being a byu alum, i get the byu magazine every so often. sometimes i pick it up and peruse it. occasionally i read an article or two. usually it just sits in my pile of mail until it gets thrown away. tonight i started sorting through my pile of mail (i always have a pile of mail; i hate mail; i wish people would just not send me stuff; unless they’re people i know and love; then they can send me stuff) and ran across the byu magazine. and when i read the cover blurb ‘jane clayson lands her dream job: mother,’ some sick masochistic part of me turned to page 22 to read the article.

it’s all about jane clayson who becomes jane johnson. perhaps that’s reductive, but the article’s attempt to represent rhetorically the shift from single to married by referring to the single jane as clayson and the married jane as johnson does call attention to that shift. it was a bizarre editorial decision–one that caused more confusion than anything. and it made the difference between unmarried and married sound almost jekyll-and-hyde.

anyway. back to the regularly scheduled programming. here’s the reader’s digest version: jane goes to byu expecting to graduate and get married. jane graduates but doesn’t get married. jane becomes award-winning, nationally known television journalist. jane realizes that ‘real life’ has begun, even though she’s not married. jane gets married. jane quits working. jane has babies. jane has epiphany: ‘mothers matter.’ (yes, that’s the epiphany: ‘mothers matter.’)

it’s a lovely story. really. i’m happy that this talented woman had the opportunity not only to find such professional success but also to fall in love and marry and have children.

but dammit. don’t tell me i’m a mother simply by virtue of the fact that i have breasts, a vagina, a uterus, and ovaries. i am a woman. i am not a mother. and i don’t care how much mental gymnastics you do, you’re not going to convince me otherwise. but clayson (or should it be johnson?) tries: ‘i want every woman to feel in her soul that among the many important things that women do, mothering is the most important thing, whether a woman biologically bears a child or not.’

i appreciate the sentiment. i feel all warm and fuzzy that jane (and sherri dew and numerous others like them) recognizes that the church’s emphasis on motherhood for women leaves single and childless women feeling inadequate on some level. but has it ever occurred to them that perhaps the answer is to authenticate other life paths for women? to acknowledge that women have incredible contributions to make outside of motherhood?

i am a nurturer. i love children. i’m patient and kind and loving towards all of my nieces and nephews. i adore them. but i spend very little time with them. and while i know for a fact that they love me and that i have helped shape their characters in some ways, i also know that i’m not much of a presence in their lives. am i to understand that mothering is the most important work i do, when easily 90% of my time is spent completely apart from children? what does that mean about the rest of my time? is it really all that much to ask that the value of my work and life be acknowledged without trying to shove it through a mother-shaped hole?

please, jane clayson johnson (and anyone else who’s made the error of trying to convince themselves and others that every woman is a mother)–please have enough decency to honor all the work women do, not just the work they do as mothers. don’t tell me i am a mother in some misguided effort to make me feel better about the fact that i’m unmarried and childless. instead, look me in the eye and see me for who and what i am: a woman of god who is using the gifts she’s been given to make as much beauty and goodness as she can.

{this was originally posted on my personal blog, laughtear, but i would love to get responses from more women (and men). some questions that occurred to me after reading comments others made on my post at laughtear:

1. i acknowledge that women’s work is often undervalued in our world. my question is, why do people (like clayson) respond to that by swinging to such an extreme? by valuing only one kind of women’s work–that of mothering?

2. does insisting that mothering is the most important work any woman can do, regardless of whether she’s biologically a mother, actually succeed in making you feel valued?

3. do you honestly believe that every woman is a mother? and this is a genuine question. i do not. but i’m curious what others believe. can you make a case for that position that relies on more than the notion that women “mother” or “nurture” children by nature? i don’t deny that, although i know women of whom that is not true; i simply don’t think it means i’m a mother. and i flatly reject that, even if it means i am “motherly,” such nurturing is the most important work i do in my life. but i’d love to hear other people’s perspectives. i want to understand why so many people make this argument.

i look forward to hearing what you think.}


Amelia has recently relocated to Salt Lake City for her new job selling college textbooks (a job she loves). She's a 9th generation Mormon redefining her relationship with the church (the church she both loves and hates). She's passionate about books, travel, beauty, and all things cheese.

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  1. Caroline says:

    Amy, I LOVE this.

    “please have enough decency to honor all the work women do, not just the work they do as mothers. don’t tell me i am a mother in some misguided effort to make me feel better about the fact that i’m unmarried and childless. instead, look me in the eye and see me for who and what i am: a woman of god who is using the gifts she’s been given to make as much beauty and goodness as she can.”


    I do not think every woman is a mother. Just like I don’t think every man is a father. I think the rhetoric has swung that way because the authorities don’t know what to do with the fact that women don’t have the priesthood. To compensate, they’ve had to raise motherhood to something equivalent to priesthood, and then uncomfortably stretch “motherhood” to fit all females.

    Doesn’t work. The equivalent to motherhood is fatherhood, and the equivalent to priesthood is priest(ess)hood. Until they acknowledge that, they are going to tie themselves up into rhetorical knots and unknowingly drive a dagger into the hearts of childless women who want to be mothers – but aren’t.

  2. Behind the Infamous Veil (BiV) says:

    I’ve commented on this post already on your blog, and I appreciate these sentiments. I am a mother. But I am also a woman. And I would also like to be known for my accomplishments as a person, rather than solely as someone’s wife and mother. I don’t wish to undervalue the work I’ve done within the walls of my home, but I’ve also done some other important things that have nothing to do with mothering, and I wish that these things could also be honored. I think articles like this are harmful to all of us.

  3. Deborah says:

    I found the article highly problematic because it seemed to *want* to create boundary lines . . . I give the author/editors some blame for that.

    But I will take on your last question. I first came across the “All women are mothers” theory a decade ago in an article by Patricia Holland; when I heard Sherri Dew’s talk, I assume she used Sis. Holland for source material, since the arguments were similarly outlined. I loved the article. The reductivist aphorism — All women are mothers — seems trite and in some ways not fair to either moms nor women who are not moms. But the speculative theology behind it is really quite appealing to me.

    Sis. Holland looks at Eve, who received the title “Mother of All Living” before she bore children. This sent me on the hunt for the way “motherhood” was characterized in the scriptures. Deborah is a prophetess/judge/general/poet. She is not identified as a literal mother. But in Judges 5:7, she sings: The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel. This was the title LDS women in the 19th century adopted and it was used to describe Eliza R. Snow — who never bore children. In the Pearl of Great Price, we hear the voice of Mother Earth. In the Joseph Fielding Smith vision, he sees “Mother Eve.”

    My point? I see an archetypal power in the phrase “mother” — a connection to earth, to creation, to nations and people. I see it as a powerful word that has spiritual vision far beyond work/SAHM debate and questions of household chores. Perhaps its the English teacher in me . . . but when I read so many creation stories that begin with a great Mother, I really do see this word attached somewhere to the core of my identity and potential.

  4. a spectator says:

    I think anyone, regardless of gender, marital status, or biology, can mother. I think Heavenly Father mothers us and Christ certainly mothered. Some mothers (most) mother their children sometimes. But mothering (the verb) is different from having children.

    Mothering does not require a specific relationship (although strangers may not want you to mother them); I am sure we have all had the opportunity to serve friends, family members, and maybe colleagues by mothering them. I have been mothered by many who were not my mother. It is an act of love.

    But it is just one thing that women can do There are many other ways to love and serve. I have been so appreciative of wonderful women in my life. I benefit immensely from excellent teachers teaching in my schools, capable women processing my insurance, and oh such fabulous care from nurses when hospitalized. The ladies who work at my library would go to the ends of the earth to find just the book I need. Thank goodness they are not all at home!

  5. Caroline says:

    How interesting that you have a different take on the “every woman a mother” doctrine. I viscerally have a more negative reaction to it – probably because I see it as a way to fob women away from priesthood – but I did find your reading compelling as well. Thanks!

  6. M&M says:

    I can understand your point of view, because there are many good things that many good women do that make an impact on the world in different ways. But I guess I look at it this way: Men really are also told that the most important things that they will do are those that have eternal import, too…spiritual growth, family focus. I can’t really think of a lot of focus in the Church on what men do in their work lives. That’s a means to an end — providing for a family and thus fulfilling their duties.

    Again, I am not suggesting that there isn’t inherent value in work that men or women do, but all of us are told that what matters most is our family relationships, and the way we view and fulfill our roles.

    So I think that generally speaking, regardless of our marital and family status and our gender, we are all told repeatedly that what matters most is not what takes up 90% of our time, but what takes up that precious 10% of time on ‘what is most important.’

  7. M&M says:

    they are going to tie themselves up into rhetorical knots and unknowingly drive a dagger into the hearts of childless women who want to be mothers – but aren’t.

    What I find interesting is that it is childless women who have contributed to this notion. What do you say to them when you look them in the eye? That the peace they have found with their eternal potential isn’t viable? (That’s coming across snarkier than I want it to, but it’s an honest question…the complaint is that this doctrine is dismissive of single women, but what of dismissing what some single women hold onto as something significant to give them perspective and hope for the eternal blessings promised to them?)

  8. Caroline says:

    M&M, that’s a good point. But it’s not something I’ve ever come across. Every non-married LDS woman I’ve ever talked to about this issue finds it cold, cold comfort to be told that they’ll have a family after their dead.

    For those who find do find comfort in this (Sherri Dew?) more power to them. But it’s a sword that cuts both ways, and I hope they remember that when they use this rhetoric.

  9. M&M says:

    I recognize the pain. But I do think there is great power in the doctrine.

    That said, my heart really does go out to those who ache for motherhood in this life. I have been there and I know how deep that ache runs. I know what ache there is for me to want to be able to have more children and not be able to. That doctrine of the eternal nature of motherhood brings me a great deal of comfort even in my situation.

    I found great comfort in Sister Beck’s words that if we, like Hannah of old, yearn for motherhood regardless of the specifics of our situations now, and we strive to attain the attributes of motherhood now, those things will rise with us in the resurrection. That gives us all something tangible to strive for, I think, regardless of our family situations today.

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment…this is all just so on my mind right now….

  10. Anonymous says:

    I HATED this article.

    Somewhere–maybe as a two- or three-word phrase–there was mention of Ms. Clayson’s previous marriage.

    She DID get married shortly after BYU, then divorced, then lived as a divorced single for years before she met Mark.

    Of course, to most members, to the Church leadership, etc., singles and divorced singles are persona non grata, especially if they do not have children.

    No matter JCJ’s marital status, she enjoyed a brilliant and interesting career.


  11. Tona says:

    I haven’t seen the article, but since I live in the Boston area I just hafta say… that whatever the BYU article said about her, I bet it’s cringe-worthy even to her. I have heard her speak at an LDS women’s conference and was mighty impressed, and to make the record clear – she is currently a regular substitute on the highly rated 2-hour long NPR interview show on WBUR called the Connection, where her motherhood seldom comes up and her LDS identity never does – she is just doing a darn good job in her professional field.

  12. Tona says:

    Sorry – I meant “On Point,” not the Connection.

  13. Anonymous says:

    The article is here:

    As far as her first marriage goes, it sounds like they couldn’t say much about it because she doesn’t say much about it. I think that’s fair–she shouldn’t have to discuss it if she doesn’t want to, and I suspect that has much more to do with the personal nature of the topic rather than some kind of statement about divorced women.

  14. amelia says:

    thanks for all the great comments. a few thoughts in response:

    caroline: i agree that part of this drive to categorize all women as mothers has something to do with the all-male nature of the priesthood at the current time. i don’t know how overt it is, but i do see a connection. what really pains me about this is that fatherhood seems to get too often swept under the rug, in spite of more attention being given to it in recent years.

    deborah: i like the notion that of interpreting the “all women are mothers” idea as being some kind of representation of a divine or originary feminine. i like the idea of reading it symbolically. and in the mother’s day talk i gave last spring (and posted here on the blog), i used this kind of logic–showing that deborah, eliza r. snow, and esther were all mothers in israel because they fostered the spiritual life of their communities.

    while i can live with and even embrace such an interpretation of the idea–that all women are mothers insofar as they can foster spiritual life–i don’t think it’s necessarily what most people think of, whether we’re talking about the people giving the talks or the ones hearing them. instead i think the notion is generally interpreted much more literally as either referring to some future moment at which all women will biologically and/or spiritually have children of their own or to the “mother-your-nieces-and-nephews” version sherri dew held up. i’m all for the power of reinterpretation to subvert problematic teachings, but i’m even more in favor of not teaching the problematic notions in the first place. especially when doing so causes, in my opinion, very real spiritual harm.

  15. amelia says:

    a spectator: i like your point that “mothering” is an activity that anyone can participate in, regardless of not only marital status but also even gender. your comment does illustrate, however, the conflation between the verbs “mother” and “nurture.” i find that conflation troubling because it genders actions that i think should not be gendered. the result of that gendering is to suggest that men cannot nurture because nurture = mother on some level.

    M&M: i appreciate your point about men also being told that the most important things they do are tied to family and spirituality. i agree with you that if fostering spirituality and family only occupies 10% of your time, then that is the 10% of your time spent most vitally. my point, however, was not that 10% of my time was spent doing spiritually significant work while the other 90% of my time was spent doing spiritually insignificant work. my point was that when we focus so much on such a small portion of our sphere of influence, we fail to recognize the incredibly important spiritual work (whether it’s tied to family or not) that is done in the rest of our sphere of influence. when we are told that being a mother is the most important work a woman can do (regardless of whether she is biologically a mother or not and regardless of how much time she actually spends with children), the implication is that the rest of the work a woman does is insignificant by comparison. but i flatly reject that. i believe that any individual could engage in work that is spiritually significant–perhaps even more spiritually significant than the influence they may have in their own family–that overlaps with their “worldly” work that you designate nothing more than a means to an end. i suppose for many people that work is only a means to an end; but that’s not the case for everyone. and i think we should honor the productive contributions women make of all varieties, recognizing the potential for spiritual significance that work has.

  16. amelia says:

    M&M (2): i agree with you that the peace some women find with this notion is very real. and it should not be attacked. i am simply asking that they recognize the very real nature of other responses to the idea that all women are mothers regardless of their life realities. my complaint is less that this teaching (i refuse to call it a doctrine) is dismissive of single women. instead my complaint is that the insistence on this teaching obscures the lived realities of women–not only the that being single and/or childless is deeply painful and that this teaching can exaggerate that pain, but also the reality of the deeply meaningful spiritual work women do without it being tied to children in any way. my complaint is not only that the teaching hides the negative, but it also hides a positive. don’t see me for what i lack, reassuring me that i don’t actually lack it. don’t understand who i am based on the contribution i cannot make, promising me that i actually am making that contribution. instead see me for many beautiful blessings i do have, for the gifts god has given me and asked me to use, for the contributions i do make.

  17. amelia says:

    i appreciate tona pointing out clayson’s continued professional work. another complaint i had about the article is that i found it a bit disingenuous in that clayson continues to engage with her world in a professional capacity. she speaks at conferences, she works in radio, she’s published a book (and probably done the requisite PR appearances that go with it). the article tries to make it sound like she gave up all professional engagement, choosing the profession of “mother” instead. which simply is not true.

    while i agree with anonymous 1 that too often singles and divorced singles are personae non grata in the church (and this article does reinforce that in some ways), i also agree with anonymous 2 that the article probably glosses clayson’s first marriage because clayson herself glosses that first marriage. the impression i got was that it was a bad time in her life and she refused to discuss it much.

  18. mami says:

    Great thoughts. MM is trying to talk about this too.

  19. M&M says:

    Actually, Amelia, I meant to follow up with the point that I think it is possible for those who work professionally to be growing and developing and serving in ways that contribute to good and to spiritual growth. I am sorry I didn’t add that because that is some of what you respond with.

    Still, in the way I separate out means and ends, rejoicing in the good that may be done outside of the family realm still is, in my mind, a means to an end. Shouldn’t any good that we rejoice in point us to our eternal goals?

    You say, “instead see me for many beautiful blessings i do have, for the gifts god has given me and asked me to use, for the contributions i do make.” And I actually agree with that. I wonder if some of it is semantics. We can do good, eternal good, outside of our families as well as within. Nurturing and loving and serving and making a positive impact certainly aren’t limited to our family spheres, and I’m not sure that those who talk about us all being mothers would disagree with that. I guess that is part of why I don’t fully understand the bristling at this concept — because I think the doctrine, for all of us, encompasses so much of what we strive to do when we strive to do good, in whatever sphere we may be in.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I am a school teacher. (grades 3 and 4) The class I have is a group of kids I also taught in kindergarten. MANY of them don’t have a mom living at home, and they are living with dad/grandparent/aunt/foster parent. This is the 3rd year I have been their teacher. I have shared the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. They come to me for many things, but I not their mother. I nurture them, I band-aid their scrapes, I help them solve problems, teach them, love them…more so than I ever could in a larger school. However, at the end of the day, they still want a mom. I can’t replace her in even the slightest way. These kids miss their mom every day, even if they are getting all the love you think they could ever want from another woman. I don’t think that goes away until they are adults and can reflect on their relationship with the significant women in their lives. So, no, I don’t think all women are mothers. There is something VERY powerful about that mother/child relationship that you can’t get from an aunt/grandma/etc. PS: I am NOT trying to say that those relationships aren’t awesome, I am just saying that in the child’s eyes, a mom is a mom is a mom.

  21. amelia says:

    M&M says: “Still, in the way I separate out means and ends, rejoicing in the good that may be done outside of the family realm still is, in my mind, a means to an end. Shouldn’t any good that we rejoice in point us to our eternal goals?”

    absolutely. i suppose i have two sticking points. first, i do not think that family is the purest expression of our eternal goals, but rather only a part of our eternal goals. or perhaps i should say that i believe family is a manifestation of our eternal goal, rather than being the goal itself. i think we can achieve our eternal goal, insofar as what we can do in this life is concerned, without family; i do not believe that being part of a family in this life is an automatic ride to fulfillment of eternal goals. (i believe this in spite of the fact that we all have families into which we are born.)

    second, i’m a little troubled by the discussion of work (activity, service, learning, etc.) outside the family as a means to ends. i understand that for many, many people work outside the home is a means to the end of providing for their families. often that work is in and of itself menial and tedious and has little redeeming merit other than as a means to the end of providing. but i find discussing engagement outside the family as a means to an end troubling because for those of us who are not married and do not have children, such engagement is not a means to that particular end. where the end (providing for a family) can give meaning to the means for people who work in order to provide, that is not true of those of use who do not work in order to provide for others.

    this is something i have genuinely struggled with. very deeply. in some of my darkest moments i find myself asking what good all of my work is if, at the end of the day, i have no family to imbue it with meaning. when i am not in my darkest moments, i know such thinking is wrong on all kinds of levels. but i believe that i engage in that thinking because of the kind of means-to-an-end logic that is so often used to discuss family and labor in the church. we so often engage in the rhetoric of family giving meaning to everything else, that the idea is too deeply ingrained in my psyche to eradicate it. i don’t know that i want to eradicate it; i love my family and i want a family of my own more than i want anything else. but i do not think god wants the truth that family is important to become a destructive psychological force. i do not blame the church per se; i simply believe the church and church leaders could adjust the discourse about family and non-family pursuits to mitigate the potential for destructive psychological ramifications of that discourse.

    i agree with you that most (if not all) of those who speak on the idea that all women are mothers would accept and espouse the idea that nurturing, loving, and serving is not limited to the family sphere. my problem is less with the idea that all women can mother (i would prefer they use the word “nurture” and that they make this apply to both sexes, because i am convinced that all men can nurture, too; i still disagree with the idea that by virtue of the fact that all women can mother they therefore are mothers), than with the pervasiveness of teaching the idea and the absence of acknowledging the other truth–that women (and men) do spiritually necessary and significant work unconnected to mothering/nurturing. i don’t bristle solely at the teaching (though the formulation of that teaching in question does cause me to bristle); i bristle at the failure to authenticate a variety of courses.

    if that makes sense. thank you for engaging on this question. it has helped me understand others’ thought process on this issue, which is something i’m always striving for.

  22. amelia says:

    i really appreciate anonymous 3’s (school teacher) comment. part of what i find troubling about this idea is that by trying to turn all women into mothers, the significance of mothers can actually be diluted. the essential nature of the mother-child relationship that anonymous points to becomes lost. i realize that those who espouse the “every woman is a mother” teaching would readily agree that no one could replace a child’s own mother. but i do think that one of the unintended consequences of the teaching is to devalue the work of mothers. another reason i’m all for using the word “nurture” rather than “mother” and talking about how all adults (again both women and men) can and should nurture the children in their lives.

  23. M&M says:

    Ah, Amelia, I think we may think the same more than you think. 🙂 When I talk about ends, I’m talking eternal ends, not just paying bills and providing for a family. I lived that life, and I found great meaning in the many aspects of my life, even though I came home to an empty apartment each night.

    My point is that, in the end, all that we do should be with an eye single to the glory of God. So when you talk of ‘spiritually necessary and significant work’ I don’t disagree with you. I guess I just tend to think that the breadth of the meaning of the word nurturing is often underappreciated and can include those very things that are “spiritually necessary and significant.”

    I say this yes, as a mom of children, but also because I have taken this idea to heart in my roles as neighbor, mentor (I work with college students as a member of a university advisory board), church member, and even stranger in the store. I don’t feel this devalues my work as a mother at all. For me, it enhances all the other associations and opportunities I have. It binds me to women of all walks of life and situations. I would rather not think that we are all so different. I would gladly share the role of mother/nurturer with all women because I really do believe in the doctrine. (Just my take on the school teacher anonymous’s comments.)

    I DO understand the language barrier with the word ‘mother’ thought because it usually has such a narrow meaning attached to it. (Why not expand that idea, though? To me, the gospel is about bringing perspective to concepts that are understood differently in ‘the world.’)

    Here’s why I say that: The more I have thought about it, the more I like it, because I tend to think that that word is used because the highest blessing we can receive someday is to be involved in eternal parenting (this goes for the men, too, obviously, and is part of why they are also told that there is nothing more important than their families).

    I also can’t get Sister Beck’s comment about Hannah out of my mind. It will be our desires for motherhood (even if it doesn’t come now) and the traits of divine womanhood and eternal motherhood that we strive to develop that will rise with us in the resurrection. That is so deeply profound to me. That has caused me to pause and ponder as much as the ‘Eve was called the mother of all living before she had children’ concept, that suggested to me that I have limited my view of what motherhood means too much. I think we all do, and that is why I get excited about expanding the perspective on it.

    And I know I am saying too much here, but appreciate your willingness to listen, and to engage with me even if we disagree. Thanks.

    And for what it’s worth, I do celebrate the good that good women do in many ways and many spheres. Maybe you don’t want to call it mothering or relate it to that concept, but I celebrate the path that is truly given to each of us by God, because I believe that our journeys are personalized (even if we can’t always figure out what we are supposed to learn from them!) 🙂 My passion for the principles discussed here should not be seen as disregard for other women’s gifts and talents and desires for good, service, love.

  24. Eve says:

    Personally, I find the “every woman is a mother” concept problematic.

    There are several levels at which the statement doesn’t work for me, but one of the contradictions I see is that on the one hand, we want the relationship with one’s mother to be absolutely unique, a connection no aunt or grandmother or father or daycare can provide, as the elementary school teacher above mentioned and as I believe President Kimball famously said. But on the other hand, in order to extend motherhood to all women, we want to claim that a childless woman somehow “mothers” her nieces, nephews, students, etc. I don’t think we can have it both ways.

    To address M&M’s question about the comfort some childless women find in contemplating their eternal motherhood: we find comfort and meaning in all sorts of ideas. Whether they’re viable or true in some eternal, transcendental sense is another question entirely. The incredible emphasis on motherhood is a fairly recent innovation in church discourse. My sister Lynnette informs me that women living polygamy often took comfort in the idea that by living the Principle they were removing the curse of Eve. These days we don’t seem to believe much in a curse of Eve anymore, and by the lights of our current discourse we’d probably say their comfort was based on ideas about polygamy, marriage, and the fall we no longer accept.

  25. M&M says:

    The incredible emphasis on motherhood is a fairly recent innovation in church discourse.

    Actually, it’s not as recent as some may think. I ran into it while reading Priesthood and Church Government, which was a church manual back in the 30s to the 50s (at least).

    I would be interested to know what you think the alternative should be. I keep hearing objections, but am still not quite sure what the wished-for difference would be in the teaching. I think we can recognize the importance of a child’s mother (a title) and still talk about nurturing (“mothering”) (a trait) that we should be developing, all toward the goal of being eternal mothers. Preparation for that would also include all else that our covenants entail. I guess I still don’t understand why there is such resistance to this.

  26. M&M says:

    I also think the ‘well, I found something that might have been seen incorrectly in the past’ as a pretty shaky reason to reject something taught today — especially when it’s been part of our teachings for the better part of a century at least.

  27. Eve says:

    M&M, sure, motherhood has definitely been mentioned in the past, but my impression is that it seems to have gotten quite a bit more press in the last 30-40 years. Since second-wave feminism and the advent of a great insistence on equality, I suspect because it’s a placeholder that allows us–rhetorically–to make men and women equal. For example, it’s very instructive to compare the discussion of motherhood in the scriptures (barely mentioned, and certainly not in the terms it’s mentioned in our current discourse) to the prominent role it currently occupies. I’m not trying to say that either the scriptures or contemporary discourse on the subject are wrong, or that one is more or less correct than the other, which I think would be quite a reductive reading–it’s just an interesting shift to consider in terms of contemporary rhetorical pressures.

    Similarly, I wasn’t bringing up the comfort the women found in polygamy to propose a rejection of current notions of motherhood (although I think a healthy historical perspective on our discourse never hurts!)–only to suggest, in the context of the discussion about taking comfort in certain ideas, that the mere fact people find ideas comforting doesn’t, in itself, suggest anything about their truth or falseness. To pick a more extreme example: I’m sure some people found the denial of the priesthood to black men comforting. But that comfort clearly wasn’t a sufficient reason to hang onto a denial I think we’d all agree ultimately runs counter to the fullest vision of the gospel belonging to all God’s children.

  28. Eve says:

    I would be interested to know what you think the alternative should be. I keep hearing objections, but am still not quite sure what the wished-for difference would be in the teaching. I think we can recognize the importance of a child’s mother (a title) and still talk about nurturing (“mothering”) (a trait) that we should be developing, all toward the goal of being eternal mothers.

    I certainly wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else, but at least part of it for me is a personality issue. I’m not a particularly soft, nurturing, motherly type of person, and I don’t find myself either feeling a great need either to mother other people or a great need to be mothered and nurtured myself. I tend to find other women’s attempts to mother me intrusive; I’ve always liked a little bit more personal space and autonomy. If I were a mother, I think my heartfelt goal would be to raise my kids ASAP so that they could become interesting adults–I find other peoples’ babies unutterably boring, for example, although I’m invariably polite about them. 😉

    So while I’m thrilled about the idea of interesting eternal relationships, I’m quite a bit less thrilled about a definition that reduces a woman to her role as mother (just as although being a father is vital, we wouldn’t reduce a man to that role, and we never seem to talk about eternal fathering, very strangely….) Even in this life, mothering is a season, and quite an exhausting one, by all accounts. It seems to me the real rewards come later, when little kids turn into interesting people.

  29. M&M says:

    he mere fact people find ideas comforting doesn’t, in itself, suggest anything about their truth or falseness.

    Fair enough, but I don’t hear people with authority saying that they find these ideas comforting, I hear them saying they find them true.

    As to motherhood being mentioned in the past, I don’t know if I made it clear that it’s not just that motherhood was mentioned, it was that this idea of all women can mother had been mentioned decades ago. I thought Sheri Dew was the first, then saw that Pat Holland said it before her, then found it in Widtsoe’s book. I found that interesting and meaningful and reinforcing the sense that I get that this isn’t just about “comforting” ideas.

    And thanks for explaining a little where you are coming from, Eve. That helps me understand you better. 🙂

    we never seem to talk about eternal fathering,

    I’m not so sure I agree with you there. Maybe those exact words aren’t used, but the underlying concept seems to be pretty prevalent to me. Hm.

  30. Eve says:

    Fair enough, but I don’t hear people with authority saying that they find these ideas comforting, I hear them saying they find them true.

    Definitely–but I think some of the discussion here centered on the comforting or noncomforting value of the idea to the childless, which is why I addressed that aspect of it. It’s not even so much that I disagree with the idea that all women are eternal mothers or think it’s untrue as it is that I’d like to see it placed in a much broader context, one that gave equal emphasis to eternal fathers, for example. But the eternal mother rhetoric has seemed to require a particular set of cultural pressures to emerge; perhaps under other cultural pressures, we’ll get other aspects of the picture.

    And thanks for explaining a little where you are coming from, Eve. That helps me understand you better. 🙂

    I’m glad one of us is understanding me better–I make less sense to myself all the time! Of course, that does make for an interesting life…

  31. M&M says:

    I’m glad one of us is understanding me better–I make less sense to myself all the time! Of course, that does make for an interesting life…

    Ha. I understand you there, sister!

  32. Hellmut says:

    The alternative is to treat women as adults and individuals whose value neither depends on their husbands nor their children. Instead we may value every woman for her own sake.

    A woman does not need the prescriptions of men who will not take responsibility if their advice fails to meet her personal or her family’s needs.

    An adult woman is smart and responsible and can determine the best course of action autonomously. In fact, she can do that a lot better than high ranking functionaries who know neither her nor her circumstances.

    Lets just treat women as adult and free people.

    On a different note, I would like to point out that it is not fair to tell a childless woman that she will fulfill her true mission in the afterlife. For that implies that her life will only be truly meaningful after death and devalues her current existence.

    That’s a sorry and hurtful alternative because many women have great options right now. There is no need to use religion to devalue their life.

    It is not a good fruit when religion stops us from living in the here and now and belittles the available opportunities.

    As President Hinckley never tires to tell us in the national media, we don’t really know all that much about the afterlife and the plan of salvation. According to Hinckley, there appears to be a lot of Mormon folklore about the afterlife and very little doctrine.

    Therefore it is important that we live life to the fullest. In the parable of the talents, the Savior said that he expected as much of us.

  33. Maria says:

    Thank you, all, for your thoughtful comments here. You’ve provided me with much food for thought.

  34. Dora says:

    I am bothered that most male accomplishment in the church is tied to having the priesthood, and that female accomplishment is tied to having children. Both of these seem to be outer accomplishments, and not to spiritual refinement.

    Almost any male in the church, if he stays in the church, will be moved along to receiving the Melchizedek priesthood. It’s just what we do, regardless of actual spiritual merit. Or so it has seemed from my experiences in the stake missionary program.

    Almost any healthy woman can bear children. And there are plenty of women who bear children who do not mother.

    So, the qualities that make a man or a woman valiant in the eyes of God, have very little to do with what our mortal brothers and sister see. We can be faithful, charitable, actively serving, praying, studying, loving, ad infitinum. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that when we read of Christ’s ministry, we hear of the things he did … not as a husband or wife, but significant things he said and did and taught that made a difference in the lives of others. Was he married? Was he a father? ho knows? This information is not included in the scriptures, probably because it doesn’t really matter. He came. He served. He loved and taught. And that’s something we can all do, regardless of the outer trappings.

  35. Anonymous says:

    One thing that bothers me about the “mothering hypothesis” is that even women who do “mother” only “mother” for a portion of their lives. This is a problem that life history theorists (in anthropology) have struggled with. What is the value of a woman after her children are grown? This is of course meant in an academic sense, more like, how do females increase their fecundity after they are no longer fertile? Current theory suggests that once investment in their direct offspring is not needed they invest in their offspring’s offspring. This is not “mothering.” So, the most important thing a female can do is something that even those blessed wit that opportunity, can only do for a short period of their lifespan.

    That went into some unnecessary detail, but why would the church reduce the value of a female to her fertility and her then investment in her offspring? This bothers me. Leave that kind of stuff to academia, where they purposeful isolate the objective from the subjective. I can handle that in class, I can’t handle that kind of reductionism from a religion that should be focused on our eternal and DIVINE (not biological) nature.

    I’m not saying that motherhood isn’t important. I’m just saying that motherhood and priesthood work are incredibly different. Men can practice their “important” work from the time they are twelve. Women only sometimes have the opportunity between the ages of ~14-~45.

  36. Chelle says:

    What a wonderful post Amelia. Thanks for articulating basically all of my thoughts in your post and in your comments. I could just say ditto. As a single woman, whenever I hear the “you are a mother rhetoric,” I usually just tune out, (or sometimes feel bad, depending on my mood). Motherhood is extremely important, but it does not apply to all in this life. It feels like it is often up to us as individual women to create meaning out of our own lives. Sometimes I struggle doing this, even though I am very happy on a day to day basis. I have a fantastic, interesting and unusual career, and many friends and family members that I care about…and would like to believe that my life too has meaning. This is sometimes difficult hearing about how the most important things in life-I am not doing.

    Eve-I have always felt the same way about having children. I would like them, just so they could grow up and become interesting adults I would love to be around.

  37. amelia says:

    again, more great comments. a few thoughts in response to those:

    M&M: thinking about the “means to an end” argument in terms of doing everything with an eye single to god’s glory helps mitigate my problems with that argument. but it doesn’t do away with them. i tend to take an ontological, rather than teleological approach to living. i’m more interested in the moment now, in how i am making it as good and beautiful and productive as i can. i’m not so interested in where i’ll end up in the hereafter. frankly i think it’s relatively unimportant. because living for that moment or trying to do things in order to get me to some desired outcome can, in my opinion, distract me from the here and now in ways that are really dangerous. if i spend all my time trying to figure out how my decisions now will shape my future in some distant eternity, what will i miss? what opportunities will i not recognize because i’ve put the blinders of achieving a set outcome on?

    i don’t know if that makes sense; but it’s the only way i can make sense of how to live life. which is why i’m not really interested in talking about my eventual parenthood. i know that eventually i will be a parent. and eventually i will marry. but that’s beside the point. the point is to live as jesus did. to be good. to do good. to become like christ. ultimately that’s what matters. if i do that, then i will i’ll have all the traits and characteristics of divine parenthood i’ll need.

    and if we could teach more in the moment–help people find meaning and beauty in their lives regardless of what course their life has taken–then i think we would enable more people to find fulfillment in being true followers of the savior, while leaving fewer people struggling with the fact that they don’t have some pre-conceived formulation of the ‘good life’ right now.

  38. amelia says:

    M&M asks what the alternative is. for what it’s worth, here’s the alternative i’d like to see. i don’t want being a woman to be equated with being a mother. they just aren’t equal. we don’t equate being a man with fatherhood, so why do we make the move for women? that doesn’t mean we can’t teach the central role of family or that, in an eternal scheme, we will all have the opportunity to be parents. it simply means that we stop reducing womanhood to motherhood.

    why do i want that change? because i think the effort to constantly inscribe motherhood onto womanhood, while utterly disregarding the realities of women’s lives, tends to paralyze both mothers and non-mothers in horrible ways. anytime we’re told that we should fit some mold, our attention is directed towards conformity rather than towards goodness. christ taught us principles. he replaced the old law, which emphasized external manifestations of goodness, with the new law that emphasized internal goodness. in my mind, talking about how every woman is a mother emphasizes a single variety of goodness and a certain role, rather than emphasizing overall spiritual development. (i appreciate dora’s comment in this regard.)

    the alternative i want is to emphasize living christlike lives in all realms. parenting. being a child. friendships. in the workplace. in fulfilling civic duties. allowing the principles christ taught to govern all of our decisions. if we do so, then we don’t need to spend so much time talking about what roles we fill. the roles shouldn’t be what really matters; what really matters is the manner in which we fill our roles.

    i think our discourse should emphasize goodness as the objective, rather than “mothering” or being a mother. if it did, then we would authorize finding fulfillment in whatever circumstance a woman finds herself in. which is what i’m looking for. acknowledgment that accomplishing good work in this life is not exclusive to the realm of “mothering.” because no matter how agilely you spin it, the verb “to mother” just cannot cover every activity that has a spiritually significant impact in which women engage.

    if we truly think that nurturing is the single most important thing we can do, then let’s talk about nurturing. for both women and men.

    and i’ll say amen to the gist of what hellmut has to say. i find it a bit infantalizing to talk about all women as mothers. just treat me like an adult. a complex, autonomous adult with complex work to do who makes an impact on her world in many ways.

  39. Adam says:

    I’m with Caroline (and others). One way to deconstruct this adoration of motherhood is to reflect it onto fatherhood. Is fatherhood the most important thing a man can do? If so, how often do we say it? Why is the rhetoric so different? We’ve got to start valuing women’s contribution to the church beyond raising children. The fact is that parenthood is one phase of life that can actually be enriched by contributions to the community and workplace.

    The funny thing is, Jane Clayson has led a life that exemplifies a “phases of life” view perfectly. She had a successful career and then has begun to raise what I can only assume are fantastic children. Even as she is mothering, she works for NPR and obviously writes and promotes Mormon non-fiction literature. This fact about her life is what makes her new-found Mormon persona sickening. It just feeds an out-dated stereotype about what motherhood should be. It compounds the mormon social pressure for women to dedicate their entire life to producing offspring.

  40. M&M says:

    Is fatherhood the most important thing a man can do? If so, how often do we say it? Why is the rhetoric so different?

    I’m not so sure the rhetoric is so different. Men are told all of the time that family comes first, that their roles as husband and father are the most important roles they will have. How is it really different?

    amelia, I think I understand what doesn’t sit well with you … this notion that all women are mothers (even though all women don’t have children) and you feel that line of thinking doesn’t recognize the value of other things women (esp. those without children, but even women in different stages of life) do. (Am I close?) 🙂

    But I still can’t help but feel that some of this is semantics, because I think so much of what you express is already happening. We DO hear all of the time about the importance of being Christlike, in all of our roles and responsibilities — in life in general. We aren’t told to all be mothers (nurturing women, whatever) at the expense of being Christlike. These roles, traits, whatever, are PART of being Christlike. The roles allow us to practice that kind of living, and help keep us focused on eternal relationships.

    I guess we see some things differently, though. I think part of being Christlike demands that we look to eternity, because He constantly pointed us toward what would bring eternal life, not just what good we could do in the now (as important as that is). I don’t see how we could stay focused and balanced and ordered (in terms of priorities) without looking toward eternal goals.

    I also see the purpose of being Christlike not as simply a list of traits, but as still part of the means to the end of being like God. He always points us to God, who is first and foremost a Father. I don’t see how we can decouple a focus on family roles and being Christlike, because in the end, our whole purpose (even as our individual paths differ) is to live the life that God lives. But even so, the leaders seem to me to make great effort to recognize that we all are in different situations in the present; I really don’t hear them “utterly disregarding the realities of women’s lives” as you say. I’m sorry if you feel that disregard, however. (Not trying to sound patronizing…just trying to acknowledge that is how you feel.)

    As for me, I personally would be lost if all I did was focus on today. I don’t feel I lose or miss opportunities today with an eternal focus; in fact, I think that such a focus helps me better make choices about what to do today, and more deeply appreciate every day.

    Interesting how differently we can see some things, eh?

  41. Ana says:

    do you honestly believe that every woman is a mother?

    I think we are, but it’s not about mothering other people’s children or raising puppies watering the plants.

    It’s the only connection we know about to the only example we have of our divine potential. Mother is all we really know about Heavenly Mother. And I do believe the potential to be like Her is in each of us. I just don’t think we have much of a grasp on what that means.

  42. Chelle says:


    It makes sense to me that if I were part of a family (ie husband, children, etc.), then I would probably gain a lot of meaning and purpose from focusing on family roles and having an eternal focus on my family. That must be a really great feeling, to feel that your life’s choices are sanctioned by God and the church, although I can imagine it also comes with a certain amount of pressure as well.
    However, to be honest, the things I do on a day to day basis, DON’T have eternal significance in the same way. For example, I work with different co-workers each day. I work with the public. I see people on the subway. I often have the opportunity to go out of my way to help strangers or acquaintances or even friends, but these are probably not relationships that will be with me in the eternities. Therefore, like Amelia said, the day-to-day perspective is a great deal more helpful to me than thinking about the family I will someday have, which is in no way meaningful in my everyday life.

  43. M&M says:

    I guess what I see is that your day-to-day DOES have eternal significance. Regardless of the specifics of our lives now, how we treat other people, how we prioritize our time, how we turn our hearts to God and try to come closer to Him, all will determine what our eternal lives will be like. That is true for all of us, regardless of whether or not we have spouses and children now.

    I felt my life was approved of by God before I got married and had a family. I tried to do good and honest work; I served in the Church and put my heart into that (my callings were all in YW at that time, so I tried to nurture those girls); I cared about people; I tried to share the gospel when I could; I spent time with my family when I could (I lived on the other side of the country, so that didn’t happen often).

    We don’t have to have children to be developing traits of godliness or to have our lives have eternal significance. Like Sister Thompson said, we are all part of God’s family, and I think that matters eternally, too. In the end, regardless of our specific circumstances, we are each striving to become, and that happens as we focus our attention on what matters most. For each of us that will look a little different, but our purposes are the same — to glorify God and to become someday like Him.

    And to help others along the way. That can be done in our homes or working with the public. It’s all God’s work, because they are all God’s children. The key I think is to do our best within the realm of our realities, and to put the most important relationships first along the way. We ALL need to do this, even if the specific implementation look a little different for different people.

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