“You don’t do any service”

“You don’t do any service,” he  told me.

I was surprised by his comment, and not only because it was so rude. It hadn’t occurred to me that my life was devoid of service. As a mother of young children, I felt like all I ever did was serve other people. I worked at a service-oriented job and at home, I worked even harder at childcare and housework—responsibilities so demanding as to make my paid work seem sort of restful, by comparison. I had virtually no “me time.”

I probed. Whatever was he talking about?

He rattled off some of his own service accomplishments as examples: helping out neighbors by giving Mormon priesthood blessings, moving heavy objects, shoveling snow and doing other physically demanding favors.

I don’t do that kind of service and I doubt that my neighbors would want me to. My sex disqualifies me from the male-only Mormon priesthood and my wimpy stature makes me an undesirable kind of volunteer in the physical labor department.

He rolled his eyes at me when I countered with my own list: volunteering as a blogger (“That’s just what you do for fun,” he said); donating blood (“Once every other month? That’s hardly any time at all!”).

I remembered that conversation later when a Mormon woman asked me for advice about what kinds of service for her adult daughter might do while simultaneously caring for her young children. Her daughter seemed burned out by all that child-rearing and hoped that service would be a remedy.

I was stumped. The local elementary school always wanted volunteers, but required them to come without any younger children in tow—a rule that precluded both me and my friend’s daughter. I had volunteered for political campaigns when my oldest daughter was a baby—canvassing while pushing her in a stroller, but that became less feasible as my family grew.

Both conversations reflect common ways of thinking about service:

  • Service benefits people outside your own household. Serving your own family doesn’t count.
  • Service is unpaid. No matter how much good I am doing for my community and the universe at large at my workplace, that’s not service.
  • Service is always time-consuming, usually arduous and probably unpleasant.
  • Although service may be unpleasant, giving service is spiritually fulfilling and necessary to be happy.

I have come to question some of these assumptions. Crediting a husband for service when he helps the neighbors, while ignoring the service of his wife who is left to do even more work at home while he is away, seems like quite a male-gazed view of service. I can and do serve my community through my paid work, and I am much better qualified to serve there than I am as an inept unpaid physical laborer. Yes, feminist blogging is an enjoyable hobby for me, but it is also something of a calling, and I believe I have provided service to many people through this medium.

And yet, with more nuance perhaps, I also see value in traditional ways of thinking about service. I believe the world is a better place when people are willing to give service outside their homes, without pay, and even when the tasks are unpleasant. I acknowledge that I could and should do more service beyond my own home and workplace, and I do feel more spiritually fulfilled when I stretch myself to serve a little more. Children are demanding and their care should certainly be acknowledged as service, but I do feel happier when I manage to find other ways to serve, as long as I don’t allow myself to feel guilty because my four little, living household service projects eat away most of my service time.

My kids enjoy the children’s waiting room while I give blood.

Giving blood is simple, but it is meaningful service that works for me within this stage of life. There is a blood donation center near my home and it includes a playroom where my children can wait for me. It is not time-consuming. In fact, I am not even allowed to donate more than once every eight weeks, but my service there is deeply meaningful; I am saving lives! I happen to have CMV-negative blood, valuable because I am among a minority of blood donors who can donate to infants. I take this responsibility seriously; the donation center calls me when they have an infant of my blood type in need and I feel blessed that I have been given the gift of being able to contribute.

It’s simple, but it’s service.

 

*Post Script: Just wanted to clarify that the anonymous Mormon priesthood holder I mentioned in the post was not my husband, for the record.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is an advocate, mother, professional, lover of the arts, hater (but doer) of housework and seeker of truth. Twitter: @aprilyoungb

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17 Responses

  1. Emily says:

    Please know that your posts are so valuable to me, they keep me afloat. Your service is beyond measure.

  2. Alison says:

    Your husband’s comment broke my heart. How can he be so blind to not see how you serve him and your children? Those who are trying to be disciples of Christ will be led to serve in whatever ways are expedient at the time, and you are doing what is needed now. The ways in which you serve Him will constantly change throughout your life. It seems your husband thinks that it’s only service if others see him do it. I pray that he will gain some spiritual maturity and sensitivity. In the meantime, I wish joy in serving the Lord, your family, and your blogging community. And thanks for reminding me it’s time to donate blood again.

    • I didn’t attribute these comments to my husband–I am letting the Mormon man I had this conversation with remain anonymous. In my experience, this particular man is typical of many Mormon men. Because of our male-only priesthood structure, church is taught from the male perspective, so male gaze is a natural result. Also, Mormon men are trained to “lead’ (i.e. lecture) women on spiritual matters. I see this as just one example of a pervasive problem.

  3. M says:

    There’s a time and season for everything… keeping our eyes open for things we can do around us in the times when it is hard, and considering what bigger project we might want to take on when the opportunity and personal situation allow.

    When I was a kid sometimes we went and did yard work for a lady in the ward. I’m sure we kids didn’t contribute much, but my mom loves gardening and that was something she could fit into her schedule.

    I’ve seen many women enact great kindness to each other when needed. These actions may be invisible to men.

  4. EBK says:

    Yes! I think our definition of service in the church can often impede more meaningful service. When my husband was in the Elder’s quorum presidency he went out at least twice a week to help people move. We live in an area where 90% of the ward could easily afford to hire a moving company but no one does because that’s what the Elder’s quorum is for. I also can’t tell you how many times the young women have called and asked if they can do my dishes or weed my garden or sweep my floors. This ends up being more of a burden than a service to me but I am obligated to accept because they are just trying to do a service project. As a missionary we spent most of our allotted service hours helping rich ward members to menial labor tasks that they otherwise would have just hired out for, but isn’t it nice that they don’t have to?

    It is bizarre that we spend so much time and energy creating service opportunities where none exist while ignoring the service opportunities that need our attention like our own families, the homeless, anyone on the fringe of society. I think that the majority of members in the church honestly want to serve and make a difference in the world but they don’t always know how. We get so stuck in our narrow mentality of what qualifies as service (and for members like me who live in an area that has very few people who are truly in need, we just end up making up service opportunities that don’t take us out of our comfort zones).

  5. Anon says:

    I was talking to a family member the other day and they were excited about something I don’t have any interest in and can’t really understand (too technical). The thought came to me: “to love this person you need to listen and be engaged.” So I tried my best. That counts people. That’s service.

  6. E says:

    Did the anonymous Mormon man offer to watch your four children or otherwise provide (pay?) for childcare while you go out to provide unpaid service?

  7. Abby says:

    I am a stay at home mom. I am literally so busy giving unpaid service ALL DAY LONG that I don’t have time to get a job to earn money. So those kind of comments from the dude you talked with make me a little nuts.

    Your blogging is the best service ever. Keep doing it!

  8. Dani Addante says:

    Thank you for this post! It opened my eyes more. I hadn’t realized that service is sometimes seen from a male perspective at church. I agree that service includes serving one’s family as well and that there are different kinds of service.

  9. Patty says:

    Thank you for donating blood. It may not be time consuming, but it isn’t pleasant, and really, how can giving YOUR OWN BLOOD to other people not count as service of the highest order!!! And you have an unusual blood type. Wow!

  10. Ardis says:

    Oh, heck no! This is one more manifestation of “it only counts if it’s what a man would do.” A man uses muscle to load a pick-up truck, so that counts; a woman uses heart to empathize with a hurting soul, but that doesn’t count because there’s no muscle involved. (I’m back at work on a history project that examines what counted as labor on the books of a United Order town. If a man did it, and it included muscle, it counted; if a woman did it, no matter how much time or heart or caring or perception it took, it didn’t count. What you’ve described blends very well into those old records.)

  11. Liz says:

    PREACH! I had always had this bee in my bonnet about how we think of service, but I had never attributed it to the male gaze – until now. Thank you! And I think you provide literally invaluable service by blogging here – your insights have helped me and so many others, and your policy analysis is the best there is. I kinda want to flick this anonymous dude in the ear. /eyeroll

  12. Sophia McLaughlin says:

    To me, the temple has always been more about symbolizing Christ and mankind than about men and women in gender roles. Also, we’re experiencing a fallen world. The world will be redeemed, and so will any effects of the fall.

  13. acw says:

    Service comes in many forms. In the official church structure, I’m not crazy about the signups for dinner and babysitting, but loved the opportunity once to help a disabled ward member wrap her Christmas presents for a couple hours. I think people contribute best when it’s from the heart and from their skill set. For me, I feel like my genealogy work is service to both the living and the dead, and don’t feel bad if I can’t do the babysitting assignment. Your call may be blogging or this season in your life as a mom. Hugs.

  14. Kaylee says:

    I think some of the most life changing service falls under the umbrella of being a great friend. Planning a girls night out for a friend who needs some distraction from life: fun, yes. But also service. Reaching out to moms who come from other countries and helping them practice English–service, even if the kids just think it’s a playdate. Organizing regular times to meet with friends at the children’s museum/zoo/park but also decreasing loneliness and isolation while supporting/teaching/learning good parenting skills. Hugs, listening, and just being there– not the type of service you can pencil into your calendar, but it’s some of the most important.

  15. Rachel says:

    Thank you for this great post, April. And the generous actions you perform are absolutely service. It reminds me of one of my favorite parts in the church’s Daughters in My Kingdom Manual. Eliza noted individual ways real sisters were willing to serve. They were each different, and dependent on the woman herself.

    “Sis. Jones said she would be willing to go about and solicit material, if counseled so to do — she also offered to board one to work on the temple.
    Mrs. Durfee said if the heads of the society wished, she is willing to go abroad with a wagon and collect wool etc. for the purpose of forwarding the work.
    Mrs. Smith suggested that merchant’s wives donate material that others may be employed.
    Miss Wheeler said she is willing to give any portion, or all of her time —
    Mrs. Granger [is] willing to do anything, knit, sew, or wait on the sick, as might be most useful.”

    (I also know at least two male members who are willing to drop anything at any time to help someone in their ward, except their own wives, thinking that acts of familial service “doesn’t count.”)

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