Abortion Debates, Picking and Choosing, and Living on the Fringe of Mormonism
by Rachel B. – guest poster
My mom took us out to dinner a lot when we were growing up. Having two picky kids (I being particularly bad) and no spouse didn’t inspire my mom to slave away in the kitchen more than four times a week.
One evening when I was in 3rd grade, we decided that it was a Bob’s Big Boy night. After arriving there, I ordered my usual – hamburger completely plain with French fries – and we settled down to talk about our school day.
My brother Rob was currently in 6th grade and being indoctrinated, as my mom put it, by his teacher Mr. Handler, whose conservative social views were influencing his impressionable audience.
“Mom” Rob said, as we munched away, “It’s awful that abortion is legal. Mr. Handler was talking to us about it today.”
“Hmmm….” my mom replied, trying to avoid a confrontation. Mom always tried to avoid disagreements of any sort. She was a peacemaker to her core. But my brother zeroed in on the non-committal response immediately.
“Well, what do you think about it? You don’t believe it’s ok, right?”
“Well,” my mom said, “I think that a woman should have the right to control her own body.”
Rob’s eyes bugged out. “What! How can you say that? How can you think that? You know the Church is against abortion.”
“I know. I just think that the individual woman should be able to decide something so personal.”
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but Mom must have been able to eventually steer it in another direction and sooth my brother’s outrage. While he was horrified by my mom’s revelation of her abortion stance, I was simply interested and had been a silent observer of the exchange. As an eight year old, I had no fixed ideas about abortion, though I knew what it was.
This conversation remained with me for a long time. As I grew older and learned more and more about the culture wars that surrounded this controversial topic, it became increasingly fascinating to me that my mom, my Mormon mother, traditional and conservative in so many ways, would fall on that side of the fence. She was a Republican, a skilled knitter and crafter, a lover of homemaking, a wearer of polka dots. She was a Martha Stewart without the career drive.
How could such a person become pro-choice? To be a pro-choice Mormon in the 80’s was to be a Mormon on the fringe, since the LDS Church had taken a strong conservative stance against ERA and other women’s issues. I didn’t realize that at the time, of course. But mom’s conservative exterior was only a shell that hid the more progressive aspects of her quiet personality. No doubt a lot of it came from her own non-traditional mother, who had never accepted the Mormonism of her husband. And seeds of feminism also were instilled when she attended a women’s college. (I would later attend the same college.)
Dinner that evening taught me the remarkable complexity and ambiguity that can inhabit an individual. My mom might have been a stay at home Mormon mother, but she was also a woman willing to pick and choose from the ideas around her and make her own decisions about ethics, law, and God’s will, despite the rhetoric of Church leaders.
Growing up, I often didn’t understand her half-hearted attitude towards churchy things. The total absence of Family Home Evening in our home, her avoidance of religious conversations, her ability to shrug off certain dictates from our Prophet or from our sacred texts, the utter lack of scriptural study in our home, the way we’d always skip stake conference and general conference… “No church today!” mom would announce four times a year, when those conferences were held. It was only when I was a bit older that I figured out that there really was church on those Sundays – mom just didn’t care for the format of those particular meetings. All this paradoxically paired with three hours of church the rest of the year, prayers at dinner, no swearing, no coffee, no alcohol, and all the other no’s that most Mormons follow.
How could a person be a Mormon and be half-hearted? Wasn’t it all or nothing? Weren’t you in or weren’t you out? Wasn’t there no middle ground? Was my mom going to hell? Were we going to be an eternal family? These were the thoughts that would circle around my child’s mind.
It is only as an adult that I now fully appreciate the ambivalent line my mom walked every day of her life, as a Mormon woman willing to pick and choose, accept and reject. I walk those same lines, and I’ll probably live out the same ambiguity in front of my children. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I even silently blamed her for years for not giving us more religious direction, but I now see what my mom did as heroic. To keep going and to keep quiet so much of the time. To try as much as possible to step back and let us come to our own religious conclusions, while giving us the framework of a Mormon life and community.
I don’t know if I’ll have the same strength of will power – I’m more outspoken, politically active, and concerned with issues of social justice than my mom. I can easily imagine myself turning to my kids constantly at church and saying, “Look how differently men and women are treated. Do you think that’s right? Do you think Jesus would want that?” While I see value in pointing out inequities and injustices when I see them, I also see the wisdom and the Herculean act of will power it would take to not try to strong-arm my children into seeing the world the same way I do. Having in years past mentally criticized her regarding our religious training, I now hope in many ways to model myself after my mom, a parent strong enough and wise enough to step back and let her children come to her with their questions, in their own time.
Did your parents raise you with any similar religious ambivalence? What was its effect on you?