Musings on Mother’s Day: Fertility Privilege in Mormon Systems of Power
I’ve written before about how Motherhood may be hazardous to a woman’s health. In this post I’ll discuss how fertility privilege functions in Mormon systems of power to disadvantage childless women and what we can do to change it. Fertility privilege is tangential (but related!) to marriage privilege in Mormon contexts, as childlessness in Mormonism happens to married and single women alike.
Home-church 2020 marks the first time in my lifetime that LDS women have not endured a Mormon Mother’s Day celebration at church. Some mourn this as a loss; others are relieved. Mother’s Day is not marked on the liturgical calendar as a sacred day, but it has come to be observed by tradition in Latter-Day-Saint congregations as the dedicated occasion where members speak about their mothers, the mothers of their children, and motherhood in general. Primary children sing, and the youth or Bishopric bestow gifts of chocolate or flowers to all the women in the congregation, regardless of motherhood status. Rarely do we hear discourses about Heavenly Mother, but rather remarks that put earthly mothers on heavenly pedestals.
For some mothers, this might be the only day of the year they feel noticed and thanked for their work in the family and with their children, or they may experience pain at feeling mistreated or unappreciated on a day that was intended to honor them. For others it may be a sad reminder of their own strained relationships with parents or children, or in feeling unsupported the rest of the year in their parenting efforts.
For childless women, it serves as a stark reminder of the presumed church doctrine: that Motherhood is revered and venerated as a woman’s highest and holiest work. All female members, single or married, with children or without, are taught that motherhood is a defining essence of who they are as women. Though not a key point of the gospel as taught by Jesus Christ in his day, modern church leaders have spoken at length about the doctrinal role of women as mothers in this life and beyond.
“Since the beginning, a woman’s first and most important role has been ushering into mortality spirit sons and daughters of our Father in Heaven.”ETB The Honored Place of Women
“Motherhood is more than bearing children, though it is certainly that. It is the essence of who we are as women. It defines our very identity, our divine stature and nature, and the unique traits our Father gave us.” Sheri Dew, “Are We Not All Mothers”
These categorizations of women and the descriptions of their roles in life were not teachings reinforced by Jesus Christ during his day. To the women in his life, he encouraged them to repent, to choose the good part by learning his words, to share the good news of his resurrection. He did not focus on their fertility or child-raising when determining their role or place in his gospel. We should follow more closely the example of Jesus Christ when encouraging women about their contributions to the Kingdom of God.
The modern church teachings on divine gender roles puts childless women in a disadvantaged position where few other life accomplishments measure up to the worth of child-raising in the perspective of church leaders or members. Absent children of their own, childless women are called on to act as mothers and nurture those around them. Childless women are told, in effect, “your life’s main worthy purpose is to be a mother. If you’re not a mother, you should WANT to be a mother and should try to nurture the people around you with your innate mothering essence.”
Some women are childless by choice, others by circumstance. The circumstances surrounding childlessness may be deep points of grief for single women, infertile women, those who have experienced pregnancy loss, those who may have had failed adoptions, and more. Creating a power hierarchy where privileged status and divine favor revolve around a woman’s motherhood status is unhealthy and inequitable to all women, but especially to childless women. It creates a culture of false scarcity and competition by separating mothers from childless women and heaps praise and privilege on one but not the other.
By pedestalizing the motherhood role with such specific descriptions and divine design, church leaders have simultaneously created the vacuum where childless women experience loss and disfavor. They are told, “all women are mothers!” as some sort of encouraging consolation, but which actually gaslights their lived experience and functions to diminish the influence they have in other spheres. If a woman does not have children, why insist to her that she is also a mother? This logic depends on all women being lumped together according to their fertility and reproductive prowess first, and not as individuals.
Many women who wish to have children are unable to have them. Many women who have children don’t always wish for them. Attributing a woman’s worth to humanity and the credit of her life’s work to her motherhood status lessens the scope of the impact of her other good works. Whether a woman desires children or not, the worthiness of her life’s work should not be in question. Her highest, holiest work is whatever work she is called to do, which may include motherhood and a myriad of other pursuits or relationships. This is the same for every woman.
We see how the elevation of motherhood as a primary status of divine role and essential nature, and the secondary status of childless women is another unhealthy way benevolent patriarchy functions in LDS doctrine and culture.
In 1760, Jean-Jacques Rousseau said this: “The woman’s entire education should be planned in relation to men, to please men, to be useful to them, to win their love and respect, to raise them as children, to care for them as adults. These are women’s duties in all ages, and these are what they should be taught from childhood.”
In a similar vein, when church leaders praise mothers for their child raising, and encourage non-mothers to also participate in nurturing children, they telegraph the message to women that their lives and roles are not their own to live, or theirs to live in unique ways in the Kingdom of God, but to be lived in service and nurture of the children around them. Specifically in raising the male children to be actors and individuals in life and female children to be future-nurturers of more male children.
Even when encumbered by the many personal challenges with motherhood, Latter-Day Saint women with children need to be aware of these power dynamics and the ways their childless sisters are relegated to lower status in church hierarchies. We can speak out against language that unnecessarily privileges mothers over childless women. We can be more aware of how we speak about our own motherhood in the context of relational privilege in Mormon systems. We can encourage honoring all women on International Women’s day (March 8) instead of co-mingling womanhood with motherhood on Mother’s Day. We can avoid wishing childless women a “Happy Mother’s Day!”
We can provide ongoing, year-round support to mothers (like paid maternity leave, education, affordable health care, child care, family unifications for refugees, building partnership marriages, reducing domestic violence perpetrated against women, reducing the gender wage gap to name a few) and not just one day of lip service every May.
We can recognize the contributions of women in any sphere, motherhood included, without striating which pursuits are more worthy than another.
To my sisters who celebrate Mother’s Day as a day of joy, I rejoice with you. To my sisters who grieve complex feelings on Mother’s Day, I mourn with you. To my sisters who become more keenly aware of inequitable systems at work that disadvantage women on Mother’s Day, I offer my heart, hands, words and work.
What ways do you see fertility privilege at work in LDS systems? What suggestions do you have for changing toward a more inclusive rhetoric about womanhood and motherhood?