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Women and Selfishness

There’s a lot of talk about “selfishness” in Mormonism being the cause of the end of marriages and families, and the ruination of souls. I spent most of my life believing that my goal was to be “unselfish” like Christ was. I believed in the importance of annihilating my own selfishness as the end-goal of my perfecting myself toward godhood. I imagined that heaven would be a place of pure service, with no chocolate, Netflix, or foot rubs because I would be evolved beyond such mortal foolishness. I wouldn’t need food and it wouldn’t need sleep, so I wouldn’t need indulgences like I did now. I’d get over those needs.

Yeah, I don’t think that way anymore. But I guess it’s no surprise that the closer I got to selflessness, the less I was interested in the Mormon idea of the celestial kingdom. In fact, I reached a point in my annihilation of self where I desperately did not want to go to heaven, and was tempted to kill myself so I’d end up in one of the lesser kingdoms, with lesser glory, where I didn’t have to imagine that perfecting myself meant that I was going to be a faceless Stepford Wife kind of clone of Heavenly Mother, who was so precious and holy that we could never even speak her name, let alone have an idea of who she was.

I see now that the accusation of “selfishness” and the demand for “selflessness” are not ungendered terms. Men are not asked to be selfless in the same way that women are, by giving up all hopes for a career, for a purpose in life beyond serving others, by giving up a voice in their own choices. It’s hard for men to see the difference, but it is there. I remember talking to a dear friend of mine who was the most devout Mormon wife and mother I had ever met. She was dealing with empty nesting and she was angry at her husband’s sudden joy (as a liberated Mormon male) that she could now go back and get an education and start a career (at age fifty plus). She didn’t want to do any of those things. She had no interest in starting her life over again. She’d been told her entire life that she was to stay at home and she had deeply believed that this was important work. She was incensed that men should tell her what to do yet again, and that she had to do all this work to somehow prepare for a second half of life.

She’d been selfless for a long time, and I think that she imagined that once her children were gone, she was going to have more say in her life, and she was going to do things that she wanted to do. She wasn’t going to look around for other people (men) to tell her what she should do with her life anymore. She’d earned this freedom at last, and she was very clear that God had given her this time to do what she chose to do with her life, without anyone else judging it. I’m very sympathetic to this woman’s pushback, though I know other Mormon women who have enjoyed going back to school and regaining some of what they lost. I also know Mormon women who have divorced at this age and have realized that they will never regain financially what they lost by stalling their careers for twenty years to raise children — and no divorce settlement will ever make this fair.

Do we need to learn to be selfless to be better humans? I don’t know. But there’s a dark side to selflessness. With selflessness comes the desire to look selfless, and that is not always a good thing. It is a denial of the truth within us, a truth that often comes out twisted into other forms that we don’t understand. Selflessness is also dangerous because it leads ultimately to a desire for death, because death is the ultimate lack of self. Death is the end of our physical needs, of the demand to care for the body and its desires.

But if you don’t want to end up dead, maybe there’s a way that we can acknowledge that selfishness isn’t all bad. Selfishness can lead people to seek approval of others by doing good things. It can lead to beauty and art. It can lead to inventions and the drive to beat records in sports, to improve humanity in leaps and bounds instead of leaving it to the small, incremental growths that might otherwise come.

When my kids were young, I believed it was important for them to see me have an identity separate from motherhood. I believed they needed to experience me having “Mommy time,” and them not being able to depend on me filling their needs during that time. My daughters needed to see that being a mother didn’t mean that they gave up everything for their children. It’s not as scary that way. They didn’t have to be perfect. They didn’t have to be swallowed up in the task. My sons also needed to learn that they could not expect their wives to lose their identities, that they would have to fully participate in parenting as fathers, and perhaps that women especially need to push back against societal and children’s ideas about “perfect mothers” and selflessness as an ideal.

When I was a little girl, I remember my grandmother had a whole shelf full of fragile things that she warned little children away from — sometimes very sharply. She told me once that she’d spent her whole life unable to have any fragile things and now that she was an old woman without any small children to care for (she’d had eight children), she wanted fragile things. Was she selfish? Yes, she was selfish. She deserved to be a little selfish in her life.

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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