How does an independent woman fit in the church? Not very well, because our cultural and institutional structures are intentionally designed to make women dependent. The idea that a woman can and should hold agency to herself runs counter to the ideal of self-sacrificing wife and motherhood set on a pedestal at the center of LDS discourse on womanhood.
When I was a senior at BYU-Idaho, a solid almost twenty years in the past, I was a counselor in the Relief Society for our ward. We were, of course, overseen by a married older woman. She once had us over for dinner. As a senior in college, I was mostly concerned with the next step of my career and the apprehension of leaving school to become a fully-fledged adult. The other members of the presidency were dating serious boyfriends and the conversation mostly focused on that topic. “Who are you dating?” instead of “what are your next plans?” or “How’s your education coming along?” or even “what are you learning from your leadership role?” struck me. That moment was one where I truly felt the marriage market pressure. I was 22, not dating, wasn’t interested in dating, and had made my impending career my central purpose. I was over the hill and an ill fit.
It’s been well documented that our church infantilizes single, unmarried women of all ages, but I was also surprised when I did later marry and have children.
The internal and external pressure I felt in the early years of my role as a parent to prioritize the role of mother over any other aspects of my whole self led to deep unhappiness. It seems like, even now, whenever I make a move in my career, I have to answer the question “what about the children?” I struggled in the early baby and toddler years to recognize that it was permissible to spend time and money on myself.
Once again, I was somewhat of an ill-fit. The role of primary caregiver was a mire of depression, anxiety, and overwhelm for me. My efforts to alleviate the issue didn’t make me any better of a fit in patriarchy.
I found returning to my career sustained me, but I appeared like a stay-at-home parent because I worked remotely. I was sending the kids to a babysitter and feeling hefty guilt about it. I was rediscovering my love of lap swimming to put movement and me-time back in my life but feeling pressed to squeeze it all in at the edges of my life, because the kids were supposed to be the center.
My spouse, who did not grow up in the church, wasn’t the source of this. I had to work out what I really felt internally and to untwist the knots that had been made by what I had been taught over the years. Somehow, I had to learn to reserve my own agency and to actively protect it, when passivity and protection and dependence were what I was taught was right. It’s been an uneven journey.
Now that I am the parent of a seven-year-old daughter, this journey has greater significance. I want her to be able to advocate for herself, to protect her economic and relationship agencies, to live her life intentionally and to take risks where she believes she can. What I am (hopefully) modeling for her and teaching her will be very different from what was modeled and taught to me. Where I have had to push back against what I was taught, I hope she will instead feel that she has the lift to fly.
I am reminded of the profound line from Barbie, when Ruth speaks, “we mothers stand still so our daughters can see how far they’ve come.”
If my daughter knows that marriage is a choice instead of an inevitability, that her inherent value and worth is not tied to either marriage or parenthood, that she can take risks and be ambitious without shame, and that she is her own person who can develop strong relationships and connections without becoming subservient to them, she will have gone further down the path than I and I will rejoice to see it.