Can LDS Moms Stop Feeling Guilty for Wanting a Career Now?

Michelle Amos, NASA engineer, mom of three, and currently serving with her mission president husband in Louisiana

Last month, the Deseret News (a church owned paper in Utah) ran a story about a very, very cool woman named Michelle Wright Amos. She’s currently serving in Louisiana with her mission president husband, but before that, she had a 30 year career with NASA, most recently working at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. For almost a year before leaving to serve with her husband, she worked on the Mars 2020 rover as a systems engineer – the same rover that landed successfully on Mars last month.

Here is the article about her: https://www.deseret.com/faith/2021/2/19/22290171/former-nasa-engineer-watches-perseverance-rover-land-on-mars-while-serving-latter-day-saint-mission

She’s incredible and deserves all the publicity plus more. She earned her degree in electrical engineering first, then 16 years later a Master of Science in engineering management. She’s had multiple honors throughout her career, including an All Star Award at NASA’S Women of Color in Government and Defense Technology, chairing NASA’s Black Employee Strategy Team, and a KSC Strategic Leadership Award. She’s so awesome that she even has her own Wikipedia page, which is a level of engineering superstardom that I assume few people in her field have reached. I originally saw the article from Deseret News shared online, then I overheard my husband showing it to our seven year old daughter. In all the comments I’ve read in LDS online forums and comments, as well as from the over 200 missionaries who watched the launch with her over zoom, I have only heard Latter-day Saints express their pride and admiration for her achievements.

Sister Amos’ missionaries watched the Mars rover land over zoom with her.

What was interesting to me upon further reflection was the fact that by having a successful career while also a mother of young children (she has three kids, the same number as me!) she was doing exactly what women in our church were told not to do my entire life. I was born in 1981, and one message I heard consistently from birth to my thirties was that God wanted women to stay at home with their children and only go into paid employment if there was an absolute, life or death situation, need for it.

I can’t say without knowing her personally if Michelle worked all of those years out of necessity, but her husband was a commissioned officer in the navy and had a long and successful career as a nuclear power engineer. Nothing about his biography in any way describes a man who was disabled or unable to secure regular employment. My best guess is that she was smart, talented, and wanted a career in engineering, so she went for it with the support of her family.

In 1989, the same year that I was baptized, Michelle graduated college with her first electrical engineering degree. I have memories around that age from primary lessons on Mother’s Day instructing me how important it was that moms should stay home with their children. I decided to search Google to help me find what leaders of our church were officially saying about women, girls, motherhood and working in the 80s, when Michelle made her decision to go for a career in engineering.

It was easy to find quotes from back then about God commanding women to stay at home, because there seem to be hundreds of them from top church leaders. I personally grew up hearing these things explicitly taught almost every week in church, primary programs, young women’s activities, and even girl’s camp.  Ezra Taft Benson was the prophet from 1985 to 1994, precisely when Michelle was finishing her schooling and starting her career and family, and he said:

 “Beguiling voices in the world… maintain that some women are better suited for careers than for marriage and motherhood. These individuals spread their discontent by the propaganda that there are more exciting and self-fulfilling roles for women than homemaking. Some even have been bold to suggest that the Church move away from the ‘Mormon woman stereotype’ of homemaking and rearing children.” (“The Honored Place of Woman,” Ensign, Nov. 1981, 105).

Also President Benson: “One apparent impact of the women’s movement has been the feelings of discontent it has created among young women who have chosen the role of wife and mother. They are often made to feel that there are more exciting and self-fulfilling roles for women than housework, diaper changing, and children calling for mother. This view loses sight of the eternal perspective that God elected women to the noble role of mother and that exaltation is eternal fatherhood and eternal motherhood (‘To the Elect Women of the Kingdom of God,’ Nauvoo Illinois Relief Society Dedication, 30 June 1978)” (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 548).

Howard W. Hunter, the prophet right after President Benson, said:
“It seems strange that women want to enter into professions and into work and into places in society on an equality with men, wanting to dress like men and carry on men’s work. I don’t deny the fact that women are capable of doing so, but as I read the scriptures, I find it hard to reconcile this with what the Lord has said about women—what he has said about the family, what he has said about children.” (Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, 150).

Richard G Scott, an apostle during this time:
“Of course, as a woman you can do exceptionally well in the workplace, but is that the best use of your divinely appointed talents and feminine traits? As a husband, don’t encourage your wife to go to work to help in your divinely appointed responsibility of providing resources for the family, if you can possibly avoid it. As the prophets have counseled, to the extent possible with the help of the Lord, as parents, work together to keep Mother in the home.” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1996, 102; or Ensign, Nov. 1996, 74–75).

As far as I can judge from the situation, Michelle Amos (who is awesome) did not follow very direct counsel from the prophet and twelve apostles as she made important life decisions for herself. She looked inside herself, followed her own heart and inspiration, and is a huge success for doing so.

Is she now being touted as a failure in the media and amongst church members? Are her kids publicly decrying her selfish choices? Is she a cautionary tale about what happens when you purposefully disobey the prophet? No. She’s a hero to church members, admired by everyone from the media to her missionaries to anonymous internet commenters.

I’m a 39 year old stay at home mom and generally happy with my life, but also a little sad that I didn’t follow my heart like Michelle Amos. My dad went to MIT on a scholarship and had a successful career as an aeronautical engineer. I only have one older sister and no brothers, and I wondered sometimes growing up if he was ever disappointed not to have had a son to pass his talents for science, math and engineering on to.  While he never discouraged me from learning about the things he loved, my church lessons very actively taught me not to bother learning them. So I didn’t.

What if I would’ve made a brilliant engineer if I’d had some encouragement to go for it, instead of years of constant pressure to set any career ambitions aside? I don’t blame Michelle Amos for choosing to be an engineer instead of a stay at home mom, and likewise I understand why I didn’t and forgive myself – but I feel sad that I didn’t do what she did, and a little angry that I was told in such clear terms that choosing anything other than full time motherhood was sinful. I wish I had a life a little more like Michelle Amos, but I feel like it’s too late for that. What did she have inside of her that guided her to do what I didn’t, even though I wanted to?

I hope this positive reception of her career in the church is a sign that the next generation of young women can choose to pursue both a family and a career – just like men have always done.  I hope my daughters feel like they’ll simply have a choice between being a stay at home mom and working, rather than what I believed was a choice between being obedient to God or following the adversary. At this point it’s probably too late to follow my dad’s footsteps and help launch rockets, but I do hope I can launch some young women in my life into a career that they will love as much as Michelle Amos loved hers.

Michelle at her kitchen table, excitedly watching the Mars rover launch that she’d worked on before serving in the mission.

Post script: After I wrote this blog post a couple weeks ago, I was excited to see Sister Amos and her husband interviewed on the podcast Mormonland. I listened, and Peggy Fletcher Stack asked her the question that made me to write this post. She said, “Sister Amos, did you ever get pushback for working full time and being a church leader, too?” (I think she meant to say “working full time and BEING A MOTHER”, but luckily Michelle answered both questions.)

Sister Amos: “I did. I remember the era of stay at home moms.  Members of the church encouraging – members of our leadership, our prophets in the church, would encourage mothers to stay at home. I also remember reading where we were supposed to gain knowledge, and it was to our advantage to gain knowledge, and that knowledge is eternal, it’s celestial. It’s something that will go with us in the next life. And so in my family, we were highly encouraged to go to college, and so it was always a part of my dreams to go to college and become an engineer. I didn’t think I was going to work for NASA, but working for NASA was just like the cherry on top.

“So yeah, there was some pushback, and even in the church, in some of our organizations, I’ve always worked. It has never prevented me from holding any calling. I’ve been relief society president as a full time engineer at Kennedy Space Center.  I’ve been stake leaders, I’ve held many positions. I’ve been asked to lead big activities in the community for the church. I believe a lot of the organizational skills – working with people, working in the public eye, has helped me to be a better mother, as well as a better leader in the church. And today, it has not prevented me from being called to serve on a mission. So I highly encourage young women and mothers to gain as much knowledge as they can and to be able to support their families, just in case there is something, some reason where their husband can’t provide, women need to be able to support the family.”

I would add to her comments that young women should be able to support themselves and their families not only in case their husband can’t, but simply because they WANT to. I mean, it’s 2021, we’ve put a motor vehicle on the surface or Mars, found a cure for a global pandemic, and a working mother is now leading an LDS mission – so why not?

Michelle with her husband and one of their missionaries. You can tell she has a warm smile even with her face covered in a mask!

With sister missionaries, who I am sure are as inspired by her as I am.

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20 Responses

  1. Elisa says:

    I hope too that LDS women can shed the guilt of working outside the home. And while I’d love to see that happen because we begin to talk more positively about women and working outside the home, my deeper hope is that it’s because we learn that we don’t need to turn to any outside authority to give us permission to follow the heart that God put in us.

    I appreciated your caveat re: we don’t need to get educations in case of disaster. I would also add a caveat that we don’t have to prove that we can fulfill every church assignment we are given in order to justify also working, nor do we need to explain why the skills we learn working also help us serve in the Church. I would have no trouble whatsoever turning down a calling that I didn’t feel inspired to take and that would interfere with my family and professional life.

    I’m glad you point out the irony in the Church holding her out as a hero (which she is!) when she was disobeying Church counsel to get there. I’m glad we are celebrating her but a bit disgusted that the Church wants to have it both ways when it should be apologizing that there aren’t more women out there like her because they were told in no uncertain terms to stay home.

    • Abby Hansen says:

      With all the negative publicity in the past years about women being held back in the LDS church, I bet they would’ve loved the PR that could have come from LDS women doing all kinds of amazing things – being a supreme court judge, brain surgeon, rocket scientist, etc…but they don’t have nearly as many to choose from because they told all of the women to stay at home and not go for a job. Bummer!

      • shelbeyn says:

        AMEN to this! While I definitely don’t want them to stop praising women’s accomplishments… It’s kind of an insult. “Can we interview you and celebrate the accomplishments we very explicitly and specifically told you were a result of falling prey to the ‘beguiling voices of the world’?”

  2. Old Man says:

    “Can LDS Moms Stop Feeling Guilty for Wanting a Career Now?”

    If they have not already, they certainly need to.

    I know my experience and observations are anecdotal, but I do not see an increase in negative outcomes in families with both parents in professions. In fact, I perceive some problems facing families with stay-at-home moms at greater levels than in what I am observing in two-professional households. I have noted higher rates of church and government welfare, increased problems with children struggling with work ethic, goal-setting and academic success and even decreased religiosity from children in families with under-educated and stay-at-home moms.

    I told my daughter long before she left for college that she would either A) graduate before marriage, or B) graduate shortly after marriage… but she would graduate with a degree which qualified her for a profession. And I was fully committed to helping her accomplish this. Of course, I could only commit to this because I had the full support of my wife, an educated professional. Funny thing… my daughter has not needed much financial help, and she just graduated magna cum laude.

    • JC says:

      @ Old Man:

      Your comments about households with stay-at-home mothers facing more obstacles than households where both parents work reminded me of this article posted on By Common Consent a while back:

      https://bycommonconsent.com/2021/02/16/the-affordability-crisis-hits-lds-homes/

      The gist is that people were told by prophets and apostles to marry young, start their families right away, have as many children as they could (ick), and have the father be the provider while the mother stays at home. This model has caused a myriad of problems in that the majority of these families did not achieve home ownership or financial stability until their children were grown and out of the house, or at all. There are exceptions, such as those families where the men had/have careers with high paying salaries and those who come from money, but the sad reality is that there are many people in the church who feel like they were duped even though they followed the counsel of the prophets and apostles. Read the comments of that article and it doesn’t take long for the resentment to become apparent.

      This has resulted in the subsequent generation(s) putting off marriage and family until they are more financially established. Even then, the fact that prices for everything have increased while wages have remained stagnant or even decreased, does not help and often necessitates both parents working outside the home. This means that there aren’t enough people to fill callings that require them to be involved in weekly activities outside of work and home (mainly YM/YW, but can also be applied to Primary, Elder’s Quorum, and Relief Society), and also means that families are having less children. I’m a single working professional and many of my friends with children have mentioned that they plan on stopping at 2 or 3 because of how expensive things have gotten. I love the gospel dearly and believe in it… but the institution can – and should’ve done so much better concerning this… and the reality is that when the church looks back on there being less people to staff callings, smaller families, lack of growth, less members, more families on welfare and government assistance… they (the church) will have to face the grim reality that they did it to themselves.

      That said, there are solutions to this that the church should implement: stop guilting women into being stay-at-home mothers, encourage them to receive a good education, and to have and build a career (if they so desire). Additionally, back and support more child and family-friendly legislation consisting of better familial/maternity/paternity leave, more PTO to decrease burnout, tax breaks for families, etc. Comments under the By Common Consent article even suggest the church get on board with what other churches have been doing for years and open preschools, and even open up a lending institution to help first-time homebuyers (the comment on the original article explained it better than I could).

      Ultimately, if the church truly wants to grow and prosper, then it needs to take care of the members – particularly the women and children – it already has, instead of insisting that a woman have “as many children as her body will allow” (ick, ick, ick), and should not deprive women of career opportunities and aspirations.

  3. Florence says:

    Wow. Just. Wow. Thank you for sharing this.
    I graduated from college just a few years before this woman. And I remember well the teachings of that time. I was one who followed the church leaders and gave up my career because I believed what I was being told was from God. And now, as I pick up the pieces of a broken career, and try to make the most of the few remaining working years that I have, I find that the woman who did not follow the prophet is receiving accolades from this same organization; from these men who claim that they are prophets, just as their predecessors. This is crazy.

    • Abby Hansen says:

      It’s frustrating – not that she had a career, but that the church wants to very publicly recognize her for accomplishments that she wouldn’t have been able to achieved if she’d listened to them!

      • JC says:

        Exactly. The church wants to have it both ways, and it can’t – nor should it be allowed to after they spent years preaching that women should stay home.

        I think the mixed signals they’ve sent out and are still sending out concerning this should worry anyone, particularly those with young girls who are at an impressionable age and are being told that there is only one way to do things in this church.

  4. Hillary says:

    This woman is inspiring and awesome! Growing up in Utah, I knew that I didn’t want my mom’s life–that of a stay-at-home mom trapped by her circumstances and financially dependent on someone who had no interest in being a true partner. But as I sat through lessons at church about the “proper” role of women, I felt like something was wrong with me for wanting more.

    As an adult, I’ve seen the opposite of what Sister Amos has described. I’ve received an incredible amount of pushback because I’m not a stay-at-home wife or mother. I’ve been specifically told that a friend of mine who was called to be young women’s president wanted me as one of her counselors, but was told no because as a working woman, I’m “not a good example” to young women in the church. Despite being in my late 30’s, I’ve been excluded from any leadership role, and have instead been relegated to teaching primary, teaching relief society, ward chorister, etc. So while I’m happy for Sister Amos that she didn’t feel like her career held her back from leadership roles at church, I wonder if maybe that was at least partially because she wasn’t living in hyper-conservative Utah, where membership is much higher. Here in Utah, any ward I’ve been in has been overflowing with capable stay-at-home mothers who (at least outwardly) fit the mold of what church leadership expected of women. In my wards, I’ve also never had seen any female in any local leadership role who was not a stay-at-home mother. I suppose I’ve just assumed that, given a long list of “appropriate,” “traditional,” and more “proper” choices for female leadership positions, male local leaders have seen no need to look outside the box.

    • Abby Hansen says:

      She was living in Florida most recently (working for the Kennedy Space Center), and I do think that probably made a big difference. Her family also converted to the church when she was 11 years old, and I think not having generations of stay at home moms in her family probably also had an impact on her decision to pursue a career (assuming that was the case). Our circumstances make a big impact on what choices we make in our lives, and while I am sad mine didn’t facilitate a career, I’m also super happy that hers allowed her to have one.

  5. Ziff says:

    I like this post, and I love the example she sets. I’m a pessimist, though, in that I think there’s only slow movement at best on GAs accepting women working for pay even when they have children at home. I suspect that this situation where even the most orthodox Church members can praise Amos for her accomplishments just shows that if you get the Church good publicity, members will forgive all kinds of norm violations. I think it’s comparable to when athletes (Steve Young comes to mind) skip serving a mission, but still get praised to the skies by Church members for making the Church look good.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Yes!! Amen. Especially to the athlete worship. I remember growing up reading article after article in the New Era about brave teenagers who stopped playing sports on Sundays despite pressure from their schools/teams. Then I grow up and any Mormon professional athletes playing on Sundays are absolutely DOTED OVER. I don’t judge the athletes for their choices—if I had that passion and talent, I’d do the same. But it’s just another example of the church “trying to have it both ways” as a few people have said.

  6. Tina says:

    Thank you for sharing this story! I haven’t heard Sister Amos’ story before. My daughter who wants to work for NASA someday will love this.

    To answer your question: can LDS moms stop filling guilty about wanting a career? Stopping the guilt will happen when the church stops teaching complementary gender roles and/or when women claim their own authority and agency to make choices for their own lives. The idea that the only Godly acceptable role for a woman is a stay-at-home mom is *still* being taught. See the YW/YM lesson for this past Sunday. The idea that women can only stay at home and have babies while men can only earn lots of money and be a leader often results in both women and men feeling guilt — shame is a more accurate term — for when they do a task that has been assigned to another gender.

    The sad part of teaching gender roles is that it limits all of us. It also misses the point. Instead of a gender roles lesson this past Sunday, the youth could have had a lesson on the broader purpose of the sections of the D&C the lesson covered. These sections are individual revelations for people seeking comfort and guidance in hard times. The idea that we can receive comfort and guidance with revelation individual to us is a much more nourishing lesson than a gender roles lesson.

    Also, you are 39! Hard but not too late to do something professionally if you want to do so.

    • Elisa says:

      I taught YW this Sunday and we most definitely did not talk about gender roles. Entire lesson on Emma Smith’s life & contributions to the Church … unfortunate that it required me to toss the manual, though.

    • Florence says:

      I absolutely agree with Tina–especially the part about “not too late.” I went back to work when my children were out of the home, and at age 55 I fulfilled my lifetime dream of becoming a licensed architect. It is rarely “too late.”

  7. Dani Addante says:

    I love this article so much! I had never heard of Sister Amos and I loved reading about her wonderful accomplishments!

    Those quotes about women staying home sound really absurd. I find it problematic when it’s men telling women what they should be doing. Instead of trying to dissuade women from getting a career, they should talk about following personal revelation, and leave the decision on whether to get careers up to the women.

    These messages are damaging. I remember as a preteen thinking that I wouldn’t need to go to college because I would get married and stay home, and my future husband would provide the income. Later, when I heard President Hinckley talk about how important education was, I decided to go to college. I didn’t get married until after I got my bachelor’s degree. Also, I felt a bit guilty about getting my master’s degree. Men don’t feel guilty about furthering their education, so why should women be made to feel this way?

  8. Risa says:

    Michelle Amos is a remarkable woman. I’m so glad you shared more about her here.

    My mom was inactive from the church for almost 30 years. Even so, I remember when she went back to work in 1990 (to help pay for my sister’s housing at BYU ironically) how guilty she felt for working full-time as a mother of3, despite the fact she hadn’t been a regular church attender since the 60s. Whether or not she was active, President Benson’s words permeated in my mother’s brain enough for her to feel guilty for helping to send my sister to a church school.

  9. Kell says:

    By the time my mother was 25 in the 1970s, she realized she had no husband, no career, no prospects and very little education so she should probably figure her life out. She served a full-time mission, became a dental hygienist, earned her bachelors, and eventually married the man of her dreams when she was nearly 30 (ANCIENT obviously).

    My father was a high school teacher who was home in the afternoon for the kids, while my mother worked 7am-5pm as a hygienist all throughout my younger years. She always expressed guilt for working full time and “not being home with the kids” because that was what she was taught by her family and the church to believe women should do. When I was 12, she was asked to become a professor at a university nearby us and slowly she earned her Masters, has been published multiple times, was the president of the Utah Dental Hygienist Association and has represented Utah hygienists to the legislature on both state and federal levels. In my very biased eyes, she is an industry leader.

    Her career growth was the basis of my feminism. Because of her, my primary example of feminism and motherhood was someone who works hard both at the office and at home, someone who plays hard and someone who makes sacrifices. She decided to work and continued to do so even after she was married and my father had a fine paying full-time career, directly going against the teachings of the church.

    However, she STILL expresses guilt and sadness that she “wasn’t around” (her words, not mine) for us during my siblings’ childhood. I lay that guilt at the feet of church leaders and the pervasive culture that women should be mothers at the exclusion of all else.

    Sister Amos, my mother, and countless other LDS women were unnecessarily guilted for pursuing a career. However, these women were brave and determined enough to make their marks on the world and we are better for it.

    (I do not want this in anyway to be a judgement on women who choose to not to pursue careers, rather I want to celebrate the women in our lives who make decisions for their own health and happiness instead of following blindly)

  10. Anon says:

    Thanks for the article. I wonder how many women’s lives and families have been messed with because of the made up nonsense that women have to be at home to be a good mother. I think that is very selfish and men like the setup so they can work, spend hours at church with no worries because the Men in charge say that is the way it is supposed to be. Does anyone remember announcements for husbands to babysit kids so wives could attend an activity (gag)!
    I thought everyone is supposed to learn snd grow and develop their talents and skills, not just men.

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