By Holly Welker
Anyone who has ever attended a sacrament meeting on Mother’s Day has heard motherhood celebrated as a source of joy and meaning. The more confusing, heartbreaking aspects of motherhood don’t always get the same attention over the pulpit—even though the suffering involved in motherhood is what God emphasizes when he informs Eve of her fate after she eats of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
For this issue, I invited women to write about the challenges they faced as mothers. To be sure, these writers know a great deal about the joy and meaning of motherhood—but they eloquently describe situations where joy is infused with difficulty, as in Karen Pellett’s account of stepmotherhood or Dana Haight Cattani’s consideration of birth control options. Sometimes their joy is permeated by heartbreak, as in Jenni Brighton’s essay detailing the tragedy of miscarriage, or Rachel Mabey Whipple’s exploration of post-partum depression, or Emily Belanger’s short story about sudden infant death syndrome.
Tiffany Singer’s essay on her journey to home birthing underscores the need for conversations like these: if women are to make more responsible, informed choices, we need more responsibility and information. As Jenne Erigero Alderks’ essay points out, if the authorities to whom we entrust our well-being will not provide us with that information, we must share it among ourselves. We must also empower each other to make for ourselves the personal choices that some authority figures, both religious and secular, would prefer to make for us.
The essay from Chelsea Shields Strayer and Mike Strayer explores the topic of motherhood not in and of itself, but as part of a larger situation: as part of parenthood. It poses questions that have both practical and—given that Mormons believe in eternal, celestial parents—theological implications: what does radically equal parenting look and feel like? What are its challenges, and what are its rewards? Why should Latter-day Saints consider it an ideal worth their time and effort?
Three essays discuss how childhood abuse can affect the ways women approach motherhood. Three essays on one topic might seem like a lot to some readers—but it’s an important subject that has not received much attention in Mormon literature.
Unfortunately, there is no essay discussing the difficulty of parenting with an abusive husband. I worked on such an essay with one writer, but she withdrew it—the material was too raw and the situation too fraught for her to publish anything about it. In her essay, she bore eloquent and sincere testimony of the temple sealing and the Proclamation on the Family; indeed, she set out at the beginning of her marriage to create an eternal family. So it was especially damaging when her husband used doctrine and scripture to control and hurt her, stressing his role as head of the family and her position as a subordinate who must accept his authority. She found nothing in LDS discourse that addressed the specifics of her situation, so for decades she listened carefully in church meetings for clues as to what she should do. The only advice she found was to be uniformly loving, patient, and forgiving, and to endure to the end. For decades, she endured—but to what end? We need to acknowledge the existence of dysfunctional marriages in our communities and be more aware of the advice we give people on how to deal with them. What remains of a family scarred by cruelty and violence? Perhaps some families should not be eternal.
For years, hoping her long-suffering would bring about the loving celestial marriage she continually prayed for, this woman hid from her children and loved ones the horror and shame of the physical, verbal, emotional, and spiritual abuse she suffered. She succeeded so well that some close to her rejected her account of the marriage once it ended—even though the husband was finally arrested and sentenced for violence that showed clearly on her face and body.
The issue culminates with essays from Robert A. Rees, Janice Allred, and Margaret Toscano. Rees’s essay is an expansion of research he presented at the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium in 2009 and part of a larger project on writing Mormon midrash; it helps justify, within the Judeo-Christian tradition in general and Mormonism in particular, explorations and imaginative constructions about women—including Heavenly Mother—that expand our understanding of them.1 The essays from Allred and Toscano are revisions of papers they read at the 2011 Utah Sunstone Symposium for a panel I organized entitled “Material Improvement: Explicit Statements on the Matter of Heavenly Mother.”
It was a delight to witness how Allred’s and Toscano’s considerations of the Mother Goddess helped inspire Galen Smith’s accompanying illustrations of four of her possible manifestations. And I am overjoyed with this issue’s cover art, which I began imagining as soon as I started work on this project. Michelangelo’s depiction of God animating Adam with a single touch of his divine finger is one of the most famous images in all of art. In the 500 years since the fresco was completed, it has been reproduced, reinterpreted, and even satirized. But as far as I am aware, it has never before been re-imagined as a way to depict the power of the Goddess. I’ve been told of a belief in Gnostic circles that the Goddess is the figure under God’s left arm—but that figure is still off to the side, still secondary. Our depiction here puts the divine feminine and the human feminine—as well as the relationship between them—front and center. The image was created as a celebration of the unique, nourishing, and powerful doctrine of Heavenly Mother. Mormonism is one of the only places in Christianity where such an image could find resonance.
1. See also Robert A. Rees, “The Midrashic Imagination and the Book of Mormon,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 44, no. 3, (Fall 2011): 44–66.