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

How’s that equal-y, feminist-y thing workin’ for ya? December 4, 2010

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.

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