All I meant was I don’t think couples are the future. You need more than that. You need backup. -About a Boy
Eleanor Jorgensen has never married, nor raised children. She was the first Utahn to earn a PhD in Textile Technology and she taught at BYU for 39 1/2 years in the clothing and textile department.
Eleanor is my great aunt. My dad’s parents passed away before I was born and my mom’s parents passed when I was young. I consider my relationship with Eleanor to be similar to others’ relationships to their grandparents. When I started school at BYU and felt alone, she helped me to feel welcome in Provo. She has opened her home as a gathering space for all of my family and often gathers me and my cousins together for a ‘cousins dinner.’
Two weeks ago, Eleanor and my family celebrated her 90th birthday. At her birthday party, over a dozen people formally spoke about their relationship with Eleanor and how she has filled a motherly role in their life. I like to think of this birthday celebration as a sort of graduation commencement and Eleanor earned an honorary degree in parenting. I am grateful to be a recipient of her charity and to have her as an honorary grandmother.
Within church culture, women are flooded with counsel to be mothers.Counsel and activities to women that focus on being a mother first and foremost can be exclusionary and derogatory to women who have not had the opportunity to be mothers. Of course, there’s always the talk that you can be a mother in the next life, but what then to make of the life of a woman in this earthly experience? Was it not as worthy a life? I think of another woman with honorary parenting status, thus given the title mother: Mother Teresa. Was her experience and service not as valuable in comparison to other mothers?
I hope that within church culture the counsel we receive regarding motherhood will become more inclusive to all men and women in the church. Patricia R. Holland stated, “Eve was given the identity of ‘the mother of all living’ before she ever bore a child [….] I believe with all of my heart that it is first and foremost a statement about nature, not a head count of our children.” If motherhood is a statement about nature, could we focus more on ways to develop that nature? Perhaps we should focus more on how to treat and serve mankind in Relief Society, rather than cooking, cleaning, and crafting instructions. Not that cooking, cleaning, and crafting are bad, but I think that church activities and lessons focus on these supposed aspects of motherhood instead of more valuable lessons. I believe that Plato’s definition of rhetoric, making “small things great and great things small,” is often applicable to the counsel we receive and follow within the church. Why is there as much emphasis (if not more of an emphasis) on modesty than there is on empathy? Why do we often have Relief Society activities dedicated to learning a new cute craft someone saw on Pinterest, but seldom, if not ever, an activity or lesson on how we should address someone who has just suffered a major loss. To me, this change of focus would be more worthwhile and more fulfilling of the Relief Society motto, “Charity never faileth,” would be inclusive to all women, and be of greater worth to mothers with kids at home and honorary mothers alike.
Relief Society should be a society of honorary mothers, but not necessarily literal mothers. Julie B. Beck said, “My parents, who had been my neighbors, announced that they would be moving to another part of the world. I had relied on my mother’s nurturing, wise, and encouraging example. Now she was going to be gone for a long time [….] One day before she left, I sat weeping with her and asked, ‘Who will be my mother?’ Mother thought carefully, and with the Spirit and power of revelation which comes to women of this kind, she said to me, ‘If I never come back, if you never see me again, if I’m never able to teach you another thing, you tie yourself to Relief Society. Relief Society will be your mother.”
I do not believe that the doctrine of being an honorary parent is limited to Relief Society. I think fatherhood is a statement about nature too, not a head count of children, and that fatherhood, like motherhood, is about nurturing and serving. Our greatest example of an honorary parent comes from our honorary father, Jesus Christ, or as Isaiah calls him “The Everlasting Father.”
Throughout my observations in Sunday meetings and Relief Society activities, the accomplishments of men and women like my great aunt Eleanor would not be called ideal in Mormon culture and that is not right. A life spent earning an education and serving as an honorary parent is not viewed as valuable to God as a mother or father with physical kids clinging on to their legs. I stress that if we were to truly focus on Christ, to have charity be our focus in all things, that we will see more focus on all becoming honorary parents in our meetings and less of a focus on the trivial matters that tell women that their value lies in being a good housewife and men that they are not nurturers. Not all women are literal mothers, nor all men literal fathers, but all women and men can and should strive to be honorary parents. Thus we can fulfill the covenant we made at baptism, to “bear others’ burdens, that they may be light; mourn with those that mourn; and comfort those in need of comfort.”