Guilt Trips, Volume 10, Number 3 (Spring 1984)

Guilt Trips
Personal Essay
Marilyn Curtis White
Provo, Utah

Guilt trips, for sins omitted or committed, are an inescapable part of a striving church whose goals are numerous and exacting.  We in the Church have even come to hold certain guilt trips sacred.  “Never say no to a church calling found me nodding every time I was approached until one day, as Relief Society president, I discovered that I was also herding twenty-seven Cub Scouts as the only Den Mother, visiting teaching ten families, examining ward genealogy sheets, and substitute teaching the three-year-old Sunday School class, a one-shot job which had already lasted two months.  In addition, I had six children of my own and an absentee husband who served in a university stake presidency.  There was no joy in righteous doing, there was just doing, doing, doing.  I and all around me were suffering.

At the same time, each week I could go to Relief Society class and receive boosters to my guilt.  The number of self-improvement lessons a Mormon woman receives is staggering.  I quit going to Mother Education lessons after a while, tired of blushing brides telling me to set my table with my best china and crystal so our children would be raised with the finer things of life.  Mine had been raised with those nicer things.  That’s why there is no longer any china or crystal at our house.

There’s even a holiday for guilt. It’s called Mother’s Day.  The Primary sedately parades to the front of the chapel, arms akimbo, belts out two choruses of “Mother Dear, I Love You So.”  Angelic voices rise from the same kids who earlier shredded the Sunday newspaper, spilled kitty-litter all over the family room floor and ate handfuls of cake baked especially for today’s dinner.

Husbands give tribute to wives they obviously haven’t married yet.  I wonder why Brother So-and-So can not be proud of his wife for what she is: a quiet woman with a charming, tentative smile, who seldom yells at her kids, cooks the best brownies on the block, and understands Whitman.  Instead there he is, eulogizing a saint that I think even he would have trouble living with while she feels more and more guilty for not being as he describes.  Then they give you this little struggling plant.  What every mother needs—something to take care of!

After the hoopla of the holiday is past, a Mormon woman faces more serious, long-term loads of guilt.  The question of how many children, how many years of child-bearing, has to be confronted.  For us, there never seemed to be a compelling reason to stop, so we continued to have children.  I loved all those babies, but after each delivery I asked, “Lord, isn’t this enough?” and wished the doctor would tell me, “It will kill you to have another child,” taking my decision away.

When we finally did say the magic words, guilt-ridden, I still could not make the decision, and as my prayers went unanswered, I got pregnant again.  The ensuing pregnancy and delivery were not normal, but baby I lived through it with blessings and prayers.  Then I was plagued by wondering if I had done it once and beaten the odds, wouldn’t the Lord bless me if I tried again?

These problems we face in life are difficult, and each incident accompanied by guilt can be permanently crippling, not just a quirk of conscience betterment, but a tool of Satan bringing discouragement and depression.

It was at this time that I began to wonder, what exactly did the Lord expect of me?  I went to the scriptures and talks given by the prophets, and my vision of a woman’s role grew and expanded as I studied.  I began to realize that there is no typical Mormon mold; Mormon women could do what the Lord expected of them in a variety of acceptable ways.  One sister could do it within the four walls of her home, deriving fulfillment from housekeeping duties; another who must work could do it with quality time with her family; and I could do it in my own way, too.

I had to define my own pathway to perfection but felt that I had to measure myself against my neighbor.  The Lord had given me talents different from others, which, when I quit trying to excel at everyone else’s, began to develop and lend a real sense of accomplishment and fulfillment to my life.

I streamlined my life by learning to say, “no.” I had to practice it in front of a mirror, and it was still difficult the first time my bishop came to me with a new church assignment in addition to the one I already had.  Practically speaking, I could do it if I dropped my community involvement, or quit writing, or took some more time away from my family.  I thought about priorities: family first, church second, community third.  I had developed a balance in my life to include each; now that balance was being threatened again.  I made my decision, and the Lord, knowing better than anyone else what actually was needed, bore witness to me which callings to take and which ones to pass for another time and season.

Keeping my eternal goals in mind, I began to set achievable goals closer to home, more in tune with my station in life, and then those idealistic Relief Society lessons became less threatening.  We still have several plastic dishes years ahead of us, but I can still try to make the table attractive.  These things have helped me to face the guilt that comes in other areas.  Now when someone questions why I’m not having more children, I first forgive them their thoughtlessness due to their lack of understanding and express how thankful I am for my eight children and the time I now have to spend with them.  What a blessing it is!

I still wish I could enjoy Mother’s Day more.  If we in the Church could only admit what a mother really is…not so perfect but struggling, and if we were to accept families as the imperfect collections they are, how much greater could be the acceptance of ourselves and those around us and how much less the guilt!

It is because of my new understanding that I take guilt trips less frequently, but it is a conditioned response and not easily overcome.  Now when it creeps in, I can face it and dispel much of the negative influence it has on my life, and there is a reassuring peace in knowing the Lord loves me as I am, as I struggle, as I become.