From Maurine Proctor: A few days ago the LDS Church released a Mormon Message called “You Never Know” that followed a young mother through a day when she had too much to do and too many conflicting demands. The message given in a voice-over from President Gordon B. Hinckley was that even though you worry about the things you never get done, “You never know how much good you do.”
It made me weep because it was so reassuring amidst this life of good intentions and undone realities. I saw it a second time and cried again. Many identified deeply with it and it flew through social media like a fire. Yet some found in the message, the idea that somehow what this mother chose was the cultural expectation—that she had no right to take the break for refreshment she had hoped for. What follows is the video and an exploration of the idea from a fellow exhausted mother.
It’s a typical Wednesday morning. 5:45 AM. I turn off my alarm clock and sink back into the pillow. I want to sleep in. But I don’t. Still blinking against the bathroom light I put on my running clothes, rinse with mouthwash, then quietly step out the front door to meet my running friends.
Half way through our route, most the group peels off to head home for junior high carpool. My friend Laurie and I continue the full loop as the sky turns a pale blue. She asks about my husband’s work and before I know it I am talking about the exhaustion I’ve felt of late.
It is nothing new. With a deadline looming he’s been working late nights and weekends. And even with our three girls returning to school I can’t seem to find two minutes to rub together. I’ve been doing this routine for years, I tell her, but for some reason it isn’t getting easier.
I can’t remember all I said about the struggle of getting through the evening hours alone with five young kids. About managing the homework, refereeing arguments, trying to make a decent dinner, and doing dishes after 10 PM, followed by a Saturday with husband gone, then a Sunday where several additional hours outside the church block are consumed by his church calling.
I was talking about our marriage, about how it’s hard to stay connected when you simply don’t see enough of each other, when suddenly, I broke. Right there onWander Lane. The female tear viaducts opened and I cried quick, breathless sobs. I squeaked out an apology and tried to pull myself together. But you know that moment? When you realize you’re hurting? When you unintentionally speak a truth you haven’t admitted? And the ache comes pouring out?
Laurie was the perfect voice of understanding and wisdom. She encouraged me to take some time for myself that day. She said, “When you’re that tired and empty, you have nothing to give to your family. I know. I’ve been there too.”
So that morning, after getting my girls off to school and starting laundry, I turned on a movie for my twin boys, sat down at the kitchen table and opened my scriptures. I read from the Book of Mormon. I wrote in my study journal. Then I pulled out my laptop and wrote something I’d been trying to finish for weeks.
It was just enough to reclaim myself, my sanity, and my relationship with God. And the result? I felt a renewed strength and desire to lovingly serve my family.
That night, Laurie showed up on my doorstep with chicken and rice. I opened the door, apron on, kids wildly running through the kitchen and climbing on counters, our taco dinner dishes still on the table. And just seeing her, knowing her own busy life, made me choke right up. She had tried to get to our house before dinnertime, but you know… life. She hugged me and said she just wanted me to know she was thinking about me, that she loved me, and wanted to help.
Her act of love was a real blessing. The following evening my husband and I had a wedding dinner to attend and her apricot chicken made for a delicious, easy to clean-up meal for our babysitters.
I share this story because it illustrates two women living (and needing) two different gospel principles. Service and Self-preservation. Ideally, our days should include both. But some days we are better equipped to give; we are open to it and inspired. Other days, we simply need to be filled.
In light of the new Mormon Message that is circulating, I feel a discussion of the latter might be worthwhile.
By the time I finished watching the nine-minute video I was in tears.Frustrated tears. I was crying out of devastation for this mother. I was tired and empty all over again like Wednesday morning. I was exhausted from vicariously living a day that nearly did her in. A day that looked too much like my own.
I think most of us see shadows of ourselves in her.We recognize her self-neglect, her inability to say no, and the fact that she is clearly overextending herself, to the point that she and her children are suffering.
I am an advocate for the spoken message of the video. Sacrifice is essential and selflessly doing for others is at the heart of gospel living. I believe this deeply. And I loved hearing President Hinckley’s voice. Of course he is right. We never know the full extent of our reach when we decide to serve.
But I am positive none of our church leaders would condone saying yes to so many things we have nothing left to give our most important stewardships, namely our children and spouses.
Melissa Dalton-Bradford, a good friend and fellow-writer, shared her response:
While I honor this woman’s generous heart and am moved by her efforts to serve, and while I’m happy the church I love with all my soul is trying to show a less than air-brushed portrait of womanhood, I’m worried that in leaning away from one unattainable ideal, this depiction ironically (and I hope inadvertently) sets up another equally dangerous model. The model is one of potential emotional ill health. I cringed when I saw a sister who is hurting deeply, is lonely, tired, and craving authentic connection and a sense of her personhood, but who denies all those realities by giving an automatic “yes” to every request made of her.
What I also noted (and her 3 little children can’t help but see this) is that she was able to appease everyone with a quick smile and Herculean help, but her exasperation, exhaustion and even her outbursts of anger were directed only at her children. (We don’t know where the husband/ father is in this vignette; she’s wearing a wedding ring, so he might be deployed? Traveling? Doing medical rounds? Or had he just abandoned her? Surely his absence adds critical contours to the story.)
In any event, this good woman’s behaviors are typical of those that precede/accompany depression. Depression is a concern among our LDS sisters. I would hope that this beautiful, faithful sister, if I knew her, would feel safe enough in my presence to look me right in the eyes and whisper, “I am barely holding on here. Can YOU help ME?”
Any psychotherapist would see the trail of self-lies in this vignette. The claims of “I’m fine”, “I can do it”, “I didn’t have anything planned”, “I have no personal needs” are clearly less than honest. And what alarms me most is that three children are watching and absorbing this mother’s self-deception. Will they grow up thinking this is womanhood? That you say yes so many times you run your reserves utterly dry, neglecting not only your spiritual life line, but your connection to your most sacred stewardship, your own family. Every last one of us has limited resources, including our time and our energy. As with material funds, they have to be budgeted.
To constantly and consistently deny those limitations is to set ourselves up for “bankruptcy” or mental health issues. It is a delicate art to say “No” and to recognize healthy boundaries and to offer up oneself and one’s comfort in love to others.
President Hinckley’s voice talks about the dangers of “doing too much”, a quantity vs. quality issue. What I hear is, “Do LESS with MORE focus.” That’s what I call magnifying our callings as women: not making them bigger —more harried or elaborate or frenetic—but applying a laser focus, close observation, and lots and lots of light.
Do less, with more focus. I love that.
While the video is a refreshing step up and out of the perfectionism we often see portrayed (who didn’t immediately identify with this mother’s messy life?), I wish it also modeled healthy behaviors for self-preservation.
Self-preservation is crucial. Why? Because a woman who is not adequately caring for herself cannot continue to adequately care for her family. It is not sustainable.
My friend Maurine Proctor wrote:
I don’t see this film in any way as meaning to be prescriptive, suggesting that women should do things as she did, or that her choices should be the norm, or that she has chosen the better part, or that we have no right to take a much needed break for refreshment. I don’t see her being set up as a role model. Rather, I saw the film as descriptive, showing the way things really are for so many mothers of young children. Equally urgent demands come at you all at once. Often you have too many legitimate claims vying for your time. Anne Morrow Lindberg says there is a German word that we don’t have an equivalent for in the English language that captures these moments in women’s life. It is called zerrissenheit—meaning torn-to-pieces-hood.
I wept when I saw this film because I so totally identified. We are torn in pieces until it often feels like nothing is accomplished How can we feel whole when we are divided into so many fragments responding to competing needs? We end our day–and indeed maybe even our lives–and wonder if our efforts have had influence even on those closest to us–because we can’t always see it. What we can see is all the unfinished business, the disappointments, the clutter, the life that came at us too fast. But to have a prophet’s voice come in and say with reassurance that we have done more good than we know was extremely comforting to me.
I was moved because I don’t always see that, but I was left with the hope that maybe, somehow all that seemingly superhuman effort was not meaningless, that all the times it seemed that I didn’t register on another person’s radar (particularly my children) when I was trying to lift and bless them, really did connect–at least in the eyes of God.
Of course, Catherine you are right that mothers have to include themselves in that group of people they nurture and that sometimes we make sacrifices until it hurts that the Lord may not have expected of us.We impose expectations on ourselves that were not placed there by someone else, particularly the Lord. We cannot do all things and we cannot do all things well. I can’t picture the Savior frantic or dried out by demands.
My favorite story is one I’ve referred to often in my life. One day a young mother had the impression she should see an older woman in the ward, so she laid her plans aside to make banana nut bread while her little children were left to their own designs. She asked another woman in the ward to join her in the visit and the time with the older woman was indeed sweet.
But the price was high. The house was a mess. The children were cranky because they had missed their naps. She asked the Lord, “Why did following this impression today have to wreak such havoc for me?” She had an answer that was as clear as any answer she had heard in her life. “I never said anything about banana nut bread.”
Sometimes we give banana nut bread when it is neither expected nor required. Sometimes we measure what we do in our lives with this question, “Is this just banana nut bread?”
General leadership of the church have been telling us this for a while now:
From Sister Beck in 2007: “Mothers who know do less… These mothers choose carefully and do not try to choose it all.”
From President Uchtdorf in 2010: “Let’s be honest; it’s rather easy to be busy. And, sad to say, we even wear our busyness as a badge of honor, as though being busy, by itself, was an accomplishment or sign of a superior life. [Some] unnecessarily complicate their lives, they often feel increased frustration, diminished joy, and too little sense of meaning in their lives.”
From Elder Holland in 2013: “Fatigue is the common enemy of us all—so slow down, rest up, replenish, and refill. Physicians promise us that if we do not take time to be well, we most assuredly will take time later on to be ill.”
This message also recurs in scripture.
Consider the Lord’s answer to Martha while she is cumbered about “much serving” and troubled over Mary. He tells her, “one thing is needful… and it shall not be taken away from her.” So she rests at his feet, and hears his word. (Luke 10: 41-42)
To Joseph in Kirtland he said, “Be still, and know that I am God” (DC 101:16).
And finally through His prophet King Benjamin He counseled us, “See that all these things are done in wisdom and order, for it is not requisite that a [woman] should run faster than [she] has strength. And again, it is expedient that [she] should be diligent, that thereby [she] might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order” (Mosiah 4:27).
I am sensitive to this principle. Probably because I don’t live it like I should. I scramble through too many days, attempting to run faster than I have strength. But after watching this video, I am determined to reign in, do less, and carve out more space for heavenly light.
I know service is key to understanding God’s character. It is its own beautiful form of healing. Paired with that, however, is the importance of recognizing when our well is dry. So we can fill it with living water, return to God’s word, and let his welcome arms of comfort give us rest.