Yesterday, a Mormon Times article began with this opener: “For Finnish music star Mervi Hiltunen-Multamäki, trading in exotic concert locales, a prime-time TV show and platinum records for diapers, dishes and dusting was an easy decision. Maybe that’s because following the prophet has never been hard for her.”
Not only did I have a knee-jerk reaction toward this comment, I have a more significant knee-jerk reaction to the culture that these sentences manifest. I would love to see the journalist receive constructive public and professional criticism, but even more I would like to see a cultural uprising that no longer allowed this to be an acceptable opener.
I think that any competent English speaker who reads these words understands something like the following: women who maintain their interest and involvement in pre-partum passions and social callings rather than choosing full-time confinement to the domestic, is failing to follow the prophet. Implicit is an assumption that the proper interpretation of prophetic statements such as “Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children” is that mothers need no longer be participants in life beyond the (sometimes) meaningful and (sometimes) menial chores of motherhood. What’s needed – and what our prophets explicitly call for – is a definitive and substantive commitment to our children and family, our first priority, not the eschewing of all outside involvement.
Similarly, any of us who are familiar with motherhood and our undeniably chauvinistic market (in structure and in its ability to take account of motherhood if not in mere opportunity) know the wrenchingly difficult decision that women have to make when they have children. And it’s not simply a decision of whether to keep one’s full-time job or not, but a decision concerning how much and in what way they will continue to pursue the sorts of things that to this point have constituted the majority of their life, a decision concerning how much and in what way they will continue to be a participant in the society to which they belong. The opening of this article states plainly that any women who have to confront these difficulties as difficulties (all of them?) are less worthy or somehow not following the prophet.
It’s a particular problem with this being the opening line, since most readers aren’t going to read down to some of the other important things in the article that help offset the nauseating opening (e.g., Mervi had no problem marrying her rockstar life with her Mormonism, though like all of us, she had to take certain stands; she continued to work, even as a mother, occasionally recording and performing; and the very last line implies an equally passionate devotion to both music and children – this might even be a bit radical). But there’s a reason why this type of article is so common, and why we rarely see alternative examples of faithful motherhood – why for instance, each new Mission President called is highlighted in the Church News with a blip about their callings and career, together with the callings and number of children of their wives, with never a mention of what else these women do with their lives.
And it has much more to do with an unhealthy culture than official prophetic statements – I find much more to the contrary in prophetic statements, encouragement for women to develop themselves as much as possible, and lauding them in all of the variants on the theme of committed motherhood that they faithfully pursue. I don’t see our culture producing very many articles or trite openers implicitly or explicitly criticizing the successful CEO who is also serving as Bishop/Stake President for not choosing a different path in life that would allow for more family time. What of the husbands who after a 50 hour work week (not including the commute) join a sports team, or golf on the weekends, or takes professional or academic classes to get ahead in the business world? I find a genuine disparity in the frequency and manner of our collective criticism. Do we have anything like a prevailing norm for good fatherhood in terms of time-spent-doing-what? It is an unhealthy cultural attitude that imparts to so many of our women the idea that they are sinning if they pursue interests beyond “diapers, dishes, and dusting,” while overlooking the husband’s obligation to ensure his wife has plentiful time and opportunity for her own extra-motherial flourishing; and it is an unhealthy cultural attitude that makes this type of article-opener less than what it really is: scandalous.
The culture manifest in this sort of line is one that gives life to and reinforces a host of unhealthy, chauvinistic assumptions that lead many women of our faith into 1. depression; 2. apostasy or community disconnect; or 3. a less flourishing life than they could otherwise have. Perhaps the most negative stereotype reinforced is a ridiculous and offensively false dichotomy: either a woman is at home with “diapers, dishes, and dusting” and consequently following the prophet, or else she continues to pursue her passions and so follows the seduction of Satan. The style and rhetoric of this sort of article, pulling in celebrity, mirrors the articles about our star athlete boys who put off sports to serve missions: either they get rid of the stardom (temporarily) and follow the prophet, or they don’t. There’s much less wiggle room with missions than with motherhood, and the parallel articles, even ones like this that acknowledge other things going on, reinforce the idea that these are similar choices. But if indeed, maintaining interests, passions, and the work that those passions (or spiritual direction) sometimes entail are following Satan, then we ought to adopt a page from Eve’s book and bite the forbidden in order to make a more glorious future for us and our posterity.
But the reality is, the dichotomy doesn’t exist – either practically or in what the prophets say over the pulpit (at least in nothing like the rigid, binary form this assumption often takes in our culture and that leads to the problems mentioned above). Particularly later in his term, President Hinckley made over-the-pulpit acknowledgment of a much broader spectrum of possibility. And how could he do otherwise? There is a broad and diverse array of possibilities (and often necessities) that this sort of simplistic binary categorization problematically ignores.
Something that deserves an entire post to itself (and I nominate Kylie to write it, who has previously articulated the complexities inherent) is the question of what it means be a primary nurturer, and what exactly a “stay at home mother” is. Does one need always to be within the walls of her home? Does one need to cancel out all other obligations and interests? Does it mean that if one works, one should only work within the home? Part-time? Not at all if possible? Is there something inherently superior in shopping, eating out with friends, and blogging on Times & Seasons while children are at school instead of working as a local librarian? (And thank heavens for a prosperous society that allows some stay at home mothers to do these sorts of things rather than succumbing to the loneliness and alienation of our nuclear society.) Can a woman be involved in local government? PTA? Political campaigns? Activist activities? Is it healthier for our children to see inactive mothers than mothers who in addition to a primary commitment to their children, likewise embody a commitment to improving society? Is this really an either/or choice? Are women so frail as to be incapable of more than one thing in their lives? And if so, when exactly did this unfortunate change take place? One doesn’t have to go back very far in our own Mormon heritage to find women who, in addition to giving their full-time commitment to raising up children in righteousness, worked far more than 40 hours per week to make their frontier households and communities operate, and to ensure that their children could afford an education. Nor does one have to search in-depth to find statements like this one from our prophets:
We believe that women are useful, not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physics [i.e., medicine], or become good bookkeepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and all this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large. In following these things they but answer the design of their creation. (Brigham Young, JD 13:61)
Another topic worthy of its own post (and this time I nominate Kaimi who has expressed this quite well), is the fact that stay at home mothers (whatever definition we settle on for that term) do need to be recognized and honored. We all know that none of the public, social prestige or awards inherent in a career within the “market economy” accrue to motherhood. From our lack of public-sphere attention to the lack of either laws or a culture requiring substantive and realistic maternity leave, the United States (one of only two developed nations that lack such laws) proves it’s lack of concern for truly supporting mothers – particularly those who stay at home. The last thing I want to do is make any form of stay at home mother feel more guilt or more need to compare herself with others. We need to give stay at home mothers all the credit that they deserve. But we can surely do this without denigrating or accusing those faithfully living in alternative situations. And we can surely do this without appealing to humanity’s base desire to feel superior for the decisions one has made. The article-opener above invites and strengthens unhealthy comparison.
An obvious objection is that I’m reading way more into these two sentences than are really there. Overall, the article isn’t nearly as bad as others I’ve seen recently. But its opening line is. The problem is not simply the propositions (which I find repugnant enough in themselves), but the entire framework of meaning and normative significance – that is, the entire worldview – that surrounds them and gives force to the propositions. Consequently, it’s not a matter of reading between the lines what’s really not there, but absolutely insisting that we not pretend there is nothing between the lines, or pretending that if we merely narrow in on de-contextualized propositions everything is really ok. Logical value or inference may suffice for philosophers and linguists, but this is not the way language and communication work. Propositions are never themselves without context; all statements are pregnant. Words find their life and raison d’etre in our present culture – as poets, marketers, journalists and competent language users have always realized. This also means that authorial intent is not an excuse (however much politicians and students receiving bad grades on their papers wish it were) – someone unable to realize the normative force and cultural significance of their statements, and not simply their “technical” meaning, should not be congratulated on their precision and accuracy, but noted as being communicatively incompetent.
The reality is that there’s nothing apostate in following one’s passions and spiritual direction outside the home as a woman, anymore than there is as a man, so long as the husband and wife (woman and man) maintain an equal and primary devotion to the family and specifically the children that are raised. Likewise, there’s absolutely nothing glorious or ennobling about “daipers, dishes, and dusting;” it’s necessary, and can perhaps build us in the same way that trials and sacrifice can generally. But we perpetuate dysfunctionality when we pretend like there’s something more in it than that.