Saturday, February 28, 2009

Wrestling Before God: Confessions of an Occasionally Dissident Disciple

As a young woman, I had trouble finding and understanding my place in the world. That doesn’t make me unique—I suppose such confusion is symptomatic of the age. There was so much that troubled me, so much that I couldn’t understand. Much of my distress revolved around the difficulty I found in defining and explaining my place as a woman in the world, in the Church, in my family, and in the plan of my Heavenly Father.

I remember feeling torn between the conflicting messages that bombarded me from every side. In my home, my parents treated each other as equals; they were loving partners who were working together toward the same goals. My parents were different people with different personalities, and while my father was the head of our home, his authority was never oppressive or domineering. When my parents differed, my father deferred to my mother more often than not, or so it seemed to me. Although I knew my mother sacrificed much for her marriage and family, she had a good, kind husband who loved and adored her and never expected her to submit to his arbitrary will simply because he was the man of the house. Not that such a demand would have worked, anyway. “Submissive” and “weak-willed” have never been words I would have used to describe my mother.

My mother, who met and married my father at college, which she was attending on a full scholarship, was a full-time homemaker and mom for most of my growing-up years. She sat on the floor and read to me when I was a child. She took me to the park. She volunteered to make scones in my kindergarten class. She was always standing at the crossroads in my life—always there, always available. It was important to her that she spend time with her children, and so she refrained from seeking employment outside the home, even when our family really could have used the money. She learned to be frugal, to make do with less. She raised us to be obedient and devoted to the Lord—by example, not by fiat. She sent a clear message to her children, and we did not doubt our mother knew it. My mother taught us with love, and without worldly recognition. She knew that the most important work she could do would be within the walls of her own home.

In high school, I found my mother’s path constantly disparaged as an unfulfilling and outdated relic of a patriarchal oppression. The idea that an intelligent woman with career potential would throw it all away to change diapers and wipe noses, to be at the mercy of a horde of crying children, was beyond many people’s comprehension. I’ll admit I was, at times, taken in by their ideas, which are especially enticing to an intelligent and competitive young woman. I worried that motherhood would be supremely unfulfilling, that I would live out my life as a mindless drone. I wondered why the Lord gave me a brain if He expected me to forgo its use and become a submissive, unthinking, baby-making machine.

I found little comfort in Church culture. While I sincerely believe that true doctrine, correctly understood, will make it clear that men and women are equals and co-creators eternally with our Heavenly Parents, there is much that has crept into LDS culture that is at odds with such an egalitarian worldview. An intelligent woman in the church will always have to struggle with issues related to the patriarchal order, “hearkening” to her husband, the “presiding” role of priesthood, and how that all squares with the church’s insistence that husband and wife are to counsel together “as equal partners.”

Some outside the Church believe that women in the Church are second-class citizens. I do not believe that our doctrine teaches this, or even condones it. But sometimes I fear that the traditional environment that exists in a fairly conservative church has created a culture afraid to embrace the egalitarianism and diversity that have become hallmarks of recent “worldly” movements.

An example: In the church, “feminism” became a dirty word as soon as it appeared on the scene. I am not a supporter of all the goals of the various feminist movements (I use the plural because “feminists” and their “movements” are far more divided in their goals, beliefs, and methods than are their opponents, who persist in seeing them as a monolithic evil sweeping over the world, with the wreckage of marriages and families in their wake), but I find it difficult to imagine that some of their more basic goals—the recognition that women are human beings with independent destinies and desires, and that they have the right to self-determination, autonomy, and societal respect, for example—would be offensive to anyone claiming to be enlightened by the spirit of God.

On the other hand, I couldn’t accept the cries of the feminists of my day for “a woman’s right to choose” to destroy the life growing inside her. I didn’t find man-bashing conscionable, and I found little joy in the idea of living the life of a high-powered executive, a job that I surely “should” have coveted as an intelligent, driven, successful woman. I wanted children. I wanted to feel their little arms around me, their sticky kisses on my cheek. I wanted a husband, and I didn’t mind the idea of making dinner for him and my little brood when he returned from slaying the dragons of that day’s work.

So where did I fit? Church culture advocated a social order I struggled to accept, and the culture I encountered at school offered an alternative I disliked even more.

Young Women’s lessons focused on a woman’s responsibility to bear and rear righteous sons and daughters. We learned that the Lord intended us to marry and live in families in which our husbands would preside by virtue of their priesthood ordination. We were taught the importance of caring for our bodies so that they would be able to bear many children, and of caring for our minds so we could teach them. Though the ability to bear and nurture my Heavenly Father’s children is one I cherish, I wished that I would be valued for more than that. I wanted the recognition that I was so much more than a womb, a cook, and a housekeeper. I am a passionate, intelligent woman, with desires, hopes, and dreams that found little validation in either Church culture or in secular culture.

Besides, I am too much my mother’s daughter to give in too easily. My mother knows the importance of caring for her children, but she doesn’t much care for gender separation of other work. She split firewood and built a shed, poured concrete and repaired the roof, ran electrical wiring and unstopped the plumbing. She didn’t take too well to the suggestion of more “traditional” men in the ward that she ought to get back in the kitchen while they did the “men’s work.” My mother seemed to have found the balance I sought, without being self-conscious or militantly feminist about it. She knew that she and my father had different strengths, and she was willing to capitalize on their differences. Equality seemed to come naturally to my parents. Although my father performed administrative roles in the home (he worked outside the home to support the family, called on someone to say the prayer at dinner, and was the disciplinarian when we were children), I rarely saw him “preside over,” in the sense of “rule or control,” anyone, except perhaps a misbehaving child.

My father supported our growing family without complaint. His work was never glamorous or high-profile, but he did it thoroughly and well, and his dedication paid off. My father was a simple man—he liked simple food, cleanliness, and quiet. He was a hard worker. He was unfailingly loyal to my mother—he spoke well of her in public and in private, supported her in her hard times, and never thought himself too good to do the laundry or the vacuuming.

My father worships my mother—he constantly tells her of his love for her. He tells her what a beautiful, wonderful woman she is, and how happy he is to be married to her. The best thing about it is that he’s sincere. He adores her, but he doesn’t let his adoration cripple her. He cherishes her as an equal rather than coddling her as an invalid. He’s not praising her as a consolation prize for being the weaker member of their marriage, or as payment for giving up a more vibrant life to submit to him. He respects her many talents and never stifles her creativity and personal growth by trying to maker her “fit the mold.”

Seeing my father’s love for my mother gave me hope that perhaps there was a middle way—that I could be both a homemaker and an intellectual, that I could find a man who would value me for my femininity and my mind, that our marriage could allow all of me to flourish. I hoped to find a place in a world that grew ever more complex, a place where I could live and grow without denying a part of myself.

One of my dearest friends is a man far wiser than I. He taught me to keep my life in balance. As a passionate woman, and a champion debater, I sometimes focus on arguing one point of view so vociferously that I forget to see the other side of the coin. And though my point may be valid and my arguments well-constructed, an unbalanced position is always precarious. This good man would listen patiently as I articulated a strong position on any issue, and then, in his gentle way, would say simply, “You’re right, Amy. But you have to be careful to keep these things in balance.” He would then quietly articulate the other side of the coin that I, in my “righteous indignation”, had forgotten, and my hard heart would melt. As a token of his gentle reminders, a sign above my bed now reads simply, “Balance.”

I’m still looking for that balance. I’ve come a long way since my days in Young Women’s, and I suspect I still have many lessons to learn. My internal wrestlings with these issues have forced me to consider my relationship with my Heavenly Father in a much deeper way than I otherwise would have. As an intelligent woman in the church, I have grappled with the issues that have faced many, issues that are different from those that men in the church must face. I have done so without losing my testimony or my self-respect. I am proud to be a woman, and ready to do the work the Lord has in store for me, a work that is unique to me because of my special talents and abilities, and yes, even my gender. This no longer stings. Instead, I respect the power of God and those who exercise it worthily, be they male or female, for “there are different ways that these gifts are administered; but it is the same God who worketh all in all” (Moroni 10:8).

I do not understand all the keys for reconciling my church’s culture, my society’s culture, and the whisperings of my own heart. But I find hope in my knowledge that the Lord’s kingdom will restore this fallen world to perfect balance. I have more questions than I have answers. But even with all my questions, I’ve found the peace of the Lord, reassuring me that the Lord loves His daughters as much as He loves His sons, and that He loves all of me, my mothering instincts as well as my latent feminism, my harmonious voice along with my dissonant cries.

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