Exponent II Classics: The Public vs. the Private Image
A piece by our very own Deborah’s mom. Such fun!
The Public vs. the Private Image
Gladys Clark Farmer
Vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring 1981)
Recently a new set of visiting teachers came to my home. As one sister began the lesson, she became obviously embarrassed, hesitated, then said, “You don’t need this. You and your family already do these things.”
I blushed a little at her sincere compliment and reassured her that I did need and appreciate the Relief Society lessons. But as she left, I felt a little uneasy. I sensed that she and others in the ward based their impressions of me on the most visible part of my life, my public accomplishments. Would they feel differently about me if they could have a private view of our home life?
While I try to avoid hypocrisy, I am human. But I think that most of us are afraid to acknowledge our human side to each other. Perhaps we have created a situation similar to the culture so poignantly described by Edward Robinson in his poem about the rich young man, Richard Corey, whom everyone envied because he seemed to have everything, but who went home and put a bullet through his head. Robinson was making a perceptive commentary on how deceiving it is to judge by appearances.
I think judging by appearances begins in childhood. We learn at a very early age how important our public image is, especially to our parents. Our behavior and performances in public become the manifestation of their success or failure. Their egos enmeshed in their offspring, they shower us with attention and praises for the 4-H, scout, and school prizes we’re awarded, the little league games we win, our solo parts in Primary programs, and our performances at piano and dance recitals. Their disappointment is just as evident when these recognitions go to a neighbor’s child instead, or when we may have embarrassed them in public by our actions or performance.
The importance of “looking good” is re-enforced by teachers and leaders. Having “arrived” becomes more important than the nature of the journey. Trophies are only given to the winners, not to those who try their hardest. One hundred per cent attendance is often stressed more than conduct, attitude, or what is learned while attending.
Because most children try hard to please those who give and withhold praise, they learn early to broadcast their
successes and quietly struggle with their failures. Some just quit taking risks; it is easier to take simpler classes and stay on the honor roll than to accept the challenge of a harder course with the possibility of failure.
By the time we are adults, the pattern is usually firmly established. We have the part of us that is recorded in our mother’s scrapbook of awards, newspaper clippings, and college and mission field letters which describe the good things that have happened to us. At the same time, there is another part of us secretly recorded in our locked diaries or in the recesses of our mind. Fortunately, there are usually enough good friends around who know and accept us with all our warts and blemishes so that we learn to cope with life and move forward.
But when we take on the roles of wives and mothers, we often find ourselves in a very lonely situation. Thoroughly indoctrinated with the “ideal home, bit of heaven” model, we find it hard to admit to ourselves, much less verbalize to others, feelings of concern, frustration, or disappointment. Now, more than ever before, we want our parents to be proud of us. We want to prove we can do well on our own. Letters home are less frequent and now include the latest achievements of our children, rather than our own honest thoughts.
Even those fortunate enough to have understanding and supportive husbands soon learn that men don’t enjoy leaving their problems at work only to come home to more domestic ones. Wives learn to choose their words, and the time to express them, very carefully.
To whom can we turn to expose our inner selves long enough to examine and resolve difficulty issues—such as how to cope with an unexpected pregnancy, how to overcome resentment over a husband’s increasing absence due to employment and church work, how to communicate with a sullen child?
The sisters in our ward—women who share some of our deepest commitments and hopes—seem like promising prospects, but in reality the members of our ward may be the very last to whom we’d turn. Why?
We fear their judgment. We suspect that they, even more than our non-member neighbors, judge by appearances. We fear that the measuring stick they will use to judge us is that “ideal” woman described in Church literature and lauded over the pulpit on Mother’s Day.
I’m convinced that living the Gospel does make people’s lives better, and that we as church members do have the responsibility of sharing our lifestyle with the outside world. But we aren’t content to let this way of life speak for itself. In our striving for perfection, we seem intent on displaying the appearance of a finished product rather than acknowledging the on-going process, with its accompanying growth and error. Just as we have made our historical characters flawless, we now want ourselves, and each other, to appear equally unflawed.
While most of us do sincerely enjoy our sisters in the church, we seldom communicate beyond a superficial, or just church-related, level. We don’t trust ourselves or them enough to think they would still like us if they knew that we didn’t like housework, that we shouted at our children, or that we preferred sex to sewing.
We sit quietly in mother education classes, happy to glean what wisdom we can. Perhaps we never note that it is the mothers with preschoolers who have the answers to the teen-age problems and the relaxed grandmothers who tell how they raised their babies, while those struggling with the immediate problem seldom make a comment. On a day that we feel particularly self-confident, we may share the secret that our baby, too, sucked his thumb for three years or cried whenever he was left. It is unlikely that we’d ‘s unthinkable he still wets his bed, and it’s unthinkable to speak of masturbation. The problems for which we need the most help are the ones we don’t dare discuss.
The success stories we will tell—just as we have learned to do all our lives; but the failures, which are just as normal and perhaps more frequent, we try to keep to ourselves. Feelings of guilt and loneliness increase, however, as we sense the disparity.
I well remember the amazement I experienced when I learned that some women whom I greatly admired were silently struggling with their own problems. In separate confidential moments, one told me about a child who had left the Church, another of a financial mistake which had cost them dearly, and a third about a difficult struggle she’d had with depression. Those confessions were made in whispered tones, with “please-don’t-think-less-of-me” looks. If these women had only understood the hope and courage their honesty gave me, they would have shared their burdens earlier. My love and respect for them has multiplied.
I appeal form ore honesty of the kind these women showed me and of the kind I have received from many of the contributors to Exponent II—even if this honesty brings with it the risk of being rejected by some. We need to accept the fact that Mormons, too, are human. Perhaps we could then forget our obsession with appearances, see the public/private image dichotomy, and reach out to one another in really beneficial and supportive communication.