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1 April 2007

ideal/idol.
as a teenager, i decided that when i grew up i wanted to be the mother of a large family. i planned the rest of my education based on that decision. i had my life mapped out. after high school, i would attend brigham young university where i would certainly find and marry my future husband. i would begin a major in secondary education, which would enable me to work in a profession compatible with mothering children–but only if life circumstances forced me to work. and i was prepared to drop out of college so my future husband could pursue his career plans as necessary. i would not put off having children for pecuniary reasons. i would be a wonderful wife and mother.

my plans didn’t work out exactly as i envisioned them. right in the middle of my undergraduate education, the spirit prompted me that i should more seriously pursue my education–including a graduate education–in order to allow me to teach. i knew teaching was a gift from god and that were i not to teach, i would be failing him. i’m 31 now. i’m unmarried and have no children. i finished my undergraduate degree. and i continued to earn a master’s degree. i am currently working on a PhD. i still want to marry and have children–more than i want anything else. i will not give up on that vision for myself. but my life is very different from what i envisioned it would be.

in the april 2007 ensign, shauna bird dunn shares her own teenage vision of her future life and how that life radically changed. after having spent years planning a high-power corporate career, she felt prompted to turn down a dream job in favor of a job that would allow her to have children. ultimately she left work altogether to become a stay-home mom. i respect dunn for her decisions. they were clearly very difficult decisions to make. and she made them in keeping with personal revelation about god’s plan for her.

that said, i was troubled by her article. dunn creates a fairly stark opposition between the life she envisioned as the “leader of a large corporation” and her actual life as a stay-home mom. she writes: “i have stayed up many nights to comfort a sick or frightened child instead of staying up preparing a presentation for the board of directors; worn clothes covered in peanut butter smears instead of power suits; cleaned my home each day instead of enjoyed a penthouse view from my office; bandaged ‘owies’ and encouraged piano practice instead of handing out performance reviews; and enjoyed hugs and kisses instead of stock options as my compensation plan.” dunn also describes her dreams of working as a high-powered corporate leader in terms of “wearing power suits to my penthouse office, dazzling my co-workers and employees with my expertise, and cashing paychecks that truly reflected my value.”

the message is clear: being a stay-home mom is rewarding in very real, deeply human ways. it is full of love and compassion and kindness. it is selfless. pursuing the high power career with its “unbelievable benefits” is actually about shallow considerations like clothing, how high up the building one’s office is situated, wowing other people, and making lots and lots of money; it is not about true fulfillment, passion, or serving others.

part of the problem here is that dunn is clearly discussing labor in a very capitalist system, a system in which money and power are the measure of all that is worthy. and she compares it to labor (the labor of mothering full time) that is not recognized in terms of money or power within our capitalist society. she is participating in a conception of ‘work’ that fails to recognize that leading which is done for money should be similar in kind to leading that is done for christ. in other words, leaders in the workplace should be servant leaders every bit as much as leaders in the church or the family. but i digress; servant-leaders in the workplace is a topic for a different post.

the thing that really bothers me about dunn’s article is that she portrays women who want to work as supremely shallow. they are motivated by money. or by clothes. or by power. or by prestige. they are not motivated by passion. they are not trying to use god-given abilities and talents–talents that they will lose if they do not use them. they are the demonized other to the stay-home mother.

i want to give a voice to those women who pursue a career not because they want money or prestige or to be one of the boys; but because they are driven to do a certain work. because they know that if they do not do that work, they will fail god. because that work will allow them to be co-creators with god. i want to work not because i’ll see my name in lights or have multiple publications or be able to append three degrees to my name when i sign letters; i want to work because i think teaching will let me do god’s work in ways that nothing else will allow, not even motherhood. i want to work because teaching will give voice to passions and ideas that, if they remain bottled up inside me, will otherwise explode.

and i want to be a wife and a mother. the difference between dunn and i was she actually had a choice about following her teenage vision of a life. i have not had that choice. my opening paragraphs are not simply a subtle parody of dunn’s opening paragraphs; they are an accurate statement of my dream for myself when i was a teenager. my life has unfolded in such a way that i have never had the opportunity to make the choices that would allow me to marry and have children. instead, i have had to grapple with the darkness of not being able to make that choice. but, like dunn, i have learned that “i am happiest when i follow the lord’s plan for my life rather than my own personal plans.”

dunn’s article illustrates the great faith it takes some women to give up work and instead become a stay-home mother. i honor that faith. but this decision is idealized to such an extent that it is often idolized in the church. my decision, which mirrors in inverse dunn’s decision, also required a great deal of faith. the decision to continue pursuing the work and education the spirit prompted me to pursue was a decision premised on faith–faith that doing so would not foreclose the opportunity to marry and bear children; faith that i have the capacity to do the work i feel prompted to do (believing this is an ongoing battle for me); faith that i can navigate the sometimes troubled waters of being a mormon, a feminist, and an intellectual. accepting the fact that my righteous desire for marriage and family may never be fulfilled, and finding the strength to build a life for myself alone, has required more faith than i realized i had.

dunn’s almost-glib dismissal of women who work in favor of women who mother conceals the passion and spiritual commitments that inform some women’s commitment to work. and the idealization/idolization of stay-home motherhood her article represents ignores the reality of so many women in the church–those who are single, whether with or without children; those who must work for financial reaons; those who cannot have children; and many others. it is time to celebrate motherhood and marriage without doing so at the expense of real women whose lives do not, and often cannot, conform to an ideal/idol.

{this was cross-posted on Exponent II.}

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 2 April 2007 3:18 pm

    Hey Am, I never realized you were willing to give up your college education in order to have a family. I never even thought of that. (Even if I mentioned it in jest, Ry would never have considered it.) Isn’t it weird how people from the same family have different ideas! Anywho, I sometimes feel like I am missing something in my life. I don’t know if it is work outside the home or just the feeling of being valued for the ideas I have. I think as stay at home moms we often are looked at strangely when we say we might want to do something other than stay at home (not even necessarily working) I know that around many I my friends I am even hesitant to tell them I want more than what I have. I guess I feel ungrateful at times but it is how I feel. The paycheck issue is not an issue for me thankfully…I just want to continue to grow. I don’t want my kids to think their dad is smart and their mom isn’t. I guess there are other ways for growth besides work, I just have to prioratize them!

  2. 2 April 2007 4:49 pm

    i think it’s important to remember that there other ways for growth other than work for pay. sometimes we forget that there are lots of ways that we can contribute meaningful to our communities and society without being paid for those contributions. one of the other challenges of trying to continue to grow outside the framework of work for pay is that it becomes very much a matter of self-starting and motivation. when you work, you have no choice but to meet deadlines, etc., or else you lose your job (your pay). some people are great self-starters; some people are motivated just by the pleasure and reward of doing whatever it is they want to do. i am not one of them. at least not in the beginning. i need something forcing me to get going. once i am going, i often find whatever it is i’m doing very rewarding. but the starting is a killer.anyway. i think you’re wonderful, jen. and i think you should find those outlets for yourself. whether it’s by volunteering for a non-profit organization of some sort or starting a book club (you can even do those electronically now if you don’t find enough people interested who live around you) or taking courses by extension or by cultivating new hobbies. whatever it is. just don’t ever let yourself feel guilty for needing more than being a wife and a mother. all of us need many, many things. the challenge is not to need only the things that are most important, but to balance the things we need so that we meet our most important responsibilities without neglecting other responsibilities (including those to ourselves). if that makes sense.

  3. 3 April 2007 5:50 pm

    why didn’t this post get more comments? I thought there would be a rush of them

  4. 3 April 2007 9:42 pm

    i imagine most of them are over at exponent. :)

  5. 21 April 2007 12:18 pm

    and how quaint. anonymous attempts to play both side of the debate. i’m hereby making anonymous commenting on my blog not an option. if you’d like to comment, you can identify yourself publicly. and i’ll be monitoring the comments. at least until anonymous decides he/she has had her fun harassing me simply because he/she does not agree with me.

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