Working Double-Time: The Working Mother’s Dilemma
March 1986

“Working Double-Time: The Working Mother’s Dilemma,” Ensign, Mar. 1986, 22

Working Double-Time:

The Working Mother’s Dilemma

“Do you work, or are you a full-time mother?” Any woman who has children recognizes the irony in this question. All mothers work, full-time. And motherhood can never be a part-time job. But the messages behind this question can undermine women’s peace of mind and polarize them.

The first message—one that our society often promulgates—is that only women with careers outside the home do work that really “matters.” Women who take care of children and run households full-time punch no timecards. Accordingly, modern society does not credit them with doing valuable work and grants them only minimal status. As a result, many of these women feel undervalued. Although they may know that raising children is eternally important, they receive many subtle cues from the world that they really ought to be doing something more with their lives.

The second message troubles many who work outside the home to help support their families. That message is that women are mothers only when they are at home. Of course, a woman no more stops being a mother when she is at the office than she ceases to be a Latter-day Saint when she is not at church. But some who work outside the home may feel unnecessary guilt, which hinders their ability to enjoy a sense of well-being and convey that feeling to their children. With guilt and apprehension on both sides of the issue, women sometimes become defensive about their choices, perhaps also questioning the wisdom of others’ choices.

Mothers feel the weight of our society’s varied, and often contradictory, expectations. We can never hope to meet them all, nor would we want to. But we can know what the Lord expects of us as women, wives, and mothers. While the precise answer for each of us is an individual one, we do know some general principles.

As mothers, perhaps our most important responsibility toward our children is to love them, to teach them, and to nurture their spiritual and emotional growth. Fortunately, we do not usually bear that responsibility alone, for the Lord gave that privilege to men and women alike. (See D&C 68:25, 28; Moses 5:12.) This, then, is a first priority.

The temporal welfare of the family is another responsibility that men and women share. From the beginning, women have worked to help support their families. After Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden, “Adam began to till the earth, and to have dominion over all the beasts of the field, and to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow, as … the Lord had commanded him. And Eve, also, his wife, did labor with him.” (Moses 5:1; italics added.)

The image of Eve helping her husband provide for the temporal needs of the family has been carried down in some form through all cultures. An instance from Church history shows how this helping worked in an earlier, more agrarian culture.

After the Joseph Smith, Sr., family moved to Palmyra in 1816, they all worked together to buy a piece of land. Father Smith, Alvin, and Hyrum worked as day laborers—digging and rocking wells, building masonry walls and fireplaces, harvesting crops, hunting and trapping wildlife, chopping and selling cordwood. Joseph, Jr., worked as a cooper.

As mother of the family, Lucy Mack Smith also played an important role in her family’s economic structure. She designed and painted oilcloth coverings for tables and chests. Her income provided most of the family’s provisions and personal needs, while that of her husband and sons went toward the down payment on the land. (See Don Enders, “A Snug Log House,” Ensign, Aug. 1985, p. 14.)

In some cultures, a woman may still work in the fields alongside her husband, perhaps carrying an infant on her back, with other children tended by a member of the extended family. In industrialized nations, however, most men have left the hearth and field for the factory and marketplace. (See Kathleen Slaugh, “More Than Clean Windows: The Unrecognized Value of Housework,” Ensign, Oct. 1985, pp. 60–64.) An agrarian economy once valued goods women could produce at home while they tended their children. Modern women often face a choice unknown to many pioneer women: either stay home to tend the children or help provide the family with needed income.

The counsel of Church leaders regarding this choice has always given the well-being of children and families clear priority. The work of the home is the central work of this world. Those who are in tune with the Lord’s plan will never pursue material goods for their own sake, at the expense of family welfare. But what do we do when the family’s temporal needs require that both parents be in the work place?

According to Relief Society general president Barbara Winder, more and more women are finding it necessary to work, some because they are widowed or divorced. “We are finding that women are not just working for ‘extras,’ but for necessities,” says Sister Winder. She encourages women to explore alternatives to working full-time. She tells of two sisters who work part-time on opposite shifts and who care for each other’s children. Also, some employers will allow job-sharing and other arrangements that provide helpful options for families.

President Gordon B. Hinckley addressed those who, through widowhood or divorce, bear sole responsibility as breadwinner and homemaker: “I pray that the Lord will bless you with a special wisdom and the remarkable talent needed to provide your children with time and companionship and love and with that special direction which only a mother can give. I pray also that he will bless you with help, unstintingly given, from family, friends, and the Church, which will lift some of the burden from your shoulders.” (Ensign, Nov. 1983, p. 83.)

For mothers who wonder whether or not they would be justified in working outside the home, the Church has provided no pat answers. Rather, each couple must consider the family’s temporal, emotional, and spiritual needs and decide how they can best meet them. For Jeanne Inouye, this process involved some struggle, a blessing from her husband, and ultimately the decision to stay home: “What you try to do is look at the counsel that’s been given to us as a people. Then you look at your own particular circumstances, pray about it, and then try to make a decision that will enable the Lord to bless you, that will enable you to fulfill your mission, and that seems to feel good.”

For Jeanne, the decision was not perfectly clear, but it has felt good.

But what of others who follow this same decision-making process and reach a different decision? President Spencer W. Kimball has given this assurance: “The Lord knows … that through circumstances beyond their control, some mothers are faced with the added responsibility of earning a living. These women have God’s blessing, for he knows of their anguish and their struggle.” (Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 103.)

Every family must work out the details for themselves, but several suggestions may help:

Decide with Prayer, Proceed with Confidence

One couple with a large family found it impossible to buy basic necessities on the husband’s income alone. The young mother returned to college to prepare for a teaching career, which she and her husband felt would allow maximum time at home.

This woman found that she could not rely on the approval of other people to justify her decision. While she was at school one day, one of her children became ill. When she called a neighbor to ask her to check on her child, the neighbor answered, “If you would stay home and take care of your children, you wouldn’t have such problems.” Not all working Latter-day Saint mothers meet such responses. But we must all look to the Lord for the sense of peace we need in order to follow our personal decisions. Knowing that the Spirit has confirmed our course brings comfort and assurance.

The question of working outside the home is an emotional one for almost all mothers. We feel so deeply the challenge, as well as the blessing of motherhood. Perhaps in no other area of our lives do we want so much to succeed. But only when we feel comfortable with our own choices can we offer wholehearted support to other women. One young mother who worked while her husband finished his university degree reports that she receives this kind of support from her visiting teacher, an older woman. “Once when I was expressing my frustration with being away from home, she reminded me to be grateful that I have a good job.”

Adjust Expectations

But it is not always the expectations of others that make the combined load of motherhood and employment become burdensome. More often, the pressure comes from within. “I always felt I should be the perfect housekeeper,” admits Linda Cooper, mother of one. Linda tries now to concentrate more on being a happy person. “Instead of feeling harried and guilty when the house isn’t perfectly clean, I try to enjoy our son and make him feel that we love him and are glad he’s with us. I try, too, to let my husband know I’m happy with our marriage, rather than concentrating on what we don’t have.”

Seek Balance

Jo Ann Larsen, marriage and family counselor and mother of four, says, “Something will suffer. Maybe the shirts don’t always get ironed, or the sheets don’t get changed for two weeks.” But she and her husband have made significant adjustments in roles around the house to make sure that necessary tasks are done.

She suggests that parents give careful attention to the emotional development of the children. “We need to always evaluate whether they seem to be happy, or whether they seem to be hungry for something they aren’t getting.”

Family life always demands sacrifice, but working outside the home makes it even more difficult to balance personal needs, marital needs, and family needs. Some couples find that they must structure a weekly date for themselves to keep their marriage healthy. This can be difficult when parents feel a hunger to spend all their available time with their children.

Let Children Help

For single mothers, working is not usually an option, but the only means of survival for the family. These women face added challenges. They bear the responsibility of raising and providing for children without the emotional support of a companion. “The other single women in my ward and neighborhood are a terrific help,” said one single mother.

Sally Marble works full time and raises her three children alone. Her own mother was always home after school, and Sally misses being able to be a Cub Scout leader or a room mother for her children. “But,” she believes, “there’s no sense getting miserable because you can’t do something, so you concentrate on what you can do.”

One of the things Sally has found she can do is keep her house in relatively good order—but only with help from her children. Her twin boys are seven, her daughter is only five. But Sally has found that her children can each accept major responsibility for keeping one room straight each week. After they do their jobs each week, the family does something fun together, such as going to the park. According to Sally, the children argue less and are learning about responsibility and consequences. “If I spend all my time at home taking care of the house, it’s all work and Mom gets grouchy. They are learning that we all share the responsibility for the work and the fun.”

Look for Positives

One of the best things we can do for our children is help them gain positive attitudes about themselves and their environment. More often than not, the attitudes our children possess are mirror-reflections of our own. Looking for positives can be difficult at times. Every job—whether it is homemaking or business management—has negative aspects. To be happy, women need to recognize the positives in their work situations. “I decided that if it was necessary to work,” said one mother, “I was going to make the best contribution I could. What a waste it would be to spend all these hours away from home making a half-hearted effort.”

Offer Support to Other Women

“When I tell someone I am working,” comments one mother, “the most common response is sympathy. I appreciate their sincerity, but I need encouragement and expressions of faith in me even more.”

Where women live near their extended families, they may enjoy ready-made support systems. But many of our women don’t have that luxury. “The Church family has to fill in and be the support system,” says President Barbara Winder. In some cases of real need, she says, older members might be able to help young mothers by tending their children.

Perhaps the best way to counter the false messages we receive from the world is by giving each other loving and understanding support. We can believe in each other—applauding each others’ contributions, refraining from judging, and giving empathy and help in our difficulties. This feeling of having a community of support—both from those who work outside the home as well as from those who do not—can be one of the greatest blessings of our sisterhood in the gospel.

Photography by Marty Mayo and Wes Taylor