As a topic, motherhood has been written about so poorly and at such length that it is very difficult to write about well. It is especially difficult to write about well, and even more difficult to write about at length, when one actually is a mother and subject to incessant interruptions.
The hot-button conference talk of October 2011 seemed to be Elder Andersen’s on children. I didn’t hear much of it live, of course–I have small children–but I went back to read it with curiosity and trepidation. More than most general conference talks, this one conveyed two fundamentally different messages. On the one hand, Elder Andersen repeatedly reminded church members that childbearing decisions are between husband, wife, and God, and that we ought not to judge one another. On the other hand, he repeatedly urged members to exercise the faith to bear children.
Being willing to have children does take an enormous faith. It’s the most frightening thing I’ve ever done, physically, emotionally, and spiritually–not to mention financially. And raising our children is the most important work I and my husband will ever do; I wholeheartedly embrace the church’s message that family comes first. But at the same time, I was disconcerted to find that all of Elder Andersen’s examples seemed to involve having more children than one had planned, or at least having them earlier than one had planned. The acknowledgments of motherhood’s immense difficulties–the woman on the bus with seven children declaring “It’s no picnic!” and Elder Mason’s unfortunate timing in announcing to his wife, who had just given birth to their sixth child, that they would have a seventh–were all inflected and thus dismissed with humor, as the brutal realities of motherhood so often are, and immediately followed up with serious pronouncements about the responsibility to reproduce.
We need to see beyond the patina of humor we cast over motherhood to the pathos, and the downright tragedy, that often underlie it. A friend once told me that her mother, who was a ward and stake Relief Society president before birth control was widely accepted, used to point women out and say, “It was the last child that did her in.” My own mother remembers hearing Hartmann Rector, Jr. announce at a stake conference in the seventies that there was no set number of children an LDS family should have–but that any righteous Mormon woman would have eight. I think of women I know and have known who are drowning in the demands of too many small children too close together, constantly frazzled, clearly miserable, entirely unable to cope with the chaos. I think of women religiously committed to large families and to the ideal of the husband as provider and the wife at home whose husbands have little earning power and few job prospects, women whose husbands do little housework or childcare, and women who neglect and emotionally abuse the children they already have who nonetheless feel religiously obligated to have more.
These women are not in sustainable family situations, economically, emotionally, or spiritually. And often, it’s their very faith–in strictly delineated gender roles and in unlimited childbearing–that’s doing them in. We need to remind ourselves of the most basic truth about motherhood: when a woman goes under, she takes her children down with her. Because we do not ordain women, we Mormons have anxiously, defensively shored up motherhood as women’s compensatory avenue for spiritual growth. But the terrible irony is that if we inadvertently push women to have children they can’t care for, we privilege an idea of motherhood over the well-being of actual children.
It’s possible to avoid having children because it looks too scary and hard. That’s a tragedy. But it’s also possible to have more children than you can care for, and that is a tragedy as well. The difference between faith and magical thinking cannot be overstated. And the specter of Andrea Yates should haunt us all.