Matilyn Mortensen’s popular podcast “This Is Not a Back-Up Plan” acknowledges — and rejects — a message instantly familiar to women raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In this column, we discuss what the term “backup plan” means in Latter-day Saint culture, why it needs to change, and how Mortensen uses her platform to help young women financially empower themselves.
The following is edited slightly for length and clarity.
What does a “backup plan” mean for Latter-day Saint women?
Women raised in the church are often taught that anything outside of being a wife and mother is a backup plan. Most women hear the term “backup” plan applied to their education. The paradox that people outside the church do not understand and that is hard to explain is that I knew I would get a degree — and I never planned to use it. The reasons why I would get a degree were all sad: If my husband couldn’t provide for me, if he died, if my marriage failed. None of this was about my value. It was a backup plan for all the ways in which a husband could fail or not appear in my life.
When did you reject the narrative of a backup plan?
I was graduating with my B.S. [Bachelor of Science degree] and had been working at a newspaper job for six months. I felt like I had done all these hard things that were really paying off. And I thought, “Oh my gosh. I’m starting the backup plan of my life. The map has run out. I graduated [from] high school. I got my Young Women medallion. I graduated [from] seminary. I went on a mission. I got a bachelor’s degree. I’ve never dated anyone. And I am probably going to be working for the foreseeable future.” I had an awesome life, but it had never been pitched to me as awesome or exciting or valuable — and it wasn’t something I had imagined.
The things I am choosing now are not because the perfect path didn’t work out for me but because I want to do them. The life I’m living is primary. It’s not secondary. It’s not what I’m doing while I’m waiting, to fill time. It is my life. My plan.
What are the emotional consequences of considering education and career backup plans?
I am obsessed with the term coined by Dr. Julie Hanks: “aspirational shame.” If you’re not familiar with that term, it describes the shame Mormon women feel for wanting something that deviates from the script. Nothing describes my experience better. I was ambitious but within a confined box that I understood as appropriate.
When I look back at a younger self, I’m disappointed in some of the ways my dreams were small. I feel like I’m learning how to dream in new ways as an adult. I don’t think that’s a unique experience. I have benefited a lot from the work of women before me, but because of conversations in church I feel like I did not grow up with the full promise of what this era has to offer women in the United States.
How did the narrative of a backup plan influence your educational choices?
Throughout my life, I was drawn to journalism, but I never considered that pathway. Instead, I thought about careers I viewed as better “mom” jobs — like being an elementary school teacher or technical writer. When people asked me what I was studying, it bothered me because I hated the answer I was giving them.
My dad pushed me to study something that would keep my options wider. I took a journalism class from a professor who took me seriously and believed in me. He looked at my writing and said that there will always be work if you are good at this, and you have the potential to be great. I realized that I wanted to be a journalist.
I’m so grateful that I went to Utah State [University], because my professors encouraged me to have a job. Every day I am grateful I picked a degree I actually wanted because I’ve spent a lot of years working so far. I anticipate I’ll spend a lot more years working.
What are the economic effects of telling women their careers are backup plans?
I internalized very strongly that I would never work, and this has huge impacts. One is the gender wage gap in Utah. People excuse it by saying that Utah women are choosing lower-paying or part-time jobs, but the culture is pushing women to make those choices. Women are told that they can do what God wants by staying home and raising children or not follow what God wants and work. When it’s put like that, is it really a choice? We have turned a social issue into a spiritual issue.
Latter-day Saint women are also taught to devalue their time and labor. They often don’t have a good frame of reference for financially negotiating their worth because the foundation they come from is that their time is free and volunteered to the church. But it has lots of value.
I truly don’t think women can afford to think of their education and careers as backup plans in today’s environment. Working impacts your Social Security, your lifetime earnings and your retirement. Dual incomes are becoming more necessary for many families. And money allows you to leave abusive situations. Money isn’t just nice to have. It’s essential.
Your podcast often explores topics such as buying a house and financial planning. Why do young women need to understand these financial tools?
My dad encouraged me to buy a house, and I lucked into buying one in Logan when interest rates were very low. I also now own one in Salt Lake. Truly nothing else would have impacted my net worth as positively as buying property. These are investments for the future that I would never have considered had people not encouraged me to do so.
Everyone assumed I was married when I bought a house, which is revealing. While there are valuable debates about whether buying a house is accessible or smart, there needs to be more conversation about how single women can take this step for themselves.
In our culture, young women are not thinking about their net worth or financial future as much as they should. I want conversations that empower women to take care of themselves. Otherwise, the government and circumstances get to decide what to do with you. And the main support systems in the church for women are other women volunteering their time.
What advice would you give to Latter-day Saint young women considering their own educations and careers?
I understand why motherhood is so important to many people. It’s also important to honor your ambition. You don’t yet know how you will feel in the future. Your life span is ideally getting longer, and kids are only minors for so long. Make choices in a way that leaves your path open and is true to you.
Mortensen holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in political science. She currently works in communications in Salt Lake City. Follow her on Instagram @not.a.back.up.plan and on Twitter @matilynkay.
Natalie Brown is a writer, scholar, lawyer, mother and Latter-day Saint based in Boulder, Colo. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not reflect those of the church or her employer.
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