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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  • Rosalyn

    Neylan, I love this! I think it articulates so well the ethos of the project. Thank you for all your hard work–and for helping so many of us feel more connected.

  • http://postsofmyhouse.blogspot.com Keri Brooks

    I don’t have anything to say, except, amen!

  • tonya

    I really love this. Thank you so much for doing this project. I love where you wrote “what is normal is to feel abnormal”. Goodbye Molly, there’s a new girl in town!

  • http://patheos.com Ben

    “Interesting. Check. Educated. Check. Like me. Check.”

    I do this almost constantly, in spite of near-constant reminders that I’m wrong about people.

  • Mehrsa

    What a great project! I think you have really hit on something. I have loved reading all your profiles. You have a gift for illuminating interesting lives.

  • http://www.nourishment-blog.com Emily U

    Great post, and I’ve really enjoyed the Mormon Women Project profiles (I get the updates on facebook).

    I’m fascinated that you’ve been asked to help with the “I’m a Mormon” project. On one hand I’m thrilled to see the Church embracing diversity in their depictions of members, and I hope it means there’s real acceptance of diverse life choices behind the public relations stance, and on the other hand my cynical side says it’s just spin/advertising and the Church is trying to seem inclusive without making any real changes.

    My father in law told me about a Mormon TV commercial he saw in Pittsburgh. It showed a family where the father did a bunch of housekeeping tasks and the mother said something about not being a typical housewife (I can’t remember the details, but that was the gist of it). I admit I thought the commercial sounded a bit disingenuous because the YW in the church are encouraged to be home makers and the YM are encouraged to be breadwinners, and the commercial seemed to be trying to sweep aside the fact that the Church encourages these traditional roles. On the positive side, I’ve seen various Church materials that encourage men to engage with their families and help with housekeeping more than in previous generations, and it may be that the Church is headed in the direction of less promotion of traditional gender roles. I just think it’s curious that they’re leading off with PR, rather with changing actual content of Church teachings (i.e. a revised Proclamation on the Family or revised YM/YW curriculum).

  • Jenni

    I like the Mormon Women Project. I think that it’s a great thing. It can’t hurt to have more communication about the positive things in our lives. You’ve done a great job with it and the site is beautiful.

    I don’t agree with some of the points in this post. Honestly, though, I’m a little nervous to elaborate because my opinions would probably not be well liked on this thread. I know the Mollies aren’t extinct, because I’d be happy to be called one. I suppose my view of what a Molly is different than yours, but to me it’s a positive term.

  • http://michelleglauser.blogspot.com Michelle Glauser

    Keep up the good work, Neylan!

  • Tova

    Hi Neylan – Interesting points you and others have raised. Like Jenni, I do think the “Mollys” still exist, for sure — not that everything is perfect in their lives, and not that this is a negative thing. We should see it as a positive thing if some people really are 100% into their families and domesticity, baking bread, canning, etc etc. I know several women like this whom I admire greatly. I also agree with Emily that the Mormon.org campaign seems (so far) mostly to be a PR thing to appear acceptable to the outside world. If it has the added effect, as does the MWP, of helping members to feel more welcome in the church, that is great. I do hope, however, that we will begin to hear more messages over the pulpit that embrace diversity and encourage personal revelation to guide our personal life choices. This is still missing and there is still a very spoken standard we are counseled to follow. Thus the reason many of us who have other talents, desires, goals, etc., feel guilty or that we aren’t measuring up or that we are being judged.

  • http://www.neylanmcbaine.com Neylan

    I really appreciate the comments to this article and I’m particularly intrigued by the positive definition of “Molly Mormon” referenced by Jenni and Tova. I suppose it is one of those terms that means something different for each person, as Jenni suggests, and perhaps I should have clarified what it means to me. I think of it as describing someone who looks perfect on the outside — her appearance, her well-behaved kids, ideal husband — and is therefore assumed to be perfect on the inside. Under this definition, I am suggesting that the term describes an impossibility, since it seems that no one of us is as untouched by life’s challenges as we may appear to be. I would venture to suggest that the women Jenni and Tova know and admire would not fall under my definition of a “Molly Mormon” since my term describes something that is only a mirage.

    My purpose in using the term was to encourage us to reexamine our judgments of others by sharing the depth and complexity I’ve found in LDS women, not to shame those who apply their interpretation of the term to themselves.


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