The Princess Syndrome
It’s time for me to buy my own castle. The market is right, there’s a glut of available properties, interest rates are low, state and federal tax incentives are enticing, and my job is secure. It’s time. It’s a decision that’s been a long time in the making, but never one I’d thought about making on my own. I always envisioned it as a decision to be made with a beloved someone, charting our lives together: where would his job be, how many children would we have, what are the local schools like, how would we entertain together. Instead, I’m making those decisions myself: how much mortgage do I want to pay, how long a commute do I want, do I want a yard, how much square footage can I live with, how about a loft, something with small bedrooms and large open common areas, single family residence versus condo, how much HOA do I find acceptable? It’s bewildering and scary and exciting. Just the act of deciding has helped me see myself clearer.
The other weeks, as I headed out to the mid-singles’ conference in Huntington Beach with a few friends, one said something that made me pause. One of the women jokingly said something to the effect that she was ready to be rescued from singledom this weekend. Before even looking at my face, another friend hastily chimed in, “Don’t let Dora hear you say that!” I laughed along with everyone else, but it made me sad. The car was full of strong, independent, beautiful and capable women who still carried the shadow residue of the old princess story.
Now, I confess that I love princess stories. I grew up devouring the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the brothers Grimm. However, when I think of princesses, my tendency is not to think of the princesses’ good works, but mostly of a women dressed in pink, with a cone on her head, stranded up in a tower. This image greatly disturbs me, because I think that this idea, of an isolated woman being valued for her birthright and family riches, is harmful for modern women. This image, of the woman being valued for what she is, rather than what she does, really hurts us.
Now the idea that children respond better to effort praise than ability praise has been around for about a decade or two. It makes sense that unqualified approval is detrimental, since it inhibits the receiver from striving to be better, fosters insecurity, and provokes resistance to change and growth. But it’s a hard habit to break. The other month, I caught myself praising one of my rambunctious nephews for how smart he was. As soon as I recognized what I was doing, I stopped short … then rerouted to say how hard he must have to think and remember to make a model of Wall-E, since he had never seen the movie. Good job, Bean2! And yet, how does this idea apply to women affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
As women, we are told that we are special. We are repeatedly told that we are beloved of God, and have special spiritual and emotional talents that men do not have. We are praised and loved for who we are. I know this is important; there is a very real and human need in us all to be loved. However, it’s only half the story. Just as faith without works is dead, women do not reach their full potential without effort. Yes, we are special, but some are more special for what they do, than for others who do not. Does repeatedly hearing that we are special make us more or less likely to strive to be increasingly Christlike? Does hearing that we are wonderful make us worried that we need to preserve a facade of perfection? Does hearing that we are naturally more spiritually attune than men make us less likely to actively seek out personal connection with the Divine?
Last Sunday, I attended sacrament meeting with my parents for Mother’s Day. The main speaker was the stake president’s wife, who I know fleetingly, and generally like. I thought she did an admirable job of tackling the sub-topic of women who may never be mothers in the life. However, in her heartfelt talk, she said one thing that jarred me particularly. She said that all mothers are special. It bothered me, since, quite simply, it’s just not true. Moreover, it’s harmful. Calling all mothers special does them a disservice by ignoring the effort of superlative mothers, and fostering complacency in mothers everywhere. Most mothers are special to their offspring simply because the mothers physically bore them, and the children have no other such connection. They are special for who they are. However, there are some mothers who are underwhelmingly special for what they do. There are mothers who do all sorts of horrible things … neglect, abandon, injure or kill their children. They are horrible mothers for what they do. Then, there are mothers who are superlative; who nurture, teach, inspire and lift their children. They are special for what they do. As the speaker waxed poetic about the generalities of how mothers are special, I found myself wanting her to go into specifics. What do superlative mothers do that make them special? How do they nurture, teach, inspire and lift their children? How do they balance this with their own needs as women? How do they balance this with being wives or single parents? How can I become a superlative mother/parent?
Ruminating over these ideas for the last few months has made me see the disparity between how women and men are motivated at church more clearly. Call it the yin-yang divide. Men are active, given the priesthood and clearly defined duties. While being told that they are not naturally spiritually attuned, they are praised for what they accomplish. Women are told that we are special, that we connect more effortlessly with the spiritual realm, and have no clear group of responsibilities in the ecclesiastical setting. We are told that we are special for who we are: beloved daughters of a Heavenly Father. With this great chasm, it is no surprise that we know nothing of our Heavenly Mother, and are told that she is too special to be talked about.
I am not in any position of power in the church. However, if I were, I would change the rhetoric. I would start talking more earnestly about what all members of the church can do to develop a closer connection with deity. I would use more concrete examples in addition to theological discourses on doctrine. I would employ plain speech, praising the praiseworthy and finding solutions to the faulty. I would encourage women to be more responsible for buying their own castles … whether it’s buying a house, getting more involved in your community, changing your career, exploring hidden talents, moving, or whatever else in your life that you’ve put on hold. And if the time is not right just now, at least come up with a plan. Of course, if you have loved ones that depend on you, the choice is not yours alone to make, but in earnest conference with those involved. Just realize that while yes, you are loved for who you are; you will be a more loved, fulfilled, well-rounded and Christ-like person for what you do.