When I think about sharing my personal and clinical experiences around Mormonism and mental health, I immediately feel anxiety start to bubble up. Worried thoughts about what people will think and how my ideas will be received start to take over my mind. I think about how many church lessons I’ve sat through and talks I’ve heard that have encouraged members to represent the church well. I keep remembering my beloved grandfather’s edict to his progeny to not make the church look bad. I picture my 5-year-old daughter standing at the pulpit in last month’s primary program, repeating the line that is whispered into her ear by her primary president: I can defend the truth by sharing my testimony.
Criticizing the church brings up a fear as old as I am. Criticizing the church publicly activates my survival instincts; right now I am internally debating whether this will be worth it. Or is shutting up and sitting down the better choice?
And then I think of my clients and my friends and my family members, many of whom are disgruntled Mormon women in their 30s, and I remember their courage. I think of the client who raises her hand to directly critique a Sunday School lesson taught by a high-ranking church elder. I think of my friend who weeps openly in a testimony meeting over the pain of questioning her faith. I think of my sister-in-law gracefully and bravely validating her husband’s faith crisis.
And I think of myself, weeks ago, sitting in a meeting with the editor of a prominent Utah newspaper. I’d been invited to join this informal conversation as a member of a progressive Mormon women’s book club; we were told the editor had been in meetings discussing the concerns of women in the church and was therefore interested in hearing from the book club “about the key things they are concerned with in a very open, honest way.” I had jumped at the invitation and showed up ready to share. Immediately, it was clear that the editor, a white man in his 60s, was used to being listened to. He started by saying he was there, however, to listen to us and asked that the meeting not be recorded, then he opened up the discussion. Other book club members, all warm and brilliant and brave, started voicing their concerns and sharing their experiences as women in the church. One of them stated how difficult it is to have no influence on decision-making, stating that, at the end of the day, women have no vote and men make all the big decisions without any women in the room.
The newspaper editor cut her off and began a several-minute lecture on how decisions are made in the church, telling us that local leadership doesn’t actually make decisions but simply upholds the decisions made by the first presidency. I was crestfallen, but when he began to reference scripture, I was pissed. How many times have we – have you – been preached at by men? Most of the time that’s the overt and direct purpose of whatever setting we Mormons are in: Church meetings and General Conferences are dominated by men giving lectures. What pissed me off this time was the covert, indirect purpose: This man invited us to this meeting with the claim that he wanted to listen to us. He opened the meeting by saying he wanted to hear from us. He asked for this meeting by claiming he was interested in hearing what it’s like for us as women in the church. Then, as soon as something was said that he didn’t like or disagreed with or viewed as incorrect, he could not help himself. He is a man who is used to commanding an audience, and he saw no harm in cutting another person – a woman – off and focusing on an inconsequential detail (the point was not which men actually make decisions; the point was that no women are involved in those processes) rather than doing the thing he claimed he was there to do and actually listen.
I have never been good at hiding how I feel; my face usually says it all. Ten minutes into the editor’s lecture on the process of decision-making in the church, I got a dm via the Zoom chat. I’m loving your expressions, it read, I’m frustrated, too. I looked at the face of the woman who had sent it. I looked at all the faces in that meeting. All these courageous, intelligent, faithful women, showing up to fight hard for a faith they love and a gospel they believe in. Showing up to vulnerably air their concerns and conflicts. Showing up as a sisterhood they built for and by themselves.
I considered slamming my laptop shut and not spending another minute sitting through a misguided, unhelpful lesson. But instead, I unmuted myself. “This right here is an example of what is hard about being a woman in the church,” I said. “One of us shares how hard it is to have no power when it comes to making decisions and then we get a lecture from you on decision-making. This is what’s hard about being a woman in the church. We’re asked to share how we feel and told there’s genuine interest and repeatedly plead with to stay – told we’re needed. So we show up and open up and try hard and forgive and understand. Over and over again. And what do we get? We get lectured. We get corrected. We get scriptures quoted at us. I know you’re trying and I think you do have good intent here, but it’s clear you’re used to being listened to, you’re used to being heard, you’re used to having a voice, you’re used to having power. We aren’t. We’re used to hitting brick walls over and over and over. And we’re sick of it. This benevolent sexism is so harmful and we’re sick of it.”
I went on to share how frustrated and heartbroken I am, and then how frustrated and heartbroken my clients are. I told the editor how nearly 100% of my new clients are LDS women in their 30s who aren’t sure they can stay. Disgruntled Mormon women, progressive Mormon women, true believers, lifelong members, converts, return missionaries, single, married, mothers, child free, Republican, Democrat, career women, homemakers – our individual circumstances are unique but our core suffering is the same. We can no longer reconcile our spiritual well-being and our mental health, and our hearts are broken.
I can’t remember the last time my heart felt unbroken. Even in the midst of my courageous moment, as I laid it all out for this newspaper editor, as I faced down the patriarchal power dynamic that kept all of us book clubbers quiet for the fifteen minutes he lectured uninterrupted, I was broken-hearted. I still am now. I may always be.
But I don’t have to be scared. Fear is where I started, but it is not where I’ll end. Fear-based decision making protects the status quo and does not promote change. Progress is essential to mental health, and progress is essential to spiritual health. Progress is a pillar of Christianity. Fear is human; courage is divine.
And I’ll tell you this: There is nothing like the high of speaking the truth. There is nothing like the exhilaration of saying how you feel when you feel it. There is nothing like the sisterhood of looking into the faces of courageous, intelligent, faithful Mormon women.
For information on working with Caitlin, look no further.