What My Mother Taught Me

Not Ophelia put up the text of President Benson’s 1987 talk about women not working outside the home over at FMH today. I had some thoughts after reading it, and I decided they were long and involved enough (and a little off-topic enough) that it would be better to put them up here as their own post. But they’re a reaction to the talk, so go read (or at least skim) it first.

While I always knew about this talk, I don’t recall ever being taught it much (though it’s possible I simply blew it off if/when it was taught and that’s why I don’t remember it), luckily. And I’m very grateful that my mother (who is very faithful, orthodox, conservative, and was always a SAHM mom) not only didn’t teach it, but didn’t listen to it. Or rather, that she didn’t let it keep her from making the choices that she thought were best for herself and her family.

I was always aware that both my parents went to college and graduated at the same time, and that my mother worked as an accountant full-time to put my dad through business school (even when they had my oldest sister — she had a babysitter in the morning and my dad took care of her in the afternoons while he studied). Even though she didn’t work most of the time I was at home, and even though she spent an inordinate amount of time taking care of kids and the house, I always knew she was interested in other things and that she was simply sacrificing some of those things for a time because she loved us and was putting the family first. She also never taught that women need to curtail their own interests to put their family first — it was simply something she did (for a time) because that was her personal choice.

I remember when my youngest brother went to school (in 1994, so only 7 years after this talk) and my mom went back to school and then work part-time as an interpreter for the deaf, because it was something she was interested in and wanted to learn and do. Even when I went home to an empty house (I went home from school sick a lot in high school, and the nurse called one of our neighbors who’d give me permission to leave and then I’d drive myself home), I was never resentful. I was happy that my mom, after having sacrificed so much, was finally getting to do some things that she wanted to do for herself. I was aware of how much she’d sacrificed when her kids were little, and I appreciated it, but it filled me with joy to see her doing things for herself, that were important to her. I was even excited when she started collecting Beanie Babies — I knew she’d spent so many years spending all of our meager family funds getting stuff for the kids, and I was happy to see that she finally felt we had enough that she could spend money on something she wanted, simply because she wanted it.

I share all of this not to negate anyone’s experiences — I don’t even know what my mother felt in regards to this talk and if it made her life and her decisions harder. I share this because she did ignore a good portion of it, and I’m extremely grateful for it. Because of that I never felt burdened by its expectations. Whenever I despair of raising my kids in a church that (at least sometimes) teaches these things, I remember that I grew up knowing and thinking I could be anything and do anything because that’s what my mother taught me.


  1. Loved that link (feminism and fatherhood). That’s how I felt after reading this post.

    She also never taught that women need to curtail their own interests to put their family first — it was simply something she did (for a time) because that was her personal choice.

    See, I disagree with what you’ve said here. I don’t think that we shouldn’t be teaching women to curtail (some) of their own interests to put their family first. Instead, I think that we should be teaching men to make the same sacrifice. Because IMO, family is not a neutral “personal choice,” like the classic “color of shirt” or “brand of vegetables” example; family relationships are the only lasting way to achieve happiness–not a job, not hobbies, not any other method of “personal fulfillment.” They will all come up dry in the end, but family will not. And the only way to build that kind of family is to be involved in the mundanities of raising children. At least, that’s my experience thus far.

    (For the record, although I am a SAHM, my husband comes from a family that taught him the importance of fatherhood and he lives up to it 100%. He takes care of our son at church (there is no changing table in our men’s room, btw) and several other nights during the week so I can attend any activities I want to. He’s very involved in our child raising strategy. I just happen to hate working and am interested in a lot of semi-useless subjects. :D)

  2. Liz, I wasn’t trying to say that we shouldn’t teach children to curtail some of their own interests to put family first. I was simply saying that my mother never explicitly taught that. Both she and my father taught it implicitly by doing so themselves. We always knew that we were important to them because they were willing to put aside some things they might otherwise like to do so that their children could do things that _they_ wanted. Hopefully I can do the same and provide the same example for my children. Choosing one thing is always going to curtail possibilities elsewhere, and I certainly think that if someone has chosen to have children they should put the good of their children above many other things in their life.

  3. ” family relationships are the only lasting way to achieve happiness”

    I’m not sure I agree with this. Philosophers and researchers will tell you that happiness has a lot to do with relationships and a lot to do with “following your bliss” — to that passion or sense of “flow” that comes when you are engaged in meaningful activity. For some, family life can be all of that, I suppose. And I do think our family relationships are pivotal to our growth.

    But . . . I find authentic, soul-expanding happiness in my career. I am a teacher and nearly 600 students have come through my classroom in the last 10 years. And I could probably still name every one of them. I wake up excited to go to work, and I think heaven just might be a classroom. For those who find such soul-expansion in the ER or on the stage or writing . . . well, I think there’s a parable about burying our talents . . .

  4. Or, to put it another way, perhaps I agree with you 100%. If we take seriously the notion of the sister/brotherhood of the whole human family, then developing strong relationships in addition to those within our immediate family can also be a path to tremendous happiness. And often those relationships are built upon our innate or discovered talents and interests — from the best friend you make in RS to the people working with you in the lab to build a new medical compound. I am lucky that my immediate family and family of origin provide a healthy base from which I can reach out and explore. That is a gift families can give each other — a place to find shelter, a home port for our travels in the world.

  5. My mom found this talk helpful when she was staying at home, raising her 5 kids. At the time, she was looked down on by other people, especially women, in the community for not working outside the home. This talk provided the validation she needed to do something very difficult, but which she ultimately considered worthwhile. And although we usually wore hand-me-downs, and by the end of the month, there was very little food other than food storage stuff, a lot of kids I knew thought we were rich because my mom “didn’t have to work.”

  6. Good question, Rachel. I’m sure it’s mentioned when they’re called. I’m just not sure how much of a pain it would be to tabulate them. Hmmm…

    Vada, thanks for posting this. I’m really encouraged by how your mother’s example (and both your parents’ really, it sounds like) was bigger in influencing you than this talk, or Church teachings along these lines. This gives me hope with my own kids, because I think I may be able to do a better job with example in this area than with explicit teaching.

  7. Liz, that doesn’t even make sense. First, you say hobbies aren’t fulfilling or everlasting and we shouldn’t put our families second for them, and we shouldn’t teach women to have interests outside of the home…then you say you go out several nights a week to pursue semi-useless hobbies while your husband stays home and watches your child.

    So which is it? Women should stay in the home and focus on their children, or they should sometimes pursue other interests they enjoy?

  8. Thanks Deborah. Our culture appeals to authority so much; next time I get asked if I’m going to have any more kids, I can respond that more apostles have 3 kids than any other number, and that most apostles only have 2 or 3 kids. I know several people at church who would like that answer better than my selfish truth; that I want to avoid depression and go to grad school.

  9. My mom found this talk helpful when she was staying at home, raising her 5 kids. At the time, she was looked down on by other people, especially women, in the community for not working outside the home. This talk provided the validation she needed to do something very difficult, but which she ultimately considered worthwhile.

    I’ve heard this type of sentiment before—that a particular talk or quote provided someone with much needed validation for their choices. It makes me wonder, instead of providing validation for some particular group, be it SAHMs, working moms, single Mormons, people with big families, people with small families . . . why aren’t we teaching members to how to make thoughtful choices, then be happy with the choices they’ve made without needing external validation?

    We’re so culturally focused on the idea that there is only one Right Choice in every situation that we tend to overreact whenever an authority validates a choice that’s different from the one we’ve made, because we assume that makes our choice Wrong.

    (Of course, teaching us to make our own choices and be happy with them might undercut the Church’s authority as institutional validator, and so be a self-defeating purpose.)

  10. Thanks Jared. I found both posts very interesting.

    Katya, I don’t think we can dismiss the need for validation that easily. When I was the only person I knew using cloth diapers, reading Mothering gave me the sense of support I needed to continue, despite difficult circumstances and the constant incredulous comments from our dominantly disposable diapering community. I knew I was making the right decision for my family at that time, but I still needed the external moral boost that all the stink and work was worthwhile.

    In general, I agree with your criticism of the “only one Right Choice” idea.

  11. Feminism is funny. A woman swore that she would never, ever stay home but if her husband wanted to that would be okay. Same thing with changing names. The woman said she never would but if her husband wanted to, that’s okay. Feminists don’t want equality, they want it all.
    Since when is it okay to ignore prophetic counsel?

  12. Henry, this may surprise you, but feminism isn’t about trying to make women homogeneous. It’s about allowing women to make choices. Their choices may vary, just as men’s do.

    Regarding your second point, what prophets say often contradicts what other prophets say, or leaves room for exceptions. Sometimes it just doesn’t apply. Sometimes it’s just wrong.

  13. reader Rachel,

    You raise some interesting points, and I’m going to have to make my argument more nuanced, because I agree with you that we definitely need supportive people and communities in our lives.

    However, when validation of a particular choice comes from the top or near the top of Church hierarchy, it will also be considered an invalidation of the opposite choice, even if the Church leader didn’t necessarily intend that to be the case. (I.e., if a GA was to make an off-the-cuff remark in favor of cloth diapers, he would risk inadvertently setting off ground-level diaper wars.) There are a few ways of teasing apart this chain reaction, but I’m not sure which approach is best.

    Also, if the only reason someone, particularly a woman, makes a difficult choice is because she believes that Church doctrine says it’s the only righteous choice to make in the situation (i.e., if she doesn’t seek any sort of divine confirmation that this is the right choice for her), then she’s going to be pretty upset if Church rhetoric ever changes, because she’ll feel like the sacrifice she made was pointless. I’ve seen this over and over again on the bloggernacle, particularly regarding topics such as birth control, education, working outside the home, etc. (I’m not suggesting that your motivations for using cloth diapers have anything to do with this scenario, just that this is the type of situation I had in mind when suggesting that we have to find internal sources of validation.)

  14. Sometimes it just doesn’t apply. Sometimes it’s just wrong.

    You will be blessed if you will follow prophetic counsel. %100.00 of the time.

  15. Oh really Henry?

    Well which prophet’s counsel should I follow? President Benson said mothers shouldn’t work. And yet I’m a mother of 3 young children and I work for the church. One prophet says it’s bad, one prophet employs me. It gets really confusing trying to obey prophets when they contradict each other.

  16. Maybe that’s the catch, anon. It would make life too easy for anyone to be blessed 100% of the time, so God has the prophets issue contradictory advice so that nobody can follow them at all times. Pretty devious!


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