A lot of fantastic things were said in General Conference this weekend, and I want to highlight some of my favorites, but there has been a lot said about President Beck’s talk (the best from Kristine and Julie) and I want to add my thoughts. First, a little background: My wife and I do not have the typical Mormon family (assuming such a thing actually exists):
Exhibit A: We have two children. We would have liked to have more but we lost a baby on the way to our third and there were sound medical and emotional reasons to stop there. I don’t have regrets about that, necessarily, but I do love kids and I hope to have more in the eternities. For now I just want to be the best parent I can be to the kids I do have, and not worry about kids I don’t have.
Exhibit B: My wife works full time (PC linguists: in this post, “work” = “employment outside the home” and is not meant as a put-down of work done in the home, which I believe is the responsibility of both wives and husbands, so there). She took about three years off when our kids were very small, but other than that, she has always worked full time.
Could we survive on my income? Yes, I feel certain that, for most of our marriage we could have done so. It may not be possible right now, because I have started my own firm recently, but I’m sure that soon we will again be in a position where we don’t absolutely need my wife’s income. My wife’s choice to work (or not work) is her own. I try very hard not to pressure her either way, and also try to be supportive of the choice she makes.
I am very grateful for my wife’s decision to work outside the home for two reasons: (1) her contribution to our family income is substantial and allows us to be more financially secure than we would be otherwise and (2) her choice allows me to be the primary caregiver for our kids when she is at work. She has nearly always worked a lot of weekends and evenings, which means that I have had the opportunity to be the person doing all the food preparation, diaper changing, playing, bathing, putting to bed, etc. that my kids needed during those times that I am home and she is not. I believe this has been a great gift to me as a father and I would not trade it for the world.
So, we’re a little different from the average Mormon family, and when some church leaders give talks (usually this especially includes women leaders) we tend to cringe a bit, because our experience is that most members and some leaders talk like they don’t value our choice and think we’re doing something wrong. Maybe that’s just our perception, maybe we’re just defensive, but it’s how we’ve come to feel.
With that background, perhaps you will understand that we were not particularly charitable in our reaction on first hearing President Beck’s talk. We understood her to say that mothers in the church, in order to qualify as “mothers who know” should: (1) have a lot of kids, (2) keep a perfect house, (3) always send their children to church with ironed dresses and missionary haircuts, (4) not waste time educating hemselves, (5) focus exclusively on mothering (which primarily means doing housekeeping chores). We thought it was a throwback to the 1950s.
After actually reading her talk, I now believe that President Beck said none of these things. Here is what she actually said:
In the Book of Mormon, we read about 2000 exemplary young men who were exceedingly valiant, courageous and strong. They were men of truth and soberness for they had been taught to keep the commandments of God and to walk uprightly before him. These faithful young men paid tribute to their mothers. They said, “Our mothers knew it.” I suspect that the mothers of Captain Moroni, Mosiah, Mormon and other great leaders also knew.
The responsibility mothers have today has never required more vigilance. More than at any time in the history of the world we need mothers who know. Children are being born into a world where they wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. However, mothers need not fear. When mothers know who they are, who God is, and have made covenants with him, they will have great power for influence for good on their children.
Mothers who know desire to bear children. Whereas in many cultures of the world children are becoming less valued; in the culture of the gospel we still believe in having children. Prophets seers and revelators who have been sustained at this conference have declared that God’s commandment for his children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force. President Ezra Taft Benson taught that young couples should not postpone having children, and that in the eternal perspective, children – not possessions, not position, not prestige – are our greatest jewels.
Faithful daughters of God desire children. In the scriptures we read of Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, and Mary, who were foreordained to be mothers before children were born to them. Some women are not given the responsibility of bearing children in mortality, but just as Hannah in the Old Testament prayed fervently for her child, the value women place on motherhood in this life and the attributes of motherhood they attain will rise with them in the resurrection. Women who desire and work toward that blessing in this life are promised they will receive it for all eternity. And eternity is much, much longer than mortality. There is eternal influence and power in motherhood.
Mothers who know honor sacred ordinances and covenants. I have visited sacrament meetings in some of the poorest places on the earth, where mothers have dressed with great care in their Sunday best, despite walking for miles on dusty streets and using worn out public transportation. They bring daughters in clean and ironed dresses. Their sons wear white shirts and ties and have missionary haircuts. They are going to sacrament meeting where covenants are renewed. These mothers have made and honor temple covenants. They know that if they are not pointing their children to the temple they are not pointing them to desired eternal goals. These mothers have influence and power.
Mothers who know are nurturers. This is their special assignment and role in the plan of happiness. To nurture means to cultivate, care for, and make grow. Therefore, mothers who know create a climate for spiritual and temporal growth in their homes. Another word for nurturing is homemaking. Homemaking includes cooking, washing clothes and dishes and keeping an orderly home. Home is where women have the most power and influence. Therefore, Latter-day Saint women should be the best homemakers in the world. Working beside children in homemaking tasks creates opportunities to teach and model qualities children should emulate.
Nurturing mothers are knowledgeable, but all the education women attain will avail them nothing if they do not have the skill to make up homes that create a climate for spiritual growth. Growth happens best in a house of order, and women should pattern their homes after the Lord’s house. Nurturing requires organization, patience, love, and work. Helping growth occur through nurturing is truly a powerful and influential role bestowed on women.
Mothers who know are leaders. In equal partnership with their husbands, they lead a great and eternal organization. These mothers plan for the future of their organization. They plan for missions, temple marriages, and education. They plan for prayer, scripture study, and family home evening.
Mothers who know build children into future leaders and are the primary examples of what leaders look like. They do not abandon their plan by succumbing to social pressure and worldly models of parenting. These wise mothers who know are selective about their own activities and involvement to conserve their limited strength in order to maximize their influence where it matters most.
Mothers who know are always teachers. Since they are not babysitters, they are never off duty. A well-taught friend told me that he did not learn anything at church that he had not already learned at home. His parents used family scripture study, prayer, family home evening, mealtime, and other gatherings to teach. Think of the power of our future missionary force if mothers considered their homes as a pre-missionary training center. Then the doctrines of the gospel taught in the MTC would be a review and not a revelation. That is influence. That is power.
Mothers who know do less. They permit less of what will not bear good fruit eternally. They allow less media in their homes, less distraction, less activity that draws their children away from their home.
Mothers who know are willing to live on less and consume less of the world’s goods in order to spend more time with their children, more time eating together, more time working together, more time reading together, more time laughing, talking, singing, and exemplifying. These mothers choose carefully and do not try to choose it all. Their goal is to prepare a rising generation of children who will take the gospel of Jesus Christ into the entire world. Their goal is to prepare future fathers and mothers who will be builders of the Lord’s kingdom for the next 50 years. That is influence. That is power.
Who will prepare this righteous generation of sons and daughters? Latter-day Saint women will do this; women who know and love the Lord and bear testimony of him, women whose wills are strong and immovable, who do not give up during difficult and discouraging times.
We are led by an inspired prophet of God who has called upon the women of the church to stand strong and immovable for that which is correct and proper under the plan of the Lord. He has asked us to begin in our own homes, to teach children the ways of truth. Latter-day Saint women should excel at upholding, nourishing, and protecting families. I have every confidence that our women will do this, and will come to be known as mothers who knew; in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Ok, now my thoughts:
First, this is, of course, a talk on motherhood, which in our church is fraught with peril. There is no way to give a perfect talk on motherhood that will be accepted by all in the church because the perceptions about the roles of mothers are so disparate and each and every person is always comparing your words to either (1) their mother, or (2) themselves, or (3) both, so that no matter what the talk says it is highly likely to offend one or all of those perceptions. Despite this, I think this talk is, in fact, a pretty great talk on motherhood for the following reasons:
1. We always hear about those mothers of the 2000 stripling warriors, but we never hear much about why they were so worthy of praise. This talk actually tries to tackle the reasons why maybe those mothers were singled out for praise. Of course, we can never know whether those ancient mothers actually had these qualities, but it’s interesting to think about and hear a talk about what may have been the reasons for those mothers’ success, and how mothers today might apply those principles.
2. The fourth paragraph. This is the place that most critics of this talk go wrong. They are not hearing her words in this paragraph or they are not understanding them. When most people give talks on this subject they hem and haw around about how “all women are mothers in some way” and in trying to be all-inclusive they lose their audience because, of course, that’s just not true in any real sense. The usual alternative to this approach is just not to talk about motherhood at all because “the women who are not mothers will feel left out.”
Well, maybe, but the fact is we do need to talk about motherhood. It’s damn important. To my kids and yours. So here’s what Pres. Beck did: she didn’t apologize, she didn’t extemporize, she just admitted the truth: some women will not be mothers in this life. But here’s the genius part: she didn’t let them off the hook.
She mentions Hannah who was childless for years but who fasted and prayed and got a son, whom she dedicated to the Lord. Is Pres. Beck advocating this course of action to childless couples? Maybe, but I think more important is this:
…the value women place on motherhood in this life and the attributes of motherhood they attain will rise with them in the resurrection. Women who desire and work toward that blessing in this life are promised they will receive it for all eternity. And eternity is much, much longer than mortality.
Wow. In other words: Whether you are a mother or not you should be desiring and preparing to be a mother, because you will keep forever those things you learn, and if you desire children and prepare to be a mother, you will be a mother, even if it’s not in this life. And the next life is much longer anyway. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that said exactly that way before but it’s a promise, if you care to believe that, and it nicely makes the talk applicable to all women, whether they are currently mothers or not.
3. She says getting your kids to church meetings = honoring your covenants. This is the part where most (including me) misinterpreted her to say that your kids need to have ironed dresses and perfect hair. She did not say that. She just holds up as an example a mother who has done that, against all odds. It’s easy to misread that, but it’s obvious upon close reading that she’s not elevating appearance over substance here. What she actually is saying is that when you get your kids to sacrament meeting you are honoring your temple covenants. Cool!
4. She brings “homemaking” (which she says includes housework) into the definition of “nurturing.” Everyone, including me, was looking at this backwards. She didn’t say that nurturing = housework. She is actually elevating the housework that you do to the level of “nurturing.” Like this: Nurturing = Homemaking. A part of homemaking is housework. Therefore, when you are doing housework, you are really nurturing your children.
Sort of makes you feel better about doing housework, huh? I think that’s the intent here. And it’s great that she recommends teaching children by doing housework with them (not hiring it out). That is great advice.
The unfortunate thing is that she then said “Latter-day Saint Women should be the best homemakers in the world.” I’m not sure where she’s going with that, but when you consider that housework is only part of homemaking, you can see she doesn’t mean “you should have the cleanest house on the block or you’re a failure as a Latter-day Saint woman.” Which is how many have read it. It would have been nice, especially for dads like me, if she mentioned that fathers can have a role in nurturing, including housework, too. But that may be extranneous to the point she’s making.
The second paragraph under nurturing also could have been better. She seems to be undervaluing education for women, and she seems to be saying your house should look like the temple. I don’t think that’s what she meant in either case, but you can see why some have taken offense at that paragraph and have, perhaps fairly, criticized this part of the talk. Personally, I think she should have just left that paragraph out, except the part about nurturing being a powerful and influential role. Clearly, she’s right on there.
5. She says mothers should be leaders, teachers, and should focus on conserving not consuming. This part of the talk has been widely praised, and rightly so. It’s actually progressive (as some have recognized) for her to suggest that women should lead in the home, rather than follow the leadership of the husband. The truly progressive part, though, is where she says that mothers should “do less” and conserve their time and energy for things that matter most. This is where her talk dovetails nicely with Elder Oaks’ talk which came after hers. Both are giving people permission to not involve their kids in every sport or activity and to not become coaches and PTA presidents if it takes necessary time away from being with and raising their children. That is extremely good and necessary advice, though maybe it won’t be welcomed by civic organizations.
In conclusion, most of what the talk did say was very valuable. Most of the criticism leveled against it is criticizing it for things it did not say. Contrary to popular opinion, it did not say you should have a lot of kids (Beck only has three herself). It did not say women should never work outside the home. It did not say women’s roles should be limited to house work. It did not say women should not get an education. It did elevate the work of having and teaching children to the highest importance. We should agree with and celebrate that.
UPDATE: A group has now prepared a response to Pres. Beck’s talk, entitled “What Women Know,” which you can read here. Julie M. Smith, at Times & Seasons, posted her thoughts on this here. I agree with those who have said that this letter seems to be raising some arguments that are not addressed in Beck’s talk and, therefore, to me it misses the mark. I also question whether this is the way to voice healthy disagreement with a church leader. I haven’t made up my mind on that yet.