Wife and Mother: A Valid Career Option for the College-Educated Woman


A Brigham Young University Forum address, delivered 3 April 1979

Wife and Mother:

I am a full-time wife and mother. I am also a college-educated woman. I am happy to be both—and have never found the two incompatible. When I came to BYU in 1960, my mother encouraged me to get vocational counseling so I would know about job possibilities beyond the traditional “women’s jobs” of nurse, teacher, or secretary. And that was definitely in my mind also as I planned an exciting career. My junior high school classmates named me most likely to be the first woman president of the United States, and my primary interests in college were in history and political science. I took the Foreign Service exam and interviewed to become a Foreign Service officer. I sent in my money to take the Law School Admissions Test, then withdrew it after deciding that graduate school in history was more where my interests were. So I started in a master’s program.

I do not regret a single hour I spent studying history and political science, even though I have not pursued this interest on a professional level. Nor do I regret the fact that I never took a homemaking or family living class while in college—not only because I knew I would shoot my grade point average to pieces, but because I wanted to spend my time elsewhere.

Perhaps I should add that if you really love homemaking classes, then that’s just what you should do. It will certainly prove valuable to you now and later. But I don’t think any woman needs to feel that because she eventually plans to marry and have a home, all her premarital training should be in that specific direction. When President Harold B. Lee said that when you teach a woman you educate a whole family, I’m sure he was not referring exclusively to homemaking skills.

All the education you receive becomes an integral part of you, your attitude, and your approach to life. Education is not important just because of some consistent obvious transfer of a college-learned skill to a specific homemaker’s task. No career, in fact, anticipates that! College years are important for many reasons—and career training is only one. Others are the social and emotional maturity you can develop in that setting—the self-discipline, the tolerance, and the increased awareness of ideas and events.

What interrupted my career plans? Simply, a change of careers. Despite all my plans, I decided to get married and raise a family. It seems to me that the decision to marry presents two options to the college-educated woman. She can (1) combine the career of wife and mother with the one she has trained for by working part or full time, or (2) she can be a full-time wife and mother.

I have good friends who have chosen the first option. It seems to be a very difficult challenge, often requiring commitments I could not make in good conscience. You have had opportunities to hear outstanding career women speak in this Forum and elsewhere, and you probably have some understanding of the challenges they face and the sacrifices they must make, as well as the reward and attention they receive.

I have chosen the second option, and that’s what I would like to talk about today. I would like to say on my behalf and on behalf of many of my friends across the country who have decided similarly, that we made the decision to be in the home full time because we feel that by being in the home full time we make the most important contribution a woman can make in this life. We are not home because we are not clever enough to be somewhere else. We are home because we chose to be there.

When I say the word housewife, what picture comes into your mind? Does she look slightly harried, and is she wearing an apron and carrying a sponge? Do you envision a drudge who spends all her time cleaning and cooking and caring for little children with runny noses? I think many of us do have that picture when we think of the word housewife.

Now, however, if I ask you to think of some of the real women you know who are housewives, do you not begin to get a very different picture? I submit to you that the modern picture of the housewife as a drudge who is constantly trapped in her home and never lifts her eyes above the pile of laundry is a myth. She does not exist, at least not among the women I know.

Let me introduce you to some women who are real “housewives.” In preparing for this assignment, I asked some of my college-educated women friends why they chose to be full-time wives and mothers. Here are some advantages they see in this special career.

1. You have the opportunity to create the physical environment in which you live and work and in which your family spends much of their time. From a non-Mormon friend in Boston: “The satisfaction from working on and completing a child’s quilt or from putting up a handmade macrame window shade in the bathroom is, to me, head and shoulders above filing reports all day long. So I’ll be———if I’ll feel apologetic about the comparison.” (Mollie Mason, “A Creative Approach to Being a Housewife,” Wellesley, Mass.: KLM Publishing, 1977, pp. 6–7.)

The homemaker also has the opportunity to influence greatly the spiritual and emotional environment of her family. Creating a haven from the pressures of this world is a real service that takes time and energy as well as a primary commitment to the home.

2. Homemaking promotes feminine virtues. A friend, Donna Hilton Gardner of Bountiful, Utah, writes, “Homemaking is a bulwark of femininity! It has been my experience that a hardening process takes place in many women as they join the competitive, masculine, workaday world. In order to compete, they often have to become a little tough. I am in no way advocating a mealymouthed model of servitude or frivolous ineptitude. But as some of my friends have joined the work force, I’ve seen subtle changes which have resulted in a loss of gentleness, gentility, tenderness, and sweetness, … virtures which have been traditionally and, I feel, innately attributed to women. Again, I am not suggesting that people should only cultivate the traditionally masculine or feminine virtues depending on their gender, but homemaking provides the soil in which feminine virtues can flourish.” These virtues are greatly needed in the world today.

3. A woman at home may often have much more freedom to engage in her own projects, volunteer work, and community service than the nine-to-five career woman. Vicki Bean Zimmerman, a friend from Huntington Beach, California, worked before her children came. She writes, “I am the editor of our stake newspaper, and the printer who prints it has asked me several times to come and work for him. He even wants to get a sitter for my four preschoolers to entice me to come. It’s all very flattering. My former boss at Douglas Aircraft asked me a couple of weeks ago when I was going to be ready to come back. Alas, my heart is with my children. …

“There are so many things for the housewife to do at home, anyway. At this point in my life [she had just finished editing, typing, and binding a 140-page life history of her grandfather] I could stay home with no preschoolers and not be able to accomplish all I want to do. I have not bought clothes for my two oldest girls in years and years. I save money by sewing and I enjoy doing it. The children take a certain amount of pride in showing off what mother can do, and that’s important for them. … I guess it is just soul-satisfying to eat homemade bread and jam, bottled fruit, and have a homemade quilt on your bed.”

My own projects run much more to finding good books for me and my children to read and conducting voter-registration drives than sewing or baking, but the great thing is that there is room for both of us in the homemaker’s world.

4. A homemaker can make a valid economic contribution to her family which may exceed that of a second salary, with its attendant problems of increased tax bite, transportation, payment for sitters, enlarged wardrobe, and convenience foods. Sherlene Hall Bartholomew of White Plains, New York, writes: “I sometimes like to remind myself that a penny saved is no longer a penny earned—it’s two pennies! For every dollar I save by gardening, sewing, home decorating and maintaining, comparison shopping, bread baking, child counseling, tutoring, and self-educating, I save double the amount, as savings are not taxed or tithed.

“In addition, a capable, full-time homemaker can save thousands in terms of cost-prevention. By meeting the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of her family now, she can do much to avoid medical, psychiatric, legal, and rehabilitative expense later.”

Sherlene mentions another economic problem which we also saw the year we lived in a well-to-do suburb of Boston. She writes: “In our community, as in many others across the nation, the system caters to working mothers. Services expand and taxes rise. Such taxes add additional strain to the one-income budget already stretching to meet the high prices of a two-income economy. Our taxes now subsidize day-care and prekindergarten programs, and the push for full-day kindergarten is on. We have a terrific after-school program so the children won’t need to come home until mom arrives from work. I now have to convince my children it is more exciting to be home with me, practicing piano, doing chores and homework, and attending Scouts and Primary, rather than staying at school for sports, arts, crafts, and other activities with their friends. Our taxes also rise to meet increasing public demand for drug-treatment centers, mental and penal facilities, youth rehabilitation programs, and a host of other community efforts that might not be necessary were children being raised in homes with mother there to love and train. I feel intelligent help should be given to those women who must work, but we are making it too easy for others to sell their motherhood for a mess of appliances and status symbols. In Sweden, the people gave the state great responsibility in child-rearing. The economic result is that now two people in Sweden cannot support the same standard of living one used to provide. The government is never as efficient or effective as the individual, but too often people forget that when voting for new programs.”

I believe that the economic problems of inviting institutional participation in child care are minor compared to the socio-political problems which could easily develop.

5. A woman at home—not in the work force—can have a great impact on society. When the President of the United States was in Salt Lake City last November, he stated, “Our government spends a great deal of effort and a great deal of money repairing damages caused by weak and broken families.” And, “The stronger families are, the less role there is to be played by the government.” If so, the homemaker reasons, why not put my best effort where it counts—on the firing line with the family? Why not work with my children now, as their mother, instead of later as their social worker? Why not keep them out of jail with some good solid training now rather than learn how to “spring them” later as their lawyer? I am, of course, overstating my case to make the point that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of rehabilitation. Perhaps this is a good place to state explicitly that I personally have no quarrel with mothers who become lawyers, social workers, or whatever. I think they can make a valid contribution to all of our lives if the reasons they seek a career are founded on sound principles and not on some distorted concept of self-needs or societal pressures.

6. The homemaker has opportunity for intellectual stimulation if she will take it. Nothing about being a homemaker precludes attending plays, concerts, debates; or keeping up on current events or reading books. You can listen to classical music while doing the dishes and read while nursing a baby. I read The Complete Sherlock Holmes in just over a month while nursing twins. Also, children themselves can be a source of intellectual stimulation. For one thing, you have to think years down the road in dealing with them successfully. For another, their minds are quick and we can learn along with them.

7. That brings me to the consummate challenge of a homemaker: the eternal nature of her calling as a wife and mother, and the eternal impact of this career. A non-Mormon career woman wrote in the New York Times, “Of course it’s great to write speeches for a Senator, or design public policy for an education department, or work as an administrative assistant to a high-powered executive—but all that can pale dramatically before the tender wonder of a newborn living creature” (Carolyn Lewis, “Different Liberation,” New York Times, 5 Dec. 1976, ed. pg.). And a prophet of God said, “I wish to say without equivocation that a woman will find no greater satisfaction and joy and peace and make no greater contribution to mankind than in being a wise and worthy woman and raising good children” (Spencer W. Kimball, Ensign, Mar. 1979, p. 4.). On another occasion President Kimball said, “No matter what the differences of circumstances you observe in the lives of women about you, it is important for you Latter-day Saint women to understand that the Lord holds motherhood and mothers sacred and in the highest esteem. He has entrusted to his daughters the great responsibility of bearing and nurturing children. This is the great, irreplaceable work of women.” (Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 105.)

It is just because this work is so overwhelming in its importance, so awesome in its significance, that women sometimes become depressed and discouraged. You are all aware, from the media or maybe your own experience, of the supposed failings or drudgery of a career in homemaking. I doubt I need to defend my claim to understand that problem—but I think that most women realize, especially if they have worked outside the home, that every career has its routine and its dull moments—researching law briefs in dusty libraries, charting every step you make in nursing, filing correspondence, typing daily schedules, correcting exams, etc. What sometimes gets us down about homemaking is the thought, “This is so important, yet I could do anything better than I’m doing this! I ought to quit and try something else.” But, as my neighbor Ruth Fleming says, “You can’t turn in your mother’s badge just because the going gets tough.”

When the going does get “tough,” I am encouraged by the example of my own great-great-grandmother. When the Saints were ready to leave Nauvoo, her husband, who had been very active in the Church, was dead. She was left with the five children of his first wife (who had also passed on) and her own two young children. His family gave her no support in her decision to move west with the body of the Church. In fact, one of his brothers came to her and severely denounced her for her intentions. But she had her own testimony and the conviction that her husband approved her decision; and so, with preparation, she overcame many obstacles to outfit herself and her dependents for the journey. The fact that she was not completely successful in securing fine teams and supplies is witnessed by the fact that the captain of the company with whom she travelled let her know in no uncertain terms that he considered her a liability to the group and he preferred not to be responsible for her. She told him that she would ask no help from any of them, and that furthermore, she would beat him to the Valley.

The journey was long and hard for her and her family. Some of her stock died; her teams became sick and were healed through her faith and the power of the priesthood. She did beat the captain into the Valley and set up homemaking on forty acres of land she was allocated near the mountains of Salt Lake. With the help of her brother and sons she built a cabin approximately 14-by-28 feet which housed at least nine people, and she began to farm and keep house. She had every reason to be discouraged and worn down by the hard labor and the emotionally draining task she had taken upon herself. Yet she refused to give up.

Thousands of the direct descendants of Hyrum Smith who are active in the Church today bless the name of Mary Fielding Smith, my great-great-grandmother. Without her faith, and—let’s face it—plain fortitude, they may never have had the blessings of the gospel. And not only did Mary influence her own children, stepchildren, and their descendants, but they in turn have touched thousands of other lives as they have served on missions, in leadership roles, and as parents.

We can now see the long-range impact of her efforts, at least as it pertains to this world. But she probably saw herself doing just what all mothers do—keeping body and soul together; and teaching her children to be clean, to pay their tithing, to know and respect their Father in Heaven.

It would be nice if we women could keep before us the perspective of the prophets, the vision of eternity. As President Kimball said, “Much is said about the drudgery and the confinement of the woman’s role in the home. In the perspective of the gospel it is not so.” (Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 105–6; italics added.) I know that is true. But I also know there are some times when it’s easier to appreciate that statement than others.

You should be aware that when a young woman has many little children, it can be a very difficult time in her life, especially compared to the relatively carefree life she enjoyed when she was responsible only for herself. It takes some character, some careful planning with your husband’s help, and some “nights out,” to get you through this time still liking the idea of home, families, and babies.

Then there is a time when your youngest goes to seminary at 6 A.M. and comes home from cheerleading practice at 5:30 P.M. Obviously, the need for you to be physically present in the home during the day is not as great. Your time for yourself is expanding.

I would like to respond to two complaints I have heard among some women in the Church. Number one is “‘They’ expect too much from us—the standard is unrealistic and unattainable.” Number two is “‘They’ do not expect enough from us. When will women be given the priesthood?”

I loved Barbara Smith’s answer to the first remark on a TV show about women and depression. She refused to deny the standard but encouraged women to take “one step at a time” and to remember that our goals should be “stars to steer by, not sticks to beat ourselves with.” I personally have sufficient blatant weaknesses that no one who saw my housekeeping, for example, could ever accuse me of being “supermom.” But I think we need to have enough respect for ourselves and for God’s plan to know that we are worthwhile now, even if we aren’t perfect yet.

As for the second remark, I truly believe that men and women are equal before the Lord. The fact that a man may hold the priesthood and a woman does not in no way alters that statement.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie said, “Where spiritual things are concerned, as pertaining to all of the gifts of the Spirit, with reference to the receipt of revelation, the gaining of testimonies, and the seeing of visions, in all matters that pertain to godliness and holiness and which are brought to pass as a result of personal righteousness—in all these things men and women stand in a position of absolute equality before the Lord. He is no respecter of persons nor of sexes and he blesses those men and those women who seek him and serve him and keep his commandments.” (Ensign, Jan. 1979, p. 61.)

No priesthood leader has ever tried to make me feel inferior. And in my turn I respect the priesthood and the men who use it in righteousness. I know that there are chosen servants of God on the earth today leading the Church, its stakes, its wards, its families. My experience with the priesthood from my earliest years has convinced me that it is a very real, a very necessary, and indeed a divine power. Furthermore, being the mother of nine is only one thing among many that convinces me that them must be order in the kingdom of God.

I am grateful for a mother and a father who loved their daughters as much as they loved their sons. I am grateful for a husband who not only loves me but respects me as a person and in my role as a wife and mother and who expects our children to do the same.

When I was asked to give this talk I was a little bit flattered and a big bit overwhelmed. That night when we were around the dinner table, my husband asked our children, “Now, if you had to find a woman to give a talk at BYU and she had to be very smart and a good mother and able to talk to other women about the importance of the things they do, who would you choose?” It was really very touching when they all said without hesitation, “Mommy, mommy!” Then my husband went on, “Brother Webb is looking for this woman and—” when our oldest boy broke in and said, “Oh, well, Brother Webb would choose his wife.” Now he could have done this easily enough, but the point is that our eleven-year-old boy had already caught the perspective that each man should think his wife and her job is the greatest—and then his children will too.

Our challenge as women is ultimately the same as our brothers’ challenge as men; that is to live the gospel, to become Christlike, and to achieve our fullest potential—namely, immortality and eternal life. May we continually strive to hear his voice and follow his counsel to us, for that is the sure road to joy and fulfillment, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Sydney Smith Reynolds, a homemaker and mother of ten children, is a Cub Scout den leader in the Orem, Utah, Twenty-third Ward.