November 1, 2009, Leipzig, Germany
An American student at the University of Leipzig, in Germany, Michelle has spent the last two years studying “mommy blogs” and writing her Masters thesis on the subject. Michelle describes what motivated her to study in Germany, how her church experience is different there, and why Mormon women have special justifications for keeping blogs.
You are American, but are currently living in Leipzig, Germany. What motivated you to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Leipzig?
I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah but I’ve always had a mysterious longing — maybe it’s the Spirit of Elijah! — to connect with my ancestors who were from Switzerland. My last name is Swiss, and I always thought it was such a shame that my family hadn’t kept the language. I always wanted to learn German. I took a German class in junior high school and I went on a one-month long summer program in Kiel through the University of Utah, and I loved it! I went again the next summer, and finished college that semester in Germany.
I worked for the Church for two years after that in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. I love libraries. I love to read, and I had worked for the Salt Lake County Library system. I was actually called on a mission during that time and I ended up not going. I just didn’t feel right about it. In hindsight, I feel like my mission was to work at the Family History Library. I was already serving the Lord and I was training 75 senior missionaries at any one time.
That takes a lot of confidence to turn down a mission call. Where did you find the strength to say, “This isn’t for me”?
I can tell you exactly where that came from: I had already been engaged and that was one of the most defining experiences of my life. I loved him, and I thought we were great for each other, but I just knew it wasn’t right. The more I prayed about it, the worse I felt. But there is all this social pressure to marry and I kept trying to ignore my feelings and tell myself I was just nervous. Finally, I was talking to my sister and I said “I’m just so confused, I don’t even know what I’m confused about anymore.” And she said, “Hello! Sounds like a ‘stupor of thought’ to me!” So when I turned down the mission call, I had already changed paths once when I walked away from the engagement.
With the mission call, I thought, “The Lord wouldn’t tell me not to serve Him!” It made no sense to me. But finally, the same sister said, “Michelle, you need to take one minute and think about what you would do if you didn’t go on a mission.” And so I took her advice. And in that one minute I had peace after total chaos for a whole month before, so I thought, “Okay! Well I guess that’s my answer.”
How did you end up in Leipzig after working for the Family History Library?
I worked at the library for two years. I totally threw myself into that job and I loved it, but I was burnt out. And so I went back to my dream of living in Germany. I applied for Masters degree programs. Coming here to the University of Leipzig has been the best decision. I know this is exactly what I was supposed to do.
I have now been here for two years, and I recently finished my Masters program. The program itself was actually in English, but I have the members of the Church here to thank for my German cause they were patient with me!
What is the church community like there in Leipzig?
There are just little differences. The Church is of course a universal thing, but the way the people greet each other here is different. Everyone shakes hands with everyone else when they come into the chapel. One of the biggest differences is the importance of music. People here are hardcore about their music! I have always loved music, but I have never been a singer myself. When I got here, I decided I would sing in the Stake Choir. Here, they have two huge Stake Choir performances each year: at Christmas and at Pentecost. They perform songs you would never hear from an American choir: Lutheran hymns, Reformation hymns… “All Creatures of Our God and King” but with different music than we’re used to. Everyone brings their own songbooks, their own personal LDS hymnbooks. There are a few hymnals at the chapel for visitors, but it’s expected that people will bring their own.
And when they say they “play” the piano, they play the piano! They are amazing musicians. There are seven or eight organists called in my ward; there could be more, those are just the official ones. Leipzig is the “City of Music” because Bach lived here, and so people here really know their music. In America, I often feel that people don’t really know how to sing tenor or bass, they just kind of go along with the melody in a different octave… but here, the members really know what they’re doing.
Does that affect your Sunday worship to have that excellent music?
It helps, absolutely. The musical pieces people play in between talks in Sacrament Meeting are usually classical pieces. When I’ve been asked to play the piano in my ward, I’ve gravitated to playing an arrangement of a hymn, but I think that’s just from my experience in an American ward. I’ve played classical pieces in Sacrament Meetings the last few times and they turned out alright.
Do you attend a family ward there in Leipzig, or is there a singles ward you attend?
We have what are called “outreach centers” that senior missionaries run. These centers are open during the week so that young single adults can get together and have a safe hangout. There are Institute classes at night and there are huge conferences for young single adults about once a month. It’s a vibrant singles life.
People date differently here because everyone lives far apart. There’s actually a German-speaking Mormon version of Facebook online, so everyone has their friends and they can look at each other’s pictures online…
Are you interested in dating Americans or Germans?
I stay away from Americans as much as I can! I kind of have a different attitude from most of the Americans I run into here. Most Americans are living an American life, just in a different country. I, however, really try to incorporate myself into the culture and only speak German. I always feel weird when people define me by my passport. People say things like, “Oh, I know another American. Maybe you guys should meet each other!” I always think, “Well do we have anything else in common?” I try to avoid the whole American scene. My mom of course would love me to come back to the United States and marry someone there!
Dating here is very different than in America. Guys and girls just talk to each other and then there will be a group activity where they’re near each other and then they’ll be kind of together and that goes on for a long time… But to really go out on a date, just two people… no one does that. I’m constantly reminding German guys here that Elder Dallin H. Oaks said it needs to be “paired off, paid for, and planned”!
From your American perspective, how do LDS women in Germany differ from their American counterparts?
It’s very expensive to live in Germany and have a family, so almost all German women work. Most women balance both roles of mother and worker. The childcare system is excellent here — the people who work in them are well-trained. They have degrees in child-raising.
Discussions in Relief Society have more of a debate style than I’m used to in the U.S. From my experience in American Relief Societies, I remember discussions being flowery and everyone told happy stories. But here, people aren’t afraid to speak up and say, “Actually I don’t agree with that point.” It shocked me the first few times, but women here have an understanding and friendliness that I eventually picked up on.
Tell us about your Masters thesis. How did you decide to write about female bloggers?
I actually started writing about Mormon women bloggers specifically but all of my peers and professors said, “You’re too close to your subject! You need to back up a little.”
I did end up writing one essay about Mormon women bloggers and it was published in a Turkish literary magazine. In my article, I said Mormon women have unique justification for writing. I talked about how in the first chapters of the Book of Mormon, the people are told to keep records for family genealogy and to preserve the language. To keep the religion alive and persuade each other to believe in Christ. Modern day prophets have told Mormons that writing is a source of power: it follows the example of scripture, Christ commanded it, and also, it keeps God in daily remembrance.
In your thesis, you write about the difference between men’s autobiographical writings and women’s, saying that men’s writings are much more accomplishment-oriented. Why is women’s writing so much more personal and doesn’t dwell on public recognition like men’s writing?
The obvious answer is that women throughout history haven’t had a big a role in the public sphere. One autobiographical scholar, Jill Conway, has said that women’s autobiographical writing is a spiritual journey and uncertain in its explorations. I agree with that to some extent, but I think within Mormon autobiographical writing it is actually quite certain: LDS women share their testimonies of things they are sure of. Men, even today with blogs, use writing as a way to brag and show off, whereas women are willing to show their weaknesses and talk about the more private sphere because that’s what they know. They’re the ones spending more time with the children, so they’re going to write about what they know—their experiences in the home.
In your research, what was the main difference you found between LDS bloggers and non-LDS bloggers?
Well, LDS bloggers bear their testimonies of Christ far more than non-LDS bloggers, obviously, but the biggest difference I would say is their surety—the surety that what they are doing as mothers is right. The mothers who don’t have the belief that motherhood is sacred are the ones who write about disappointments in motherhood. They aren’t sure where their identity lies: in a public career or home with their children. One major difference is in the tone of the blogs. The Mormon women write about disasters with their children and they do it in a humorous way. They always end up writing about it abstractly in the end. They say, “I’m actually grateful to have this challenge in my life because . . .” They end up talking about how grateful they are and how these experiences make life interesting and funny. The non-LDS women are simply like, “What am I doing? What a mess!”
Do you think it is a self-selecting group of LDS mothers who are putting their lives online? They already have the confidence to go out before the world and say, “This is what I do and I’m proud of it.” Are there other LDS mothers who don’t have that confidence and therefore don’t enter the blogging world?
I have thought about that a lot as well. I definitely think LDS bloggers are a self-selected group, but there are places for the women who don’t feel so confident about their roles too. For example, the blog Feminist Mormon Housewives is written by women who are more likely to debate if motherhood is what is really good for them, and yet most of them stay within the traditional mother role in practice.
Have you looked at any journals from the Mormon pioneer women and contrasted those to what Mormon women are doing today? It seems that women’s narrative has been a thread throughout Mormon history.
I have done quite a bit of work comparing pioneer women’s journals to Mormon mommy blogs today. The similarities are fascinating! There was one pioneer women’s journal I read who talked about the journey to Utah and I analyzed several of her statements. She wrote about how bad she felt for the children and she wished she could help them more. The themes were so similar to what mommy bloggers write about today. The pioneer women had those same justifications for writing at that time that we have today: they had the Book of Mormon, and they had the prophet who wanted things recorded.
In your thesis, you reference Betty Friedan’s pivotal 1963 book when you say, “What [Friedan] did not foresee was that the future form of autobiographical writing, the blog, would make a way for educated mothers to stay at home and have public involvement simultaneously.” Do you see the Mormon blogs as an effort to get publicly involved, or do they focus solely on the idea of validating motherhood?
I think the Mormon mommy blogs definitely do meet that need for public involvement that Betty Friedan talked about, but they don’t do that overtly. The writers don’t say, “I’m writing this blog because I want someone from the outside world to give me some sort of feedback.” Because of Mormon women’s unique justifications for writing, they would be writing anyway, even if there weren’t social feedback or influence. As I say in my thesis, a blog not only confirms her life as being interesting, but it gives her a grand, physical accomplishment that can give her immense satisfaction.
Outside of the Mormon sphere, there is much more emphasis put on a cohesive community of bloggers and really making an impact as a group. BlogHer, for example, is all about getting as many women bloggers together as possible. The focus is more on building an impacting, public community in that case.
So what are your goals now that you’ve completed your Masters thesis?
Well, now I am just waiting for my grade! I’m still here in Leipzig and now I’m studying Chinese and Spanish. I’m thinking I might pursue a doctorate with a focus on a similar theme of autobiographical writing, but we’ll see what happens!
At A Glance
Location: Leipzig, Germany
Marital status: Single
Schools Attended: University of Utah, Universitat Leipzig
Languages Spoken at Home: English, German
Favorite Hymn: “Come Thou Fount” (“Komm Du Quelle”) and “Be Still My Soul”
Current Church Calling: Pianist, organist, Primary teacher
On the Web: Visit Michelle’s own blogs at michelleglauser.blogspot.com and germanyfromanamericanperspective.blogspot.com
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.