says:

    Oh Nancy, you got that horrible checklist on its horrible head. It’s such a confidence killer. I’m so glad that God, in Their wisdom, knew to give you the message you most needed at the time: you are enough, and you are worthy. I wish more of us could grab onto that when we need it. I figure there are periods of growth vs rest, and perhaps in our states of rest, being reminded that there’s more we can accomplish is a helpful tool. But when we’re in those growth moments, hearing a bit of validation can really keep the spirit from breaking out right. Love this.

  5. Liz says:

    I’m totally with you on it being a sad (and terrifying) thing to know that God loves me in my imperfections. Not in spite of them, but in them. It initially feels like all of my previous efforts to complete the checklist were done in vain. And maybe they were? I don’t know. But man it’s nice to get out of the shame spiral of never doing enough. Our family motto is now “lower your expectations,” which feels a little bit cynical, but it helps me mentally fight against a society that seems to value perfectionism pretty highly.

  6. Jen says:

    Love this. I had a similar experience one night in the MTC. It was very comforting. I have often pondered why it is that I can be so plagued by high expectations of myself and others. Where do these even come from? Some from the church, okay, but many I seem to make up out of thin air. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Libby says:

    Oh, Nancy! That’s a lot of expectations to put on yourself, and I believe they’re all human-made ones. Over the course of several years of actively working at it, I’ve been able to rid my life of most of that terrible checklist. It now reads, “Be kind. Work hard. Take care of yourself and your family.” I am loath to put anything else on it–I feel as though this is all that God expects of me. And yes, it’s both freeing and terrifying.

  8. Arlene says:

    I am a 70 year old grandmother who has always worked full time and still does, and is a mother of 8 children. (Yours, mine and ours) plus another 7 foster children. I am a convert to the church and have never been able to do it all! I believe Father loves us as we are as long as we are doing the best we can given the stage of life we are in. I love the scriptures but don’t read everyday as I should but try to at least listen to them as I’m getting ready for the day. My husband, children and Grandchildren say my prayers are long, but they don’t hear my prayers in the car when I’m alone. I love the Lord and he guides me each day to lift and serve those I come in contact with, always sending me tender mercies to lift me during the day. I’m of the belief that the Lord doesn’t expect us to do everything on the list at once but do the best we can at the time of life we are in. He loves each one of us unconditionally as he hopes we will treat the rest of His children. I have never read or written in a response to a blog before but testify that faith, hope and charity are the keys to a happy and fulfilling life and we are not given “The List” to beat ourselves down, but to lift ourselves up. May God bless you in your walk with our Savior!’

  9. Glenn Thigpen says:

    I remember a recent talk by Elder Holland wherein he said something to the effect that even if we do not succeed, we do get credit for trying. I am glad that you did learn “from the horse’s mouth” no less, that God’s love is unconditional. We do not have to go through an endless set of checklists for that. Christ’s gospel, His message is one of hope and endless love. Without Him, none of us would make it, but we have the assurance that we can become just men and women, made perfect.

    Thanks for sharing your struggles and insights.

    Glenn

  10. Lily says:

    ” I believe Father loves us as we are as long as we are doing the best we can given the stage of life we are in.”

    No, Father loves us as we are.

  11. EmilyCC says:

    I still struggle with this. Thank you, Nancy.

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