Marie-Laure Oscarson suggests that “having it all” means something different for everyone. For her—a mother, a university professor, and a convert to the LDS Church—it comes down personal revelation about specific life choices regarding her family, her profession, and her religion. Marie-Laure’s path has included the Catholic faith, French existentialist philosophy, a curiosity about the Amish lifestyle, and the Mormon missionaries who helped rekindle her faith in God’s love.
You were raised in France in the Catholic faith and are now an LDS woman living in Utah. How did that transition come about?
During my last year of high school in France I had a philosophy teacher who was an atheist. God did not exist for her. She really challenged my beliefs. Although I was raised Catholic, I started reading existentialist authors and found a lot of meaning in their words. It made sense to me. I thought, “Okay, there is no God. I need to fight for my own happiness. I cannot count on some supernatural power to make me happy; I need to do it on my own.” I was reading all of these books and was not hanging out with my friends anymore. It got so bad that my dad called my friends on the phone and ask, “Can you get Marie-Laure out of her room? She’s with her books again.” So my friends would come over and ask, “What’s going on?” And I would say, “We are all dying! Do you realize that we’re dying?!” I had this really clear sense that life was coming to an end, and that I had to figure it all out. It was an intense and very lonely time in my life. My questions burned inside of me, and I had to find answers. I felt really sad as I would think, “Wow, I’m by myself. I am on my own.” I really missed communion with God and the Spirit, although I couldn’t quite articulate it at the time.
After I finished my high school degree, I went to a college in France for one year and then decided I wanted to improve my English, so I chose to go abroad to America to live as a nanny. I ended up in Philadelphia, and nannied for a family with two little kids. While living in Philadelphia, I started attending the Catholic Church again to see if I could find what I was searching for. This congregation spoke in tongues and was very different from my low-key experience with the Catholic Church in France. One day, while I was at home, the missionaries knocked on the door. They scared me a little bit because I thought they were going to push their religion on me and behave as intensely as the Catholics down the street. I thought, “Oh no, I don’t need more of this.” I told the missionaries that I was not interested and sent them away.
During this time, I became interested in the Amish who lived in the area, and I thought their lifestyle and devotion were fascinating. The other nannies and I attended a Fourth of July celebration, and as we were watching the fireworks, I noticed a large group of young people wearing suits and dresses. These were the Mormon missionaries, but I thought they were a group of Amish youth. I really wanted to know about the glue that bound them together. I didn’t spend any time with the members of my Catholic congregation outside of church so this group of religious young people was interesting to me. I went over and started talking to them. One of the burning questions I asked was, “What, for you, is the purpose of life?” After talking for a bit, I realized that these were not the Amish people but the Mormon missionaries! The other nannies discouraged me, saying, “Don’t talk to the missionaries. All they talk about is the Bible.” I said, “I have questions. These are people who know about their faith.”
So, the elders started teaching me in the library, and I felt the Spirit very strongly when I was with them. They would teach me the gospel, and I would feel so good. After I would return home, that feeling was gone. I shared my concerns with the missionaries. They gave me the Book of Mormon and said, “You’ve got to read.” My doubts lessened when I read the Book of Mormon. As I read, the book became my best companion. I read, and I cried. For the first time in my life I felt the deeper connection that I had been searching for. It got to the point where I could not depart from the Book of Mormon, and I would sleep with it right next to my pillow. It was a safety blanket for me–it was the law, the safety, the peace, the truth, and the light that I had been looking for. I could feel power in its pages. It was wonderful. My doubts also lessened when the missionaries taught me how to offer personal prayers. My Catholic prayers were very meaningful and sincere but they were all recitation. When I prayed personal prayers, the Spirit felt obvious. Right before I decided to get baptized, I knelt down, and I prayed. I was able to recognize the Spirit. It started in my head and moved down into my toes. It felt like a sweet, kind presence that I was missing before. From that point on I thought, “Of course I’m getting baptized. I know these things are true.” I was baptized shortly thereafter.
Were there particular doctrines of Mormonism that really resonated with you?
One of the things that resonated the most for me was the doctrine of eternal marriage. Up to that point, I had lost faith in marriage. My parents’ marriage went through many ups and downs. They stayed together, but I really questioned their decision to stay together after a point. Growing up, I idealized the relationship between Jean-Paul Sartre–the big existentialist philosopher–and Simone de Beauvoir, who was a great feminist in France. Sartre had his apartment in Paris. De Beauvoir had her apartment in Paris. They never got married. They never wanted children. They were a couple but they had their separate lives, too. That was my ideal: I would have my career. I would have my life. My significant other would have his own apartment and his own life, and we would meet up to eat together. When the missionaries taught me about celestial, eternal marriage, it was like a dream come true. All of the sudden, I realized that this type of marriage was right and true. I developed faith in a kind of marriage that can be wholesome and healthy and beautiful.
How did your family respond to your conversion?
My conversion to Mormonism was very difficult for my family as they were devout Catholics. I was baptized in Philadelphia, and they had a hard time with the fact that I had made this decision while I was so far away. I wrote to them, and we talked on the phone. My mom said, “You know you are an adult. It’s your choice. But watch out.” She was a little bit concerned as she had heard about polygamy. I tried to reassure her. Shortly after I was baptized, I returned to France. While I was home, my mom tried really hard to get me back into the Catholic Church. My grandmother was devastated because I was not participating in our cultural traditions like drinking a glass of good wine at dinner. My dad had these old bottles of wine that he had inherited from his father. They were still covered in dust when he placed them on the dinner table to show their age. I would not drink this wine, and my grandma said, “What is going on with you?” It was a little shocking to them.
I knew so deeply that I was doing the right thing that I was fine with their reactions. I prayed often that they would accept my choices, and eventually they did. Their feelings have really evolved.
What brought you back to America to stay?
I lived in France for a year after my baptism, and then felt this burning desire to go on a mission. I felt godly, divine intervention encouraging me to serve. I was called to England, and the first question my mission president asked me was, “What are your plans after the mission? Have you ever thought about Brigham Young University?” Although I planned on living in London after my mission, he planted the idea of BYU into my mind. I ended up changing my plans and moving to Provo to attend BYU after my mission.
While I was a graduate student at BYU, I taught French at the MTC and then got a job in BYU’s French department teaching beginning French language classes. One day during class, this tall, blue-eyed, blond student showed up, and my goodness, I could not help but notice him. Because I was teaching this class and he was a student, I couldn’t go out with him! The following semester when he was no longer in my class, we happened to find ourselves in the same seminar, this time both as students. He asked me out and we started dating. We didn’t date long before we got married, but we’ve been together for 14 years and have four children.
Do you have any plans to move back to France with your family?
Not in the near future. My husband currently works at BYU as a Humanities professor, and I am a part-time adjunct professor in the university’s French department. We try to take the family back to France every two years. Although some part of me hopes there will be another adventure in the future, raising children here in Utah has been perfect. I like that it feels safe. I love that we’re such a strong-knit community. I love that my children have many friends. I love that we are so close to nature and that we can experience it with the children. I love that we can easily go hiking or snowshoeing with them.
You live in a community that advocates traditional roles for women. Have you felt support from your peers as a woman and mother who works outside of the home?
In the culture I’m from, most women and mothers work outside of the home. Everything in French society is structured to support women’s professional lives. For example, day care is readily available for working mothers. My mom worked, and I was brought up with the expectation that all women work. People in my immediate community here are great about this. There are several moms like me who have one foot in the working world. My colleagues have been great. They know my family situation, and some of them have been so helpful. I’ve never felt criticized or been accused of being a bad mother. My husband and I have had to learn to juggle our schedules. Overall, though, I think my job has helped me become a better mother.
The home can be a very difficult environment–it’s a lot of menial tasks mixed with wonderful connections and relationships. I did not know what motherhood would be like when I got married. When I had my first child, we were living in Berkeley. I was not working the semester my first child was born and my husband was really busy completing his PhD. I remember the first month of motherhood really well. As much as I loved this little baby and did not want anyone else to take care of him, I cried a lot. I wondered, “Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing? Who have I become?” All of the daily tasks were very menial and repetitive. The sleep deprivation was difficult. I’m glad I had that space to really crash with my baby and then survive together and grow to enjoy those moments with him. Now that my babies have grown and become a bit more independent from me, I like to be in the workplace engaging in other ways with people. It has also been good for me to step out of the house and get my mind in a book once in awhile. As a mother I feel like so many people need my attention at once, and it’s so busy. It’s been really healthy for me to ground myself in thought and study instead of doing, doing, doing all of the time.
Do you have any advice that you could give to young women who want to balance work and motherhood?
I could not do it without my husband. Having a husband who is wonderfully involved with the children is important. My husband knows how to take care of the kids and how to deal with the house. When he comes home from work he steps into this family universe, and he does wonders. Having his support is of primary importance. The second important factor for me is having a job that brings a lot of joy. My job has fed my mind and helped me build relationships with my students.
I can’t say that I’m juggling it all perfectly, though. Sometimes it’s not very graceful. Sometimes my kids see that I have too much work and that I’m stressed out. I try to apologize to my kids when that happens.
Do you think women living in America can have it all–career, family, social life, etcetera?
I asked my friend this week, “Can I have it all?” and she said, “You can have it all, but not the way the world sees ‘having it all’.” I think it is a very personal path. My version of “have it all” is very specific to my family and to my profession. I know that spiritual revelation will guide me through difficult decisions. I have felt God talking to me, leading me, and guiding me. This gives me a lot of courage and determination. The peace and love that I feel testify that God lives; even when doubt creeps in, I can turn to prayer and feel that knowledge of His love again. Faith in God’s love is what anchors me in this life as I continue to make family and career decisions.
I went to my mission president’s funeral a few years ago, and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was there. During his address, he said that when we leave this life, we take three things with us: Our covenants with God, our relationships, and our character. As I go through life and repent of my attitudes or mistakes, I remember what Elder Holland said. I remember that I’m taking with me my covenants and the goodness that God has given me. When my kids are hugging me and pouring their love upon me, or when I feel so much love for my children and for my husband, I remember that this is eternal. No one can take this from me. This knowledge really gives me a foundation; it gives me roots even though I am thousands of miles from where I was born and raised. I am very grateful for this. I know that with God, all good things take place.
At A Glance
Location: Provo, UT
Marital status: Married
Children: Four (ages 13, 10, 8, 4)
Occupation: Adjunct faculty at Brigham Young University
Baptism: September 1988
Schools Attended: BYU
Languages Spoken at Home: French and English
Favorite Hymn: ““Souviens-toi” (in French hymn book)
Interview by Krisanne Hastings. Photos used with permission.