Mother’s Day is a big deal in Mormonism. By some measures, Mother’s Day has the most elaborate rituals of any holiday celebrated in the LDS Church. Like Christmas and Easter, Mother’s Day is typically filled with special musical numbers and talks dedicated to the topic of the day. In addition to this, adult women receive a gift that is passed to them at the end of Sacrament Meeting. This year, my ward is also planning a special meeting in the third hour for all adult women. LDS adoption of the otherwise secular holiday as a major event in the liturgical year is part of a larger theme in Mormon self-understanding as it relates to support of the “traditional family.”
In the contemporary conversation about pants, prayers, and priesthood, LDS discourse of motherhood requires a closer look. In our time, when kinship relations are in such cultural flux, Mother’s Day is fraught with political significance. As a religious festival, Mother’s Day draws upon the imagery of fertility, modesty, and self-sacrifice. These feminine virtues give meaning to motherhood. In LDS understanding, female fertility is a kind of cosmogonic repetition, the creative act par excellence. However, too frequently in our attempt to honor these righteous and faithful desires and actions, we end up tying women’s value to their motherhood. There is no doubt that motherhood deserves praise, but certain ways that we have shown that praise can be counterproductive.
To be fair, there is a great deal of ambivalence in LDS communities around this holiday, reflecting how it has become a contested cultural symbol far beyond Mormonism. Certainly, many LDS women are deeply honored by this celebration of their roles, which they understand as a sacred responsibility. Other women refuse to attend church that day because the praise of mothers often exacerbates perceived deficiencies and insecurities that many mothers experience. Others who have no mothers, or whose mothers have deeply wounded them are further hurt by the celebration of what they lacked. Still others object to the particular ideological framing of the ideal mother as the stay at home mom with many children. Sensitive Mormon leaders seek to address these concerns in multiple ways. Sometimes those with complicated feelings towards their mothers, or those who object to the holiday on ideological or personal grounds, are invited to speak in church to give voice to their pain.
Non-mothers are frequently wounded by the cult of the mother, which roots female worth in fertility, heterosexuality, and marriage. For these women, the deferred potentiality of motherhood is profoundly insufficient because it retains the view of motherhood as the singular desideratum of a woman’s existence, while locating it permanently out of reach in mortality. The quintessence of womanhood cannot be reducible to motherhood without symbolically locating such women outside of an intelligible life.
These varied reactions point to a disjunction over the category of the mother and its representation. Though there have been some rather odd attempts in LDS discourse to suggest that all women are definitionally mothers, being a women and being a mother are not coterminous, nor does being a mother occupy the single point of identity for women. In the contemporary space, women’s labor and creative power is no longer tied to reproduction per se. Whether capital, intellectual, or artistic production, motherhood defined in the terms of procreation alone fails to adequately describe how many women see themselves.
These cracks in the ideology of motherhood point to some broader political issues. There is no exaggeration in noting that women’s subordination has often been tied to the praise of motherhood. The exclusion of women from economic, political, and ecclesial spheres has always rested on the supposed special role of mothers. We ought to exercise some suspicion about claims to honor women through motherhood as justifications for limiting women in other ways. In a particularly troubling passage in the New Testament, the pseudonymous author of 1 Timothy instructs women’s silence in church (2:11), women’s subordination to men (2:12), and women’s responsibility for the fall (2:13-14). In spite of this inferior status, the author declares, “yet [women] will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness with modesty” (2:15). In this view, women’s salvation is tied to their attainment of particular understandings of feminine virtue. Women are not saved by Christ as men are, but rather are saved by fulfilling the curse of Eve.
I was pleased that I could find no citation of 1 Tim 2:15 in official LDS talks and manuals in my search on www.lds.org. However, I was struck by the affirming citation of this passage in Camille S. Williams’ response to preeminent feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther in Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies (page 281). Williams attempts to honor mothers and Eve by emphasizing how giving birth allows for their [male] savior to be born. William’s citation of this section of scripture as evidence of women’s worth suggests that LDS discourses on motherhood and subordination remain too close for comfort.
Unfortunately, some present us with false dichotomies. In one view, women must resist motherhood itself (though this view is much more rare than it is given credit for). In the other view, anything besides motherhood is demeaning to mothers, and therefore women. Instead, we must seek a discourse in which neither of these false dichotomies hold any weight. This means that the category of women must come to reflect the reality of lived experience, and the reality of women’s desires.
Maleness is LDS discourse certainly emphasizes fatherhood. Though, somehow maleness is never defined exclusively in terms of fatherhood, nor does this disjunction between maleness and fatherhood produce the same kinds of anxiety in LDS culture as the disjunction between femaleness and motherhood. Women’s productivity and contribution to society and church must honor motherhood as one among many values. Women must be able to define themselves as both mothers and something else, and even not as mothers at all, without their value and even femaleness becoming suspect.