Mormon, Interrupted

I wrote this post months ago, before the church excommunicated Kate Kelly, and I never published it because I felt prompted to take a step back from religiously-motivated gender activism. Not because it was wrong, but because it was too painful and I wasn’t strong enough. I was marinating in my own hurt, and writing about it was like turning up the heat.

I don’t feel crippled any more, even in the wake of watching the body of Christ self-amputate, draining good women like so much lost blood. I feel spiritually grounded. Autonomous. I can write without stewing.

I am posting this, even though it doesn’t accurately reflect my feelings at this precise moment in time, because it was true when I wrote it. It is hard for me to write here, to say anything really, without succumbing to the temptation to wrap every story up in a tidy package. But my Mormon story is too big, too messy for that. I’ve lost the plot, I’m abandoning the narrative arc, and am giving you the only thing I’ve got: snapshots of experience. They may be all over the map, unprocessed and unfiltered, but they are true, and if they were true for me in 2013, then they are true for other Mormon women right now. They will continue to be true until members of the church start taking seriously their Zion-building responsibilities and work to make the church a refuge for all women.

The LDS church’s teachings about gender are crippling me. I usually rely on euphemisms when I talk about this, for fear of being perceived as faithless. I “chafe” against my prescribed role. I “struggle” to fit in. I “agitate” for miniscule changes, to wear pants without causing a Facebook firestorm or hear a woman pray at General Conference. I pray myself, for courage and understanding. I wait patiently for the church to see me or, better, hear me when I speak. I celebrate when the church recognizes other women, women who want to serve missions, women who live in other countries, single women, even if those women aren’t me. I maintain an image of unflagging optimism whenever I’m publicly mediating my conflicting identities of mormon and feminist, whether I’m writing here, teaching Relief Society, or sharing my beliefs with somebody who isn’t a member of the church. I do this because it feels like the safest way to exist as a Mormon dissident. If I speak too freely about my doubts — how could God let this happen? — or about my fears — maybe God doesn’t value me as much as he does my brothers, or my dad, or my husband — I will lose whatever shred of credibility I might have that allows me to participate in my religious community. I will set back the Mormon feminist cause by confirming everybody’s suspicions: I’m a feminist because I’m a sinner and I’m a sinner because I’m a feminist.

There’s a lot to be said for playing the part of the happy, hopeful saint. Without it, I don’t know if I would be permitted to serve as a Relief Society teacher, a calling spiritually nourishes me and, I hope, the sisters in my ward. I don’t know if the lovely woman I visit teach would trust me with her sincere and thought-provoking questions about how to connect with her atheist brother, her gay neighbors, or her mainstream Christian book club. The happy, hopeful saint lets me talk about feminism in faithful settings and support causes like Ordain Women. It allows me to fulfill the mandate “every member a missionary” by showing modern women that there is a place for them in the LDS church. The happy, hopeful saint reassures my family that I am still true to the faith, even if I have a funny way of showing it.

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m being insincere when I project a faithful image. The happy, hopeful saint is part of me. She is the person I was raised to be. She is the reason I came back to belief after all those wandering years. She is who I am when I am at my best. She is the reason I stay.

But she is not all of me. I’m sure this is no surprise. Everybody, even the most orthodox of believers, the Molliest of Mormons, has doubts and demons. This is human. I do not think that it is dishonest to protect parts of ourselves from the world or the church. I do not think that I need permission from my bishop to believe the way I do. I do not think that my family needs to live through every crisis of my faith. I’ve been through enough to know most of them pass, or at least fade in intensity. I do not believe I need to spill every angsty gut under the guise of honesty, or authenticity, or integrity, because there is value and power in privacy.

In spite of this inclination to maintain a kernel of privacy regarding my beliefs, I know it’s time to stop hiding half my heart. The other part of me, the desperate part, the despairing part, the part that is lonely and insufficient, is the answer to the question the Mormons in my life keep asking me: what’s so bad about gender roles anyway? Members who defend the status quo in the face of women’s distress need to know the way the church’s teachings impact people on a personal, practical level.

So I’ll say it again: the church’s teachings on gender are crippling me. I turn to the Bible to study the creation in preparation for Sunday School and there it is: woman was created to serve man. I turn to the Doctrine & Covenants to study eternal marriage because that’s what I’m aiming for and there it is: God will give ten virgins to a man and he does not commit adultery. I turn to Ensign to lift my day up on the train and there it is: a woman in any kind of unhappy relationship, well she got what she deserved. I turn to the modern prophets to make sense of this mess and there it is: my purpose on earth is to bear and raise children. It is not to come unto Christ or to work out my own salvation or to spread the good word. My husband will take care of those weightier matters with the aid of his priesthood power. Except that he won’t, because he doesn’t believe in this religion. I don’t know where that leaves me, but I guess I can’t complain since I was wearing a halter top the day I met the man I love.

I’d like to be able to move past these teachings, to let them roll of my back. I don’t believe that they are central gospel doctrines, and think that’s all the attention they deserve. But I can’t. The church won’t let me. I read an exciting new press release and and the church reminds me that I should not care about equality. General Conference inspires me to change my life on Saturday morning and guts me on Saturday night. I can’t feast on the word of God when so much of it taste like a roach crept into the ice cream. I can’t be the pillar my family needs me to be when the church is constantly reminding me that I’m going about it all wrong because I happen to be the one who brings home a paycheck while my husband takes care of our little girl. I can’t convince other women like me that this community is worth it when it looks and feels like the community is barely tolerating my presence.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not going anywhere. I’m not laying this all out as some sort of threat. The church doesn’t need to change its practices and the emphasis it places on certain doctrines related to gender because it’s in danger of losing me. But the heightened rhetoric about gender and anxious policing of roles of the last few decades is crippling generations of women. It is turning strong saints into “less actives” and projects. It is turning happy saints into frustrated women, angry women, resigned women. It is losing missionaries and visiting teachers and tithe payers. It is wasting resources and potential and souls. The church is losing, period, because when it incapacitates its members, it immobilizes itself.

The church may be building temples, and thrusting young adults into the mission field in droves, and publishing shiny, transparent articles dealing with its warty past, but it’s failing me.

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The Weight Of The World

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This is not a pregnancy announcement. That is not a photo of a pregnant woman. When I put on a newish funky purple dress this morning, I didn’t think I would need to clarify that. I say newish because Robert gave me the dress for Christmas last year when I was 5.5 months pregnant and I only got to wear it once before my stomach expanded past the point that the decidedly non-stretchy fabric would bear. I wore it again a few months ago for a few hours before I realized that a non-stretchy dress with sleeves in decidedly not nursing friendly. I was excited to put it on this morning. I was excited to slip it over my head and find that it felt comfy and roomy. I liked the tie around the middle that emphasized my curvy waist. I liked knowing that Dylan can now go long enough without nursing that I’d be able to wear it to church without worrying that I’d have to strip down in the mother’s lounge when she got hungry.

Dylan was a little fussy at church, so the last twenty minutes of sacrament meeting found us standing in the back of the elementary school auditorium that serves as a chapel for our urban congregation. I held Dylan’s hands and helped her take wobbly steps and when her legs gave out, I hoisted her on my hip. I let her chew on a tithing envelope until I was afraid she’d choke on the wet pieces she’d torn off with her sharp little teeth and she screamed when I took it away. I stepped quickly out into the foyer where there’s no shortage of parents with kids who are also missing naptime and folks who waiting for the next meeting to start. A woman started chatting with me, asking all the right questions, how’s Dylan, how’s your husband, how are you? She told me about the trouble she had getting to church on time today because the northern red line stops are under construction. She asked me if I was expecting.

Wait, what? No, but thank you for asking.

She asked me if I lost all the weight from my pregnancy with Dylan. No, but really, thank you for asking.

This particular woman lacks some of the social graces that many people possess, so I knew I could get away with asking a follow-up question and maybe even get an honest answer.

Do I look pregnant?

A little, she said.

The service had ended, so I made movements to go back into the auditorium where I’d left my coat, tears welling up in my eyes. This wasn’t the first time that somebody thought I was pregnant since I gave birth, but the other times had been in the first few months after Dylan was born, and Dylan wasn’t with me. I felt like a fool. I felt like a fool for daring to think that my dress, which suddenly felt very much like a maternity dress, was flattering. I felt like a fool for daring to be so comfortable with my body that I was in no rush to start my old workout routine or cut out dessert. I felt like a fool for daring to think that I’d transcended post-pregnancy body image issues when all it took was a single thoughtless comment to undo all my confidence.

Last fall, during a phone call, my mother asked me if I thought my stomach would go back to how it was before. I didn’t know how to answer the question. It boggled me for a few reasons. One, my mom hadn’t seen my stomach, hadn’t even seen me in person for months, so I wasn’t sure why she thought there was something wrong with it. Two, I haven’t had a flat stomach since I was 15. This used to bother me, but it hasn’t for a long time. I didn’t understand why a few extra pounds in the region should bother me. Three, some of the changes were permanent. I knew as soon as the stretch marks appeared white and shiny to the left of my belly button, just above my right hip, that although they would fade, they were there to stay, just like the lines that appeared on my thighs when I hit puberty and shut up like a tree. Four, I felt good. No, I felt amazing. I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I could run without the weight of the world pressing down on my bladder. I could laugh and sneeze without searing pain, which is more than I could manage for weeks after my Cesarean. I still did a double take when I look at pictures other people took, with my face just a little too big, but I looked good. I liked my rounded stomach and my wide hips. I kept wearing t-shirts just a little too short for my long torso. I stopped sucking in.

I’m not saying I’m immune to body image issues. I still cringe when I see myself at a weird angle with all that extra skin underneath my chin. I wish my arms were more toned. I’m not saying that other women need to be like me. I know that I’m lucky, that it’s easy to take extra weight in stride, when you’re still technically thin, that stretch marks don’t seem like a such a big deal when they’re few and far between. I’m just saying that I want a little space to look the way I do and be okay with it. I want our fertility-obsessed culture to make room for a rounded stomach without it heralding inquiries, unspoken or not, about family planning. I want room for wide hips without the attendant remarks about childbirthing. I want our culture that is obsessed with thinness, and willowiness, athletic builds, and pixie waifs (pick your favorite descriptor, just as long as it’s a synonym for thin) culture to make room me to be not quite as thin as I used to be without being strongarmed into conversations about brownies and bread and working out. I want room for women who aren’t even close to thin and never will be.

I don’t want this post to be about how a woman was rude to me and gosh don’t people realize you can’t ask a woman if she’s pregnant. I know this woman and I care about her and I know she did not mean to offend me. I know that if she said it, then other people were thinking it. I know, because she confided in me just last week that people occasionally ask her of she is pregnant, that she was just reflecting a societal sickness onto me. I know that I’ve thought as much about other women, which means that I’m afflicted, too.

I spent the drive home from church trying to figure out what I would say to Dylan if she were old enough to understand. I don’t want to be the one who distorts her unadulterated view of what a body should be by inadvertently indicating that it is an insult to be mistaken for pregnant, that a little fat is something to cry about. I also don’t want to keep my mouth shut and let someone else pass along a more pernicious message. I settled on telling her, as often as I can, that I love my body. I do. I don’t love it because it gave birth or because it runs marathons, or because it recovers from injury again and again, although I am grateful it does those things. I love my body because it is mine. I loved my body when it was hard and skinny and I love it now that it is soft. I love it when I am wasted in bed with a TMJ flare-up and food poisoning and a mouthful of stress-induced ulcers wanting to chop my own head off, like I was last week. I love it when it lets me down by cutting its milk production almost in half mere days after I post a breastfeeding manifesto worthy of La Leche League. Motherhood is not the hallmark of womanhood and health is not the hallmark of humanity. Every body is a miracle.

When I got home from church I snapped this picture and thought, yeah, I guess I do look a little pregnant. But also pretty hot. I scrapped the plans I’d made to go running, swapped the dress out for sweats, and got on with my life.

 

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And Now For A Post On The Thing That’s Consumed My Life For The Past Year

Don’t worry, it’s not Mormon Feminism. It’s breastfeeding! Is that worse? Probably. Oh well.

As my pregnancy progressed,  I planned to breastfeed. I spent $300 on a double electric pump and somewhere in the $40 to $60 range on a c-shaped pillow and extra cover. I signed up for a 3-hour class at the hospital and watched Robert fumble with a plastic baby doll in the football position. I packed my hospital bag with lanolin and gel packs and nursing bras. I collected bottles with nipples that look like, well, nipples, and I told my firm I was taking a five-month maternity leave in large part because I knew that making it to six months of breastfeeding would be a lot easier if I could put off pumping until well after my supply regulated. I worried about the possibility of a c-section because I’d read that allowing the baby to latch immediately would improve our odds of establishing a successful breastfeeding relationship. I made sure Robert knew he would be an essential component of the breastfeeding machine, bringing me icy water and pulling back grabby baby arms and burping and changing diapers because if I was handling input, he could certainly deal with output.

So I planned to breastfeed and I prepared for it. But I did not look forward to it, nor did I really expect it to work. Based on everything I’d heard and read, it sounded painful and limiting. I had no longstanding or deeply ingrained desire to do it. I knew I’d be upset if I couldn’t, but also knew that I wouldn’t be too distressed if we had to use bottles and formula. I knew for sure that I had no interest in extended breastfeeding.

I did deliver via c-section, so Robert held Dylan before I did and the first thing I remember noticing from my spot on the operating table was that she was so big and fat and babyish. Like a three-month old instead of a wrinkled little infant. I marveled at her perfect fat face for a few minutes? seconds? and then, I remember this part in slow motion, she stretched her mouth wide open and started rooting around for something to eat. The burden overwhelmed me: I had to feed that baby. It was on me. She was hungry and I needed to fix it. I couldn’t, of course, because my insides were still on the outside and I was practically seizing on the table from the epidural medicine, and I wondered if the doctors realized that they needed to hurry up because the baby was surely going to start crying at any moment. Like OBs have never heard a crying baby before. More than knowing I needed to feed the baby right now, I knew with an immediate and distressing certainty, that I’d be carrying that burden of keeping this baby alive for a very long time. I still don’t have the words to describe this feeling, but I’ve become somewhat more accustomed to it.

Dylan is almost eleven months old and sometimes it feels like thinking and worrying about her sustenance has preoccupied most of the last year. And truly it has, even more so now that we are balancing adult human food, pureed baby food, and breastmilk. I wash so many bottles, every day. I can’t drink my favorite tea because it is highly caffeinated. I’ve left meetings early and endured uncomfortable conversations to pump at work. Today I faced the wrath of a grumpy opposing counsel who didn’t understand why I needed more than 45 minutes for lunch in the middle of a deposition. If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I spent an hour sitting on my suitcase on the floor of an assisted care restroom in the Hartford airport this evening. When Dylan sprouted top teeth, she forgot how to latch and started doing this stupid painful scraping thing. I spent hours online “researching” issues with supply, poop, sickness, whatever, as they came up.

The purpose of thid post is twofold. First, I want to make clear that even though I like to complain when things are terrible to the point of absurdity that these moments stand out because they are rare. I know that every mom is different and every kid is different and that I am both extraordinarily lucky and privileged in this (and so many other) regards, but I want other women who will potentially be in the same position as me — going back to work with a baby — to know that it won’t necessarily be terrible. With some luck and planning it might even be awesome! At this point, I don’t want to stop when it’s socially appropriate. I know there is no shortage of breastfeeding stories out there on in the blogosphere and the positive and negative ones are equally liable to make women feel like crap about their circumstances, but when it comes to working and breastfeeding, the narrative often starts and ends with the soul sucking (get it?!) misery of pumping. I don’t hate pumping, though. I am happy and relieved that it’s worked for me as long as it has, and proud that I’ve stuck with it, and it makes me feel close to my kid when I’m at work. I never imagined that I’d be able to make it to a year with my intense work schedule and travel, but here we almost are.

Second, I want to make clear that we are here thanks in no small part to the fact that I live in a progressive city where I’ve never once felt uncomfortable feeding my baby, that my employer has been beyond supportive, and that I have a job with lots of flexibility and amenities (like a door that locks and the ability to pump whenever I need to) that make pumping feasible. It doesn’t matter how much you love breastfeeding, it’s going to be a massive and unsustainable chore if you have to do it in a bathroom stall every day. This is why I will never embrace any form of lactivism (stupid word, I promise never to use it again) that is focused on women and what they should or can do instead of on policies that make breastfeeding possible in the first place. This will never be a major cause for me, but I do think it’s possible to encourage small changes. For example, I try to never hide the fact that I need to pump at work. It doesn’t need to be embarrassing and people in the corporate world (and all worlds!) need to know that there are nursing women among them. I ask for accomodations even if I don’t expect to get them. Sometimes people are surprised,  but more often than not they are understanding. My hope is that going forward this makes breastfeeding just a little bit easier for other law moms.

This post has been brought to you by flight delays and the particular form of zombie mom brain that makes me think that the fact that something takes up a lot of space means other people want to hear it. Just be glad there are no gratuitous baby photos (or, worse, breastfeeding photos–they can be gorgeous, mine are not, and I’ve got a professional reputation to think about).

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“Don’t Let Me Into This Year With An Empty Heart”

For years now, as long as I can remember, I’ve rung in the new year with a pen in hand. Not at midnight. At midnight I’m wielding the requisite fondue stick or glass of fake champagne. The real shift comes later, when I’m sitting at my parents kitchen table scribbling in a notebook with the lights off or huddled up on an air mattress in tapping notes into my phone in a cabin with my in-laws or sprawled out on the couch with my laptop listening to Long December while my own little family snoozes around me. Words usher in the new year. Words escort the old one out. I usually end up with a long list of things I want to do better, or at least differently, and this year’s no different. 

I want to speak up more at work. I want to speak more carefully at home. I want to serve unthinkingly and love unceasingly. 

It’s a cliche to write self-consciously about cliches. I saw that quote you pinned about reaching for the stars and dancing like nobody’s watching. I know women my age are caged birds breaking free. I like metaphors with a little more weight. This year I will drop an anchor. I will tie myself off. I will nurture the tender, stretching roots I’ve set down in this city, in this job that I’ve already worked longer than any other, even though it feels like I just started. I will revive the sprawling, stretched-too-thin system that’s sapping every last bit of what Mormonism has to offer to nourish my flourishing faith. I will hack off the wild branches until all the fruit is good. I will sit still with my family. 

It’s coming down hard in Chicago tonight and my neighborhood is new with snow, except for the trail of footprints Robert and I left outside the front door when we dashed with bare feet to the tree across the street and back again because what else are you going to do for kicks at 12:00 a.m. when you are new parents and accidentally threw out all the sparklers left over from your wedding because they stink like sulfur? Robert convinced me to take my shoes off and I hated every second of it until I got back inside. Here’s to more of that in 2014. 

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Cold War

The landscape of my faith is pocked and scarred. I’m not the victim of some Holy War, though. This isn’t no scorched earth. No, this is just weather. Erosion, corrosion, wind and rain. Life. Sure, I dodged friendly fire, but I’m not one to turn on my sister. Sure, I wandered through wide canyons of doubt, dipped my toe in the river of betrayal, raged at a quiet sky, but I’m not one to leave the promised land. Earthquakes don’t move me. Lightening won’t strike me down. I will go the way of the dust. Slowly. Spreading myself everywhere. Clinging to the sole of your shoe. You will watch me disappear, but you won’t remember the moment it happened.

I walked the garden, a child.  I walked the grove, a child still. I walked the desert for seven years to lose it all and I walked the water for seven more trying to bring it all back. I pulled a handcart alongside the trail of my mothers but their road was no longer mine. The map was unreadable. Egyptian hieroglyph. I lost my father and my mother and my brother and my friend.

I still live here. Estranged in a stranger land. I am still holding it together like Lot’s wife in reverse. At least I belong to somebody.

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How To Make A Joke About Mormons

I accidentally buzzed a pair of shifty solicitors for a nonreputable energy company into my building this weekend. Dylan was wailing in my arms while I rocked her back and forth back and forth willing her to nap, Arty worked himself into a frenzy barking and jumping up on our front door and Robert hollered from the bathroom, “Can you get that?” and I figured it was UPS so I hit the buzzer and went back to the business of quieting my house.

A few moments later I heard a knock and a few moments after that the thud of the door slamming shut.

“It was those scammy guys from that fake energy company,” Robert informed me. “I told them to leave, but I think they’re knocking on the neighbors’ doors.”

I felt badly about letting them into the building. I’m not quite sure what the scam is, but they misrepresent themselves as being affiliated with ComEd, the big electric company, and ask if they can come inside to look at your most recent bill to see if you’re being overcharged. When they pitched us last year we did a little digging and found out that the company had lots of better business bureau complaints filed against them. Maybe it’s a shady company that uses nefarious devices to gain new customers, or but maybe it’s just two dudes taking notes on who is home and casing the apartments they gain access to for valuables. Either way, I figured I should get them out of the building and fast, or risk the wrath of the condo board.

I found one guy knocking on doors on the floor right below mine. I asked him to leave and he looked like a teenage boy caught in the act. Deer in headlights. “I guess I won’t stay if I’m not wanted.” No sir, more like you won’t stay when your invitation has been revoked because that’s trespassing. He walked down half a flight of stairs and then stopped and stared at the wall and I realized I was going to have to see him out. Baby in arms, I walked six steps behind him until we got to the first floor.

On the first floor, I found another guy talking to a neighbor I haven’t met, asking to see his electric bill. I interrupted. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. We’re not interested in your services here.” My neighbor got defensive. “I didn’t buzz him up.” “I know, I did, by accident. That’s why I’m asking him to leave.” After a bit of confusion and dealing with the second energy guy who actually had the nerve to ask what I didn’t like about their company, my neighbor agreed that they should go and shut his door, and the sketchy sales dudes walked out. Thud. Thud. “I guess they don’t like green energy.”

Almost as soon as the front door swung shut with the sound of the parting insult still hanging in the foyer, my neighbor’s door opened right back up, because of course we were going to compare notes on that weirdness. My neighbor had been joined by his partner.”He said he was from ComEd, but he didn’t have a record of our bills.” “He had a clipboard he kept jotting things down on, but I looked and saw that it was just a single sheet of paper with scribbles on it.” “He tried to get inside my apartment.” I apologized, we laughed, the neighbors called Robert and I out on ordering way too many packages and leaving them in the entryway for too long, and they said hi to Dylan, who was still in my arms.

The first neighbor observed, “You know, the first red flag was that someone was knocking on my door in the first place. Nobody ever knocks unless I buzz them first.”

“I told you not to answer the door,” his partner shot back, as he walked from the doorway back inside the apartment. He glanced over his shoulder, “I’m always afraid it’s the Mormons.”

Thud.

I laughed, but the neighbor still standing in the doorway could tell I was embarrassed and he hurried to reassure me. “It’s okay, you didn’t know who it was.” Hahaha. I kept laughing. “I’m actually laughing because I’m Mormon.” My neighbors hands flew to his mouth. “Oh we didn’t mean that!” “What’s that?” called the partner. I was all in now. “No big deal,” I said. “I was just explaining that I’m Mormon.” The partner didn’t look quite as mortified as the neighbor, but he did start babbling. “I just thought that if someone was knocking on the door, they might be Mormon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that….” He trailed off.

“Don’t worry, I get it. It could be the Mormons, it could be the Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Hahaha. (I still cringe at how my first instinct when my religion comes under scrutiny is to throw a more obscure sect under the bus. Not cool, Sandy. Not even if it’s Scientology.)

The conversation ended quickly. We shook hands, found out each others’ names, talked about the baby again, and I headed upstairs. The whole series of exchanges from the moment I hit the buzzer had been an entertaining break from the lull of my typical Saturday afternoon. I felt funny about how things ended with the neighbors, though. It had been going so well, and then I had to go and open my mouth about being Mormon and ruin things.

Except that’s not how it went. I didn’t do anything wrong. How about, my neighbor had to go and open his mouth and make a thoughtless joke that made me feel like I had to say something. I’m not in the business of proselytizing, but I am also not in the business of being silently shamed for the way I happen to believe. Maybe I should let him bear the burden of causing the awkwardness, instead of taking it upon myself.

I know I sound really uptight, getting up in arms over what was really a quite benign joke. But this happens all the time. Mormons have been a punchline in American popular culture for decades now, and as more we attain more visibility, the jokes become more widespread. In theory, I’m fine with this. I love jokes about Mormons! Often, they make me feel included, like part of this American life, instead of like an invisible freak. Often, they make me laugh hysterically. Often, I make these jokes myself. But the thing is, as Mormons become more integrated into the cultural landscape, as fewer and fewer people can claim the distinction of not knowing a Mormon, well, I expect the jokes to improve.

I know that comedians don’t love it when women, and people of color, and LGBTQ people, and religious minorities push-back on offensive jokes. But it’s just a joke, the say. But you don’t have to listen, they say. But Louis CK! they say (hat tip and language warning: Lindy West via Jezebel.) And they’re right. It’s just jokes, and I don’t have to listen, and lots of comedians handle sensitive issues subjects well, or are so dang hilarious that we tolerate offense. Comedians are free to say whatever they want, short of engaging in hate speech, which is a really high threshold in this country. I’m not telling anyone what jokes they can and can’t make. I’m not even saying that most jokes about Mormons are offensive. I’m just saying, in the words of the Almighty himself, Kanye West, “It’s not funny anymore, try different jokes.”

With that, here is your handy dandy guide to telling a joke about Mormons.

1. Don’t rehash tired material.

Recently, a boy in my congregation spoke about how the number one comment he gets about his religion from his classmates is, “How many moms do you have?” I’ve written before about how the first time I felt ashamed to be a Mormon was when my sixth-grade crush told me to go home and ask my five husbands about the church’s history with polygamy. Juvenile humor is a surefire way to get giggles and definitely has its place, but if you’re telling the same jokes as a grinning, gleeful middle school boy, you can do better.

But I’m not just talking about polygamy. I laughed the first time Homer answered the doorbell to aliens Kang and Kodos and said, “Oh, great, Mormons!” The idea that our Mormon missionaries are so ubiquitous and distinctive that any pair of strangers standing on your doorstep is amusing. But if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times. Let’s mix it up a little.

2. Get familiar with your subject matter.

The funniest jokes are the ones where the joke-teller is intimately familiar with her subject matter. Men can tell jokes about being married to women, working with women, dating women, whatever, but almost every time a man starts in on what’s going on inside a woman’s head, the joke falls flat. Because men don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. It’s not that you have to convert to make a joke about Judaism or go to dental school or run the risk of being considered an Anti-Dentite, it’s just that Jews and dentists have better access to the comedic goldmines in their respective religions/occupations.

Most humor about Mormons betrays the fact that the writer, or the comedian, or the run of the mill joke teller, knows very little about Mormonism. Mindy Kaling took a jab at Mormons in her memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? She said,

There have been times when friends have said they hooked up with someone and all it means is that they had a highly anticipated kissing session. Other times it’s a full-on all-night sex-a-thon. Can’t we have a universal understanding of the term, once and for all? From now on, let’s all agree that hooking up = sex. Everything else is “made out.” And if you’re older than twenty-eight, then just kissing someone doesn’t count for crap and is not even worth mentioning. Unless you’re Mormon, in which case you’re going to hell. There, I think we’re all on the same page.

This is totally funny! The term “hooking up” is confusing! But the sentence about Mormonism makes no sense, and suggests that Kaling knows little about Mormons beyond the fact that we’re one of the non-sex-having religions. First, we barely believe in hell. Not to get all technical about the theology, but we believe in a temporary holding state called “spirit prison” and in “outer darkness,” a terrible place for a a few very terrible people. Everybody else goes to one of three levels of heaven. (Full disclosure: those links go to lds.org.) Obviously kissing doesn’t get you to outer darkness, but maybe less obviously, neither does having sex. Second, most of the Mormons I know are actually not that prudish.  Mormons like to kiss. So much so that NCMO is practically Mormon teenage jargon. If Kaling had any familiarity with Mormon beliefs and culture, she would have said, “Unless you’re Mormon, in which case it’s time to DTR.”

I’m not saying you have to be a Mormon to make a funny joke about Mormons. All you need to do is get to know one. Just one. It won’t convert you, I promise. The more Mormons you know, the more material you have. My husband makes great jokes about Mormons; you know why? Because he married one and is now privy to all of our quirks and foibles. He knows that Mormons can’t get 30 seconds into a Sunday talk without their voice cracking with emotion. Men included. He knows that a party without a vegetable platter is not a party. Weddings included. He knows that Mormons chug Diet Coke by the gallon while turning their noses up at a 12 oz cup of coffee. For breakfast, even.

You know who else makes great jokes about Mormons? Matt Stone and Trey Parker, of South Park/Book of Mormon (musical) fame. You know why? Because everything they write about the church, as vulgar, blasphemous, and offensive as it can be (I say this lovingly, as a sorta-fan), is dead accurate. In fact, I think us Mormons owe them a big one for making such common Mormon tropes as the goody two-shoes/screw up missionary companionship, the spooky Mormon hell dream, and sickening optimism known to the wider world. Mormon jokes will improve because of it.

Ex-Mormons also tell good Mormon jokes because they have the knowledge of an insider and the discerning eye of an outsider. If you can’t bring yourself to befriend a Mormon, track down an ex.

3. Know your audience.

My neighbors were mortified to find out I was Mormon after making an “Oh no, the Mormons are coming!” joke.  They were probably more embarrassed than they need to be, given that most Mormons can take a harmless joke. I don’t think they’re bad people, although I am nervous that they now think I am a bad person who hates them because they’re gay (for the record, I don’t). But when you think of Mormons as Romney robots and Utah hicks, it can catch you by surprise to find one standing right in front of you in your urban Chicago condominium. For people in the media, when you think of Mormons as fundamentalist freakshows, it can catch you by surprise to find them in your fanbase.

Look, make whatever jokes you want. But if you wouldn’t want a Mormon to hear your joke, consider not making it. Not because offensive jokes are inherently wrong, just because we’re here. All those jokes you are making? We are listening. Not in a creepy big brother way, just in a “we like to watch TV, too” way. In a “we are your neighbors” way. And we’d prefer not to get things started off on an awkward foot. Don’t worry, though. With all these Mormons invading your world, you’re sure to pick up a Mormon friend or two, which as I previously mentioned, will lead to jokes galore.

4. Offer substantive critique.

Comedy is an invaluable tool for calling attention to injustice and other harmful behaviors, and the Mormon church is not off-limits. Last year, one of the church’s commercial arms opened City Creek Center, a fancy new mall in Salt Lake City. Although the church represented that it did not use members’ tithes in this development project, it faced a lot of well-founded criticism for opting to spend upwards of a billion dollars on such a worldly endeavor. God’s Mall is now the butt of some clever jokes by irritated Mormons and ex-Mormons and non-Mormon Utahns alike:  “And can I use the new LDS charge card…You know, the one where the 10% is added to each purchase?” (hat tip and critical apostate warning: the Salamander Society).

If these issues really matter to you, however, don’t let your haste to condemn injustice prevent you from taking care to offer a thoughtful, substantive critique. Let’s consider the issue of race.  It is well documented that, for much of its history until 1978, the Mormon church did not allow black women and men from participating in certain temple ordinances (including the ordinances required to enter the highest kingdom of heaven) and did not ordain black men to the priesthood. Although the church formally condemns racism today, there are still many wounds to be healed, apologies to be issued, and false doctrines to correct. There are many good people working hard on these issues, and a joke that ends in “The Mormon church didn’t even let black people in until 1978!” does little to move this good work forward.

Critiques of the parts of Mormon culture that reflect these now-repudiated policies are, of course, still fair game.  Observe that the cameras during General Conference always focus on the handful of women and men of color in the Mormon Tabernacle choir, as though the camera person is saying “Hey look, we’re not all white!” even though 99% of the choir is white. Or, you could point to the fact that the I’m a Mormon PR campaign features more diversity than the church hierarchy likely ever will, at least in our lifetimes. Or consider the line from the Book of Mormon musical that “God changed his mind about black people in 1978.” This is funny and useful because it critiques the long-held Mormon belief that the church’s racist polices reflected will of God, rather than, well racism. Attention to the absurdity of this claim may well be part of the reason why recent church statements about the temple and priesthood bans no longer suggest that they came from God and imply (without stating outright, c’mon guys, you can do it) that they were a product of the time. The church still has a long way to go, but if you want to be part of these conversations, you can’t maintain or feign ignorance to progress that is being made.

5. Don’t be a jerk.

I think that references to “magic/funny underwear” and “secret temples” fall into the first category because man are they played out, but I’m putting them here because overuse is not the reason they make Mormons bristle. Jokes about garments and temples hurt the worst because these subjects are sacred to us and it is deeply upsetting to hear or watch something you revere be profaned. That’s not why you shouldn’t make these jokes, though. You should refrain from making these jokes for the same reason you wouldn’t mock a Jewish man’s kippah or a Muslim woman’s hijab. If you feel okay about mocking Mormons, but not other religious groups, please heed the alternate phrasing for this guideline: don’t be a bigot.

By all means, go ahead and pigeonhole us with polygamy, marginalize our weird, virginal piousness, shame us with the c word, carry on your merry way making tired, unfunny, surface-level jabs at our rich, expansive, and, I swear to you, hilarious culture. Do what you want. But when you deny another person her humanity, you’re no better than the religion you seek to distance yourself from.

I am a person, not a punchline. And if you’re going to make me a punchline, at least try to make it a good one.

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W

Do you have that friend who makes you feel like your life is just utterly pedestrian? That insanely cool person who won’t give it a rest? Sunday morning brunches, Thursday evening benefits, Saturday karaoke, trips to Europe, worked for a nonprofit, lives in a loft, throws baby showers and engagement parties, sees obscure indie bands play in underground locations, has one thousand friends, and also happens to be kind, generous, and loving? That person is the worst.

Last week I was talking to this friend, let’s call her W, about budgeting and cutting back on expenses, particularly cabs. I humblebragged that I never take cabs, I’m a public transit girl through and through. “But what do you do when you’re out at 2 am and it’s time to go home?” “Oh friend, the last time I was out after midnight was two years ago and I was with you. You saw me heading to the train and put me in a cab instead and that was the last time I spent $20 just to get home.”

A few weeks before that a mutual friend asked if I could recommend a waxing salon, and I turned to W because she is a style and personal hygiene guru. She passed on her recommendation to both of us. I thought about pointing out that I cut my hair every other year, don’t wear makeup, and have been with the same man for 8.5 years, and therefore will not be waxing anything anytime soon, but opted to pocket the information instead.

Last Friday, I posted a picture of our Christmas jigsaw puzzle on Instagram and W commented that 1,000 pieces was quite bold. I know she was admiring (envying?) our jigsaw skills, but in that moment occurred to me that I could probably stand to do something a little more bold on a Friday night than curling up doing a 1,000 piece jigsaw and binge-watching The League.
And I’d like to preempt anybody who might be tempted to blame Dylan for this, because I’ve been this boring for years.

Thank goodness I’ve got friends like W to liven things up.

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