We Can Do Both

Posted by on November 4, 2013 in feminism, Gender roles, Mormon women, motherhood | 39 comments

I was walking down the South Hill of BYU’s campus discussing a lecture I had recently attended with one of my only openly feminist friends. The lecturer had argued that women’s abilities were best spent at home raising children (read sons) that could then go out and change the world. For two young, idealistic feminists still trying to find their place in the world and in the church this talk was devastating. We were smart, capable, ambitious women with the potential to be a force for good in the world. I remember my friend saying, “I can do both! I should do both! Anything other than that is a cop-out. It’s me not being brave. It’s me wasting the talents God has given me.”

It was an important moment in my life, one that has stayed with me as I went on to motherhood, graduate school, and career. But that lecture was certainly not the last time somebody has declared that I am better suited at home, that any contribution I make to the world pales in comparison to what I can do for my children. Indeed, just this weekend I had a conversation with a very genuine woman who has raised and home-schooled an impressive number of children. All of those children went on to get degrees, sometimes multiple degrees, from ivy-league universities and are now making an important contribution to our society. When she heard, however, that I have four children and am trying to complete my Master’s thesis she urged me not to finish it but to pull my children out of public school and home school them instead. She sweetly argued that whatever honor I would get from finishing my degree would be nothing compared to the reward I would receive from making my children successful. Considering her record, I admit that her argument was both persuasive and guilt-inducing. I love my children, I want more than anything for them to be successful and I fear that my choices have negatively impacted them at times. 

This guilt and pressure isn’t just coming from random members of the church and it isn’t just our culture. Elder Christofferson proclaimed in this past General Conference:

A woman’s moral influence is nowhere more powerfully felt or more beneficially employed than in the home…Where this ideal does not exist, people strive to duplicate its benefits as best they can in their particular circumstances.

In all events, a mother can exert an influence unequaled by any other person in any other relationship. By the power of her example and teaching, her sons learn to respect womanhood and to incorporate discipline and high moral standards in their own lives. Her daughters learn to cultivate their own virtue and to stand up for what is right, again and again, however unpopular. A mother’s love and high expectations lead her children to act responsibly without excuses, to be serious about education and personal development, and to make ongoing contributions to the well-being of all around them. Elder Neal A. Maxwell once asked: “When the real history of mankind is fully disclosed, will it feature the echoes of gunfire or the shaping sound of lullabies? The great armistices made by military men or the peacemaking of women in homes and in neighborhoods? Will what happened in cradles and kitchens prove to be more controlling than what happened in congresses?”

I would be the first to tell you that what I do as a mother matters and matters more than anything else I do. For better or for worse, I am shaping my children into the people they will one day become. But I believe that what I do outside of the home will have a profoundly positive impact on my children as well. My research and work to end intimate partner violence will help to create a world that is safer for my daughter and kinder for my sons. It will help them to empower themselves, develop healthy relationships and help those in need. But let’s be honest, my peacemaking in the home doesn’t end domestic violence. Hopefully it produces four people who won’t contribute to the problem, but if my moral influence stops in my own home that is all my expertise will have done. For whatever reason, I have the knowledge, the talent, the capability, the privilege to go out and advocate for more effective policy that could have a significant effect on the rates of gender violence in the United States. Why shouldn’t I use these gifts outside of my home just because I am a woman and a mother?

This goes beyond me. Think of the creative potential the world is losing when we tell women they can do no better than to stay at home. It may be true that they will raise amazing children but it also means that their experience and voices will be silent in the culture, laws, and society that immediately impact their lives. Women who want to can do both. Think of the hastening of the work to spread the gospel that has happened just by lowering the age women can go on missions. Who is to say that the work of the Lord wouldn’t get done faster if we encouraged the women with the desire to use their talents for the good of all to do so? If there is one thing I believe it is that God justifies and strengthens us so that we have the ability to do Their work. It is far past time to expand our minds to include the possibility of women.

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39 Comments

  1. Amen a hundred times.

    • Thanks, Rachel!

  2. I think you’re taking away from Elder Christofferson’s talk exactly the opposite of what he wanted. I just listened to the talk this morning and he specifically asked people not to assume he meant women had no good influence anywhere else. He was simply speaking to combat those who argue that motherhood is a waste of a woman’s resources.

    I think you and he (and you and I) can all agree that we can, and should, have both.

    • Hmmm…that is not the message I got from his talk and I have read and listened to it several times now. Message is a hard thing to convey unless you are absolutely explicit and even then…that being said, I am in agreement with your interpretation and am willing to give Elder Christofferson the benefit of the doubt. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  3. I think we would do well to remember that all mothers are also daughters. If a mother’s glory is the contributions of her children, shouldn’t I as her daughter use all my talents as best I can? Aren’t I failing her as a daughter and throwing away her sacrifices if I don’t develop my talents and try to make the world a better place, both in my home and outside of it?

    • That’s an excellent point, Em. I think, unfortunately, the unsaid implication of the “mothers should stay at home to properly influence the future generation” rhetoric is that it is the sons who will go out and change the world while the daughters continue to be the hands that rock the cradles. I am hopeful that this paradigm is shifting, however.

      • Once upon a time, the Church came out with the “I am a Mormon” campaign. And it featured women who worked. It made my sister who pressed pause on her dreams to be a stay at home mother wonder why she didn’t feel that that was an option for her. Secondly, it made her rethink the rhetoric she grew up with, that the girls grow up to be great mothers so their girls could grow up and be great mothers, and so forth. I still remember the day she asked me very sincerely, “When do the girls ever get to be great.” Now. We get to be great now. (With whatever that means for us.)

  4. I agree with this post. It seems like in the church when we talk about women, we are only talking about the short period of their lives when they have young children living at home. No one talks about what a woman can do after her kids are grown. Being able to have a job or schooling while raising children will leave women with many options for their futures once the children are grown and leave home.

    • Amen!

    • I really appreciate this comment, and think it is spot on.

      Thankfully, a woman’s life is (generally) quite long, and she can do many things, both before and after (and sometimes during) children come, if they come at all.

  5. A woman needs to make the best choice for herself and her family. For some that may be mean working at home and for some that may mean working outside the home. Being at home, though, doesn’t mean that a women cannot use her talents outside the home to make a difference. She can strengthen, inspire and help others beside her husband and children as she works in her community. You don’t have to have a professional career to use your talents for good in the world.

    But, that also means that there are many woman that should use their talents in a professional career. They should use the majority of time preparing and working to use their talents in their chosen fields. This will help the world and will bless their families.

    I have chosen, like the mother you highlighted in your post, to homeschool my children. I have been blessed to serve in my community and work part-time as well. But, that doesn’t mean that is right for everyone. The best thing we can be to each other is to support one another in our chosen roles.

  6. Yeah, I can’t do both. Much. I can only do a little away from home.

  7. Amen Embracing Light!

    I think what this all boils down to is a basic assumption that as mothers, we’re morally obligated to devote every waking moment to our children and that anything else is tantamount to neglect. That our kids are going to turn out freaking crazy if we take any time for ourselves. This isn’t something we ever say out loud, but I can quote a dozen talks that basically tie every social ill to negligent mothers – working or otherwise: divorce, bad grades, drug use, sexual promiscuity, on and on. What about dads? What about agency??

    I used to think my mom was a horrible mother because she worked, that her job was evidence that she didn’t love me, but now that I’ve been both a SAHM and a WAHM I realize that staying home wouldn’t have magically made her a good mother. She was unhappy and felt helpless and worthless in her divine role, and that’ll damage anyone’s relationships with their kids. Yes, working can amplify that problem, but so can a lot of things. Increased quantity of face-to-face interaction won’t magically fix a family’s problems by itself.

    I think we need a church culture that seeks to strengthen women and encourage them, like E.L. said, in their prayerful, educated choices whatever they may be. That way we can be honest with ourselves and fix our own families without feeling pressured by blind judgements from others.

    • “What about agency??”

      Yes. This is what has always bothered me most about the adage “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” The baby in the cradle always grows up to become an agent. The hand that rocks the cradle makes a difference, but it does not rule the world. This doesn’t diminish motherhood, it’s just a fact.

      • Great point, Emily U. It’s sad (but not surprising) to find that another oft-repeated quote is simply an empty attempt to try to keep women in their place.

    • “I think what this all boils down to is a basic assumption that as mothers, we’re morally obligated to devote every waking moment to our children and that anything else is tantamount to neglect. That our kids are going to turn out freaking crazy if we take any time for ourselves.”

      This is such an excellent point, Pepper. Thanks for articulating it so clearly. If it’s actually true that without a SAHM to guide them, kids will all turn into serial killers, then it does make sense that women should be SAHMs. But if the alternative is that kids will turn out pretty much the same, or if the effect is small, then it’s absolutely possible for women to do more good doing other things than parenting. But as you point out so well, all the talks that say women really need to be SAHMs are pretty much assuming that everything will go to hell for the kids if they don’t. And of course, this is empirically not supported, so the argument that women must be SAHMs fails.

      • Exactly, Ziff. Whenever I hear rhetoric that connect working mothers to massively failed children I want to scream, “where is the empirical evidence for that?!?!?”

  8. I really like this post, mraynes. I think you’re spot on.

    “Think of the creative potential the world is losing when we tell women they can do no better than to stay at home. It may be true that they will raise amazing children but it also means that their experience and voices will be silent in the culture, laws, and society that immediately impact their lives.”

    Amen. Sadly, I think the second sentence is probably the unstated *goal* (not an unintended consequence) of a lot of the “women, stay at home with your kids” rhetoric.

  9. I recently read this quote by Barbara Winder (the 11th General RS President): “…our prime priority in life ought to be to enrich, to protect, and to guard the home. There are many ways we can do this. Many women are at the hearth, teaching their children by their side. Some women are in the classroom. Some are in the courtroom, guarding and defending the home. Some are in medicine, helping to protect us from the ills and dangers of life…throughout all ages, women have been guarding and defending the home in a variety of ways.”

    True, it still read a little either/or, but I do love that recognizes and validates that work FOR the home doesn’t have to be IN the home–and that both (in and out) are vitally important.

    http://www.lds.org/ensign/1986/03/enriching-and-protecting-the-home-a-conversation-with-barbara-w-winder-relief-society-general-president

  10. People in general assume that because the mother stayed home, home taught her children and demanded academic excellence from them, the children ended up in Ivy leage schools and so on. I do think it plays an important role for sure but it is not all the picture. A successful individual is defined in many ways and I cannot get into this now because I will loose the point of your blog post.

    When I hear women saying things like that, I sincerely asked them. What did you study in college? What interships did you do? What were your dreams when you were young? Based on questions like this, I qualify their advice as ‘important to take notice of’ vs. ‘she doesn’t know what she is talking about’.

    I let my heart be the judge of it all. If I have my heart on my children and I am investing in them, I feel fine and in peace even if I am a full time working mom. I feel that my son is loved fiercely BECAUSE I know how the world works and how cruel it can be. And I want to be his champion and always say “yes you can do it and this is how” because I know how easy it is for the world to tell him “no”. Through my life outside of home, I teach him the ethics of being professional, of making time for family, and of building the right skills to have a successful career. I am not just his mom who demands academic excellence but the woman who battles with the world every day and has learned from her bruised eyes as well as her victories. Now this is some home schooling that is superb, in my opinion.

    • I am hoping that the intent of your post was to highlight the great ability you have a professional women to teach and guide your child/child. I am hoping the intent wasn’t to judge other women for their choices (or lack thereof). Still, I feel a little misunderstood. This isn’t unusual, because I have chosen an unconventional lifestyle. I am sure in the Mormon culture, a professional women feels unconventional at times too.

      I know that homeschooling wasn’t the point of the post, but I feel like many homeschooling parents are misunderstood. Here, pleasantly, the misunderstanding is that a homeschool parent ONLY cares about academic excellence versus a homeschool parent only caring about somehow protecting or shielding their children from the world (like that is even possible!). :) It is typically the second “problem” that I encounter.

      As a parent, I want academic excellence. More importantly, I also want my children to understand education is more than something you can gain through books or projects. There are so many things a person must understand to success in this world. These things can be taught by a person who chooses the path of a homeschool parent.

      Also, I want to address something I feel is important. I was really lucky to have a lot of support as I prepared for a career. Not from my family. My own father told me the only reason I should attend college was so I could get married. He still disapproves of me working part-time. Yet, I felt driven to pursue my career path. I feel lucky.

      There are many women that aren’t able to do this, for many reasons. Maybe they don’t have the confidence to push forward against so much pressure. Maybe they just don’t know how. I know I depended on many people to help me get to where I have. Maybe they weren’t lucky enough to meet those kind of people. Maybe they were told that having “real faith” meant that they had to stay home with the children they MUST have. Maybe they felt there was only one “right way” and they listened because they were never taught to listen to themselves.

      I don’t think that strong, smart women will ever be able to help women that need support, by making judgments. I felt like that is been happening a little here. Like I said, I am hoping that the OP post and comments were meant to only support and help women, especially those who choose to work full-time. I am sure it is hard to say exactly what you mean and not be misunderstood in a comments section of a blog. I know it is hard for me.

      Like I said earlier, I hope we can all support each other even if our paths are different.

      • Are you feeling judged by my comment or by the post? I am not clear because your comment seems to be a response to the blog post even though I still don’t understand how you can feel misunderstood.

      • My response was to your comment, not the post. You are right. My response said “post”, instead of “comment”.

        I really liked the OP. I made my first comment only because I thought it was important to highlight the fact that you don’t have to be a professional to make an important contribution in the world. You can use your talents to bless the world even when you work at home full-time.

        I made the assumption that you had read my comment (I should not have) and your comment made me feel that you didn’t understand that point of view.

        I know MANY women that didn’t, for so many reasons, pursue their individual goals/careers. So, even though I personally don’t feel judged by your comment I know they feel judged by educated women. I don’t think an “uneducated” woman’s ideas or counsel should be dismissed because of it. (“I qualify their advice as ‘important to take notice of’ vs. ‘she doesn’t know what she is talking about’. “) You don’t have to agree or follow their advice. They are just sharing something that worked for them. A person can feel like what worked for them naturally will work for everyone else, so they share. It doesn’t mean their life experience doesn’t have value.

  11. Thanks for the post. Our Relief Society lesson on Sunday was based on Christofferson’s talk, so for me, a single woman pursuing a graduate degree who came from a happy family with a working mother, it was one of those “Welcome to Relief Society, now allow me to kick you in the face with my patented spiked gender-role boots.” I made it through about thirty seconds of listening to the women in the room describe the icky traits of “women of the world,” such as “careers,” before I called it a day and went home to stew in some existential despair. Days like those make me sincerely question whether I have the right kind of personality to be in this church. It is difficult to know that even if you feel your choice to work or pursue an education is right in the eyes of God, the sisters and brothers who surround you at church do not think that you or your contributions are important. I apologize for my negativity, but this is an issue that periodically tips me over the edge into the pit of my darkest doubt, which is whether women are really worth anything eternally. I managed to stay out of the pit for a couple of weeks, but I’m back in. Thanks for making me feel like I’m not totally alone.

    • Try to speak up next time, if you can, and this might help. You might feel alone still but not sad.

    • That is hard. I sincerely hope my ward never takes up Christofferson’s talk for an RS lesson, and I don’t blame you for leaving. You’re definitely not alone in your belief that it’s totally good, important, and normal to develop yourself outside of motherhood. And not in conflict with the gospel. I get frustrated when I hear some women speak as if it is a non-issue to do all of these things and stay in the church, though. The cultural expectations are real, and almost all of us who have done non-traditional things have received bumps and bruises from coming up against aspects of the institutional church and its Utah/Idaho-based culture. I hope you can get the support you need as you finish grad school.

      • Thanks for the encouragement! Normally I do a much better job of speaking my mind, but I was emotionally off balance with a few other life upheavals. But I’ll be back in the ring and out of the pit.

    • We had a lesson on that talk on Sunday too! It turned into ‘the world is evil, we need to prepare our kids for the war!’ topped off with a ‘you ladies need to be dress more modestly!’ It was complete with ‘guys are different/visual’ (apparently incapable of looking a woman with visible clevage in the eye-illustrated with an over share family member story!) and ‘we need to make church a safe place for the men.’ Of course there was no more time for discussion after that gem.

    • “It is difficult to know that even if you feel your choice to work or pursue an education is right in the eyes of God, the sisters and brothers who surround you at church do not think that you or your contributions are important.”

      Incredibly painful. And true. Thanks for hanging in there. Thanks for your comment– remarkable clarity and honesty. God bless you in your endeavors. God bless the sisters and brothers in your ward to re-affirm their respect and support in ways that ring true to you.

  12. To me, the real problem is telling other women what they should do, whatever the direction of that prescription. None of us gets to tell another what path she should take, and we need to trust that others are prayerfully doing what they should be doing.

    I say this because whereas the OP describes constantly being told to abandon career, I am constantly being told to take my career more seriously, work full-time, blah-blah. So talks like that at general conference are balm to my ears. And I didn’t hear that as telling other women what to do, but rather praising those who make a choice to prioritize nurturing in the face of so much societal pressure to spend time in other ways.

    I love my profession and am glad I earn a nice salary, but I have other things in life. I don’t regret the dozen or so years that I was at home full-time and I learned a lot that has helped me in my employment. Even though our children now range in age from married-with-kids to two in college, there is a lot of family stuff to be done, from grandparenting to elder care. Those are my priorities. I also do volunteer work in the community, serving on the board of a woman’s organization. And I am learning a new language to facilitate serving a mission when we retire.

    But I’m being pressured by my supervisor to be employed full-time, and they just don’t get nor respect that I have other jobs in life.

    During grad school I naively told people that I was going to grad school so that I could earn the most money in the least time away from home, and planned to be employed part-time the rest of my life. They made fun of me and one professor in particular was firm that she would “disabuse me of that notion.” (In retrospect it was stupid to say that in public.)

    Well, 10 years after graduation, that professor and I ended up at a professional conference together, and she admitted that since she had adopted a child and gotten divorced, she had gained appreciation for my point of view. In fact, when we were at lunch together, I overheard her telling a younger women on the other side of her, “Naismith has the best work-life balance of anyone I know.” I swallowed the anger and talked with the younger woman. That was in 1999. We’ve kept in contact since, as she contemplated marriage, then motherhood. As we hiked mountains or took strolls through the woods depending on the conference venue, she asked me about my life, and I explained some of the nuts and bolts of what my challenges were, and why I liked being employed part-time. I never told her what to do, but as it happened I recently visited her part of the world and got to visit her family. She cut down to half-time after her children were born, and is now 32 hours a week and insists that she will never work full-time again. But since she is not LDS and was raised as a feminist and force-fed the stuff about her talents being wasted at home, it was hard for her to listen to her inner voice and do what was best for her particular family.

    So you can say, “I can do both,” but you do NOT get to say that “we can do both.” How can you speak for all women?

    • OK, I’ll take the bait, Naismith. Mraynes is not making prescriptions for any particular woman’s life. This is so obvious I feel absurd even writing it. She can say “we can do both” because she is speaking in generalities. If fact, she said “women who want to can do both.” That sentence alone makes it clear she recognizes that women have the right to choose whether they want both or not.

      • Um, that was not intended as “bait.”

        I am not sure that what a woman “wants” is the most important consideration. All of the non-LDS women in my playgroup for my third daughter had wanted to continue their careers, it’s just that they felt that during that particular season they could not, due to the needs of their particular child, their particular husband’s schedule, etc. They were hungry to learn about our church teachings that respect and value the role of mothers.

        And for LDS women, the more pertinent questions is perhaps what the Lord would have them do, rather than what they “want.”

        I am just trying to explain that guilt can come about from being pressured to do something that does not fit, from a variety of directions. To me, “We Can Do Both!” comes off as pressure on me to do more, too. If it had been entitled, “I Can Do Both!” I would have just thought, you go girl, glad that SHE was doing what was right for her family.

        Am I oversensitive? Perhaps, because I put up with this crap every day. So too perhaps some women are being oversensitive to Elder C’s comments, if they are in an environment where people tell them not to finish their degree, etc.

  13. Thank you Mraynes! I feel the same way. I hope I am raising my children–including my daughter, to make a difference in the world. I do not want my daughter to feel like her sphere of influence is limited to whomever comes out of her womb.

    I appreciate your comments about the magnified impact a woman can have through her professional work. I have recently had the privilege to be part of a successful infant mortality prevention program. http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865589475/Infant-mortality-rate-drops-amid-Pacific-Islander-moms-in-Utah.html Within my own family, I have been fortunate to help 4 children to have healthy births–but I have helped many more through my professional work.

  14. I grew up in a home with a depressed, anxious, angry mother. Home was not a heaven on earth! In her forties my mother decided to go to college and started a part time program at the local community college. Her mother and sisters criticized her for “abandoning” her children to seek her own selfish education. But my siblings and I could see that she felt better about herself as she gained the education inaccessible to her as a young woman in Mexico. Sure she was at home less often and the teenagers had to pitch in with cooking, housework and helping to get the youngest sibling to and from soccer practice. It was well worth the effort! Mom smiled more. She had more confidence. She raged less. We all wished she had gone to college a decade earlier. Seeing my mother as a person with talents and abilities beyond those of homemaker helped me to feel greater respect and love for her. The pursuit and attainment of a bachelors degree in the arts made her a better mother.
    Every family has to work out their own unique equation to balance the time and roles of parents at home. In one family more education for mom (and less time with the kids) led to an increase in happiness and achievement for the whole family.

    • April,
      My experience is very similar to your’s. My mother went back to work when I started high school, my youngest sibling was a full decade younger than me. I remember her sobbing saying that she planned to be a stay at home parent… and yet.. whether it was her experience in parenting half a dozen children or her new career, she hit us less when she started working. I honestly can’t recall her hitting any of us after she started working. She was happier. I felt freer. I did not miss the mother I had before she went to work. I listened as she told me about her desk- at the time, I was unimpressed, but now, I see she was excited: she had a desk! Kids pitched in more, dad did not. Kids were happier, I don’t know about dad– and I don’t care. The majority were much happier with her going back to work. It made all the emotional difference in the world and significantly improved my home life. Some women need to work, for them and for their families– and it has nothing to do about money.

      • Amen. My mother went throught the same experience you are desribing. And I have noticed that I am very similar to her in this direction. I feel better about myself and life in general when I am working outside of home.

  15. Thank you for keeping this type of discussion going. I sat in a Relief Society lesson last week that also used the Christofferson talk. I will never understand why church leaders (of any church) think it is okay to tell women or men what to do in regards to their careers (and I consider stay-at-home-parenthood a career). I was raised by parents who both worked outside the home and inside it as well. My parents managed to raise six amazing children. Yet, as an adult, I placed the advice of church leaders above the example of my own mother, something I will always, always regret. I was not a good SAHM. I and my children would have been so much better off if I had followed my original career plans and worked outside the home. Now, at the age of 62, I am finally working full time in a job I love, but it will be a very short career (about two years), as my husband will be retiring in less than a year, and it is likely that I will retire at the same time. Better late than never, yes, but how much better it would have been earlier. It warms my heart to see you younger women making choices based on your own talents, desires, and family needs. This is what agency is really about.

  16. I can’t understand the selflessness necessary to have children (as I don’t have any), but even if you’re thinking entirely of them I think it’s important to consider what you want your daughter’s choices to be. And if you want her to live in a world where she can feel valuable whether she stays at home or works, then I think you are the best example possible.

  17. Great article, and comments. Gave me something to think about, especially about m

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