Healing Martha, Fortifying Mary


By Alisa

Years ago I had a conversation with an old friend that changed my view of sisterhood. Julie and I had been bridesmaids at each other’s weddings, which occurred in the same year. She and her husband had several blessings that I envied. They had completed their education, and they had owned their own property. However, she had found married life to be somewhat difficult. Early in her marriage, her husband’s faith fell apart. He struggled to become established in his career. They had a child, and she felt it was best for her to stay at home and brave the financial difficulties. There was even a few months of separation before she and her husband decided to reunite. I can’t imagine how hard it was for her.

By contrast, my marriage had gone relatively smoothly up to that point. We were struggling with a serious family illness and other hard issues, but I had completed graduate school, and I was working full time while DH finished his graduate education. We were living in our third rented apartment so far in our marriage, and I was considering taking an additional part-time job so that we could put some money away to pay tuition, pay off student loans, and save for a down payment on our first home.

When I told Julie of my additional job plans, she responded in a way I hadn’t anticipated. She chastised me for “not following the prophet and having kids right away.” I’d like to say I responded with compassion, particularly given my knowledge of how difficult the last few years had been for her, but that wasn’t the case. Becoming defensive, I went to the argumentative side of my brain and began to pick apart her statement. I told her that rarely did we hear that we should throw caution to the wind and have kids unprepared. On the other hand, at least at some point in every General Conference the Prophet speaks about avoiding debt. I told her that we were counseled to do three good things as young married couples in the Church: get the best education and grades we can; avoid and/or get out of debt; and have kids, preferably with one parent staying at home full time to take care of the kids. I told her they were all good things, but without large scholarships, a trust fund, or years and years to pursue education slowly (not an option for DH’s program), it was hard to do all three of those things simultaneously. Doing any two of the three is a more realistic mix. I pointed out that we had decided to put off having one of us stay home full time with a child to focus on education and debt management, but that we might change up that combination sometime in the future.

Julie responded in sobs. She said she felt bad that she was struggling financially. She expressed helplessness and fear, and I sensed that she felt my defense was actually a rebuke on her choices (I didn’t intend it that way, but I had been defensive, and I can see why that hit her where she was hurting). At that point, my anger at having been judged for my procreative choices dissolved into more of an understanding of her pain. Perhaps she told herself that while her life was incredibly difficult and her marriage was fragile, at least she was doing “the right thing.” And to show herself that it was right, she needed to find women whose choices contrasted with her own so she could build a case to make herself feel validated. But it all came from a place of hurt and her need to try to mitigate the very immense pain she felt in her life.

Given a different turn of the conversation, it might have been me crying to her about the frustrations I felt that I had to postpone children in order to do what I felt was right for my family – even my future family – at the time. I would have told her how I wished I was the one getting more education, and that work seemed to be a distraction from my PhD goals. She might have heard how hard my job was, and how I felt uncomfortable talking about my job at Church because I felt I’d be judged for working. How I felt ostracized from the other women in the ward who were, in my mind, privileged enough to be SAHMs (the grass is always greener, right?).

Both Julie and I had made hard choices that inevitably had sacrifices. The good news was that things change. Life changes. Finances can change. We don’t have to have it all right now. It’s a timeline thing, and we each have our own. As James E. Faust said of women in the Church, “She need not try to sing all of the verses of her song at the same time.” (“A Message to My Granddaughters: Becoming Great Women”) In fact, in the years since this conversation, we have both taken several turns with happy and sad news, both in finances and in marriage.

Unfortunately, I let that old conversation become a theme in my Church life. I’m often afraid of being judged by SAHMs for my work, and when they ask me questions about it, I hesitate to go into detail. On the other hand, I look at them and think they’re lucky to be in their situation, as difficult as it may be. I am aware that most of the judgment I fear is made up in my head – I am serious when I say I can’t think of one SAHM in my ward who isn’t an amazing, gracious woman. I guess that while I’m such a proponent of diversity, I have a hard time when I am that diverse person who doesn’t fit the rest of the group. And therein lies my insecurity.

I can’t help but think of Mary and Martha in this situation. We have two sisters, each making a choice about what they think is best. One chooses to keep Jesus company, while the other decides to make sure Jesus is fed. Both are good choices, and probably each choice is becoming to the personality and needs of each sister. Jesus’ soft rebuke of Martha stems from Martha’s judgment of her sister for making a different good choice. His compassionate, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things” helps me recognize and have compassion for the somewhat defensive Martha in myself. (Luke 10:41)

I look back at Julie and me having this conversation, and I believe we were both Mary and both Martha. We are Mary when we let the Spirit tell us what is needful and correct in our lives and direct our lives accordingly, and we become like Martha when we try to validate our own good but difficult choices by comparing our decisions to those of others in an effort to prove that we made “the right choice.” The right choice just isn’t the same for all of us.

And when we’re feeling like Mary, satisfied in our own groove and feeling good about our life decisions, there are bound to be some Marthas on our path. They may blindside us with their criticism, telling us that we’re not doing the right thing because we didn’t make the decisions they would have made. At that point, it is essential to remain grounded in our own truth and path, and lovingly acknowledge the pain that would bring one sister to criticize another. I hope we can then turn on our Christlike switch and extend compassion and grace to those women who need to know that they have a good, if different, path as well. A little compassion and grace might do wonders in helping us value the diversity of each other.


Alisa is a professional adult educator and corporate manager who enjoys spending time with her husband and son.

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24 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Alisa, I love this. What an insightful reflection on this experience you had with your friend. Your Mary and Martha analysis is great.

    I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never felt judged for my working choices. Though I married at 22 and didn’t have a baby until 29, I never felt any condemnation. Maybe it was there, but I wasn’t aware of it.

    I’m a big proponent of waiting to have babies until a couple is ready, whether that’s financially or emotionally. We were ready financially years before, but I just wasn’t. It was a very good thing for me and my family that I waited until I really wanted a baby. Being a mom is hard enough – having one before I wanted one or before I felt financially stable would have been very difficult for me.

    Like you pointed out, I see a bit of a contradiction between the prophetic counsel to have babies early and the prophetic counsel to stay out of debt. Seems like a family often just has to make a choice of one over the other, and that should be a personal decision unhindered by the judgement of others.

  2. Kim B. says:

    I have seen many women use this story to identify and label in a not too positive way. “I am like Martha and you are like Mary.” Superficially, they are trying to make it sound nonjudgmental, but really mean, “I work hard and you are lazy.”

    I love this concept of Mary and Martha being in each of us, a dual nature deciding how to spend our time.

  3. Moniker Challenged says:

    I find myself in this very situation. I was reared in a semi-rural part of Southeast Idaho, and the friends I had growing up married young and had kids in very short order. Now, ancient at 24 and still working and childless (many of the the girls I went to school with have 3 or 4 by now) I find the differences between old chums and myself darn near irreconcilable. I’m wrong, and they’re righteous. I get defensive and act like a jerk or a crazy person. Have any of you learned to halt the cycle and maintain friendships without converting anyone to your one true lifestyle (whatever that may be)? I love the idea that sin lies in judgment, not in a failure to conform to any mold, as Alisa’s post beautifully demonstrates. What kind of success have you had in letting everyone be and accepting (and being accepted) based on unique contributions and not sameness? How did you do it?!

  4. suzann says:


    Thank you for thinking about and writing this article for all of us to read and contemplate.

    The Mary-Martha story is one of my favorites because in it Jesus Christ honors diversity in women. Some of us lean more Mary, some more Martha, but we get to choose our better part. We intuitive recognize our best gifts, so it becomes sorrowful when others judge us for not being like them.


  5. mmiles says:

    Great post. The best application of Mary and Martha ever.

  6. Jessawhy says:

    This is such a beautiful post. I’m continually amazed at your ability to see difficult situations for what they are, people trying to feel love.

    I particularly like this line:
    “. . .lovingly acknowledge the pain that would bring one sister to criticize another.”

    Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re in pain, but criticism is one way to see that we are.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post.

  7. mb says:

    Insightful and thoughtful. Well said.

  8. Bree says:

    This would be an excellent RS lesson or Sacrament meeting sermon.

  9. Deborah says:

    I agree with Bree — I’d love to hear this given as a talk/sermon, just as is. Beautiful insights.

  10. newt says:

    Alisa, I really like this interpretation of the story very much, in terms of finding peace with our own choices and circumstances so that we do not judge others – who may have chosen differently – or make them perceive or feel judgment on our part.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights!

  11. E says:

    Wow, wonderful and insightful post. Thank you!

  12. lyn says:

    Hi! I’ve lurked here for several months, but this might be my first comment.

    I’ve thought about this a lot since I first read it. I had a conversation about a year ago with another lady in my ward about the counsel to have children vs. the counsel to get education. For her, the counsel to have children trumped since scripturally we are commanded to procreate. It always rankled me a bit – the conversation still has left me feeling uneasy. (about me…I was married at 20, baby at 26, divorced at 28… remarried at 30, baby at 32 – working FT through most of this time, right now PT after 10 months home)

    I like how you’ve compared it to Mary/Martha. The other comparison that came to mind was Eve’s choice in Eden. Adam & Eve were given two commandments that they could not simultaneously obey. She made a choice. You’ve pointed out three commandments (? counsel?) that are mutually exclusive to some extent. How do we choose? Eve’s choice is referred to as a transgression (not a sin, though) – are we in the same boat regardless of what we choose? The topic makes for interesting reflection.

  13. Loved this post — and Lyn’s comment. Alisa, it was so much fun to meet you in person. I think our life paths and choices can not have been more different, but I admire and respect the things you are doing and the person you are making of yourself. I’m confident you feel the same for me. It’s almost magical when we as women can see the beauty and spirit in each others’ choices. These things can get so emotional. But we truly do not need every woman to make the exact same decisions as we do to validate what we have done.

    I’ve had to work hard not to take other women’s (sometimes passionate) defenses of their choices as a put down of my own. When I succeed at doing this, our sisterhood is strengthened. I hope I’ve made a start on overcoming my deep insecurities.

  14. Alisa says:

    Thank you everyone for your comments and insights! I really appreciate them.

    Moniker Challenged, I feel for you. I have to admit that my dad was the one who helped me see that “my Mary” could develop a thicker skin when it comes to the choices I feel are right and what others think of them. This has always been a challenge for me (as you can tell from my post). I think compassion is the best choice for me when other people criticise, particularly without real knowledge of my circumstances, and then I just go and do what I think is right anyway. Some people have a limited view, but over time it can change. People have backed off of being so critical of me. I’m 29 without kids, and I actually feel less pressured to conform now than I did five years ago. I definitely wish you the best.

    Lyn, great questions. While I see these three things as counsel (and not so much commandments – finances, education, and procreation are all deeply personal choices and necessarily customized to the individual), I see what you mean. The only solution I can come up with is that all three can eventually be done, but perhaps all not at the same time. That’s why I really love President Faust’s talk on this. He expains individual timing for children, career, eduction, etc. It seems very open to individual adaptation at any given point, or at least that’s the message my spirit received when I studied it.

  15. Alisa says:

    BiV – I really second everything you said. “[W]e truly do not need every woman to make the exact same decisions as we do to validate what we have done.” Amen.

    I sometimes interpret the passion in other women for their choices the same way. Learning to be comfortable with our good choices is probably a life-long lesson, I think.

  16. Kaylana says:

    Excellent post! I found it very enlightening and encouraging. I was married at twenty-three and had my first baby boy five months ago at age 28. We waited so I could finish school and I just wasn’t ready. I don’t think I was ready when I got pregnant, but I thought it’s now or never! I’m go glad we waited, it’s been really tough, but there’s no way I could’ve handled being a mom any earlier. And I did experience lots of questions about why we didn’t have kids yet. My father-in-law wrote us letters with talks from Spencer W. kimball on why we needed children now and no BC and how he worried about our salvation along with my sister-in-law. Thank goodness my family has been super supportive.

    I’m really grateful for your insights. I know when I get critical it’s because I struggle with my own choices at times and therefore others are doing the same. Amazing, thanks again!

  17. lyn says:

    BiV -In the conversation with my friend, that is what she was really seeking – in the end, she wanted me to tell her that her decision was the best so she could feel validated. It is so hard to feel confident in our own decisions that we don’t need others to validate us. I always have moments of self doubt that creep up. I agree with Alisa that it is a lifelong pursuit.

    Alisa – I’ll need to go dig up Pres Faust’s talk. I just need to learn to put things on the shelf – I want to do all of it, all the time! 🙂

  18. chelseaw says:

    I love your application of the Mary/Martha story. I have often wondered why it is so difficult for us as women to be accepting and nonjudgemental of other women’s choices, whether it’s working/staying home, natural birth or epidural, breast or bottle – the choices are endless and it seems no matter what we do there will be someone who doesn’t approve. I agree with you that it stems from insecurity. That’s something I’m trying to change about myself.

    Another point that stands out to me about the Mary/Martha story though is that Jesus *does* make a judgment about it; he tells Mary that she has chosen “the better part.” I don’t think he thought Mary and Martha were doing equally good things. I’m not sure what the application would be in our lives from that – maybe that what we choose can be right for us, but not for someone else, and the only one who can truly judge is the Savior.

  19. Alisa says:

    chelseaw, that’s a great point. I’ll have to think on that. My first thought is for a man that can feed 5,000 on five loaves of bread, maybe food service and physical needs weren’t his top priority. But, I don’t think he would have said anything if Martha hadn’t been the first to criticize.

  20. Alisa says:

    chelseaw, I have been asking myself your question this weekend. Thanks for getting me thinking! I suppose I was leaving it for interpretation that “the better part” is to choose what the Spirit directs us to do and leave it at that. Did Martha choose against the Spirit? I don’t know for sure. Did choosing against the Spirit give her more of a feeling of being overwhelmed, which led to her complaint? Maybe. I hadn’t seen that before. Perhaps because there’s so much Martha in me, I’m slow to judge her :).

    But I think the application still applies to women in different walks of life, to follow their path and not worry so much about what path others are on. Of course, feeling that we’re on the right path would hopefully lead us to cut others some slack, while questioning our own choices may lead us to criticize others as we seek further validation. But I think insecurity does not always arise from sin or choosing unwisely. It can arise from our needs as women to feel like we need to be the same, or our tendency to pre-judge someone else’s life based on our surface-level knowledge. That’s what I hope we can learn to avoid.

  21. I love your comparison of “us people” to Mary and Martha story. I wrote something similar on my blog (asthearmyofhelaman.wordpress.com). Can I link my article to yours?

  22. Rachel says:

    This was so beautiful Alisa. And maybe I particularly like it, because in almost every instance, I am Martha. I am the one worrying and concerning myself about many things. I would like to be like the good from both M’s.

    Diversity IS good. As was you doing what was right for your family, a la your personal and family inspiration.

  1. December 30, 2009

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