How’s that equal-y, feminist-y thing workin’ for ya?

As many of you did, I read Kathryn Soper’s article about Mormon feminism with great interest. But it’s a paragraph in Claudia Bushman’s response to it that I am pondering. Bushman wrote that the feminist ideal of equal pay for equal work has contributed to an economy where it is difficult to make ends meet on one income, and that this creates a problem for Mormons who believe in the ideal of a non-working mother because it’s increasingly difficult to make it on one income. “Large families, large houses, traditional role models, and single incomes have led to some painful economic realities in current Mormon lives: bankruptcy, foreclosure, welfare. That’s not what anyone had in mind. We need some creative new role models,” she wrote.

Indeed. I have very close associates who have experienced all of those economic realities. When one paycheck simply will not allow a family to have children early and often, pay tithes and offerings, stay out of debt, and be “self reliant,” families have to make painful choices. Often they must at least temporarily let some of those ideals go. If choosing between following Church ideals and paying one’s bills is to be avoided, something needs to fundamentally change in many Mormon families. In today’s economy, are there new models to be found? I am only one person, but my life is pushing the boundaries of the ideals set forth in the Proclamation on the Family, and may provide if not a model than at least an example of diversity. So I’ll do as Claudia suggests and record my story. And to borrow a phrase from that infamous feminist Sarah Palin, I’ll answer the question, How’s that equal-y, feminist-y thing workin’ for ya?

I grew up in a home with traditional gender roles. My dad worked and my mom raised six kids, and that is what they both wanted to do. That lifestyle worked well until my dad lost his job and it took two years to find a position that replaced the one he’d lost. My mother had a college degree, but after 15 years out of the work force, there was no way she could find a job to support our family, nor would it have been the desirable solution for my parents to have my mom working and my dad at home. During this period of unemployment and semi-employment, my family benefited from the help of the government and the church and we never lacked for life’s essentials, but I was old enough to appreciate how much stress my parents were under, and I decided at that time that I’d never be in a situation where my economic well being depended solely on the fortunes of one man. At the same time my sensitivity to gender equality was awakening, and I bristled at the notion that my life’s work would be limited to the domestic realm, as dictated by a conservative view of the Church’s teachings about gender.

So I went to college and studied biology with the thought that I’d become a physician. I decided part way though my education that I didn’t like medicine, but still loved learning about living things, so I went to graduate school to study for a Ph.D. in molecular genetics. Along the way I was thrilled to find a husband who was not threatened by my ambitions or put off by my career goals. He was equally happy to find a wife who wasn’t set on re-routing his study of music toward something more lucrative and traditional for a sole provider. So got married we set out for graduate school together after finishing at BYU. Eleven years and two children later, I’ve realized that running a family with two people in the work force is really hard. But not as hard as doing it on one insufficient income.

Our first child was born 6 years into my Ph.D. program. I had planned to be done with my bench research by the time he was born, but as is often the case with research, mine didn’t go according to plan and I still had a lot of work left when the baby came. With both of us still in graduate school we couldn’t really afford the full-time child care I needed to complete my work, so we hobbled through the next year and a half taking turns being at home with the baby for a while, then an unpaid leave of absence for me, then full-time lab work for me with child care funded in part by getting into debt. It was a hard time, and it taught me how much financial problems can strain a marriage. When I finally finished my degree, we really needed my income in order to service the debts we’d accumulated for ourselves: student loans, a car payment, a modest mortgage, and unpaid balances on our credit cards. My husband had finished graduate school by then and was working full time as the music director at a church. His job paid about as much as a school teacher’s – decent, and almost enough to make ends meet, but not quite.

My ideal of working outside the home as a way of asserting my independence and feminism has turned into working outside the home as a way of being financially solvent. At the present time I have a two month-old baby, and if my family didn’t need my income, I’d probably choose to quit working at this time. Something I naively failed to anticipate when I was visualizing my career in college is how difficult it would be to leave my babies with a sitter while I go to work. And I believe the feelings of sadness and guilt that come when I leave them are not the product of cultural conditioning, but rather of a primal, even biological need for a mother to protect and care for her children. Every working mother I know, regardless of her religious beliefs, finds leaving her baby with a sitter difficult.

And motherly guilt is not the only way in which having both marriage partners working is difficult. My husband and I have tried to minimize the time our kids spend in day care as much as possible, meaning we play a lot of tag. He’s got the kids while I’m working and vice versa as much as possible, and because he doesn’t have job with 9-5 hours, we’ve been able to limit child care to 30 hours a week versus the 50 hours a week many working parents need. But it’s exhausting and it means we don’t have much time together as a whole family.

After putting into practice my plan for financial equality and self-reliance in marriage, I’m seeing how the Proclamation’s recommendation for men to provide and women to nurture could make life easier. In some ways clear-cut divisions of labor work better than both partners sharing the same tasks. But working has its benefits as well, one of which is that I think it makes me a better mother when I’m with my children – I know my time with my kids is limited so I make it the highest quality time I can. I have the peace of mind of knowing that if something happened to my husband I wouldn’t have a financial meltdown. I’m having some enriching experiences at work (as well as some tedious experiences, of course). And I’m not pigeonholed into traditional gender roles in a very practical way because my working outside the home means that I can’t do all the domestic work myself, and my husband has to help. I realize that a mother needn’t work for domestic equality to occur, but there’s nothing like waking up to a sink full of dishes, a full garbage can, a naked toddler, and a wife who’s on her way out the door to make a guy realize he has to carry his weight at home. These are all good things.

My husband and I are almost halfway through our student loans, and we’ll need my income until they are paid off. We’ve avoided the bankruptcy, foreclosure, and welfare that have plagued others. But between the cost of preschool and daycare for two children and servicing our debt, there isn’t much money left at the end of the month, as evidenced by the fact that we’re still living in our one bedroom condo even though we’re now a family of four. By the time we can afford for me to quit working, my kids will be in school and I won’t want to quit working. Life is ironic like that.

What could we have done differently? We could have waited longer to have a baby. We could have started working at younger ages rather than attending graduate school for many years. We could have been more frugal. My husband could have chosen one of the few careers left that provides enough to live on one income, and/or I could have chosen to completely depend on him financially. But there are real, practical problems with the one income model, as Claudia pointed out. Not to mention the ideological problems with the model as identified by feminism. Should the Church bend to economic realities and feminist critique by softening its stance on gender roles? I think it should, but I don’t expect it will any time soon. So here’s what I’m going to tell my kids about this topic.

I’ll tell them that mothers and fathers are both needed in families because they each provide a unique contribution, but that there is a huge amount of overlap in what they are each capable of doing. I’ll tell them to should choose a profession they think they’ll enjoy and get the education needed to do it (This is a little different from the what I’ve heard Church leaders say, that is, to get all the education you can but not necessarily to use that education in the workplace if you’re a woman). Then I’ll tell them that work experience is just as important as a degree when you’re on the job market, so get some work experience on your resume before you have children. I’ll say if and when your children are born, you may be surprised to find how strong the desire to be with them is, and you may want to quit working or cut back to part time (I’ll tell this to my daughter and my son, although obviously both parents can’t quit working!). But when you find yourself ready (or required) to re-enter the work force, you’ll have a resume that will smooth your path if you take the necessary preparations. I don’t think any of these ideas are terribly radical, I don’t think they completely deny gender essentialism, and I think they’d set young families up for a life of fewer financial reversals than one-income families are vulnerable to. They are, however, a little different from the cultural expectations of the Mormonism in the 20th century, which were to marry young, have children soon after, and have a mother not in the work force.

Marriage patterns in America are changing. The November 29 issue of TIME reported that fewer adults are married than ever before, more people are living alone, the age of first marriages is increasing, and more kids are born to unmarried women. These trends affect Mormons, too, although perhaps for reasons different from the general population. I think young, single Mormons are challenged by navigating the traditional gender roles promulgated by the church in relation to the realities of modern living. For example a male friend of mine and his girlfriend recently broke up in part because he wasn’t comfortable with her career goals and in part because she doubted his ability to solely provide for a family. It was unfortunate because they were well matched in many ways, but in his case fear of modernity got in the way and in her case the problem was fear being subject to President Hinckley’s prediction about women given in a talk to young men titled “Living Worthy to the Girl You Will Someday Marry.” He said, “The girl you marry will take a terrible chance on you. She will give her all to the young man she marries. He will largely determine the remainder of her life.” A feminist would be less willing to take that chance.

I was less than willing to take that chance. But what I didn’t understand in college is that life is full of trade-offs, and no one can have it all. I have mitigated financial risk to myself, but as they say on the NPR program “Car Talk,” the working mother committee is headed by Erasmus B. Draggin. It’s hard doing it all. There are things I would change if I could do it all over again, but exposing myself to the risks of the financially dependent woman is not one of them.

  • dbeacon

    I don’t think we need new role models as much as we need to hold fast to our priorities, even our ideals. I would argue that much of the foreclosure, and bankruptcy cited above is not the result of “Mormon culture” but of a systemic culture of consumerism. Perhaps the “large houses” portion mentioned and the high cost lifestyle that we try to pursue is the real thing that needs to change. People have been raised with great success without 5000 sq ft homes and stainless steel appliances for a long time. The new role models are perhaps old ones. Grandparents or great-grandparents usually got by with far less than we may believe we now need. It would likely be quite good for us to divest ourselves of consumerism and focus on real essentials and follow the teachings of the Brethren.

    Many things are upside down in our culture, throughout the nation. For many, holding to the teachings of the prophets will mean renting, bunkbeds, rice and tuna dinners and making do with less. For many, perhaps foreclosure, bankruptcy and other financial stresses are really a call to have faith and focus on the things that are most important.

  • michelle

    So many thoughts come on this topic that is one I’m really passionate about. I think it’s essential to not think of the Church’s counsel as an either-or kind of scenario — either you have one income or two, either you will be poor and bankrupt if you follow the Church’s counsel about gender roles (which I think is often overstated as meaning women do nothing but domestic stuff and men carry the financial burden 100%), or you have two full-time working parents. There’s a lot of space in between these two endpoints on the spectrum. And as you explore to some degree, there are consequences tied to any choice, both positive and not-so-positive. (I appreciated, for example, your honesty about how your student loans have committed you to working, whether you would like to or not…a great example of the kinds of things young adults should think through.)

    I tend to agree with the first commenter that there is a lot more to the problems with bankruptcy, etc. than just gender roles. As such, I think the solutions to such problems are going to be multi-faceted, and I echo the feeling that prophetic counsel is still the best foundation for making these decisions.

    I think we simply (easier said than done, I know) need to be more comfortable with the tension created by counsel putting family and Proclamation teachings at the forefront and the importance of education and self-reliance — and then seek personal revelation to figure out how to manage one’s life. Each individual and each couple’s story will likely unfold a little differently. I think it’s potentially very harmful to try to prescribe any kind of life plan beyond teaching the general principles as our leaders do and help our children learn how to seek and follow personal revelation to ‘govern themselves.’

    I always cringe at any specific timeline or order given to young people. I think it could confuse them if their personal revelation is different and/or rob them of that life-changing process of really making their own decisions with prophetic principles in mind.

    One last thought — I think women can think perhaps more creatively than we sometimes do about education, resume building, and keeping workforce-reentry options open along the way. This doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing and can unfold in different ways through different seasons of life. I’ve seen women get their education gradually while raising children, keep training and networks active even while staying at home, building resumes with volunteer and/or part-time work (even a few hours a month), etc.

  • jks

    Very interesting post. And very true and well put. I’m your opposite. I’m a SAHM out of the work force long enough to make my previous work experience and education almost meaningless.
    There is definitely a trade off. The feminist in me says that maybe I should check out employment opportunities. But then I think about what I would have to sacrifice in order to do it……and I’m not willing to do it. I want that 5 minutes I spent sitting with my 11 year old when he was all ready for school and finding out the bus conversation that had upset him on a previous day. I want that time to hang out in the bedroom with my husband because I’m not too tired because I took some time to relax in the day.
    Those first few years of SAHMhood I told myself I would just try to live like it was 1965. Without cellphones and cable and internet. My husband just couldn’t do without cable though. Now, internet and cellphones are “necessities” so I’m not sure we can live without them.
    I wish that if my husband were laid off again I could go get a decent job to support us. But the truth is I couldn’t. All I could do is make up the difference between his unemployment compensation and our expenses.
    I couldn’t do the four kids and work. At least, I couldn’t do it right and I couldn’t do marriage right while doing it. That’s my honest answer.
    My daughters (and sons) I think about them and I think……another generation so chances are they will have fewer kids, so maybe they could. I’m going to raise my daughters to plan on working with kids, maybe part-time, and my sons to realize that their wives will probably work part-time. With cellphones and laptops and fewer kids, it is a little more imaginable. I’m sad for what they’ll lose though. But the world changes, job situations are different.

  • emilyu

    I completely agree with dbeacon that we’re accustomed to a lot of unnecessary luxuries in modern life. The trouble is, it is quite difficult to extricate yourself from the cultural milieu you live in. For example, in my city, housing is very expensive in part because virtually everyone outfits their kitchen & bathrooms with the best stuff before they’ll put it on the market, making homes more in the luxury/expensive category. So for quite a few people it takes more than one income to afford these homes.

    So certainly, financial problems are more complicated than just gender roles. But one thing I’ve never heard acknowledged from Church leaders is that for newly married couples, starting a family and being financially self-reliant may be mutually exclusive for a while. On the other hand I’m not hearing the Church make prescriptions about timelines for people’s lives, and they’ve stopped counseling against birth control and don’t tell us how many children to have. So maybe it’s just cultural expectations about family size & timing I’m taking issue with. I will probably stop at 2 kids but pretty much everyone in my large family has large families, and I sort of feel like I’ll get judged as selfish and worldly if I stop at 2. I shouldn’t care about what people think, but it’s hard not to.

    I also agree with michelle and jks that working doesn’t need to be an all or nothing thing, and that sahms can be preparing for workforce re-entry in small ways. It is hard to do, though, and to be honest if I were at home with my kids, I’m not sure how I would do it. Being the mother of a large family is a really big job, and I can’t imagine working and being the mother of 4-6 kids. So I can totally understand just focusing on mothering.

    A thought occurred to me last night which is that just maybe God appreciates how tough it is to be a mother and wants to provide a space for women to do that work – that is, a space provided by a father who provides for the material needs of the family. So I should see the provider clause of the Proclamation as something there to help me not to limit me. I’m all too aware of how the provider thing can go wrong, though. Sigh.

  • Naismith

    I think we should question the assumption that a spouse who doesn’t have their name on the paycheck doesn’t help with family income. In my case, my husband earns a six-digit income and is one of the top people in his field because I was willing to move the family to South America for research. His colleagues in two-career families were not able to make that commitment and so have not done as well. It’s easy to dismiss my experience as unique, but my two other married sisters can tell similar stories: one had a husband who rose to the corporate vice-president level because she was available to entertain clients, whether it was flying down to the Florida condo or up to the corporate hunting lodge. My other sister pursued extra schooling so that she could assist her husband with his business.

    So just as was noted toward the end of the OP about there being consequences to everything, a two-income approach may not automatically be the best financial decision either. In the case of me and my sisters, our families were much better off financially by having mom at home and putting dad in a stronger position to earn than he would have been in a dual-earner situation. Dependent on a spouse? Yes, my employed husband was very dependent on me, and when the children were younger, we had life insurance that reflected that reality.

    These dynamics were fleshed out in a wonderful book that is apparently out of print called, TWO INCOMES AND STILL BROKE? IT’S NOT HOW MUCH YOU MAKE, IT’S HOW MUCH YOU KEEP by Linda Kelley. That book had a profound impact on our decisions, and helped me realize why, in our case, it is cheaper for us to hire a cleaning service.

    I don’t want to sound critical, but it should be noted that getting a doctorate may not be great move if financial solvency is a priority. I appreciate that there are many other reasons to get the PhD, and certainly no price tag can be placed on doing work one loves. But I turned down a nice fellowship to get my PhD because of concerns about the negative fiscal impact in terms of getting a job later. There are so many jobs for masters-level people, and opportunities for part-time work (for years, I earned over $30,000 a year working only while my children were in school), but far fewer for those with PhDs. And if student loans are involved, the case is even starker, as the situation in the OP illustrates. I think that considering the potential earning potential of a degree versus the full cost (including interest and opportunity cost) of obtaining the degree is essential, and one cannot assume that more education automatically means more earning power.

    There are many fields that are lucrative and amenable to part-time work. Nursing, physical therapy, physician’s assistants, pharmacy are all growing fields as the baby boomers age, and while nursing will be sniffed at by some feminists as “traditional,” some nursing specialties earn more than primary care doctors, with much less cost in training. As a young mom, I had a PT friend who worked 4 hours on every other Saturday morning while her husband watched the kids…since she got a weekend differential, her hourly rate was amazing.

    When I was a young mom at home, I never thought that “my life’s work would be limited to the domestic realm.” I thought that focus was just a season. I’ve only been a member 30 years, and in that time all the counsel I have heard to consider being at home fulltime has been directed at mothers, not women per se. Most of us are left with several decades once the children are grown, to work on other things.

  • Ben Spackman

    Fascinating stuff, Emily. I appreciate the personal narrative and disclosure here. My wife (PhD student) and I (former PhD student) can certainly relate in some ways.

  • ECS

    Excellent post, Emily. I’ve traveled a similar road as you (traditional parents with six children, marriage, professional school, etc.). I’m in a slightly different position at the moment, however, because my husband’s demanding job makes plenty of money for our family and my full-time career became more of an indulgence than a necessity after our son was born. I still work part time, because two parents with demanding full-time careers was a difficult balance to maintain for me. Although people do seem to do it. Good luck to you and your family.

  • michelle

    So I should see the provider clause of the Proclamation as something there to help me not to limit me.

    I love this perspective and agree with it completely. I feel that this ideal acknowledges the primal mothering need you talked about and gives women the choice to be home.

    Of course, life is often messier than the ideals that are set out (one income is often simply not enough, etc.), but the proclamation also leaves room for adaptation. I think our leaders recognize how complicated life can be and trust us to trust God and seek His help for how to approach each stage and situation in life.

    Also, emily, I don’t know if you saw the WW leadership broadcast from a few years ago, but I thought this quote was relevant to what you said about messages to young couples:

    “I remember when I was a young single adult and in my early married years that I heard that preached over the pulpit by apostles and prophets, and I was grateful for that continued counsel. I remember hearing them preach that we were to get married, to have children, and to get an education, sort of all simultaneously, as impossible as it sounds. And I think that maybe it does seem sort of impossible and that we have people who question and wonder about that.

    “As I’ve thought about that commandment [to multiply and replenish] remaining in force, I really believe that it’s correct, and I believe that it requires of us great faith and great courage and often great sacrifice. I think it requires us to be in tune with the Lord to receive personal revelation, and I think it requires a pure heart so that we are not judgmental of other people who are exercising their faith and having their own personal revelation in regard to that commandment.”

    Sister Tanner here acknowledged the tension in the teachings (it does sometimes seem impossible!) and then encouaged personal revelation. I think we can see this — this process of learning principles and leaning on God to help us make choices — as being an exciting opportunity to come to know Him better. I also think the more anchored we are with Him, the less apt we are to be tossed about either by cultural forces or others’ opinions or experiences. It *is* hard not to care what others think, but ultimately, I think as we earn to trust God and His guidance — those two lines of communication that Elder Oask recently talked about — we’ll be more at peace to focus on whatever He has guided us to do.

  • Paul

    You both love your kids and each other, you both are hardworking and very ethical. I think your children know you love them. You are both making unique contributions that many people appreciate. I would be surprised if any church leader would tell you to change what you are doing.
    One needs to properly set one’s filters or the church will drive one crazy.

  • Emily U

    Thanks, Paul :)

  • Fran

    Interesting topic. I think I’d agree with some of the previous comments. I don’t know that we need new role models per se. I think it is very important that we stress education and work experience with our children. Today’s times are not times to get married and stay home with no clue and no plan and no education. It really isn’t, and I think it would be bad advice for any person. However, I also don’t perceive the Church as promoting such a life style. I think they sincerely want us to be as educated, experienced and prepared for life as we can be. But, I think they also try to stick with the idea that that doesn’t just have to be one way (as in both parents pursuing education and careers over having a family).

    I also think that some of our choices trap us into a two-income situation. As mentioned before big houses, several cars, etc. are choices that cost but don’t have to be ours. I also think making wise decisions in insurance and savings etc. can prepare a family for difficult times such as unemployment. Another option is how education and work experience is tackled. Of course finishing up education at the same time as a spouse is one option, but it doesn’t have to be. If a couple if fairly young, it’s possible for one spouse to finish his/her education, and then take on your own education when the spouse is finished.

    Lastly, the US is simply lacking a system that is supportive of families. As long as that’s a problem, I don’t think anything will get better anyway. We need a legal system and a government that understands the value of families and the value of parents raising their children (and I’m not saying that has to be mom). If we need anything new then I think it’s a change in attitude towards the value of raising children.

  • Mike

    I think it is very presumptuous – and highly offensive – for you to suggest that you’re a better mother than a stay at home mom simply because you have purport to have better “quality” time with your children due to your realization that your time with them is limited. You don’t think that a stay at home mom realizes her time with her children is limited? You don’t think that a stay at home mother can have more quality time with her children simply because she has quantity time as well? “Quantity” and “quality” are not mutually exclusive. Honestly, your statement sounds more like an attempt to justify depriving your children of time with you by suggesting that the time you do spend with them is somehow of a better “quality” than that spent by stay at home mom.

  • EL

    The pre-kid work experience is valuable, but as a previous commenter mentioned, she had been a SAHM too long to make her work experience worth anything. A few years back my mom was facing the similar thing. Her youngest was in middle school, she was tired of all the volunteer things she was doing and growing restless. Against my father’s wishes (another story, another day) she wanted to go back to work. Or essentially, go to work for the first time as she only worked very briefly in her first year of marriage. We, as her older children, sat with her and extracted everything she’d done over the last 25 years. PTA presidents, political advocacy committees, board member for this and that … and built her a very impressive resume. We then made her apply to jobs she knew she’d like, not the ones she thought she was qualified for; I saw them as two very different things. She got an interview for the job she really wanted, and then got the job too. A couple of years later she’s a very valued member of the University department she coordinates. I’m 30, divorced, child-lesss and in love with my job, my plans are, if I ever end up in a good relationship and with kids, to keep working. But in looking at the success story of my mom: she has 6 amazing kids, those who have finished uni are all successful in their chosen fields, and has returned to the workforce and built a career for herself, I don’t undervalue the SAHM thing, I just know it’s not for me.

  • emilyu

    Mike, you are reading something into what I’ve written that isn’t there. I’m comparing my working self to my non-working self, not my working self to other mothers who are not working. Of course quantity and quality are not mutually exclusive. I have dear sisters and friends who are SAHMs and spend a lot of “quality” time with their kids. For myself, I found that when I wasn’t working I took my time with my son more for granted than when I was working, but that’s just my weakness, not a comment on anyone else.

    Get off your high horse.