Divine Motherhood, Earthly Realities

[ 20 ] Comments

by NotMolly

GigglesIf 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:

1855 50s Young Women with Apron and SunbonnetOne image shows Brigham Young’s teenage daughters around 1855.

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?

This isn't the picture. It's another one. More than one woman had breasts back then.

This isn’t the picture. It’s another one. More than one woman had breasts back then.

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.)

AlmuerzoIt’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

About NotMolly

Liz blogs as NotMolly, and lives on the western reaches of the Rocky Mountains with her Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal husband, their four beloved Minions, a huge number of books and assorted musical instruments, and four very spoiled pet hens. She can occasionally be somewhat serious and ponder The Big Stuff. And then she'll probably lapse into puns again...

20 Responses to Divine Motherhood, Earthly Realities

  1. Cheryl says:

    I nurse in front of my children. Heck! My oldest child saw me give birth! To me it’s actually quite simple because I’m living what I’m teaching them. It’s not lip service –it’s our life.

    I think education is key, though. I’m going to ruminate upon the things you’ve written some more, because I agree with what you are saying.

  2. Lisa says:

    Amen! The change has to begin within each and everyone of us…and I guess that’s our agency.

  3. Lindy says:

    Wonderful post! I really love the topic in this blog post. I have personally struggled with how much is too much. I have never had an issue nursing around my children and in the mother’s room at church. I have also nursed around my friends older children, sometimes wondering if I was ok with the boys around. Even if I wondering about the boys I still nursed because my baby needed milk. 🙂

    I do have a question. I am a doula and have many books with exposed breasts and mother’s giving birth fully nude. Many of these books are books that show the beauty and joy of birth and I have no problem showing that to my children. Goodness, they watch birth videos and breast feeding how to videos with me. But I do wonder about other children that come to visit my home. I would never show a birth video to anyone else’s child because I respect that different families have different lines of what is appropriate. I wouldn’t be showing these things to my children if there wasn’t a long history of discussion. Once, in the moment of complete …. I am not sure what…. I blacked out all the laboring women breasts in my books. I still go back and forth about that one. It is not that I ever thought breasts were bad, but I do think of who might be picking up those books that are right on my shelf because I refuse to hide them away in the back room. I left all of the “baby emerging” pictures because I think that it is good for the normalization of birth. Yet, for some reason I felt like the breasts needed to be treated with more care. Maybe it is the over sexualization of women that had me worried. I’m still feeling into this one.

    • Liz C says:

      I think a lot of us are dealing with lingering aspects of fear/shaming when it comes to bodies. It’s a balance that’s hard to find sometimes, and that’s okay! If I think about it, I’ve never NOT lived in a larger society where women and our bodies were sexualized; I’m fortunate that my home culture supported a more harmonious view of things.

      There’s still the need to balance the consideration we ought to have for others, too. My oldest daughter finds Spiritual Midwifery (Ina Mae Gaskin) an excellent, interesting book, and is at a point in her own development where the pictures of various bits of people are informative and beautiful. My 5yo feels likewise. My 8yo thinks it’s kind of gross, and we try to be considerate of where she’s at, developmentally.

      I have a whole LONG essay on “Modesty” on my blog… this is something we talk a lot about in our home. 🙂 I think it’s really okay to have different seasons of understanding on this topic!

  4. templegoer says:

    Joyful post, made my day. I’m looking forward to a post on divine fatherhood though.

    I think you are entirely correct, and I’m very disturbed that we might consider ourselves so responsible for the behaviour of others that we deny our babies their birthright. Likewise,it concerns me to have nursing mothers consigned to the ‘restroom’. No adult would eat their lunch in there. That’s hardly a behaviour that honours motherhood.

    The experience of having women present in our congregations and communities who are nursing and feeding their infants teaches us about the divinity of women who are prepared to sacrifice their bodies to the experience of raising their children. I think it becomes a metaphor for what is asked of us, and our spouses in making that possible. Often unfortunately this can evoke envious attacks in those who have not had the experience of being similarly nurtured. Bearing our children as a partnership or alone is probably an individual Everest for each of us, and that includes the experience of being too exhausted to go on and finding an alternative route to our infant’s nourishment. Your post honours us all by putting our bodies into the correct context.

    It would be great if we were able to also see ourselves as normally sexual human beings. Strangely, perversely even, these things become separated and sex becomes excluded from the everyday-ness of our lives as parenting couples. I think this is dangerous, but I also accept that it is challenging. Our kids really need to have the experience of appropriate boundaries in the home where there is a closed bedroom door for the adults, and that can then become what they aspire to rather than the plasticised and airbrushed images of human sexuality that pornography portrays. But I think there are millions of couples doing this family thing just right, and I’d love to have a greater awareness of this ‘best practice’. It would be so great to see the focus being on what’s good and functional, what makes us truly happy as human beings. What is it that these people get so right? Maybe a question for another post…

  5. Liz C says:

    I was chatting with my mother about this yesterday, and we got to talking about the concrete things our church communities can do to really respect and facilitate the day-to-day work of our divine stewardship. She mentioned one building she recalls that had no man-accessible facilities for changing a baby, and a rocking chair actually IN the women’s restroom (by the sinks and mirrors.) That’s not facilitating things well. 🙂

    In her ward building, there’s a small room opposite the restrooms that has a sink, a changing area, and a curtain; it’s accessible to men and women both, and when the curtain is drawn, it’s a signal that a mom needs more privacy to meet the needs of her baby. That’s a more practical facilitation of both mothers *and* fathers. (It’s also a cool ward “tradition” that men change the babies during all church functions. I love the ranching and timber men who started this tradition to aid their wives!)

    What other ideas do we have for making the eternal roles more functional in our local areas? There are so many things that can be done within the current structure to really SUPPORT families!

  6. Jettboy says:

    Nursing your child is none of my business. Please, don’t make it my business. Covering up during nursing is more than about sexuality. Its about public manners. There are many perfectly natural things we humans do that are not in themselves wrong, but that doesn’t mean they should be exhibited even innocently.

    • NotMolly says:

      Some babies won’t accept an extra cover. These days there are dozens of options for stylish clothing that’s feeding-friendly. It’s not exhibition to nurse; you might be surprised how many moms who appear to be cuddling are actually breastfeeding. It’s my own personal opinion that the dramatic and flamboyant nursing “tarps” are a lot less discreet than nursing-friendly clothing mechanics (like the combo of a nursing tank and camp shirt unbuttoned over the top, for instance.)

      It is important to be considerate of others, but there remains that one really great option for anyone who might be disturbed seeing a mother use her breasts for one of their very main purposes: don’t watch. It works every single time it’s tried.

    • templegoer says:

      But that dear little baby is just eating his lunch! Hardly a private function.

    • Exactly! A child eating is nobody’s business. Neither is your eating in public mine. It would be absurd to ask you to cover yourself with a blanket so I can’t see you eat. So I will choose not to watch instead. 🙂

      • Liz C says:

        😀 Exactly!

        Thankfully, it really is a small number of women who are trying to be controversial while they feed the baby. The vast majority are just trying to feed the baby, and some prefer a light cover, others prefer sensible clothing. I miss the days of hanging out on the couch with my sister and sisters-in-law the year we ALL had babies at the same time. Serious nurse-in there, and you’d never have known. It was just companionable and pleasant. Well, after latching and let-down. That was a community foot-stomping moment.

  7. readermom says:

    Thank you for posting such a thoughtful well-reasoned post. I agree whole-heartedly. I feel that I have more to say, but too many children to get my thoughts together. I did lose all my shyness about nursing in public when I had to feed my first child in the waiting room of an auto-repair business. Those big tough men could handle it, so I figure the rest of society could too.

  8. Mie says:

    My first US contact with breastfeeding was in a deaf branch on the East coast . The mother put this huge cloth around her neck and hid the baby under it . It looked like a hair cutting apron. As a European midwife I just couldn’t believe my eyes and must have stared . 30 years passed while mamas elsewhere over the world naturally feed when needed and where needed . Nobody stares ,nobody wonders because it is natural .Here ,now in Texas for 2 years , I still have to see anything like that . At church the ladies go hiding behind a curtain . I believe in modesty even when giving birth but breastfeeding can be done modestly without ‘ hiding ‘ the child. I guess it all started after generations of bottle feeding – young mothers had to relearn the how .

  9. britt says:

    I will always be grateful for my brother in law…when I had my first baby, I would be the first in my husbands family to nurse for quite a while. There were teenage nephews to consider. My mother in law had offered her bedroom if I needed privacy. I didn’t want to miss the whole weekend of family time, so I sat and nursed where I was. Dear brother in law came up and said thank you for nursing so my sons know that it’s a good thing to do. love him!

    It is absolutely true that covers don’t always work: sometimes a baby won’t nurse, sometimes for health reasons mom must keep an eye on the baby, at some point babies will pull off any cover, sometimes it’s just too warm under the cover…

    IMO we must put a baby’s needs above an adult’s sensitivities. Surely a grown man can control his thoughts better than a teensy baby can control their appetite. surely we see that?

  10. Tiffany W. says:

    Thank you for this post. I think it was wonderfully reasoned.

  11. Tiffany W. says:

    Jettboy, I understand how you may feel uncomfortable, but I do think that feeling does go back to the way our society has sexualized women and their breasts to the point that women, who are feeding their child as their bodies were designed are considered indecent or immodest. There is something desperately wrong with that.

    Would you ask a woman to cover her baby and herself if she was bottlefeeding? I highly doubt that. And yet you say that it is a matter of public matters that a woman must cover while breastfeeding her baby. I think that your logic fails here.

    I know women who have chosen not to breastfeed at all because they were so uncomfortable feeding in public because of the attitudes of our society about breasts. There is something really wrong with that.

  12. Melody says:

    I tried to nurse in church a few times, but the little suckler was so noisy it was attracting attention I didn’t want. I think in that case, it’s best to do it in the mother’s lounge.

  13. Lisa Davis says:

    Thanks for the article.

    The real issue isn’t breastfeeding, or modesty, the problem is the hyper-sexualization of women and men in society, (and it does leak into the church too.) It is the root problem of abortion, pornography and so many other evils. Something that can be done, here and now to heal our culture is for us to stand up for decency and truth. I like http://www.womenfordecency.org for tools on educating and motivating us to not only speak out in public, but to teach in the home principles of virtue (not shame). I also loved Sis Dalton’s talk http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/04/we-are-daughters-of-our-heavenly-father?lang=eng on the principles of WHY we are valued, WHO to look for for validation and vision of our potential.

  14. I thought I’d share this bit from my mother-in-law’s uncle, Joseph William Witt II. He wrote it as part of his personal history. He was born in Heber City, UT in 1906. The previous paragraph was about the clothing they wore when he was a young boy.

    “I well remember how restless everyone got. The women had on all the petticoats they could find, no less than two and a heavy dress on top buttoned right to the top of their throat. As the meeting wore on the women with babies would have to nurse them. They would unbutton the dress part way down the front and proceed to feed the baby. I can still remember how I would stare. Some of the women would have breasts as large as a basketball and others had merely a loose piece of skin. It seemed like all the babies would want to suck at once and for a while there was a smacking good time. They would change from one side to the other which also caused quite a commotion. I don’t know to this day how the speaker was able to go on with his subject. I guess it didn’t matter much any way to the women and babies. The women all nursed their babies there was just no other way. Some of the women would bring a sugar teat for the baby to suck. This consisted of a piece of cheesecloth with a spoonful of sugar in the middle and a string tied around to hold the sugar in. It helped to keep the babe from crying.”

    We thought the details he remembered were pretty funny!

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