America’s Young Mother of the Year

“A young mother lives in a unique world. No profession or occupation rivals motherhood in potential for long-term benefit to the world as well-reared children take their places in society as effective, useful citizens.”

That is the philosophy of Josephine Ann Christensen Oaks, a Latter-day Saint mother who is the 1972 American Young Mother of the Year.

“It’s easy for a mother to lose perspective when several children need attention simultaneously and when arguments interrupt the basic tranquillity in the home, and soon life begins to seem like an endless cycle of diaper changing, ironing, cleaning house, and preparing food,” she says. “But precious little lives have been entrusted to her, and they are totally dependent on her for material things as well as emotional security. All early learning and basic perceptions of the world are begun as an interchange between a mother and her newborn baby.”

Sister Oaks and her husband, Dr. Merrill C. Oaks, are parents of five daughters (Kathleen, 11; Juliana, 8; Amy Jo, 6; Tarali, 22 months; and Leticia, who was born June 29) and two sons (Gregory, 4, and Marlo, 3). They live in Provo, Utah, where Dr. Oaks is an ophthalmologist and serves in the Church as president of a Brigham Young University student branch.

Latter-day Saint women have always been held in high regard in national competition involving motherhood and womanhood. Two have been named American Mother of the Year, two have reigned as Mrs. America, and several have been runners-up in these contests. And now, for the second year in a row, one has been named America’s Young Mother of the Year. (Mrs. Billy Casper of Chula Vista, California, was the 1971 Young Mother.)

What are some of the qualities that bring such high honor to Latter-day Saint women? What is unique about LDS teachings on the family that brings such high regard for those who live these principles? Perhaps a look at the life of Jo Oaks can give some answers to these questions.

“Today many women are demeaning the role of mother as presenting less than a total challenge,” according to President Oaks, husband of this 34-year-old young mother. “But Jo recognizes in motherhood the greatest challenge and fulfillment she can have. She actively works to improve her performance. However, motherhood is not an isolated role, and she has helped me to perceive more keenly my role as a father.”

One of the programs promoted by the American Mothers Committee, which makes the annual Mother of the Year selections, is a weekly family night. In fact, on the questionnaire that each applicant must complete are questions on religious activities (“What religious activities do you maintain in your home?”) and family home evening (“Have you established a weekly family night? With what results?”).

“In our home, daily family prayer and daily evening prayer with each child are most important,” Jo declares. “And we hold family home evening each Monday evening. Our children look forward to these evenings, as do we parents. They have brought the family much closer together. It is amazing how quickly and well the children learn in the setting of family love. There is an obvious increase of family feeling, loyalty, and enjoyment of one another since we instituted this program some years ago.”

Family home evenings at the Oaks home are fun, with short lessons from the Church’s family home evening manuals. These lessons are geared to the four older children, since the three youngest are still too small to participate in the discussions. “We enjoy the stories and activities from the manual, stories from the Bible and of the lives of the prophets, flannelboard stories, and occasionally a talent night. Because the attention span of a young child is short—about one minute for each year of his age—we spend only about ten minutes on lessons. We often end the evening with games selected by the children or perhaps going out for an ice cream cone together.”

Sister Oaks was born in Provo, Utah, and was reared in nearby Payson, where her father was a bishop for many years. As the oldest of seven children, she learned to take much responsibility in the home.

“Theirs was a closely knit family devoted to religious principles and service to others,” President Oaks recalls.

“I think the most significant thing I gained from my childhood, one that I am trying to instill in my own children now, is the importance of feeling secure and loved,” Jo adds. “If a young child doesn’t find these things in his own home, he will seek them elsewhere, outside the home.”

Merrill Oaks had just returned from a mission when he met and married Josephine Ann Christensen. They attended Brigham Young University together; he completed a premedical course and she studied child development and family relations. After he entered medical school at the University of Rochester in New York, she continued her studies by correspondence and completed requirements for her degree. During the early years of their marriage she also taught nursery school in the psychiatric wing of the medical center in Rochester, an experience that has proved invaluable to her in working with and understanding the needs of children.

Through the first nine years of their marriage the Oakses struggled to complete medical school, internship (in Lexington, Kentucky), and residency (St. Louis, Missouri). They also participated in an exchange program in eye surgery in San Salvador, El Salvador. Though the youngest of their three children was just five months old, Jo elected to keep the family together and to accompany her husband on this assignment.

Wherever they have lived, Merrill and Jo Oaks have been active in the Church. Jo has served as Primary teacher, ward and stake Primary president, district Relief Society president, and parent-child relations class teacher in Sunday School. She is now first counselor in her ward Primary presidency.

As soon as Dr. Oaks completed his medical training in 1967, they returned to Provo, where he established his medical practice. And they established a permanent home, near the BYU campus.

The Oaks home, which they helped design themselves, is built for family living. It is also designed for good organization, with special features to help a busy young homemaker and her children organize their belongings and the time involved in cleaning up. Throughout the home are evidences that these are parents who truly love and care about their children and want them to feel secure and safe.

Focal point for the children’s activities is a large playroom in the basement. A playhouse filled with child-size furnishings stands in the center of the playroom. It can be easily dismantled and moved to the backyard in good weather.

There are easels where the children can paint, and handy bulletin boards where they can display their crafts. One of the most unusual features is a wall covered with cupboards and drawers of all sizes, each designed for a particular purpose. For example, there are tall partitioned shelves just the right size for children’s books; drawers just deep and wide enough for poster paper; drawers with sections where paints, crayons, scissors, and other small items can be stored.

The playroom opens directly onto a patio and a large fenced-in yard, which features a jungle gym for the children to play on.

The children’s bedrooms have also been designed specifically for them. The closets have rods low enough for each to hang up his or her clothes; these rods can be raised as the child grows older. Dresser drawers have dividers to help the children keep each item of clothing in its own place.

The downstairs area of the home also has a large family room and a temperature-controlled food storage room.

A well-used area on the main floor is a laundry room, where every inch of space is designed for a particular purpose—sewing machine, cupboards and closets, laundry facilities, and a “diaper-changing” table.

“I originally planned to use it as a cutting table for my sewing,” Jo explains. “But with so many small children, I don’t have much opportunity to sew. We use the table to fold and sort diapers and linens, and we have shelves right there to store them. Thus, when we have to change a diaper, everything we need is handy.”

The large family kitchen has a high slanting ceiling. “We found that sounds bounced back and forth in this room,” President Oaks recalls, “so we covered one wall with outdoor carpeting. This not only cuts down on noise—it also serves as a family bulletin board.”

Entering the home from the front door, one finds two coat closets—one with a rod placed low for the children, the other for adults. Across the back of the home is a large deck, with a roofed-over outdoor room at one end that features an outdoor grill. This deck, carpeted with all-weather carpeting, has fencing placed vertically, so the children can’t climb the railing.

In the Oaks family, each child feels that he is part of a team and has responsibilities to the family. “Every day each of the children does one special job, not counting the dishes,” Jo explains. “Sometimes we write the jobs on slips of paper and let the children draw them from a hat; other times we make specific suggestions. The important thing is not to expect more of a child than he can manage for his age.”

Often the whole family will work together on a cleaning project. For example, in anticipation of company one day, Jo says, “We pretended that the toys in the playroom were crickets and the members of the family were the seagulls. We swooped up the toys in a wagon and took them to the make-believe lake—the cupboards where they belonged.”

What about sharing in family finances?

“We feel that as members of the family, the children should each have an allowance, no strings attached. In addition, if they want to buy something special, they can do extra chores to earn the money.”

With Jo and Merrill Oaks, their children and home come first. Both also find time to share their talents in the Church and community.

“Jo has helped and supported me greatly in my calling as a branch president,” President Oaks says. “If the president of a student branch is to be effective, his wife must be a mother figure to the many students who are far from home. Recently a young woman in my ward from England tearfully presented a carnation to Jo, saying it was Mother’s Day in England. Jo graciously accepted and then asked some additional questions. She found that the mother was dying of cancer. Jo immediately invited the young woman to our home for dinner and family home evening to gain the emotional support she so badly needed.”

In addition to her Church and family activities, Jo has been active in the Provo Young Mother’s Council, an organization devoted to helping young mothers learn more about rearing children and exchange ideas with other mothers. She served a term as president of this group, which has received two national awards for outstanding work and accomplishment in promoting better family relations. She has also been active in the Women’s Medical Auxiliary.

Probably one of the greatest compliments that could come to a busy and successful young mother, one that sums up Jo Oaks’s role, is expressed in the words of her mother-in-law, Mrs. Stella Oaks, herself a prominent educator, Church worker, and one-time nominee for the Mother of the Year honor.

“Jo is a powerhouse—a go-getter in establishing her goals,” she says, adding, “I am very grateful that she is rearing my grandchildren!”