After having read Sister Julie B. Beck’s talk given at the L.D.S. Church’s General Conference on Sunday (which you can listen to here, and in a few days you can read on the Church’s official website), I would like to share my feelings on my reconciliation to her words. Much of this post comes from an email conversation I had the other day with Azúcar, in which she helped me sort out the words and calm myself down.

Here is a brief quote from the talk (which I found not on the Church’s website, but on Feminist Mormon Housewives, a group blog dedicated to helping people in the church come to terms with their faith and become better Christians through examination and discussion):

“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 knowlegeable, 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.”

At first, I felt like the talk was so directed at mothers being better maids. The specific things she brought up later, kids in pressed clothes, missionary haircuts, house as clean as the temple, seemed so far from any doctrine that could help me be a better person. And saying that mothers who “know” do all those things seemed like such a slap in the face. Especially since it’s so cultural, and really unnecessary to salvation. (The “mothers who know” references a story well-known to Mormons, in which there are 2,000 young men who fight in a war and are not seriously injured, but have great faith that God will help them. When asked how they gained such faith, they respond that their mothers knew it.)

I don’t take exception to advice to be a better mother, but I do take exception to the notion that if my house isn’t clean, I am failing and/or unfaithful. I don’t believe it is only the mother who should be cleaning, but rather, it should be a full-family endeavor. Husbands have just as much responsibility in keeping their surroundings clean. I will say that it is definitely the parents’ responsibility to teach the children how to clean, and to involve them in the process whenever they can, but that burden should not be laid squarely on the mother’s shoulders. I’m not sure Sister Beck intended her words to be taken that way, but it seems to be how they came out.

After having such a negative reaction to this talk, and reading many other people’s reactions, I decided to try to find something that really could help me be a better mother and person. I’m already trying to live in a clean house, though it almost never happens. I don’t think missionary haircuts or white shirts mean anything. I try to be a leader, but I don’t think of myself as the primary example of leadership, because my kids have a father too. I know Sister Beck meant well, which is why I wanted to know how other people perceived her words. I wanted to have an alternate explanation that isn’t my own “she’s just reaffirming old gender stereotypes and throwing us back into ‘The Art of Homemaking’ so people think Mormons are happy because they look like June Cleaver.” I felt like I might have over-reacted.

Carina helped me think about it in terms of why, rather that how the message was given. It really is the why that is important. I’d gotten way too offended at the how. I still think the manner was offensive, but I’ve cooled down.

I did go back and read it again, and tried to add in some things that would help me with the semantics. So where she says “homemaking includes cooking, washing clothes, and dishes and keeping an orderly home,” the word “includes” is key. It also includes reading, playing, painting, laughing, etc, but those are things we already know. We have done as Daring Young Mom said, we’ve made the housekeeping part of the equation a joke. “It’s sort of en vogue to be a slacker mom, to joke about how big your pile of laundry is, how long it’s been since you did dishes, how you’ve given up trying to feed your kids enough veggies or that you’re always late for everything.” So when Sister Beck says we should be the best homemakers, she’s not saying we should be the best housekeepers. We can be the best at creating a loving and spiritual environment that is hopefully as clean as we can get it. Likewise, if we know a lot about mitosis and meiosis, it won’t help our children if we don’t have the skills to teach it to them. I have to believe that she’s not just talking about housework.

We, as mothers and part of a parental team, can create a powerful world for our children, one in which they are free to learn what they want, and they also see the value in learning what we want to teach them, or what society requires them to know, that is, how to be clean, responsible, respectful of others, kind, doing good to all man, virtuous, lovely…

(That last gratuitous reference is from the 13th Article of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s like a part of the Credo for the Mormons. “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say we follow the admonition of Paul- We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.)

I just finished reading an article in the New York Times that has given me resolve to never wish for cosmetic surgery again. “Is the ‘Mom Job’ really necessary?” by Natasha Singer. I feel like screaming, but I’ll try to keep my voice down.

Even before I had children, I did not love the look or shape of my body. Since I was 13, I’ve always had a poochy belly, huge saggy breasts, oddly square hips, and slightly lumpy thighs. I’ve always felt self conscious about these things, though not enough to do particularly much about it. I’ve been a runner on and off, and have kept my weight just at the top of “normal” on those ridiculous charts they used to have in the doctor’s office that tell you “if you are this tall, then you should weigh this much.”

After I had my three children, and my breasts grew from cantaloupe size to honeydew size, and then shrunk back again, and my poochy belly was a saggy, poochy belly with purple stripes, I was only a tiny bit more self conscious, but my husband kept reassuring me that what I had was still beautiful, just not the same. Like how a sunset is beautiful, and a mango is beautiful, but they are different beautiful things. At the same time, I always thought it would be nice to get breast reduction surgery when I was done nursing babies. I would finally feel normal. I would not distract every male in a 2 mile radius (OK, that’s my cute, jealous husband talking. I never really notice people staring, except in Latin countries). And the lower back pain would stop. And the neck pain that happens when I practice the piano or organ.

I never thought this surgery was a big deal, except for the miraculous change I imagined in my self image. Then I became a feminist. And by feminist, I mean a person who thinks females are good, smart, worthy, capable, and undeserving of societal stigmas that demean or prevent accomplishment. One such societal stigma is the idea that the female shape should ideally be long, gaunt, and bony, and if a female does not fit this shape, she is somehow lazy, stupid, unproductive, or there’s simply something wrong with her. Or even that she is a victim, having the “ultimate indignity” of saggy breasts thrust upon her as a result of her choice to create a child.

I have long resented magazines, television, and other pervasive media that perpetuate the idea that unhealthy bodies are beautiful. The sheer volume of TV shows with anorexic-looking stars infiltrates our minds and implants this notion that we, too, should look like those tiny girls. Yet, even as I know intellectually that I’m being manipulated, I fantasize about being so skinny that my thighs don’t touch when my feet are together, or having a concave abdomen to mount a cute navel-ring, even to have a flat chest like so many boy-shaped actresses.

And to prey on my poor self image, plastic surgeons are now marketing “the mommy job,” a package deal which includes a tummy tuck, a breast lift with or without implants, and liposuction. As Ms. Singer called it in her article, it is a “surgical cure for the ravages of motherhood.” The idea that bearing children causes deformity in the mother is so absurd, and the prospect of a “cure” for this aberration makes me want to move with my little girl to a different planet. Do I require a cure? Am I so defective that I need to be cut open and reconfigured?

I just read the article an hour ago, and have only just begun to boil about it.

Here’s some more.