Divine Motherhood, Earthly Realities
If you’ve ever been in a class of 9-year-old people reading the scriptures, or been that 9-year-old reading the scriptures, you know what kinds of giggling any phrase containing bosom (particularly the burning kind) or breast engenders. Even adult classes often pink up when asked to read aloud, and the occasional smothered snurgle can be heard from the corner of the room.
So if you’re inclined to giggle, go ahead and do it now. I’m going to use breast and bosom. We’ll all survive, I promise!
Our faith preaches a full gospel of Jesus Christ, and two of the very most liberating and gorgeous things about that gospel are these:
1: The vast majority of roles and stewardships are simply given to disciples, with no indication or preference as to male or female. Everyone can (and should) be a disciple. Principles and ordinances and commandments apply equally to disciples 99% of the time. In that sense (as well as in others) God is very much no respecter of men; we’re all enlisted as disciples, and male and female created He them.
2: In a few cases, women and men do have distinct and divine roles. Fatherhood and Motherhood are two of these, and the concepts of Divine Motherhood, an eternal calling completely independent of whether or not one physically bears children during mortality, are uplifting and ennobling. The eternal worth of women is preached nowhere so fully and extensively as within the gospel and continuing revelation. (Divine Fatherhood can be just as amazing, but it’s a topic for another time.)
These two sets of concepts are two main reasons why I have a firm testimony of the gospel, and the Church that preaches them. They’re amazing, and they sing to my soul.
It is a well-established fact that our faith attempts to flourish in the midst of Babylon, and I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say we’re engaged in active warfare against the wiles and ways of the adversary. Society seems to become ever more licentious, more base, more vulgar, more dulled, more sensation-seeking. When faced with the increasingly-downward spiral, we can either spiral right along with the current, or fight against it and seek to establish a Zion society right where we stand, and hopefully have a positive influence in the whole world.
So, when confronted with the increasingly permissive, we sometimes are prone to abandon the concept of “I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves”, and undertake a campaign of retrenchment in the details, clamping down on more and more small actions, defining and redefining more and more concepts into a checklist of praxis, in an attempt to make sure we’re not spiraling downward. Taken too far, we run a very real risk of following the same path as the Pharisees (orthopraxy, or “correct outward action”), forgetting to teach the principle and just demanding that everyone follow the checklist or be cast off as unbelievers.
Modesty is one element that sits on the frontline of retrenchment efforts, particularly in the last 15 years or so. Historically, clothing-based modesty has not been defined in the same ways it is currently discussed and visually modeled in the heart of United States LDS culture.
I recently gave a workshop on early LDS clothing to a group of youth and leaders planning a handcart trek for youth conference this year. We played a game I call “Spot the Saints,” in which I put up two similar pictures of historic people or groups, one of which will feature documentably LDS people, and the other just regular US citizens of about the same ages and economic class. Here’s the set that caused quite a lot of consternation with the youth:
When you decide which it is, ask yourself the question I asked the youth: “Why do you think that?”
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
The youth, who have been raised in the current Retrenchment Mode regarding clothing, all decided that the girls wearing high necklines and long sleeves must be the LDS girls, because the other girls were dressed immodestly. Their shoulders are hanging out.
They fell into what is called presentism: assuming that the practices and attitudes of our present era are consistent through history, or at the least, judging past practices and attitudes wholly through the lens of current practice and attitudes.
The girls with bare shoulders are Brigham Young’s daughters. They’re dressed tastefully and with total appropriateness for teenage LDS girls in the 1850s. The historic attitude towards shoulders, at least, is a lot different than a prevailing Retrenchment Mode attitude toward LDS people who have not taken out their temple endowment.
I told you that so I can tell you this: maintaining a Retrenchment-only reactive position can, in many situations, push us directly in the path of the very things we’re trying to avoid, and can also force us into positions where we compromise the gospel-centered concepts of things like agency and Divine Motherhood.
Jumping back to the early days of the Church, and the concept of Divine Motherhood, and modesty: in the middle of the 19th century, American culture as a whole seemed to have a fascination with what some call “The Cult of Domesticity.” Within this fascination, homely domestic things were prized and admired as an antidote to the too-fast, too-chaotic, increasingly-industrialized modern life.
Art, poetry, literature, music, and social expectations held up Motherhood and the Mother-Child relationship in a romanticized and glorified form, as the ultimate in beauty, truth, innocence; all that was good about humanity. Inner-city women might be portrayed as crude, rough, or low, but rural Mothers tending the children? Ah, perfection! Rounded, smiling, ideal! The height of human happiness!
Most modern people understand that clothing styles were fairly different from the styles we see now; most assume that the Victorian norms for clothing modesty were far more strict and repressive than those of our modern era. After all, isn’t our Retrenchment just an effort to get back to the Good Old Way things used to be?
Recently, an antique photograph of a woman breastfeeding, with the upper slope of her breast in view, showed up in a widely-read blog article. When shared in another forum, one commenter posited that the image had been altered modernly, to appear to include the exposed upper slope of the breast, as no respectable woman in the mid-19th century would have been so exposed, certainly!
This is another case of presentism. The historic realities are far different from the supposition. A perfectly respectable woman could sit for a photographic portrait, openly breastfeeding. She could sit in public and breastfeed without criticism or public shock. She could (and did) sit in LDS church meetings and breastfeed, without drawing ire or comment from anyone around her.
The simple fact is, the ideal of a mother breastfeeding a child was not sexualized by society.
A very physical, earthly component of Motherhood was … normal. Unremarkable. Common. Expected. Seen as innocent, and beautiful, and … normal.
Today, I fear that parts of our LDS culture have fallen prey to Retrenchment that no longer ennobles. Instead, it goes the opposite direction, and puts us right in the same mindsets we’re trying to avoid. By trying so hard to avoid Babylon, we end up entrenching the same negative thought processes Babylon embraces!
Here’s one example as a side-bar: many have praised the Twilight books as an example of righteous or virtuous characterization, because the main characters do not engage in sex until they are married. But through three entire books, the reader is constantly pointed back to “Hey, look, we’re not having sex yet!” and “Gosh, when are we going to have sex? After we’re married? SIGH. Okay. If we have to.” and “Hey, look, we’re still not having sex!” We’re hyper-aware of the very thing we’d like to encourage unmarried people to avoid. We’re still thinking about sex a lot more than the plot. How is that different from reading a book that describes the sex we’re trying to not think about?
Let’s go back to Motherhood, both the Divine concept and the nitty-gritty details. Prevailing culture has worked very hard to sexualize and objectify everything about women. We’ve cheapened and thrown away the romantic ideal of Womanhood with a Capital Wuh. Breasts have become increasingly divorced from concepts of motherhood, and turned into recreation-only symbols, and the property of men. And we fall for these very cunning counterfeits and deceits. We fall for it by Retrenching, without remembering the underlying concepts of agency, discipleship, and teaching correct principles.
Here’s one example that, as a mother of daughters and sons, turns my stomach: “Modest is hottest” falls into this trap, as it re-defines the reasons for modest clothing from the natural outgrowth of inner confidence and worth, to being sexually attractive to men (with no reference to the woman’s intrinsic worth, her gifts, her Divine Motherhood, all of which she IS, in and of herself, by virtue of her existence as a daughter of God.)
Here’s another: men, and even other women, criticizing a mother for breastfeeding in a church community setting. This is so opposite of the gospel-centered concepts of motherhood as a divine role! It’s opposite of the stewardship set forth in the Proclamation on the Family that mothers are to nurture the children. It’s opposite to the anatomy God Himself designed for women.
Taking a stance that breasts always equal immodest nudity can do exactly what the adversary has been trying to do: reduce women and all her glorious abilities down to an Object to be viewed by others for their own sexual pleasure. Are we going to make it so easy for him to lead us down the path? In many cases, the answer would be: yes. We are.
And that’s sad.
It’s not just sad for our daughters, who should be learning shoulder-to-shoulder with their sisters in the gospel what the earthly details of Divine Motherhood entail. Growing up is hard enough, just trying to get used to the constantly-shifting tides of development, without adding unnecessary mystery or unhealthy thought patterns to the whole mess. Girls who see normalized nurturing processes are better fit to take on those roles with grace and positive experiences. Why would we choose to deny them the very tools they can use when they make and keep sacred covenants, and fill their eternal stewardship to nurture life?
It’s sad for our sons. As the mother of a nearly-14-year-old son, I’d far rather him catch a tiny peek of honorably-employed bosoms feeding a baby than be hyper-sexualized to think nursing should only be done behind bathroom doors, shoulders and knees are naughty, and girls are responsible for his “woman thoughts,” not him. I want him to be able to see a mother nursing a baby, and think, “That’s cool. Someday, my wife can nurse my babies. Awesome. Cute kid. Hey look, squirrel!” (Because this is my boy we’re talking about, and his brain rarely stays on one topic for long.)
It’s demeaning to our women: negative responses to normal breastfeeding train women to see themselves as less, as unclean, as not-quite-enough, as objects that can and should be told what to do and when or where to do it, and that’s fully contrary to the gospel concepts of discipleship, in which men and women are fully equal and worthy before God.
It’s demeaning to our men, reducing them to nothing more than animals who can’t possibly be expected to restrain themselves when confronted with even a passing glimpse of unfettered womanly flesh.
We need more healthy examples of How Bodies Are, and Why They’re Awesome (because Heavenly Father did design us after His own image), not more and more and more and more regimentation and jots and tittles added to dilute the actual principles of the gospel. Body shaming is not the same as cultivating a modest, humble heart. Legalistic orthopraxy makes us Pharisees, not Saints.
Today, we do have a rampant and pervasive challenge with so many men (and women) who have fallen prey to the counterfeit of p0rnography. It is the ultimate in negative hyper-sexualization of the human body, and Heavenly Father’s design for human intimacy. I fully support the position of No P0rn At Church, Please. However, there’s no realistic way to shield every individual from every possible perversion the adversary can think up; at some point, the individual must exercise agency and work to develop the will to Look Away. It’s not enough to ban breasts, so that no one ever struggles with “woman thoughts” again. We have to change the cultural discussion, and replace the counterfeit with God’s reality.
Rather than seeking reactionary retrenchment as a way to fight our needful battle, couldn’t we take the opposite track, and instead elevate the principles and practices that help us develop a Gospel Culture? Abandon catch-phrase modesty and checklists, and instead focus on the principles of the gospel that help us understand our eternal purposes, and how to accomplish them here with grace and good will?
On this path lies true harmony between the earthly details and the exalted ideal. On this path is healing from the corruption we battle. It holds the promise of young women and young men (and old women and old men) who understand and glorify the purposes for which they were created, who uplift and sustain one another rather than objectify and demean one another. It provides peaceful, inspired certainty in the face of Vain Traditions and small minds.
So, let’s chat: what can we do, right here and now, to help heal our culture and inculcate deeper understanding and earthly application of the divine stewardship we are given as Capital-M Mothers and Capital-F Fathers?
Read the next essay: Modesty and Breastfeeding