What Could I Have Done Differently With My Life if I Wasn’t Raised LDS?

This is Dr. Angela Dunn (not me), state epidemiologist in Utah during the current pandemic. She and I have a lot in common, it turns out  – except I was raised LDS and she wasn’t.

This year I’ve discovered a woman with an oddly parallel life to my own. Her name is Dr. Angela Dunn, but you’ve probably never heard of her if you don’t live in Utah (where I am). However, if you do happen to live here you’ll know her very well, because she’s our state epidemiologist during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr. Dunn and I are both 39 years old, we live in Utah, we like hiking and running, we’re moms, and in 2014 when an ebola outbreak erupted in Africa it turned both of our lives upside down (but for different reasons).

I grew up in a conservative town in Utah, in a very active Latter-day Saint family. My memories of growing up are mostly good, but in retrospect, it lacked one thing: encouragement to do literally anything with my life other than becoming a wife and mother. 

Dr. Dunn, on the other hand, did not grow up LDS or in Utah, and she received a very different message about what she could do as a woman. Her parents encouraged her to pursue science and increase her education through advanced degrees. And despite an impressive professional resume, she’s still managed to be what I was told would be impossible with a demanding career – she’s a wife and mother, too. 

I followed the plan I’d been given and married a returned missionary before graduating from college. By age 23 I hesitantly went off birth control and had my first of three children at age 25. At that point I quit my first post-college job (a job I seriously rocked at) that I’d had for less than 2 years to be a stay at home mom. It wasn’t my dream to be a stay at home mom, but it WAS my desire to obey Heavenly Father – and I believed having babies and staying home with them was what God wanted me to do. I even felt extra holy doing it, because it was a sacrifice done out of faith.

Almost fourteen years later, I’m still a stay at home mom, filling the long days of pandemic-life with my kids the best I can. One day I heard a radio interview with Dr. Dunn that blew my mind.

Among other things, she talked about a highlight of her public health career in 2014, when she travelled to Sierra Leone to help manage the outbreak of Ebola. Coincidentally, I too had a major life event in 2014 because of this disease. That was when my military spouse told me that *he* would be deploying to Africa as well, to help with the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

Also coincidentally, she and I were both married and the mother of a two year old child at the time. 

I distinctly remember when my husband got the call alerting him to this deployment. We were at church and he stepped out of Sunday School to take the call. He came back inside and told me, and I stepped outside the church building alone for a minute to process the news. It was cold and sunny and quiet, and I recall feeling more annoyed with our bad luck than stressed or scared. I knew what being left alone again entailed, because we had already done this two times for a year or longer to the Middle East. My husband would have to put his civilian career on hold again, we’d figure out a new normal, and 100 percent of childcare and household duties would fall on my shoulders for twelve months. It was fine. This was life. 

Listening to Dr. Dunn interviewed this summer, she explained getting the request to go to Africa. Her husband asked her half heartedly, “Does it have to be you?”, but at the same time he knew the answer – it did have to be her, because she was the right person for the job and the world needed her. He told her she should go. 

It was startling for me to hear that a husband would actually encourage his wife, the mother of their two year old, to go help people in Africa dying of Ebola. I had to remind myself that at this exact same time, I was encouraging and supporting my husband, the FATHER of our two year old (and a five and eight year old on top of that) to go to Africa to help people dying of Ebola.

(In a turn of events, Ebola died out rather dramatically in early 2015, and the military decided not to deploy my husband to Africa after all. This didn’t change anything for me however, because instead the army rerouted him to the Middle East for the same time period to help with the war in Syria and fight against ISIS.)

And while his world travel swapped and changed and reconfigured, my job never did. It was diapers, grocery shopping, sick kids, laundry and care packages. It didn’t really matter what continent my husband was on, because my role was the same role I’d played many times before – I was his helpmeet. I was the one on-call at any moment of our marriage to fully take over everything at home when he was needed elsewhere. This was true not only for his military service, but also for his civilian job. If he needed to travel, work late, or go in early – he just needed to inform me so that I didn’t wonder where he was. I was (and still am) always there for him to run the household and take care of our kids no matter where life or his job takes him. Over the years of our marriage he’s spent time in six different countries building two careers (civilian and military) and has lived in our home a solid four years less than I have. My scenery has never changed while his has spanned the globe.

I don’t resent him for this. It’s not his fault he’s been deployed so much while I’ve stayed home. But as I listened to Dr. Angela Dunn talk about her trip to Africa during the Ebola outbreak, I found myself startled by her description of the process. She had a two year old child at home, yet she said, “My husband never said not to go. He understood I was the one who needed to be there.”

Her stories about her experience in villages tracing the outbreak were exciting and meaningful. They were scary but also exhilarating. She had gone somewhere outside of her home and done something extraordinary. 

I thought about my own life and where it paralleled hers and where it didn’t. I’d honestly never even considered the possibility that in 2014, as the mother of a two year old, it could’ve been ME who got the phone call during Sunday School and announced to my husband I was leaving him for the next year. My gut reaction was that it was wrong for a mom to leave her toddler. But my husband had left his toddlers before. In fact, he’d left me pregnant with our first child and didn’t come home until that child was almost walking. No one shook their head in disappointment that he’d selfishly chosen a life path that would take him regularly out of the home. In fact, it was quite the opposite- he was always given a hero’s send off and welcome home. 

Angela Dunn and I graduated high school the same year and started college at the same time. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree that had no direction into a career, because I’d honestly never given a career path much thought. I was smart and good at a lot of things, but I followed the plan I’d been given and became a stay at home mom without even allowing myself to consider another path. 

Angela graduated with her bachelor’s degree and then went further to become a doctor with a very successful career, then still married, still had kids, still lives in my state and enjoys the same pastimes that I do. She had parents and a culture that pushed her to become successful (and a spouse that encouraged her to do anything she wanted). She was not taught that her only divine role as a woman was to stay home and be her husband’s full time support staff for his career and life – and she’s done amazing things.

What would I have become if I’d grown up with different teachings? Would I be more of the main character in my life rather than the support staff? Because you see, it turned out that Dr. Angela Dunn could be a mother to her kids AND have passions and interests separate from them and her home – (you know, just like fathers always have done).

Could that have been me, too?

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21 Responses

  1. Chiaroscuro says:

    I’m right there with you. i was taught the only thing it was okay for me to dream of being was a mom. and I wanted to please God. I often feel robbed of the other things my life could have been. A mom AND what??

  2. Koteb says:

    This might sound like an odd expression of empathy, but I feel exactly the same for the opposite reasons. My wife and I lived a very similar story – we were married our last year of undergrad, had our first child a year into my professional program, then went into the military for 6 years to pay off the degree that I got (though never deployed). I chose a career primarily which would give us stability and financial security, but not one I was really passionate about, mostly because I thought my career was really only important as a means to the end of providing for my family. My wife finished her degree in genetics and biotechnology and left her strong desires to pursue a doctoral degree because she likely thought that starting a family was more important.
    Fast forward and now I spend most of my time wishing that I could only work 2 days a week so I’d get to spend more than two hours a day with my kids. Wishing that I had more time to develop patience with them when So that when I am in charge I could be better than I am. Wishing my wife was more fulfilled and less discouraged and depressed, and that it wasn’t my fault for encouraging her so much to follow the path we were “supposed to”. Wondering where we’d be if not for these ridiculous gender roles that we never bothered questioning.

    • Elisa says:

      This isn’t odd at all. While I think women suffer disproportionately from the limited roles our church gives them, men suffer too because they can’t be the full expression of who they are, either. And kids suffer for not having parents who are actually partners in parenting.

      Thank you for sharing your experience with this!

    • Abby Hansen says:

      I agree! This whole system hurts men and children as well. Not only are there brilliant women out there missing from fields of science, medicine, technology, teaching (etc) because they thought they weren’t allowed to have a career, there are brilliant men missing from those fields as well – because they felt pressured to find a job immediately that could pay enough for a wife to stay at home.

      And kids suffer because they miss out on their dads. It’s not the best system we could come up with by any means.

      • Jason says:

        I agree Abby. The system does not allow for the nuances of human abilities. There are many men (my own brother and Dad included) who make wonderfully nurturing fathers, and would have preferred to stay at home with the children. And I have known so many incredible women (almost all my mentors during my grad studies were women) whose contributions would have been lost if they had been confined to the home.

        I think the Church is getting better at this, but there is so much more we need to do. The doubling down on the Family Proclamation doesn’t help.

    • EmilyCC says:

      I appreciate your story, Koteb. We ask so much of men and women when we’re taught that the roles of breadwinner and homemaker are exclusive to one’s biological sex. It’s so narrow and forces men to sacrifice their dreams as well as women.

    • Tina says:

      Thank you for sharing! It’s important to hear this perspective. Patriarchy and strict gender roles hurt both women AND men. I wish for partnership. I wish we could encourage partnership marriages and families. That would allow each couple to decide for themselves how to best fulfill family responsibilities and pursuit of professional goals.

      Now that you recognize that your arrangement isn’t the best fit, is there a way to transition; a way to swap roles?

  3. Caroline says:

    I feel this in my gut, Abby. I too didn’t take myself and my career seriously as a young person, and now I feel like it might be too late to ever really make a meaningful go at a career. It’s my greatest regret in life.

  4. Ziff says:

    This is a great and heartbreaking post, Abby. Thanks for sharing it. It’s so sad to me that GAs insist on pushing such a narrow role on women, apparently feeling that because they grew up with this patriarchal norm, it must be God’s Chosen Way.

  5. Risa says:

    Great post Abby. All I can say is it’s never too late. I just graduated with my Masters at 42.

  6. Happy Hubby says:

    As a guy I have to admit that it used to seem unfair and I was uncomfortable that women were put in such a limited role. My gut told me it wasn’t right. I did try and give my wife opportunities outside of just being a wife. But knowing what a powerful and hard working woman she is, I can’t help but see now my success in business certainly was enhanced by her taking 2nd place in focusing on a career.

    This post reminds me of something I heard back a few years ago. It was from a sister that had a successful career. During the “Mormon Moment” she was asked to come to church HQ along with some other women that were successful in their professions. The discussion was certainly towards showing the world, “Hey – Look! Mormon women are successes in their professions!” After a while one of the women asked, “Why do you have us all here? We are the women that didn’t do what the leaders were telling us to do. We didn’t stay at home and just have babies. And now you want to celebrate our success at what – being disobedient?” I had to assume it didn’t get a satisfactory response.

  7. imagineinspireinquire says:

    Loved and related with all the comments. Thanks to you all and to Abby. US-based, middle-class Mormons are not the only ones who look back and regret career choices, based on the cultural scripts handed us at the time we were making our initial choices. I can think of other individuals who felt that way, but are there other groups of people? And how to transcend the resentment?

  8. Jacklyn says:

    I was a caretaker for my 6 children and then my aging parents and now I’m at the last part of my life feeling unappreciated for all that work. IT’s too late now for some things but. I am trying to make the the best of it. Now I do have freedom to do as I want but agism is now a battle and preconceived notions about what I should be doing instead of what I am interested in doing. I do feel my own children do a better job at sharing duties but it’s still not perfect. I did not make a distinction between boys and girls when it came to chores and also I encouraged their educational pursuits whatever they chose.

  9. liz johnson says:

    I feel this so, so deeply. I see so many women who are my same age, succeeding in the field I wish I had pursued, and I really wish somebody had told me that I could do both – be a mother AND have a career.

  10. Ally says:

    Yes to this all. I do have a career though, I just realized that some of the choices I made were inadvertently cultural conditioning and poor self esteem.
    Working on all of that via therapy and the thought that so many of my choices were made because they were the “easy” ones, the ones on the path of least resistance aka following church culture. I choose a career in medicine, but not as an MD and wonder why not?
    Why did I allow myself just enough rebellion to get a master’s degree, but not enough to push all the way through and break the barrier.
    Dont’ get me wrong, I am super grateful that I have any career path at all! And I do work fulltime outside of the home to keep myself sane, but I didn’t follow my passions necessarily because I told myself that doing public health for example (which I love!) doesn’t pay the bills and the whole point of getting a degree and a job is to be able to support your family if your husband can’t right?
    And while I don’t regret my financial stability, I do regret sometimes, not following my heart.
    Especially now, that I am probably done with the newborn stage and want to transition into my next career phase.

    Anyways, rambling. All that to say, that I think the reflections are normal and almost all of us didn’t take the full leap towards fulfillment for a variety of reasons, church culture, etc.
    But I so appreciate this post and your comment Koteb because the only reason that I was even able to consider getting a degree and working outside of the home is because my grandmothers both worked, both in education, one with a masters in library science and my mother chose herself when I turned 8, went back to school, got her degree and started working.
    Without those role models and supportive men in my family, I don’t know that I would have been strong enough to push outside the cultural gender norms we are so strongly taught.
    It makes me even more determined to make sure my children see both myself and my husband as nurturers, providers, and most importantly partners.
    That we can do hard things and whatever things we want, with hard work and sacrifice, but also with faith, both in the Lord, but also IN OURSELVES and our talents.
    Also, I have to say, my husband is supremely grateful that I help pay the bills. I can’t even tell you how much less stressful financial things become when you know that either partner can make sure everyone is fed and the rent is paid.
    It has helped him also stay sane, not having the stress of being the only provider for our family.

    Anyways, thanks for writing this piece. Super timely, as I am having the same thoughts myself these days.
    And Yes, fellow Utahan, Dr. Dunn is awesome!

  11. Peter Bleakley says:

    The recent Face to Face for single adults by the Rasbands was disappointing and terrifying, and not just because of the creepy location. The current pharisaical return to the 1950s by the First Presidency and apostles is tightening its grip on the keep the young mothers barefoot and pregnant script. The only options described for women was to follow their own example by getting married young and starting to have children as an act of faith even though your husband is still a university student and already working two jobs to survive. On the one hand they keep going on about self sufficiency and living within your means, but then they tell young married couples to jump off a cliff financially which nearly always means becoming dependent on Church or state welfare. It feels like they will not be happy till they have created Handmaid’s Tale Gilead revolving around the Brigham Young Universities full of stressed-out young families replicating the lives of the general authorities who did this in the 1950s and 1960s and setting women up for frustration and failure since they far outnumber men in the Church and can’t all marry in the temple in the first place, and then 50% of them will eventually divorce and find themselves severely limited in their earning options while their ex-husbands can carry on regardless.

    This has always been ridiculous from a British point of you because our culture and economy just don’t support that being a sensible option, but it was particularly depressing to see this is the only option on the “covenant path” still being spoken about in the 21st-century.

  12. I was raised in the 80s by a feminist faithful mom and a raised Mormon but atheist Dad. They countered any messages I might have heard at church by encouraging me to find my passions and pursue them. After mission though I married to a good man who was proud of my ambition but ultimately proved to be conservative about planning our future–his career mattered more as God’s designated provider. That led to divorce but after years of painful struggles and fights to make it work.
    Now I do exactly what I dreamed up at age 18. My family is like the one I grew up in with church going mom and atheist dad. Being raised LDS didn’t I think change my happy endpoint. But so much of my 20s were devoted to early marriage and trying and failing to save my temple marriage to a wonderful person I never should have married. For me the question is what adventures would I have had and who would I have loved as a young person if I wasn’t LDS?

  13. Sally says:

    I feel this hard. My details are different, and my feelings, too: I’m angry. I feel like my life was so grossly underutilized and I’m in a precarious financial situation. So glad you put your feelings and questions out there.

  14. Wendy says:

    Thank you for your post, Abby. If not for a failed first marriage in my 20s combined with infertility I would be in the same position. I appreciate you articulating your heartbreaking realization about life-altering choices you made at a pivotal age due to being influenced by doctrines of the LDS Church.

    I have countless female friends and family members who were raised in the church because they believed what they were taught at church: that there is only way to lead a good, happy life as a woman. In almost every case these women, whom I love, ended up feeling stuck in a life they feel they didn’t freely choose for themselves, working to reinvent themselves in their 30s and 40s while suffering from depression.

    Prescribed gender roles hurt females the most but as your post articulates so well they ultimately hurt everyone. It doesn’t make sense to attempt to keep one-half of human beings from reaching their full potential as human beings. And it simply isn’t logical that while it takes two people to make a baby that only one of them is capable of caring for that child As Happy Hubby’s comment points out, it seems even church leaders are conflicted when it comes to their prescribed path for women, which they claim is divine in origin:

    “Why do you have us all here? We are the women that didn’t do what the leaders were telling us to do. We didn’t stay at home and just have babies. And now you want to celebrate our success at what – being disobedient?”

    It simply doesn’t make sense, even to them it seems.

  15. This takes a lot of courage to write. Thank you. I feel for you, and it’s not too late for you to do other extraordinary work you want to do! I’m Crystalee, and I’m a member of your faith, mom of three, and business owner. One of my companies, The Mama Ladder, is all about supporting women at the intersection of motherhood and entrepreneurship. I feel really strongly that those of us who feel a desire or call to work — can! There’s room for us to create what we want! High fives to you.

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