Motherhood May Be Hazardous to Your Health
LDS teachings on motherhood are incomplete. Here’s what I wish I had been taught before having children.
As a struggling parent to a newborn and a toddler, I visited the home of a friend and poured out my heart about how defeated, unqualified, broken, and alone I felt as a mother. She listened with empathy and offered words of support. Her teenage daughter was listening in and quietly asked, “If it’s so bad all the time,” she mused, “why doesn’t someone tell women it’s going to be that way before they have babies? To help you prepare?”
“Oh honey,” my friend replied to her daughter and to me, “If we told you how just bad motherhood was going to be, nobody would ever do it.”
Like other Young Women growing up in the LDS church, I was constantly taught about motherhood, often at the exclusion of other topics like education, career, and personal growth. My friend perfectly identified the bait-and-switch I later felt about motherhood. After having infertility problems, a few miscarriages, a stillbirth, and a few children, I learned the hard way that what I had been told about motherhood in church was only one small side of motherhood, and I was severely lacking in information about the complete picture.
The lack of informed consent about motherhood can have catastrophic consequences for some women, as crucial features of child bearing and raising go unaddressed in church discourse at the expense of overemphasizing others. While some women may find many church teachings about motherhood helpful and comforting, others are troubled by the limits and inaccuracies presented.
This lopsided lens of looking at LDS motherhood can saddle women with innumerous struggles and challenges, including guilt, shame, depression, anxiety, perfectionism and frustration.
Of the hundreds of women I’ve spoken to about their concepts and beliefs about motherhood, a vast majority have internalized the remarks made by general authorities as the correct and true way to be a Mormon mother, and that any deviations from those ideals are a sign of unrighteousness or error.Church leaders regularly address women as the target demographic for their remarks, both in General and Women’s sessions of General Conference. Over the last 20 years, male General Authorities include teachings about motherhood in nearly 60% of the talks they direct to women. By contrast, female General Officers of the church teach women about motherhood in only 18% of talks.*
When male general authorities emphasize motherhood so frequently, everyone hears that being a mother is a woman’s defining essence, and the main contribution she brings to the church. This limiting view prevents leaders and members from seeing women as anything else.
In their talks to women about motherhood, church leaders’ remarks tend to fall within the same dominant categories. I identify these categories and follow with my commentary about the inherent limits represented in the teaching.
- Motherhood is every woman’s divine identity and role in life and in eternity
“Our Heavenly Father’s great plan of happiness tells you who you are and the purpose of your life. Latter-day Saint women understand that being a mother is their highest priority, their ultimate joy.” Oaks 2018
While many women look forward to raising children, it is erroneous to conclude that every woman’s core identity is her role as a mother. Motherhood is a relationship, not an identity. Motherhood may be a piece of a woman’s life, but womanhood as an identity is larger in scope and includes many things a woman can do and be independent of her maternal status. Many women lead happy, fulfilling, and productive lives without opportunity or desire for motherhood. All of us should see their paths as valid, not “less than ideal.”
- Mothers admired for self-sacrificing, seen as virtuous for putting the needs of others before her own
“While I do not know all the Lord’s reasons for giving primary responsibility for nurturing in the family to faithful sisters, I believe it has to do with your capacity to love. It takes great love to feel the needs of someone else more than your own. “Eyring 2018
“The effectiveness of God’s plan in the lives of His children hangs to a large degree on the character, the never-ending, bone-wearying work, and the faith of righteous mothers.” Sheri Dew
Assuming or encouraging women to perpetually put aside their own needs and sacrifice for the needs of others is unhealthy and unsustainable. To expect a mother to disregard her own health to the point of weariness indicates that her support system of partners, family members, friends or ward members are falling short of providing her adequate relief or care.
- Motherhood is the definition of womanhood, regardless of whether or not a woman has children
“Please note that anytime I use the word mother, I am not talking only about women who have given birth or adopted children in this life. I am speaking about all of our Heavenly Parents’ adult daughters. Every woman is a mother by virtue of her eternal divine destiny.” Nelson 2018
To quote Trudy’s post about this, “The concept of a non-mother woman is so foreign that people feel the need to find ways to reassure childless women that they’re mothers, too – because if they’re not mothers, their womanhood is called into question. Equating womanhood and motherhood has several problematic implications: It devalues the hard work and sacrifice of mothers by saying it’s just part of femaleness and not really anything they did….It devalues the hard work and sacrifice of non-mothers by saying that our actual lives are meaningless so in order to give our lives meaning, we have to pretend that we’re something we’re not. It reinforces the notion that only motherhood matters, so we have to call everything motherhood so it can matter because it doesn’t matter on its own.”
- Mothers praised for assuming heavy loads of emotional labor in the home
“Often I have wondered how she kept track of our children and me. Meal preparation alone was a truly daunting task, not to mention activities such as doing the mountains of laundry our family generated every week and keeping shoes and appropriately sized clothing on the children. We all turned to her on a myriad of other issues that were important to us. And because they were important to us, they were also important to her. She was, in a word, magnificent—as a wife, as a mother, as a friend, as a neighbor, and as a daughter of God.” Ballard 2019
When mothers are expected or conditioned to bear the heaviest loads of emotional, physical, and mental labor for an entire household, it can negatively affect her work and health. For suggestions on how to share the emotional load in partnerships, please check out my other post about it.
- A woman’s most important contribution in her lifetime is raising children, not her career or individual pursuits
“The greatest job that any woman will ever do will be in nurturing and teaching and living and encouraging and rearing her children in righteousness and truth. There is no other thing that will compare with that, regardless of what she does.” Hinckley, quoted by Oaks 2018“There is no superior career, and no amount of money, authority, or public acclaim can exceed the ultimate rewards of family. Whatever else a woman may accomplish, her moral influence is no more optimally employed than here.” Christofferson 2013
When a woman’s accomplishments in life are tied to bearing and raising children, then measured by how well her children turn out, it invalidates and minimizes her efforts and accomplishments as a whole person. It flattens her identity as one who cannot contribute to a family AND the world in meaningful ways. Fathers don’t have to choose between making an impact on their children or making an impact on the world. Women are capable and strong enough to do and be both.
- A woman’s innate nature is to nurture
“Men can and often do communicate the love of Heavenly Father and the Savior to others. But women have a special gift for it—a divine endowment. You have the capacity to sense what someone needs—andwhen he or she needs it….Your nature leads you to think of others first, to consider the effect that any course of action will have on others.” Nelson 2018
“Daughters of God know that it is the nurturing nature of women that can bring everlasting blessings, and they live to cultivate this divine attribute.”Margaret Nadauld 2000
“Women bring with them into the world a certain virtue, a divine gift that makes them adept at instilling such qualities as faith, courage, empathy, and refinement in relationships and in cultures.” Christofferson 2013
“Mothers who know are nurturers….To nurture means to cultivate, care for, and make grow. … Another word for nurturing is homemaking. Homemaking includes cooking, washing clothes and dishes, and keeping an orderly home.” Julie Beck
It is erroneous to conclude that all women, by virtue of their biology, are imbued with extra-special, automatic nurturing abilities that surpass the same abilities found in men. An affinity for nurturing is a Christ-like attribute of humankind, not a gender-specific trait. Women who develop a skill for nurturing are taught to credit that talent to their nature, not their efforts. Women who find that nurturing does not come easily may consider themselves inadequate or broken. Telling men that they’re not naturally nurturing feeds the false stereotype of toxic Mormon masculinity.
- Women should marry and have children without delay in order to fulfill their part of God’s plan of Salvation
“I counsel you not to postpone having your children, being co-creators with our Father in heaven….Mothers who enjoy good health, have your children and have them early.”Ezra Taft Benson, 1987
“The average age of our Church members’ marriages has increased by more than two years, and the number of births to Church members is falling….Each of these trends works against our Father’s divine plan of salvation.” Oaks 2018
Many women have ambition to pursue education and career in their young adult years, in addition to their desires to have a family. Being taught that God’s plan of salvation for humanity depends on them having many children at a young age can cause confusion and pain, especially when women feel they must put off their own aspirations in order to have children sooner.
- Women assigned guardianship of the moral rectitude of her children and the world
“In all events, a mother can exert an influence unequaled by any other person in any other relationship. By the power of her example and teaching, her sons learn to respect womanhood and to incorporate discipline and high moral standards in their own lives. Her daughters learn to cultivate their own virtue and to stand up for what is right, again and again, however unpopular. A mother’s love and high expectations lead her children to act responsibly without excuses, to be serious about education and personal development, and to make ongoing contributions to the well-being of all around them.” Christofferson 2013
“From the dawning of time, women have been blessed with a unique moral compass—the ability to distinguish right from wrong….my dear sisters, your ability to discern truth from error, to be society’s guardians of morality, is crucial in these latter days. And we depend upon you to teach others to do likewise. Let me be very clear about this: if the world loses the moral rectitude of its women, the world will never recover.” Nelson 2019
Placing the pressure of others’ moral rectitude on the shoulders of women contradicts what LDS members believe about individual agency. Assigning women to be the guardians of morality borders on rape culture and victim blaming.
Here are other components of motherhood that often get eclipsed in LDS teachings, but are critical for prospective mothers to know:
Motherhood may affect your Physical Health
Maternal mortality is rising in the United States, up to 23.8 deaths per 100,000 births in 2014 from 18.6 in 2000. These numbers are even higher for Black and Native women. Physical hardships women may endure as part of motherhood might include: infertility, pregnancy loss, unplanned pregnancy, miscarriage, complications in pregnancy, pre-term complications and delivery, labor and delivery, complications in recovery, and complications in breastfeeding. Awareness of possible complications, access to quality care, and adequate health insurance are all key features to helping women find success in the physical effects of childbirth.
Motherhood may affect your Mental Health
Transparent conversations about perinatal and post-partum mood disorders are critical for prospective mothers. Up to 20% of mothers may experience clinical depression and/or anxiety during or after pregnancy. Adoptive parents also have challenging mental health situations. Partners and support networks should be vigilantly aware of helping mothers with mental health care.
Motherhood may affect your Social Health
Over half of mothers report feeling isolated or friendless after the birth of a baby. Families and church leaders can make tremendous impacts when they help mothers stay connected to their friend groups.
Motherhood may affect your Relationship Health
Studies have shown that satisfaction in marriage takes a steep decline after having children. Partners can anticipate these changes and make intentional plans for how to keep their relationship strong after children join the family, including scheduled date nights and time to connect. Church leaders and friends can support a couple’s relationship health by offering childcare.
Motherhood may affect your Sexual Health
Many women are disappointed to discover changes in their sexual health and desire after childbirth. It can take time after childbirth to be ready for intimacy again. Speaking candidly with trusted friends about sexual intimacy after childbirth may be beneficial to women.
Motherhood may affect your Educational Health
College students with pre-school aged children take longer to finish their degrees and are more likely to drop out than their childless peers. Supporting women to pursue their education should be of utmost priority to partners and support networks.
Motherhood may affect your Financial Health
Mothers make less money than childless women, up to $16k per year, or about a 7% wage reduction per child. Women still do disproportionately higher amounts of unpaid work in homes. Many women without their own income do not have their own savings account or retirement funds, and are completely reliant on their partner’s income for survival. Mothers should be able to work to support themselves if necessary, and have an investment plan for their future. Lack of financial autonomy can force women to stay in abusive marriages where divorce would be a healthier option. Partners and friends can help support mothers in making sound financial plans for her life (a man is not a plan.)
My journey through motherhood has seen many transformations. I feel happier now as a mother because I am also fulfilled in work that ignites my creativity and allows me to provide for myself. I feel happier as a mother with a partner who shares the mental and physical load of the household, and who truly cares about my ambitions as person. I’m happier as a mother when I prioritize my mental health with therapy and healthy boundaries in relationships. I’m glad that I’ve had mentors show me these benefits, and I wish that I had found them sooner.
A woman may be happier and better prepared when she acts in faith to pursue motherhood AND thoughtfully plans for contingencies, communicates her needs with partners and health care providers, establishes much needed support networks, and consents of her own free will and choice to raise children on the timetable she chooses. We owe it to the women of the world and the girls of the church to empower them with this informed preparation. If systems, institutions, or church leaders are unable to provide this type of support to prospective mothers, they should reevaluate why they teach women how to be mothers in the first place.
*Ziff from ZD helped me gather this data. We considered any talk given from 2000-2019 by a general authority, male or female, which addressed women as the target audience for the talk (in general sessions or women’s sessions), and examined the content of the talk to see if it included significant teachings to women about motherhood. Passing mentions to motherhood or references to the Family Proclamation were not included. 100% of these talks were given to audiences of women regardless of motherhood status. In 41 talks given by men to women, teachings about motherhood are included in 23 talks. In 81 talks given by women to women, teachings about motherhood are included in 14 talks. This is subjective, of course, but gives a pretty good picture of how often general leaders instruct women about motherhood.