Carving Out a Place for Dreams

by Jessica Duckett Finnigan

When I was engaged, I once joked that I wanted to have four daughters. As luck would have it, I beat the odds, and my husband and I do indeed have four daughters who are currently 11, 10, 8, and 6 years old. We’ve found that having four girls and no boys does have some major advantages: for one, we get to specialize. Having a household of girls has made my husband and me hyperaware of the messages they absorb. But this has not always been the case. Despite our awareness of the negative messages bombarding girls from a variety of sources, we did not realize how proactive we would have to be to combat all the permutations of these limiting messages, some of which are super sneaky and slide under our radar.

It has become clearer and clearer that the implicit and explicit messages directed at girls differ greatly from those that boys receive. Where boys are often encouraged to be leaders and innovators, girls are often valued for their physical appearance and are portrayed as silent or secondary characters in the world. We knew our daughters were extremely capable of being their own protagonists, but as we began to examine their behavior we realized that they were sometimes mirroring the unnecessarily passive characteristics they saw, which would inevitably limit their future choices.

I am often blindsided by how my children are impacted by the messages they absorb. Two years ago, during a family home evening, I had one of my most eye-opening moments. I thought I was doing a good job teaching my girls (then 9, 8, 6, and 4) to aspire to great things and to work for them. We had just moved from Utah to England so that I could return to school after a 10-year break. The transition into academia brought up a lot of personal issues that I had previously ignored.

Because of the change in our family dynamics, we had multiple FHE lessons about shifting expectations and the need for teamwork. One week, as part of this larger discussion, we causally asked our daughters, “When you grow up, what do you want to do?” They just sat there and stared at us blankly; they could not come up with any answer to our question. So we started to suggest ideas, and their look of bewilderment turned to confusion. Finally our oldest blurted out, “Well I am supposed to be a mom.” My husband and I attempted to close that night’s lesson as we tried to pick our jaws off the floor.

As I reflected on this incident, I was shocked to realize I had no recollection of ever asking my daughters that question before, which I consider a major parenting fail. Looking back, I recognize that I had given up a lot of my own goals and dreams to stay home full time, and so I think I had no concept of how to help my daughters discover and follow their dreams. Maybe I subconsciously thought it would be less painful for them to never have dreams, since letting go of mine had felt soul-crushing.

I thought my husband and I had done a good job at teaching our daughters the value of education, They had always attended great schools. We read together at night, took weekly trips to the library, went to museums, and worked together on homework and school projects. Now I see that while we were teaching them the value of doing well at school and of being well educated, we did not teach them to be dreamers. We had done well at step one—teaching our daughters to be good students—but we somehow forgot to show them how to chart their own lives and to be the captains of their futures.

After the kids went to bed that night, my husband and I discussed our shock and what we were going to do next. I didn’t grow up in the Church; I joined when I was 17, and so I only spent a few months in Young Women before I headed to BYU. I really had no familiarity with children who did not constantly dream of a future with infinite possibilities. I knew that my daughters had active imaginations and could play make-believe and write amazing fiction, but they seemed to not use the same creativity in the creation of their own futures.

I spent most of my childhood dreaming. I could imagine myself in almost any profession. I don’t remember anyone teaching me how to dream or how to be ambitious, so teaching it to my daughters took a lot of pondering and reflection. As my husband and I went through the possible root causes of our daughters’ puzzlement, we came to the conclusion that gender boxes start very young in Church culture. I think the fact that we had lived in a highly Mormon area added to the issues, because clearly defined gender roles floated in the air that everyone was expected to breathe. We have learned that we had to be proactive much earlier than we had imagined if we wanted our daughters to see beyond the norm. I truly believe that one of the side effects of teaching rigid gender roles is that we take away the dreams of little girls before they even have the chance to dream them. I think that we teach girls to be good at school but not always to have the skills to be successful in life. This is something I desperately wanted to rectify.

It felt like these realizations came with such bad timing. Why had we not explicitly talked to our daughters about their dreams earlier? Why was this realization coming on the eve of major life changes for our family? I didn’t know how we were going to manage basic stuff, like cooking and cleaning, let alone ignite our kids’ ambitions. But my husband came up with a simple plan. We decided to simply incorporate the topics of jobs and education into our daily conversations by throwing in phrases like, “Well, when you have a job…” It felt fake and a bit awkward to talk to my four-year-old about things she would need to do when she had a job. But the kids started to respond. They even started saying, “Well, when I have a job…” This simple change in dialogue seemed to shift the mindset in our home.

Our family began to collect blog posts and videos about work and education. Sometimes they were just fun, often they shared interesting facts or were a peek into a variety of professions. Now we have dinner conversations and talks in the car about income inequality, wage gaps, gendered expectations for future income levels within marriage, shared parenting—the list goes on. We read books about various job opportunities and about the possibility of creating niche employment. We have very open discussions about money, including how money should not be the only factor in picking a profession, but we also discuss the reality that money, like education, gives people options.

I think my husband and I have made a lot of progress in communicating and solidifying our family values regarding education and ambition. While our kids have always done well in school, the new freedom to create their own goals seems to have ignited a fire. One of our daughters recently qualified to attend a very selective high school, and in the preparation process she discovered she actually likes math. I overheard her telling her teacher that she was going to be an engineer when she grew up, and she was affirmed by hearing her teacher praise that choice. I am not overly concerned with which dreams my children hold, but I desperately want them to have the space to create a future of their own design. We have tried to carve out a safe place in our home and in the lives of our children for those dreams to grow. I truly believe that God wants all of us to use our talents and our passions to change the world, and I know from my own experiences and from the dreams sparking in my daughters’ minds that there is more than one way to be a good Mormon woman. 

27 Comments on “Carving Out a Place for Dreams

  1. What a sweet post! I have all boys myself and it is so true that the narrative of “what will you be when you grow up” is common for them. The narrative that is not, however, especially as our media projects more and more useless dads or 30 something males with no intention of forming families, is boys as strong dads with a strong respect for women. So in my own version of compartmentalization, I tend to talk about “well, when you have a family of your own. . .” or “one day when you get married . . .” or “you’ll need to learn to cook because you and your wife will be a team . . . ” because I don’t think this is a strong message in the YM program either. At least it hasn’t been. Their lessons are very centered on Priesthood duty and missions. Moms of boys and girls can both do a better job of preparing our kids to be equally yoked as dreamers.

  2. I believe a key to helping your kids dream is, instead of looking for them to defend the dream by asking them why (though why can be important) is to ask yourself, “Why not?”

    Since that second question, except in cases of immediate threat to life, limb, or spirit, never expects an answer, you and she/he are then free to explore.

  3. jessica

    this is so insightful and motivating. we have 2 boys and 2 daughters so we too are in a position to really compare messages given to each gender. Sometimes we catch ourselves doing it. It is so easy. It is the water we swim in. recently our daughter was part of a big school exercise where kids were put in roles on a ship. She ended up being captain. she hated it at first. She didnt want to make choices for the whole ship. it was clear she couldnt even see herself as a captain! parenting fail i guess. Fortunately with the help of a great teacher and many weeks of working o n her self image she finally came to embrace the role. It was so gratifying to see! so much 9f self identity is constructed in these small experiences accumulated over time. Trying to just “turn it on” when they are in HS or later is just so hard i think.

    Thanks for such a meaty and thoughtful post!

  4. I also have four daughters and we proactively chose that our values would always be college degrees, leadership roles, missions, and health. At an early age we taught our daughters that before they could love others they had to love themselves. God and religion were at the center of our lives but even in the LDS church you fight against the “Molly Mormon” stereotype. Sometimes there were leaders who saw things differently but we’d discuss at home what is truth and what is opinion. Now three of the four are married–in the temple–and all three have college degrees–one a masters. Three of the four served missions (one is on a mission today) and she’ll come back and finish school. They are my heroes. To buck the system–societal and culturally–is astounding in these latter days.

  5. Interesting. I don’t know if my experience was different or not, but I grew up in a heavily Mormon area with a mother who retired from teaching once she had kids although she would occasionally substitute teach, much to my chagrin when she got my class. I always had dreams and I always expressed them. I wanted to be an astronaut, a vet, a teacher, a nurse, a doctor, a cowgirl, you name it, I wanted to be it.

    It was just assumed we would go to college and that we would do our homework and that school was important–for my brothers and me and my sister. Again, let me say, I grew up in a very traditional Mormon household. I didn’t feel slighted because I was female or limited at home or even elsewhere. Perhaps I was oblivious. My Dad expected things of me as he did of my brothers. My mom too.

    I went on to college and followed my career path. My parents were very supportive. I got married rather late, not because I purposely tried but because that’s just what happened. When I had kids, I stayed at home and never once have I felt like I gave up any dreams to do that. That in fact was a dream and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity. I considered it DIY momming. That’s not to say it was easy or that every day was a joy, but I’ve never regretted it or wished I was back in my career. I know that’s not true for everyone, but it was for me.

    The message I worry about more for my daughters (besides the whole “a woman’s greatest worth is how she looks” ) is that being a mom isn’t enough anymore, even if that’s what they want. I also worry more that our girls are being told by a thousand different sources who they are supposed to be and have little time to find that for themselves. They might be told they should be a mom, but equally subversive is the notion that they have to be some big, some corporate wonder, that if they don’t push themselves, they’ll fall into the dreaded stereotype and that would be a failure to the woman’s movement.

    I’m profoundly grateful for the growth women have achieved over the years, but like many movements, the pendulum swings so far at first that we end up wrapping around to something much like the place we started.

    I want my daughters to be free to make their choices unhindered by voices on either side of any spectrum. I want the same for my son. Boys have become an unnecessary casualty in our push for girl power and that makes me sad. I want all my children to succeed–now that I think about it, perhaps it’s the definition of success that needs to be challenged.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking post.

  6. I have 3 children, 1 daughter, 2 sons. I work full-time and my kids have been at my work location several times seeing what mommy does during the day at work. The conversation has always been there, about the importance of education and obtaining a good job later on in life. We have explored the topics of them being doctors, pediatricians, teachers, etc. I believe that stay at home moms should be having these conversations with their daughters. Being a mother and being a stay at home is a lot more work than actually having a 40 hour job but we need to engrave in them also the beauty of being a stay at home mom, of being a mother. Being a mother should not take away your dreams of becoming a professional woman and I think we need to get over the idea that both of them don’t combine together. The one and the other should not interfere. Like I said, I work full-time but my heart is always in my home but this is where I need to be right now and I enjoy the juggling of both. Engraving professional dreams in our daughters is very important in these days. I love how Pres. Hinckley once advised us, women, to educate ourselves for we never know when we will need to utilize those skills we learn. And even if we never use those learned skills, we have the confidence and satisfaction that we educated ourselves and are prepared women in case we need to combat life alone one day.

  7. Interesting article. I agree with Johnell. For some girls, becoming a full-time Mom IS our dream come true! I valued education, graduated from college and worked as a registered nurse–all of which I am glad I did. But I knew all along that it was a backup plan for my real dream of taking care of a family and home.

  8. I really appreciate this post, I had a lot of dreams, many of which were intentionally squashed and it took me a while to pick up the pieces and fit them back together. I think that yes, some women do dream of being a stay-at-home Mom, and there is nothing wrong with that. But by being given the opportunity to see different options, young women can make a more informed choice. I know I certainly am grateful for the professional women in my life, my OBGYN, for example, and my therapist, and several college professors, and my current boss. I cannot imagine a world without women in the work place, and in many respects I wish there were more smart, dedicated, strong women make policy and questioning a status quo so that the work place was more friendly to family life.

    xox

  9. It seems to me that what’s needed for our daughters these days is of course(!) not to discount motherhood, which is a blessing, but to provide other specific options, as well. I’ve always worked in some capacity since I’ve been a mother, and when we talk with the children about what they want to be when they grow up, we talk about times and seasons and about how many of their dreams can happen, but probably not all at once. For instance, just last night I talked with my daughters about how Winston Churchill was a journalist and a politician and world leader and an author of books and a painter. He did a lot of things, but he didn’t do them all at once. When my girls say they want to be writers and swim teachers and athletes and mommies and artists, I say “Great! You could be a mommy who runs marathons and teaches her kids to swim and then you could write all about your adventures and paint while your kids are at school!”

    One thing this article does, and which AMW does generally, is provide another voice for our LDS girls and women. We all know — we believe in our very souls — that motherhood is a blessing. We don’t need more voices echoing that. We know it. What we need are voices telling us that we have intrinsic value not because we have the hardware to become mothers but because we’re just ARE, and that the many varied contributions we can make in the world are valuable and APPROVED by God. Especially because, as the world changes so rapidly, virtually none of our daughters will have a choice in the matter and they need to be prepared — not as a back-up plan, but as The Plan.

  10. I really liked what Heidi and HDH wrote. I loved this post precisely because I feel it encourages us to be more aware of the messages we send to girls (and boys) about what their proper script in life should be. Most women hope to someday be mothers. That choice is lauded loudly within our Church and LDS culture. But, as important, is for women, and especially young girls, to know that they can have many dreams. Being a mother doesn’t preclude a woman from pursuing other talents, opportunities, and callings. And motherhood, as HDH wrote, is one of many seasons in a woman’s long life. Girls and young women should be encouraged to follow their dreams, including mothering, but to make a meaningful choice about dreams one must have a sense of the full range of options available. Motherhood is an important part of womanhood, but it is not the only important or meaningful part.

  11. I once listened to a neighbor of mine talk about how she didn’t care if her daughters took hard math classes or not, because when would she need that math as a mother? I could hardly stop my eyes from rolling out of my head!

    I only have one daughter, and I have taught her for her entire life that she can be anything she wants. She is smart and ambitious and driven. What I want more than anything for her, though, is that she finds the place (career/family/marriage) that makes her feel happy and fulfilled, and I think you can find that in two ways: by accident, or by exploration. Exploration is the surer bet!

  12. Great post! This post even made it on the LDS living email. It was great to see this fantastic site acknowledged in a public way! Keep up the good work

  13. Oh, I just love this so much! I grew up in a very “intellectual” family. There were three of us girls. We argued politics, literature, and Mormon doctrine and always got good grades… and were pretty insufferable now that I look back on it. 😉 But one thing I realized too late (like POST grad school late) was that my education was supposed to equip me to actually DO something, not just KNOW something. You know, earn a paycheck? Work for a living? At something worthwhile?

    I was encouraged to be educated, but not really encouraged to be ambitious. I received a lot of positive feedback for being smart in certain areas, and so I avoided areas that I knew I wouldn’t be good at automatically. I limited my options down to those I knew I’d do well in (i.e. get a good grade in). I really wish I had focused less on being perfect and being smart, and instead focused on doing things that challenged and excited me, even if I didn’t do them well at first.

  14. I’m also a mother of only boys. I’ve noticed the same thing you have, that my dh and I have to really make up for the lack of homemaking (literally Home. Making.) skills ours boys get at church and school. They need to know how to cook, clean, and care for themselves and others just like the girls do. And from serving in YW, I definitely get the author’s point about girls needing more than the home-and-family lessons they get at church. The squashing of girls imagining their own life path in favor of a one-size-fits-all model in that auxiliary is egregious.

  15. I don’t have much to add to what has already been said, but I really loved reading this post and all the thoughtful comments and suggestions that follow it!

    I served in the Primary a couple years ago, and when children were featured as the “Spotlight” child, they were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. With the girls I almost always heard, “When she grows up she wants to be a mom,” or “She wants to be a [profession] and a mom.” The boys who said they wanted to be dads were very much in the minority.

    So that’s something I definitely want to emphasize to my boys so that they look forward to parenthood. It seems as if in our culture we have created an unfortunate priesthood:motherhood paradigm instead of fatherhood:motherhood. So I’d like to steer my boys away from that mindset in the ways I’m able to.

  16. What a beautiful, intelligent post–and likewise for the responses. This gives me hope for the future, sisters.

  17. I feel the same way! Although looking back, I remember my parents always being on my case about what kind of job I could get with my college degree. Sometimes I wonder if I would have been good at chemistry or programming if I had only tried.

  18. I am a firm supporter of girls and women following their dreams and being able to do what they put their minds to. But this doesn’t need to mean that being a mother be a dream that is pushed by the wayside. I really appreciate what Kami and Johnell posted and am in 100% agreement.

    My greatest lifelong dream was to be a mother…something I wasn’t able to achieve until last May when I was 34. But only half of my dream has come true. The other half of my dream is to stay home with my daughter. I have a great job…my dream job (second only to being a mommy). I love my job but I would give anything if I could be a stay-at-home Mom, as the current economy has made it hard for my husband to fulfill his dream in being the provider of our family.

    I am someone who is a strong advocate in pursuing dreams whether that be a stay-at-home Mom are a career woman. My goal is to teach my daughter to dream but not direct those dreams and diminish any desires she may have of being a mom.

    Also, I don’t see what’s so wrong with being a Molly Mormon. Isn’t the whole purpose to life, to follow the teachings of Jesus, live a gospel-centered life, and then in turn share those teachings with others and be an example to others (among keeping our temple and baptismal covenants)? As long as Miss Molly Mormon is doing this aren’t those who judge her or look down on her under the same scrutiny as possible Molly Mormons who judge others?

    We are all entitled to the way we choose to live our life and the career path we choose. Isn’t that what is so wonderful about God’s plan is that we have that freedom to choose? What a great place to live to be able to exercise that freedom.

  19. I definitely see myself in this. Even when I was majoring in math, I never visualized what my future career would look like. It’s like a career was a fantasy world and not realistic for me. I hope my daughters don’t feel that way.

  20. Thank you for this comment. I am preparing a talk for sacrament meeting and one of the paragraphs will touch on how our current cult of wife/mother being the only acceptable way to be a woman in the gospel does not prepare boys to be partners in marriage.

  21. Great great post. Education is great. Motherhood is great. Working for someone is great. Entrepreneurship is great. Staying home with kids is great. We, especially when we are children, should feel no shame in viewing the world as an endless platter full of possibilities, regardless of gender.

  22. Oh, how very much I appreciated this blog post and the comments that have been shared. I grew up in a different Christian religion with a mom who worked outside the home, a dad whose career enabled him to be at home in the afternoons to help with snacks and homework in middle school, and a stepdad who was a “home-room mom” for a few years during fourth and fifth grade when his business collapsed as a result of a serious injury. I grew up dreaming of a wonderful career, and still do.

    When my family and I studied with the missionaries and then joined the Church, my twin sister and I were often taken aback at the attitudes taken by Church members toward women in the Church. We were sometimes excluded by other girls, often at the insistence of their parents, for being too “feminist.” “Why are you so stressed about school?” boys would ask us. “You’re just going to be a mom.”

    Now that I am married to a man who, though a pretty conservative guy and a member, allows me to dream and be whoever I want to be, things look brighter. I see how hard my sister works to raise three girls as a stay-at-home mom and admire her. I also understand when she whispers that she’d give a lot for a chance for a fulfilling part-time job pursuing her goals. I appreciate all the thoughts expressed her but hope that we can allow our girls to dream their dreams – whatever they may be – and teach them that above all, they are daughters of God and that by following His Spirit in their choices, they cannot err.

  23. Nicely done, Jessica.
    As a father of two daughters (my wife and I have three children), I have learned a few things along the way. One, our son was much easier to raise (I am not sure why; maybe it’s because I am a lazy parent and it seems to me that he was able to do more for himself at a younger age). Two, it seemed that no matter how hard I worked at being positive about a woman’s opportunities, my daughters always seemed to feel that they fell short. They weren’t beautiful enough or thin enough or smart enough or spiritual enough. I could never figure this out (I still can’t). I grew up in a family where my father “ruled”; my mom was a “second-class” partner in the marriage. When I was younger, I told myself, “If I ever get married, my wife will be my equal in every way.” (BTW, you know my wife. You can ask her yourself: Are you your husband’s equal? She will tell you yes and even joke about how my family jokes about how she “wears the pants” in our marriage. Whatever.) Now I am convinced that for so many hundreds (thousands?) of years, women (in most societies) were second-class citizens and that somehow has become a part of their DNA, so to speak. Today, maybe it’s the way the media portray them: you must be exceptionally (and unrealistically) beautiful and thin and sexy and… In other words, they will never measure up to these standards of beauty perfection and therefore cannot possibly measure up in other ways (or so they assume), be it scholastically, spiritually, professionally, etc. Certainly, society needs to change the way we view (and treat) women, but we as parents of daughters must from a young age instill in them as best as we can the idea that they are equal in every way to the opposite sex, and they are capable of great things. We need to continually encourage them to dream, and to dream big. And to dream the impossible! We will get there, I have no doubt, but it shouldn’t be this difficult.

  24. Pingback: Le christianisme & les femmes | Pearltrees

  25. As the mother of 2 daughters, I am surprised at the numerous comments about encouraging our daughters to be whatever they want to be! How about being righteous mothers who choose to follow the prophet whose counsel on working outside the home unless necessary is very specific. I encourage my girls to get whatever schooling they can as long as they do not incur debt that will make their financial situation worse after they marry so that they have to work. I don’t really care if they get a degree, my own experience has taught me that the piece of paper has very little value if a woman takes a few years off to stay home with young children. It’s a bit of a sticky situation, but one that can surely be worked out with much prayer.

  26. Pingback: Dream, Dream, Dream | Out of the Best Blogs

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