I recently read an article in The Nation called “I’m Not Mother First.”  I also just finished reading Betty Friedan’s well-known tome, The Feminine Mystique, a book that turns 50 years old this year.  As I read the Feminine Mystique, there were several times when the cultural observations seemed anachronistic to me.  I have sometimes thought of myself as post-feminist, benefiting from the actions of the women who came before me and fought for equality.  After all, I have a successful career in business and am also a mother to three amazing kids.  I don’t feel conflicted by false dichotomies.  I didn’t expect motherhood to make me a “woman.”  I didn’t feel obligated to breastfeed or deliver my babies without drugs, despite some attempted social pressure.  I saw day care as a social experiment just like a SAHM is.

I recently attended a conference for female executives in my company.  We got to hear from some incredible women in this conference, and we also got to talk to peers who, like us, are high level female executives.  A few observations I had:

  • Women are still advised how to make it easier for men to work with us.  It’s like “righties” telling “lefties” how to get by and hide their “handicap.”
  • Women have a narrower “acceptable” range of behaviours in a business setting than do men.  At one extreme, women are seen as too emotional (basket case), and at the other, not emotional enough (bitch).  As a person with a degree in English literature, this sounded like the old “mother/whore” archetype, alive and well and modified for a business context (in literature women are often portrayed as either the “good” mother or the “bad” witch or whore.  To male writers of yore anyway).
  • Women tend to be perfectionists and far too self-critical.  The advice on this seemed to vary from person to person.  Some felt that this is necessary for women to succeed.  Others felt that this leads women to burn out and take off-ramps, ultimately choosing not to achieve C-level positions.
  • Women are leaving spaces behind at home as we move into the business world, and most men have been unwilling to fill those vacancies.

Honestly, I’m not too worried that women in business will succeed and that things like pay and benefits and hiring will ultimately be equal.  In a recent conference in Singapore, E. Oaks, as a side comment, pointed out the necessity of pursuing things like equal pay for women and treating women equally in the workplace.  The valuable contributions of women in the workplace speak for themselves and make equality an imperative.  I’m more worried about the women who are encouraged to take the easy road and who ultimately don’t live up to their full potential because the idea of motherhood as an achievement and contribution is easier than personal growth, establishing an identity and contributing to the world at large.  And these are not false dichotomies.  We can do both.

So, what is still left to solve?  The article talks about the “cult of motherhood,” the idealisation of motherhood to the point that women are subsumed, not elevated, by the role.  Here are three issues that still need attention if we are to help women realize their full potential.  I believe even the most staunch “mother-lover” can agree that these are important to address (I’m looking at you, Will).

Identity Crisis

According to the cult of motherhood, a woman who wants an identity is selfish.  Women are expected to put all others first (children, husbands, extended family).  Women’s identity is relational rather than individual. 

Whatever women do that seems to separate them from “true” motherhood is seen as misguided, or at worst, selfish. If we formula feed we’re not giving our babies the best start in life. If we work outside the home, we must do it with tremendous guilt and anxiety. Time away from our children in the form of an occasional movie or hobby is seen as a treat rather than an expected part of living a full life.

Fathers sometimes refer to taking care of the children as “babysitting,” not parenting.  The underlying assumption is that they are doing their wife (whose responsibility is to be 100% available at all times for the children) a big huge favor and deserve thanks and reward.  For men, it’s extra credit; for women it’s the expectation.

Women don’t have to work outside the home to realize their full potential.  Plenty of people who work don’t realize their full potential.  The work we do may not be important in the scheme of the world.  It may not elevate the human condition.  Sometimes it just pays the bills and enables us to have more freedom and choice in our own lives.  The upside to work is that we are connected to the world, we feel a part of society, and we are contributing to something that is much larger than ourselves.  We are exposed to new ideas that stimulate our minds and develop our skills.

Women (and men) who experience identity crisis have put too much faith in their role and have spent too little time developing self-awareness and being exposed to new ideas and feedback from people outside of our immediate circle.  Two great opportunities for young people in the church to develop their identity are 1) completing their higher education, and 2) serving a mission. 

While I always felt encouraged by family and church members to do both, I was surprised at BYU how many women I met whose sole purpose was to get married.  They short-changed themselves in the process by not taking their education or themselves seriously.  The most important assets they cultivated in their quest for motherhood (which is seen as a rite of passage for women in the church) were their looks and their compliant nature.  That’s practically a recipe for a mid-life identity crisis.  Looks will fade, and frankly you can’t subordinate your wishes forever.  Eventually you will resent the person whose wishes you’ve been putting above your own.

What’s the long term outcome of that?  At the extreme (which in my experience is not uncommon), we place our children in the care of women who are uneducated, who have low expectations of themselves and of their daughters (in particular), and who foster boy-craziness in their daughters rather than self-improvement and meaningful contribution.  Anyone who has spent time in Young Women knows that these are tendencies that should be countered, not fostered.  Even the new manuals, a great improvement, retain inherent lower expectations for females in terms of leadership and mission preparation. 

Another outcome is that women who lack identity will try to find meaning through perfectionism and unpaid hobbies.  Interestingly, these are two symptoms I’ve seen throughout my adult life in Relief Society, which are finally being addressed.  So-called enrichment activities held little interest for me as a career woman because they were craft-oriented, expensive, and felt like a waste of time.  I’d rather spend my evenings with my family!  Relief Society sometimes felt like a cadre of dilettantes, trying to find some creative outlet that I wasn’t lacking.  The other outcome, perfectionism, leads to nagging and controlling wives, depression (at one extreme) and backbiting.  One benefit to being a career woman is that I didn’t associate the house and kids with my personal brand.

Lack of Representation

The second problem with elevating motherhood to the highest station expected for women is political and representative inequity.  When women’s voices are not involved in policy-making (whether in church or state), policies are based on the roles women play in relation to men (including as incubators for their seed), not what actual women want and need.  If it’s expected that women are fully “fulfilled” by being mothers, there is no need to provide real support for women in the workplace in the form of leaves, equal pay, and flexible scheduling.

Curttailing reproductive rights, for some, is also linked to this ideology.  Motherhood must come before individual choice.  The child (even unborn) has more rights than the woman because the woman is only a role, not a real person. She is a means to a more important end (a child).  While I am not a fan of elective abortion as an “oops” form of contraception (except in cases of rape or incest or health of the mother – my stance is basically the same as the church’s actual position), I certainly believe that females should have ready access to contraception, and providing free or very inexpensive contraception to the poor is just good social planning.

Women are often faced with questions like:  “Can you be a CEO and good mother?” or “Can you be a Senator and a good mother?”  The correct answer is, “Yes, if you can be a CEO or senator and a good father.”  Men are never asked these questions.  For women who enter the workplace, especially in male-dominated fields, they find that they truly are living in a “man’s” world – a world set up by men for men in which women were the silent supporters in the background.  Men with wives at home have a hidden, assumed advantage – an unexamined privilege that most women do not share. 

I once had a dinner conversation with a male peer and his wife that illustrated this point.  His wife was complaining about having to iron all his shirts so he would look impressive and polished in his job and be more successful.  This was something they were referring to as the role of the wife.  I looked at my husband (both of us worked) and said, “What is this wife of which they speak?  We need to get one!”  The next day, my male colleague said that he didn’t understand my comment the night before.  He asked, “What do you think a wife does?”  I replied, “I AM a wife.  And I don’t iron my husband’s shirts.  He doesn’t iron mine either.”  Strangely, this seemed to be the first time it had occurred to him that I had to do everything he did at work without a cast of helpers and cheerleaders in the background.

When motherhood is the highest aim for a woman, women who work are sometimes seen as less than men because they must be working only to support a husband who can’t provide.  Both the man and the woman are viewed as unsuccessful in this scenario: the woman for choosing a “bad” breadwinner or being personally unrighteous and selfish, and the man for being inadequate.  It’s a ridiculous false dichotomy that some in the church seem to believe.  It may really be that both spouses are achievement-oriented, educated, and driven to contribute.


Women who aren’t mothers have a lower place when we believe motherhood is the highest calling for women.  This doesn’t apply only to women who never have children, but also to those who are before or after their child-bearing years.  Once a woman is done bearing children and the nest is empty, she no longer has a purpose or contribution to make.  She may feel ignored by society.

Betty Friedan points out the tendency for some SAHMs to live vicariously through their husbands or children.  In the church, I have sometimes heard women say things like “we’re in grad school” or “we’re in law school” when it is just the husband pursuing the degree.  Some women push their children toward achievements or opportunities that appealed to them but that they were denied, such as ballet or piano, despite the child’s own unique interests.  Parental pride in our children is appropriate; trying to take over their identity because we lack our own is not.

In the church, men are divided into High Priests and Elders for the third hour.  All women, from age 18 to 108, are in one class together.  I once suggested that the men should similarly be all together.  The reply I got was that it would never work because the Elders were in a different stage of life, earlier in their careers, with more young children and different concerns, while the High Priests were closer to retirement age or past it, no young children at home, and so their needs in the lessons would be completely different.  Again, I waited in vain for the obvious parallel to be drawn.

We know from experience that the elevation of motherhood in the church as the highest (and really the only recognized) achievement for women results in women who are single or don’t (or can’t) have children, or are past their motherhood years, feeling ignored or judged.  Many fall away because it is too painful to deal with being the oddball in a church that prizes the one thing you don’t and feel you can’t have.

Personally, I think the church is finally doing a fairly decent job addressing this by having the lessons be more focused on personal experiences and less on motherhood or parenting.  The area we could still do much better is in recognizing openly the achievements of women outside of motherhood:  acts of service outside the home, contributions to society, and intellectual contributions from women (quoting more women – which only happens when more women are quotable).  Again, reverting to E. Oaks recent visit to Singapore, I was impressed that he made it a point to quote women, specifically Eliza R. Snow.  Baby steps, people.

What do you think?

  • Is the “cult of motherhood” damaging and limiting to women?  If so, how do we avoid it?  If not, how do we elevate fatherhood to the same status?  Should we only talk about the achievements of men in the home?
  • Is this issue more common in the church or is it the same throughout society?  Will it improve with time?
  • Do you agree that identity crisis, lack of representation, and elitism are the next big issues to tackle for women in the church and in society?  Why or why not?