Healing Aspirational Shame

 by Julie de Azevedo Hanks, PhD, LCSW

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.

My Dilemma

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 Refuse to Choose

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.

Cultural Suspicion

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?”

Letting Go

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.

Naming Shame

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.

Owning and Sharing My Story

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.

Seeking Personal Revelation

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.

Creative Reframing

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 HanksJulie 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

24 Comments on “Healing Aspirational Shame

  1. I’m always impressed by your comments. I look forwar to more of you insights.

  2. Nailed it. Excellent article. Personal revelation and not caring what others think. These are hallmarks of true leaders and are the typical type of people inspiring to others. So thank you.

  3. There comes a point when we must discern the reason for our creation. I too have felt those pangs of “what am I doing”, “is this what God wants for me” moments. But then I stop, and embrace the beautiful, spiritual quiet within and realize I was created to create. Not just children or things of the Divine, but anything I want or need; anything I choose to give to another. Humanity is a mere extension of heaven and we have purpose far beyond the pew. What we fill ourselves with is what we will eventually give to another. Letting go of shame is imperative to anyone seeking to fill and define the measure of their creation.

  4. I love this post! Thank you for naming and explaining something that I have deeply experienced and resonate with but didn’t know how to articulate it.

  5. Beautifully said. Thank you for giving us the words to articulate the feelings. I would love to hear your thoughts on a new paradigm where LDS women felt that aspirations outside the home (for lack of a better term) and aspirations to be a wife and mother were not in conflict. What would that look like and sound like? What is the definition of a “good” mother who is simultaneously pursuing her own aspirations?

    I would also be interested to hear how you find time/make time to pursue all of your aspirations. I’m assuming that your husband is supportive of your aspirations, and not expecting you to sacrifice them in order to be home to care for him, your children, and your house.

    Maybe this can be a series of posts from you. :o)

    • Thanks for the kind comments. It’s comforting to know that my journey may be helpful to others.


      Thanks for your thoughtful questions and suggestions.

      “I would love to hear your thoughts on a new paradigm where LDS women felt that aspirations outside the home (for lack of a better term) and aspirations to be a wife and mother were not in conflict. What would that look like and sound like?”

      In order for that shift to happen for LDS women, systemic change need to happen in the structure of family life. Too many women give up their aspirations, not because of personal weakness (I’m not strong enough, I’m not organized enough…) but because of lack of built-in support in the family system (and lack of support on multiple levels). I don’t think the tension between relationships and aspirations can be entirely eliminated, but I think it can be dispersed differently. As part of my dissertation I created a “Partnership Model of Family Organization” as a new paradigm or path to accomplish this! A journal article based on this model was just published online today in an open-access journal. You can download it for free here http://pubs.lib.umn.edu/ijps/vol2/iss1/4/

      “What is the definition of a “good” mother who is simultaneously pursuing her own aspirations?”

      I think this is a question that every woman has to define for herself. For me, the answer has become less and less on what I am or I am not doing. It is not based on whether I am working, how many hours I am working, or if I’m in school, volunteering in their classroom, or going to every game or performance. I ask myself these two simple questions:
      1) Do I feel emotionally connected or disconnected to my child?
      2) Does my child feel emotionally connected or disconnected to me?

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  7. Wow, I’m always amazed hearing about the cultural expectations of women in the Church in the US, in Australia this culture is still there but in Sydney, it’s almost impossible to not be juggling being a Mum and having a career. I’m surrounded by professionally accredited women in my ward and women who are not but still achieve so much. It is this underlying culture that saw my self motivation for career achievements fizzle. I started reading AMW articles and they have made a huge difference to my attitudes and the difference I can make with my career. Thanks for this article, and thanks for your music Julie, I remember listening to your earlier work with friends driving to activities and firesides years ago :-)

  8. Yes! You perfectly summed up my struggle for the last 20 something years of my life! Growing up in a family with artists as parents, I too felt this huge dissonance between the cultural expectations in church, my parents creative lifestyle, and in addition, the society I lived in (Norway) that expected me to ‘contribute’ by working outside the home and paying taxes. I always felt stretched between not only two, but three completely diverging expectations. I can’t wait to read the academic article you provided the link for. Thank you for being such a great example of a ‘sister in Zion’ who seemingly ‘has it all’, but is not afraid of showing and dharing the real struggle behind the scenes.

    • Joanna, I’m so glad you can relate. Thank you for your kind comments! Yes, there are many struggles “behind the scenes” and so far, they are worth the effort :) Sending love and support to you!

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  10. Why don’t Mormon men get questions on life balance? “Oh my gosh, you work full time and have kids? How do you manage?” “You’re bishop and have a family? How do you do it all?”

  11. You’re article has me torn. Ever since I got married and had 2 kids, I have felt a desire to continue to go to school or start a business. My husband said it won’t work out and I need to just focus on mothering and house work. I felt frustrated because I still had desires and felt like I wanted to do something else with my life. After reading a lot of LDS books on mothering and general conference about the Eternal importance of mothering, I felt like that is all I need to focus on. I mean isn’t that what makes an LDS woman LDS? She stays home with her kids and is there to teach correct principles and show that she values family over anything else. I also decided that those desires might be coming from not feeling like a good enough person in the worldly view and that I needed to be confident and fulfilled as just being a mother. I came to the conclusion that my desires were worldly and I needed to have more eternal desires. But then I read your article and it speaks to me. I see all of the good things that you have accomplished and it inspires me. I just have a hard time knowing how it would work out to juggle everything and make it happen without support. This has given me a lot to think about and reconsider. Thank you!

  12. Joanna, I feel your sense of being torn. It is tough to know what is inspired and what is “worldly” sometimes. It complicates the decision when there is a clear message that your gender is culturally “assigned” to do the work that is the “least” valued (generally, in Western culture). It is a difficult to sort through what is wanting external validation from the world and what is a inspired desire.

    I have just a few questions for you…Do you feel like you have a choice whether or not to be supportive of your husband’s work? Does he really get to decide what choices are right for you?

    Maybe the answer for you IS focusing on caring for your children right now and that is where God would have you focus. Maybe your desires for education and starting a business are God-given and he wants you to have the courage to follow through. Maybe and he wants your husband to learn how to become more flexible and supportive? Only YOU can answer the questions about what is the right course for your life. I am not suggesting that you ignore your husband’s thoughts and feelings about your decisions. I believe it is important to counsel together about all choices that impact your family. I am strongly suggesting not to ignore your thoughts and feelings about your life choices. Pray. Pray for guidance.

    Every path is unique. Sending you love and encouragement on your journey!

    • Julie, thank you for addressing my specific concerns. These concerns have been on my mind for a long time. Your insight and encouragement means a lot to me!

  13. As a mother of four and an attorney, this article could not have been more on point! Thank you for sharing your personal thoughts and experiences on this topic. The “mommy guilt” is ever present and your insight has provided some helpful hints on how to start overcoming that challenge. I look forward to even more articles from you regarding this topic. Again, excellent info.

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  15. Thank you so much for this article. I’m an LDS author, motivational speaker, wife, and mom of four. I have felt inspired to take the paths which the Lord has placed before me, but my husband and in-laws sometimes struggle with the fact that I have aspirations outside of being a wife and mother. I know that no other callings are more important than those within the home, but I also feel that the Lord wouldn’t have inspired me to write or share my testimony through presentations if it was going to have a negative impact on my family. Just as it’s illustrated so beautifully in the parable of the talents, I believe He expects us to use our talents for good. The tricky part is maintaining balance and being prayerful that my priorities fall where they should, when they should. I appreciate how perfectly your article expresses this and hope I can share it with those I love.

  16. Thank you so much for this article. I can’t tell you how timely it is in my life as I have struggled yet again with being criticized for being a working mother. The hardest part for me in this process of being a working mom for the past 11 years is that as of my last encounter with an LDS stay at home mom, I have decided to simply avoid seeking any kind of dialogue or relationship with LDS stay at home mothers moving forward. I am choosing to keep a nice safe friendly distance.

    In an effort to try again to reach out and develop friendships I went to breakfast with someone last week who told me in the course of conversation that I don’t really take care of my children because I have a nanny 24/7 – which is completely untrue – and that I “would never really be able to enjoy motherhood because your children aren’t your first priority.” This is just one of so, so, so many misguided and painful encounters I have had as a working mother with LDS women in my wards. Part of my growth and process of letting go of shame has been to decide to keep my testimony and equally importantly my commitment to going to church intact while I now consciously distance myself from those who have demonstrated time and again that they don’t have the ability to see a life outside of the course they chose. It has been so painful and I have grieved that some of the women at church are not the refuge from my storms of life but often cause pain.

    I also believe that there is a spectrum of approval or disapproval based on the type of work women do and the perceived need to work. I have a job that is corporate and requires travel and our family appears to not need the money. I feel that these two issues exacerbate peoples perceptions of me as a mother who is “choosing” to work versus one who “needs” to work when in reality they don’t know what the circumstances are that have led me to work.

    My post sounds angry and I am not angry. I am wounded (but I will be ok) and painfully resigned to the need to protect myself and carefully limit my engagement with women of my faith to ensure I do not become angry, bitter and ultimately disassociate myself completely.

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