I grew up in contradictory worlds.
I was born and raised in Studio City, California in the heart of the entertainment business. Our neighbor was a makeup artist for movies like “Top Gun.” My extended family had a TV show, and my father, a professional musician, was the musical director on several national television shows when I was a young child. Witnessing this kind of creative expression and visible success, I believed that anything was possible for my life.
I also grew up as an active member of the LDS church. My dad was the bishop for most of my youth, and my mother was the dedicated mother of nine children. I received clear messages that the most important thing a woman could do was to create a family. I grew up believing both were true: that I could do anything creatively and professionally, and that I wanted to marry and have a family.
It wasn’t until my early teens that I recognized the dilemma that I was facing. I wanted a lot for my life, for my career, for my creative expression. I knew that I wanted to pursue a helping profession and that I wanted to express myself through songwriting and singing. But because I had internalized the message that a woman’s role was to sacrifice for her family, I started believing that my aspirations were not good, and not of God. I was hearing that God wanted me to be a wife and a mother, and I knew that that was true, but I wanted other things for my life, too. I began to wonder and eventually believe that something was wrong with me for having such strong creative desires and educational and professional aspirations. Did I have to choose between having a family and having a career? This paradox created what I call aspirational shame, the belief that my desire for achievement outside of the home meant that I was not a good woman, not a good mother, not a good wife, and not a good person. I have carried some version of aspirational shame with me for decades.
I heard from the pulpit that LDS women were required to sacrifice themselves, their careers, their goals, and on some level their dreams for the welfare of their families. In some ways, this is true; all parents have experienced the incredible sacrifice it takes to raise another human being. But on another level, it didn’t ring true to me or seem to mirror the complexity of real life. And it certainly didn’t reflect the deepest yearnings of my heart. What did that mean for me? Maybe I wasn’t “good” or righteous after all. Maybe I had to figure out a way to rid myself of the intense aspirations and the extraordinary dreams I had for my life.
I saw very little evidence that family and career and school and creative expression could all find a seat at the table in the life of an active LDS woman and be fed, and to thrive. I thought I had to starve something. And the “right” thing to do was to starve my aspirations. But, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I refused to choose between marriage and family and a fulfilling professional and creative life.
And so, I married at 20. Became a mother at 21, and I pursued my aspirations outside of my home. I am grateful to have found fulfillment as a therapist, business owner and consultant, speaker, author, and performing songwriter. These things have brought me great joy and fulfillment throughout the years. And yet that aspirational shame has continued to gnaw at me.
It’s mostly the questions. The questions people ask about my choices. Questions from people I love. Questions from members of various church congregations:
Why are you continuing on with school when you have a baby to take care of?”
“Who is going to take care of your children while you see clients?”
“I could never leave my kids with a babysitter. Aren’t you going to miss being with them?”
“Why are you starting a business? Your husband has a successful job. Isn’t it going to take away too much time from your family?”
“So… what made you want to go back and get your PhD?”
Looking back, the last 30 years have been a search to answer the questions: “Can an active LDS woman have a family and a professional life separate from family?” and “In order to be a “good” wife and mother, do you have to let go of all, or most, of my other aspirations?”
It was when I was writing my PhD dissertation on supporting creative productivity of mothers that I once again revisited this recurring theme in my life of aspirational shame. This time, however, I realized that I had worked through a lot of it and no longer carried it as a heavy burden. How did this occur? How was I finally able to let go of years of shame to find peace as an active LDS woman with a family and career(s)?
Part of the reason is because with age, I’ve simply learned to care a lot less about what people think. Still, there’s more to the story, and I share my experience in hopes that other women with feelings similar to mine may also learn to find self-acceptance and fulfillment in their own journeys.
One of the biggest healing factors for me has been simply acknowledging my own feelings and shame concerning my desire for accomplishment in addition to desire for home and family life. Like many others, I find great insight in the work of social researcher Brené Brown. Through her work, I learned the importance of understanding the context of my shame (Mormonism, in this case); that I was part of a culture that has made light-years of progress, but still unfortunately may discourage women (implicitly or explicitly) from pursuing opportunities outside of the home. Please understand that I am not speaking of our doctrine of female stewardships, but instead of the deeply-entrenched cultural messages that still exist on many levels and limit the choices of women.
Also, Brené Brown gave me a name for the process I had been going through for the past two decades: “owning my story.” By learning to identify my strengths, my weaknesses, my mistakes, my victories – all of it – and integrating my life experiences into a cohesive narrative that makes sense to me, I have been able to let go of much of my aspirational shame. My life is my story. I am responsible for my life.
I reached out to others in similar circumstances (LDS women with multiple aspirations) and learned to effectively “speak shame” and verbalize the ongoing tension of being an LDS women with family, educational, and career goals. I’ve been met with empathy, understanding, support, and love and the comfort of knowing I am not alone. I believe that groups like Aspiring Mormon Women have helped many of us transform our aspirational shame into joyful expressions.
Personal revelation has been a key factor in letting go of aspirational shame, as it has helped me understand my personal stewardships and my life’s missions. My patriarchal blessing speaks of gifts and talents and my stewardship over them, as well as my stewardship over family relationships. In addition, other priesthood blessings have provided needed guidance, revelation, and strength beyond my own. In hindsight, I can see the gentle hand of the Lord guiding me, my husband, and our family through navigating the uncertainty and the tensions of marriage, school, work, family, and community and church service.
Additionally, the process of writing my dissertation over the past few years has allowed me to reframe my aspirations in a way that I can celebrate as positive, joyful, and amazing. Now I can see them as part of being a highly creative woman who has a different way of being in the world. And that deserves to be celebrated. I have learned that there is research about women “like me”–women who feel most alive when they are in the process of creating and disseminating their work. As part of my literature review, I compiled a sketch of a highly creative woman; a woman whose self-definition and core way of being in the world is the purposeful creation of novel and useful works, with the desire to disseminate her work within and without the walls of her home in order to have a positive impact on society.
I have learned that my aspirations are part of my creative process, my way of being in the world. They are God-given desires, and they are nothing to be ashamed of.
Julie de Azevedo Hanks, PhD, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist, media contributor, online influencer, business consultant, author of The Burnout Cure, award-winning performing songwriter, wife and mother, and owner and director of Wasatch Family Therapy. Dr. Hanks is passionate about helping LDS women find their voice in their own lives, in their families, and in the world. She enjoys taking long naps, sunshine, movies, writing, reading, spending time with family and friends, and eating a lot of chocolate. Visit DrJulieHanks.com