“Being a Mother-Person,” Ensign, Mar. 1978, 9
After being bombarded with articles from popular women’s magazines in which zealous women extol the joys of finding themselves in the business or professional world, regretting only that it took so long to liberate themselves from the diaper pail and scrub brush, it’s refreshing to hear an account of a young Latter-day Saint woman who, although tempted by an attractive career, has found perfect fulfillment as a well-organized and loving wife, mother, and Relief Society president.
Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to identify completely with either example. Whenever I imagine myself as one or the other, something seems lopsided. And here’s what I’ve learned—so far—about balance and self-fulfillment.
The ultimate goal for all Latter-day Saint women is the same—to so live that we might participate with a bearer of the priesthood and our Father in heaven in creating spirit children and educating them in a celestial climate. However, during mortality’s part of this process, each woman approaches that task in a slightly different way. Each brings to her work a different set of abilities and liabilities, diverse experiences, and understandings. There are some women who do not unite with a priesthood companion during this life. Others, although married, do not bear children during mortality. Others do marry, do have children, and seem to find complete fulfillment in the role of homemaker, expressing great creativity in meeting the needs of their family.
Then there is a fourth group, my group. Our goal is the same. We grew up, wanting above all else to fulfill the role of wife and mother. We shed tears at standards nights and dreamed of the returned missionary who would one day take us to the temple, and of the children who would come to our peaceful yet vibrant home. We educated ourselves, became proficient at a job or profession, and when at last marriage made the dream complete, we rested. Until, of course, we woke in our humble apartment or comfortable split-level home to find that we still had the wants and needs we had before we took on the mantles of wife, then of mother, and frighteningly, that we lacked the skills to make a completely smooth adjustment.
I didn’t make it any easier by the logic I was using: Latter-day Saint women are supportive wives and loving mothers; therefore, a truly devoted LDS mother finds complete fulfillment in her home. Because of that, I reasoned, when I feel frustrated and discouraged, or temporarily wish for the satisfactions, acclaim, and attention I might find in an interesting career, I am not a good LDS mother—thus I have failed, not only as a mother, but as a Latter-day Saint. By the time I went through this series of deductions, my original frustration had a thick layer of guilt and admitted failure on top.
I didn’t discover my fallacies until recently. One of the great blessings of my Relief Society callings as Social Relations and Spiritual Living leader was very personal and close communication with many fine women. Through those experiences, I learned that nagging guilt, in the absence of sin, and self-abasement are negative reactions, foreign to the life of faith. I also learned that Mormon women experience the same trials and temptations as all women—the difference is in how they meet trials, and we are blessed with some extra insights and help to overcome these temptations.
One of those insights is the difference between a long-range and short-range perspective. From a long-range point of view, even though being a mother is one of the most difficult assignments a woman can undertake, we do gain far more satisfaction from the time and energy expended on the home and family than from all other activities combined. And once we’ve determined that occasional feelings of frustration and wishful thinking are not our own dark sins, to be hidden under the carpet, we can work toward some ways of making our lives as Latter-day Saint mothers even more satisfying and productive. By first recognizing my frustrations, then working within gospel guidelines to eliminate them, I am finding joy and creativity as a woman and as a homemaker through my basic personality, not in spite of it. Here are a few of the feelings or situations which have sometimes been my stumbling blocks and some positive ways of handling them. Needless to say, many remain.
1. The need for attention and acclamation: It can be a devastating experience to be suddenly stripped of all positions and titles and realize that you have only your own personality to rely on. I “retired” happily from my position as an instructor at a state university, filled with the excitement of long-awaited motherhood. Almost before the excitement wore off, our second child was born; I thrived on the late night feedings and days filled with formula and tinker toys. Those first five years contained moments of depression and discouragement, but I rose above them, sustained by the exhilaration of becoming a family and the occasional calls of “Help!” from the university, which allowed me to teach a class or conduct a workshop every year or two around the children’s schedule.
But when my oldest child was five, we moved to a large eastern city, and I was horrified at the difficulty I had in adjusting to being just another ward member, just another PTA attender. I had become so accustomed to respect for my professional accomplishments that I could hardly cope with the mothers who hesitated when we invited their children to our house, and I found myself growing envious of the mothers who escaped suburbia by working in the city. There were times when I wanted to stand up and shout, “Wouldn’t somebody like to see my credentials?”
When I acknowledged my feelings, I was deeply distressed to realize that I was guilty of loving the praise of men. (See John 12:43.) I had, then, two problems: how to become the happy, serene woman I potentially was, and how to overcome my desire for praise. Closer scrutiny showed that my need for constant praise grew out of low self-esteem. Not until I learned to be comfortable with myself could I be happy without the praise of others. Such self-acceptance is, I have found, a lifetime endeavor, but I have discovered some ways to come closer to the goal.
First, I had to be realistic about my positive attributes. Whether or not my accomplishments had been based on a need for praise and attention, they were still accomplishments. I had to believe that I had made significant contributions in the past, and still had the same abilities.
How to Be Your Own Best Friend by Mildred Newman and Bernard Berkowitz is a small, readable book, which helped shape my thinking. The authors seemed to sum up repentance when they said, “One fundamental example [of how to be a better friend to yourself] is to meet your own expectations.” Despite my pluses, I found plenty of minuses hampering my progress. Here, too, I had to be realistic. Instead of saying “I will be a better housekeeper” I had to say “I will do a batch or two of laundry every day.” Instead of saying “I will lose weight” I found it more honest to say “I will stay on my diet today.” I found that when I went to my Father in heaven with a firm commitment to overcome my bad habits, his help and my own determination made a winning combination.
2. Drudgery: Calling all housework drudgery is, I think, an inaccurate overgeneralization. One woman’s drudgery is another woman’s glory. I would much rather iron, for example, than do certain Church or civic jobs which involve telephoning and organizing, and I don’t mind cleaning house at all, although I become very frustrated when it takes the major part of a day for weeks at a time. Boredom is my worst enemy, but someone else may find great enjoyment in a task that is boring to me.
Knowing oneself is, I believe, the key to overcoming drudgery. The general suggestion, do something you really enjoy at regular intervals, is a valid idea for balancing duty with refreshing recreation. But each must discover for herself which activities produce that life-giving spark of creative satisfaction.
For example, my sister-in-law finds self-renewal in making her own wardrobe. My next-door neighbor really enjoys luncheons and women’s club meetings. Sewing frustrates me; women’s luncheons make me wish I were home. At first I struggled with myself thinking: If I don’t enjoy sewing and handicrafts I’m not very domestic; if I can’t enjoy women’s clubs I’m just not cut out for the suburban life. Then I discovered that other activities brought me the same satisfactions. Writing, leading discussion groups, music, even baking, have turned out to be exciting avenues of accomplishment to me, and now I understand—though I do not share—the satisfactions of the craftswomen, seamstresses, and clubwomen in the neighborhood.
This does not mean that I have given up sewing, luncheons, and administrative responsibilities. It simply means that I recognize that to me they are work! I am learning to sew because I want to be able to clothe my family; I attend luncheons and open houses sometimes because my presence is important to a dear friend or because I wish to get acquainted with my neighbors. If I am called to an administrative position in the ward I accept, although I would rather teach a class.
And we can develop a love for things we don’t particularly care to do right now: maybe through diligence and increasing ability I will learn to enjoy sewing eventually; and with the help of our Father in heaven, I come to love my Church callings. At such a time, these tasks will become fulfilling and I will be able to tackle other challenges by frankly calling them “work.”
One mistake many of us make is insisting that our husbands provide all our intellectual stimulation and recreation. How many times have we said, “We never talk any more!” or “Why don’t we go out and do things like we used to?” The frequent result is a strained evening out with a tired man or the challenge, “Okay, talk!” Close communication and shared recreation are very important parts of a good marriage, but they’re better if both partners are sharing rather than demanding.
3. Being a mother-person: At eleven years of age I started a summer story hour for preschoolers in the neighborhood. At twenty-two I began teaching school, and parents commented on my seemingly endless patience. At twenty-six I was counseling parents of disturbed children, always stressing the importance of acceptance and encouragement. These activities fit the image I had of “motherhood.” I had grown up in an atmosphere that glorified mothers, where Mother’s Day speakers, Relief Society lessons, and visiting authorities praised mothers who never raised their voices, never let clutter accumulate, or never wore curlers in their hair.
Thus I was horrified when I found myself getting caught up in my two-year-old’s temper tantrums, when I heard myself complaining about never getting to sit down, or never getting out of the house. The picture I was seeing of myself just didn’t match the idealized image of motherhood.
Again, I had to come back to the basic principle of self-acceptance. I had to keep reminding myself that lapses in behavior did not mean that I had given up my standards. I remember that Haim Ginot, a parenting expert, once asserted in a comforting speech that no one gets up in the morning and says to herself, “Today I will be a lousy parent,” or “Today I will yell at my children.” I tried to re-create a more workable ideal: my mother-self as a warm, honest, creative human being with a sense of humor, one who is willing to work hard on her lively temper and debilitating habits.
It would be convenient if we could finish educating ourselves before starting on our children, but, we can’t. Our lives overlap with those of our children; and even though we call ourselves adults when we become parents our learning period has not come to an end, nor does it ever. That’s not terrible: Children thrive on honesty and an atmosphere of learning; if we handle our growing pains in a healthy manner, our children can accept theirs more graciously and learn from us.
With each new child, each move, each new Church position, there are new problems, new frustrations, new feelings of inadequacy—but new joys and excitement too. By using self-acceptance as a basis for self-improvement, I find myself in a position to draw on the eternal source of strength and encouragement. This elusive bit of wisdom must be rediscovered in each new situation—next time you see me looking at the want-ads, remind me, will you?