Here’s A Secret: Nobody’s Normal

An interesting thing has happened since I launched the Mormon Women Project at the beginning of 2010: Molly Mormon has disappeared. Completely vanished. At least I can’t find her anymore.

I was born and raised in Manhattan, the only child of divorced parents. Although I was always active at church, very little about my life conformed to what “the Church” expected a Mormon woman’s life to be like. And that was okay. My mother, a professional, was celebrated for her talents in church circles, and a tight ward family and supportive friends provided examples of women blossoming in their own spheres while remaining faithful to the gospel.

What a shock, then, when I left home and realized not every Mormon girl had had the same experience I had regarding her emerging womanhood. Rather than feeling supported in their personal ambitions and unique choices, they felt funneled into a life of domesticity and anonymity which they couldn’t reconcile with the glorious global and individual opportunities available to women today. “If I were a ‘good’ Mormon, I wouldn’t have gotten my master’s degree. I wouldn’t be working, and I wouldn’t want to work so much. I’d want to be a mother and have kids and stay home,” one young filmmaker wrote to me.

“If only these girls had known the women I did growing up!” I thought. “Perhaps then they would know there is a place for them in this church organization. Faith and personal fulfillment do not need to be mutually exclusive.” A little smug, perhaps, but the sentiment was sincere and it prompted me to search out eighteen of my own female mentors, interview them, and post their stories online at www.mormonwomen.com.

Now, ten months later, the digital library of interviews with LDS women from around the world has been visited over one hundred thousand times. My team of twenty-five volunteers and I have posted 56 interviews – one a week since the original eighteen – and we anticipate having 70 posted before the end of the year. The Project has been written up in the Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News, and premier blogs. The Project also caught the attention of the Church’s archiving department, which will be including our interviews in its official church records, and the Church’s missionary department which recently asked me to bring the Mormon Women Project’s tone and feel to the new “I’m A Mormon” national media campaign found at Mormon.org.

The success of the Project, although unexpected, has not been the most surprising thing for me as I look back over the past ten months. What has surprised me most is the audience that has responded to the content we post on the site. I of course expected interest from women whose resumes suggested they didn’t conform to “the mold” and who often feel left out of our traditional church rhetoric: academics, working moms, single women, ethnic members, divorcees. I knew I was offering them a place where they could come to feel safe, to feel accepted, to be in the good company of other women of their faith. But what I didn’t expect was that women who seemingly live the ideal Mormon life – married women in stable marriages at home with their children  – would also respond to the Project with such fervor and support. Normal women. Women who, I thought, would feel completely embraced by the style and content of our gender-oriented church vocabularly. Women who wouldn’t need any sort of outlet for feeling validated or accepted because they have, well, the Church.

How often do we meet another member of our faith and silently, even subconsciously, shuffle our new acquaintance off to one side of our brain or the other: “Interesting. Check. Educated. Check. Like me. Check.” or “Molly Mormon. Check. Too perfect. Check. Not like me. Check”? I’m guilty. I was no less than shocked the first time an acquaintance approached me to express her heartfelt gratitude for the Project and all I could think was, “But your life is perfect! You’re exactly the type of woman who always gets held up on a pedestal. How could you feel out of place? Lacking in confidence? Alone?”

Over the past year, the confessions have flowed:

“I’ve never baked bread or canned or been good at homey things so I’ve never considered myself the perfect Mormon women,” one older mother of five in a 40-year marriage said to me.

“I thought that if I was a good Mormon women, I would have more control over my life circumstances, so it’s been hard for me to realize my life isn’t turning out just the way I wanted it,” said another, seemingly ideal woman.

“I had to take a stand with my family to go to cosmetology school. It was a really bold thing for me to do. They just wanted me to go to BYU and get married and they didn’t understand why I would want to study something that would make money,” I was told by a bombshell of a young woman.

As I’ve heard more and more of these stories, it has dawned on me that Molly Mormon – that perfect mom and wife who steps out of the 1950s to excel in the domestic arts and rearing of children – simply doesn’t exist. Maybe she once did, but our world is so complex and our church population so large and diverse that it is unfair to assume that any one of us doesn’t feel unaccepted, underappreciated or misunderstood at some point in our lives. My great lesson from my adventure with the MWP is this: A woman who looks ideal, even simple, from the outside always has something brewing within. What is normal is to feel abnormal. It’s simply the nature of our modern-day womanhood. And the great power of the Mormon Women Project is that it strips away the churchy rhetoric, it abandons words like “perfect” and “ideal” and the whole idea that roses blooming ‘neath our feet is the rule instead of the exception.

So let’s redefine what it means to be a “good Mormon woman” using terms like “compassionate,” “bold,” “skillful,” and “wise” instead of “ideal” and “perfect.” And Molly, your time has past. Good riddance.

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