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? 


Violadiva is an oxymoron, a musician, a yogi, a Suzuki violin teacher, a late-night baker of sourdough breads, proud Mormon feminist, happy wife of Pianoman and lucky mother to three.

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15 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    Outstanding post, ViolaDiva! There are so many things to like. One that stands out to me is this line:

    “They [childless women] 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.”

    Yes! I think you’ve so succinctly put this one-two punch that it seems like childless women in the Church endure. On one hand, they’re consoled about something they may or may not want consolation about, and that they may or may not see as central to their identity as GAs do, and then on the other, everything they’ve done in their lives is aggressively downplayed in the name of enforcing the woman = mother norm. Great analysis!

  2. RoseE Hadden says:

    In the local Catholic cathedral, there is a tucked-away shrine dedicated to female saints who were unpartnered and childless. It’s an entire physical space just devoted to reverencing women who serve God in ways that don’t involve spouses or offspring.

    The first time I entered it and realized what it was, I burst into tears. Because there will never be any such space in Mormonism for me. Never a celebration of the choices I’ve made and the good I’ve done in the world, the ways God has guided me to the path I’m on and the ways I’ve been able to serve Him. Never an acknowledgment that my life is holy and worthy and right. Never.

  3. Mary says:

    This is a fantastic post tackling a complex subject. I have so much frustration around this as well. When I’ve been in new wards where they give you a form to fill out about yourself, and they ask number of children, I should just put “infinite” because every woman is a mother to everyone in all her relationships, right?

    I have no children. But I feel so bad for all of the women who actually are mothers when people try to define me as a mother. I have made zero sacrifices for children in my life. I don’t even interact with children on any regular basis. This rhetoric diminishes the accomplishments of women who are mothers and ignores the accomplishments of women who aren’t.

    Imagine if we applied this rhetoric elsewhere. What if we insisted that everyone was a doctor? We would think that’s ridiculous and say, in order to be a doctor, you have to have the right credentials and licensing. You have to treat patients in some way. The response from the church in this scenario would be, “oh but have you put a bandaid on yourself or someone else before? Have you ever cared for someone who was ill? Don’t you see; you are a doctor. God has instilled doctorly gifts in all His children.” No one would accept this rationale.

    It’s also incredibly troubling that if the church insists all women are mothers, why don’t they insist all men are fathers? I have never heard a talk about a man who longed for fatherhood but was unable to be a father. If the church is going to perpetuate rigid gender roles, at last make it consistent and have men’s identities surround fatherhood.

  4. Jenn says:

    As an infertile Mormon woman, I found this post…. Well, not for me. So many triggering things… Many of your suggestions I felt were way off base. I feel nauseous and can’t address them all. Thank you for trying, but your fertility privilege is glaring at me. Sorry.

    • Violadiva says:

      Hey Jenn,
      Sorry my piece missed the mark for you. I was an infertile woman for a long time and much of this post was born of how I felt during that time but didn’t have words to describe until now. I suppose my suggestions were the things I wanted to hear or experience instead of what I did hear and experience. Patriarchy makes me nauseous, too. It hurts to name and describe it, but it’s better for me to address it than leaving it to keep functioning how it has and hurting women.
      My best wishes for your health and happiness.

  5. AdelaHope says:

    When I was an infertile Mormon woman living in a primarily Mormon community, the hardest part of navigating fertility privilege was social dynamic that presumed fertility creates. It was lonely. Assumptions were made about my personal righteousness, and that colored almost every interaction I had with members of my community. I was, like Hannah Gadsby has termed, “incorrectly female” – not queer, but also not within the sphere I was given. And while I was certainly not the first infertile woman there, I felt conspicuous as I was regarded with suspicion for my parental status and my job.

    I don’t think the people there were bad. I think they just didn’t know what to do with me (and I didn’t really know what to do with myself), and so I was, like so many troubling Mormon doctrines, put on a shelf. Which is troubling enough with pesky ideas, but should not be done with people.

    • AdelaHope says:

      The underlying assumption that I was somehow at fault was particularly damaging.

    • Violadiva says:

      These types of experiences are so painful. I’m so sorry. It makes me wonder about the scriptural references of infertile women when it’s mentioned that God heard her prayers and opened her womb. Perhaps that’s the precedent for infertility being cured by a woman’s faith and prayers? At any rate, it’s heartbreaking.
      Thanks for sharing.

  6. Cameron says:

    Thank you for this. I adore children, and I hope I have my own someday, and I find that being an aunt is one of the most fulfilling things I do. But I am adamant that I am not a mother. The children I dote on have a wonderful mother who can give them things that I cannot, and as an aunt I can give them things their mother cannot. I believe children need women in their lives who are not their mothers, just as they need men in their lives who are not their fathers. Everyone benefits from having varied relationships and examples of living a good life. Putting the burden entirely on parents, or trying to fit everyone into the role of a parent, denudes the rich soil of community experience.

    • Laurie Corcoran says:

      Thank you for taking the time to think through & express these things. Your message is powerful & appreciated.

  7. SisterStacey says:

    Viola, I LOVE this! I’m single, over 40 and never been married. In my 20s and 30s I struggled SO with this. I wanted to be a mother! I wanted to be a wife. And as the years slipped by and these things didn’t happen, I began to struggle with who I was or who I could be if not what I was constantly told was the sole reason for my existence on earth! Really. That’s how it felt. I was failing at two things that were vital to my status. And I have seen 20 year-olds treated with more respect than me because they’re married!

    Then I realized that this is what my Heavenly Parents wanted for me. I’ve had only one boyfriend and so many failed attempts at dating that after yet another painful attempt to get a guy to like me, I gave up. I’ve told God that it will have to be a Rebecca at the Well experience or an angel appearing and pointing the guy out. I’m happy to be single! Marriage is work! Motherhood is work! Do I want more work? No. I’m fine with Mother’s Day because I get free stuff, but I also bristle at still being valued solely in my relationship and interactions with children in my life.

    I want to find myself. And I admire my women friends who are mothers and who still are themselves, getting Masters Degrees, working (and she feels so much guilt!), reading, doing puzzles, etc… I love it.

    I heard a podcast about Martha Hughes Cannon (the podcast is Encyclopedia Womanica. I highly recommend), who is this amazing woman! And she didn’t want women in the church to solely be mothers. “You give me a woman who thinks about something besides cook stoves and wash tubs and baby flannels, and I’ll show you, nine times out of ten, a successful mother.”

    I have a purpose and value beyond my marital status and children. Every woman does. <3

  8. SisterStacey says:

    Also, this reminds me of an experience I had a couple months ago. I went to the Salt Lake City Cemetery to find my 4th great grandmother’s grave and, of course, a bunch of prophets are buried there. While driving, we stopped by the gravesite of Russell M. Ballard’s wife, Barbara (I had to go look that up!), and I found it sad, but not surprising (given his talk about his wife in conference), but her gravestone had “Beloved wife and mother” or similar words, while his stone had several lines about all that he had accomplished in his life. How sad is that?

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