Naomi Watkins, a former middle school English teacher, earned a B.A. in English education from Brigham Young University, a M.Ed. in language and literacy from Arizona State University, and a Ph.D. in teaching and learning with a literacy emphasis from the University of Utah. When not teaching literacy pedagogy courses to aspiring teachers at a private university in the Los Angeles area, she can be found hiking in the mountains, soaking in sun at the beach, traveling close-to-home or abroad, or reading a good book. In June 2013, she co-founded Aspiring Mormon Women, a non-profit organization and web site with the purpose to encourage, support, and celebrate the educational and professional aspirations of LDS women.
I don’t relate to most of the articles, stories, and advice that exist about women and work/life balance. These articles primarily focus on the tensions, the struggles, the juggling, the decisions, and the choices of women who work (in and out of the home) and who have children. From these resources, one might think that the rest of us, women without children—married or single—either have no lives to balance (not true) or that our work, family, and social obligations are easily managed or compartmentalized (if only!).
I used to read these articles, stories, and advice for some glimmer of insight into a life that I hoped to have someday. Yes, I wanted (and still do want) a shared life with a husband, and children, and work. But as I advance in age, a husband may still be in the cards, but the children are less so, and work, well, it will always be a reality. Thankfully, I enjoy my work; I find it rewarding, interesting, and challenging. And perhaps most importantly, my job is a career, one that I see myself doing for the long-term.
As an undergraduate at BYU, I was surrounded by classmates who married early, who were having babies at a young age, and who were already talking about staying home full-time with their children. These conversations were timely for them; it was their present reality. I had plans to graduate, go on a mission, get married, go to graduate school, and have children. Instead, I graduated, and then, I graduated again, and yet again, without ever going on a mission or marrying and starting a family. Even though I felt spiritually guided to these graduate programs, I started each one wondering and hoping that by the time I graduated, I would also be married. I hoped that decisions about future job type, job location, and career trajectory would be joint decisions with a spouse, naively believing that joint decisions would make for easier decisions. And with that hope, I wondered about how my education and potential career would work when I married and had kids.
Would I quit my job? Would I keep working? Would I work part-time?
In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg talks about the tendency of women to limit themselves because of their plans to have a family. She says, “When it comes to integrating career and family, planning too far in advance can close doors rather than open them.” [i] I have watched many women in my LDS circles do just as Sandberg mentions. Melanie Steimle talks about how “for many years the extent of [her] career plan was to work in whatever job [she] was currently holding, hoping for the welcome interruption of marriage and motherhood.” When I taught at the University of Utah, I often asked my students why they were entering the education profession. More often than not, my female LDS students told me they wanted to be teachers because doing so would make them better mothers—often their only given reason. They weren’t choosing teaching as a degree and profession because they necessarily enjoyed it or had an aptitude for it or because they wanted to advocate for better educational policies and practices. Sure, receive an education to be a better parent, but all types of educations create better people—people who may be parents—whether it is an educational path devoted to teaching or science or medicine or law or interior design. The educational pathway to “better” motherhood is not, and should not be, defined by or limited to one or two doorways.
I now listen as many single LDS women talk about working jobs they dislike or in which they foresee no future. They may have initially chosen these jobs because they were meant to be contingency plans—just in case their husbands became disabled, or even worse, they died—but these promised husbands either left or never showed up. Or they chose these jobs because they believed they would never actually have to work more than a couple of years before they had children—but then, children did not come. They may have believed that if they pursued a career, they were limiting their options for marriage and motherhood. Thus, they chose jobs that were viewed as “safe” or “unintimidating” or “not too ambitious.” They may now work for low pay, finding little fulfillment and few options for advancement.
Thankfully all educational and career doors are not closed indefinitely. I watch as many of my single LDS women without children make changes to the lives they currently lead, both educationally and professionally. As Melanie shares, “At the beginning of this year… I sat down to do some long-term career planning. I set goals and sketched out a professional development plan; while my hopes for marriage and motherhood are in no way diminished, I feel excited about the professional possibilities in my future. Over the past several months, I’ve experienced first-hand how investing myself in my career has provided me with opportunities to learn and grow.” While marriage and motherhood may not be a reality for all LDS women, lives can still be fulfilling. I know several women who are returning to school to pursue advanced degrees, who are diligently studying to take professional exams, and who are bravely starting their own businesses or making career changes.
I, and many other LDS women, did not pursue our educations and careers “instead of marriage and the bearing of children.”[ii] I am grateful that I didn’t forgo my education and career in pursuit of a (still) hoped for future. Marriage and children in this life are not simply a reward for righteousness. Some might think this attitude pessimistic; I call it “realistic.” We hope for more, but we make plans for the now. We deal with the tensions, the struggles, the juggling, the decisions, and the choices of balancing our desires for marriage and motherhood with the necessity of and desire for education and work.
And we give it our very best.
[i] Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) 93.
[ii] Dallin Oaks, “No Other Gods,” LDS General Conference, October 2013. http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/no-other-gods?lang=eng