“Problems, Solutions: Being a Latter-day Saint Woman Today,” Ensign, Mar. 1976, 16
Have you ever said, or felt like saying, any of these things?
“My marriage isn’t too good—not unbearable, but not very satisfying either.”
“I feel like a failure as a mother.”
“I love the Church, but it adds to my pressures.”
“What about my own needs?”
In private conversations, in letters, in discussions, these feelings do sometimes come out; so if you have ever felt such expressions coming to the surface, you’re not alone. Not all Mormon women have these particular problems. Some have other problems—money, growing older, deteriorating social conditions, for example—still, the usually quiet unhappiness from personal causes deserves to be discussed and shared. These sisters are faithful and hardworking; they are not complaining or inventing problems. The problems are real. This does not mean that these sisters are unrighteous or lacking in testimony. And solutions are frequently so personal and so difficult to work out that the most valuable thing we can do for each other is to refrain from judging and instead to share our testimonies that the Lord cares about each of us individually and will help us cope with our problems. Material for answers to our questions may come from many sources, but the answers that will give us strength to do what needs to be done come from the Lord.
One of the most valuable discoveries I made about myself was that there is a difference between problems of character and problems of circumstance. I made this discovery in rush-hour traffic when I noticed that I was feeling serene and happy in spite of the traffic, the loneliness of keenly missing a departed friend, a disappointing day at the office, and an evening schedule that would require split-second timing. The discrepancy between my pressures and my feelings made me try to account for it, and I discovered, in thinking it through, that the loneliness, frustration, and pressure were just circumstances. They were not me. The happiness came from a recent experience where the Spirit communicated to me that my efforts toward obedience were acceptable to the Lord. That was me, the part that was developing righteous character. This distinction between pleasing the Lord and dealing with circumstances has been useful to me, because it gives me the freedom to identify myself with my highest values rather than with impermanent circumstances.
Some circumstances are being a woman (or man), being young (or old), being energetic (or tired), being married (or single). Circumstances differ endlessly and basically don’t matter. The Lord in giving the law of chastity or charity did not allow for circumstantial exceptions. That does not mean circumstances are not important. It’s because of circumstances that we take questions to the Lord; and it’s because of the way we deal with circumstances that we can see our progress toward righteousness. Many circumstances cannot be changed; others should be changed, because they hinder our best progress, but the decision to alter circumstances should be the Lord’s will rather than our personal convenience or our conformity to what our friends and neighbors are doing. By seeking the Lord’s will, we are dealing with questions of circumstance within the framework of developing righteous character.
And a woman who knows, with that unexplainable, unmistakable knowledge that she is obeying the Lord’s will, can go far beyond her usual limits. She can let her husband take their only son to a mountain thinking he would be sacrificed. Sarah did. She can marry a man she has never seen before, except in a dream, and follow him across a continent to raise his children. Rachel Judd Hamblin, Jacob Hamblin’s second wife, did. Or she can experience childlessness. Eliza R. Snow did. Or remain unmarried. May Anderson, second general president of the Primary, did. Few of us have challenges as dramatic as Sarah’s or Rachel Hamblin’s, but our individual trials are no less urgent.
Let me share with you the ways in which some women have coped with their circumstances by seeking the Lord’s will. These stories are personal. The solutions will not work for everyone. The important point to remember is that these sisters had the spiritual maturity and faith to seek their own answers from the Lord, answers that were harmonious with the truth they already knew, but answers that helped with their specific circumstances.
For some women, being married seems to be the problem. For others, not being married seems to be the problem. I have sympathy with both parties, but in many ways I don’t understand the problem. I’m thirty-one, single, and happy—but there’s no causal connection. I’m not happy because I’m single, and I’m not single because I’m happy. I’m happy because I feel some progress toward spiritual maturity. I’m single because it isn’t, for reasons I don’t completely understand, time for me to marry.
I think it’s easy to see marriage as a solution—a solution to being selfishly involved in only our concerns, a solution to the loneliness caused by relationships that always stop short of complete commitment, a solution to what we can do with our lives that will be meaningful and righteous.
It’s true that marriage offers a set of circumstances in which all of these things can happen; but marriage doesn’t guarantee that they will happen. Even a marriage entered into with the confirmation of the Holy Ghost, even a marriage strengthened by the power and promise of temple covenants has no guarantee of success. In itself, one’s marital status is not the essential problem, nor is changing it the essential solution.
Let me share the stories of three women who had less-than-blissful moments in their marriage.
One, now a young mother of three, reflected on the difficult adjustment to marriage that she and her husband experienced and what had given her the strength to keep working on the marriage.
“I knew that I was supposed to marry my husband. It had been made known to me. And I also knew that my Heavenly Father wouldn’t set me on a course of life that would make me constantly miserable. So my job was to find happiness in that course of life. Once I started looking for the Lord’s kind of happiness instead of my own, I found it.”
The second woman, a radiantly lovely woman in her seventies, remembers many moments of marital discord. “Once my husband did something that made me so angry I walked away from him with feelings of real hatred in my heart. I was supposed to teach a Relief Society lesson that same day and I knew I couldn’t do it with those feelings, so I prayed and asked our Heavenly Father to remove those feelings. They drained right out of me, and I felt his Spirit come. With that Spirit, you can forgive anything.
“Now, he didn’t stop doing things that provoked me, but I learned that I could say, ‘Well, that’s my husband. That’s just the price I pay for this man I love so.’”
Both of these women dealt with the circumstances they were in by discovering and following the will of the Lord. For them, the answer was a change in their own attitudes. For other women, the answer might be different: an arduous process of mutual education that might take years, a determined refusal to accommodate certain types of behavior, or even separation or divorce.
The third woman received this type of answer: She says that after five years of marriage she got to the point where she didn’t know if she could stand some of the constantly recurring problems in their marriage. As she prayed fervently, she received a very clear answer: “To change this problem, you must get help.” With the guidance of an LDS marriage counselor, she and her husband are now working on the problems together. She adds that another consolation to her is realizing that working many problems to a solution simply takes a long time. Some take a lifetime.
Motherhood is becoming one of those clear collision points between the values of society and the values of the Church. The Church provides strong support for a woman who wants to be a mother, with its message that motherhood is an eternal and eternally valued role. At the same time, some women feel that the Church’s emphasis on the importance of motherhood puts undue pressure on a woman to have as many children as she can, at the same time holding up high standards of performance as a mother.
Rather than discuss the problems of how to be a mother, let’s discuss the problem of bringing children to earth. Latter-day Saint couples are given the clear commandment to have children, and this commandment, like others, carries its own blessings.
President Spencer W. Kimball stressed the happiness of motherhood in addressing Relief Society sisters at the October 1975 general conference: “Eve, so recently from the eternal throne, seemed to understand the way of life, for she was happy—happy—that they had eaten the forbidden fruit … and she said, ‘Otherwise we never would have had children.’ She, like other normal women, wanted children.”
A woman who is now a grandmother, looking back over a life marked with financial hardship and cultural deprivation, says without hesitation, “The children made it all worthwhile.”
Yet, like other couples in today’s society, Mormon couples usually can choose to remain childless or to choose a predetermined number of children.
One of my friends is now extremely grateful that she became pregnant at what seemed like a very inconvenient time: they’d been married only a few months and were still adjusting to each other, she was putting her husband through school, and they were going to move in a few months. According to their plan, a few months later would have been better. According to the Lord’s time, it was the right time. She has learned recently that she will never have another child. A progressive condition was sufficiently advanced, even then, that conception was unlikely.
Another friend suffers through five months of all-day nausea with each pregnancy. During her third and most recent pregnancy, because of the constant nausea and terrible exhaustion, she was also depressed nearly half the time. “It was the most awful thing I could ever imagine,” she said. “I didn’t care whether I lived or not. Sara was born, she was wonderful, and I was immensely involved with her; but every time I thought about having another baby, I just felt terrible.” But then she took her problem to the Lord. “I prayed about my feelings with real urgency, and now I feel complete peace. The answer I got was just that having another child right now is not something I’m required to do. When the time comes again, I’ll be ready.”
Church service is hard to discuss as a “problem” because devoted Latter-day Saint women don’t want to sound as though they’re ungrateful for the blessings of service or are complaining about the opportunities to serve. But there can be difficulties: (1) Church service takes time; sometimes it takes time away from the home and family. (2) Some individual conflicts get polarized into what seem to be “women vs. priesthood” conflicts. (3) Some of the demands are for causes that don’t seem worth the effort.
The first problem seems to be omnipresent. In many cases, women feel frustrated because their husbands are “always” gone. One active sister in Provo, whose husband was a BYU branch president, hesitantly voiced her concern. “I’ve seen my husband have difficulty putting his family first. Many times when events were outlined for the family, something came up in the branch. The idea was always that we were just postponing the family event, but because of his tight schedule, that usually meant it was cancelled. I don’t want to complain because I keep thinking about the tremendous sacrifices the early Saints made for the Church and how little we do that way, but it’s something we’re working on constantly, something I’m sure has no pat answer.”
Another husband and wife always turn the phone down as soon as he gets home, sit down at the kitchen table and share a cool drink or snack, and just talk for ten uninterrupted minutes. Another couple let their preschoolers stay up until 9:00 P.M. or so and thus enjoy the hour from 6:00 A.M. to 7:00 A.M. for themselves. One frequently tried solution that never works is saying, “I’ll just have to get better organized.” It’s a joint problem, and it’s usually a matter of priorities as well as efficiency.
Sister Barbara Smith, whose husband has had assignments ranging from bishoprics to Regional Representative, says, “My husband helped a great deal because his bishopric made it a point to spend time with their wives, to limit the number of meetings they had each week—and to limit how long they lasted, too—and to give time to the children when they were home. And oh! the appreciation my husband developed for his own family as he saw the problems of others.”
Sister Marian Boyer stressed the great blessing Church service is to a man. “My husband would come home from his assignments just bubbling with enthusiasm, and with such a spirit! It enriched the whole family. And when you can see how a man grows from serving in the Church—why, what woman wouldn’t want that for her husband?”
In addition to the difficulty caused by absentee husbands, many women feel the challenges of Church service themselves. One woman said, “I often feel too many pressures on my time and emotional stability.” Another said that most people think of her as well-organized, but she admits to feeling that she is neglecting her family because of Church work. One convert in Alaska who had four or five major Church responsibilities in addition to being the wife of a branch president and mother of five, shares her own feelings and personal solution:
“Others didn’t seem to feel their home life was going downhill because of Church jobs. I knew mine was. Others didn’t seem to be bothered by the pressure. I was. But I also felt that any home problems were my fault because I wasn’t doing my Church job well enough to merit the Lord’s blessing. I’d determine to try harder.”
This cycle of guilty effort and exhausted frustration finally brought her, not to a breakdown, but to a breakthrough.
“That weekend, though I’d prayed many times before, I finally heard an answer. There is a difference between an inspired calling and a divine calling. Inspired callings are made through an instrument of the Lord and are essential to an individual’s growth, but they are all temporary. A divine calling is eternal in duration and was made by the Lord himself. I wasn’t sustained at sacrament meeting to be a wife. I wasn’t set apart to motherhood. The Spirit bore witness to me at my marriage and at the birth of my children that this call was in effect.” She discussed her feelings with her husband and now has Church assignments that she feels are “tailored to my family’s needs.”
She adds, “And my children were thrilled.”
Some women are troubled by what they interpret as male indifference to women. One reports that a man refuses to attend his ward’s gospel doctrine class because a woman is teaching it.
Saddening though such reports are, we need not fall into the trap of seeing individual differences as battle lines drawn between “the priesthood” and “women.” Eliza R. Snow faced similar situations during the reorganization of the Relief Society in the 1880s when bishops who did not understand the program refused to support it. Writing to one sister, she counseled, “Perhaps the Bp. has not been properly informed relative to the [visiting] teacher’s visits; if so, it would be well for you or some other judicious sister or sisters to explain to him, but not oppose his wishes. There is no virtue in breaking one law to keep another. We will do as we are directed by the Priesthood.” (Eliza R. Snow to Willmerth East, April 23, 1883, Church Archives.)
A third frustration is when women see themselves investing time in programs that seem comparatively trivial. One young sister, concerned about the number of widows in rest homes, suggested a visiting project to the Relief Society president. She made the suggestion at a monthly luncheon where at least a dozen women had put in hours of hard work preparing the food, the decorations, and the program. The Relief Society president reportedly answered, “But we simply don’t have time!” This sister looked at the laboriously constructed crepe paper flowers in front of her that would probably only be used once and laughed. “I had to,” she said. “I would have cried otherwise.”
Her problem had a rather unusual solution. Within a few months, she was called as Relief Society president. This solution obviously doesn’t work for everything, but a good rule of thumb is: if it’s part of the program, there’s probably a good reason. Your responsibility is to find the reason. If it’s not part of the program, you should feel free to discuss its necessity.
It’s easy for one woman to say “My needs are met at home,” implying “and yours should be too.” It’s easy for another woman to answer, “Well, mine aren’t,” implying “and you’re pretty stodgy if yours are.” Hostility crackles and sisterhood is lost in acrimony.
Let’s discuss only one of those tension-producing needs: the mother who wants to work and who is under no financial necessity to do so. It’s a particularly thorny problem for Latter-day Saint women right now for two reasons: (a) more and more of them are doing it, and (b) the counsel against it is becoming firmer.
Sister Smith, addressing the Relief Society in October 1975, warned: “[The Latter-day Saint woman] should evaluate the needs and/or the reasons for gainful employment and be sure that her children are not neglected before she and her husband decide she should enter or re-enter the labor force.”
Since children do need fairly constant attention, the mother should be home when the children are home: usually during the years before they begin school and, for school children, including teenagers, in the mornings before they leave and in the afternoons when they come home. One mother of seven, now a grandmother, insists, “It’s not just the time, though. If the point were simply to have someone in the house when the children are, a babysitter would work. But think of how rich a mother can make that time for the child with her education, her testimony of the gospel—why, she can open the world up for her children! I look at my daughter-in-law and realize that no one besides her loves those children enough to do everything for them that can be done.”
Giving this kind of attention to some very demanding youngsters generally means that a woman cannot simultaneously be mother and professional woman. But a sequential arrangement may work better, and Sister Smith also advised, “The years before and after child rearing should be productive.” My college roommate, now the mother of five, was a dancer of near-professional caliber; but she gradually stopped performing, then practicing, as the children were born. “There are seasons in life,” she said. “There was a time when it was right for me to dance every minute I had. Now is the season for motherhood.”
Given the Lord’s strong emphasis on motherhood as a woman’s primary responsibility, exceptions that must be made should be made carefully and prayerfully and within the guidelines set forth by the prophet of the Lord.
Women who choose simultaneous motherhood and professions pay a price for their choice. Another friend, who finds her work professionally challenging and personally exciting, is able to spend her mornings with her baby and then leave him with her husband, who, for the time being, is at home during the day working on his dissertation. Still, she says, “It hurts more and more to leave each afternoon.”
Some women feel guilty for combining professions and motherhood, and reminders of the Church’s position produce more guilt. A useful question to ask in such circumstances might be, “Well, should I feel guilty?” If the answer is yes, possibly the Holy Ghost has been trying to communicate something.
However, even though a woman’s most important contribution is in the home to her family, it need not be her only contribution—if she has the active support of her husband and family in her choice and if that choice receives the approbation of the Lord. I would imagine that the Lord would not give his approval with any great frequency, but there will be situations and times when he does and will approve of a woman working outside the home.
Consequently, it is especially distressing to see the divisions that can separate sisters when they judge each other’s righteousness in matters such as these where it is so very hard—and perhaps impossible—to know all the facts. Our duty is to exercise forbearance and charity toward each other when differences in understanding, maturity, and experiences divide us. This attitude will make it easier for all of us to change.
If, however, we find ourselves with an answer that would take us away from what most members of the Church are doing, it is our responsibility to check that answer very carefully—for there is no salvation outside the principles and ordinances of the gospel. And any system that relies so heavily on individual revelation and interpretation is also capable of being subverted by Satan or abused by someone who wants confirmation when what he or she needs is something else.
Two questions may help in checking answers:
1. What do the scriptures, the current prophet, and his representatives say about the subject?
2. What do people important to us think about our decisions?
We are interdependently involved with our families, friends, and co-workers in the Church. Some of them, husbands and priesthood leaders especially, also have the right to receive corroborating revelation for us. This kind of corroboration is one of the greatest blessings we can receive, even though it, too, is sometimes a long time in coming. If a woman and her husband or priesthood leader receive conflicting answers or what appears to be no answer at all, in all love and humility both parties should consult with each other, review the information they have gathered, and continue to fast and pray until they reach an answer in harmony. When an answer seems to conflict with general counsel, corroboration is especially peace-giving. The danger of becoming a “law unto ourselves” at such times is very grave, but the corroboration of priesthood leadership can give the courage and strength necessary to accept a difficult answer and follow it.
This discussion cannot do justice to the complexity of the problems involved, but each time I see Latter-day Saint women working through problems, I feel tremendous confidence in the women of this generation and in the daughters they are raising. I see thoughtful women, honest about their feelings and deeply motivated to become spiritually mature, women who are willing to accept responsibility for their abilities and are grateful for the opportunities to love and serve. I see women who are learning how to be happy the Lord’s way.
I think one of the most important things women can do for each other is to share their strengths as well as their difficulties. Continuing contact with friends who are willing to accept my own questionings and share their insights and experience with me are one of my most valued resources. Friendships are costly in time, but when the alternative is a wistful “we really should get together” every other month, it’s worth making a schedule.
One cherished semester my classes permitted me to spend a morning weekly with a friend whose new baby limited her mobility. There was never a week when both of us didn’t have plenty to do that morning, but those mornings became the foundation of a friendship that has so far survived both time and separation. A few hours spent with a study group that meets every third Thursday and also family home mornings with my roommates at 6:00 A.M. Mondays are all invigorating talking times.
I’ve frequently thought of Alma’s description: “Wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41:10.) It seems to me that the happiest people I know are also the most righteous and that, in at least one sense, “happiness never was wickedness” either. Being happy is both a right and righteous. Sister Smith stressed to Relief Society sisters that “ultimately we are responsible for our own happiness. It is our attitude, our acceptance, our intelligent understanding that makes the difference.”
Women who are bored, frustrated, lonely, and unhappy are terribly handicapped in also trying to be righteous. For some, the answer is changing their circumstances. For others, the answer is changing their character to meet those circumstances. I have faith that our Heavenly Father, desiring our happiness more truly than we can know this side of the veil, will help each woman find what she should do if she’ll pay the price to know.