This year I’ve discovered a woman with an oddly parallel life to my own. Her name is Dr. Angela Dunn, but you’ve probably never heard of her if you don’t live in Utah (where I am). However, if you do happen to live here you’ll know her very well, because she’s our state epidemiologist during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dr. Dunn and I are both 39 years old, we live in Utah, we like hiking and running, we’re moms, and in 2014 when an ebola outbreak erupted in Africa it turned both of our lives upside down (but for different reasons).
I grew up in a conservative town in Utah, in a very active Latter-day Saint family. My memories of growing up are mostly good, but in retrospect, it lacked one thing: encouragement to do literally anything with my life other than becoming a wife and mother.
Dr. Dunn, on the other hand, did not grow up LDS or in Utah, and she received a very different message about what she could do as a woman. Her parents encouraged her to pursue science and increase her education through advanced degrees. And despite an impressive professional resume, she’s still managed to be what I was told would be impossible with a demanding career – she’s a wife and mother, too.
I followed the plan I’d been given and married a returned missionary before graduating from college. By age 23 I hesitantly went off birth control and had my first of three children at age 25. At that point I quit my first post-college job (a job I seriously rocked at) that I’d had for less than 2 years to be a stay at home mom. It wasn’t my dream to be a stay at home mom, but it WAS my desire to obey Heavenly Father – and I believed having babies and staying home with them was what God wanted me to do. I even felt extra holy doing it, because it was a sacrifice done out of faith.
Almost fourteen years later, I’m still a stay at home mom, filling the long days of pandemic-life with my kids the best I can. One day I heard a radio interview with Dr. Dunn that blew my mind.
Among other things, she talked about a highlight of her public health career in 2014, when she travelled to Sierra Leone to help manage the outbreak of Ebola. Coincidentally, I too had a major life event in 2014 because of this disease. That was when my military spouse told me that *he* would be deploying to Africa as well, to help with the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.
Also coincidentally, she and I were both married and the mother of a two year old child at the time.
I distinctly remember when my husband got the call alerting him to this deployment. We were at church and he stepped out of Sunday School to take the call. He came back inside and told me, and I stepped outside the church building alone for a minute to process the news. It was cold and sunny and quiet, and I recall feeling more annoyed with our bad luck than stressed or scared. I knew what being left alone again entailed, because we had already done this two times for a year or longer to the Middle East. My husband would have to put his civilian career on hold again, we’d figure out a new normal, and 100 percent of childcare and household duties would fall on my shoulders for twelve months. It was fine. This was life.
Listening to Dr. Dunn interviewed this summer, she explained getting the request to go to Africa. Her husband asked her half heartedly, “Does it have to be you?”, but at the same time he knew the answer – it did have to be her, because she was the right person for the job and the world needed her. He told her she should go.
It was startling for me to hear that a husband would actually encourage his wife, the mother of their two year old, to go help people in Africa dying of Ebola. I had to remind myself that at this exact same time, I was encouraging and supporting my husband, the FATHER of our two year old (and a five and eight year old on top of that) to go to Africa to help people dying of Ebola.
(In a turn of events, Ebola died out rather dramatically in early 2015, and the military decided not to deploy my husband to Africa after all. This didn’t change anything for me however, because instead the army rerouted him to the Middle East for the same time period to help with the war in Syria and fight against ISIS.)
And while his world travel swapped and changed and reconfigured, my job never did. It was diapers, grocery shopping, sick kids, laundry and care packages. It didn’t really matter what continent my husband was on, because my role was the same role I’d played many times before – I was his helpmeet. I was the one on-call at any moment of our marriage to fully take over everything at home when he was needed elsewhere. This was true not only for his military service, but also for his civilian job. If he needed to travel, work late, or go in early – he just needed to inform me so that I didn’t wonder where he was. I was (and still am) always there for him to run the household and take care of our kids no matter where life or his job takes him. Over the years of our marriage he’s spent time in six different countries building two careers (civilian and military) and has lived in our home a solid four years less than I have. My scenery has never changed while his has spanned the globe.
I don’t resent him for this. It’s not his fault he’s been deployed so much while I’ve stayed home. But as I listened to Dr. Angela Dunn talk about her trip to Africa during the Ebola outbreak, I found myself startled by her description of the process. She had a two year old child at home, yet she said, “My husband never said not to go. He understood I was the one who needed to be there.”
Her stories about her experience in villages tracing the outbreak were exciting and meaningful. They were scary but also exhilarating. She had gone somewhere outside of her home and done something extraordinary.
I thought about my own life and where it paralleled hers and where it didn’t. I’d honestly never even considered the possibility that in 2014, as the mother of a two year old, it could’ve been ME who got the phone call during Sunday School and announced to my husband I was leaving him for the next year. My gut reaction was that it was wrong for a mom to leave her toddler. But my husband had left his toddlers before. In fact, he’d left me pregnant with our first child and didn’t come home until that child was almost walking. No one shook their head in disappointment that he’d selfishly chosen a life path that would take him regularly out of the home. In fact, it was quite the opposite- he was always given a hero’s send off and welcome home.
Angela Dunn and I graduated high school the same year and started college at the same time. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree that had no direction into a career, because I’d honestly never given a career path much thought. I was smart and good at a lot of things, but I followed the plan I’d been given and became a stay at home mom without even allowing myself to consider another path.
Angela graduated with her bachelor’s degree and then went further to become a doctor with a very successful career, then still married, still had kids, still lives in my state and enjoys the same pastimes that I do. She had parents and a culture that pushed her to become successful (and a spouse that encouraged her to do anything she wanted). She was not taught that her only divine role as a woman was to stay home and be her husband’s full time support staff for his career and life – and she’s done amazing things.
What would I have become if I’d grown up with different teachings? Would I be more of the main character in my life rather than the support staff? Because you see, it turned out that Dr. Angela Dunn could be a mother to her kids AND have passions and interests separate from them and her home – (you know, just like fathers always have done).
Could that have been me, too?