Different, Not Better

by Melanie Steimle

Having a discussion about LDS women, work, and motherhood is a little bit like walking through a minefield. You must step carefully or someone is bound to be offended. Working women can feel that they are viewed as bad mothers. Stay at home moms can feel like the work of motherhood is dismissed as unimportant. Single women and women without children can feel unsupported in the work that they have no choice but to pursue. I’m convinced that this is such fraught topic because each lifestyle, each decision involves sacrifice. Any conversation about the merits of a lifestyle other than your own calls into question the decisions that you have made. Are your sacrifices worth it? Are they recognized? Are they appreciated?

When we talk about the choices that others have made, we often go into defense mode. We create divisions – dichotomies and hierarchies – where they don’t need to exist. (Neylan McBaine recently wrote an eloquent post that focuses on this topic). Instead of celebrating the accomplishments and contributions of other women, we feel the need to explain why our decisions, our lifestyle is better. In her book Mary, Martha, and Me, Camille Fronk Olson explores the well-known story of Mary and Martha, providing several insightful interpretations. One of those interpretations focuses on comparison. Olson points out that it is not Martha’s “cumbered about much serving” that is problematic, but rather her comparison of her own work against her sister’s activities. She writes, “The Lord did not go into the kitchen and tell Martha to stop cooking and come listen. Apparently he was content to let her serve him however she cared to, until she judged another person’s service…Martha’s self-importance, expressed through her judgment of her sister, occasioned the Lord’s rebuke, not her busyness with the meal” (59-60). Olson explains, “…Martha is zealous about her selected mode of service in contrast to Mary’s. And where there is difference, we find a natural inclination to compare and assign relative value. If one is good, the other must be bad or at least not as good” (58).

The longing for validation is only natural, especially when so many of our decisions involve significant sacrifice, but it is the comparison that stems from our desire to be validated in our decisions that is at the heart of much of the judgment and disunity among the women of the church. While I do recognize that most women can’t “have it all,” at least not all at once, one day I would love to have a conversation in which career and motherhood aren’t seen as either/or, lesser/better. I’d love to be a member of a ward in which the members are truly unified in their belief that the best lifestyle decisions are the ones the Lord inspires us to make. I’ve love to read an article on LDS women’s roles in which the comments express encouragement and appreciation for the varied and distinct contributions each person can make. At the end of her book Olson explains, “None of us is either a Mary or a Martha….Like Mary and Martha, we need one another and are blessed by our associations, but our purpose is not to become a replica of Mary, Martha, or the ‘ideal’ member of our ward. Our purpose is to become like Jesus Christ – the only One who is necessary” (122). We as LDS women need to learn to value and celebrate the perspectives and contributions of others without feeling that doing so threatens our own decisions. We need to accept that just as we have prayed, fasted, and sought revelation in making decisions for our own lives, others have done the same, even though the answers and inspiration they receive may lead them to live a life that looks different than ours.

6 Comments on “Different, Not Better

  1. Fantastic post! I read an article the other day about the mommy wars, and it pretty much came down to this — when we compare ourselves, we think that our choices are either better than or worse than other moms’ choices. Which leads to either judgment or jealousy. Let’s all support each other instead — what we all have in common is that we love our kids and we want to parent them the best way we know how, given our resources and circumstances. It takes a village and we can be each others’ village.

  2. I feel like being a church member and being a stay-at-home mom was a little schizophrenic. On the one hand I was told from the pulpit and in the Ensign that being that kind of mom was the greatest thing I could do as a woman. I took it seriously, treated it like a job, learning all I could about how to do things better. I often did side-jobs because I felt like we needed the money (and because at the time, frankly, I felt like I had to justify my existence). Because I loved teaching, and saw a need for it with several of my children, I even home schooled for some of the years (13) and I don’t regret it. At the same time even in the Deseret News or elsewhere in church affiliated publications, women who had more accomplishments of the world recognized variety, got a lot of attention. I wondered not that they would honor someone who’d just been made a judge, but why they never did that for women who were just fantastic mothers. Maybe they thought they were avoiding the comparison thing. Not that I wanted to be in a newspaper, but it did make it a little hard in the times I was raising my children to feel like that’s what I “really” was supposed to be doing. I loved your comment: “the comparison that stems from our desire to be validated in our decisions that is at the heart of much of the judgment and disunity among the women of the church.” However, I think we are getting better. I had a great visiting teacher who was a physician and a mother of one, who would ask questions of me regarding child-rearing. I asked her medical questions. It was sharing our areas of expertise. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have my degree in child-rearing. That’s a good thing. It’s time we didn’t have so much pride in our own accomplishments that we don’t recognize the wisdom we can gain from others that may have learned things from a different perspective.

    Now I’m working outside the home, though the years I spent being a wife and mother didn’t help much in getting this job. I think once I got it, I realized there were a lot of things I did learn that were valuable and helpful in a job, but my salary doesn’t really reflect that, and I doubt it ever will, given my age. That’s life, and I made my choices and that’s for the eternities to sort out. I do other things that give me satisfaction.

    I don’t resent working moms, and I think the battle that goes on about who’s better is just plain silly, and reflects a lot about how insecure we still are as a group. To quote a funny article I read years ago, no one says: “That’s a great diaper you changed. Put that on the pile with the outgoing mail!” I guess that’s true of about any job. 🙂

    I think I will have to read that book. It sound’s great and makes a tremendous point. Comparisons are the key to dissatisfaction. Even with mothers who feel critical of how their daughters keep house or raise children. and it’s wrong. The “validation” part is a very internal thing, and you have to really appreciate yourself and know that you did what was best in your situation. That takes “spiritual” effort.

    Thanks for your comments.

  3. Well worded and expressed. I whole-heartedly and completely agree.

  4. This article is spot on in that we need to stop judging each others choices – implicitly or explicitly. I was talking with a ward member the other day about her choices for not sending her children to preschool as I was genuinely curious. I am not looking forward to making that decision in the future. She mentioned that she didn’t want other people raising her children. This is not the first time I have heard this line and I think this rhetoric is very popular in our church culture. However, as a working mom, I am tired of hearing lines like this. The truth is that it takes a community to raise our children and unless you raise your child in a vacuum, someone else will also contribute to the person that he/she will ultimately be. I would hope that when judgement day comes, we are also held accountable for how we raised each others’ children and supported our brothers and sisters in their righteous decision making without judgement.

  5. I love this post. So thoughtful, and so true. Thank you for sharing.

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