I’ve been married for a little over two years now and I don’t have any children yet. I realize that isn’t unusual, even in Mormonism, and no one around me has put any pressure on me to start, with the possible exception of my mother, who I am pretty sure is joking. Mostly.
I’m sure we’ll have children eventually, though I’m a little less sure I can articulate the reasons why: we’d be good parents, at least to an emotionally tough child; people who have children seem to enjoy them; they’re the future, my genes are fantastic and deserve to be passed on, etc etc. This has been in my mind a lot lately, though: why aren’t we having them (or even thinking about having them) now? We’re in our late twenties, healthy, in a good marriage, and financially stable. In some ways, timing really couldn’t get better.
So why not now? To tell you the truth, it’s in part because I’m terrified. Not just of having a living creature depending on me all the time–scary though that is for a girl who once killed a cactus, I think I could probably rise to the occasion and not overwater a baby. Likewise with my fears of pregnancy and childbirth-they’re big, they’re real, but I could overcome. (This isn’t my decision alone, of course, but this post is about my feelings, not my husband’s.)
The real fear for me stems from the Church’s promotion of motherhood as a woman’s ultimate identity and role. Though I know countless women who put the lie to this idea, somehow I absorbed along the way the notion that once a woman is a mother, that’s it, she’s over as an individual; now that she is a mother, she sacrifices everything—her own pursuits, skills, hobbies, personality, and especially career—for her family.
I know this isn’t (always) what the Church teaches literally, but it’s there in the constant pushing of children over career (for women), of motherhood over priesthood (for women), of motherhood even over some Church service (for women). It’s there in statements that the most important thing for a woman is to become a mother, and it’s there in the women we celebrate: in Mary, in Eve, in nearly all of the women in scripture; in Jane Clayson Johnson’s proud book-length declaration I Am A Mother; it’s even, in a twisted way, there in Sheri Dew’s famous formulation that we are all mothers. (She wouldn’t have to pretend that all women are mothers if there were other things women are valued for.) It’s there in the Young Women manuals, which state that “if a sister does not marry [and then, it’s assumed, have children], she has every right to engage in a profession that allows her to magnify her talents and gifts”—the implication being that a woman who marries does not have that right. The message I get, both spoken and unspoken, is that while I’m childless I can also be a career woman, a reader, a stake public affairs rep, a barefoot runner, a traveller, an anything-I-want-to-be, once I give birth that’s all over. And while I may be ready to take responsibility for a child I’m not yet ready to give up myself.
I know this isn’t rational, and I know it’s selfish, and yes, I know that the early baby years can be all-consuming, and that it’s biology’s fault, not the Church’s, that the burden of very young children falls disproportionately on women. Furthermore, as I said, I have counterexamples all around me in the women I know and love. This is a problem more of rhetoric than of real life.
But rhetoric matters, and this rhetorical burden also falls almost entirely on women. We still have the constant equation of womanhood and motherhood in Mormon discourse, as if there is no identity for a woman outside her children, and, alongside it, the constant, constant pressure for a woman to have those children and therefore define herself, while men do not face the same pressure. When I listen to Church discourse I hear a subtext that women are important because they’re mothers, not because they’re individuals, and women’s lives are valuable only because of the lives that depend on them. I think some of these messages come from a good place—mothering really is undervalued in our society, and the Church is trying to counteract that—but they can still backfire, leaving people like me reluctant to ever have children. Maybe some worldly views of women’s roles are false because they are too self-centered (as the YW manual also claims), but it’s also possible for a view of women’s roles to be too other-centered. For me, this rhetorical pendulum has swung too far: in trying to tell me and the young women of my generation that motherhood is valued, we’ve ended up hearing that motherhood is our only value.