The Work of Authenticity

I am thrilled to be able to post this thoughtful piece from my wonderful friend, Alisa. As it is her first guest post here, please be respectful and sensitive in your comments and refer to our comment policy if you have any questions regarding what is or is not appropriate. Thank you.

Photo by Alisa
The Work of Authenticity

Like many women, I’ve read and loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. My favorite quote from her book says: “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of someone else’s life perfectly.”

I consider myself philosophically part Existentialist. In this collection of thought, there’s this idea of Authenticity, where an individual learns to fight for her own personal truth against the external forces that can try to make her conform to the standards of others. The strongest of these forces can often come from those closest to us, the ones to whom we most desire to bring pleasure. That’s what makes Authenticity so hard. That’s also why Authenticity is something worth striving for in our lives. As a recent post by Jessawhy made me realize, if God is everything we’ve been taught, then why would God reward those who merely comply with the path of least resistance? The God I know values those who question deeply within their souls and strive to magnify their existence (and consequently, God’s existence) in the most meaningful ways possible. That requires being one’s Authentic self.

I am a full-time working woman without children. I’ve been married for over six years, and although my husband is in a professional career, I’ve made the choice to keep working. From the point of meeting others’ expectations, this hasn’t been easy at all. I planned to have children, and then backed out, feeling unfit, uncertain, and unready. I have spent my nights crying in bed because I had always thought I wanted to be a mother, and now I just wasn’t sure if I would ever be one. To compound my struggle, I have received to numerous judgmental comments from LDS people in the last few years, as well as remarks from church leaders, which left me feeling that because I chose to be a working, married woman, I had no value. These people seem to make the assumption that married women work for one of two reasons: they need the financial support, or they are materialistic.

When I was a younger, I never planned on a full-time career. I felt free to study literature and go to graduate school, just for the fun of it, and I felt my life was as Authentic as it could get. When I found my job as a business consultant, I discovered I loved working. I found out that a career was an education in itself, an identity, a source of fulfillment. My husband and I were going to start our family when I no longer needed to work for financial reasons, but that is when I discovered that I needed to work for emotional reasons. I needed that structure, the number of people depending on me to lead in meetings and projects, and the great people with whom I daily interacted who had become my good friends.

I felt enormous spiritual guilt over this. I was told that if I felt my choices were right, then I wouldn’t be so conflicted. This was no consolation. Discovering that your life defies even your own righteous expectations is not a happy thing. Realizing that prayer and tears aren’t going to fix it is even worse. I realized that it wasn’t so much about me not having kids, but about me having a crisis of faith because what I had been told all along about the role of women was no longer true for me, despite my best efforts to fit all the norms.

This is where a new struggle for Authenticity came in. From a theoretical standpoint, I had to strike out on my own, without the support of the Church or its leaders, and do what I knew was right for me, with reasons unique to me. I’m still involved in the Church, but I do so on my own terms. I check inside myself before accepting a belief or call to action to make sure it’s right for me.

My friend who is an LDS Reiki healer says it this way: I’ve got to realize that there’s certain truth within me for right now. When I’m comfortable with that, I’ll go onto another layer of truth and work with that. Despite (or because of) this work, I’m getting better. I suppose Authenticity wouldn’t count if it came easily to my life. In fact, if I waited it would never come. I have to bring it in myself.

Jessawhy

Jessawhy is a wife, mother, community volunteer, activist and student. She is currently working towards a Physician Assistant degree.

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30 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Alisa,
    I can relate to your post. I too am a working married woman by choice. I currently live in a rural Utah town where I feel very excluded and judged. I am one of the few women in my ward with an advanced degree (DVM) and I have chosen not to have children at this time because at this point I don’t have a desire for them other than the guilt produced by not having them. I refuse to have children out of guilt, I think they deserve to be wanted and conceived out of better reason than guilt and social conformity. I too enjoy my work and feel that I am making lives (animal and people) better by doing my work. I still struggle with the isolation my choices have brought, ultimately I feel I am teaching people tolerance and I am being my authentic self. Thank you for expressing yourself so thoughtfully. Thanks for helping me know I’m not the obly one who is struggling with these issues.

  2. AmyB says:

    I completely relate as well. When DH and I got married (at 21 and 22) we talked about being finished having children by the time we were 30. Now 30 is fast approaching and aside from about one month of “baby hungries” (as my mother calls it) I haven’t had the desire to have children.

    Sometimes I feel like there is something fundamentally wrong with me, and I do worry that if that maternal desire ever does kick in that by then it will be too late. I love the throught from anon about refusing to have children out of guilt or social conformity. I want to be a good mother who doesn’t resent her children should I choose to have them. That’s what they deserve.

    Thanks for this post. Love the picture as well.

  3. D'Arcy says:

    In a recent RS lesson on motherhood I had to raise my hand and say, “Just because you don’t want seven children, or even three, doesn’t mean you are bad.” The girls, a singles ward, all laughed and said that of course it didn’t mean that. But I wondered if they could really look in my heart and see that I am not sure if I even want kids anymore, how they would react. I am single, 30, a career woman with advanced degree, and I know the main focus on my worth is my marital status. It pains me to think that if I do decide to marry, that as soon as that happens I will be calmly placed in the next box and people will begin judging my lack of children.

    I expressed to one married friend recently that I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children and she remarked that that was “very sad.” I felt I needed to defend myself in some way, but I wasn’t sure how. I am sure people with children can’t imagine their lives without their children, children define the lives of my friends. Because I don’t have children, other things define me and so I can’t see children ever being that factor.

    But I love that we have the choice. That’s what I like to respond, “This gospel is about free agency, is it not?”

    I just wish we didn’t have the judgments or the people set in rural Utah (I’m so familiar with that setting!) to teach tolerance, I wish it was a virtue we just all had.

  4. t. arkay says:

    I’m a married man with four kids, so what do I know? After reading this post and the comments, my only thought is that faith means being willing to step into the unknown and see what happens. Children are messy, inconvenient, and annoying. But they are also unrivaled in their ability to bring you joy, purpose, and a fresh perspective. I can’t imagine how empty my life would be without my children. I could easily live without my job (which I do thoroughly enjoy). But not having kids would have been a tragedy. To amyb, who keeps waiting for the maternal desire to kick in, who said the desire has to come before the kids? Believe me, once you have a child, you’ll have feelings you never could have imagined. But now we’re talking about faith again. . . .

  5. Alisa says:

    anon – I agree that social conformity and guilt are not good reasons to take on the awesome responsibility of parenthood. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I don’t think that guarding against future regret (e.g., “I better hurry now b/c what if I can’t have kids when I’m older?”) is also not a good enough reason for me right now. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    amyb – It sounds like you’re writing my post! I think that’s what all those long nights were about for me–I was wondering what could be wrong with me b/c I seemed so different than everyone else. Even the LDS women I work with would want nothing more than to be SAHMs, but I just don’t have the spark. At least for now. I don’t know what it will be in the future.

    d’arcy – Good for you for raising your hand. That’s something I’ve yet to do in my ward. Unfortunately, I think that all the focus on marriage when we are young sends the wrong message to some girls–that temple marriage is the only important thing for them. I know I used to be obsessed with who I was going to marry, and when, b/c that’s where I placed all my future worth. Fortunately, when I met DH, he helped me see beyond all that, and through our relationship, I’ve grown in so many other important ways.

    t.arkay – I think it is wonderful that you, like so many other parents, have been surprised by how much joy your children have brought to you. It makes me hope that someday, if I do have children, I will feel the same wonder that you feel at the experience. I also think it’s fair to mention that my post isn’t really about having children or not, but as you mention, it is about faith. My post, to me, is about the desire to find what is right for me and to have the faith to do it, no matter what anyone else says. I think in that sense, we agree.

  6. Chelle says:

    Wonderful post-great to see you on here Alisa. I’ve been thinking about authenticity a great deal lately, and is something I’ve been working on. I think it is something that requires a lot of courage and faith. I do think it takes a lot of work, but I think is much more rewarding that going along in life trying to fit the mold. I like how you said that it is “about the desire to find what is right for me and to have the faith to do it, no matter what anyone else says.”

  7. Jessawhy says:

    I wonder if the work of authenticity is a more difficult task for women than men. I know we’ve had a father comment here, but he mostly addressed the desire to have children issue.
    My guess is that men don’t have as difficult of a time being their authentic selves as women do, particularly in the church.
    As a feminist, I’d like to see women’s value and identity defined by themselves rather than by their relationships to others, ie: wife, mother, grandmother, etc. This may be one way in which we struggle with our authenticity.
    That said, part of me wonders how the concept of authenticity works into the idea of being a true Christian, of losing myself in the service of others. Maybe these concepts fit together better than I understand. Perhaps I am being my authentic self when I serve others.
    Such great questions, Alisa.
    Thanks for your post.

  8. Julie M. Smith says:

    I wish I heard a little more in this discussion about what God wants. And I don’t presume to know what God wants for anyone else–whether God wants the OP to have a child right now (or not)–I have no clue.

    I don’t think the decision to have a child should be about what is expected or what the neighbors think or what your mom wants/expects or even necessarily about what *you* want or don’t want. It should be about what you think God wants. And only you know that.

  9. Justine says:

    I can relate to your feelings, even as I sit here listening to my five children laugh and play downstairs. My feelings have migrated over the years, and I don’t regret a moment of it.

    I think it is important to note that our authentic selves can only be enhanced by understanding how the Lord sees us. Once we glimpse how God sees us, I wonder if it’s easier to be authentic to that self. Acting confidently and without regret or hesitation would be a tremendous strength to women.

    So, regardless of where in life we are, how many children we have, what our professions are, the Lord still has a vision of us that is clear and unobstructed. That’s the vision I’m hoping to see of myself.

    And I’d love to act in a way that would not be influenced in any way by the opinions or judgments of other women around me. Someday…

  10. Alisa says:

    chelle – Thank you for the warm welcome. I think that I’ve hit a point where I realize that despite the work, it will be more worth it in the end to stop trying to pretend to be someone I’m not and live with who I really am.

    jessawhy – I too have noticed that women seem to be taught to find their worth in relationships with other people. Perhaps because a lot of women *do* find this so worthwhile (I know my mother’s favorite calling was compassionate service leader). I think for a lot of us, we’ve tried that to an extreme and need to back up and start at a more fundamental point. I think it’s OK to see ourselves in parts that work cohesively together: this is my self-development side, this is my service side, (this is my existentialist side), etc. Thank you, btw, for your wonderful intro to this post.

    julie m. smith – I couldn’t agree more with your second paragraph. I very much think this is what finding out God wants. I see that in a lot of what people have written here. I realize I could have written this post from a different angle with a similar message: “The Conviction to Follow Personal Revelation,” but I wrote from my more philosophical side this time rather than my RS teacher side (which was *my* favorite calling ever). I’m still thinking this all out and appreciate your thoughts.

    justine – what a beautiful explanation. I’m glad you can connect to this theoretically even though your physical circumstances may be very different. I think you also hit on an important point–that sometimes the things we struggle with are only for now. As soon as we conquer them, new challenges seem to fill in the gaps, but some of these decisions do not have to be permanent things. The striving to find out what is right for us, though, may be one that stays with us for a lifetime.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I too have noticed that women seem to be taught to find their worth in relationships with other people.

    hm. maybe i am missing something, but i read this and thought, “doesn’t God find His greatest work and glory in relationships with and focus on others, on building and fostering relationships?”

    and doesn’t our most fundamental sense of worth come from our relationship with Him?

    i guess i see this trait in women as a positive, not a negative, not something that needs to be changed. i see it as godlike.

  12. Zenaida says:

    I have to agree that relationships are worth cultivating into divine reflections. I also think balance is very important. I think relationships like mother, sister, wife, etc. are vital, but it takes a unique sort of alchemy that we all have to work out for ourselves. If my particular blend never includes wife and mother, then am I of less worth than those who are privileged to call themselves by these titles? How should I define myself? I remember hearing that the more love we are able to give, the more we will have. I think this is true, but I also think we have to love ourselves enough to know when the well is empty.

    I guess what I’m really trying to say, is that I think that if we are here to learn Christlike love, then we should be practicing that in all relationships, including ourselves.

  13. Anonymous says:

    thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. recently in a byu fireside one member’s of the 70 came and told us that if we weren’t married we should strive to be and if your a woman considering a mission you should first look for a eternal companion. then he went on to say if you are married, have kids, even if you are not financially stable. it made me sick. i cannot believe that god has intended for ALL of us to have and live the same life. i believe in marriage and families, but i will do it in a way that fits my circumstances and it will be tailored to fit me. frankly, it’s between me and god.

  14. Alisa says:

    Anon, Zenaida – The extent to which we involve ourselves in service is an interesting point. I think that to be Authentic, we need time alone and time losing ourselves in others. I see that God draws clear boundaries along these lines. I always think that “Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength” means that we can be moving forward in our progression toward the self we are meant to be, but maybe not always at a full sprint. Moderation. Balance.

    Anon – I really think that looking at God’s creations, it’s clear to see that God glories in diversity. We’re all like instruments in an orchestra, playing different parts. I agree with you that it’s best not to worry so much about the parts we’re not meant to play, even for right now, and find out
    what we’re supposed to be doing in the current time. I think God means for us to be happy, not just in the future, but in our current circumstances.

  15. Zenaida says:

    Alisa, I couldn’t agree more, and thank you so much for your post.

    I’ve often wondered why we are given a seemingly one-sided view of how we should be living our lives to please God. I think that marriage and families are very good things and worth striving for. Reality always seems to be a lot more varried. However, should they stop preaching the ideal? Would we get too comfortable with ourselves if we did not have an ideal to strive for?

  16. Liz W. says:

    I appreciate this post, and can relate to your sentiments. Being in my 30’s, and single has been an interesting experience (one that I never thought I’d have, by the way). I’ve had some painful things said to me over the years as well, and I used to let experiences like that devastate me.

    But, worse than having ill-will towards ward members, it also created very harsh feelings towards God. If the super-best part of His plan was for us to be married with children, then why didn’t I have it? Why don’t I want it?

    You can’t imagine the nights I’ve spent in prayer, pouring out my heart, begging Him to make me desire to have a family of my own; asking Him to change my heart, fix my thinking, open my understanding…

    That hasn’t happened. Maybe it never will. And I’ve finally come to a place where I’m getting okay with that.

    It’s still painful to go to church sometimes, but I’ve felt the whisperings of the spirit telling me that my life is divine, as is.

    Maybe I should put that on a t-shirt and wear it to the next Enrichment activity?

  17. Deborah says:

    my life is divine, as is

    Love it.

    I call it traveling without a road map. That’s how it felt when I married someone-not-Mormon. Suddenly, I was in an off-road vehicle. Exciting, bumpy, disorienting at times. I appreciate Julie’s comment about focusing on what God wants. But sometimes the answer is “turn here” and then radio silence. So we travel on, feeling out what feels right the best we can.

    I know that I’ve posted this before recently, but the prayer that has touched me most recently is this one by Thomas Merton:

    My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

    But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

  18. D'Arcy says:

    Liz W. I want to be your friend. We sound a lot a like. I love that you are realizing the divinity of your life. I have decided that yes, while preaching the ideal is a good thing, it doesn’t mean it is the ideal for everyone…maybe it will be someday…but really who knows? I have come to see the reality, beauty, and gift of my life is astounding, and it reaffirms God’s love for me. Maybe I was meant for just such a life and God knew it. It wasn’t to punish me, but to show me just how much love he does have.

    This isn’t to say that I am unmarriageable or that I am intractable or that I will never be a mother. But it is a blessing to think that I have had so much time to explore cultures and live life and that I am who I am because of these trials or blessings.

    Ok, this is sounding way too mushy, espcially to my own ears. I just have a hard time when people think that punishment comes in forms of not being married or not having children.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Let me draw a comparison, flawed as it may be. Recently the Church recognized that not all young men were meant to be full-time missionaries and has honorably excused many because of physical or emotional needs, and even because of sexual orientation. However, I would not support the choice of a worthy young man choosing to not serve a mission because of his career, a claim that he isn’t the “missionary type,” or other such reasons. I hope one such young man would not dare to say that the Lord approves of his not going on a mission.

    In a similar way, I feel that many married women (more than the general population would think) may be “honorably excused” from motherhood because of physical or very real emotional needs. There may be other reasons, too. I also feel terrible that there are too many people in the Church judging “sorrow that the eye can’t see.” However, I have a hard time believing that the Lord would approve of women who choose not to have children because they think they will find more fulfillment in a career, that they believe they are not the “mothering type,” or other personal reasons. In my opinion, this form of thinking is caused by selfishness. If such women feel that they have received the Lord’s permission to not have children, I hope that they are indeed living worthily to have the Spirit in their lives and are confident that they have not made this choice due to selfish reasons.

    I am by no means claiming to be perfect or completely selfless. However, I feel that I gave up a wonderful career where I could have blessed many, many lives to be a mother, despite my own doubts of if I was the “mothering type.” And yes, the selfish side of me sometimes misses the many freedoms I used to have (like being able to take a nap!) However, I cannot begin to describe the joy that has filled my soul from being a mother.

  20. Andi says:

    Alisa,
    I appreciate your comments and your quest for authenticity. I waited at least 5 years after marrying before considering to have a child (I also loved my job and found it challenging, fulfilling, etc). I kept waiting to be “baby hungry”, or a feeling of love for children. I didn’t. But, one day a good friend told me that she didn’t care for other people’s children much, but when it came to her own (she had 3), it was a different story. She loved them. To me, this was a moment of clarity… I was waiting to be motherly before I was a mother. For me, it had to be the other way around. Or I had to take that leap of faith that it would be that way.

    It actually took a miscarriage (and an ongoing struggle with infertility) before I realized that I wanted to have a child. The grief surprised me.

    Now I have a 3-year old daughter. My love for her surprises me every day. I do not see myself as a certain kind of mother. I see myself as being me.

  21. Caroline says:

    Well, I’ll throw in my two cents.

    I think the Church (and the world) needs all types of people. The more types of people the Church has, the more types of people it can help. A woman who has decided to devote herself to serving her community through her career rather than raise children will be able to reach people that other women in the Church might not be able to.

    I respect her choice, just as I respect the mom who decides to have 8 children. I give them both the benefit of the doubt that they are following their consciences.

    I myself never was the least bit interested in having children, but at 29 I decided to take the plunge. I’m not sorry. But I also have refused to believe that I have to choose between full time motherhood and a career. As a part time teacher, I have both, and it works beautifully for me.

  22. Azúcar says:

    I saw that my friend Andi basically wrote my comment.

    But I’m not one to just let my opinion lie fallow.

    I never wanted children, I wanted a career. I got what I wanted. And then I was told from above that I needed to have children. The ensuing years of infertility gave me a new respect, and a surprising yearn for a child (albeit sometimes grudgingly.)

    Although I headed down the path like Jonah to Nineveh, what I got in return blew my mind. I am profoundly grateful, in an almost indescribable way, that I took a leap of faith, trusted in the Lord, and did as I was asked.

    I never really liked children, I was not a baby person. I did not want to leave my career. What a surprise to find my previous thoughts upside down. My children are a divine blessing and I would give the world to be with them always.

    You could have knocked me over with a feather…

  23. Alisa says:

    Thank you for these thoughtful comments. I’m still thinking them over, but here are a few thoughts and thanks:

    liz w. – “My life is divine, as is.” I’m going to adopt this as my mantra. I loved your comments, and very much relate. Thank you so much for sharing.

    deborah – Such an appropriate prayer. A modern-day psalm to the wanderer who hopes that she is guided in her path. I think it takes a lot of faith to lead an extra-ordinary life, whatever that is, but it looks like you’re finding your way.

    anon – I totally see what you’re saing about the missionary analogy, and I agree that, “In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that they eye can’t see–who am I to judge another? Lord, I would follow thee.” I think you’re definitely not alone in your feelings. I’ve noted that they are commonly held in the Church, particularly by those who have children. Just as I think not all reasons to not have children are entirely selfish, I also think that all the reasons *to have* children are not entirely selfless.

    andi and caroline – Thank you for sharing these experiences. It helps to see those who have been through this and found the answers for themselves, and I am so glad you are happy in your choices and feel your Authentic selves.

    azucar – I like the comparison to Jonah. His behavior/human failing is almost humorous in that story, and it encourages me to not take myself so seriously. It’s a great point.

  24. Dalene says:

    “…if I felt my choices were right, then I wouldn’t be so conflicted” I’m not sure who told you that, but that certainly has not been the case with some of my life choices. I’m a fairly secure person but even some of the choices I’ve made under revelation (and honestly, that’s not something that arrives easily for me) have left me conflicted.

    I really appreciate this post and the diverse comments. I wish we weren’t all so hard on ourselves or on each other, especially when it comes to personal choices.

  25. Erika says:

    Interesting post.

    I wanted to comment on this: “As a recent post by Jessawhy made me realize, if God is everything we’ve been taught, then why would God reward those who merely comply with the path of least resistance?”

    I don’t think that God rewards those that merely comply. It may seem like it though to us looking on the outside. There are many many obsticles, and the refiners fire.

    To deliberately choose to not have children is sad. But sad doesn’t automatically make the choice incorrect. I’m not sure how many people would realize that there is a difference.

  26. Jessawhy says:

    Erika,
    I wasn’t sure if you read the original post, if you’d like to comment on that thread, feel free.
    Here’s the link.
    http://exponentblog.blogspot.com/2008/02/path-of-least-resistance.html

  27. G says:

    coming a little late to this thread… but had to comment anyways.

    Alisa, thank you for writing this beautiful post.
    after the birth of my son, the realization that I really really really was conflicted about having any more was a severe blow to my attachment to the church.

    I love what you have said (and your reiki friend too) about finding your own way, your own truth, inside the church. it is something I am trying to accomplish as well. (with varying degrees of success. kind of a work in progress.) Thank you for your example.

    on a similar note, regarding what Julie M Smith said, about doing what God wants really haunted me for a long time… because I assumed that the rhetoric I was hearing from lessons and talks by leaders was what God wanted. In other words… that God wanted me to have lots of children.

    That really had a negative affect upon my relationship with God.

    it took a lot of time before I could sift through all the words and assumptions and social training to try to really hear what was right for me in my life. it’s challenging when it is different from what you are told you will hear.

    anyways, sorry for blabbing on… but your post really hit a chord with me. thank you.

  28. Alisa says:

    G, Thank you so much for your insightful comment. It’s a wonderful experience to connect to other women like you on this issue, wherever they may be in their lives. I relate so similar feelings about being told by others what God wants for me, although that’s not what my personal feelings were of God’s plan for me, at least God’s plan for me *right now.*

  29. rosi says:

    Alisa,
    Thank you for this beautiful post. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and courage in mindfully walking your authentic path. It inspires me to do the same.

  30. Alisa says:

    Rosi, it is wonderful to see you here! I need to get updated comments emailed to me. I think you’re wonderfully authentic as you are, and thank you for your compliments.

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