It is only after long consideration that I am finally writing this post. I was somewhat taken aback, perhaps naively so, by the discussion sparked by the brief statement in my intro post that I work full time and that my children are in daycare. Ensuing comments focused on working mothers, following the prophet, the Proclamation on the Family. My mention of my husband’s long commute to Chicago while we lived in Indiana led to a brief discussion of the joint sacrifices required to support a working spouse and how common such support might be among Mormon men for their working wives. I replied to these comments, and wondered if I should leave it at that, especially because these topics are clearly debated regularly, and in great detail, here and on other sites (notably Mormon Feminist Housewives). But I have decided that I am willing to enter these thematic waters once more partly because several people have asked me to say more, and partly because in doing so I can contribute to shaping the discussion around two issues that seem somewhat underrepresented but that I believe are central and closely intertwined, namely:
- that even though the Church’s teachings on women’s roles emphasize the benefits of having a mother in the home full-time, a variety of other models for happy families exist within the church and are acceptable to the Lord, and
- that, if we accept this variety, we must also acknowledge that discerning God’s will in this aspect of our lives (for moms to work or not to work) as in other aspects, is and should be an individual endeavor and experience.
So here are some questions that might arise: What varieties of families have you known in the church? How have they been accepted (by you or other members)? Why? Do you feel that we need greater acceptance of working mothers in the church. Why or why not?
And what experiences have you had in receiving divine guidance in your family on the issue of whether you (or your spouse,) should work? Have you ever been asked to defend your choices in this area to other church members? Do you feel you should?
Perhaps I was unprepared for the response to the “working mom/kids in daycare” part of my introduction because these facts of my life have never been a source of tension in my extended family or in any of the wards I have been in. Some of the comments on a stay-at-home-dad thread at Mormon Feminist Housewives describe judgmental comments to and alienation of couples who have made choices for their families that differ from the norm. So perhaps the acceptance and support my husband and I have received is exceptional. I don’t know. I hope, instead, that negative experiences are the exception. We have made deep friendships in our wards, in spite of the difference of our family model from that of most of our friends. We have always held temple recommends and have been blessed with a variety of challenging and humbling callings. I grew up in a loving, conservative home with a stay-at-home mother, but no one in my family and almost no one in any of our wards has ever expressed distress (at least not to my face) over the fact that I work or that our children are in daycare, nor has anyone ever called my obedience or faith into question because of these things. And it has frankly never occurred to me to explain or justify our choices to any of them.
One friend, the teenage son of a family in our ward a few years ago, did seem troubled by my family’s choices. After getting to know me a little bit, this young man decided to write a research paper on working mothers and their children. When he was finished, he gave me a copy of the paper to read, with no real comment. As I recall, it was based on a single magazine article that was mostly negative about children in daycare. Perhaps he thought I’d never read any research on the subject. I’m not sure, but I was touched, somehow, that the issue occupied his thoughts. His mother later told me that he had expressed consternation and confusion to her over the fact that I worked and our kids were in daycare and that Ted and I were active in the church and our kids apparently happy and well-balanced. He didn’t know how to reconcile us with what he had learned about what families were supposed to be.
This experience suggests that the issue of working mothers may be such a hot one for some church members not only because of the church’s strong teachings on women’s roles, but also often for far more personal reasons. I think we are interested in others’ experiences and convictions because it makes us reflect on our own. Any mother who has faced the choice to work or not work realizes that every choice excludes other choices and will lead her and her family down one path and not another. As a result, I am certain that both admiration and some envy flow both directions -from working moms to stay-at-home moms and vice versa, as we wonder what our lives might be like if we made different choices. Any negative energy that might be directed at working moms in the church or that surrounds discussions of working moms is probably due not just to a prevailing belief that working outside the home is wrong, but perhaps also because the presence of happy, faithful working mothers in the church could be viewed as undermining the more dominant model. We want to know that we have made the right choice. So we pray and seek confirmation. And we also look around us to see if others’ experiences might, perhaps, be part of that confirmation. And if someone is doing something radically different from me and is nonetheless happy, I might feel that this denigrates or calls my own decision or beliefs into question. I am grateful that my associations with other women in the church have never been burdened in this way. I have been blessed instead to be around other mothers who have been overwhelmingly joyous and resolute in their own choices to work or not to work, but who have also been willing to talk about the challenges of their particular decisions, without a need to justify them to me or have me justify mine to them.
This is not to say that the fact that I work has not created tension within me. I don’t know how it could be otherwise for a girl who grew up in the church and in a loving, conservative home with an exemplary stay-at-home mother. And although I know that many LDS women work outside the home, the women closest to me, all of them with families I admire greatly, have overwhelmingly been women who have not worked or do not work while their children were or are young. I have very few associations with other Mormon women who work outside the home full-time and whose children are in daycare, so I’ve had no real role models. My husband and I have charted our own path, as all families ultimately do.
Although some may find this surprising, my husband and I have never really grappled with the issue of whether it is ok, in some broad sense, for women to work and children to be in daycare. We have only grappled with it narrowly and very personally-whether _I_ should work and whether _our_ children should be in daycare. We have always shared an understanding that the teachings of the prophets and the Lord’s desires for His children center on the creation of happy families. We have always been aware that the church promotes a dominant model for achieving that goal, but we have never believed that that model was the only one that could produce happy families and thus be acceptable to the Lord.
I am not interested in being particularly detailed about our situation, because I sense that doing so could be construed as an attempt to justify our choices or judge someone else’s. But a few details might be helpful in highlighting the simple but sometimes obscured truth that, in or outside of the church, no two situations are identical, nor is there ever a category, description-or road map-that fits every family. In some families mothers with young children work to put husbands through school. Other couples do not feel that school is a reason to have the mother work outside the home, and the husband takes on extra jobs to make it unnecessary. In other families, parents strike other workable balances-which may change as circumstances or desires change-of who works and who stays home and who helps care for their children. In our case, although both my husband and I are employed full-time, the flexibility we enjoy in our respective careers means that we are usually able to arrange our schedules so that our boys are not in daycare full time. It has also meant, at various times, that one or the other of us has been home full time for up to a year. Our desire to minimize the time our children spend away from us means that we are often ‘tag-teaming it,’ which impacts the amount of time we have together as a family or a couple. But of course finding sufficient couple time is a challenge not unique to two-career families.
Both my husband and I love what we do and believe that we have important contributions that God wants us to make through our professional endeavors. This belief is powerfully motivating for both of us. (For those who don’t know or remember, my husband is a photojournalist, and I am a Germanist/medievalist.) We both also earn money and find personal fulfillment through our professions. It would never occur to my husband (or to most men, I suspect) to apologize for the money or the fulfillment. Nor does it occur to me, even though these factors are often portrayed in very negative light in LDS discussions of mothers who work. (I must say that I wish our economy also remunerated stay-at-home mothers for their work). My husband and I both love our children. And we know that these loves (of our children and our chosen professions) are not mutually exclusive. One of the greatest (and most fraught) discoveries of my life was that my love for my work did not disappear when I became a mother, as I had secretly hoped it would. I wanted God to make that choice simple for me by removing my desire. He didn’t, and my subsequent choices have led me to a career. Many others on this list and elsewhere with similar desire and drive have chosen to stay at home full-time and express their ambitions in other ways. I admire and honor them, because I accept that different families can make very different choices and that both can be right and divinely inspired.
Of course our choice for both of us to work while we are raising our children brings plenty of stress. I sometimes consider quitting because I don’t feel that I am doing justice to my family or my work. My husband, incidentally, never considers quitting. He just considers other ways to make things better. And the sacrifices, large and small, that both my husband and I have had to make so that the other could progress professionally have often been painful and have strained our marriage and thus our family. And, although our children love the daycares they have attended, of course there are days when they would rather stay home. In spite of all of these things, we feel that, for now, we are doing what we should be doing, and we seek, as all families do, to mix the costs and benefits of our choices together in a fruitful way. I must say that I prefer the verb ‘mix’ over ‘balance’ to describe what we all do with family and career (and church and friends and hobbies and…), because a balanced scale seems precarious and almost impossible to maintain. Instead, I prefer to strive, as my husband and I mix life’s batter, not to forget any crucial ingredients. Some days there is too much of the wrong thing mixed in, we leave out something vital, or maybe just something optional, and what we produce as a result doesn’t taste like we’d hoped. So we mix again the next day, maybe with a slightly different recipe or with ingredients borrowed from a trusted friend, and maybe some days top it off with frosting, but every day we try to produce a cake that not only edible, but hopefully delicious and sustaining for our families.
Here, finally and briefly, is the other issue I wanted to raise–that of discerning God’s will. Numerous comments on the aforementioned stay-at-home-dad thread on the MFH site suggested that receiving personal revelation about a woman’s decision to work outside the home would both trump more general church teachings on the subject and silence critics. “Just tell ‘em God told you to work” was a suggestion that came up repeatedly in various forms. While I absolutely believe that we must seek to understand God’s will through personal revelation, I found this part of the thread unsettling for two reasons; first, because I believe that in most cases we owe no one besides God an explanation for the choices we make for our families, even if we have personal revelation to back us up. Second, God reveals His will to all of us differently, and even the most profound choices in our lives are not always accompanied, at least not immediately, by an unequivocal stamp of divine approval or disapproval that we can neatly unwrap for critics, or even for ourselves. Rather, at least in my experience, God’s will is often made manifest only after trial and sometimes error, after working through and selecting options and seeing what He desires for us. Only in the very fewest of cases in my own life can I say that I knew clearly what the Lord wanted of me before I had to act. Our family’s current situation, for example, has been a series of many earlier stages at which we have usually felt gently guided, sometimes unmistakably tugged, in a particular direction. Confirmation of our decisions, or awareness that we needed to make changes, have come-sometimes subtly, sometimes unmistakably-as we have acted on our best understanding of the Lord’s will for us and our children.
Right now, for my family and me, this means that we have been guided onto a path on which both my husband and I work and on which other loving people share in the care of our children. We acknowledge that the Lord might lead us toward another path at any time. We simply strive to be humble enough to continue to follow Him. I believe this is all that the Lord and our church leaders desire of us.