The Princess Syndrome

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by Dora

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.

Dora

Dora is a pediatric critical care nurse. Therapy to alleviate the stress in her professional life include traveling around the world, reading, partner dancing and hosting dinner parties.

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18 Responses

  1. ZD Eve says:

    Excellent post, Dora. I particularly like the way you articulate the problems with the vacuous ways we praise women in the church and the connection to our silent and invisible Heavenly Mother.

    Last week I had to speak on being a beloved spirit daughter of Heavenly Father. I find that kind of rhetoric empty and condescending rather than consoling, so instead I spoke about how all of us, women and men, need to establish a foundational identity in relation to God, since all of our other identities–even the good ones we so emphasize, like wife and mother, husband and father–can fail us at any time, or may never be conferred on us in the first place.

    It’s so unfortunate the church continues to feed women such pablum. It’s a unsatisfactory band-aid solution to much deeper problems of structural inequality.

    (I await the day that we console men in their self-doubt by assuring them they are beloved spirit sons of a Heavenly Mother who loves them.)

  2. Alisa says:

    I think this is a very important point. I’ve never received much value myself from being told that I’m super special just the way I am. I want to be praised for something I had control over, for hard decisions or hard work. Being told you’re wonderful for who you are makes you want to stay in that place and not move out of it. Being told you’re wonderful b/c you took a risk and tried to stretch – even if you failed in your attempt – shows that it’s OK to work, to stretch, to grow, to become a better person.

    Unfortunately, the most recent RS talk that comes to mind that encouraged and praised women for stuff that they *do* was “Mothers Who Know,” which focused mainly on very superficial, surface-level things: hair brushing, shirt ironing, sterile home, appearance and silence of children. To be fair, it also included some deeper actions as well. It seems that as women we can go deeper and be better at a more fundamental level where our spirit, and not just its fleshy tabernacle, is improved and valued.

    I think women need to be challenged, just like anyone needs to be challenged. We need to have the complexity of our day-to-day decisions acknowledged. We need to be praised and encouraged to make more positive decisions that change people at their core. We need to have the real hard work we’ve done in the past praised, not just told that we’re pretty and it doesn’t matter if we work hard or not b/c we’ll be praised just the same.

    Great article link by the way, it really makes me think about how I’ll praise the children in my life. I think it’s easy to praise someone for what they are (e.g. “You’re smart”), but it takes more attention and detail to praise someone for something hard they tried (e.g. “I really like how you worked on that math problem until you solved it”). It’s so tempting sometimes to not give our full attention to the others around us, but ouI think specific merit praise can do so much for the better.

  3. D'Arcy says:

    First of all, congratulatios on your house buying possibilities. I agree with you, for the first time in my life I am considering the possibilities of taking that responsibility on myself.

    I’ve always put it off because, like you said, I thought it would be a decision I wanted to make with a future partner. I also have a problem with committing to one place. One of the beautiful things about my single life is all the amazing opportunities for education, travel, and living in various countries that my married friends will just never get to experience.

    Often at church I felt as if I were being patted on the head. Then I felt that I should smile and be happy because who doesn’t want to know how beloved they are?! Who is going to complain about the message of you being loved and cherished and spritual? Who? A crazy, ranting feminist, that’s who!!

    Urgh!

    I wonder sometimes why I have to make so many things regarding women and the church into an “issue” (um, because it IS an issue…but anyway) when people around me find happiness and contentment in the way things are, the way things have been, and want things to continue that way.

    Sometimes I see how easy life could be if I just accepted everything as it was.

  4. G says:

    i want to add my heartfelt congratulations to your ventures into home ownership.

    This post is bittersweet for me. As a single I heavily bought into the princess syndrome such that I never made real effort at developing the skills that would enable me to be independent. It’s hard and humiliating to admit this, but it is true. And now every day it hangs over me; my dependence, my lack of real-life experience.

    I love your last paragraph, it gives me hope, your suggestions for becoming more responsible. As the mother of a young child (I do have loved ones depending on me) I do find a lot of my options curtailed, but your suggestion to at least come up with a plan is inspiring.

    If nothing else, I add my voice to yours to earnestly encourage individuals (especially young women) to become more responsible for buying their own castles.

  5. Alisa says:

    I agree, what a great last paragraph especially. I may have to send this off to some wonderful women I know who are doing just that!

    And yes, congrats on looking at homes. It’s a huge process, but I think it’s wonderful!

  6. Kirsten says:

    Our Mother’s Day speaker pulled out every condescending, “you are so special” and other pedestal quotes from Ensign articles/talks that he could find. I really like your idea of praising women for their actions rather than the patronizing pat on the head that seems to circulate.
    Part of the reason that so many Mormon women feel inadequate is that they don’t see themselves as measuring up to the “ideal woman” talked about in our meetings. Being a mother– a daughter– a woman is messy work. No one is picture perfect. I love your final paragraph about “praising the praiseworthy and finding solutions to the faulty”.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    Love this, Dora! I think that leaders in the Church sense that women are struggling and throw out platitudes about how special all women are because how could they explain that we’re important for what we do? We all do such different things that are uplifting to those around us. And, as Alisa pointed out so well, last time they tried to get specific, we heard “Mothers Who Know.”

    I love the examples you offer at the end for coming up with our own plans. I would love to see these woven into Church lessons in a broader way than just in Personal Progress 🙂

  8. jks says:

    Interesting post. I was not offended by the “Mothers Who Know” talk. It does seem to be problematic to praise me for what I do, because so much of what I do is being a wife and mother and community member. You can’t really measure that in accomplishments.
    There are reason why women so often prefer to work over being a SAHM or homemaking. You get praised for your accomplishments. For some reason, it is difficult for a woman to be encouraged and appreciated in the roles of wife and mother. It either comes off as a pat on the head, or it becomes some sort of impossible ideal that you aren’t living up to.
    How do you praise the motherhood that all mothers ACCOMPLISH without saying that it does not take EFFORT to do so.
    Does a mother suffer through pregnancy and childbirth? Yes (except adoptive parents). Is this a great accomplishment? Yes. Why should she not be praised for it.
    Does a mother spend enormous amounts of time taking care of her children? Yes. It takes effort. Except for the rare exception all mothers do make this effort, even if they fail part of the time to be all that their child needs.
    I do a lot of things to make my marriage successful. I would love to be praised for this, to take credit for this.
    I spend a lot of time and effort raising my children. So far they are “turning out” well but they are young yet. I appreciate the “results” compliments, but what happens when my children aren’t successful, is that also my fault?
    I make an effort to accomplish things outside the home. It is difficult, though, and I certainly can’t pin all my self-esteem on that since it is such a small part of my time and other priorities take precedence sometimes.
    I do not know the single life. Perhaps measuring is easier and more useful.
    My life cannot be measured in ways that are acceptable to others.
    I measure myself, with my own standards for my own effort and accomplishments. It has to be enough.
    As for the church and society, I will accept the occasional congrats for a long marriage, or the occasional pat on the back for the work of motherhood, regardless of how little they know of what I have actually accomplished as a mother.

  9. Phannie says:

    I agree with your post Dora. You are much more articulate than I am. So, I’m glad that you expressed it.

    I too, fell into the yearning for the Princess story while I was a younin’, but soon moved to the “I will never get married” phase of teenager. My goals being to own my own place, my own things, independence. Then I panicked when I got back from my mission. Confused with so many things and fell back on the things that I was told were important now. I got married. I don’t regret this at all. I love my hubby and realistically he has helped me get through many irritants that are associated with the church for me. But there are definite days that I wish I had more time to do the things that I wanted to do with my talents and life.

    You have reminded me that I still can. I’m not very old. I still had all the options in the world. I don’t have kids yet (although that’s the current pressure from people). I can’t just float through life knowine that “I am special”, I have to do special. And not for everyone else, but for me. I’m going to go decide what is special for me. Thanks

  10. DOra says:

    Reading over the comments today, it occurs to me that the church does praise effort, but in very superficial ways. It praises missionaries for numbers of converts, wards for high visiting and home teaching statistics, and many other things that can be checklisted off. In particular regards to women, the church praises women for being wives nad mothers; such as in the Mothers Who Know speech. The reason I find this problematic is that not all women and wives, and not all women are mothers. In fact, in my stake, the largest number of members come from the singles, who also have the highest inactivity rate. Clearly, there is a large disconnect here.

    When it comes to praising women, I think we tend to checklist as well. Married? Children? Children who are clea? Children who have served missions? Children who are married in the temple? All of these things that women are praised for and valued for, are things wherein half the praise belongs to another person (husband, child, significant other of child, etc). It seems that there is no space where women are recognized individually. Not that I think women should crave laud and honor. It’s just that it’s so easy to have the focus of one’s life constrict to where there is no recognition of anything beyond one’s own yard.

    Again, I’m not a mother. But if I were, I would teach my husband and children to be more appreciative of me and the work I do. I think that teaching my loved ones to appreciate their blessings blesses everyone. I also agree that most of us don’t know the sacrifices other women make for their families. Then again, sacrifice beyond ones capacities does no one any good. These boundaries are different for everyone, and the actuality may be different that what is preconceived. Finding that boundary is a challenge.

    I agree that praising effort is much more difficult than praising ability or state. It’s much easier to say, “You’re so smart,” or “You’re so beautiful,” than it is to say, “You must have worked so hard on that presentation, and I really appreciated the development of that idea,” or “Your hair looks really good today! I really like how you styled it.” It takes more insight and effort to .

    With all that said, I would like to say that I appreciate all your comments. I appreciate that you took time to read what I thoughtfully prepared, and contributed so thoughtfully to the discussion. I appreciate your willingness to share your own experiences, biases, and how you plan to incorporate the ideas I’ve shared. Thank you.

  11. Jana says:

    I recently spent time with a friend in her home. It’s a gorgeous home that she bought as a fixer-upper and has slowly made beautiful over the years. I have to say that I was incredibly jealous of her ‘castle’ and her dominion–not because I aspire to home ownership right now–but because she’s had the time and resources to invest in her own space and I’m not sure that I will ever have that given my ties to other family members.

  12. jks says:

    Jana’s comment made me think about what many people complain about women. Why can’t we appreciate the accomplishments of other women without feeling competition or jealousy? I’m not saying we always do, but why does it even come up?
    If one women is applauded for doing something that took some effort we can’t simply congratulate her.
    Shouldn’t we be able to say “it’s awesome that your house is so clean, you do a great job” without going home and getting frustrated with our own house?
    My mother did help me know that being a woman or a wife or a mother was a very individual thing that you brought your own strengths and talents to. This helps me not get so envious, and also not be too judgemental of other women. I feel like it is a difficult battle, though.
    As a feminist, I think I should be more aware of the accomplishments of everyday women in all areas, and celebrate them.

    As a woman who is a SAHM, like I said, it is problematic because so much of my efforts are put into wifehood and motherhood. If I don’t get praised for that, there isn’t that much left. Even the things I do out of the home have an element of family to them. I am substitute teaching my daughter’s primary class tomorrow.
    I do have interests, but I don’t necessariy accomplish anything with those interests. Belonging to a bookclub and reading a book every month is an accomplishment, but it doesn’t seem worthy of going on and on about the effort and success of it. Taking care of a one year old does, no matter how he turns out.

  13. mb says:

    This works for women like the ones who comment here; thoughtful, articulate and capable. But many of our sisters struggle with serious physical, emotional and mental disabilities, unable to accomplish outstanding things and well aware of that fact. The world is constantly telling them that they are of lesser worth. They cannot earn what their more capable sisters do either monetarily or in terms of status or value in the eyes of their communities.

    A message that said “you will be a more loved, fulfilled, well-rounded and Christ-like person for what you do” would be thoroughly misunderstood by these good sisters of ours.

    “Who you are”, on the other hand, is not just you and your existence, but encompasses the desires of your heart and the dreams in your mind that flourish in spite of your unconquerable, earthly incapacities. I’d prefer that the message for all of us be that God loves us for who we are.

  14. Alicia says:

    this is an especially timely discussion for me in my life right now.
    i am struggling with these ideas and the conflict that i feel between what is verbally communicated and what is expected of me, from my church community and from my spouse. there are similarities and vast differences and the opposition in these has pulled on me for too long and left me thread bare like a thin spot in the knee of an old pair of jeans.

    i have a wonderful friend that has been an example to me that truth is truth, and right is right, and that i am who i am no matter which set of praise criteria i fall under. i have decided to really focus on my situation, my life, my challenges, my abilities and my disabilities, and what my desires are. this leaves me the power to create my life in such a way that saves me from the emptiness of superficial achievement and gives me the courage to stand up and be who i am. i always feared that this line of thinking would make me a self-centered person, but in fact it, i believe that learning to fully live this philosophy will give me so much more capacity to be generous and loving and giving to those around me. no individual can truly give when they are hollow and constructed of meaningless materials.

  15. Dora says:

    As I’ve been contemplating the comments here, it comes to me that Christ already discoursed on this very idea in the parable of the talents. Now, I sometimes have difficulty with the fact that the ones who were given the most were able to make the most, since (at least in modern times) it takes money to make money. However, I think the overriding lesson from this particular parable is that we are all required to develop and expand our abilities and talents, because at some distant day, there will be a reckoning. And it will matter little, in the end, how much was started out with.

    To reiterate … yes, our Heavenly parents and savior love us for who we are, but that’s only half the story. They also will love us for what we do, as compared to what we have been given.

  16. jks says:

    Dora,
    I love the parable of the talents. I think that when we judge ourselves, or attempt to judge others, or imagine God judging us, it is so individual that we need not compare ourselves. We should look at our own self, our situation, our possibilities and opportunities and limitations and contraints. We should do our best with what we’ve got (and that includes our own weaknesses that we have to work around).

  17. Kelly Ann says:

    Dora, thank you for so eloquently tackling this issue. I apologize I missed commenting on it earlier. I want to congratulate you on your house-buying prospects.

    Even though I have a great profession and a house, I sometimes find myself wanting to be rescued. I think it does come from our culture. When I bought my house at 27, I was told I was successfully putting myself out of reach of most young single adult me. I think they are taught “to rescue.” That bothers me. I just hope that those of us establishing ourselves independently still can have a chance to share it with someone else.

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