For most of the years I lived with my parents, my mother and I didn’t make much headway in establishing a healthy relationship with each other. But, now that I’ve moved out of the house, and as far away from Utah as I possibly could while remaining in the same country, I have gradually come to the realization that I was a pretty much an ungrateful wretch from the age of ten on. My behavior contributed to a lot of bad feelings and family drama that sometimes made life miserable for all of us. I love you, Mom. Sorry I was so hard to get along with. I’m looking forward to being friends again.
Anyway, getting to know my mother and understand her better has made me realize just how different our lives have been. And has given me so much more appreciation for the sacrifices she made for my family.
My mother gave birth to most of her children in the 1970s, when birth control was a moral issue, and when Church leaders encouraged members to forgo material comforts and to draw upon their faith to bring as many children into the world as they could provide for. There was never a question whether my mother would work outside the home, even though she had graduated from BYU and was an experienced teacher. We made do on one income.
Thinking about my mother’s experiences highlights an issue I have struggled with, which is understanding how (and why) Church policies change over time. For example, Church leaders have gradually backed away from strong denunciations of birth control, and now emphasize that the decision to have children is a private one between a couple and God. They state that members should not judge each other on this matter.
Although my mother loves all of her seven children, I know she would have preferred to at least have had the option of spacing her children out more evenly (she gave birth to seven children in nine years). However, the teachings of the Church leaders influenced my mother (and father) to choose not to limit or prevent the number of children born into our family.
Now, using birth control is not even an issue for most people in the Church.
Similarly, Mormon women with children have been strongly encouraged not to work outside the home. This directive has not changed, although Church leaders continue to recognize that many women need to earn a paycheck to support their children. For example, Camilla Kimball in a May 1977 Ensign article stresses the importance of young women preparing themselves for a career as a mother, and a career as a wage earner in the event of singlehood.
The general expectation continues to be that women with children should not work outside the home. Sister Julie B. Beck, First Counselor in the Young Women’s General Presidency, gave an address in the Sunday morning session of the April 2004 General Conference in which she praised women who had earned advanced degrees, but who were cheerfully using their education to plan nightly dinners for their families. Elder Russell M. Nelson said a few months ago that married couples shouldn’t delay having children until they are financially stable. And, in case there is any question, the Proclamation on the Family clearly defines the primary role of a woman to bear and nurture her children.
On the other hand, Church leaders regularly encourage women to pursue an education. And in March, BYU President Cecil O Samuelson gave a wonderful talk encouraging women to explore their interests, particularly in the hard sciences, and publicly disagreed with Harvard President Larry Summersâ€™ remarks speculating about the competence of women in these academic fields. Church leaders seem to be moving in the direction of emphasizing that women and men should have equal opportunity to explore their interests and become educated.
So, is the issue of women working and pursuing interests outside the home moving in the same direction as the birth control issue in the 1970s? As more women are pursuing educations, and as more part time and flexible work arrangements become available to allow women significant time with their families as well as time outside the home, should we be finding similar flexibility in our family relationships? Or is there a spiritual cost for both women and men each preparing for a career, so that a married couple may be more flexible in sharing responsibility for caring for their children? Should we be saying that whether or not a woman works outside the home is a private issue, and that members shouldnâ€™t judge each other in these matters?
As an illustration, say you have a brilliant and talented sister, Jane, who has been accepted to the best medical school in the country, but is wondering whether she should pursue her education (and incur lots of debt). She and her husband want to have a family someday, but Jane also would like the option to work at least part time while her children are growing up. How would you help her decide what to do?