Exponent II Classics: The Public vs. the Private Image

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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.


EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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7 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Wonderful, wonderful article.

    “the hope and courage their honesty gave me”

    That’s exactly how I feel when someone in my ward is brave enough to be vulnerable and admit sadness, confusion, or anger.

  2. Velska says:

    Yes, it would be so good to learn to share the good, the bad and the ugly. If for nothing else, because we all have some of each.

    And by sharing experiences — the struggles as well as the successes — we can learn from each other and carry each others’ burdens.

    Straight talk, please.

  3. Dora says:

    What a wonderful article!

    The gets to the very heart of effort versus achievement praise. Studies have shown that when children are praised for their efforts (You worked so hard on that! Good job!), they gain a sense of accomplishment and are ready to try ever increasingly difficult tasks. However, when children are praised solely for achievement or state (You’re so pretty! You’re so smart!), it becomes more difficult for them to try harder tasks, since they fear failure (loss of praise for their state) eve more.

    One of the reasons I love Exponent II is that it is a place where women can share their struggles, their vulnerabilities, their problems, and how they did or attempted to solve them. And that’s how I grow. It does me no good to look on a finished image of the champion at the finish race; it helps me infinitely more to see a fellow struggler work through their challenges. More to the point, I value Christ’s sacrifice in the 33rd year more because I have an inkling about what he sacrificed and overcame in the premortal and mortal existence. So thanks, to everyone who thoughtfully shares their own experiences. It helps.

  4. Deborah says:

    Thanks, Emily! I hadn’t seen this one before . . . My mom enjoyed the trip down memory lane, too, and noted that it seems just as relevant now as when she wrote it 30 years ago.

  5. Kelly Ann says:

    Deborah, how lucky you are to have such an amazing mother. I love recognizing the humanness in our communities. I still remember a comment from a bishopric member in an interview when I was a young woman, “we don’t need to worry about you.” That wasn’t true then and definitely is not true now. I think it is unfair to assume some have reached perfection even if they are doing “well”.

  6. LCM says:

    The valley I grew up in was so judgmental and everyone was in everyone else’s business, that some people were even afraid to go to their Bishop because they knew he ‘shared’ with his family. Later, as a married mom, we moved to a ward and a woman was teaching a lesson in RS about the word of wisdom. She started out by telling how unworthy she felt to teach this because of problems in her family. I was secretly thinking, no, no, no! Don’t admit that! Then another woman raised her hand and talked about a grandson in rehab and a few more women shared stories. No one was whipping out their cell to text the info to someone and everyone was just enjoying the lesson and togetherness. Then I thought, that’s how it’s really supposed to be. We are to support each other, not pass along the church gossip.

  7. *Camille says:

    I can completly relate to this article…on so many levels.
    *As a young mom with two little girls my husband and I were living in a 700sq foot apartment in San Diego…new to the ward & area I called my RS President to ask if she knew a painter. I was looking to paint some wall and her response was “Why don’t you just do it yourself?” I assured her I would rather pay someone and she persisted that it was “so easy”. My husband was working 100+ hours a week in his medical residency and painting was the last thing I wanted to do…that conversation with my RS President was at 9pm. After hanging up the phone, I woke both of my girls up, hauled them to Home Depot, bought paint, and went home and painted those walls until 3 in the morning. Almost out of spite. In my mind “yep, I’m that Mormon mommy who CAN do it all” when I really just wanted some HELP, some understanding, a name of a painter.
    *Now, as a mother of 3 little girls…I worry even more with this “sterotype”…you are SO RIGHT when you say it starts so young…how many times have we heard mothers describe thier littel 2-3 year olds as “petite” “girly” “like a princess” “tiny”…when if you think about it, aren’t the majority of 2-3 year old girls all those things??? Why don’t we describe our daughters as “creative” “smart” “athletic” “strong” “sweet” “loving” instead.
    *On a different note…where do we draw the line when it comes to discussing things that happen within our homes? We have all heard the saying “airing your dirty laundry”. I think it is a hard balance, because we do want to be there for each other but the reality is people usually don’t want to hear it. I was attending an adult LDS only party a few weeks ago and the conversation did turn to masterbation in a “joking” way with the men sharing stories…where do we draw that line of “see, I’m a liberal Mormon and I’m not afriad to talk about these things” but it’s almost as people are pushed to that point where they feel like they are proving a point discussing these “hot” topics. Does this make sense?
    *There is so much more I could say, so many more concerns I have…*camille

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