Guest Post: What Sheep Taught Me About Motherhood

by Jesse

(Jesse is a confirmed science nerd, writer, runner and mother of two children.  She completed my undergraduate and graduate work in Biology, and served a mission in Temple Square.)

The other day I read a story about some scientists who have been studying wild sheep that live on a remote island off the coast of Scotland (I promise this has something to do with LDS culture and feminism).  It turns out that some of the sheep on this island stay pretty healthy, while others get sick a lot and die young.  Here is where it gets interesting.  The scientists took blood from individual sheep and looked at how many antibodies, a.k.a. germ-fighting cells, each sheep had.  The sheep with the most antibodies stayed healthiest, were most likely to survive the winter, AND had the fewest lambs each spring.  The sheep with lower levels of antibodies got sick more often, were more likely to die during the harsh Scottish winters AND had more lambs each year.

As I read this article, I thought of the commandment to “multiply and replenish the earth.”  Here are these wild sheep that have been isolated for generations.  Some of them have stronger immune systems and fewer lambs; others have weaker immune systems and more lambs: Two different biological strategies for multiplying and replenishing their remote island.  And, over the course of their lives, the two groups of sheep produce approximately the same number of offspring (the more numerous lambs with weak immune systems die off at a higher rate than those lambs who inherit their parents’ strong immune systems).

Despite their generations of isolation, both types of sheep can be found within this population.  In biological terms, the two types of sheep were equally successful in passing on their genetic material.  Either strategy (strong immune system, fewer offspring OR weaker immune system, more offspring) worked.

It occurred to me that this example might be useful for me in thinking about how individuals go about filling the command to “multiply and replenish the earth.”  For a variety of reasons (unknowable to me and possibly even to themselves), women and their partners adopt wildly different reproductive “strategies.”  These strategies represent physical, biological, mental, and economic trade-offs.

How do you navigate conversations about your reproductive choices in a church setting?

Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.


  1. I like that idea–raising four “quality” kids is better for me than being a burned out disaster with eight? I’ll take that justification 🙂

  2. Jesse,
    Thanks for bringing this to our attention. It actually really resonates with me right now as I decide how much I want to pursue having a third child. Could I give more attention to my kids if I stopped at two? Would that be better for them and for me? Or would I and my current two be best off with a third, even though that would deplete my energy? I have this morbid fear that one of my kids might die, so then I figure I’d be best of having a third. There are so many factors that come into play in these decisions.

    Everyone has a different point at which we need to ask and evaluate these questions. For some the question is whether to have a 5th. For others a 2nd. I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten better at not judging others regarding these decisions.

  3. This is coming at a good time for me as I’m letting go of my dreams for a big family. I had wanted 5 children of my own but I’ve encountered health problems from injuries compounded by stress on my body from pregnancies. I’m just now starting to come to grips with the end of that dream, while at the same time seeing the possibilities that comes from not dealing with pregnancy and another newborn/young infant period again. When I start feeling down about not having more children, I’ll remember this fact about sheep and that I’m making an evolutionarily advantageous choice to stop at the wonderful two I have. For now, at least. I’m still holding out for another token pregnancy in 4-5 years.

  4. I don’t have conversations about my reproductive choices in a church setting, so there’s nothing to navigate there. I do have conversations in extended family settings, however, and people’s expectations about family size are heavily informed by the Church. I just had my second baby and am surprised to find I feel very satisfied with my family size and don’t want to have a third, but I know my family will be expecting another’n. They generally feel that choosing to have a small family is selfish because it’s putting personal needs above those of the children (most importantly, the need to be born and gain a body). I do have some Saturday’s Warrior-esque anxiety about not having as many kids as I’m “supposed to” and damning someone to being stuck in the spirit world or some crazy thing like that. But the fact is I think I’ll be a better mother to two than to three, having babies is hard, and I just don’t want to do it again. I shouldn’t have to justify that to my family, but can’t escape those conversations. I guess the thing to do is just say I feel that my family is complete and not worry about whether or not they understand.

  5. “Navigate” is a good choice of words for this topic. I certainly feel like I’m navigating through a maze in church discussions on this topic. What I actually say often surprises me, as I tell different variations of my own reproductive story, emphasizing different aspects of it, depending on the audience, even with my own children.
    I always wanted a big family, at least six children, but serious health issues made it prudent to stop at four. I was disappointed but very thankful for those I had. Then, quite unplanned, we added a foster daughter as a teenager and then another as a young adult. All six of our “children” are now married and with the births of three babies in the last month, we now have 21 grandchildren. So much for being disapppointed with a small family.
    There is a wide variation within these families, however. One family has stopped at one child while another has nine. I always feel guarded when any one of them brings up the topic of “how many children.” They all have such different feelings about it, though they are all active members of the Church. I try very hard to not give advice, but be supportive of all of them. The one with nine really has me concerned, however, and I’m having a difficult time biting my tongue. Her last three pregnancies and births (one a set of twins) have been life-threatening experiences. After each one she has said she is done but, despite using birth control, she continues to get pregnant. With the Church’s “discouragement” of sterilization methods, she feels like she has no other choice. She doesn’t know that I had a tubal ligation after our fourth. I am thinking that I might tell her about how we came to that decision (my husband was a bishop at the time) to help her understand that it can be a positive option, but I’m afraid she may only get upset about it. She can be very judgemental (which is why I’ve never told her). This is one of our foster daughters, but I love her dearly and really worry about her. Such a dilemma, but I do appreciate this post. (Sorry this is so long.)

  6. Fascinating post, from one science nerd to another.

    When I was fully believing, and I hadn’t had any children, I thought I wanted four kids. I come from 5 and my husband comes from 6. Then we had our oldest, M. He was a pretty typical baby, nothing too difficult. But after we had him, we immediately said that we would have “two or three”. After I got in the habit of saying that, it didn’t seem to get too many strange responses. We were young enough that no one bothered us about timing. And I was outspoken enough about how difficult it was for me to overcome my abusive parents that no one really bothered us about having more. I was always very firm about knowing my own limits.

    I am happy to say, now that I have two boys, that I am absolutely done! My husband R has a vasectomy, I have NO desire to ever be pregnant again, and I completely adore my two little monsters. I feel complete. You can’t argue with that 🙂

  7. I personally hate that the command to multiply and replenish the earth is limited to procreation. I mean, is recycling so bad? Is gaining and sharing an eductaion so impratical in replenishing the earth? Why can’t that define replenishing the earth? Or how about a garden? I can multiply and try to replenish the fruits I eat- why does it have to be about babies? Ugh.

    • I’ve heard an argument similar to this, that as we multiply (procreate) we are responsible for replenishing the earth by maintaining our resources and taking care not to over use.

      Great post Jesse. I feel absolutely complete finally and I know that if I were to have more children that my quality as a parent would diminish.

  8. My younger sister has said, from the day she could talk, that she never wanted to have babies. Ever. My mom and others always tried to convince her that she would feel differently. She never has. Being in her 30s she’s still pretty firm, and so is her husband. She always got really bad looks when she would say “I don’t want children.” It was always awkward and weird and people would get defensive about things. I finally told her that she should just say she can’t have children and it would have people leave her alone, which it has–however, it’s weird that it has to be said like that.

    I, however, do want a baby at some point, but I don’t know about the husband part, so I know I’ll be navigating my choices like I do right now…not really worrying about placating anyone.

  9. It is interesting to see in which contexts these conversations occur–church vs. extended family vs. with friends vs. inside our own heads (that’s where most of mine take place)–and how we react to each other. I have certainly done my fair share of judging others and myself–and my ideas about my “ideal family” have changed over time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  10. I’m a science nerd too and these types of posts stick in my memory, so thank you Jesse.

    My parents picked the first strategy: reproduce quicker and focus on quantity. I was raised in a family with 8 kids. My parents got married young, didn’t have a lot of money, and moved a lot. My mom was so overwhelmed that she would often escape with TV or magazines just to deal. The brother right under me had some mental health problems that ultimately resulted in his teenage death. Needless to say, I remember feeling like there was never enough attention, money, or individual support in my childhood. I often think that my parents had all of us because they loved the church and wanted to keep the commandment to “multiple and replenish the earth” rather than because they loved us. I talked to my mom about this recently and she said I was crazy, “Of course they loved us.” However, neither of us could think of ONE time in my entire life where she and I spent any quality time alone together making positive memories. Not once.

    I have picked the second strategy: reproduce fewer and focus on quality. Because of my upbringing I’ve determined not to have any more kids than I can pay individual attention to, to have lots of space in between, and to love my kids more than the church.

    There are a couple of things I’m still very confused about though. My patriarchal blessing says that I should follow after the footsteps of my parents because the Lord loves them for what they are doing. What does that mean? Does God really prefer one strategy over the other? How do I honor this advice but stay true to what I know is right for me?
    Second, all of my siblings have grown up to be are great people. They are intelligent, independent, capable, fascinating and fun people. In fact, they are much less annoying than many of the coddled dependent kids I see from people in my generation. Does my strategy produce more co-dependent, emotionally needy kids? Will having a smaller family actually negatively impact them?

    Help! I’m unsure…

    • Patriarchal blessings often have statements that are purposely vague and can be interpreted in many different ways. Maybe yours was just refering to your parents raising their children in the Gospel (regardless of number) and trying to keep the commandments…
      I read somewhere that children without siblings are more likely to be successful and confident, probably because they get the most attention from parents. Co-dependency and emotional neediness could also be prevented through parenting strategies, or sometimes it’s just the nature of a child and maybe there’s not a lot that can be done to change it, I don’t know, but I’m doubting that having fewer siblings is the main factor for those attributes.

      • I think, like the sheep illustrate, that there are trade offs with both approaches. You won’t understand the negatives of having few children because that’s not your experience, and it’s hard to see the positives of both approaches when you’re in the thick of it.

        But I know what you mean about needier kids. I do think it is related, but can be counteracted if you’re aware of it and avoid the other pitfalls of dependency. I’ve read some wonderful things that having much younger siblings can do for teenagers, but I know that I’m done, so I’ll have to help them learn those lessons another way. Plus, you’ll always have issues with the youngest.

      • CSS, its interesting that I’m coming from the other perspective. I was an only child (and I think you’d agree that I’m not needy and codependent even though I do value collaboration and communication to a somewhat hyper-verbal degree…). I’m not taking your comments, personally, so don’t worry about that, but I do want to point out that only children, and children with fewer siblings can turn out just fine too and like Sijbrich said they can be confident and successful. I think the answer to your question is mindful parenting, in either case. With many children or with fewer children, it is necessary to look at big picture reasons for doing fine detailed work (like spending one on one time with an individual child on a regular basis). By being present in the moment, and knowing what is being accomplished by certain actions or inactions, you can correct yourself and stay on the course you desire for yourself and your family. Its a Zen-Buddhist approach and I find it very helpful in taking a moment to see the forest for the trees.

        Like you, I’m caught between deciding to be a mom of many and taking a more selective reproductive approach. My health is compelling to make more space between and in the long run have fewer than I had intended, but I’ve definitely felt the draw for having as many as I can. Since I love pregnancy, giving birth and breastfeeding as much as I do, its probably a compelling reason that is going to stop me from going through that process as often as possible…

        To answer your question about your patriarchal blessing, I’ll say you never know how things will change over time and how what you feel so strongly about now but become different. You might find that you are like some of my friends who are hyper fertile and no matter how hard they try, they can’t avoid getting pregnant one after another. Or you might, sooner than you think, start feeling like you want another sooner than you originally intended (and then that might happen a few times), or you might find that your advocacy works leads to feel strongly about adopting children and you’ll feel that its right to fill your home with them.

        Or there’s the literal, most basic interpretation of that phrase which is “the Lord loves that your parents had children. period. And he wants you to have children too.” No mention of number, just that you fulfill the measure of your creation by reproducing at all, regardless of the strategy you use. The Spirit will guide you in those decisions and you’ll know what is right for you in the moment and that will give you the little bit of light you need to continue forward. That’s what I’m trying to do, at least…

      • Thanks for all of your comments and thoughts! I appreciate the advice and in no way meant to imply fewer or only kids were codependent! NO. Sorry if that came across (in fact a recent TIME article said all that only child stereotying was incorrect!) I just wonder if the negative effects of my upbringing that I am trying to avoid will inevitably lead to other negatives that I haven’t considered yet! I guess you can’t think of everything!

  11. I have learned through my reproductive history at this point to be completely non-judgemental about how many kids people have. It took us a miscarriage and an additional year of trying again and eventually ending up at a fertility doctor before we were successful and now have a 17-month-old daughter. We’re trying for #2, but I’m afraid that it will be another long wait and perhaps another visit to the fertility doctor, but who knows? But while going through the experience, I just learned that so many women that I know have gone through similar issues of miscarriages and infertility issues. My mom told me that a woman I knew growing up had something like 15 miscarriages and finally had just one daughter. For so many couples, number may not be much of a choice as it is just what happens. Our bodies are very mysterious.
    I am almost 32, so I’m doubting I’ll be having another 6 or 7 kids, but honestly, I think I would go crazy with that many kids. I admire those that can do it and actually want to do it, but I’m thinking my husband and I will be blessed if we get 3.
    I know families in the Church that have one, two, three….eight, nine, ten kids. It’s interesting to see the diversity of families and I’ve just come to the conclusion that the more kids a family has doesn’t mean that the parents are more righteous or worthy than those with one or no kids. Heavenly Father has a unique plan for all of us. How boring it would be if we were all meant to have 8 children.

  12. Fabulous post, Jesse! I’m with Spunky; the phrase, “multiply and replenish the earth” felt so limiting if I just thought of it in terms of reproduction. Wouldn’t it be cool if we saw this phrase used as an edict to take care of the earth?

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