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The Existential Crisis: A Common Phenomenon for Mormon Women?

by Caroline

I am currently having another existential crisis. At least, that’s what I call it – that feeling of not knowing where my life is going, not sure of what the right career path is, yearning to find a cause or profession that I can wholeheartedly devote the rest of my life to – you know, that feeling. I’ve had it for a long time, but I’ve especially sensed it ever since I’ve assumed the primary child care responsibilities two and a half years ago with the birth of my son. I worked part time as a teacher for the first two years, so my existential concerns were muted by the business of juggling child and work. But now that I’ve quit my job and am just taking graduate classes, it’s back in full force. What the hell am I going to do with my life? And how do I figure out the right path?

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a devout LDS friend who seemed to have it all figured out. She’s a stay at home mom of four kids, but has practiced physical therapy in the past and is now a freelance doula and birth coach. I was confessing to her my existential crisis and she surprised me by telling me that she too is constantly in one. She would like to perhaps pursue midwifery, but family and school logistics are difficult. I think she even commented that most women face these crises.

Can this be true? Even in the Mormon world? A lot of Mormon moms I know seem to face years and years of stay at home motherhood with equanimity. Sure, they get annoyed and frustrated with their kids, but many seem to have embraced that whole ‘seasons of life’ idea. They may work later when their kids are older, but for now, they’ve accepted their current careerless status. 

I just can’t accept my careerlessness. I can’t face the next five or ten years of raising my children without knowing that I am also working towards my ultimate career goal (whatever that may be). I can’t face the mind numbing boredom and loneliness of raising my children without a plan for how I will someday contribute to my community through a fulfilling career. And I can’t figure out how to shake the feeling that the days I spend taking care of my child are days of meaningless time wasting.   

I’d like to know how many of you face existential crises of some kind. And how have you worked to resolve them?  Or, if you don’t face them, how did you find that career (or non-career) you love? What gives you meaning and purpose in life?

*Caveat* As I gripe about my deep dark pit of unknowing, I guiltily acknowledge that my concerns are the concerns of a person of privilege.  If I lived in another time or place, every ounce of my energy would probably be consumed in just trying to feed my family and survive. My privileged problem is having too many options. Stay home or pursue a career of my choice? Stay home or go to school? Do both? These are the questions many women around the world can’t even conceive of asking. They do back breaking or mind numbing work or they starve.


Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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30 Responses

  1. FoxyJ says:

    I’m not sure it’s just a problem for Mormon women–I know a number of men who experience similar feelings about their lives, and I do know a number of non-Mormon women who face the same issues. I’ve been going through a similar thing lately. My husband and I have been married for seven years, and one or both of us has been in school during that entire time. When we were first married we constantly talked about plans for having us both employed and juggling kids, etc. Now we have two kids and I’m realizing that I want to be home. I don’t want to work or go to school right now. The problem is that I just started a PhD program–but I just can’t see myself doing four more years of school right now. I’m tired of school, and I’m not sure I want to be a professor. Academia is really losing its shine for me. The problem is I feel horribly guilty asking my husband to get a full-time job. Our kids are actually not in child care right now and they get a lot of time with both of us. That would definitely change for them. But I’m also tired of being in school and juggling that with kids. I have an MA and could probably get a part-time teaching position (I had one last year). The hardest thing for me is the guilt of feeling like I’m asking my husband to do something he doesn’t want to do–he really likes working part-time. I also feel guilty because many of my reasons for wanting a different arrangement are financial. I want one of us to have a “real job” and I’m tired of living the poor student life. We do OK, but we aren’t getting ahead at all and I worry about our future. At the same time though, I feel confident in my ability to enjoy being a stay-at-home mom. It’s taken me five years and two kids to realize a lot of things about myself and how I work best caring for kids. I feel like it took me a long time to get used to motherhood, and now I actually want to be “just” a mom for a while. I never thought I’d say that though, so we’re both a little confused about what to do next. To be honest, I guess I’m just not the sort of person who thinks about what my life means. I’m not very introspective–I’d never really thought about it until you asked 🙂 I’ll have to get back to you on that question…

  2. amyb says:

    I think this sort of dilemma is common for our generation. I’m in the midst of my own dramatic career change, and I’m only 29. Mormon women may experience it just as much as everyone else, but I also wonder how much they feel it’s okay to voice those feelings.

  3. Ellen says:

    I know that our primary responsibility is for ourselves and our families, but sometimes I wonder about life. Doesn’t it seem like we are complacently egocentric when it comes to the world around us? — all our tasks here on earth are complete if we raise our children right. Oh yes, and do our visiting teaching and some missionary work here and there. I want more.

    I worked until my second child was 1.5, and then stayed home for 6 years. I hated the loneliness and mind-numbing housework. I recently went back to work and really enjoyed it. It wasn’t meaningful work, but paid well. I was happy to settle for anything that got me out of the house and required using my brain. At first I resisted going back into my profession. I wanted more meaning. It became apparent that changing careers would be an uphill battle, so I went back. Now I’ve been laid off. Prospects in my profession look dismal for the next while.

    This might be my chance to find something interesting, meaningful, and/or enjoyable. Here I am, one year later, with the same debate — what to do with my life.

    I keep praying, but sometimes I honestly think deity doesn’t give a damn about my minor problems, including career choice. I pray just in case it might help. Funny. There was a conference talk on praying about everything in our lives by Bednar. Hmmm.

    No advice from me. Just want to say that I feel your struggle.

  4. Matt W. says:

    I am normally the one who has these sorts of crises, not my wife, fwiw.

  5. Matt W. says:

    Oh, and according to studies it’s a major issue for Generation Y in general.

  6. clarkgoble says:

    Doesn’t everyone have such a crisis?

  7. Eliza says:

    “And I can’t figure out how to shake the feeling that the days I spend taking care of my child are days of meaningless time wasting.”

    If, for whatever reason, you now have a child, why devalue your time with them so? Have you nothing of worth to contribute to them?

    In any job, you would be expected to find ways to capitalize on your strengths and make a plan for the success of your projects/clients. Why not take the same approach with making a plan to raise your child in meaningful ways while finding some growth for yourself?

    And don’t blame your boredom on your children or staying at home. You are an adult, capable of choosing how to feel or what to do in any given situation.

  8. Markie says:

    Even if, as Eliza would have us believe, that choosing how to feel in any possible situation is under our total control, I’m not sure it would be the best thing. These unsettled feelings are telling you something (at least I’m pretty sure that those same feelings I’m constantly having are telling me something). When I went back to teaching a few classes this semester, suddenly about half of the malaise and grumpiness I’d been feeling dissipated. For me, working part time has been the only thing that has made it possible for me to do all of those other things that Eliza is blessed to find easy – making meaningful plans with my children, fitting in personal growth activities while I’m home with them. Now that this temp adjunct position is almost over, I’m feeling all of that tension start to come creeping back. What am I going to be when I grow up? Aren’t most 35 year olds grown ups? How do I make a meaningful contribution to the world AND to my family? Do I really have the guts to chase down big dreams? And how the heck do I go about choosing which big dreams to chase? Luckily, I have a birthday coming up in a few weeks – I’ve found that when this type of tension and existential crisis in my life peaks right around a birthday, I’m more likely to actually do something about it. Use the yearning and the gnawing and the feeling of meaninglessness to do something – anything! I’ll let you know if I’m as good at taking my own advice as I am at giving it.

  9. Caroline says:

    Foxyj, I think you, amy, clark and Matt are right. This is definitely a problem that goes beyond Mormon women. Though I think perhaps the phenomenon is more surprising/striking for Mormon women since we are socialized by our religion to be satisfied with careerlessness. Thanks for telling your story, Foxy. It’s nice to know that my feelings might change, that I might someday be able to find contentment at home, even if just for a limited time.

    Ellen, I have similar feelings about the need to take part in the wider world community in some meaningful or helpful way. For me that’s a moral imperative that arises from my Christianity.

    Eliza, you’re reading more into my comment than I actually wrote. Nowhere did I blame my child for my boredom. That feeling obviously stems from me and not my child. Despite the lack of generosity in your comment, I think you do make a good point about trying to find ways to make the child rearing meaningful. The question, of course, is how. And I really don’t think all adults are capable of controlling their feelings in “any given situation.” That’s a faulty argument. Obviously if a loved one dies, or a dream dies, a person will feel sad, despite a desire to not feel that way. The choice comes (perhaps, eventually, for some people) in how long and to what extent to sustain those feelings. What’s curious to me is why you would have such an ungenerous reaction to this post. Are you a stay at home mom that feels defensive in your chosen role? Are you really so unwilling to be compassionate toward another woman who feels frustration with it? Why?

    Markie, thank you for your insightful comment. Pretty much every word resonated with me. I too found a lot of joy in working part time. It made the time I did spend with my child so much better and so much more meaningful. Good luck chasing down those big dreams. 🙂 I’ll be hoping to have the guts to do the same.

  10. Angie says:

    I could go on and on and on about this topic, but I will just say two quick things:

    1) I relate to you so much. With all my heart and mind and experiences and present cirumstances.

    2) The book “Generation Me” addresses this very topic. I highly recommend it.

  11. hshays says:

    Entering my forty-somethings I have had a number of these crisis. Some culminating in great adventures, advancing my career,and growth, some ending in depression and struggle. A perspective I have been filtering these thoughts through the home mom, or even a nurse and often wanted more in my last five years is the Why in it. Some of my frustration for not achieving more I believe comes from my strong desire to be esteemed and found interesting among my peers and new people I meet. It sounded so “boring” to call myself a stay-at-home mom or even a nurse, I longed for more in my quiver to validate that I am worth knowing. Travel, adventure, achievement and unique experiences as feathers in my cap. I work hard now to understand where the discomfort is coming from. Figuring out or following ones passion is worthwhile and knowing ones self is a lifelong process. Yet, I have to share that despite many disadvantages my older children are maturing and making hard and great choices. I am so proud of them and was pondering how they have come to be the great young adults they are and I had that little whisper that mybeing home for them has made a difference. It was a great comfort because our family always struggled financially and I am entering the work force once again I have looked back on some of those times of crisis and reexamined my choices. I believe it is a modern day struggle of women. Remember, it has been relatively a very few years that women have had such opportunities and decisions, even our mothers,especially mine, did not go through this. You are all pioneers in this amazing world with little history to learn from. Yes, we are fortunate to have such problems, I am grateful for them.

  12. Lawna says:

    I come to this blog with some mixed feelings. My husband was injured 1.5 years ago and now is unable to work, prior to that I was a happy stay at home mom. As such I currently face the opposite emotional stugle than you do. Every minute I am working I long for the moments of influence that I am absent from my 2 very young children. I spend allot of time mourning the lost conncetion with my infant son. Yet even now as I sit here I can relate to the feelings you are having. I dealt with these emotions by filling my time with activities that would edify my daughters life (I had my son 7 months after my husbands accident). I can recall a quote that has kept me on the positive that I would like to share. I don’t know the author but the quote says “Heaven Father, please help me remember that being a Mom is the most important thing I will do today”. And in the eternal perspective it is. Heavenly Father will care more about what we did with our children than our careers and really if we strugle with this we can always seek our Heavenly Fathers help. He will comfort us.

  13. bandanamom says:

    I used to feel exactly what you’re describing. Though there was a breif period of time where I worked part-time, I have been almost exclusively at SAHM for the past 18 years. I found it very very difficult for the first few years. However, as my children began to grow and get older, I felt a lot more satisfaction in what I was doing. Now with my oldest in college I see things very differently than I did when I was in my 20s. I see the impact I had on him at different times in his life which led us to where we are today. There were many things which occured over the years that I handled differently because I was at home with the kids, rather than working. I can see the value now in what I have done in ways that it was impossible for me to see when they were younger.

    I plan on going back to work in my career as my youngest hits high school in a couple of years. The time flew by so much faster than I thought it would. The first 5 years of my oldest child’s life seemed to drag, and then it seemed he went straight from kindergarten to high school graduation in the blink of an eye.

    I do think that mormon women face a sometimes unique perspective – we are (mostly) raised to stay home and be ‘domestic’ while at the same time being encouraged to have drive, be goal setters, and become educated. Sometimes those competing desires and behaviors are things that are hard to balance.

  14. Angie says:

    Thank you so much for all of these comments. I don’t feel so alone. I especially love the perspective of women with adult children – thank you for showing us that it’s worth it, that it may be normal to feel these feelings, and as we work through all of this, we are still accomplishing God’s will and a great work.

  15. H.K. Bialik says:

    Society has ingrained in us from a very young age that everything that has value has a price, therefore, a person’s value depends on their jobs. In other words, a person’s value is tied to their ability to produce profits.

    So, yes, it’s common for those who opt out of the workforce to feel unfulfilled. They can’t shake the feeling that they aren’t accomplishing what they should.

    We need to remind ourselves that society and commerce exist FOR people not, vice versa! The contribution of healthy, well-adjusted human beings is more valuable than any job.

    Of course, on that same note, a mother is just as human as her children and should pursue any worthwhile interest that she pleases. Personally, I prefer volunteer work and artistic hobbies to having a job, so I relish in the opportunity to let my husband “bring home the bacon.”

  16. John says:

    I just can’t accept my stayathomelessness. I can’t face the next twenty-five or thirty years of career ladder garbage without knowing that I am also working towards my ultimate Eternal goal. I can’t face the mind numbing irrelevance and unnecessary competition of my career without a plan for how I will someday contribute to my community by raising a righteousness posterity. And I can’t figure out how to shake the feeling that the days I spend in my career are days of meaningless time wasting.

    -A career Dad

    I know, I’m a man, I don’t understand, but I really found myself unsympathetic to the comparison between staying at home and contributing to a community through a career.

  17. H.K. Bialik says:

    This post inspired me to blog my own thoughts on existentialism and mormon women.


  18. Markie says:

    You’re right, John, you don’t understand. You seemed to overlook all of the “also”s in Caroline’s description. I agree that I would feel like my life was meaningless if I had a career without also working towards eternal progression. So in that case, the answer would be to also work towards your ultimate eternal goal and to raise a righteous progeny (and no, those two things are NOT exactly synonymous). The answer would not necessarily be for you to abandon work.

    Caroline never said or implied that she would like to abandon her family to have a meaningful career. She said that having a plan of how she can make that particular kind of contribution someday would make childrearing feel less boring and lonely. She said she’d like to ALSO work towards a career goal. Your whine simply emphasized her point – only having one half of the equation does sound like a crisis.

  19. H.K. Bialik says:

    I, for one, liked John’s comment. People shouldn’t buy into thinking that jobs are what give us our worth. Nor is the value of a woman isolated to how good of a mother she is.

    There’s a middle ground to be had here, folks.

  20. Janna says:

    My career is an integral part of my spiritual contribution to this life (aka, my “meaning.”)In fact, I’d go as far to say that my job is a calling.

    Perhaps, Caroline, you are hearing your calling? What a great thought!

  21. Caroline says:

    Right on, Markie.

    John, I really don’t understand your comment. Never did I say that just any job would suddenly give my life more meaning. (is that what you thought?) I was talking about a certain kind of job (or non-job – I’m open to volunteering in a serious way in a cause I’m passionate about – that goes to what you were saying, H.K.Bailik) I’m after doing something I find meaningful to humanity. Opening a soup kitchen. Working towards international women’s rights. You get the idea. That doesn’t include the empty ladder climbing that you were describing. If you had read my last paragraph, you would have seen that in no way was I equating any job with meaningfulness. I mention the mind numbing boredom or back breaking labor some women are forced to do. I’m obviously not after that sort of thing, and once again, that underscores the incredible privilege I operate under. I’m also not after abandoning my family for that kind of career. I want both. And preferably I want that career part time so I can spend a good deal of time with my children. Clearly I’m dreaming.

  22. Caroline says:

    Gotta run right now, but I’ll respond to you other commenters later tonight. Thanks for contributing!

  23. Caroline says:

    Angie, I’m glad this resonated. Thanks for commenting!

    hshays, I loved your comment. Thanks for telling your story.

    Lawna, I’m so sorry about your situation. It’s emotionally difficult when you feel like you don’t have choices. And whether that feeling of being stuck revolves around working or staying home, it’s tough situation.

    bandanamom, thanks for your story. It’s nice to know that maybe the most difficult years are the really young ones, and that it might get better.

    H.K. I agree with you that it’s a trap to equate a person’s worth with a paycheck. Like I said before, I would be open to volunteering on a serious basis. But I fear that with volunteering I wouldn’t have the same range of creativity and autonomy that I envision having as say, a project manager for a non-profit. (Obviously, I’m fantasizing here about my humanitarian dream job.) Nice post, other than that part where you were agreeing with John. 🙂

    Markie, Like I said before, you nailed it exactly. Thank you.

    Janna, I too like to think that a career can be a calling in life (for those of us privileged enough to be able to choose something personally fulfilling). I just wish I could figure out what that calling is for me! I’m envious that you got it figured out already.

  24. Eliza says:

    Caroline – It’s not that I don’t feel compassion for your position. Like one of the posters mentioned, maybe something is calling to you and you need to pursue it.

    I work with kids from all kinds of backgrounds and see them either flourish or withdraw depending on who values them. Not saying that you don’t value your child, I am sure you do or you wouldn’t be questioning to be a better person. But your strong words such as “mind numbing boredom” “loneliness” and “meaningless time” in connection with caring for your child did strike a protective chord for me.

    Definitely go on and question and find your way. I think that is a balance everyone, including me, must find and a blessing that we have that capability to wander and pursue.

    But in our wandering, for the protection of our kids, we still need to see the beauty in the time we get to spend with them until, or if, we find something else that also fulfills us.

  25. Caroline says:

    Fair enough, Eliza. Now I understand where you were coming from better. I was only telling one side of the story in my original post. The other side, of course, is that I adore my two year old and think he’s so cute and brilliant. It’s just easier for me to appreciate our time together when I have some other job/project in my life.

  26. Jana says:

    When my kids were little, I felt so beleaguered and eager to get on with my life and have a career. I worked hard at being a mom and gave my kids my all (or as best I could), but I still always had a restlessness in me. I started taking classes part-time when my kids had all started school. By the time my youngest was in 3rd grade I was in grad school full-time. I have no regrets about my choices and I’m pretty happy for the most part.

    But now when I see women who have the luxury of being SAHMs I want to tell them just to stay home and relax and spend their time with their kids rather than racing off to get a job. I want to tell them to just lay around on the LR floor and read stories, or go into the kitchen with their kids and “cook” something magical. And I especially want to tell them to give their kids some extra squeezes when they are all bathed and in their PJs and ready for bed (this was my fav time of day with my kids).

    I’m not at all judgmental of anyone who chooses not to stay at home fulltime with their kids or who pursues a career. I think it’s just my own nostalgia that motivates me to suggest that you/they enjoy this stage of life a bit more and not be too eager to return to the workplace or choose a new career path.

  27. Vada says:

    I’ve had these crises a number of times in my life, though not currently. But I, too, have found that I’m a much happier person (and a much better mom) when I have something else I’m working on and working toward. Right now that’s trying to finish the first draft of a novel, and it’s working well to create some balance in my life.

  28. Zenaida says:

    Caroline, these happen all too often for me, which is ridiculous at 27, if you ask me. However, I have felt desperate urgency to succeed quickly because I “knew” that once I was married and had children, my career would be over. I attempted to tailor my expectations to fit this potential future family goal. I think in a lot of ways I sabotage myself because I don’t actually think my career goals would mesh with family goals. However, I am often stuck in a rut because I sometimes do not pursue viable career options because I am holding out for that family life. I am still single, and what if that remains the case for years or even the rest of my life? I need to be career oriented so I can support myself, and for me that means finding fulfilling work, not just paying the bills to survive, waiting around for Mr. Right to show up. Now, currently being in a relationship with potential, I feel a bit of that pressure to succeed quickly, but it’s not always easy to avoid the depression that comes from the seemingly impossible task of finding motivation to pursue something I _may_ have to give up in the future. I’m not saying that a family would not be equally or possibly more fulfilling, but it would be the loss of a dream. My problem is I’ve been morning it for years instead of living it. Please do all you can to fulfill dreams. It gives me hope that it’s possible to raise a thriving family and live some of our dreams.

  29. Kiri Close says:

    EXISTENTIAL CRISIS: Story of My Life,
    –a novel by Kiri Close

    Girlfriend, I find I’m always in flux, & some eras in my life more intensely than other times.

    Who, just who, has it all figured out here in mortality? Whoever says so is a liar.

    I’m always in the middle of conflicting feelings. Lately, it’s: 1)write, 2)study for law school, or 3)piss around the house doing absolutely nothing of great consequence (however, I do love scrapbooking). I seem to be getting really, really good at #3 lately, & loving it…Like, a little TOO much during this long holiday/vacation from work (I’m a full-time prof on the notorious–& fabulous–Pine Ridge rez where I teach literature & writing).

    Add to this indulgent recipe (& suddenly beginning to hate) my work with the local Young Womens program–lately, I’m exhausted from it! And quite ready to ask for a release. But I’m gonna hang on in there for another 1/2 year or less.

    And don’t forget how 6 months ago we moved to a teeny, weeny town in panhandle Nebraska where we initially decided it would only be a single year long stint. But now, my husband (seemingly, Mr.Lay-Down-Family-Roots) is contemplating staying another year, which is absolute friction up against my gypsy, bedouin nature (kinda driving me nuts!). The town, overall, is not what I would wish on my worst enemy–try being only 1 of 15 Democrats during the election in a town like ours, walking past locals who quote their bible on how a Muslim as a promised land leader is the mark of the Apocryphal end of days! Subtly, very “Children of the Corn” here. Comically despicable scene.

    And then, when writing phantoms finally come to me, and my writing is fluid, I get TOO MANY bombarding ideas, that my writing projects I’ve started since landing here in Nebraskee are unfinished. My new nickname should be, “Waffler”–waffling back & forth with which book or essay I should be focusing on for completion.

    Further, include our coupledom contemplation of having kids. Do I want them, or not? Honeychild, I am STILL asking myself that. And if they come along, how will I handle law school (& also considering a joint Master’s degree in American Studies with it!), and Rob’s last school stint to be a Nurse Practitioner?

    And never, never forget how badly I have the travel bug. I’m convinced I’m Anthony Bourdain having an out of body experience since our births—cosmically twisted, I know, but deeply I feel this…well, deeply I want this to be true–

    Oi, vay! My existential dilemmas, in flux: never resolved. I feel I can coin the phrase.

    Wouldn’t want it any other way (sadist that I am).

  30. Kelly Beck says:

    I am a man- a man in touch with his “female side”. The thought that women consider their existence in the terms stated above is not just a female trial.

    I am also an active mormon who works at one of the many temples. And, I have a degree in the arts, yet have run a construction company for decades. All this construction work in the face of knowing that I was predestined to teach and write.

    Crisis in exeistential values? Constant. I wonder at times if I am alone in this, and other things. Obviously I am not.

    I will probably be extreme in ways that are not too “kosher” in mormon circles. I actually believe in euthenasia as a choice that should be a legitimate consideration to persons with extreme physical and mental exigencies. The battle in my conscience is fierce when i contemplate playing God. After all, what would my grandchildren think?

    I never wanted wealth but was “blessed” with it anyway–I have been good at what I do. There are ways to divest oneself of unwanted lucre. It seems to salve the guilt of having too much.

    So what is the goal? I don’t know.

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