Mormon author says "we just can't shame women" for not following the wife-and-mother script

Jamie Zvirzdin Bio ImageWhen Jamie Zvirzdin was living in the Marshall Islands a few years ago, she had a cultural and religious awakening. Suddenly the tidy Mormon gospel she had taken for granted all her life just wasn’t quite big enough.

The Sandy, Utah native had always been a diehard Mormon – “religious scrupulosity was my middle name,” she said in an interview this week – until living in a radically different culture challenged some of her assumptions.

For example, it no longer seemed fair for her to teach the Young Women under her care that they shouldn’t shop on Sundays; in their world without refrigeration, electricity, and pantry shelves full of food, daily shopping was imperative.

Additionally, Zvirzdin began to realize that the gender roles she had been raised on in Mormondom were not universal – and in fact were sometimes harmful.

“So I started polling my friends: What does it mean to you to be a Mormon woman?” she explains. “And this book idea came about, to address gender expectations in Mormonism.”

The just-published anthology Fresh Courage Take: New Directions by Mormon Women features a dozen essays by Mormon women. Most of the contributors are on the younger side (early 30s), though one, Colleen Whitley, is a retired BYU professor and a proud grandmother.

Most of the writers are still active members of the Church, but a few, including Zvirzdin, have made the painful decision to pull up stakes.

One factor in her decision stretches back to growing up as a Utah girl who was more interested in science than in motherhood. (She is now a science editor and writer.) “I feel like my parents encouraged me in science, but the general church culture did not,” Zvirzdin says. She carried around with her an ideal of the Mormon woman that she was supposed to be, and she berated herself when she fell short. “I grew up with a very specific Mormon woman identity that is more cultural than doctrinal, but either way, it’s not who I am.”

Many women in the Church, she says, “have this ideal of who they’re supposed to be in order to be good and to be loved. And usually, that ideal includes marriage and multiple children. One of my favorite quotes in the Church is by [former Relief Society General President] Barbara B. Smith, who said that ideals are stars to steer by, not sticks to beat ourselves with. I love that, and I would also add that ideals should not be sticks we beat other people with!”

Zvirzdin also points out that as a metaphor, this notion of our ideals as stars should remind us of something we learn from science.

“Stars themselves are not fixed or permanent in the cosmic scheme of things; even they are relative. You know how the Big Dipper displayed on the Salt Lake Temple points to the North Star?” (I didn’t.) “It points there now, but in a few thousand years, Polaris is not going to be the North Star anymore.”

Bottom line? “Ideals are very relative and can become dangerous for women.”

Fresh Courage Take CoverOther essays in the collection echo some of Zvirzdin’s discomfort, including one by Karen Challis Critchfield, who gave up her own childhood dreams so that she could follow the Church’s script and become a wife and mother – only to find, when she did become a wife and mother, that she felt unfulfilled and without passion.

Zvirzdin sees great progress in the fact that many different kinds of Mormon women – active and inactive, conservative and progressive – could join together in solidarity to do a book project like this, even when they don’t agree.

“When I told my authors in an email that I didn’t believe as I used to, a few of them were very concerned and even considered pulling out of the project. That hurt, but I understood—I also grew up with ‘if you’re not with us, you must be against us’ fears. However, I asked them to read the whole manuscript before they made their final decision, and they all did . . . and they all stayed.

“That to me points to the greatest power of the book. In fact, one of them said she stayed up all night reading it, and it made her wish she had been even braver in her own essay. Some of the things the other authors wrote were things she also felt but had never dared express to anyone but her husband.”

Zvirzdin cautions that these 12 essays are in no way representative of all Mormon women, but she hopes the book will encourage other women to speak more openly about their own experiences.

“I’ve seen a lot of hiding, and that is what bothers me the most,” she explains. “A lot of Mormon women feel they need to hide their pain. But we just can’t shame women for what they’re feeling if we’re serious about comforting those who are in need of comfort.”


  1. This was such a thoughtful and inspiring interview, about what I can only imagine is a thoughtful and inspiring book. Thank you, Jana and Jamie.

  2. I’m close to deciding that this particular aspect of our ‘culture’ is over-hyped. I’m 45, my mother was a working professional, there was definite shunning in her life. She and the 3 other working moms Visit taught each other for 15 years. She intimidated men because of her education and her prominence of position.

    However, her daughters all work now. I’ve lived outside Utah for 20 years and NOBODY seems to care out there, so many converts are single moms that work, so many women choose to work, or have a business or whatever it is… tons have advanced degrees, and some are on welfare. I’ve recently moved back to Utah… nobody seems to care here either about whether a mom is working or not. I just don’t get it…. are we talking about Orem/Provo and if so, does it really matter?

  3. John, I’m glad that the women in your life have felt free to pursue careers as they wished. It is certainly more acceptable for a Mormon woman to work than it used to be. However, I know many women who are still struggling with undue pressure and expectations, both within Utah borders and without, and I don’t think we can say that the problem is solved until all working women earn the same amount as men for the same job, women of color in particular.

    In general, our book is not just about choosing to work or to stay at home but about how Mormon women navigate their individual challenges and the expectations of society in different ways.

  4. John wrote: “I just don’t get it..”

    Why, John, don’t you read LDS literature, and listen to the “inspired” prophets of your church? Mormon women feel shamed for working outside the home precisely because of comments from LDS leaders like this:

    “The seeds of divorce are often sown and the problems of children begin when mother works outside the home.” [Ezra Taft Benson
    President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles]

  5. I’ve lived all over Utah County and spent a year in Las Vegas as well. I can say it really depends on the neighborhood. In one ward, a woman stood at the pulpit and claimed that no women should work for pay, even never-married childless women, and even single mothers. Then (looking me square in the eye despite my hurt tears) she said that if we couldn’t survive off child support and alimony, we were just selfish. Never mind that I receive neither alimony nor child support, and surely this woman would have frowned on the idea of me getting government assistance, too.

    But the good news is, that is NOT Mormon doctrine. I was fortunate enough to be able to leave that ward (and yes that is why I left, sadly — thank goodness I had that job so I could move!) and find another. It’s not far away, but in this ward people have enough varied life experiences and compassion for one another that such judginess does not come up. IMO, they’re doing it right. 🙂

  6. I’m just really happy to see a book like this being written. It’s nice to know that there are Mormon women out there who don’t fit the mold and have the courage to express how they feel about that — thereby helping others realize that there are many ways to be a Mormon woman.

  7. Elder Christofferson:

    “Lucifer seeks to convince men and women that marriage and family priorities can be ignored or abandoned, or at least made subservient to careers, other achievements, and the quest for self-fulfillment and individual autonomy….Brothers and sisters, many things are good, many are important, but only a few are essential.”

  8. As a childless woman in the church, called to serve with my husband when he was called as a YSA branch president, I can testify that there is great joy in being an example of living a wonderful, fulfilling, and happy life outside of the usual narrative. We make it a point that our YSAs (especially the girls) know they are of worth simply because they are spirit beings, descended of a God and Goddess. They are to become their best selves to accomplish what only they can do on this earth. Marriage and parenthood may or may not be part of that, and their value has nothing to do with the reproductive organs of a mortal body. The end.

    It would have saved me about a dozen years of grieving and guilt and doubt and questioning what the purpose of my life was if I had grown up learning those things rather than the exclusive motherhood narrative. So thank you, thank you, thank you ladies, for helping to shift the perspective of our church culture. This book is definitely on my reading list!

  9. Thank you, Janell! This is the book I wish I had read as a teenager. It would have let me know that I was not broken or weird or wicked. I hope that people will share it with friends and families and leave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads so that other Mormon women can avoid those many years of identity crisis we experienced.

  10. Joseph F. Smith, in a Relief Society Conference in 1895, chastised those who would restrain women from exercising their options:

    “Why shall one [sex] be admitted to all the avenues of mental and physical progress and prosperity and the other be prohibited, and prescribed within certain narrow limits? . . . It is all right for them to be qualified for any and all positions, and possess the right or privilege to fill them, but that they must do so does not follow.

    “Women may be found who seem to glory in their enthralled condition, and who caress and fondle the very chains and manacles which fetter and enslave them! Let those who love this helpless dependent condition and prefer to remain in it and enjoy it; but for conscience and for mercy’s sake let them not stand in the way of those of their sisters who would be, and of right ought to be free.”

    “Relief Society Conference,” Woman’s Exponent 24 (15 August 1895): 45; italics on “must” and “free” in original.

  11. I have always thought it both daring and sensible of the LDS Church to send its young people out to get exposed to the world before they settle down, and I always make missionaries welcome. I usually ask them in for a glass of water or a snack, or offer them the washroom. The result is often a friendly and intelligent exchange of views.

    This young woman’s experience seems to me to exactly validate this learning experience built into the LDS lifestyle.


  12. Many women in the Church, she says, “have this ideal of who they’re supposed to be in order to be good and to be loved. And usually, that ideal includes marriage and multiple children.”

    I know a Mormon woman in her mid-thirties who, as a result of having six children, is now slated for hip surgery. Why? Because of the Mormon teaching that we have spirit siblings in heaven waiting for a body. And this Mormon teaching is based on Joseph Smith who is a false prophet and his fraudulent works.

    God does not teach this, and it was Mormonism that did this to her, not God.

  13. This comment doesn’t bother me as a working mother at all. You can have a career without making your family “subservient” to it. It’s similar to the scriptural reference to the love of money. It’s not the money that’s a problem so much as the love of it above all else. To me the most important thing is following the spirit in making these important life choices then going forward with confidence that you’re on the track the Lord intended for you– no one else, just you.

  14. It’s not just Mormons/Church who feel/apply pressure on women. Growing up in Utah, I felt encouraged to pursue an education that could provide financial security. I became an Engineer and worked for 4 years, putting my husband through college without student loans, something I have been very grateful for ever since. During those years, I often expressed a longing to be a mother. That is where my passion was–not in my career. I don’t fault others for having a different passion than mine. Eventually we started a family and moved to the upper midwest. I was happily surprised to find many women there don’t work, but stay home with their children. What a contrast from my experiences in the west (UT, CO, ID) where most women I knew worked (usually in low-paying jobs). I knew a mother in Colorado who felt guilty for not “contributing to society in the work force” because she stayed home with her 4 children. Mormon teachings on family helped her feel less guilt, and she joined the…

  15. This Molly Mormon thing is a myth. I am 72 and other than a few that bought into the myth, it is nonsense. The LDS Church encourages being good mothers and wives but certainly does not limit women in any way. I have been a professional, great grandmother a Doctor, Aunt a world traveler, speaker business woman, cousins that are teachers, doctors, accountants, etc. Daughter who ran her own business taking a sabbatical raising 2 boys. Friends in RS who are retired teachers, authors, musicians, chemists, etc. Articles like this perpetrates this line held by those “outside” the Church that we are like Stepford Wives and if you are member who feel this way, maybe you need to get to know your Sisters at Church a little better.

  16. Several of the contributors report resisting motherhood but experiencing a transcendent experience when it came and feeling like everything else they had pursued to that point in their lives was subordinant. The difference is that they chose to be mothers, they didn’t think that was the only option available to them. It would be nice if people read the book before commenting on it.

  17. I do not want to be dismissive of any woman who has experienced shaming in the church, but as an older Mormon woman, having lived in several states, I haven’t seen it happening as a general rule.

    There are always going to be individuals in every ward who criticize and make judgmental comments about anything. But I really believe these people are the exception, not the rule. I’m sorry for anyone who has been on the receiving end of their rudeness.

    It’s true that sometimes church leaders say things that are either inartful or just plain wrong, but personally, I don’t expect perfection from imperfect leaders. The new curriculum for young women and young men encourages both to take the responsibilities of parenthood, marriage and family as a highest priority in life. There is nothing wrong with that. Bonnie Oscarson recently said that everyone should be a homemaker – men, women and children. I agree! No matter what your family situation is–make a happy home.

  18. I agree with so much of your comment, but I feel compelled to pipe up with one point of order:

    Female members of Young Single Adult wards are not “girls.” They are women.

  19. There seems to be an increasing number of ex-Mormons who have left the Church because of the LDS culture. This same culture may be well seen as sand upon which people build their houses.

    That said, I would take exception with a quote from the above: “Karen…, who gave up her own childhood dreams so that she could follow the Church’s script and become a wife and mother – only to find, when she did become a wife and mother, that she felt unfulfilled and without passion.” My take: parenthood isn’t about being fulfilled (what a load to push on your children!) nor is it about satiating any kind of passion. Parenthood is often a grueling, sometimes tortuous endeavor that is occasionally a source of profound joy. Parenthood (especially good parenthood) is self-sacrificial in the extreme, and one of the Lord’s most difficult tests (nod to the would-be parents out there, who aren’t excused in the least from difficulty). If someone becomes a parent for selfish reasons, misery will…

  20. Dave, she had six children because she chose to have six children.

  21. Excellent response – it’s all about context.

  22. You’re not just 72, you’re a very wise 72.

    Thank you.

  23. I worry that these assertions convey the idea that women in the church are solely doing these things to try to be loved or follow a rule. However, so many of us mothers choose staying home and multiple children and love it – and we are in no way oppressed or feel like we have to have more kids to be loved or in line with the church’s culture.

    I am a convert who was raised Buddhist. I double-majored at BYU and have a master’s degree from the University of Utah. I have 3 kids and stay at home with them while simultaneously running an e-commerce business from my home. I chose to stay home with them and left a successful career to do so with 100% no remorse. Staying home with them is the best thing I’ve ever done. And, my husband and I want to have more children – because that is our choice – not because of cultural pressure. Though I haven’t read the book I do hope it explains that many women love this choice, and in no way feel oppressed by it.

  24. Shannon,

    Yes, I am happy to say that in Fresh Courage Take, we fully validate that choosing to have many children and stay at home is a legitimate and honorable life choice, and we also validate that there are other just as legitimate and honorable life choices for women whose circumstances, beliefs, needs, and desires may be different.

    We have a contributor who is the mother of five, for example. We have a contributor who writes about being single and finding joy. We have contributors who write about race, divorce, homosexuality, intelligence, feminism, postpartum depression, and infertility.

    I am a happy wife and mother myself, but what bothers me most is when I hear, “I’ve never had a problem as a Mormon woman, so nothing is wrong. There is no problem.” While I’m happy for that person, it does not negate the negative experiences other Mormon women have had. Cultural and doctrinal pressures are real forces. Rather than dismissing the claims of these sisters, let’s…

Leave a Comment