LDS mothers balance career aspirations with divine calling of motherhood

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Emily Bates had been dating her boyfriend for eight months as she pursued graduate school and a career in medicine. He was a good Mormon boy, she was a good Mormon girl, and things were going well. But one night he told her he couldn’t marry her.

“He said that he really liked me a lot and he was thinking a lot about it and he could never marry someone who didn’t know her role as a woman,” Bates said, laughing. “I never did find a Mormon man who was OK with my career.”

Bates’ experience is not entirely unique among the cultural backdrop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which highly values families and teaches that motherhood is a divine, unsurpassable calling. Despite tradition keeping many Mormon women in the home, more are pursuing the “have it all” ideal and finding ways to balance professional career aspirations with their divine callings as a mother.

More Mormons stay home

According to a 2008 Trinity College report on the American Religious Identification Survey, Mormon women were twice as likely to say they are housewives than non-Mormons and less likely to say they worked full-time.

In addition, a 2003 study surveying BYU juniors and seniors found that 91 percent believed college was an integral part in a woman’s life. But more than 70 percent expressed belief that being a mother is the most important career and that they would choose to stay at home when they have children.

“These findings emphasize that junior and senior women at Brigham Young University are neither looking forward to nor preparing for their role as mother and homemaker in addition to a career in some formal sense of that role,” the study concluded.

Lisa Barrager, program coordinator for BYU’s Women in Engineering and Technology outreach program, said she has seen this perspective in the engineering field, especially in a culture that places such a high value on families. Historically, female enrollment in BYU’s engineering and computer science majors has been lower than the national average. The graduation rate is even lower as many women drop out or change majors halfway through.

“It’s almost like that degree goes into the emergency preparedness pile somewhere,” Barrager said. “And if that’s your goal with a degree like (engineering), sometimes that’s not really a strong enough motivation to help you through the times that are really, really hard.”

The anomaly of the working mother 

Although the church emphasizes education and personal growth for all and does not have official doctrine on whether women should work once they have children, LDS culture has long emphasized the mother’s place in the home.

“It’s interesting because when I look back and I think, why was it that I feel like I was taught this message of, ‘Oh, you need to be a stay-at-home mom;’ I don’t remember it being explicitly taught,” said Jennifer Long, a working mother from Texas who is currently the primary breadwinner in her family. “But I think it was just kind of the accumulation of probably hearing those things in lessons and hearing those things in General Conference.”

The Family: A Proclamation to the World states, “Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.”

Bates said this line of the proclamation was often used against her in her dating days.

“Pretty much every Mormon guy that I dated would point out the Proclamation to the Family; a lot of times they would actually point out the man’s responsibility is to provide and the woman’s is to nurture,” she said. “I feel like God was always on my side and God always wanted me to do what I was doing, (but) the people in the church weren’t really encouraging in general.”

Julie de Azevedo Hanks is a Utah mother who has worked in a variety of careers throughout her life. As a therapist, she said she has found the problem of “aspirational shame” to be real, especially in the LDS culture.

“When there’s this role presented, like ‘This is your job in this life,’ … it’s like, well if I want something beyond that that means I’m a bad person, because my church is telling me that this is what I should do and want,” Azevedo said. “That has been a huge barrier for me.”

Aside from cultural pressures, a lack of role models who successfully balance the two roles is another barrier that keeps LDS mothers from working outside the home.

Barrager said she thinks a lack of role models has played a big part in the low enrollment numbers of females in the BYU engineering major, and introducing the students to successful female role models of all backgrounds is one of the main facets of their outreach program.

“(Students think), ‘Well how would I do that and still do all these other things in my life that I want to do, like be a family and be a mom?’ I think when you don’t see a lot of role models, you don’t see a lot of people doing that, you automatically assume that, well it can’t be done. So they don’t even think about it. They don’t even consider it,” Barrager said.

The 2003 BYU study also listed a lack of support as a main barrier to LDS mothers feeling like they have more options than staying at home with their kids.

Jeanette Bennett, right, poses with her family. Bennett feels fulfilled and happy as a mother to five, wife and businessowner. (Jeanette Bennett)

Jeanette Bennett, of Cedar Hills, Utah, didn’t have a lot of working women role models in her life.

“My mom worked for some short periods of time when my family was in financial distress, so it was seen as a negative, like, ‘Oh, mom has to work, this is going to be hard for our whole family and it’s a tragedy,'” Bennett said. “She would get us through a little bit of a hard time and medical bills and then she was home.”

Bennett never considered working after she had children, but now she has five children ages 3 – 18 and owns a magazine publishing company with her husband, Matt. She is happy in her role as a mother and a business owner.

“This is who I am … my divine nature, my gifts, my influence, this is part of who I am supposed to be. And I’ve come to realize that more and more as time has gone on. I am comfortable with it, and I am proud of it,” she said.

Outside fulfillment

Arrin Barton recently graduated from BYU with a degree in economics, and she and her husband both work full-time in the corporate world in San Francisco. Their young son spends three days a week in daycare and the other two days with his grandma while his parents are at work.

Barton said she has continued to work alongside raising her son because that’s what makes her happy and makes her a better mother.

“I realized I was not going to be happy if I was just staying home,” Barton said. “I think having the opportunity to go somewhere and learn from other people who are different from you is really valuable to me, and has made me, I hope, a better mother. Because when I come home I’m completely happy. I’m not wishing I was somewhere else, or wishing I was doing something else.”

Leisha Laidlaw, a Utah mom who recently had her second baby, has gone to school while having an infant at home. She said her main motivation is being an example to her children for the future.

“What brings me peace is hoping that when the time comes for them to make sacrifices and push hard they will look at my example and know that they can do it,” Laidlaw said.

A recent Harvard study concluded that growing up with a working mother might lead to kids having looser perceptions on gender roles in the future. The study surveyed 50,000 adults in 25 countries and found that daughters of mothers who worked part- or full-time in the U.S. earned 23 percent more when they entered the work force, and their sons spent more time helping around the house.

“There’s a lot of parental guilt about having both parents working outside the home,” said Harvard Business School professor Kathleen L. McGinn in a Harvard Business School article. “But what this research says to us is that not only are you helping your family economically — and helping yourself professionally and emotionally if you have a job you love — but you’re also helping your kids.”

Balancing the roles

Despite some evidence in favor of mothers working outside the home, there is no denying the sacrifice it requires. For many LDS mothers, the hardest thing is reconciling their religious responsibility to be the best mothers to their children with their own aspirations and desire for personal growth.

Jeanette Bennett, left, poses with her daughters Hailey, back, Lola, middle and Lindsey, right. Bennett feels fulfilled and happy as a mother to five, wife and businessowner. (Jeanette Bennett)

“I still feel like kids need their moms and love their moms, so that’s been the balance for me, trying to figure out how to do that,” Bennett said. “How to give my kids a stay-at-home mom experience while still earning an income and fulfilling my roles, my divine nature, my passion and interests as well.”

For Long, balance is looking at the big picture. “Just because I’m a provider does not mean I’m not a nurturer. … It’s less important who is doing what, and more important that our family, and especially our son, are getting what they need,” she said.

Bates said she learned from her father, who traveled a lot while she was growing up, that the quality of time a parent spends with their kids is a better indication of how good of a parent they are than the quantity of time they spend with their kids.

“As long as my son is happy and learning and growing and thriving, I think my way of being a mother works out with the teachings of the church,” Bates said.

Hanks said she has come to view motherhood as a relationship rather than a role, and believes a mother’s success should be measured by the quality of her relationships rather than a checklist of responsibilities.

“As I’ve gotten older I kind of measure my motherhood less on behaviors and more on connections. Do my kids feel self? Do they know I get them? Do they know I am there for them? … That doesn’t mean I’m with them 24 hours a day, but I’m emotionally available,” Hanks said. “That’s the thing that creates healthy human beings.”

A more open future

Recent developments in the LDS Church seem to show that the perceived role of women is broadening, with female leaders recently invited to sit on church leadership councils headed by members of the Quorum of the Twelve.

Barrager said she has seen women’s education be more emphasized in the church and the world in general, and female representation in engineering majors has improved immensely since they began the outreach program in 2008.

“I think (women) are seeing that studying these things and having a potential career and having a family aren’t mutually exclusive,” Barrager said. “You can do it. It takes planning, it takes thought, it takes working with your spouse, but it’s possible and it’s really fulfilling and it’s great.”