Though LDS doctrine and rhetoric exalt the role of mothers, the day-to-day reality for many is that they don't find support within the faith unless they live the "ideal" of staying home with their children, a panel of mothers said.
Some see the disconnect as deliberate, while others view it as more a lack of localized adaptation within church programs, according to panelists at the annual Mormon Women's Forum. They addressed the topic "How Well Does the LDS Church Support Real Mothers," at the University of Utah on Saturday.
The four panelists were all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, professional women with children, whose wide variety of life experience underscored their various perspectives on the issue.
Jennifer Moore, a senior attorney with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in Salt Lake City, said she enjoyed married life within the LDS Church while living in New York City — until her husband acknowledged he is gay.
She was newly pregnant, and the revelation — and subsequent futile prayers for his change of orientation — shattered her world, she said. As a result of dealing with life as a single mother, she said she believes the church supports mothers, "but not all mothers."
After she and her husband had felt pressured by fellow members to have children, she was further devastated when her stake president at the time suggested she consider putting their child up for adoption.
She said she felt support in her desire to remarry, but the church was of no help "for single parents trying to find a new spouse," she said, adding that she felt so marginalized as a single mother that it became easier to go to the park on Sunday than to attend church.
She finally married a man who didn't know anything about Utah or Latter-day Saints and said she is frustrated by the attitude that women must simply depend on their husbands for financial support. She was able to provide for her family alone, but noted many LDS women who find themselves single parents don't have that option because they've been encouraged to stay at home with their children.
Such women "are blessed" by support and acceptance, "but the majority who must hold real wage-earning jobs" are treated as less than ideal.
Kristy Finlayson, a mother of three, said she grew up with the LDS ideal of being a stay-at-home mother but found herself asking questions about why she couldn't exercise authority to bless her children or her friends. The concept of a heavenly mother being intimately involved with her children is one she said is subdued and largely ignored in LDS doctrine and practice.
"There's a disparity between what church leaders say about motherhood and any identity of mother in heaven," she said.
When she told her husband she planned to give their daughter a mother's blessing following her baptism, he told her she had gone too far.
The church teaches that a mother's constant care and nurturing is critical to her children's development and that there is no acceptable surrogate for a mother. Yet by failing to talk about a heavenly mother, the church fails to give women the same kind of spiritual identity that talking about a Heavenly Father gives to men, she said.
"Until we find her definition, we will struggle to define ourselves," she said.
Sarah Ray Allred is working to balance motherhood with two small children along with post-doctoral work in neurobiology. She said while top church leaders laud motherhood as sacred, the practicality of daily life at home, within her ward and with her LDS friends is where the faith's talk of support for mothers either does or doesn't happen.
She sees that daily interaction and efforts in some wards to truly meet the needs of mothers with a variety of different special interest groups, like book clubs, as the key to finding support for motherhood, despite difference in age, employment and marital status.
Her ward in Seattle was full of such activity while a subsequent ward in Washington, D.C., offered no formal opportunities for such supporting activities outside the weekly Relief Society meetings.
When she and two other young mothers decided to meet at the church weekly because their apartments were too small, the bishop nixed the arrangement because a priesthood leader couldn't be present during their meetings.
Some LDS institute programs are "mother-friendly" because they help facilitate child care, while others are just the opposite, she said. Consequently, women need to look beyond formal church programs and reach out to others with the same interest and needs.
Marguerite Driessen, a mother of five who resigned as a law professor at Brigham Young University in August, said she believes the core of the gospel and LDS theology outpace the ability of church members to truly live by its principles when it comes to diversity, non-traditional roles and unknowns like a heavenly mother.
As a black woman working full time at an LDS Church-owned university, she found a discrepancy in practice between what the church teaches about developing oneself personally and motherhood being a woman's most important responsibility.
Though the school seeks a diverse faculty, "I was told if I wanted to make tenure that I would have to demonstrate that I had reliable child care," she said. "In my mind, that's telling me I need to choose between being a law professor and being a mother, and that was an easy choice."
She's now a full-time mother and wonders how long it will take for such attitudes to shift.
She's heard all kinds of theories about why blacks were denied the priesthood until 1978, but after much research has come to believe those explanations were simply the inventions of men uncomfortable with changing the status quo. That's the price people have always paid for living in a fallen world, she said.
"I can either choose to talk about all the progress in race relations, or about the stuff I'm still having to deal with," she said. "It's the same thing, both in the church and without."