The Unequal Burden of Women

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by Paul

Working MamaEconomic disparity between men and women has been well-documented.  Equal pay for equal work continues to be an elusive goal for those women worldwide who can even find equal work.  Closely linked to economic disparity is social inequality, where women do not enjoy the same rights and protections as men in some societies.  Even in our own LDS culture, although we publicly preach of the equal partnership of men and women in parenting and marriage, we have a cultural history of treating the subordination of women as our own unique brand of equality.

This thought became clearer to me as I had a short Facebook conversation with my Stanford-graduate, returned-missionary niece this weekend.  She was happy about this article in the April Ensign, which, in her words, is “not compromised by patriarchal / hierarchical undertones.”  She then commented that in her youth, she felt the subordination-is-not-inequality message was “ubiquitous and quite ridiculous” (and she rightly credited her own grandparents for showing a better example of equality in marriage).

It is against that backdrop that I went to hear a presentation of Rob Gardner’s Lamb of God, performed by the Michigan Concert Choir last weekend.  This is the same Lamb of God that was performed by a 240-member troupe in Salt Lake City recently.  Our production included a much smaller choir and half a dozen instrumentalists.  I offer no review of the music or the performance here, except to say that I’m glad I attended.


One of the things Gardner’s work does is pay close attention to the reactions of the women in the Savior’s life, particularly His mother, Mary, and Martha, sister of Lazarus.  As I listened to those particular numbers, I reflected on the burdens carried by the women in the Savior’s life.

Martha and her sister, Mary, were saddened at the death of their brother.  They summoned the Savior in time (they believed) to save him from death, and yet He arrived four days after Lazarus had died.

In the production, when Martha speaks to the Savior, she sings,

Lord, if Thou hadst been here,
If Thou wouldst have heard us,
My brother then would not have died,
No. If Thou hadst been here,
Thou couldst have saved him.

 She also reiterates her faith in the Lord and His eventual resurrection:

I know that he shall rise again, Lord…
I know he shall rise again in the resurrection
At the last day.

But then Gardner does something wonderful.  He goes beyond the scriptural text and imagines Martha’s prayer for greater understanding:

Yea, Lord: I believe that Thou art the Christ,
which should come,
The Son of God,
But I do not understand…
Touch my eyes and bid them see…
Touch my ears and bid them hear…
Then touch my lips and bid them sing…
Oh touch my heart and bid it know
That ev’ry breath I take
Is by Thy tender grace,
And Thou wilt make me whole,
And Thou wilt make me whole,
Oh, Thou wilt make me whole again.

It is easy for me to identify with Martha’s grief over the loss of her brother.  It was illuminating to imagine her humble desire to understand more and to be taught.

Later, Gardner imagines how Mary the mother of Jesus responds at Pilate’s judgment and the crowd’s condemnation of her son.  She sings:

Is this not enough?
O Lord, my God,
Show mercy on my Son!
Has not Thy will in this been done?…
Has not the bitter cup been emptied?…
When is it enough?…
O Lord, When is it enough?
My breaking heart,
Though pierced and torn within,
I’ll keep my vigil here with Him.
Behold, The handmaid of the Lord.
Be it unto me…
Until it is enough.

I confess, until I heard these words, it had never occurred to me how the Savior’s mother might have felt at His sentencing to death on the cross.

The Mother of God of Tenderness

As I pondered that idea, I realized there are many things that do not occur to me because they are not part of my experience.  I did not give birth to my children.  I did not grow up being taught that my success was dependent upon my children’s behavior and choices.  Though I heard the clever seven iamb saying, “No success can compensate for failure in the home,” I was not bound to it in the way a mother is — a mother who lives in the shadow of 2,000 stripling warriors who did not doubt their mothers knew it — a mother who counts the number of eagle scouts (who are told how much thanks they owe their mothers) and departed missionaries.

Similarly, I do not personally know the burden of not bearing children in the same culture which so praises and honors motherhood.

I understand (at least intellectually) the burden of motherhood in the LDS culture because my wife has learned to articulate it to me.  Both she and I recognize intellectually that children have agency, that even Heavenly Father’s children make poor choices, that famous parents throughout the scriptures have children that stray.  But as interesting as all that is, it does not eliminate the burden of motherhood – motherhood that is divinely ordained and appointed and motherhood that is culturally cued to children’s choices and success.

For all of our desire for equality, men and women will carry separate burdens in this life.  We may, in fact, carry burdens around the same things — a straying child, for instance — but our burdens will be different.  As we come to understand those differences, we can begin to bear one another’s burdens and mourn with those that mourn.

  • How can we better understand one another’s burdens?
  • How does recognizing our difference of experience help us to grow in charity?
  • What is the proper relationship between seeing our differences in experience and our commonality as children of one Father in Heaven?

About Paul

Paul was a convert to the church with his parents and siblings when he was a child, and therefore has the great blessing of having some of his formative years in the church while still remembering his family’s conversion experience. He is the father of seven and husband to his lovely wife. He served an LDS mission in Germany and has lived in Latin America and twice in Asia for his employer; now he lives with his lovely wife and youngest two children in the Midwestern US. Prior to earning his MBA, Paul also earned degrees in English and Theatre History. He also blogs at A Latter-day Voice (see the link below -- in "Our Authors Elsewhere" section at the bottom of the page) where he writes, as he does here, of his own experience as a Latter-day Saint. He does not speak for the church but will speak in favor of it.

9 Responses to The Unequal Burden of Women

  1. Emily says:

    Just wanted to comment that I, too, love getting the woman’s side of the story like you did in the performance. I’ve really enjoyed reading the Women of Faith in the Latter Days books because all of a sudden, a gap in church history is filled and I get a fuller picture. It’s almost as if I didn’t know that part of the story was missing, yet when I read it, it feels so much more complete. Now to get the women’s version of the Book of Mormon. We may not think we’re missing much, but when we get it, it will feel so much more complete.

  2. jendoop says:

    Love this post Paul. My husband and I have had many discussions about the inequality you talk about. I’ve tried to explain that when people come to our home and it’s a mess they don’t think, “He isn’t a very good housekeeper.” When I take the kids to the dentist and my 5 year old has 6! cavities, it’s me who hears her cry at the appointment getting the cavities filled, not him – even though he’s the one that tucks them in and is supposed to help them brush their teeth. With that said I’ll also say that what others think of me is none of my business, and the pressure I put on myself to be some super perfect mom is harmful and unrealistic. We each can do a lot to change the pressures we feel.

    On the other hand I don’t have a great idea of how much the financial burdens of our family weigh on my husband, and the constant fear that he’ll loose his job again. I trust him, I trust Heavenly Father to take care of us but that burden is more pressing for my husband as the one whose name is on the paycheck that is our only source of income.

    Realizing that both of us feel expectations, pressures, and burdens that the other doesn’t is part of what makes our marriage good (when it is good). A lack of charity in that way is a divisive element in a marriage, and in a society.

    • Tiffany W. says:

      Jendoop, I really loved your comments. I’ve often focused on the inequalities I feel and have experienced within our culture. But lately, I’ve been trying to think about the burdens my husband feels and the challenges he undergoes. I think if we were both to look at the other side, we are both more sensitive to one other and also, much more appreciative.

    • SilverRain says:

      Thank you, Jen, for pointing out that it goes both ways.

      As a single mom with an abusive ex-husband, I feel the burden of both deeply. It was over many long nights that I learned to let go of the pain of knowing I will never be able to do either job the way I want to, and trust the Lord to fill in the gaps of all I cannot do.

      I have learned how painful the burden of providing can be. Too bad I’ll likely never have the chance to apply that knowledge to understanding a future husband’s burden. 😉

  3. Paul says:

    Emily, I know what you mean about the women’s version of scriptures. I’d like some insight into those, too, someday. When I served as a bishop I read BYU Women’s Conference volumes in an effort to understand better the issues facing some of my ward members.

    Jen, I think you’re spot on — although I’ve written this about the unequal burden of women, certainly there are unequal burdens men carry, as well. And successful marriages will pay attention to both.

  4. Bonnie says:

    This is a wonderful example of how we can open our minds to better understand others. Our modern society’s insistence that we are androgynous has denied us both an appreciation of strengths and a compassion for burdens. Certainly neither fit neatly into categories of sex, but many certainly do. An aspect of our divine nature is gender and with it naturally falls some proclivities, opportunities, and sorrows.

    I think time with the atonement helps us see more clearly one another. I don’t know that anything else does. Over time we accumulate experiences that, with the companionship of the spirit of Christ, provide clarity, enlarging our vision and our hearts. I appreciate Jen’s addition of the particular burdens that her husband bears. We are meant to bear each other’s burdens, and we must see them before we can. I truly hope the day comes that we throw aside all this androgynous nonsense and acknowledge what is true about our experiences.

    And Emily, I so have a secret hope that the sealed scripture written by the brother of Jared will, in its enlightened writing, have a few stories from women, just as Luke shared!

  5. Tiffany W. says:

    Thank you for this.

  6. Ja says:

    I think and hope that one day we will make a better connection with the role of women in the heavens. There is a mother in heaven. What is her involvement in the plan? I have asked about the family of God and the third member of the God head while at the temple (not mentioned in the videos). The idea of the Holy Ghost not having the body of man is relevant to me. When we connect gender and role with an eternal characteristic, I have to ask about the burden of a Mother in Heaven and her glory or credit. Like many mothers on earth, she does not get the accolades she deserves. Her work is different, but she is there.

  7. Liz C says:

    I do think there’s been a generational shift. When I was growing up, my dad was unusual because he did participate fully in the household work, child-tending, etc. His variation on nurturing sometimes looked differently from mom’s version (on one vacation, her plans included the beach, and his included stopping at a dam and learning to spit into the updraft without getting sogged in the face), but he was very fully engaged.

    Half-a-generation prior, my husband’s father was not particularly engaged in domestic life at all; he was primarily a bread-winner, and took care of the car and landscaping. Their culture did not expect that he should be intertwined with the nurturing very much, if at all.

    With our family, my husband has been 100% entangled with the daily domestics and children. Most of the younger fellows I know, including my brothers, have the expectation and societal support to be fully engaged with their children, caregiving, and domestic situations. My own marriage is definitely equal partnership, though we still divvy up a few duties that might seem to be done along gender lines, but are actually decided along personal preference and allergy lines (I don’t mow lawns. Never have. He hates vacuuming, but I like it. I wash dishes, he puts them away (I really, really don’t like the put-away process with dishes, for some reason, and he hates having his hands in the water for prolonged times.)

    I guess what I’m saying is that the patriarchy/hierarchy shift is happening. Society as a whole has a more open stance on How Things Can Work, and What’s Expected. While following society is not always appropriate, the expansion and inclusive nature of domestic roles and shared family partnership is one area I approve it. 🙂

    My great-grandmother had two “egalitarian” marriages at the turn of the 20th century, so such arrangements have always been possible; it’s just that people growing up post-1980 or so have different experiences with the generational shift in parenting, and I think we have more potential to get a better understanding of and appreciation for the distinct qualities of individual men and women, without trying to qualify checklists of “what men must do to fulfill their stewardship” and “what women must do to fulfill their stewardship.” If both partners are working in concert with God to find out how HE wants them to fulfill their stewardship, whatever arrangement they strike on will work to bless their household.

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