Then their wives stood up--beautiful, intelligent, spiritual women. Many of them had served on boards, held degrees, and were seasoned in their respective fields. Each of them was also a mother.
But this is how many of the women described themselves:
"Oh, I'm just a mom."
"I don't have any credentials; I'm just raising our six children."
"My life's not very exciting right now; I'm just a stay-at-home mom."
"I don't have much to offer here. I'm just a mother."
We heard some variation of the phrase "I'm just a mother" repeated, almost apologetically, over and over again.
Their words surprised me. I had recently given birth to my first child, and I was on top of the world. My baby was a blessing that had come to me a little later in life than usual, and I was excited and honored to finally accept the mantle of motherhood. I felt an extraordinary sense of responsibility. And power. Not as the world defines the word, but from entering a sacred partnership with the Creator Himself. What a remarkable gift! I wanted to shout from the rooftops, "I am a mother! I am a mother!"
I was so bewildered by their comments that questions began to gnaw at me--What have I done?
When I left my television career in New York City to get married and to have a family, many of my colleagues told me I was crazy, that I was out of my mind. I had turned down a lucrative, four-year network contract, working on exciting, high-profile, prime-time projects.
Some people were incredibly supportive. One producer in particular came into my office, looked me straight in the eye, and said, "Good for you!" He wasn't endorsing my decision to be a mother per se, but he did congratulate me for having the courage to follow my heart, to act on my convictions. He noted that there were so very many others with the impulse to leave; but they wouldn't. They just couldn't walk away from the prestige, the money, or whatever it was that seemed more important than following their hearts.
By way of contrast, when I explained to another rather influential colleague that I would not be taking that contract offer, he told me I was making a terrible decision that I would regret for years to come. "What will you be without your job?" he asked. "If you leave television now, you're done." He quoted an old CBS newsman as saying, "Without work, there is no meaning to life." And finally, knowing of my faith, he asked, "What are you going to do...move up there and teach Sunday School?" Well, as it turned out, the first Sunday in my new ward, I was called to teach--the Gospel Doctrine class.
I found that the reaction from my female colleagues was largely, and disappointingly, less than supportive. I shared my decision with one woman who smugly joked, "Why don't you just get a nanny?" Another network executive asked me what I was going to do once I got to Boston. I told her I was going to have a family, I was going to be a mother. "No, I understand that," she said, puzzled, "but what are you going to do?"
All of this was still fresh on my mind during that evening spent near Washington, D.C. A chorus of "I'm just a mother," juxtaposed with "What will you be without your job? And "You're making a terrible mistake" made me wonder, Could they be right? Is it possible that motherhood is an insignificant, second-rate occupation?
Had I made a bad decision? I thought I'd done everything right. I'd fasted and prayed. I'd felt such a powerful, spiritual confirmation that this was the right choice, for me. Could it be that Heavenly Father would plan for me to walk away from something I loved for the "misery" of being "just a mother"?
What I have since learned is that God's definition of motherhood and the world's definition are vastly different. And sometimes--probably all too often--the challenges, daily physical and emotional exhaustion, and occasional self-doubt that come along with being a mother cause many of us to buy into an inaccurate and destructive understanding of our role. There just doesn't seem to be a lot of joy--or fulfillment--associated with the world's interpretation of motherhood.
But when we trust in the arm of the Lord rather than the voices of the world, everything changes. Elder Neal A. Maxwell observed, "When the real history of mankind is fully disclosed, will it feature the echoes of gunfire or the shaping sound of lullabies? The great armistices made by military men or the peacemaking of women in homes and in neighborhoods? Will what happened in cradles and kitchens prove to be more controlling than what happened in congresses?" ("The Women of God," 10-11).
At times, there may be few immediate rewards for those of us who are mothers. There are no Christmas bonuses, no promotions, no paid vacations. But there is love, there is laughter, and there is joy.
Changing the Way We Think
I love it when I hear educated, talented, well-known women from different corridors of life call on other women to raise the image of motherhood, to erase the feeling that any of us are "just mothers." Recently, I watched an interview with Maria Shriver, the wife of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. She was explaining her agenda as the state's first lady and said that one of her goals is to "empower mothers"!
"How do we get women," she said, "to stop saying, 'I'm just a mother.' Or, 'I used to be such and such, but now I'm just a mother? We need to market motherhood. So I came up with a saying: 'Motherhood: 24/7 on the frontlines of humanity. Are you man enough to try it?'" (from "First Lady Maria Shriver--Her New Life," The Oprah Winfrey Show, April 29, 2004).
"In our society, we give motherhood plenty of lip service," says Oprah Winfrey, another champion of motherhood. "We pat moms on the head, bring them flowers on Mother's Day, and honor them before crowds. But at the end of the day, we don't extend them the same respect we would a professor, a dentist, an accountant, or a judge.
"I believe the choice to become a mother in the choice to become one of the greatest spiritual teachers there is. To create an environment that's stimulating and nurturing, to pass on a sense of responsibility to another human being, to raise a child who understands that he or she is create from good and is capable of anything--I know for sure that few callings are more honorable. To play down mothering as small is to crack the very foundation on which greatness stands.
"The world can only value mothering to the extent that women everywhere stand and declare that it must be so. In our hands we hold the power to transform the perception of motherhood....We should no longer allow a mother to be defined as 'just a mom.' It is on her back that great nations are built" ("What I Know for Sure," O, The Oprah Magazine, 66, emphasis added).
Are you protective of your role as a mother? When asked, do you meekly respond that you're "just a mother," or do you confidently declare, "I am a mother"?
The sanctity of motherhood can be hard to appreciate when you spend endless hours making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, singing along with Elmo, helping create elaborate science projects, or enforcing late-night curfews. Many in the world will shout that motherhood is full of small, mundane tasks. And certainly, if you look only on the surface, this is true. But underneath all of the secondary things mothers do--cook, clean, read, chauffeur, nurse, and so on--is a mother's real occupation and, I believe, the definition of true success. Webster defines occupation as "the principal business of one's life." The principal business of a mother's life is loving and nurturing her children; it is teaching them, by example how to pass on that love and thereby strengthening the world around them. For years, many in the business world have taught--and been taught--that the definition of success is achievement, chiefly in career and financial terms. At the Harvard Business School, the model of success included one word: achievement. A few years ago, however, Harvard took another look at the model and added a few more words: happiness, significance, and legacy. Is there any person who can bring more happiness to her young charges, has more significance in another's life, or has the potential to leave a greater legacy for those who come after her than a mother? I believe, from the depths of my heart, that a righteous mother is the embodiment of success. I believed this about motherhood before I got married and had children. Now, I know it: As a woman, the most important work I will ever do will happen within the walls of my own home. Having said that, I must admit that there are some days when I think it would be easier, if not preferable, to be a foreign correspondent than to be a mother. There are definitely moments when I am down on my hands and knees, mopping up yet another mess, when I look up at the TV to see one of my old friends interviewing someone famous or globe-trotting on a big story, and I think, What have I done? But as I look at the little faces of my children, I realize I would not trade in my current occupation. Not for anything.
I know what I gave up so that I can be a mother during this season of my life. But I also know what I have given it up for. I traded in fancy lunches in fancy restaurants for rice cereal and bunny-shaped macaroni. There's no one to do my hair and makeup anymore. Some mornings I'm lucky to squeeze in a shower. When I get up at 4:00 A.M. these days, it's not to be chauffeured to a television studio. Instead, you'll find me huddled near a nightlight, lulling a little baby (or two!) back to sleep. No more pats on the back for booking exclusive interviews. They don't give awards for best diaper change of the day. And I don't get a paycheck that can be cashed at any bank. Now my compensation comes in packages money can't buy.
Why it Matters
So why is it that, while most of us honor our own mothers, society as a whole doesn't always seem to appreciate--or even understand--what being a mother entails or how much of an impact mothers have on our families, communities, and nations?
Why don't we honor motherhood more? Why don't we mother with more delight? Why do we seem to struggle so much with the value of this great calling? Do we really understand its significance and get it that the seemingly small things we do while our children are young--teaching them to pray, reading them a story, telling them how much we love them--tend to stick with them throughout life?
Why do mothers matter?
A recent editorial in USA Today reflected on the nation's inability to agree on the value of motherhood: "Society is deeply ambivalent about mothers. Yes, the idealistic Hallmark take on motherhood is deeply rooted: the selfless woman who bakes apple pies, loves her children unconditionally, and so on. But ever since the 1960s, the feminist movement has introduced another scale of measurement: Women should become CEOs, lawmakers, and astronauts like men. And pull in earnings to match" ("Hey Mom, You're Underpaid," USA Today, May 5, 2005).
These dual expectations are tough to live up to. And even on our best days, it's hard for mom to believe that spending an hour scrubbing apple juice off the floor (and the walls, the refrigerator, and every other tiny crevice that a spilled cup of juice is capable of reaching!) is tantamount to setting public policy or breaking national news.
Perhaps you can relate to a conversation I had recently.
Party guest: "What do you do?"
Me: "I am a mother."
Audible pause: "Oh, congratulations..."
End of conversation.
My inquisitor on this occasion quickly moved on, having summed me up, perhaps, as less interesting than the next party guest. Maybe that same person would have been more motivated to keep talking if my response had been, "I'm a network news anchor for CBS," or "I'm a foreign correspondent at ABC."
Former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize nominee Ann Crittenden writes: "Any woman who has devoted herself to raising children has experienced the hollow praise that only thinly conceals smug dismissal. In a culture that measures worth and achievement almost solely in terms of money, the intensive work of rearing responsible adults counts for little. One of the most intriguing questions in economic history is how this came to be; how mothers came to be excluded from the ranks of productive citizens. How did the demanding job of rearing a modern child come to be trivialized as baby-sitting? When did caring for children become a 'labor of love,' smothered under a blanket of sentimentality that hides its economic importance?" (The Price of Motherhood).
Indeed, why is it that in this day and age there are so many who think so little of motherhood?
In her book, We Are Our Mothers' Daughters, journalist Cokie Roberts describes, in part, how this happened:
For most of human history, men and women worked together in the same place and each one's work complemented the other's. No one thought the farmer's job was more important than the farmer's wife's. Neither could manage without the other....
"It was the industrial revolution that changed everything. Men went out to work for wages, and they were paid for the hours they put in, not the tasks they completed.... Suddenly, what women did at home lost its value because there was no paycheck attached. Repetitive housework replaced home manufacture as women's crafts moved into assembly-line production. And that's what we've been struggling with ever since.
"Doing work that is economically rewarded and socially recognized means leaving home.... Women aren't paid for their jobs as nurturers."
A Purpose for Every Season
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Meg Whitman at Princeton University. Meg is the CEO of eBay, with a new worth of a billion dollars. Meg was a lovely woman, gracious and kind. We had a wonderful conversation.
We talked about all sorts of things related to her many professional accomplishments. At one point, I asked her a question that I hadn't intended. And I was taken aback by her very honest reply.
"Looking back on it all," I said, "what's your biggest regret?"
Unlike her other responses, which had come quickly and easily, this answer came only after a thoughtful pause.
"Probably not spending as much time with the kids.... I did miss certain parts of their...development. I wasn't there to see some of the really fun things that they did. So I suppose the biggest regret is...it would be really great to have spent more time with them, particularly when they were little.... And you can't get that back."
She seemed willing to expound, and I continued, "So, the illusion that you can have it all...that it's out there...doesn't exist?
"I actually don't think so. I think you can have a wonderful life, but you have to decide what trade-offs you're willing to make" (The Early Show, CBS, December 19, 2000).
To her words, I would add these: You must also decide that mothers matter--that you matter.
A graduate of BYU, Jane Clayson Johnson is the former co-host of The Early Showon CBS and served as a network correspondent for The CBS Evening News and 48 Hours. At CBS News, she covered national and international stories for World News Tonight with Peter Jennings and Good Morning America. Since becoming a mother, Jane has done occasional assignments for Discovery Health and NPR.
A mother of two and stepmother of three children Jane and her husband, Mark Johnson, make their home in Boston.