After I participted in KUER's Radio West show last week discussing the paucity of women in positions of corporate and governmental leadership in Utah, I received a number of questions following up on the contents of the show. In the next two weeks, I'd like to take a stab at these questions. This question here from J. I'll comment on myself, but please contribute your own thoughts in the comment section. For the answers to subsequent questions, I've asked the input of a few friends so stay tuned.
"I recently read your book and listened to the radio show today. I applaud you for your work and effort to promote the betterment of women. I have some different opinions and perspectives on many of the issues you address and champion. But I am sincerely trying to understand your point of view. I certainly don't think I'm 'right' on most things as I've lived long enough to acknowledge my fallibility. But for now I have just one question than stands out in my mind after hearing the radio show. I got the impression that all of the women on the panel assume that when a women stays at home to devote her energies to her family that her education has been curtailed. Do you feel that way? I have always thought that there are many different ways to become educated and that being a full time homemaker can result in an singular education not available anywhere else. What are your thoughts on that? And one point I would like to make. All of you made the point that women should be in high profile positions and making larger contributions to society at large but no one mentioned the amazing contributions that women make when they support and facilitate their children to go out and hold these positions and make those contributions. Aren't they doing a remarkable thing by grooming these children to better their communities? Why don't I hear credit for the woman who chooses to facilitate rather than self promote?"
One of the things I love about this question, J., is that it taps into a universal yearning to know that the time we spend in our homes is of worth. I think we'd be hard pressed to find a woman, LDS or not, dedicated for any length of time to full-time motherhood and homemaking who hasn't asked herself if what she is doing makes a difference, either for herself or her family.
Let me start by saying that all of my work efforts start from the assumption that work at home is the foundation of a woman's source of fulfillment, joy and meaning. (I believe this is true for men too, although it may be different in degree and kind.) For me, the gospel teaches me that my relationships are what I take with me beyond the grave. I believe that. I absolutely believe that women who choose to focus their efforts at home are doing amazing work to keep the fabric of society strong and people groomed to find happiness. I've certainly had an education in my home that I would not have gained anywhere else. It's been an education in eternal things, in relationships, in personal discipline, in sacrifice. Families are truly the Lord's schoolhouse.
To show my belief in this principle, I try to prioritize my decisions around what would be best for my family collectively. But I also believe this doesn't mean sacrificing my whole self for that family unit, instead recognizing that if we work together and support each other, my family members can each wear many hats if we choose and embrace many different eras of our lives. We can experience a push and pull across the arc of our lives where some things take priority over others at different points in our lives, leading to the creation of a fulfilling and rich tapestry of education and contribution.
I had a really good lesson in this give and take that can shape the arc of our lives when I went to Washington D.C. last month to participate in the AltFem conference. One panel on motherhood particularly struck me: three women -- one Catholic, one Jewish and one Muslim, all very devout -- talked about their dedication to motherhood and the divine vocation they feel it represents in their lives. I was puzzled throughout their comments though, because the Catholic mother of five also ran her own law practice and had been a Surpreme Court clerk, the Jewish mother was a White House speechwriter, and the Muslim woman was a tenured professor at Spellman College.. After the panel, I approached the Catholic woman. I said, "I'm curious where you found the drive to become a Supreme Court clerk if you knew you wanted to dedicate so much of yourself to family. Did it ever seem like a waste of time if you were just going to scale back one day to be a mom?" She looked at me like I was crazy. Her simple answer was, "Well, I'm a person too! Why wouldn't I pursue my own goals?"
Your question, J., suggests that if a woman is praised for something she does outside the home, it somehow diminishes the worth or value of a woman who hasn't chosen similarly. You ask why women who "facilitate" aren't being praised in the same way as women who publicly contribute. I understand how you could feel this way, since the landscape of women's choices is fraught with judgement and insecurity. But I believe that a woman's life doesn't need to fall along these black and white, either/or lines. The Catholic mother I spoke to is a perfect example of this. We aren't really ever "just" facilitators or contributors, or private vs public women. Some of us may choose not to be mostly a contributor, just as some women may not want to be mostly a facilitator. But the idea that women need to fall into one of two camps is, I feel, a fallacy. We do ourselves as women a disservice if we wrap ourselves in identities that are exclusively at-home or in-public, facilitator or contributor. What you are doing with your life right now, J., if you're acting as a "facilitator," is presumably something that you've come to by way of prayer and insight into yourself and the needs of those around you. It is wonderful, hard work. But that's not to say that you may one day find yourself in a different role, one that takes just as much courage and confidence to pursue as the one you're in now. You may one day seek a different kind of education, just for your own edification even if not for public contribution, and that won't ever diminish the kind and quality of the education you've had in the home.
One of the things I am sensitive to as a working mother is that there is ample rhetoric in the Church supporting women who choose to be home and validating that choice as noble and meaningful. If I can turn the tables for a minute, while you noticed that there wasn't overtly stated support for stay at home mothers in our radio conversation, J., I rarely feel supported in my decisions in church meetings. It's hard for me to reconcile the fact that I feel very strongly that God has led me to the place I am in my life today -- has given me particular educational experiences and opened particular work experiences for me -- and yet my church community has almost no resources, narratives or rhetoric to support my reality. I often envy women who can go to church meetings and feel that their time in the home is so validated and praised. Many fewer people at church are praising my "contributor" work.
This leads me to an important point about why full-time mothers weren't mentioned on the radio program: work at home or the education one receives at home were not the economies that were being measured in that conversation. Specifically, we were talking about one way to measure women's contributions: through public involvement and corporate/governmental participation. I am absolutly confident that at no point in the conversation did any one of us say this was the only way to measure a woman's worth. It was simply the economic system that was being evaluated that day. It's true that we have inadequate ways to overlay work-in-the-home onto the same metrics we use to evalute work-in-the-office. The currency of work-in-the-home is long-term fulfillment, influence and relationships. The currency of work-in-the-office is dollars and decision-making and social impact. I've seen reports that try to estimate an income for a mother if she were being paid for her work, or estimate the worth of her educational degree from the lessons of running a home. I think it's a fool's errand to even try to do this, and attempts often end up just confusing people and playing into insecurities even more. We don't do our work at home because it has meaning in the world of public economies; we do it because it's right for us and our families at specific times in our lives. And because overlaying economic metrics is so difficult, discussions around social economies tend to focus on either public contributions, as the radio program did, or private contributions, as church rhetoric so often does. It is our jobs as individuals who have made choices with God's help to find the recognition and validation we seek in trusted sources and in our own confidence. No conversation will be able to satisfy both, I believe, because public and private are evaluated using completely difference scales.
J., be confident in your choices and in the worth of the education you've received. And please have faith in the fact that discussions around women in public spheres don't diminish the work women do at home, because they are measured differently. There is room for both. We can have both. We need both. We just can't successfully pit them against each other. No one wins if we try.
Readers, how would you respond to J.?