“The Joys of Motherhood,” Tambuli, Mar. 1992, 25
Lofty, beautiful, and serene, a celestial orb glistens in a luminescent sky. Far below on the frontier of a dark wilderness in a tiny fortress live some strangers from the splendid place above. Their home is an outpost, reflecting some of the glory of the celestial homeland but surrounded by darkness and constantly under attack.
Now as day dawns, a woman in the outpost arises from sleep and on her knees opens the communication lines between her home and the orb above. A conduit sheds light and strength upon her, and serenity fills her heart, peace floods her soul, and light overflows from within her. The wilderness pulls away from her bastion, overwhelmed by the light. She turns to her sacred books, seeking guidance from the holy home above.
A baby cries; she closes the books and turns away. Children’s voices intrude on her thoughts. Diapers, breakfast, lost socks to find, lunches to prepare. “I’m late, honey; hurry and gather the children for family prayer.” “Why is that boy always late? He’s keeping the whole family waiting.” “Brent had his eyes open during the prayer.” “How do you know? You peeked.” The conduit of light from above begins to fade. The wilderness moves closer to the little outpost; black tendrils slither around the doors, seeking a tiny opening, testing, probing.
Stacks of dishes, mountains of laundry, baskets of mending, jars and cans and boxes and pots of food. Machines humming, stove cooking, children playing, baby crying. Television on—loud laughter, funny situations, chastity ridiculed, adultery commonplace, screams, shots, violence, more laughter, pretty clothes, expensive houses, very witty little children, unhappy families, drinking, laughing, knives, guns, blood. Black tendrils wrap around and around the TV antenna.
The children become bored; the woman draws them around her and teaches them, reads stories, gives hugs and kisses. Later, when the children are napping, she has time for some reading. “Parents have no right to impose their ideas on children.” “Never say ‘no.’” “Never punish a child.” “If the child is not successful, it is the parents who have failed.”
She pushes away the darkness by turning to other books: “Train up a child in the way he should go” (Prov. 22:6). “They shall also teach their children to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord” (D&C 68:28). “Teach them to love one another, and to serve one another” (Mosiah 4:15).
“Oh, Johnny, are you writing on the walls again?”
Family members come back to the outpost from their excursions into the wilderness. Some of them still have darkness clinging to them. “But everyone else gets to.” “I’m too dumb to do this math.” “Sorry I can’t do my chores—I’ve got tons of homework.” Parents work to dispel the darkness and to help their family return to the light. A friend calls: “I’m discouraged and you make me feel guilty. I don’t see why you try so hard when it’s not worth it. What do you expect, perfection?”
With evening comes more darkness. “Hurry, hurry, no time to talk.” “So much to do, not enough time.” “More money—we need more things.” The woman goes about searching out shadows and tendrils, pushing them out, locking the doors and windows against them. She makes room for light, strengthens her defenses, and stockpiles ammunition for another day of battle. “Let’s read a story from the Bible.” “Tell me what you did today that made you happy.” “What do you think you can do tomorrow that will help you and Johnny get along better?” “Time for family prayer.” “Could I listen to your prayers?” “I’ll tuck you in bed when you’re ready.” “Of course I have time to listen to you.”
In the dark of the night, the woman and her husband look out and note that the wilderness is a fraction of an inch farther away than yesterday. They kneel again and catch a tiny glimmer of the splendor they have part in creating, and they are dazzled by the glory.
Science fiction? Not exactly, for scattered about the earth are small outposts of the kingdom of God where men and women join with God in creation—not just the creation that ends with the birth of a child, but the ongoing creation of celestial homes that begins at the altar and continues throughout eternity.
In creating a home and making it function, we have much more freedom and responsibility than do people in any other occupation in the world. They are always restricted by bosses and supervisors, stockholders, the buying public, or the realities of the marketplace—in other words, they are tied to the earth. In our homes, on the other hand, we can soar to heaven, for ours is a heavenly and celestial business. The homes we create in partnership with our husbands and the Lord are training grounds for the celestial kingdom.
Joseph Smith stated that the gospel was restored to prepare a people for the millennial reign of Christ. (See History of the Church, 4:537.) We can be the people he was talking about; however, we do not become a people fit to live with the Savior in only the three or four hours a week that we spend in church. It is in our homes that we learn to live with the Savior. Here we learn to live the law we will live forever. If we are willing to have a telestial home with disorder, bickering, selfishness, and irreverence, that is the law we will learn to live, and we will certainly not be prepared to live a higher order.
A celestial home is difficult to achieve in this world, particularly at this time. It requires that we know what we are aiming for and then that we toil endlessly toward that target—even on the days when the children are ill, the toilet floods over, the sky is gray, and we burn the vegetables for dinner. Even on days like this, we must keep our sights on heaven and remind ourselves constantly that our goal is a celestial home—and that although all the powers of confusion and darkness gather against us, they shall not prevail. With our own best efforts and the blessings of the Lord we cannot fail.
There are times when we are mired in everyday life and despair. It is in anticipation of these times that we must have lofty views. It is good to start with a broad statement like “We want to establish a heavenly home so all the members of our family can learn to live with the Father and Christ.” Then we must break this large goal down into smaller and smaller pieces until our dreams and our daily lives are in harmony.
Viewed from this eternal perspective, priorities begin to fall into place. Then we realize that family and individual prayers are the most important things we do all day, that family scripture study is of more value than breakfast, and that it is more important to teach our children to obey the commandments than it is to teach them to brush their teeth. We view family home evening as a welcome and valuable tool rather than an obligation. We amplify the lessons taught in Church and help our children apply them in their lives. Every experience, almost every breath, becomes a part of the celestial fabric of our home.
As we attempt to maintain holy homes, we come to realize that we must start with ourselves—our own minds, bodies, and spirits must be in top form. Once again the day-to-day activities fall into place. Proper diet, exercise, prayer, scripture study, temple attendance, and talent development must all take their place before worldly demands. Once we are sure of our goals and have confirmed them with the Lord, it becomes easier to sort out all the demands on our time and know which to accept, which to reject, and which to postpone. If we are in tune with the Lord, he will inspire us and help us to be creative in solving problems and help us avoid possible dangers, even before we are aware of them.
Celestial homes may be large or small, rich or poor. The families may range from a couple to a dozen or more. The home might be serene or bustling. But all celestial homes do share some qualities—the same ones that the Lord prescribes for the temples, which are his other homes on earth.
“Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God” (D&C 88:119).
This is the yardstick against which we can measure our individual homes. If they do not measure up, they are not outposts of the kingdom of God, and we can see at once where we must improve.
My husband and I recently completed a project which to us serves as a kind of analogy for celestial family building—we built a house.
From the time when both of us were young and we didn’t even know each other, we had dream houses in mind. Mine was full of loved ones, sunshine, warmth, creativity, smells of good things cooking, and was surrounded by trees and flowers. His was a peaceful haven from the world, warm and cozy—with a fire in the fireplace, a bookcase full of books, his favorite music playing, and the smell of good things cooking. When we met and married, the building of that house came high on our list of priorities. We felt that creating our physical environment here on earth would be a wise use of our stewardship. (It was also the only way we could afford a house like we wanted.) We believed in Winston Churchill’s statement: “First we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” We spent years studying homes by the master designers and architects and looking at homes. Finally we found the ideal location for the house—and then our planning began in earnest. As we paid for the property, we drew house plans and collected ideas from books, magazines, and other homes. We kept our ideas in a folder, then a box, then several boxes.
We tried to draw our own house plans, but our drawings never quite matched the ideal in our minds, so we searched for a designer to help us. We found one who shared our ideas of what a home should be and was willing to help us plan the kind of home we wanted. In fact, because of his own special abilities, he added dimensions we could not have conceived of. Throughout the planning and building, we prayed for help and guidance, and our prayers were answered often in surprising ways.
Some builders told us we could not build the home we had in mind for the money we could afford to spend. Some told us to throw away our dreams. “A standard plan is easier and cheaper to build,” they said. But we were not interested in the easiest thing to do; we had a dream. So we decided to build it ourselves.
The time of building was exciting—and discouraging. It seemed to take forever, but finally there was a footing, a foundation, a wall. One small step at a time, the house took shape. Sometimes we made mistakes and had to do things over. Other times we had to compromise and settle for less than the ideal. Often we went back to the designer and the blueprints for clarification and help. We worked very hard day after day—sometimes doing big, impressive things like putting up a wall or nailing down a floor, but more often doing chores that didn’t show but were still important. We did much of the work ourselves, but occasionally it was necessary to hire experts who possessed skills or tools we did not have.
At last the big day arrived. We packed up our belongings and moved into our dream home. It is not quite perfect, but it is warm, full of people we love, sunshine, creativity, books, music, and the smell of good things cooking. And sometimes it is even peaceful and quiet—after midnight and before 6:00 A.M.
Building a celestial family is in many ways a parallel experience. First we have the dream, independent of reality. Getting married is like finding the perfect spot for the house. We now know what we have to work with and what the challenges will be. This is the time when we choose the designer. There are many in the world who would tell us how to build our family and rear our children; but we must be careful of their advice, for their viewpoint is limited, is sometimes warped, and frequently changes as new philosophies become the vogue. The only designer with the eternal perspective is the Lord. His blueprint is contained in the scriptures and can be confirmed in us constantly through personal revelation. If we seek out his blueprint and study and follow it, he will add new dimensions we could not have conceived of on our own.
The work of building families, like that of building houses, is often frustrating and mundane. The results are sometimes slow in coming, but occasionally there is a bright moment when we seem to be making progress, and we are encouraged to keep on. We make mistakes and sometimes have to compromise, but if we maintain contact with our designer and study the blueprint, we can correct mistakes and solve the problems. Because we are building our dream family, we can do the little extras that no experts would consider worth the labor. We can do more than keep our children fed and dressed—we can stimulate their bodies and minds and spirits so that they can achieve their divine potential.
Occasionally it is necessary to hire experts to help us with our families: doctors, dentists, schoolteachers, music and dance teachers, coaches, child-care experts, and so forth. We must be careful not to get too many “experts” involved in doing our job, however, or we may turn our responsibilities over to people who have not seen the blueprint we are following. We must stick by our own plan, even if it isn’t the fashionable way to run a family or is different from every other family in the neighborhood.
Unlike a house, a family is never finished. We move to different stages in the construction as our children grow up and their needs become different. The marvelous thing about our scriptural blueprint is that it contains the plan for whatever stage we might be in at the moment.
There is great satisfaction in building a house, but that is nothing compared to the overwhelming joy in building an outpost of the kingdom of God. The roles of mothers and fathers are sometimes downplayed in our society, but I think that those who scorn our work might not have tasted the joy that comes from understanding the glory of what we are doing.
It seems to me that two things are necessary to joyful motherhood: preparation and excellence.
Before a house can be built, a great deal of preparation must be made. Builders must learn certain skills. Plans must be prepared based on knowledge of the building site, the type of home desired, the building materials available, the climate, and the desires of the eventual inhabitants. A mother (and a father too) must prepare in order to be successful.
Mothers-to-be would be wise to learn every possible homemaking, budgeting, interior decorating, and childcare skill they possibly can. As mothers, we need to continue to learn these things and improve our abilities as we go along. The woman who fails to learn these things before marriage will have to do some heavy on-the-job cramming in order to run a successful home. In the Lord’s pattern for his house in section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants, one of the keys is a house of order. Homemaking skills can ensure that we do have an orderly house.
But it is not enough to have just an orderly house; the Lord also commands us to prepare ourselves to have houses of learning. This kind of preparation is a lifelong pursuit. We set the tone in our homes. We are like springs from which our families drink; we must be full and generous, or they will perish. Our preparation must give us a reservoir of learning and faith. We refill our reservoir through prayer, fasting, and attending the temple, and in many other ways unique to each individual.
We have many opportunities available to us. We might go to school, work, travel, deal with people in many situations, go on missions, develop our talents, and broaden our interests.
I like the idea of having both a vocation and an avocation—a trade and a love. For women, homemaking must be at least our vocation (for some, it might be an avocation as well). We might also prepare for another vocation, but in addition, we should cultivate as many avocations as we would like. Women who have an avocation of music seem to be particularly blessed, and their families are blessed, too. I have seen women enrich their families with their abilities in art, science, mathematics, gardening, sewing, cooking, interior decorating, carpentry, sports, shopping, nursing—there are as many possibilities as there are women.
My own avocations include literature and the study of history. One of the things I really enjoyed in college was doing research, and this training has served me in good stead. Our children love to learn new things, and I think one of the reasons for this is that from their earliest days we have looked up the answers to their questions together. When we are all looking in encyclopedias and reference books to explore the depth of the Atlantic Ocean, the names of all the planets in the universe, or the life of Mozart, I feel that ours is truly a house of learning.
Besides blessing our families, our avocations feed the hidden springs in our reservoirs. I find that a few minutes of reading poetry or a good short story will lift my spirits on the most dismal days. And if I say my prayers often and have a good history book to read while nursing the baby, I’m practically immune to frustration.
All this worldly learning is of no value to our families if we neglect the spiritual preparation. The Lord described a house of faith, prayer, and fasting—as well as one of order and learning. We need to cultivate our testimonies as well as our talents, and to study the scriptures as well as our textbooks.
The most beautiful description of a prepared woman that I know of is in Proverbs 31:10–31. The poet uses physical examples, but many of the images serve on more than one level. The entire passage is worthy of our attention, but here are just a few examples:
“She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.” (Not just food, I think, but a whole cargo of physical, emotional, and spiritual refreshment for her family.)
“She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.” (She’s on an exercise program, no doubt, which makes her strong and healthy and improves her mental outlook; but she also has a spiritual exercise program of scripture study, prayer, and fasting designed to keep her faith strong.)
“Her candle goeth not out by night.” (Is she merely making gifts for Christmas? No, I think her testimony is a shining light to her family, even in the darkest times.)
“She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.” (That attribute must be thoughtfully considered.) [Prov. 31:10–31]
There are houses and then there are HOUSES. Houses (lowercase) simply provide basic shelter. On the other hand, HOUSES (uppercase) are built and planned with love and care. They provide shelter, but also enrich the lives of those who live in them. These two kinds of houses are symbolic of an ordinary job of mothering and approaching our job with an attitude of excellence. Looking at the creations of the Lord here on this earth, I don’t believe He is interested in the easiest and cheapest. A sunset, a starry night, a pine tree, or a peach blossom remind me that God creates glory—even in the smallest details. A HOUSE of God should be glorious and as excellent as we can make it.
Christ promised us a more abundant life if we would follow his teachings. He taught that going the second mile in any task brings joy and abundance. If we just do the minimum requirements as mothers, it is easy to be frustrated and feel that our job is demeaning. If we rise above the minimum and work to make motherhood a work of art, we will experience joy.
Take, for example, the rather onerous task of changing diapers. It is a necessity, and we can treat it as an evil and be very unhappy about doing it over and over again. Or we can see it as a part of nurturing a precious human being—in which case we change the diaper as soon as it is necessary, making sure the child is comfortable and happy and clean and that the dry diaper fits well. We take care of the soiled diaper at once (they do not improve with age). We can even use this time alone with our baby to give him some special love and attention. When we approach the job this way, we even get a certain amount of satisfaction out of it, and why not? We have to do it anyway. It’s a matter of choice—do we want to build houses or HOUSES?
Excellence in living the gospel is what separates our little outposts from the rest of the world. We must try harder to be more in tune with the Lord, to know our blueprints (the scriptures) better, to teach our children better, to prepare more beautiful and nutritious meals, to acquire homemaking skills, to develop our talents. There is nothing wrong with being that much-maligned creature, the “Mormon Supermother,” for it is within all of us to do it. Not that we all have to be alike, however. One supermother might teach her children to sing, another might help them learn math, and another might take them skiing. The whats and hows are not important, but the attitude is. If we are constantly trying to improve and rise above the earth, we are following “a more excellent way.”
Excellence is rewarding in so many ways. We love our tasks, we grow in doing them, our families excel, and heaven smiles on our efforts. Most of all, happiness and love and the glory of God fill our homes, and they truly are houses of order, faith, prayer, fasting, learning, and glory.
Excellence does not imply a long face and only a shoulder-to-the-wheel attitude. Family life is just too much fun to spend all our time being serious. A sense of humor is one of the most valuable tools to achieve excellence. Without it was can become too critical, and it is easy to become discouraged when we make mistakes and backslide a little. Our humor should never be at the expense of others or be unkind, but it is healthy to be able to laugh at our own mistakes, pick up the pieces, and start over. In fact, I think humor and excellence go together.
As mothers, our work is not washing diapers and mending holes in jeans—that is what we spend much of our time doing, but it is not our work. Our work is rearing children; but it is much more than that, for we rear our children to fulfill their potential. We might have dreams of their success on earth, but we are being shortsighted. For them to be successful, they must inherit the celestial kingdom. The little people with whom we share our homes are more than gifts from God. They are gods in embryo themselves. Our work is to help them realize that awe-inspiring fact and then to live so that they will not fall short of their divine potential.
Clothes may have to be mended and dishes washed, gardens tended, floors swept, and beds made, but all these things are gifts of God to us. They are tools that we may use to develop our own divinity and help our children develop theirs. We don’t become righteous in spite of dishes, diapers, and dirty floors, but through them. We sweep floors, weed gardens, tend babies, and learn and grow—our spirits along with our bodies. No one grows in a vacuum. One does not just sit in a white room and think great thoughts and thus become divine. The earth and everything on it are designed to function as a great schoolroom; the things we need to develop our celestiality are here. Divinity is developed in us as we use the tools of the earth to create our own celestial environments—houses of God. Thus clean floors, made beds, and neat cupboards are part of this celestial environment, and we must teach our children this, starting with making their own bed at age three or picking up a toy at age two.
Our celestial environments are more than orderly and clean; they are also places of learning. This might imply family scripture study and places of faith, prayer, and fasting. Here we see how family prayer, teaching our children to pray, family home evenings, and attending church together help to create a celestial environment. Then—if we also make our home a house of glory where love abounds and our every action and word are a form of worship—then we have left behind the trappings of a telestial world, and our little outposts can take their places among the stars.
Motherhood is joyful. It is exciting, challenging, and fun; it demands all our best efforts. Motherhood is creation of children and of the homes to nurture them in. Motherhood is partnership with husbands and the Lord. May we all catch a glimmer of the splendor we can create in our own outposts of the kingdom of God.