Without Apology, Without Reservation

by Naomi Watkins

“So what is it that you do?” my friend’s father asked as he offered me a seat in his home.

“I’m in graduate school,” I replied, hoping that he would stop there and not continue to ask questions. But naturally, he persisted, desiring more specifics.

“In literacy,” I continued. And then, one of my friends piped in, “She’s getting her PhD.”

His eyes grew large in surprise. “Well, I told all of my daughters to do something useful.” He paused. I shifted uncomfortably. “But none of them took me up on that advice.”

Unsure as to how to respond, I fiddled with the zipper on my jacket, avoiding eye contact.

His response was not the first or last time that I received a less than positive response after telling someone what I did for a living. And unfortunately, these few negative responses have largely come from church members, both male and female.

I’ve been told that no LDS man would marry an LDS woman with a PhD.

I’ve been told that my PhD makes me too career-oriented and ambitious to want to have a family.

I’ve been told that my PhD makes me incredibly intimidating—to both men and women.

I’ve been told that all of this is a waste of time because one day I’ll just end up staying home anyway.

I could believe all of these statements. And there were times that I have. I have downplayed my achievements and my ambitions. I have given vague responses. I have redirected, focusing the attention on others. I have been embarrassed and ashamed for taking a “different” path. I have given excuses and apologies. I have remained silent during the “Good News Minute” in relief society when I met a school or career goal—even when I’ve attended relief societies where the majority of women were highly educated and working.

On first dates during my initial years of graduate school, I told LDS men I was “just a teacher” (not that teachers are just anything). This answer seemed to satisfy many of them. But when pressed, and when they learned the truth, their reactions told me many of the important things that I needed to know about them and if there would be a second date.

When socializing with stay-at-home mothers, I’ve kept silent about my job, figuring that they couldn’t relate to or didn’t want to be bothered with listening to mundane details about conducting research or grading assignments or writing journal articles. It was just easier to coo at their babies and dodge questions about my dating life than try to talk about school or work.

It is easy to hang on to the figurative slap-in-the-face, to the sting that comes from rejection. So while my default may be to brace myself for that negative reaction or judgment, I am far more often met with comments like, “Wow, that’s awesome” or “I’ve always wanted to do that” or “That must have been a lot of hard work.” When I honestly reflect, I can count far more positive reactions than negative ones. Those are the reactions to remember. We all need to receive more positive responses to who we are and what we do, especially when we do not fit some cookie-cutter cultural norm.

I don’t remember a specific point in time when I decided that this silence, this avoidance, this unfounded shame, this projection, this downplaying of achievements needed to end. It did nothing but hurt me, making me less than who I was and am. And it did nothing to help others to know the true me.

Now, I make it a point to look church members right in the eye and tell them exactly what I do, not just for me, but because I dream of church as being a place where varied paths for women are not just talked about and shared, but embraced and celebrated; where stay-at-home mothers and working mothers are not at odds; where we are just as likely to announce a job promotion in Relief Society as we are the engagement of a son or daughter; where education is not a “just-in-case” plan, but the first plan.

Because really, this dream will only become a reality if we are willing to tell the truth about who we are and what we do—without apology and without reservation. And so, tell me, who are you? What do you do? And what is that you want to still do?


Image credit: Paul Hudson

25 Comments on “Without Apology, Without Reservation

  1. Loved your article. When I announced I was returning to school to get a graduate degree at age 56, a few responses were “why”? Those responses came from my Mormon friends. I have two answers to the question “why” and I always used just one of them. I felt inspired and guided by Heavenly Father to pursue the degree. My other answer is–isn’t gaining an education and striving to improve one’s self part of living the gospel? I just thought of a third answer–“why not go back to school”?

    • All 3 of those responses are absolutely great!

    • Great answers! I have used 1 and 3, but now I will also use 2! THANKS!

  2. Having been on both sides I think the reason stay at home moms and working moms can be “at odds” is because of their own insecurities. Women in both sides wonder if they are being judged for their choices, are they doing enough, could they be doing more? I unknowingly offended a friend once because these issues are so complex. If everyone would just own their strengths and be honest like this essay describes everyone would be happier. Great read, thank you.

  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I’m proud of you and your accomplishments and determination to not sweep them under the rug. To answer your questions: I am a mom to three beautiful children under the age of eight. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies before starting my family and loved every minute of my college experience and admittedly miss it from time to time. I currently choose to stay home in what appears to be a very cookie cutter life: minivan, crushed crackers everywhere, food on my clothes, constant sleep deprivation, etc. you know the drill. But I love it. I love it because it was my choice and it felt like the right decision for our family. I would one day like to back to college and further my education if for no other reason than it seems like fun. But also I identify part of myself with being intelligent so it would be great to further my knowledge. Maybe I’d like to teach one day. I love to write. I read fantasy novels in my spare (ha!) time. This is me.

    • I so love that you love what you do, Jennifer.

  4. Pretty much, I still want to be and become everything. It’s been a long, difficult process for me, one with many many derailments and detours and learning how to pick oneself up, check for bruises/broken bones/concussions, and then keep going is, well, it’s much harder than I would like it to be.

    I think it is awesome that you have your PhD, I would love to be able to say that (or even that I’m working on it), but I have a few big steps first. Baby steps, Heidi. Baby steps.


    • Your perseverance is inspiring to me, Heidi. Truly.

  5. I have a friend who consistently introduces me (and with great pride) as her dear friend Dr. Gay Lynn. It could be a sales clerk, sisters at church, or her own children… it does not matter. I realized she was more thrilled and openly accepting of my title than I was. I have come to understand her sweet support and have allowed myself the same feelings. After all, like Gloria above, I was inspired to completed each of my degrees. My young goals of life were not to earn degrees, but to do as directed by the Spirit. Following that direction has taken me down paths I would NEVER have dreamed possible. I have been a full-time mother and now part-time grandma and still managed to accomplish what the Spirit has directed me to do. In fact, it has made me a better mother and student of the gospel. AS FOR THE FUTURE: of there is so much to explore! I want to write more, photograph more, paint, draw, sculpt, landscape/garden, research creative theories, travel, find my ancestors, check out every beach on this planet, explore cultures, speak French (not likely to happen since that would require study on my part), try all the desserts, read all the books and study all the arts. More important, I want every minute I can get with my children and grandchildren. But alas, I can only do what I am directed to do… which is often other than what I imagined but considerably more rewarding . Meanwhile, I will be patient because I do have the eternities to continue my learning and exploration in whatever title I may achieve. THANK YOU DR. WATKINS

    • My current Bishop regularly refers to me as “Dr.” over the pulpit, in conversations, during introductions to other people. At first, like you, I was totally embarrassed, but hey, I kind of prefer it over “Sister.” 🙂

  6. GayLynn and Naomi,
    You both rock! Can’t wait for these rug-rats to grow up so I can go back to school!

  7. Thanks for sharing! I hate that this is an issue at all for women in the LDS church. At church on Sunday, the Young Women’s President in our ward gave a talk and made the comment about teaching our young women that they should get an education “in case they needed to provide for their families.” My heart just screamed! Whether it’s and undergraduate degree or a PhD, women should seek out an education, and not because a man isn’t there to marry or provide for her. I have a masters degree and for the most part I stay at home with my child. I work one day a week as a marriage and family therapist. I plan to work part-time as I raise all my children. But, I stay at home the majority of the time because I think my children will be better off for having an educated mother teaching them daily. I know a 19-year-old nanny or day care can change my babies diapers but my $35,000 masters degree is not wasted because I’m not the breadwinner. Education changes who you are. And if I am a wiser person, then I will inevitably be a better mother, friend, wife, sister, daughter, and colleague. No woman should ever be made to feel ashamed of her achievements or her education. It took me some time to find a man who loved me even though I had more education. This is not just an issue about women becoming secure with their achievements. This is also about helping men to feel secure even if women are equal or even more skilled at something. We need to be teaching our sons to support women in their achievements.

    • Well, and the reality is more than likely that they will need to provide for their families at some point (see Ryan’s post today), so young women should be educated and trained with skills to meet that reality, but why not then pursue education that one enjoys, that provides flexibility and good pay, etc.?

      And I could agree with you more about raising equally ambitious, confident, educated sons.

  8. Great essay Naomi! I do think thankfully that more and more LDS guys (especially the younger generation) are rejecting the notion that women with more education (and more earning power) are intimidating or to be avoided. I think for many of them it is still a first order reaction but one that if they recognize and think about consciously they will quickly come to reject. The trend is in the right direction though.

    Also, I love your insight about how naturally the sting of negative comments tends to emotionally outweigh the positive ones, even if the positive ones are greater in number. Something we should all remember when we interact with others. It makes me think that I need to remember to make lots of positive comments to the women I know who are pursuing education and careers instead of taking for granted they get that all the time.

    • Yes, I do think the trend is changing. And like I wrote, far more often, I receive positive reactions from my LDS male peers. But I unfortunately know many young women who believe that education and marriage operate as either/or constructs. Either I get an education OR I get married. And many decide that getting an education makes them less attractive, etc., so they perhaps don’t aim as high as they can or should. So we definitely need to show of examples of how it’s not an either/or situation.

  9. Thank you so much for writing this, I needed to hear what you said.

    Last year after I graduated with my BA I decided to forgo the mission I had been called on and married my husband. A lot of people thought I made the wrong choice and it frustrated me that they thought they knew what was best for me. They had no idea that was a hard choice for me and that I had carefully made that decision with Heavenly Father.

    I’ve always had dreams of going to graduate school, I desperately want to peruse at least a Master’s degree and hopefully a PhD. My husband is fully supportive of this dream, but I sometimes convince myself I shouldn’t do it. That I need to concentrate on having a family and being a mom. I want to do these things to, but I think there is some way I can manage both. Where I currently live doesn’t allow for me to go back to school, there isn’t a University close enough. However if I can remember this advice, that I shouldn’t apologize for my dreams or my accomplishments then I will make those dreams of further education come true.

    And Namoi, there are men in the church who appreciate women with higher education. I found one that supports me in those dreams. I hope that one day, if you desire, you find someone who supports you as well (please understand I mean that in a loving way not a ‘you have to get married way’). Also, if I ever meet you I would love to hear all about writing journal article and doing research. I guess I’m a little nerdy that way.

    • Jill,

      Thanks for your comments. Yes, I would love to meet in person and talk about research and stuff! If you’re really interested in getting back into school, maybe online classes are a possible option if a university isn’t nearby?

  10. “Knowledge is Good” – Faber College (1963)

    A learned friend once told me that the pursuit of education for it’s own sake is sufficient. Good for you.

    When I was a young captain in the Army with a Masters I was told by my boss that he wished he had the spare time for more education but that I would be better off just doing my job. He was an idiot

    Of all my son’s smart friends, you are one of them!

    • One of the things that I love about your son is that he appreciates and loves smart women. You trained him well.

  11. I remember feeling almost precisely the same way about my RM status in the months after my mission. My initial enthusiasm for my awesome and truly difficult experience faded when I began to see that in 1997, being an RM was actually a LIABILITY for a dating woman. I knew my husband was the “one” when we spent our whole first date swapping mission stories and loving every minute of it. Here was a man to be a partner . . . not a jealous competitor. Or worse: a man who pouted when his wife was successful and dynamic. And now, God bless him, when people say to him after my recent Master’s graduation, “Now your wife is done with school!” He smiles enigmatically and says, “for now.”

    • Yes, I remember the RM liability as well, and I hope that has changed!

  12. Your post makes me realize how lucky I have been: My parents both taught at BYU for many years; my mom has an MA, my dad has a PhD. When I chose to go to graduate school (in English), my dad told people I was working on my PhD–before I even had an MA! It was never a question to them why I was doing something I loved. In graduate school, I was in a great ward, surrounded by other young men and women pursuing advanced degrees. No one there questioned what I was doing, though I questioned it myself sometimes.

    I got married just after getting my MA and started a PhD program that fall. When we started talking seriously about children, I wondered if I was doing the right thing by continuing my schooling. Then I heard President Hinckley give a wonderful talk where he encouraged women to get all the education they can–and it was clear that what I was doing was right for *me*. I finished my dissertation just a few months before my second child was born. And while I’m not currently employed full-time as a professor, I do still publish research articles and adjunct teach a class or two at a nearby university. Having a degree has given me flexibility to both stay home and work–and it’s given me a confidence in myself. (Now, if only I were as confident of my mothering abilities as I am of my academic ones!)

    Also, I get a lot of nerdy pleasure out of the fact that my husband and I are “Dr. and Dr. Eves.” 🙂 He’s a faithful LDS man, who’s not intimidated by me in the least. In fact, we met while we were both in graduate school.

  13. I’m another one of those “just a teachers”.

    I want to get my Masters. Not in education – that would be terribly boring – but in Creative Non Fiction or, perhaps, British Literature. I want to travel (more). I want to teach too – because I love it, and because someone needs to be good at it. Being a good teacher takes time and years of work. It kills me to see so many people go into education because of how “easy” the fallback of it is. I sat in so many classes at BYU where (mostly girls) around me would say that they were getting a degree in education simply because they needed something easy to get in and out of “just in case” their husbands couldn’t work.

    Not that I don’t admire the practicality to a certain degree – I majored in English Ed because I was too practical to get a theater degree or a plain old literature degree. Who am I to judge job security? But I also knew that I was going into teaching because I *loved* it. I knew that whatever happened to me socially, I would finish my degree and teach for as long as God would allow me to (and maybe longer because I’m a stubborn sinner like that.)

  14. No one, female or male, single or married, should ever feel ashamed of their accomplishments! I have a wonderful friend who, at age 72, earned her MBA. What makes it so fascinating and wonderful to me is she obviously didn’t need to work towards an MBA, and it has nothing to do with age. She already had received her PhD in chemistry and travels the world advising various boards of directors. What a wonderful example of constantly learning, growing and achieving!

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