Parenthood Juggle: Reflections of a Career-Oriented Mormon Mommy

microscopeI was born a career woman.  It was genetic, and I truly mean genetic.  Not some undetermined mix of nature and nurture.  I was a career woman the moment I was conceived.  Three days after I was born, LDS Family Services placed me in the arms of my wonderful adoptive parents, who are two of my very best friends today.  My father is a gunsmith and my mother was a stay-at-home-mom.  I grew up in tiny rural west coast towns.  Very Mormon.  Very conservative.  To their credit, my parents always encouraged me to be true to myself and follow my dreams.  They never pressured me to be a certain way or do a certain thing (I suspect they learned early on that kind of parenting wasn’t going to fly with me).

At the age of ten, I discovered the thrill of computer programming.  I still remember the day I figured out how to make the command-line WordPerfect print out graphics.  I had to run across the yard to my dad’s gun shop to show it off.  That excitement hasn’t gone away even as the coding tasks have gotten more complex.  Then in high school, a passionate science teacher eagerly showed me the beautiful textbook for his brand new AP Biology class, trying to convince me to take his course even though I was sure that computer scientists had no need for biology.  Inspired by his enthusiasm, I agreed to sign up, and over the next year I discovered in the pages of that book the glory of the living cell—the precise structures of proteins that enable them to work together in complex networks to produce life as we know it.  In college, I double majored in computer science and biochemisty/biophysics.  I now have a PhD in computational biology, and I spend my days analyzing genome data from kidney tumors, trying to figure out what went wrong to cause the cancer.  I love my career.  There’s nothing like waking up each morning excited to do something that’s fun, interesting, passionate, and makes the world a better place. 

Several years ago, when I was halfway through graduate school, I got a call from LDS Family Services.  “It looks like both you and your birth mother submitted letters to your file saying you’d like to meet.  Are you still interested?”  It had been years since I submitted that letter, but yeah I was still interested.  It’s tough wondering what lies in your genes when you spend all day studying how influential they are.  So they gave me her name and email address, and I do the first thing any kid in my generation would do, I Googled her.  And there she was, a picture of her that anyone could mistake as a picture of me.  Underneath it was her title, Dr. Brooke Hemming, physical chemist at the Environmental Protection Agency.  We began emailing and shared one of the most amazing experiences someone can go through in this life.  It was like finding myself and finally feeling whole.  Those experiences I’ll save for another time, but I’ll relate here the relevant details.  My birth mother was one of six children, four of which were chemists.  Her father was a physicist.  She introduced me to my birth father, a computer programmer who had worked on the world’s first Internet browser and written four books on programming.  My career aspirations, even my choice of career, have been with me from the beginning, an integral part of me, coded in the DNA in every cell in my body. 

Now let me tell you about my experiences growing up in Mormondom with these “inclinations.”  In three words: It was lonely.  No one understood why I wanted a career so badly.  Didn’t I know that a woman’s highest calling is to devote her life to raising her children?  Didn’t I know that no other success can compensate for failure in the home?  Didn’t I know that mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children?  Why would I want to waste my time doing something of little importance when I could be shaping the future generations—raising my sons to go out and make the world a better place and raising my daughters to…  Go out and raise their sons to go out and make the world a better place?

Let’s just say I learned to be very grateful, inwardly and outwardly, for the “other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation” clause in the Family Proclamation.  I felt like it left a little room for women like me in the church.

I’m not sure if it was my career aspirations or the fact that they were in science and technology, but growing up as the only female with these inclinations made me feel very masculine.  I wondered if I should be lesbian so that I could fill the breadwinner role in the family.  I dated multiple effeminate young men, hoping to find a straight one who wouldn’t mind staying home to raise our children.  For years, YEARS, I wondered if I was born into the wrong body—if I was actually a man trapped inside a woman’s body.  I thought something was wrong with me.  Only in the last couple years have I realized that I am not masculine, nor am I a lesbian, or transgendered.  I just wanted a career in a culture where that was not the feminine thing to do.  The inflexible gendered box I felt stuffed into nearly made me conclude I was transgendered, simply for wanting a career in science.      

To be honest, I don’t recall any specific negative experiences.  Time has a way of making those fade into the background.  It was just the day-in-and-day-out of being surrounded by other girls who had such different desires than I had–girls at church, at camp, at EFY, at mutual.  Lessons that constantly reinforce the sanctity of motherhood have a way of making one feel broken when motherhood doesn’t hold much appeal.  Of course, I eventually wanted to be a mother, I supposed.  In fact, I wanted several kids, so they could entertain each other, and I could do my own thing.  Yes, motherhood sounded like a great learning experience, and I didn’t want to have regrets when I got old.  But spending all my time raising children instead of doing science?  No. Thank. You.   

I do remember the positive influences, though.  A string of excellent teachers who helped me feel smart and encouraged me to challenge myself.  A caring seminary teacher with a heart of gold who encouraged me not to worry, because things have a way of working out as they should.  An understanding father who respected women and praised readily, always telling me I should do this or that career when I grow up because I’m so good at it.  A nurturing mother who taught me to be strong and not take any crap, a feminist in her own right (though she may never admit it), never interested in a career or the priesthood, but always interested in fair treatment.    

I dated a lot, but once I got to college, the smart and interesting men I wanted to date weren’t interested in a serious relationship.  They had a vision of what they wanted their life to look like, and it included a wife who was 100% committed to taking care of their children and their home.  How could I blame them?  I, too, wanted a husband who was 100% committed to taking care of our children and our home. 

I wish I hadn’t worried so much.  Ever since I was a kid, Heavenly Father has stepped in and brought miracles into my life, particularly miracles that have enabled and supported my career.  When the time was right, He brought a hunky Chinese man into my life who had joined the church when he was in college.  An open-minded man whose parents and culture encourage women to become professionals.  A kind-hearted man who never exercises unrighteous dominion and equally shares family leadership, child nurturing, and domestic responsibilities.  A humble man who is proud of me, and who knows, as I do, that I am accomplishing what I was meant to accomplish.  Together, we are active and devout members of the church who adore our religion because of the truth it contains, the millions of ways it enriches our lives, and the endless opportunities it gives us to make the world a better place. 

We now have a bright and beautiful three-year-old daughter.  I wish I’d listened when people said, “Don’t worry, you’ll like your own children,” because it’s true.  I love her so much and think she’s the smartest cutest kid in the universe.  I am fiercely devoted to her, and I make whatever sacrifice is required to ensure she’s receiving the nurturing she needs.  That love and devotion, however, have not turned me into a stay-at-home-mom.  The striking restoration of sanity I experienced when my 12-week maternity leave ended dispelled any lingering doubts.  Taking care of child(ren) is exhausting, and my time at work is rejuvenating.  The 24/7 mom thing never has been and never will be for me—my temperament just isn’t well suited to it.  When I am at work, she spends her days in a warm and caring environment, and she is growing up to be a confident and independent child.  I know with certainty that this lifestyle is what is right for our family, and this allows me to let go of any guilt that may come my way.  I wish I hadn’t worried so much.

I also wish my culture hadn’t made me feel so out of place, so misguided, so wrong.  Is “A woman’s place is in the home” really doctrine?  Or are these traditional gender roles just a cultural artifact from the 1950s?  Can we please be a little more supportive of the girls and women who truly desire careers (as well as those who don’t but feel the need to work outside the home for any number of other valid reasons)?  Can we also please be a little more supportive of the men who are married to these women, whether they decide to have full-time careers or stay home some or all of the time to care for their children and home?  I hope I have convinced you that sometimes working outside the home really is the right choice for a mother.  We need to trust each mother to know what’s best for herself and her family.

Please don’t think I’m poo-pooing your choice to stay-at-home if that is a choice you’ve made (or wish you could make).  Your profession is probably the hardest and most thankless one on the planet, and it has the longest hours. I got a taste of it on my maternity leave.  There’s nothing quite like being constantly needed, constantly interrupted, unable to even take care of yourself or focus on anything for more than three seconds. And oh the patience you need—to not blow up every time you discover yet another huge mess you’ll need to clean up, to not take over when a little voice says, “I do it,” even though you’re already 20 minutes late, to not plop them in front of the TV all day every day even though you desperately want to spend a little time doing what you feel like doing after the house is clean and the food is prepared.  

I am in awe of your patience and your ability to maintain your sanity.  I fully recognize that unlike many jobs outside the home, yours is a very important job that is guaranteed to make a long-term difference, both in the lives of your children and anyone they interact with. 

I am not the type of feminist who thinks all women should work outside the home.  I am the type of feminist who thinks all women (and men) should be trusted and supported in whatever choice they feel is best for themselves and their families without undue pressure or judgment from their culture and community. I know many women who choose to stay home, and that is absolutely the right choice for them.  I also know many women who choose to work outside the home, and that is absolutely the right choice for them as well.  We all have different strengths and different temperaments.  No woman wants to be put in a box and told she must do this and be this, or else she is failing to live up to her eternal gendered potential.  That leads to a toxic and depressing culture of comparison rampant with feelings of inadequacy.  Instead we should be celebrating each other’s strengths and capitalizing on the breadth of wisdom, experiences, and talents we share amongst us.     

It is such an important message to internalize: What is right for one isn’t necessarily what is right for everyone.  That should be applied to so many things in life.  Who am I to judge the stay-at-home-mom?  I am not her, and therefore I am not qualified to receive personal revelation for her.  All I need to do is love her and trust she is doing what is right for her.  Who am I to judge the person who disagrees with me on politics?  They have an entirely different set of life experiences to base their opinions on, many of which I could probably learn something from.  Who am I to judge the homosexual who chooses a partner of the same sex, or a partner of the opposite sex, or no partner at all?  Only they and God know the right path for them.  There is a deep well of shared understanding when we stop judging and start listening, learning, and loving our fellow humans, especially the ones who are different from us.  If we let go of judgment, we can begin to find the beauty that lies in diversity.    

-Submitted by Suzi Fei

Suzi Fei is a devout Mormon, a wife, and a mother of one 3-year-old.  She also has a Ph.D. in computational biology and works full-time as a postdoctoral researcher at Oregon Health & Science University.  Her research focus is on finding genomic mutations that cause cancer by analyzing tumor genomes.  In her spare time, she raises chickens, advocates for better treatment of farm animals, and serves in several groups that aim to increase love and support for LGBTQ Mormons.

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