I was asked to give a talk on Mother’s Day. Which may just be the most intimidating Sunday of all the Sundays. Luckily, we were asked to focus more on womanhood in an effort to avoid some of the pitfalls of traditional motherhood talks.
Of course, it is geared towards an LDS audience. But I thought I would share it nonetheless because it allowed me to put into words some thoughts I’ve been having on what it means to be women in this world, especially as a feminist in what could be considered a patriarchal faith.
So here is my talk. And for all the women in my life, mothers or not, religious or not, just know I think the world of you. ❤
I feel like Mother’s Day can be a bit of a minefield. We never know each other’s circumstance, who’s struggling with motherhood, who’s struggling without. So many people feel like they’re not good enough for the holiday, like we could never live up to these verbose ruminations on motherhood that we often find in Christianity, in Mormondom, even with the general public.
In preparation for this talk, I went through the first few conference talks I could find on “women” and “mothers” from LDS.org and I started writing down some of the descriptors they gave women, which I’m sure we’ve all heard:
Dear sisters. Precious. Special. Good. Nurturing. Sensitive. Tender. Delicate. Gentle. Selfless. Self-sacrificing. Always putting the needs of others before their own.
Looking at this list, it’s no wonder people can feel inadequate on Mother’s Days. I feel overwhelmed by it. Because the truth is I don’t see myself in a lot of those attributes. It’s hard to listen to these saccharine talks on the wonders of womanhood (usually given by men) because they start to feel a little like those Dove commercials: they mean well but after the fourteenth time being told “DON’T YOU KNOW YOU’RE PRETTY?” you just start to wonder…well, is that it? Being painted in such broad strokes can feel a little condescending. We set motherhood on this impossible pedestal (somehow separate and distinct from fatherhood) and it becomes the end all be all of womanhood.
Of course, this isn’t just a Mormon thing. Since the dawn of time, womanhood and motherhood have gone hand in hand. But to tell women that our central or even sole purpose is to have children can be very damaging. We cannot keep whittling women down to be this one thing with only one right way of doing it.
Emmeline B. Wells was the third president of the Relief Society. So way back in the 1800s, she wrote, “It is the opinion of many who are wise and learned that woman’s mission upon the earth is maternity; …[and this] fills the measure of her creation. …That motherhood brings into a woman’s life a richness, zest and tone that nothing else ever can I gladly grant you, but that her usefulness ends there or that she has no other individual interests to serve I cannot so readily concede.”
Admittedly, it is a hard association to shake. Much of our faith believes in the divine nature of gender and most women do dream of being mothers. But perhaps it is less about the biological experience of carrying, delivering, and caring for a child. Perhaps, more than anything, what it means for all of us is that the instinct to mother is divine.
One of my favorite scriptures, Galatians 3:28, reads, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” I don’t think God means to rob us of our individuality, but I think He is reminding us of our shared reality.
After all, we believe we are children of God. We believe we were made in his image, both male and female. We know we are here to become like Him — and that includes the sisters, too.
So if we profess to believe in the plan of salvation then we admit we are here to become more like Christ. And Christ did not play into gender norms. Our Savior was the perfect example for everyone–not just those with similar biology. In that way, our Savior is the ultimate model of wholeness, a testament to the need for all characteristics — both the masculine and the feminine.
That means as women we are meant to have not only his softness, his gentleness, his selflessness — but also his courage, his confidence, his focus, and his strength. That means as men there are lessons to be learned too, of patience and nurturing and humility. Christ knew when to speak up; he knew when to sit back and listen too.
There is a reason he is known as both the Lamb and the Lion. His ministry epitomized nurturing, compassion, and gentleness matched with strength, confidence and eloquence.
Think of when Lazarus died and the Savior shows his vulnerability as the scriptures simply state, “Jesus wept.”
Remember when he told the disciples “suffer the children to come to me.”
And of course, when the Savior was resurrected he appeared first unto Mary Magdalene to comfort her, to reassure her, to rejoice with her. He must have known the disciples would not believe her and still Christ chose a woman to go forth and proclaim the truth.
Even the way God talks about himself often relies on motherly analogies. He is the mother hen gathering her chicks; he is the mother who comforts (Isaiah 66:13). He asks us, ‘Can a woman forget her sucking child?’. There is the scriptural language of being “born of God,” or how the Savior is the source of life — these are feminine images and to me it proves that not only does God understand the value of mothers, but that there is transcendent value in these attributes for both genders.
Would it not make sense for a church where we are each asked to come unto Christ, to be more like him, that we embody all characteristics, including what the world has deemed traditionally feminine? As Sister Patricia T. Holland, once in the General Young Women’s presidency, said, “Surely God is well balanced.” She goes on to say, “The Lord has not placed us in this lone and dreary world without a blueprint for living. In Doctrine and Covenants 52, we read the Lord’s words: “I will give unto you a pattern in all things, that ye may not be deceived.” (D&C 52:14) He certainly includes us women in that promise.” And I think that’s true. Not only do we have the life of the Savior to look to, but even throughout scripture — rare though it is — there is proof of feminine strength.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Eve and her role in the Garden of Eden. So often Adam gets a lot of the credit, but Eve was the protagonist of their story. From the scriptures we know that Eve was one of the “noble and great ones;” thus, she was foreordained to be the Mother of All Living. In Moses 4 it says, “And [satan] sought also to beguile Eve, for he knew not the mind of God.” This implies that Eve was always meant to be the one to partake of the fruit–that it was in God’s mind already to have a woman first thwart Satan’s plans. Perhaps Satan’s had it out for us ever since. Maybe it is not coincidence then that women have been subjugated, often seen as weak, needy, defenseless, insecure, silly. History has twisted Eve’s story to be one of a subservient woman who made a mistake. She was an afterthought, pulled from Adam’s rib to be a helpmeet for man.
But helpmeet doesn’t mean to serve. The Hebrew word actually translates to mean “to be strong, to save; to BE EQUAL.” That is the true purpose of a marital covenant — it is a partnership. And just as we as women are asked to hearken to our husbands we can remember that Adam first hearkened to his wife.
Eve understood that we could not feel the full expanse of human emotion if we did not first taste the bitter to know the sweet. “[They] fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). So even though they were cursed, cast out of paradise, Eve had enough of an understanding of Heavenly Father’s plan that the scriptures read: “And Eve heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.” (Moses 5:11).
Sister Wells put it this way: “We are taught that Eve was the first to sin. Well, she was simply more progressive than Adam. She did not want to live the beautiful garden forever and be nobody.” It’s worth noting that Sister Wells was the one who spearheaded the campaign to give women in Utah the right to vote in the 1870s — one of the first states to do so. And how amazing that her testimony of Eve could have motivated her to similarly be an agent unto herself, to act on her faith and her own independence. But that should be Eve’s legacy, right?
She took initiative, she problem solved, and she made a decision–and then stood by it. We are all here because the Mother of All Living was not submissive; she was not demure; she did not sit back and let the men handle things. That is our heritage as women.
As The Encyclopedia of Mormonism describes it, “Mother Eve bestowed upon her daughters and sons a heritage of honor, for she acted with wisdom, love, and unselfish sacrifice.”
And yet…we talk about the sister’s sweet spirits.
There is a rich if limited pattern of women to look to. Women like Eve who showed initiative and stood up for her choices. Mary, the mother of Christ, who faced great shame for being pregnant out of wedlock and still she rose. Esther, who had the courage to risk her life for a nation’s, demanding she be heard in a court that saw her as just a pretty wife. Ruth, who took care of those around her not by losing herself but by relying on her own wits and strength and fortitude. There are women today we can look to — because “all things denote there is a God” and “by their fruits ye shall know them.” Women like Mother Teresa. Helen Keller. We speak of the bravery of Anne Frank and the heart behind Jane Austen. These women never had children of their own, but they had a lasting impact on their circle of influence. And isn’t that what mothering is meant to be?
It can seem a little convenient to say we are all mothers. Sort of like a participation trophy — does it really count? But I remember reading a talk by Sister Neill F. Marriott that changed my perspective. She said, “Eve was called a “mother” before she had children. I believe that “to mother” means “to give life.” Think of the many ways you give life. It could mean giving emotional life to the hopeless or spiritual life to the doubter. With the help of the Holy Ghost, we can create an emotionally healing place for the discriminated against, the rejected, and the stranger. …All of us came to earth with these life-giving, nurturing, maternal gifts because that is God’s plan.” Likewise, Sister Holland said, “I believe mother is one of those very carefully chosen words, one of those rich words—with meaning after meaning after meaning. … I believe with all my heart that it is first and foremost a statement about our nature, not a headcount of our children….Whatever our circumstance, we can reach out, touch, hold, lift, and nurture.”
And I love this idea. Motherhood isn’t just about child rearing. This divine attribute of mothering means to nurture, to inspire growth. We can nurture relationships, our talents, a life of individual purpose and meaning. We must let these supposed feminine qualities — of emotional intelligence, forethought, charity — motivate us to be full participants in the plan. We can look beyond the verbose language of what it is to be a woman and instead just be ourselves. Like Eve, we do not need to be told what we are capable of; we must discover an eternal perspective and act.
Just as men should hone the nurturing instincts the Savior showed, so should we. Just as men are valued for their thoughts and actions beyond the home, so can we. We can look to the example of our perfect Savior and we can look beyond the maternal pattern of women we know — personally and historically. I am grateful for a God that recognizes the power of women and the importance of individuality. More than dear, more than meek, more than sweet and special and delicate– we as women can remember that we are privy to Christ’s other characteristics as well. We are ambitious, intelligent, hard-working, resilient. There is strength there that is remarkable even to our Heavenly Father. Remember, it was an LDS woman who said “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
So, dear sisters, I hope you can feel empowered — not just by maternal prowess but by the full spectrum of emotions we are promised. I know our savior is our perfect example, as men and as women. We will feel closer to god as we embody all the characteristics we’ve been promised and as we nurture not only the children we’ve been blessed with but every relationship we’ve encountered.