When we moved our family from Massachusetts to Arizona more than six years ago, my good friend in Massachusetts invited me to join a discussion board for LDS women called “My Online Friends,” or MOF. “Some of the 120 women live in Arizona,” she told me. “They might be able to help you with the transition.”
As it turns out, they helped me with much more than that, as I observed them, interviewed them, participated with them, and collected their writing in a two-year ethnographic research study for my dissertation. My primary goal for my dissertation was to discover how the women’s religion influences their uses of and the rewards of their online literacy, and how their online writing affects how they practice their faith and define themselves. This article is an excerpt from one of the chapters of my dissertation, edited and revised for inclusion in this journal. In it, I will discuss how the MOF women write online in order to give and receive support in their religious beliefs while discussing their different lived experiences with those beliefs.
A Brief History of the Need for and Development of MOF as a Religious Enclave
The MOF discussion board originated because its founders wanted a place where they could connect with others who share their beliefs, a place safe from voices critical of their theology. The board developed in response to dissatisfaction with the trolling, ridiculing, and flaming on BabyCenter.com’s Latter-day Saint families discussion board. One woman from BabyCenter set up a private board for women from BabyCenter’s Latter-day Saint families board whose writing and comments she valued. These women could then invite, or sponsor, others. The current MOF board is password protected for for women only. To log on, a woman must receive an emailed invitation from a current member. Members are allowed only one screen name, which restricts them from posting anonymously or pretending to be somone else.
In moving from a public to a private venue, the women deliberately established an enclave. Jane Mansbridge describes enclaves as spaces “in which the relatively like-minded can consult with one another” with the goal of understanding themselves better, forging bonds of solidarity, preserving the memories of past injustices, interpreting and reinterpreting the meanings of those injustices, working out alternative conceptions of self, of community, of justice, and of universality, trying to make sense of both the priviliges they wield and the oppressions they face, understanding the strategic configurations for and against their desired ends, deciding what alliances to make both emotionally and strategically, deliberating on ends and means, and deciding how to act, individually and collectively.
Drawing from Mansbridge’s description, I use “enclave” to refer to the MOF discussion board as a space where these LDS women can discuss and negotiate individual self-concepts and a group or community self-concept, where they can consider the social, cultural, religious, and economic forces that structure their worlds, and where they can make emotional, spiritual, and intimate connections.
Scholars have shown that enclaves are useful, particularly for those who might be subdued in larger discussions and who need a space for developing positions without being silenced. The MOF participants’ uses of their enclave are similarly beneficial. The trust in a common faith was necessary before the MOf participants could discuss their understandings of and their experiences with their faith. Equally important, the enclave also provides the women witha place separate from the Church-sponsored Relief Society organizations for discussion of their different lived experiences with their faith.
SuAnn, a member of the MOF discussion board since June 2004, described MOF as a supportive community and as a place for difference.
“Although it took time, this board is now a big part of my life…I have seen how we all pull together in times of need, even if it is something as simple as praying for someone who needs it. It’s like a great big group of sisters now.
“One of my favorite aspects of this board are [sic] having people from so many different backgrounds…It was great to see how many different perspectives there were on various topics. It made me think about why I did things that I did, things I had never really given much thought to…I also learned to become informed about what was going on in the world around me…and learned I needed to find out about these subjects and form my own opinions, yet I was also able to see someone else’s opinion and see the validity there as well.
“For me, this is so different from the Relief Society…I think the main reason for the difference is the relative anonymity of an Internet-based board. There is some protection there…I feel freer to say things that I wouldn’t usually talk about in person…I mean, I definitely wouldn’t share some of my experiences with abuse in Relief Society…[On the board] I can choose to tell what happened in my own time frame.”
In her comments, SuAnn emphasized that the MOF discussion board has given her both a sisterhood and an appreciation for difference within that sisterhood.
“Finding Me”: Claiming Multiple Positions within a Religious Community
As a self-sponsored, informal, and intimate enclave, the MOF discussion board provides its participants witha place conducive to expressing and dicussing what Diana Fuss calls “multiple essences.” I define “essence” as how one names oneself in a particular context. Fuss arges that a person can “possess multiple essences which may even contradict or compete with one another.” The MOF enclave is important to the participants’ abilities to try to make sense of competing essences. In the discussion thread example below, which is titled “Finding Me,” these competing essences include “mother,” the nature of which is strongly influenced by LDS theology and Mormon culture, and essences related to the women’s professional training, education, hobbies, and interests.
This thread began with Melanie quoting from a blog post by Nicole, who is also a member of MOF, in order to invite further discussion of Nicole’s ideas. Nicole’s blog post is titled “Warning: whiney…post ahead” and reads as follows:
“So lately I’ve been in this blue fun. I have been feeling so disconnected from me, and well I’d love to be connected to the me I remember, but I haven’t seen that girl in so long that if I ran into her on the street I don’t hink that I would even recognize her. Seriously who is this girl who cleans house all day, chases toddlers, and makes dinner (which just messes up the clean house, making me start all over again)? This isn’t me. I feel like someone, well I guess it was me, hung up a sign that said ‘free pieces of Nic.’ And they came a running, I gave a chunk of me to the church (the sweet little primary children to be exact), a piece to keeping up appearances with the neighbors, some to the inlaws, and then there’s the boy, fruit of my loins whom I love more than life itself, and he is just chewing me up and spitting me out by the mouthful.
“Now all of these things [sic] I did willingly and of course I love most of them, but this morning as I was cleaning off the child who had dowsed himself in yogurt, I remembered a soliloquy from Romeo and Juliet that I had memorized once. Yep you heard it. I am a professionally trained Shakespearean actress, I played Juliet, and Joan of Ark, and Gertrude, and several other fabulous parts in my day. I also used to be a good social worker, I started the first Spanish speaking children’s educational support group of its kind in the state that I lived in at the time. In my time there I was so an expert crisis line answerer.
“I went to college once, and back then I was fun…really fun, and I had friends. Do you guys remember what friends are like? I’m not talking about the ladies at the playgroup who I play whose-kid-has-the-most-expensive-name-brand-clothes with (which I always lose at). I mean real friends, that care about being your friend more than they care about getting the gossip.
“Seriously, do any of you guys ever feel like this? Like everything that is unique about you is going to get sucked into the black hole of trying to make everyone else happy. How do we as women let this happen? And how do we find balance? Because I love my husband more than I can say and I want to make him happy, and I love my son so much it hurts, and so I want to give him the best life I can; and I love primary; and I love the relatives; and as much as I hate to admit it, I want the playgroup ladies to like me.
“How do we make enough of ourselves for everyone and still have some left for ourselves? I just can’t figure it out…
“I warned you that this would be a whiney one.”
Melanie copied Nicole’s post onto a thread that she titled “Finding me” on MOF and began the following conversation:
Melanie: I’d love to discuss this…I just read it, and it struck me — and I wondered how to put the pieces of us back together.
I go through funks where I feel fine — fulfilled by the many cups I am filling. Then other times I feel bored, annoyed by the cups that are always getting emptied and wanting ME to refill them. lol. How do you find those hobbies/interests/passions that make you feel like an *individual* again? I am not the person I was in college, nor do I want to pretend that the things that I liked then would necessarily be the same now. My life experiences have changed me, I am different, and I am trying to discover the things that make me ‘me’ now…kwim??? discuss…
Emily: I think that just dabbling into new things has made me learn more about myself, expecting more ouf of myself. Trying new things and being able to say, Hey! I’m good at this! That has been really rewarding for me.
Meg: this has been one of the biggest struggles i have had in the past 2 years. sometimes i love my life. but sometimes i am so restless in my life…like you said, Melanie, i don’t want to go back to who i was then, but i want to feel like she’s still a part of me now. i’m still looking for answers to this. a couple things have helped me lately, though. i made a list of “things that i know about me.” it helped me to think about it, to write it out.
Kristin:…One thing that I’ve told myself, and maybe it’s just to pacify myself for a time, but I have to believe that those pieces of me are still there, and that it’s just a time and season right now where I’m still this other person. I don’t know if that’s very healthy, though, because I’m sure someday I’ll long for these days of early motherhood and babies and all that stuff, and wonder what happened to THAT person. Interesting stuff…
Melanie: It is fascinating to me that so many women feel this ‘limbo’ of who they are. I know Oprah attempts to ‘uncover’ the reasons why on the bigger scale, but sadly falls short in her ever anti-marriage/family explanations — making the transformation to wife/mother as a negative one.
That’s why I love this thought of discovering the ‘new’ you. Embracing the changes that have made us into the people we are now, and recognizing that we are different.
In my restless phases, I love trying new things. However, I rarely find things I feel good at, lol. I love the thought of expecting more out of myself though — and not accepting the monotony of days to be ‘my life.’ Kristin, knowing that this time is just a season in my life is what gets me though!!! Honestly, when I start feeling unfulfilled I remind myself that this gift I am giving to my kids is the most important thing in the world to me. It isn’t forever, and I need to slap myself in the face with that perspective all the time.
The women in this thread grappled with the dominance of their religious-based role as nurturer, or filler-of-the-cups, as Nicole and Melanie both describe it. They wrote to claim identities in addition to “mother.” Nicole wrote to temporarily claim the identities related to her professional life, and the other women joined her in writing to temporarily interrupt religious-based narratives of perpetual fulfillment in “making everybody else happy” (Nicole). In interrupting, they presented alternative narratives that expressed the difficulty of and the conflict that can be involved in adopting “mother” as their primary identity. Nicole told me that this difficulty was the reason why she posted:
“I just had a really hard time with that transition from just me to me and the baby. I didn’t think I would miss working so much and I really missed all of the identity I got from having a job and all of a sudden I felt like I wasn’t me, I was just an extension of the baby. I don’t know, my first baby, he was 8 weeks premature and so his birth was really stressful, and…he was so fragile and we were so afraid to take him around other people. And it was just a stressful experience…
“I always thought I would just love bein ga m om and it would be so great, and again, it was really, really stressful and it was really, really hard. And yes, it is really wonderful, but there are a lot of things that nobody tells you, like you are not going to be able to use the bathroom by yourself for the next three years of your life. Every time you go to the grocery store, someone’s going to be there whining at you the entire time. There’s kind of a picture that’s painted and I wasn’t prepared for the reality and so I was grappling with what is this, you know…And a lot of it was, gosh, I just don’t feel like me anymore, but this is my new stage of reality, so who am I, and is that okay, and is it okay to feel this way, and do other people feel this way?”
Nicole and the other women who wrote on this thread adopted a postmodern perspective toward mothering, as Elizabeth Flynn describes, in that they addressed and “[dealt] with the contradictions and complexities” of mothering in a way that portrayed a more realistic view of motherhood. Flynn argues against the binary perspectives of, first, radical feminism, which emphasizes patriarchal culture’s harmful effects on mothering, and second, of cultural feminism, which focuses solely on the importance of mothering. As Flynn says, “The actual fact of mothering has always been the site of contradictory tensions between social expectations and individual realities.” The MOF women talked about some of these tensions and realities in this thread, and they wrote with critical awareness of the contradictions in narratives of fulfillment regarding mothering.
The women who participated in this discussion thread were involved in, as Luce Irigaray says, the practice of simultaneously constructing and deconstructing their identities. They expressed restlessness with their religious-based gender roles, resisting the idea that the continuously emptied cups are “wanting ME to refill them” (Melanie) and that “this girl who cleans house all day, chases toddlers, and makes dinner” is really them (Nicole). But they expressed this restlessness while reiterating the importance of their religious-based roles. They did not want to forego these roles; instead, they asked for support in constructing additional identities.
In this “Finding Me” threa, the women therefore used online writing as a strategy of simultaneous connection and separation, of acceptance and criticism. From Anne Ruggles Gere’s book on women’s clubs in the late 1880s, it seems that Mormon women have been doing this kind of simultaneous connection and separation for years. Gere describes the Mormon clubwomen renegotiating gender relations in their writing in order to expand their rights and approach mainstream normans while adhering to their religious beliefs.
By making a space for continuous interpretation of experiences and for construction of multiple essences, the MOF discussion board has helped its participants dispel rigid and monolithic notions of what an “LDS woman” should be. Shelah said as much in my interview with her when I asked if there were any discussion threads in particular that had impacted her. She said the following:
“In a general sense, I think it’s because I’m a convert,…I always thought that everyone who is LDS is super spiritual or aspires to perfection all of the time. And I’ve always had a sort of ‘I’m not like that’ sort of feeling. I’ve always had this inferiority complex. And I think the board has helped me see that people are normal. That there’s a fairly wide range of accepted behavior.”
Although all MOF women subscribe to LDS doctrines, they do not fill the position of “LDS woman” in the same way. Their readings of religious discourse involve internal contradictions as they read from multiple positions at the same time.
For summary purposes, then, in this discussion thread, the women used their enclaved board to engage with and commit to their religion and to receive support in doing so, while distancing themselves enough so that they could negotiate and claim overlapping identities. This thread shows how the MOF women write to connect with others living according to LDS gender ideologies and to explore multiple possibilities with their religious foundation for defining themselves as LDS women.