From Stinky Closet to Mother’s Room: A Quest
While pregnant with my now 5 year-old son, I moved near a chapel with the tiniest, stinkiest Mothers Room I have ever seen.
I think it is important that lactating mothers assert their right to feed their children wherever and whenever necessary. However, I appreciate the extra respect and courtesy some institutions show for nursing mothers by providing comfortable breastfeeding rooms where mothers can nurse their children without worrying about noise, distractions, or perceived modesty.
My local chapel had such a room, but it would more accurately be labeled “Mothers Closet”. It only had room for one rocking chair. That would have worked well if our congregation had only one baby, but nearly everyone who attended this Mormon chapel was Mormon and Mormons like to have babies. Mothers and their screaming infants were frequently sighted checking the room, finding it occupied, and then searching for another location.
The one rocking chair in the itty bitty Mothers Closet was shoved against the changing table. Imagine the smell! I should also mention that there were only two changing tables in the building–in the Mothers Closet and in the Women’s Restroom. Lucky dads! They got Sundays off from diaper duty.
I silently endured this arrangement until my son weaned, but when I became pregnant again, I decided to be more assertive. After all, priesthood leadership was probably unaware of the inadequacy of the breastfeeding facility. As males, they were not allowed in there.
Using the church website’s handy form for emailing your local bishopric or stake presidency, I sent both an email describing the problem. I suggested that they convert another nearby classroom that was already wired to chapel audio into a new Mothers Room. I also suggested that the existing Mothers Room could be converted to a changing table station that all churchgoers, even fathers, could use.
The very next Sunday, a bishopric member approached me and let me know that they had received my email and were looking into the problem. I was thrilled.
The thrills stopped there. Nothing happened. My baby was born. I spent many Sundays searching for places to feed my hungry baby when the Mothers Closet was full. The strange thing is, I could usually find vacant classrooms where I could nurse my baby on the floor or on a folding chair. With so much unused space in the building, the inability of my priesthood leaders to provide an adequate nursing room was inexplicable.
Every few months or so, I brought up the issue again. My bishop was eventually replaced and I talked to the new bishop about the problem. My husband spoke up about it as well with equally little effect. Should it gratify my feminist sensibilities that they ignored him, too?
I also tried talking to a member of my ward Relief Society presidency, who told me that I didn’t understand how complicated these things were. No, I didn’t understand. After talking to her, I sent another email suggesting a simple 5-step process for establishing a new Mothers Room quickly and inexpensively, in case they really were bamboozled by the complexity of it all.
1. Move the sign that says “Mothers Room” from the closet to the classroom.
2. Move the rocking chair from the closet to the new Mothers Room.
3. Put a note on the door of the new Mothers Room like this: “This room has been converted to a Mothers Room for nursing mothers. If your class used to meet in this room, please contact your auxiliary leader for assistance locating a new room.”
4. Put a sign on the old Mothers Closet labeling it, “Baby Changing Station”. If funding is not available, a paper print-out will do.
5. Add more rocking chairs over time, as funding permits.
That email was sent shortly before Mothers Day. It began, “Dear Bishopric and Stake Presidency, as Mothers Day approaches, I would like to suggest that an even better way for the priesthood to show respect for mothers than gifts of candy or flowers would be providing an appropriately sized Mothers Room…”
One Sunday, after I nursed my baby on the floor while the Mothers Closet was occupied and able-bodied male priesthood holders occupied every single lobby chair, another mother suggested I start a petition about the Mothers Room.
But over the two years that I had taken up this minor battle, the quest had changed for me. Originally, it was about more conveniently feeding my baby. Now, my baby was getting older and soon wouldn’t need to nurse at church anymore, but I needed to know if I could get priesthood leaders’ attention about a uniquely feminine issue without resorting to pickets and petitions church leaders seem to dislike so much.
Throughout my life, I had questioned how a system with all-male leadership could possibly address the needs of its female populace. After all, look at the subjugation women endured until female leadership became a norm in government and the workforce.
Those worldly institutions are different than God’s church, other church members explained to me. Men and women are equally blessed by the priesthood. Priesthood authority is not about power, but service. Women in the church have all of their needs met by the priesthood without taking on any of its responsibilities. I doubted the veracity of these explanations, but I had a “desire to believe” and now I was ready to experiment upon their words. (Alma 32:27) If the church were really as different from other worldly institutions as I had been told, certainly it wouldn’t require worldly remedies such as demonstrations, petitions, and more demographically diverse leadership to meet the needs of its members. I continued to wait for the priesthood to disprove my assumption that because none of my church leadership could lactate, they could’t show as much interest in the Mothers Room as they did in the church basketball court.
One Sunday, after failing to appease my toddler with Cheerios and a sippy cup, I gave in and took him to the tiny, stinky Mother’s Closet. A new sign on the door said, “Baby Changing Room (Men and Women)”. The Mother’s Room sign had moved to the door of the next room. I opened the door of the new Mother’s Room and found a beautifully decorated, spacious room with comfortable seating for six women and no nasty smell.
I sat down in the new room and lactated and thought and cried. After the meeting, my stake president, a genuinely nice man, apologized to me for the slow response to my concerns and asked to see my baby. His eyes widened when I informed him that the big toddler in my arms was that very baby who was still in utero when my quest for a Mothers Room began.
Reflecting back, how would I evaluate the results of my faith experiment?
1. I learned that a powerless woman could get the attention of her priesthood leaders about a local woman’s issue through the traditional methods of letters and face-to-face requests (nagging).
2. It took about two years to bring about change this way, although this particular issue was completely uncontroversial and addressable at the local level.
3. I have since rejected the idea that there is anything doctrinal about the Mormon social norms that limit women to written and face-to-face nagging of local priesthood leaders to influence change. Norms that silence women ease bureaucratic complexity for male leaders and preserve status quo, but they do not build Zion.
4. I planted the seed of belief that an all-male leadership structure, managed by kind, well-intentioned men, could meet uniquely female needs, and waited patiently for it to “swell within [my lactating] breasts” but it didn’t. It was a bad seed. (Alma 32:28) The Church needs gender diversity in leadership.