March 15, 2017

I have six children — four biological, two adopted. The oldest is 38 and the youngest is 17, so I’ve been in this mothering role for a long time and have a lot of experience. I’m a pretty good mom. I fed them healthy food and sewed them clothes. I signed them up for the activities that interested them and chauffeured them ‘round to all those classes and lessons. I taught them all to play the piano and drive a car and clean a bathroom. I attended countless soccer and baseball and basketball games, gymnastics and track meets, recitals, concerts and award ceremonies. I homeschooled them when needed and volunteered in all their classrooms. I hosted birthday parties and sleepovers and playdates. I took them camping and to Grandma’s house across the country. I took them out of the country, to broaden their perspectives. I took them to church every week and taught them the gospel that I love every day. I sent them on missions and to college. Though I have three college degrees, I ran a home daycare rather than pursue a career, so I could be home with them. Though I never felt suited to a domestic role, I loved my kids fiercely and actively and served them wholeheartedly. Though my marriage was never good, we worked together well for the good of the kids.

To balance out that picture of “success”, you should know that I was also too impatient and too unhappy. I didn’t take proper care of my own needs for too many years. Most of my mistakes were more personal than maternal, but my children paid a price, nonetheless. That is probably true for all of us. Our mistakes in any arena of our lives all stem from the personal.

There were challenges, as in every family. Some of my children were willful toddlers, one quite hyper. One was a “dream” teenager; some were difficult in a “standard” way, some more so. There was drug abuse, a suicide attempt, a baby born out of wedlock, identity issues. But no one landed in jail. Everyone survived.

I’m proud of my grown children for the responsible, caring adults they have become, for the good parenting some of them are now engaged in. For the most part, they are smart, contributing members of society and most of them are pretty happy. But a majority of them are no longer active in the LDS church – or any religious path. And the youngest two really don’t like me and make sure to let me know it regularly. Of course, this could be because they are not yet old enough to appreciate their parents, but it feels more personal to me. We’ll see.

The problem is that I feel like a failure in my role as a mother. I am fairly certain this thought is a lie, and I resist it as such. But MotherGuilt is a persistent worm, fed by well-meaning sermons and perfectionism and a tendency to compare and contrast. And sometimes by my own kids’ heartless judgments. Mostly though, by my own heartless self-judgment.

I did the best I could. I really did. But hindsight affords a much clearer view of the mistakes I made. My biggest mistake? Trusting outside voices to influence my life choices more than I trusted my internal Knower. Allowing men – men I sustain and respect — to dictate what my womanly role is, to tell me how to be a mother. I am certainly not an unquestioning follower, but hindsight also clarifies the realization that we are all influenced by our culture far more than we care to admit.

I think it’s time we women defined our own roles. Trusted our own inner Knowing, separated – as much as possible – from the influences of our culture. The Truth is in there. We just need to dig it out and write it on a banner and proclaim with gratitude and power: THIS is who I am.

You may be wondering what this rather militant exhortation has to do with MotherGuilt. You tell me. If you are a mother, do you ever feel like a failure? If you are not a mother, do you ever feel the same? How can we more accurately and faithfully navigate our way through the cultural miasma of our lives, especially the male-directed culture of the church? How can we banish the lies of our own “failures”?

What do you think?


  1. Anonymous

    March 15, 2017

    I always cringe when I hear people get up in church (or comment in another setting) and talk about how all of their kids are married in the temple or went on missions like it’s their own accomplishment. Sure, parents can take some credit and they certainly have a right to be grateful…. but I think of all of the wonderful parents (my mom included) who can’t say that all of their children are strong in the church or married in the temple or making the best choices.

    • Lisa G.

      March 15, 2017

      I hear you. I think most of us cringe, if not for ourselves, then for a sister.

  2. Lily

    March 15, 2017

    I am not a mother and have worked hard to make something of my life in spite of the fact that my dreams of domestic bliss never came true. I went to college and then law school. Worked hard to support myself so I wouldn’t be a burden on my parents. Take every calling in the Church that I am ever given. Try hard to be kind, never criticize and let other people have their way. I sit through endless lessons saying that motherhood is the highest calling a woman can have. Think about that for a moment. Like it or not, that means those of us that aren’t mothers are second class. So yes, I feel like a total loser. All this makes me wonder if that isn’t a “war on women”, not just a “war on motherhood.”

    • Lisa G.

      March 15, 2017

      Well said. I know your church experience is common and awful. I know you’re wise enough to know your loser feelings are not “true”, but that’s what I meant about the effects of our culture on our self-image. It gets us where it hurts, even when we’re aware of it.

    • Brenda Andrews

      March 16, 2017

      Along those same lines, I always feel weird when people congratulate the parents when their kids do something right. For example, when my son left on his mission last September, I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “good job, mom and dad!”

      Oh…So many thoughts. First, my son is so much better than I am. And ultimately it was his decision to serve the Lord for two years. While I tried to raise him well, I can hardly take credit for that. Second, I’ve known some pretty awesome, straight-arrow parents who’s kids don’t serve missions, or get married in the temple, or whatever. Remember that thing called agency? Somethings are simply out of our control as parents. Third, just because your son or daughter serves a mission doesn’t mean they’ll remain active in the church. We certainly hope and pray that they do. But again, that pesky agency!

      So we just do our best. And we love them no matter what. That’s all we can do.

  3. Rozy

    March 15, 2017

    Dear Lily, You are definitely not a second-class citizen. Only Satan wants you to feel that way, not the Savior. Thank you for serving so faithfully, you are a good role model for us all.

    Dear Lisa, “male-directed culture”? What do you mean by that? All of the Relief Society Presidents, Young Women Presidents, and Primary Presidents I’ve ever known have been women. The Savior, Jesus Christ is a man. He directs His church. I’m sorry you feel that somehow the Prophet and Apostles, Bishops and Quorum Presidents are oppressive to you. Not all women feel that way. I do know what you mean about feeling like a failure because children make choices that we’d rather they didn’t make. Three-fifths of our children are not active in the church and it breaks my heart. I often wonder what it is like to be Heavenly Father (or Mother) and watch your children kill each other, rape and maim each other. How do our Heavenly Parents feel joy when the majority of their children are not following the Savior? They must have a maturity that I haven’t attained yet. I marvel at their patience, mercy and love towards me, a totally imperfect daughter. I cling to the promises of prophets that the sealing power of temple covenants will eventually draw our children in and the Savior will redeem them too. I pray daily that Heavenly Father will, in the lives of our children, make up for failures and deficiencies in my parenting. Because of what he has done in my life, I know I can trust him implicitly which our children, who are His children first. God bless you in your efforts too.

    • Lisa G.

      March 15, 2017

      Dear Rozy, thanks for your reply. I don’t feel oppressed by our male leadership. But to think that we are anything but a “male-directed” church just isn’t realistic. Every female leader operates “under the direction of” a male. I’m not trying to argue about gender inequality in the church, but the fact is, in terms of our structure and governance, we are most certainly male-directed. How we each feel about that varies considerably, but inequality is not a feeling — it’s a measurable fact.

      • Rozy

        March 16, 2017

        I still don’t understand why being male directed even matters. Why is it such a central theme with women who struggle? I don’t want to argue either, just want to understand. I don’t think of it as inequality, rather that we have different responsibilities, stewardships, roles, whatever you want to call them. They are equal in worth, value, and importance, but they are different. Is a father, or a mother more important to a child? Neither, they are of equal worth, but they are different and accomplish different things. The Lord told us that his house is a house of order, not of confusion. I believe it is Satan who wants confusion amongst the sexes, warring about who directs the affairs of the church, who is more important, who is less equal. Heavenly Father surely doesn’t want us to be at war with each other. His plan for life is perfect, we mortals imperfectly attempt to live out his perfect plan. Our imperfections don’t make God’s plan less perfect.
        I’m glad for this little conversation because it helps me to look at myself and examine my own imperfections, shortcomings and weaknesses. Thank you again for sharing yours. I like Paul’s explanation to the Ephesians: And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the Saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive. (Eph. 4:11-14)

  4. Emily M.

    March 15, 2017

    Lisa, I feel deep mother guilt every time a child of mine has a crisis. I rethink the things I’ve done and feel deep regret.

    I don’t know that this is for me necessarily a result of the male-directed culture of the church, more a product of my own insecurity. I used to feel, as a missionary, that everyone else seemed to know what they were doing better than I did. This wasn’t because of the male culture there, although it was everywhere; it was because I had in my mind a picture of what a missionary should be and do and I didn’t measure up. Until the very end of my mission, when I grew into a kind of peace about who I was and what I had given. I felt Christ healing my many missionary errors and honoring the good things I did. For me that inner Knowing is all about finding healing through Him.

    I’m hoping that Christ will heal my mothering mistakes as well–bind up the wounds of my sweet kids, bless and help them to forgive me. Raising kids is like growing trees in that it takes a really long time to see how it all turns out.

    Also, you sound like an amazing mother. And one day your two youngest will get that. I truly believe this. I hope for it with my current child-who-hates-me, too.

  5. Lisa G.

    March 15, 2017

    Emily, I’m hanging onto your last words of hope. Especially tonight, after a major vitriolic meltdown of #6. Jeesh, mothering is HARD. I read something this week that said mothers generally love their children, but do not actually love parenting them. I nodded sagely and laughed out loud.

  6. AmySo

    March 15, 2017

    In a word: yes. So many of the things in your life ate also true in mine. It is a heartache I don’t know how to reconcile because whenever I am with my grown kids I am reminded they don’t really like me. I always think of the chestnut “no success can compensate for failure in the home” and then I get more bitter because I’m not exactly a wild success outside the home either.

    I love my children and am proud of them but our relationship just isn’t how I thought it would be.

  7. Marleigh Savage-Forsey

    March 16, 2017

    I am going to be somewhat of a voice of dissent. While I relate to much of what this accomplished Mom is saying, because my youngest is now 18, and I did so many of the same things she did, with my own personal challenges that my children got to deal with, celebrating who each one has become and having mourned with and spent long times on my knees for each one, I am entirely grateful for the strength and independence of the women I know in wards from New Hampshire to Utah. I see intelligent, level-headed, down to earth, independent thinkers who strengthen me in my life and work both inside and outside the home. I hear some of the same words, but find the majority, even great majority of women to be rocks. And I celebrate that strength, with the strong, independent messages I receive from women who also work witb the priesthood in partnership. I also see women who will speak their minds to priesthood bretheren when needed. I validate this woman’s experience, and hope that my own is also validated in return.

  8. Carri

    March 16, 2017

    I also can relate to the guilt tripping that comes with raising an imperfect family in an imperfect world where children have the agency to make their own choices, darn it! I could live some of my children’s lives so much better for them if they would just let me! (Eye wink) I think you hit the mail on the head when you called it MOTHERGUILT. It must be part of women’s nurturing natures, because men don’t have it!
    However, I am confused about your comment that we allow men to dictate our roles as women and mothers. I have never felt like the men in my life, in the church, in my community, or at home, were defining my role as a woman or a mother. In fact, I have felt supported, buoyed up, and admired as a mother by this “male dominated” religion I belong to. Just one example, when my son returned home after only being able to serve four months of his mission, my stake president called me to make sure I understood this was not my fault, because he was afraid I would be eaten up by guilt, which I was. When speaking to a wise friend, who is male, about my inactive children who were not making choices I would make for them if I were allowed to, I commented to him, “Sometimes it feels like I can’t do anything right.” And he replied, “Oh, Carri, I think you’re being too hard on yourself. I believe these children were sent to you because Heavenly Father knew they would struggle, and He felt like you were their best chance to make it.” I’m not saying that statement is church policy, or even true, but I came away from that with much less guilt, feeling reassured – by a man – that if the Lord had THAT much faith and trust in my abilities, maybe I wasn’t doing as terrible as I felt I was.
    I think guilt comes with being a woman. It’s the Relief Society article of faith, “We believe in guilt, we hope for guilt, we have endured much guilt and hope to be able to endure all our guilt.” If we’re going to lay blame anywhere, blame it on us as women. We’re strong, we can take it!

    • Lily

      March 16, 2017

      I love your RS article of faith.

  9. Adrie

    March 16, 2017

    I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with us. I also appreciate the comments because I know that not every reader feels like sharing.

    Here’s my point of view: I don’t feel like a failure in my mothering abilities, and I don’t have guilt as a mother. While my husband, children and I are FAR from doing everything “perfectly” (you’ll find many things we don’t do, or do incorrectly—according to “the world,” and Church members), I completly OWN my choices every day. 🙂 Because of my choices and my ownership of them, I feel very happy and optimistic about my past, present and future ! 🙂 (I wrote a blog post about this idea if anyone would like to read it: “There is No Such Thing as Failure” — )

    About the leadership of The Church…let’s just remember that none of “our brothers” on any level of The Church’s leadership may hold those sacred callings unless they have eternal marriages—i.e., sealed in the temple. (Just to clarify, that means one marriage per brother! Ha ha. 🙂 ) Thus, not only are those men being influenced (for the best!) by their wonderful/kind/intelligent/lovely wives, they are also committed/obligated to the sacred covenants they’ve made in the temples of our Lord. While we all know The Church’s leaders aren’t infallible, they start at a much better/greater point than many of the “worldly” men out there.

  10. Lisa

    March 16, 2017

    I appreciate all your comments. Though it wasn’t as intentional as it seems, I do see that I have implied that motherguilt is directly related to the culture of our “male-directed” church structure. I did not mean to imply, nor do I believe, that men are intentionally oppressing women in the church. I believe men are as negatively affected as women are by the imbalance, the absence of Mother in the house. I AM suggesting that such a culture contributes to the experience of so much motherguilt in our community. We idealize motherhood and womanhood to the point where it’s hard for any woman to feel like she’s measuring up. And much of that pedestalization comes directly from the mouths of men. Maybe guilt IS in our nature and unavoidable. Or maybe we would all benefit by taking a hard look at the culture in which we live. It is almost impossible to measure the influence of the reigning culture on a person or people, in any age or place. It’s just the water we swim in. I would like to find a way to alleviate some of this mother guilt, both personally and communally. Mormons make fantastic mothers, by and large. So this guilt must be a lie. Why are we buying into it?

  11. anonymous

    March 17, 2017

    I thought I was the perfect mom to my 4 bio children. We became foster parents. We adopted a couple little ones. From one child I learned I was a horrible mother in every way. I know, intellectually that’s it is not true, but I feel like a failure, not just because of her words and actions, but because of the many things I’ve heard about never giving up on a child. I DID give up on her. We relinquished in order to protect the rest of the family from her abuse.

    • Lisa G.

      March 17, 2017

      That is so, so tough. Adopted children come with their own set of issues, on top of the “regular” childhood/adolescent challenges. Even though you know it’s not really about you (though they insist it’s ALL your fault) it’s hard not to take it personally. I believe your love and trying matters and that it will come back to you as Goodness.

  12. Shawna

    March 17, 2017

    This reminds me of some wise advise that one of my friends gave me. “Don’t accept credit for your children’s successes, because then you will also have to take credit for their failures”. We are responsible for doing our best as parents, but our children are individuals who make their own choices.

  13. Megan

    March 18, 2017

    Thanks for this article! I appreciate this perspective.

    I don’t have children yet – but I already feel some “Motherguilt” about dictating my life choices to meet the culturally accepted version of motherhood. I want to be a mother – I want to be many things – and I also want to make those decisions in partnership with my spouse and the Lord first – not what others will think of us.

    I am grateful for the many stalwart, generous, good women and leaders in my life.

  14. Michelle

    March 19, 2017

    I think one reason women may buy into guilt is simply because we care so much about the relationships that matter so much — not just because we are women, but because in the Church, we really believe the plan and the importance of family. I think the post shows how much you care.

    I also think your post holds the secret to resisting the self-sabotaging messages of guilt with which many of us struggle. You talk of wanting to trust the Inner Knowing. I think you, we, all of us, already have the answers in us, but leaning on and trusting in and believing in those truths is a different kind of work than what overachievers/guilt-prone women often tend to do.

    Emily M’s comment reflects my experience, except peace didn’t start to come until more recently (I’m on the downhill side of 50). For me, trusting those answers, really trusting them, and practicing believing them when the oppressive hamster-wheel thoughts threaten to ‘destroy my peace and afflict my soul’ has been key. (For me, it was working in a 12 step community of earnest loved ones struggling against messy family situations that helped me learn how to exercise faith in this way.)

    It’s real work to challenge and surrender these beliefs. I will sometimes do a written two-column exercise — I write the beliefs pounding on my soul on one side of the page, and then I wait for God to tell me the truth I can practice believing instead. And then I do reps — I call it my spiritual gym. I picture brain tissue around false beliefs literally breaking down through these reps as I practice believing what my brain can’t stay latched onto — things I don’t yet feel but hope to be true. Knowing that the replacement truth has come from God to me personally helps me have faith in the beliefs I’m practicing believing.

    It has been my experience and observation in watching people engage in this specific and deliberate process that sensitivities to cultural or other messages are often most intense where wounds are the deepest…which, again, is usually around things that matter the most.

    I’m still working on this, and probably will for the rest of my life, but when something outside me triggers me, I try to see it as God showing me where He wants most to heal me. When those intensely painful moments come (and they can sneak in really quickly without warning because my brain really is susceptible to certain tones and types of message at church), I seek to imagine my God inviting me to come to Him, to let Him pour in His oil and wine (His truth and power) and bind up my wounds.

    Trusting in this process has helped me start to develop more discernment, more ability to trust God’s voice for ME — to sift through all the many voices and messages (even those that are good and true) to know what HE wants ME to focus on in the present — the only place where I can actually exercise agency. The mental load He wants me to carry is usually a lot less than what my brain can actually hold. 🙂

  15. Michelle

    March 19, 2017

    **I’m on the downhill side *toward* 50. 🙂

  16. Lisa

    March 19, 2017

    Michelle: AMEN. Thank you for sharing your perspective, especially the specific practice you use to combat false beliefs. I do find affirmations helpful in training my brain to move away from erroneous beliefs and toward truth. You are right; it is lifelong work, and it all begins with awareness.

    • Michelle

      March 20, 2017

      “and it all begins with awareness.”

      I never could have imagined that something like just being more aware of my thoughts could change my life so much, could help me start to understand and apply and allow the Atonement in ways I never had before.

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