The Intellectual LDS Mother

Image Credit: “Family Group Reading,” Mary Cassatt, 1901.

by Tiffany Gee Lewis

A few years back, I was having one of those deep and meaningful life discussions with my husband. He asked me, “How has our marriage been for you? Is it what you thought it would be?”

I responded truthfully, “It’s been wonderful but…I thought there would be more Dickens by the fire.”

Quite truthfully, I thought there would be more Dickens in general. More Faust and Hemingway and Tolstoy, that I would live a gracious, well-plotted, literary life. For certain there would be scads of kids, but they were part of the vision. Each evening my brilliant, beautiful, well-mannered children would gather under my arm for bedtime stories. We would discuss grand idea about the universe and my intellectual thirst would be quenched.

And when we weren’t picnicking in the strawberries fields in white dresses and straw bonnets, I would certainly, most certainly be sitting at my scroll-top desk absorbed in Big Thoughts and beautiful sentences.

Clearly I was born in the wrong century.

And clearly the “Little Women” view of my future was a bit starry-eyed.

That being said, here is what has come true: I read to my children religiously. We listen to classical books on tape. My boys can recite, from memory, half-a-dozen poems, including the lengthy “If” by Rudyard Kipling. We are working our way through Shakespeare. If it sounds too good to be true, know this: poetry happens while jumping on the trampoline or spilling milk at the breakfast table. We shout “O Captain, My Captain!” because it’s better than fist fights in the back of the van. The out-loud reading happens under the cloak of dusk, but it is often on a floor strewn with Legos while children hang upside down from their bunk beds. All I can hope as a mother is that all that good stuff is somehow seeping into the cracks of brain matter between Minecraft and Star Wars.

I am, as Kipling says, trying to “meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.”

What hasn’t happened, the part I can’t seem to get a handle on, is how to create the thoughtful, intellectual life for myself as a mother. I have tried for more than a decade to keep a toe-hold on scholarship, but find it an almost insurmountable task.

I don’t scrapbook. I don’t make jewelry or “Pin.” I don’t sew pillows or decorate my house in banners and cute colors. I have remarkable friends who do those things. Their homes are like works of art. I am astounded by their talents, but those aren’t my talents. My talent is to read tedious literature by deceased writers and find it absolutely fascinating. Where is my board to pin that?

Where is the venue for the intellectual mother? I imagine the settings in certain urban and collegiate areas are quite different, but here in middle America, moms at the park aren’t discussing global events or literature. They’re discussing their kids and clothing sales and the PTA.

For a while I stuck with book clubs, hoping that it might satisfy my intellectual thirst, until I conceded the fact that most books clubs, though well-intentioned, are simply thinly veiled excuses to gather with other women and gossip. The books were nice. They were even interesting! But any sort of thoughtful discussion got in the way of the real purpose for meeting.

Years ago, when my husband was in grad school and I had a house filled with infants and toddlers, I wrote a piece titled “I Miss My Brain.” Back then the internet was still coming to life, and blogs were in their infancy.

I like to think there is, now more than ever, hope for the intellectual mother. I appreciate venues like this one and the Mormon Women Project, where women gather to exchange ideas. Online education, Pathways, and free services like Coursera and Udacity give women more opportunities to keep alive the part of the brain that seems to stagnate for years.

The biggest challenge is time, finding and dedicating the time to meaningful study. Here’s what works for me, especially as my children get older: I am ever an early riser, and the days when I begin my morning with reading or study of any kind, well, that is a good day. I use naptime for writing or study, as well as a chunk of hours after dinner. I pull from classic literature to enhance my education. I remain an optimist about the 20 books on my bedside table. I listen to podcasts while I do yard work or fold laundry. I seek out wonderful friends who don’t mind jogging five miles while also thinking big thoughts. I learn alongside my children in their music study and academics, and find that to be more meaningful than I ever imagined.

It may not be Dickens by the fire, but it works for me.

I would love to know from you: What have you done to stay engaged in your profession or in intellectual pursuits? How do you balance family life with the life of the mind?

8 Comments on “The Intellectual LDS Mother

  1. This post was so inspiring to me and I plan to link to it on my blog’s monthly “inspiration” post. I read voraciously and also try to spend time writing, whether for myself or publication. I also am just about to start my first Coursera class. 🙂

  2. Thank you do much for this thoughtful post! I agree so much with the struggle, even though I don’t have children yet. You are right about the opportunity for learning and study, now that there are so many online courses for free and great venues for intellectual discussion. Thank you again.

  3. Have you thought about starting your own book club? You really only need to find two or three friends who are as bookish as you are to start your own discussion group. You could meet every 2 weeks, every month, or every 6 or 8 weeks, depending on your needs and schedules, and you can make your book club as focused and specific as you want.

    I started my own at the beginning of 2012 and there is time set aside (30 minutes at the beginning and however late anyone wants to stay afterwards) for gossip and chit chat, but from 8-9 pm all we do is discuss the book, no matter what. We have a good mix of men and women, marrieds and singles, and a variety of backgrounds and our discussions are almost always enlightening and intellectual.

    If you can’t find a ready-made space for the kind of intellection you need, why not make it for yourself and for any others who may need the same kind of mental stimulation?


  4. I am single, but I completely resonate with your post. I just started a blog that is intended to be a collection of my intellectual thoughts, and it has helped me tremendously (check it out at I love having a space to ponder and consider things that mean a lot to me.

  5. Love it. I admire your hope, optimism and ability to continue your talents while (like most of us) a bit uncertain of their direction and benefit. I assure you, they are of great benefit to your family, children, and all others that touch your life. Your children will remember your readings because things do seep into their brain at the oddest moments. I know this because I tried to teach my children my love of the arts with uncertain success. However, decades later, when your son picks up the next generation in his arms and explains the story, artist, and composition behind the painting on your wall, (or in your case the characters and plot lines of the books on your shelf) you will suddenly realize, they really were listening.

  6. I love this post! I agree that it is indeed possible to feel and be intellectually stimulated while raising children and at home (and I believe it’s essential)! I think having alone time in the morning is essential. I, too, listen to thought-provoking podcasts while I do laundry, my two year old son and I love listening to Dickens, and I read to my son all sorts of wonderful things. I am amazed that although he is only two years old, he grasps concepts and uses advanced vocabulary that seem much more mature than him. I think he does this largely because I make it a point to teach and create an environment in our home where we love to learn, and I am deliberate about exposing him to classics. Since our family is still young, I’ve yet to see what the long-term consequences may be, but I feel happy and satisfied about the direction my husband and I are working to pursue with our family. I also feel personally fulfilled. Your post is inspiring–thank you for sharing!

  7. I really liked this post. I miss my college days simply because of the different ideas and intellectual discussions we had on a regular basis. Fortunately, I’m married to a very smart man and we have a lot of deep and meaningful discussions that are very fulfilling. I really enjoy websites like this that are a gathering place for intelligent women. I try to seek out people like me (and people who are not like me) and bring up debatable and fun topics instead of just the regular, “so how often does your baby poop?” type of conversations.

  8. I don’t think it’s just the advent of children that can make intellectual life suddenly more complicated. The minute I got married (to a very smart man, who appreciates my smartness), it’s like my brain flew out the window. It’s hard to find time–even when you have relative scads of it–to feed your mind when there’s so much to get done around the house. Thanks for sharing the ways you’ve found to continue as a thinking person instead of just a person. I’m going to try and be better about developing me more and maybe washing the dishes a little less.

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