An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for December, 2011

Real Mothers–Then and Now

David O. McKay and Ezra Taft Benson often shared accounts of their sainted mothers who never raised their voices to their children. I attributed these tales of remarkable self-control to the  prophets’ age-impaired memories. Of course, Mormon lesson manuals have always been full of stories of noble, self-sacrificing pioneer women—mothers who claimed not to be hungry as they divided their last morsel of bread amongst their children. The point of these stories obviously being to raise the guilt index in listeners.

But I really enjoyed the journal entries of Mary Jane Tanner published in Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day-Saints, 1830-1900 compiled by Kenneth and Audrey Godfrey and Jill Mulvay Derr. The 1876-78 excerpts from Mary Jane’s journal reveal a woman much like contemporary Mormon women.

At that time Mary Jane served as Relief Society president in the Provo 3rd Ward. A plural wife, Mary Jane’s own household included her six children and a niece and nephew. Even with the help of a hired girl, Mary Jane struggles to keep up with laundry, cooking, sewing, and cleaning. She laments having little time to study and to write poetry. Her Sunday entries show her staying home from meetings to catch up on housework and sewing. Sunday appears to be the only day free from Relief Society meetings and responsibilities.

I find Mary Jane most endearing when she complains of her children vexing her when she tries to steal time for writing: “If I sit in the room with them they play and talk to me, and if I sit in another room they are continually coming to the door for something and keep me answering their questions every few minutes.”

Making time for oneself has never been easy for mothers—but at least in Mary Jane’s day, a Relief Society president could get a little peace and quiet once a week after sending the kids off to Sunday School.

Yes, Virginia

Friday night we babysat the grandkids while their parents attended a temple session. After the first hour, we plopped onto the sofa and turned on the TV for animated relief from hide and seek and reading stories. The kiddie version of Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus was an insipid take off on the classic editorial, but we were too pooped to care. The real message of the original,  that Santa ”exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist. . . they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy,” was an afterthought in the dreary film, but George and I enjoyed the sentiment.

“Granddad and I saw Santa Claus in Murray last week,” I told the skeptical 7-year-old.


“At the intersection of State Street and 4500 South. A car stalled in the intersection and three or four young men stopped their cars and trucks, set their flashers blinking, and ran over to push the stalled car out of traffic.”

“That wasn’t Santa Claus.”

“It was love and generosity. That’s the same thing.”

Of course, the grandkids didn’t get it, but witnessing these young men take time to help a stranger refreshed George’s and my belief in the basic goodness and humanity of ordinary people in a world where the unscrupulous and greedy too often dominate the conversation.

Free Agency and Other Myths

I lost my testimony at Utah State Prison—no, I wasn’t an inmate. I taught at USP for five memorable years and met too many guys like Vince—a depressed, suicidal 24-year-old when I began working with him in one of the maximum security units. As a first grader, Vince had been introduced to drugs by his dealer brother. By 4th grade, Vince was a habitual user. Naturally, he resorted to theft to pay for his habit and was in and out of detention through his teens and in prison once he turned 18.

In prison Vince got off drugs, but upon release had no place to go except to a dealer friend’s house. Vince saw old school friends with jobs, cars, wives, kids, houses—while he had nothing. Even a chimpanzee could have predicted Vince would soon be back on drugs and in prison.

Where was Vince’s agency in all this? He didn’t ask to be born into a family where he’d be introduced to drugs before he lost his baby teeth. The deck was stacked against him before he was even born. Where was the God who notices even the passing of a sparrow when Vince needed him?

The idea that Heavenly Father sends us to earth to be tested with exams rigged against many examinees defies reason. And an atonement which forgives those getting the short end of the stick for failing is neither merciful nor just.

Guilt R Us

A recent New Yorker cartoon features a woman speaking at a funeral: “Mother wouldn’t want us to grieve. Mother would want us to do guilt.” I laughed uneasily, knowing I had used plenty of guilt on my own kids.

Rereading  journal entries from a hectic time in my life reveals the guilt I felt for not enjoying church callings for which I had no time, much less aptitude. I urged myself to try harder to merit the Lord’s blessings which came to others who loved their callings and commitments—or so they said. Since the Church was true—obviously, I was at fault if participation created stress instead of peace in my and my family’s lives.

Guilt has a long history with Mormons. Reading excerpts from early Mormon women’s diaries and letters in the Godfrey/Godfrey/Derr book, Women’s Voices, I found early church leaders urging the Saints freezing at Winter Quarters to repent of their sins in order to merit God’s help. While struggling to settle Utah, starving Saints were admonished to repent and be rebaptized in order to receive God’s blessings.

My journal reveals me using similar guilt tactics with my kids. When our older son who was away at college said he had no testimony, I wrote him a long letter encouraging him to keep the commandments and promised a testimony would follow—a message I’d heard repeatedlyfrom General Conference. Wort answered with a list of relatively normal behavior such as hating his younger sister when he was 11 that had made him feel too wicked to even hope for the Celestial Kingdom.  

Wort had already internalized an unhealthy amount of guilt and I had just told him, “Keep the commandments.” I might as well have said, “If the wall won’t budge when you bang your head against it, bang harder and longer.” At that time, nobody had informed me that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things and expecting different results.

Fortunately, I have forgiving children—and I’ve largely forgiven myself and the Church. I know devout Mormonism works well for many people, but I empathize with those for whom it doesn’t work and who struggle spiritually, fearing to move on.

Jumping Ship

For many years I was a reasonably happy Mormon. As a teacher, I had status at a time when few Mormon women in our various wards had college degrees. Then I became stay-at-home mom to a swarm of adorable tots and babies. But life goes on. The adorable tots morphed into gangly adolescents with empty stomachs, loud mouths, rapidly growing feet, and crooked teeth. We needed not just two, but three or four incomes to keep up. I returned to teaching, which I loved, but which left me with no time or social need for church activity. Pressures of church demands on our time and money drained me.

I struggled for years to maintain activity in a church which became a burden. I didn’t know how to quit the only church I knew. Reading Mormon blogs like this  , I find other Mormons struggling as I once did.

To a lesser degree, Mormonism resembles a cult in making it difficult for dissatisfied members to leave. First of all, is the fear factor. Leaving the church not only jeopardizes a member’s chances for salvation, it impacts the whole family’s eternal prospects—and anyone considering such a step must be influenced by Satan.

The second, and possibly more important factor, is that the Mormon lifestyle leaves no time for outside contacts. Sure, Mormons are encouraged to make non-Mormon friends—but only for proselytizing purposes. Except for work colleagues and neighbors—and not even those for Mormons in Utah and parts of Idaho and Arizona—many Mormons have little or no acquaintance with nonmembers of high moral standards who lead fulfilling lives.

Jumping ship before finding a place to land is unwise, and Mormon culture leaves members unaware of other choices. I kept attending church for years thinking it was good for our kids to be involved in church activities, although—in all honestly—only two of the five enjoyed the activities. Even after our kids were grown, I hesitated to visit other churches where I might feel awkward not knowing the protocol.

I encourage Mormons who are happy with their church participation to continue, of course. It’s to those who struggle that I offer a bit of advice: Don’t be afraid to broaden your horizons. Say no to church callings you don’t enjoy and spend time doing something of interest to yourself. Maybe God calls you in a different direction from the rest of your family or ward members.

Message from My Journal

Entries from a 19-year-old journal reveal why my non-Mo kids and I still harbor some resentment against the Church. This journal describes a time of life when I had a full time teaching job, was working on my masters’ degree, had four teens still at home, and was 2nd counselor in the YW presidency. Angst flames from the pages where I recorded my struggle to balance the demands on my time and energy:

This week has been wild. Tuesday I got home at 8 p.m. Said hello to the family for 10 minutes, ran to presidency meeting which started at 8:00. Got home after 10:30. George was asleep.

Wed. I got home at 4:00, spent an hour making a complex dessert for New Beginnings which left me no time to review my part on the program nor to prepare my part for the board meeting afterward. Was supposed to be at the church to set up at 5:00. Got there at 5:20. Left at 6:00. Gathered up more stuff for both meetings, ate a couple of bites of fish sticks and potato patty, changed my pants for a skirt—including nylons and short garments. The program started at 7:00.

 At 6:30 I started telling Aroo to get ready. She argued that she wasn’t going because she had a math test to study for and hates church. At 20 to 7, I ordered her to get ready. Lolly had to greet, so she left at 6:45. Right after, Aroo came up to do her hair and makeup. I told her there wasn’t time, I had to leave now. She sassed me and I smacked her rear with the back of the hair brush. She gave me a hostile look and sassed me again and I slapped her face and told her as long as she lived in my house, she would do as I said.

So she and Jaycee and I rushed off to New Beginnings. It was awful. I stood up to welcome the mothers and daughters to a wonderful spiritual evening of togetherness, looked at Aroo’s scowling face, and expected a bolt of lightning to strike me.

I’m sharing this incident because I suspect my situation was not and is not unique. Like many devoted Church members, I clearly wasn’t coping with my overloaded life. We couldn’t afford for me to quit my job, which I loved, and I sure didn’t want to give up my family. The only options to drop were my masters’ program or my YW calling. I loved my masters’ classes and was learning things to apply to my teaching. I did not enjoy working with adolescent girls. I’ve never been good at planning activities, decorating, and concocting fancy refreshments.

Even a pea brain could see my best choice was to drop the load I wasn’t enjoying—my church calling. Unfortunately, my brain had shrunk smaller than a pea. I had internalized all the lessons and talks about serving the Lord and never turning down a calling nor asking for a release. I struggled for two more years—to the detriment of my family—especially Aroo.

She is grown now and, I think, has forgiven me. If I knew back then what I know now, I would have realized that trying to fulfill a calling which was harmful to my family and myself was not fulfilling God’s purposes. Caring for my family and teaching my students was my way to serve God at that time.

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