A woman at the playground asked me what I did for work. I replied that I was staying home with my children. She was briefly taken aback. Then she explained that I had made a wonderful choice, preemptively reassuring me that there was no shame in doing what I wanted.
I am no longer home with my children full time, but I frequently reflect on this conversation because she had one fact wrong: I did not want to be a stay-at-home mother.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints emphasizes agency. We are here to make choices that lead us back to God. Similarly, American culture generally tells us to pursue our passions, have impact, and exercise choice in various markets. Decisions ideally align with happiness, while transformation is valued over conservation.
More than one person advised me to ask myself, “What do I want?” while I was coping with anxiety and depression that had resulted largely from feeling that I no longer had agency over important aspects of my life as a mother of young children. A successful, fulfilled person, it seems, aligns her choices with her desires.
And yet, as every mother knows, the choices we make rarely align with our aspirations. Does that make them wrong? Or make us less successful? I did not want to be a stay-at-home mother, because I perceived mothers as supportive and self-effacing. I wanted to be like my father, who through force of personality made his interests seem cool. He owned his desires, which had a great deal to do with male privilege.
I chose to have children because I wanted them. They are my greatest impact and deepest joy. But that I became a stay-at-home mother for a period of my life had little to do with my desires. What do you do when global forces like the Great Recession upend job markets? When you and your spouse are commuting between different cities because you can’t find employment in the same town and then you have a child? When you aren’t comfortable with a child care system in which parents pursue high-paying jobs by underpaying other women to care for their children? When COVID-19 shuts down your preschool? When your dad unexpectedly dies?
You make choices but probably not the choices you want.
Defining success as aligning our choices with our desires sets most of us up for failure. Real choices are made within circumstantial constraints that afford us varying degrees of agency. As social beings, we navigate the tensions between our wants and those of others. As Latter-day Saints, we negotiate between our will and our perceptions of the Lord’s commands.
Too often, the rhetoric of choice is weaponized against mothers as we are told that we do not deserve practical support because we “chose” to have children — the children, of course, whose future wages we are relying on to support programs like Social Security. We rarely hear thoughtful analysis of what “choice” means in a society where some women are raped or others told that bearing children is commanded by God. Instead, children are framed as luxury goods that are individual responsibilities rather than collective investments.
Nevertheless, I have tried asking myself what I want. Truthfully, I have “desire fatigue.” I have reinvented my life so often to accommodate my spouse and children that it is hard for me to invest my identity in any particular dream. My deepest wants cannot be achieved in the near term. Many will never be achieved, because they are products of past histories and foreclosed futures. Wanting requires energy I don’t have.
But I am not a failure because I cannot achieve — or articulate — what I want. The framework that equates success with fulfilling our desires or having impact did not come from within me. Nor is it clear to me that this perspective best benefits humankind. As my 8-year-old wisely asked while recently listening to scientists and entrepreneurs obsess over their impact on the world, “How do they know whether they are having a good or bad impact?”
Instead, I am primarily driven by the belief that I am here to learn how to live like Christ, whose life often involved endurance and sacrifice. And nothing has taught me more than the phases of “nonagency” in my life when I have primarily lived within the wake of earlier decisions or events. During these periods, such as parenting young children, I am stuck within places and around bodies that are my task to maintain rather than transform.
These unglamorous experiences teach me empathy, humility and faith. They show me my interdependence, my privileges, and the importance of qualities like stability and health that I once took for granted. Ironically, being a stay-at-home mother sparked the writing that led to my doctorate because it expanded my perspective.
In short, these experiences have taught me the qualities we associate with mothering. The sacrifices I make as a mother, however, are often disciplined and empowering rather than effacing. There is power in knowing that I can afford to give up what I want in order to build other humans. There is power in saying “not my will, but thine, be done.”
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.