Mommies, not Models

Girls, you are so much more than your looks.

Have you caught Melissa McCartney’s interview with Ellen?  If you haven’t, you should.  Apparently, Melissa was criticized by a reporter for “really look[ing] bad” in her latest movie, Tammy. According to him, she was only a good actress when she looked attractive (never mind she was playing a broken-down woman, whose outer appearance was supposed to reflect her terrible internal struggle).  When she encountered the reporter at a film festival, though, rather than attack him, she used the moment to educate him.

Ellen Melissa McCartney
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“If [your daughter] comes home and someone says you can’t have a job because you’re unattractive, are you gonna say, ‘That’s right?’ And he took that in his heart and he was like, ‘No, I would never want that to happen. I would never in a million years want that to happen.'”

“I said, ‘Just know that every time you write stuff, every young girl in this country reads that and they just get a little bit chipped away.’ I just think that we tear down women in this country for all these superficial reasons and women are so great and strong.”

Isn’t that the truth?

I’ve been privileged to have many strong women in my life, starting with my mom.  She worked as an accountant, having three kids and putting my father through graduate school before finally graduating herself. Though she eventually had five children, she continued to use her formidable analytic and organizational skills as an accountant, church leader, and volunteer social worker.  She’s a wonderful example to me.

I met other impressive women in college and, later, in law school–women who somehow managed to juggle all the demands on their time:  spouses, children, jobs, and intense studies.  These were smart, educated and driven women. Yet, if you passed these women on the street, you’d probably have no clue just how incredible they are. None fit the Hollywood mold of the perfect woman; that rare Angelina Jolie-type female who wakes up, meets her personal trainer, shoots a scene for her latest film, meets with the UN and, at the end of a long and satisfying day, calmly tucks her kids into bed–all while looking flawless.  No, these women were all average-looking; not overly fashionable, or beautiful, or exceptionally thin.  These women are some of the most intelligent people I’ve met; and yet, if you believe the overwhelming message from Hollywood–that a woman’s appearance is the most important thing about her– these women would be considered lessless attractive, less desirable, less worthy–simply because they did not put all of their efforts into their looks.

And that is such a damaging message.

How many girls do you know who have issues with their bodies?  I’ve watched friends shrink away, depriving themselves of food simply because they believe their worth is tied to how much they weigh. Other women push their bodies to the limit with exercise and “healthy eating”–myself included.  After having my first child, I was anxious to lose the baby weight, so I adopted a punishing exercise routine.  I would get up in the early morning, even after little sleep, to run and exorcise some imagined calorie overload I’d had the day before.  One ulcer and a torturous year later, I realized I couldn’t push my body so hard- and I learned to accept myself as a complete human being, not just a physical body.

Now my children take up so much of my day, I don’t have the time or the energy to pursue a physical ideal that, quite frankly, I will probably never reach.  This is a point most of us come to, as mothers.  We make a conscious choice to put our children’s needs above our own needs, even the need to feel beautiful.  While we may not have Hollywood-worthy bodies, what is important is that we like the people we are now.  And we are not lesser for channeling our energies into our families; we are better and greater people for it.

It’s a shame that our entertainment industry can’t seem to grasp that truth.

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Mommy Time-Out

 

Capture

You’ve probably all seen the “Mom on Strike” video (click on the video to watch).  Listening to her, I can feel a little empathy; what mom hasn’t wanted to go on strike, at some point?  There are some days I’ve felt so fed up with my children, I’m counting the minutes till Jang gets home so I can hand at least one of them off to him.

Even right now, I’m writing this post while my son is in his room for a time out, watching a few minutes of Frozen.

“What?!” You might think,  “Letting your son watch videos in time out isn’t punishment!”  And you’re right.  He isn’t in time out; but I am.

Even as a young mom, I’ve already learned there are times when children just won’t cooperate; punish them, cajole them, bribe them, threaten them—they just won’t do what you want them to do.  If your kids are anything like my toddler, they have the will of a tyrant.  When he wants something, you have to be pretty creative to get his mind off of getting that thing.  To reach things we’ve taken away, he’s made step stools out of everything–from clothes to boxes to toilet paper.  (So-o much toilet paper).

Of course, I can always force him to do what I want.  But that gets tiring. Sometimes, after a day of pestering and high-spirited behavior, I get so fed up that the slightest thing could tip me over the edge.

So, even though I’m generally opposed to parking your kids in front of the T.V. or tablet, there are times I just need ten minutes (or twenty, or thirty) to just chill out.

I do something for myself—blog, listen to an audiobook, or watch Downton Abbey.  I don’t worry about television rotting his brain, or really anything at all.  I do exactly what I want to do, just for a few minutes.

Then, when I’ve calmed down and retrieved my toddler from his media haze, something magical has happened:  he’s better-behaved.  Sometimes the time out was just enough of an interruption to make him forget his mischief-making.  Other times, I just have a renewed patience and can channel his energy into more constructive activities.

My mommy time outs have already had a positive effect on our relationship. When I’m calmer, my discipline is more consistent and less reactionary.  This helps him learn more quickly which is appropriate behavior, and which behavior that will get him punished.  He’s learning to control himself.

Don’t get me wrong, he still has a will of steel.  But we’re working on this parenting thing together.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to figure it out in the next 16 years or so.

 

Not my Baby

This April, you won’t see us blessing our daughter in a church. Her father won’t hold her up, Lion King-style, in front of an admiring audience as I sit silently in the back pew. This decision makes us atypical among our Mormon friends. But I simply don’t like the message that the typical baby blessing projects—that Jang, as the head of our household, is the only one worthy enough to bless and present our baby before the congregation.

Let me just tell you how our family works; there is no head of the household.  Jang and I approach religious worship as we do all other aspects of our marriage—as equals.  That’s not to say there’s no division of duties; I recently became—gulp!—a stay-at-home mom.  Thus, by default, I get to make many of the day-to-day decisions on raising our kids. Jang is the “breadwinner” and full-time working parent.  So, although he asks my opinion on many work-related things, he does not consult with me on most decisions about how to run his law firm. It’s not because we necessarily believe in proscribed gender roles; this division of duties, for us, is about what is practical.

But excluding mothers from participating in baby blessings serves no practical purpose.  It is only about division, about demonstrating the “proper” priesthood order that governs the Church today.  In doing so, I believe the Church undermines women’s roles in creating and raising that baby; some would see it as another example of how women are marginalized in the Church today.

Let me tell you the thoughts that go through my head when I think about letting my daughter be blessed in the traditional way. For nine months, I suffered intense bouts of nausea, terrible acid reflux and exhaustion, before laboring to bring her into this world.  Since then, I’ve been her constant companion.  Often, mine is the first face she sees in the morning and the last one before she sleeps at night. In my divine role as her mother, I’m responsible for her nurturing, care and safety. Yet, on the day when she is recognized by my Church, and given a name and a blessing, I’m essentially nothing to her; I don’t even have the standing to be able to bring her before my fellow members and say, “Look! Here is my daughter.”  Nope; I’m just another face in the crowd.  Any adult Melchizedek priesthood holder, although a stranger to her, can participate in this blessing circle. But not me.

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I had the traditional baby blessing with my first child. I won’t apologize for this decision; my husband and I wanted to include our new ward in the blessing, because of their many kindnesses to us. Before the blessing, I remember asking the Bishop if I could record it, so that my son could later listen to his father’s words. That request was met with such a firm (if kind) no, I didn’t dare ask if I could participate in the blessing circle. Later, I regretted my choice.  I now firmly believe that there is no justification for prohibiting me, or any other woman, from participating in blessing her child.

The thing is, my ideas about revelation and blessings have come a long way since first blessing our son almost three years ago. I know now that every person, whether a priesthood holder or not, has the right to ask for (even promise) blessings upon their family. I’ve discarded the image of my husband as being the head of our family and the primary source of God’s revelation for us. As my children’s mother and primary caregiver, I know their spirits and personalities more intimately than anyone. And while I emphatically believe in the sacredness of priesthood blessings, and I believe my husband will receive revelation to guide our children’s future lives, I also know I can too.

And so, we’ve made a decision; this time around, we won’t bless our baby in a church. Her father won’t carry her ceremoniously up to the mount of revelation, leaving me behind with the masses. In this at least, I will not be a second-class participant in my children’s religious lives. Not only will I hold her during the blessing, I may even say a few words about my baby as well. Because, if I speak, it will be as a mother who prays over her children constantly, and who has already called down numerous blessings from Heavenly Father for her small family. Asking God for revelation and blessings, particularly concerning my children, is something I am entitled to do as a mother, without regard for any institution (religious or otherwise) on this earth. And so, if I choose to speak, I have no doubt the Spirit can be with me, as well as my husband, to give us direction for her future life. I don’t need for it to be officially recognized by the Church for the words to proceed from God. In conducting the blessing this way, I do not feel I’m undermining my husband’s priesthood authority; I hope I am complementing it.

I hope the blessing can be an opportunity for our family to establish healthy interactions, not only with the Mormon church, but with one another as well.  With this decision, I want to show my children that their father and I are equals before God, both at home and at Church.  And since that equality is not apparent in the blessings that take place in Church today, our daughter’s will take place where it belongs—in our home.

And I’m recording the entire thing, darn it.

Why the LDS Church Needs Feminists

I’d like to reflect on my upbringing in the Church. To me, the Church’s relationship towards women alternates between benign patriarchy and austere rigidity. This was demonstrated to me from a young age, as I heard from my leaders about the woman I was supposed to be.

This lesson came from the top-down, most notably during General Conference. In the dearth of female speakers, we listened to the aged men before us tell us about their saintly mothers, persevering wives, and angelic daughters. They taught us to be ministering angels, selfless spouses, and gentle advocates for Christ. We were their better halves, with a divine nature that was to be both celebrated and protected, at all costs.

These spiritual giants told us that we were the true examples of Christ like behavior to the men and children under our care, but in the same breath upheld the divine mandate that men were to preside over us in family and Church life. If a woman should ever wish to leave her divinely appointed role as a stay at home mother, she was in some way going against the mandate of God. The ideal woman supported and upheld the men in her life, from infancy to adulthood, never asking for a thank you or recognition in return. For her entire life, she would be a silent witness as her man achieved prestige and recognition, both professionally and in the Church.

The majority of lessons and activities for LDS girls seemed focused on molding each of us into this “ideal” woman. Our virtue was one of our most important assets, and so in conduct, thought, and language, we had to be pure. Upholding this rigid standard was even more imperative because, owing to our more spiritual natures, we had to protect the men in our lives from transgressing the law of chastity, either in thought or in deed. Cultivating the Spirit was essential to this end; and so we had to regulate our music, television, movies, conversation, and, most importantly, our dress.  We were repeatedly counseled that Christ had said if a man looked on a woman to lust after her, he was committing adultery already in his heart.  We would literally be leading the young men down the path to hellfire if we did not scrupulously moderate our dress, the most easily identifiable way of controlling the men’s nearly uncontrollable sexual libido.  For the modest young woman, wearing sleeveless dresses or short skirts was anathema. A glimpse of shoulder or thigh could easily cause a young man to have sinful thoughts. In that case, the sin was equally ours.

If, Heaven forbid, we were to transgress sexually, we would be forever tainted by that act. In pointed analogies, we were told we would be broken vessels, or chewed up gum, should we commit this sin. Losing our virginity before marriage would be a scar that would mar our souls, and we would forever know that we hadn’t remained true and faithful to our commitments.

Every Wednesday, we would hold activities (often involving crafting or cooking) and socialize with the young men, who we knew were being molded to become strong, confident providers for us. In Sunday lessons, when we were divided into our all-girls meeting, we would hear stories about the spiritual promptings that shaped our leaders’ lives: when they knew their husband was “the one”; the many times they’d had to rely on the sensitive whisperings of the Spirit to perform their roles as housewives and mothers. Never were we encouraged to work outside the home; this was only a last resort, if our husbands turned out to be unable to provide. I remember feeling a secret shame for that archetypal, incapable husband. Correspondingly, we were encouraged to pursue higher education, but it was only to complement our future roles as spouses and mothers. Education was, at its heart, a contingency plan. I can only remember a single lesson, in the five years that I was in this youth program, when the girls had a career night—one of the highlighted careers being a stay at home mom.

During the summers, while the young men went on grueling 3-day bike rides, white water rafting trips, and camped out in primitive conditions (all to bond them to one another and to develop the inner strength needed to confront the hard world) we had  “Girls Camp”. Our Camp emphasized spiritual, as opposed to physical, development, and so for five days we would recline in comfortable cabins, eat prepared meals and have activities designed for our enjoyment. We would do crafts, cook foil-wrapped dinners, play volleyball, and have testimony meetings on the well-manicured grass at nights. At all times, women and priesthood leaders supervised us; and at night, the men would take shifts to patrol the camp, scaring girls who ventured out after bedtime by rustling the bushes, making us shriek with fear and run back to the safety of our locked cabins.

Every significant role in Church was, and still is, held by men. The Bishop served as a spiritual guide to the ward. He and his male counselors always sat at the front pulpit on Sundays, directing the meetings, calling upon speakers, and supervising the administration of the sacrament. He collected our tithing, gave regular addresses to the congregation, and we confessed our sins (even those of a sensitive nature) to him. His counselors supervised the running of the ward as well—overseeing activities, conducting interviews, and handling all monetary transactions in the ward. Ultimately, all planned activities, all callings, and all Church meetings needed the approval of this man, the Bishop, before they could proceed.

Our male counterparts, the young men, carried out the sacrament. For a few moments every Sunday, these goofy boys would transform into solemn priesthood holders as they meticulously repeated the words of the sacrament prayers and blessed the bread and water. Then, in a uniform, white-shirted column, they passed the sacrament to the congregation. In this way, the entire sacrament became, not only a moment to remember Christ, but an opportunity to see the overriding patriarchy of God’s Church in action.

As a youth, I struggled against this institutional inequality; from my insistence on wearing pants (so I could somehow feel equal to the men) to my failed attempts to organize the first-ever white water rafting trip for young women.  When I went to college at BYU, there was less of a division between men and women in our youth wards—we were similar ages and had shared activities—but the structure of the Church was the same. In addition, I was also surrounded with adult byproducts of this youth training program. The consequences for not conforming to Church norms would be social rejection.

As I finished my undergraduate studies, then an LDS mission, I found myself an unmarried and working adult. The only option for me then was graduate school—this would serve the dual purpose of buying me more time to get married, and better equipping me for a rewarding job if I could not find a spouse.

In the rigorous intellectual environment of BYU Law School, I began to consciously address the pain from my LDS upbringing for the first time.  I realized my childhood in the Church had some positive, as well as negative, results. My upbringing had cultivated in me a feeling of worth as a child of God, a strong sense of right and wrong, and an enquiring mind. However, one of the reasons I even attended law school was because I had graduated college with no career plans. No one in my Church experience had prepared me for the “what ifs” of life as a single adult. I was terrified of being a working adult with only an undergraduate education, because my degree did not guarantee me a rewarding and satisfying job. Only through the gentle prodding of my parents did I begin to study law.

Then, as a lawyer, I found myself confronting this same anxiety. Why, I wondered, as a well-educated adult, would I still feel ill equipped and frightened of going out into the work force? Goodness knows my parents had always encouraged me to have a prestigious career. I can only point to the messages I received from the Church, both stated and un-stated, as the root of this anxiety. By differentiating us at a young age, often with separate activities and separate doctrinal lessons, I was taught that I was different from the young men. The General Authorities and local leaders then answered the question of how I was different. At heart, I was a foil to them—more sensitive, tenderer, more spiritually inclined. I was not to compete with the men in my life—I was to complement them. My highest calling in life would be to raise and nurture children, and so any vocational aspirations would take away from fulfilling this goal. Ultimately, I was at no loss to explain my inadequate and fearful feelings of being a career woman—it’s a wonder I contemplated pursuing a legal career at all!

I support the doctrine of the family and the priesthood; but I am troubled by the control that men have in nearly all aspects of Church administration, both temporal and spiritual.  Does it take having the priesthood to manage the finances of a ward; to conduct a sacrament meeting; to organize ourselves as women and young women; even to pass the sacrament? Why is there this overriding need of the men in the Church to elevate women on a pedestal while denying them full expression as human beings? I am not a foil to you men. I am not a complement to you, your other half, or your ideal spiritual being. I am a child of God, and the standard I should be held to is how my character emulates Christ’s—not your sainted mother, your silent wife, or your revered pioneer ancestress.

I hope, as men and women of my generation assume leadership roles in their wards, stakes and areas of the Church, this cultural inflexibility towards women’s roles will change. The young women of today need us to be their examples, need so-called “feminist” women to speak up, assume more leadership roles, and prepare for futures outside of the roles of mother and homemaker. Let us grow and develop as individuals, not to be viewed as lesser or greater than you men. In the end, we are all equal before God.

 

Mothers, Mothers

To be honest, Mother’s Day makes me feel kind of embarrassed. Living in Utah where having large families is common, I sometimes wonder if, with my one child, I have the street cred that the moms around me do.  Yes, we’ve had some unique challenges with Kisan, but overall he’s a well-mannered and affectionate baby. What about the moms I know who have three, four, five, even eight (yes, eight) children? How do my experiences compare with theirs, and how can I possibly merit the same recognition today that they do?

Sure, being a mom has been challenging.  There have been days I’ve been so glad to leave Kisan with the sitter, while I work for a few hours. Or I’ve counted the minutes till nap time.  But you know what?  I always love it when he can be with me again. Funny how even a few hours away from your baby can make you miss him so much. And he is always so, so happy to see me. That unconditional love is like a drug. You can’t help but want to be around your baby when he shows you that much affection and love.

But I get the feeling that, with more kids, your free time shrinks. You don’t get the chance to miss your kids, because they’re always around. As your kids get older, they don’t love you quite as unconditionally.  Sometimes they might think they hate you. If you’re a mom of multiples, there’s so many demands on your time, so many needs to meet, you don’t have any time for yourself. And yet, through it all, you keep giving of your time and  yourself—through sleepless nights, frustration, and sickness—because that’s what moms do.

See, I’m still at the early stages of parenting, when my husband can really help share the load.  If I’m tired or sick, I can take long naps on the weekends (and sometimes during the week).  If I ever get too frustrated, I can bundle my little guy into the car and take him somewhere, because you can do that with just one kid. And since Kisan still naps, I have up to two hours of free time during the day to work on projects, or to rest.  Life has gotten harder since becoming a mom, but it’s still pretty good. I admire you moms who have taken the plunge and had larger families. My friends all seem to do it so well.

My college friends and their adorable families.
My college friends and their adorable children.  We’ve since added more to the bunch!

Having a kid seems like a very irreversible step to me; and I’d hate to get to the point where I have four or five kids and realize, “Holy crap! I can’t handle this!” What if they don’t feel loved and don’t feel important? What if I can’t be a good mom to them, and my kids then hate me forever? (This is the scenario that plays out in my head. Just planning for all contingencies).

You moms—particularly stay-at-home moms—what an immense responsibility you have. You’re the first person who teaches your children to love. Who helps them feel a sense of self-worth. You’re the first line of defense against a sometimes all-too-cruel world, full of bullies and peer pressure and negative media. You make them feel special, simply because they’re your child. That is a huge role to fill, and one I’m only just learning about.

If you have a good partnership, your husband will also rear and influence your children. But since moms are often the full-time caretakers of your children, you’re the ones with the most influence. You’re the ones who internalize every disappointment or hurt your child experiences. Multiply that times however many children you have; it’s no wonder the world feels like they need to honor you, for a day at least.

So, to all my friends and family out there, Happy Mother’s Day.  I hope you’re managing motherhood as well as I think you are. Maybe in a few years I’ll have earned a place beside you.