I have a two year-old daughter. A beautiful, mischievous, redheaded imp of a girl who leaps and spirals through life. She is my light in this world, a daily reminder of the goodness of God.
This past Sunday, as I picked her up from her nursery class, my daughter proudly thrust a piece of paper into my hands and said, “Look Mommy, I drawing.” I started to tell her how lovely her drawing was but stopped short as I registered the image before me. Underneath her pink crayon scribblings was a picture of a little boy with the words “I Have a Body like Heavenly Father’s” printed above him. But what really took my breath away was this image in juxtaposition to my daughter’s very feminine name scrawled in the upper right-hand corner.
Sylvia. Named for my grandmother.
This piece of paper felt like a slap in the face. That this image was so un-ironically presented to my daughter to teach her about the corporeal reality of God was astounding to me. Sylvia has a basic understanding of human anatomy, she knows that as a girl she has different parts than a boy. Sylvia knows that her body is like Mommy’s, not like Daddy’s.
When we got home I checked the nursery manual to see if maybe–just maybe–there was a similar illustration for girls. There wasn’t. In fact, the lesson makes clear that the scriptures teach “God created man in his own image.” They even suggest that the nursery leader ask the children to name body parts and reinforce that God has those same body part. Which begs the question, what happens when some innocent little girl shouts out “Vagina!”?
I always knew the day was coming when my children would be presented problematic teachings surrounding gender but I wasn’t expecting it this quickly. And I underestimated how much it would hurt to know that my daughter was taught that the male body is the normative body. That indeed, the male body is like the Divine Body. I realize that this message is unintentional but nevertheless it is unavoidable when you give a child a picture of a little boy and then tell them that his body is like God’s.
I have written before about my unease with raising a daughter in this church. My decision to stay faithful despite the worries I have for my daughter remains one of the rawest choices I have made as a parent. Somebody once told me that this choice was tantamount to child abuse and I cried for days. My daughter’s, as well as my sons’, emotional and spiritual welfare is my top priority and to have it suggested that I was causing irreparable harm to her was beyond heartbreaking.
I cannot bear the thought of my daughter feeling the pain that I and so many of us have felt because of our doctrine and culture. But even if I were to leave the Mormon church there is sexism and misogyny in every aspect of our society. I cannot protect Sylvia from this reality. What I can do is stand against inequality and injustice in ways that my daughter can see. I believe there is no greater gift that a mother can give a daughter than to show through her words and deeds that women are equal to men.
As she grows up, Sylvia will see me advance the cause of gender equality within the church. My daughter will hear me demand that women’s voices and experiences be taken seriously by our leaders. Sylvia will know that any doctrine or teaching that demeans or lessens women is not of God. And today she will learn that she has a body just like her Heavenly Mother’s.
In the end, the only irreparable harm that could be done to my daughter is if I didn’t make her worth as a daughter, a girl and eventually a woman explicitly clear. I get to choose what my daughter learns about being a woman. It will be the lessons I teach Sylvia, both directly and indirectly, as her mother and a Mormon feminist that will stay with her.