Sunday, August 17, 2014

Esteemed as Things of Naught Much

Plaque in  honor of Mother Theresa, a woman who defined herself.

I'm a doc, so I can't help but diagnose things with a goal to treat illness. And, oh, do I see a plague among the LDS. It has to do with how women view their self-worth, and how that view affects their relationships in our family-oriented church. While I maintain that the Church is true, there are subcultures within it that can take a good thing and derange it. As this relates to women and children, the results can be truly devastating. This is why I have to discuss this here and now.

Here is the cycle I see played out in the lives of too many women:

  1. Some young women are taught that their self-worth is contingent upon two things: reproductive organs (including and especially an intact hymen) and what I call "temple recommend-ability." To have these goods is to be in a position where a man can free you from the nightmare that is being "just" a woman.

    And it is a nightmare for so many. I remember being a young convert and going to my single adult ward. There was a woman there who was turning 30 years old and I initially thought she had leukemia because people would weep over her as though she were dying: "Our poor Selma*! What's going to happen to her?" Said in Relief Society: "Next door, in Elder's Quorum, there are droves of men who could help Selma, but they choose not to." (Apparently, the men had some life-saving serum and were keeping it to themselves.) And for crying out loud, "She has no priesthood power in her home!"

    This, this is what happens when there aren't clear objectives for a woman's role in the Church if she is not a wife and mother. She may flounder around thinking the most she can offer are modest outfits and ovaries with an expiration date. On top of that, I don't know of another religion where the differences between married and unmarried women are so prominent. Case in point, I stood by the side of a woman whose identical twin had just gotten married. She told me she was happy for her sister, but expressed sadness by what appeared to be a chasm separating them: "She's endowed; I'm not. She's a wife; I'm not. She's having sex; I'm definitely not. Even our underwear is different now."

    Is it any wonder then that once a LDS girl turns 18, she may feel as though the hourglass has been set with the threat of being left behind and/or meeting the same fate as Selma? Or that any man who shows interest in her may be perceived as one who could save her poor soul?  All of this makes her desperate to get married and feeds into this notion that, without a man, a woman is of limited worth.
  2. One desperate woman plus one man who thinks he's both her superior and hero = Success? Sometimes. Yes, this actually works for some people. I personally know women who go on and on about their hero husbands. --You know, the guys who saved them from spinsterhood? "Without him, I couldn't fulfill my divine role of Mother." "He took me to the temple." "He's so much smarter than me and I love it." And the husbands, they love it, too. (Check out their photos sometime, you'll see a trend. Women kneeling at their husbands' feet, or gripping their bodies close to them as though life depended on it.) Different strokes for different folks!

    But here's the potential problem so succinctly stated by Ferris Bueller: You can't respect somebody who kisses your. . . ahem, butt. --At least not respect them as your true equal. Once a man sees himself as having done his wife a huge favor by marrying her, things can get really problematic as both may come to believe that she is at his mercy. *gulp*
  3. Then comes the baby in the baby carriage (hopefully). Hey, having kids is great. I have a couple of my own and I love 'em to pieces. Being a mother, we're told, is the ultimate experience in human existence. But of course not everyone can have this blessing and, even when it is "achieved," so many women believe that this, and only this role, is allowed to define them.
  4. Grandma Status NOW. I'm not sure what's worse for some LDS women, that period of time when you're not sure if your reproductive parts work or that stage of life when you're waiting for grandkids. To understand why this is such a big deal, take a step back. For so many years, taking care of little children has been THE role that defined a woman. It follows that when those babies grow up and move away, a woman caught in this cycle may feel out of sorts and wonder what purpose she has left. This takes us back to item #1, where mom is telling daughter that she needs to get married ASAP and produce children so that both of them can have a place of honor in the church. 

As I noted above, this setup works for some many families. In fact, everything can be downright hunky-dory for participants in this cycle. . . Until there's a snag. What if you end up like Selma and a man never sets you free? What if you get the husband who becomes abusive because he feels entitled? Or what if you're like the following woman who "confessed" her infertility to our RS class?

There she stood in front of us, weeping as she was teaching yet another lesson on the importance of families. The doctor told her it was a problem with her, not her husband. With her lips quivering, I was prepared for her to lament not being able to experience co-creation with God, but instead she spoke of terrible guilt. Her mother had done everything "right." --Got married young, had lots of kids, but so far no grand-kids. Her mother had even informed her daughter that friends of hers who married later, had fewer children, were "passing her up to grandma status." By having a dysfunctional uterus, this woman had essentially damned both herself and her mother to that miserable place in the church where a woman's role and worth were not easily surmised. It was their personal hell. 

Needless to say, I don't think any of this is healthy. 

What's the treatment? Stopping the cycle before it starts. A young woman is worth more than her genitals, duh. She can strengthen home and family one day, yes, but she can also become a community servant, one committed to ending poverty and spreading Christlike love to her neighbors now. As we expand and better define the role of LDS women their potential grows. How we get this to occur at a higher, broader level is currently up for debate, but I do know that keeping this discussion going and calling out what's downright harmful is what needs to happen now. 

To be clear, this entry is not about bashing those who got married young (I consider myself to be part of that group), nor those who have lots of kids (the more the merrier!), but it is about doing the right things for the right reasons: Self-respect and love of God.  

*Name changed

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