This complete interview may be heard at the Mormon Women Project podcast.
Heather grew up in a large family in the 1970s and 80s in Salt Lake County, Utah. During her childhood, she absorbed messages about motherhood and womanhood that complicated some of the pain and difficulty she faced through her childbearing years. As she and her husband experienced challenges and choices, blessings and loss, she developed what she feels is a truer perspective on her worth as a daughter of God, and on the responsibilities and privileges associated with motherhood. Her faith in Christ and in loving Heavenly Parents has sustained and guided her. Heather was the inspiration for our End of the Childbearing Years series, which includes almost 100 short essays from other Mormon women.
You grew up in a family of nine children. Where do you fall in the family?
I am the third of the nine children.
What was it like for you to grow up in such a large family?
Where I grew up, there were actually multiple families that had seven to ten children, so while we may have been a little unusual, I wouldn’t have considered us rare. There are pluses and minuses to different family configurations. I think my favorite part was having lots of siblings and getting to play mommy with the younger ones, I really loved that. Our resources were stretched pretty thin, but my parents were frugal and they were hard workers and they pulled it off. I guess there were some unmet needs on my part, some emotional needs, but no childhood is perfect. I love my family.
Did your parents ever talk to you, when you were younger or as an adult, about their choice to have a large family?
Yes, somewhat. My dad’s patriarchal blessing said he would have a “quiver full of children,” which references Psalms 127:3. I looked it up once and a quiver traditionally held eight arrows, so the fact that my dad had nine children—he really outdid himself. My mom would say that she knew from a really young age that she wanted a large family, and I kind of suspect it has something to do with her being the tenth of ten children herself.
What were the messages—whether or not you feel today they are true—that you absorbed growing up about family size?
I’ve had some time to think about this as an adult, when I’ve looked back trying to figure out where my messaging had come from. I think the primary authoritative voices in my young life were my mother and the church. I’ll tell you some of these messages; they might trigger some varying responses in your listeners and readers, but they do reflect the ideas that I was absorbing as a girl regardless of how they were intended. This is what I was absorbing:
That a woman’s worth and purpose is in childbearing;
That marriage is for bearing and rearing children;
That it is unrighteous to delay children after marriage, or it is selfish to have fewer children than you’re physically capable of having;
That certain spirits were assigned to you pre-mortally, and if you don’t get them all here, you’ll be breaking a covenant;
That women should graduate from college so they can be better mothers;
And I once even heard my mom say to a friend, “I have nine children and I expect to have eighty-one grandchildren.” I suppose now that she was joking, but still, it left an impression.
I want to hear more about that in a minute, but first let’s go back to your story. Tell me about how you met and married your husband.
We met while I was a sophomore and he was a senior at BYU, and we married the following summer. After that, he attended graduate school also at BYU while I finished up my Bachelor’s degree.
How many kids were in his family growing up?
He was the youngest of the three.
So what were your conversations like about family size? You came from pretty different families.
Yeah, we did. I mean, we were both third children, but his third-child experience was quite a bit different than mine. I think we both intuitively sensed that we would try for more than three, but probably fewer than nine, and that we would make those decisions prayerfully. We didn’t settle on a number or anything like that, we just were going to let things unfold a bit. We were unified in wanting to provide a happy, safe, gospel-centered home where we could have good quality relationships with each of our children, and where they could thrive emotionally and have opportunities for education, developing talents.
We talked about those things quite a bit, and had a shared vision. Looking back on how many good people we’ve known who have struggled with infertility, I kind of marvel now at some of our young confidence; we just assumed that we could pull this off. Since I was going to school at the time when we were first married and I was also working, and he was in grad school, we agreed that we would delay children until after I had graduated because I had two years left.
How did your life change, and how did your marriage change when your children started coming?
Well, when our first child was born, pretty much on schedule—so far so good—I was working for a Biotech startup company in Salt Lake and I really enjoyed what I was doing. But I did cut my work hours in half while trying to keep the same responsibilities and that was very challenging. I felt divided. I was totally in love with my little boy and there was this invisible thread connecting our hearts, and whenever I was away it was just tugging on me. So when I became pregnant with my second child—and at that point my company really needed me working more hours, not less—I chose to quit my job and move into full-time mother mode. And I felt relief that I no longer had to feel divided, and I felt really lucky that my husband could now fully support us financially, because I know that’s a privilege.
So then a couple of years later, I had a little boy who was a “preemie,” he was fourteen weeks early. That was a little bit dramatic in our lives, he’s a miracle and a story in himself. Then two years later, almost to the day, we had another little boy. So we had four children in six and a half years, and we felt very blessed.
Were there any complications with that fourth pregnancy?
No. It was such a relief because we did feel some trepidation after the preemie, wondering, “Is this what we’re going to be up for again?” But no, it was a pretty flawless pregnancy and delivery and that was a huge relief.
After your first four children you waited to get pregnant again due to both physical and mental health concerns. Would you like to talk about that?
Sure. I was thinking about this, that in the world of engineering you test for structural weakness by applying pressure or stress. It turns out that having four children in six years, at least for me, had created some stress, even though I was having a great time. I found the work rewarding, but also demanding and stretching, and that stretching started to reveal some weakness and blind spots. For a parent like me, I was kind of an idealist, and I wanted to do it all, maybe a little too much. I definitely didn’t have a feeling of closure after my fourth child, but I also wasn’t seeing how I could have another child right away. I had a bacterial infection that lasted two years, and my hormones started to get a little out of whack, so when it came to the question of whether I wanted to have another child—I felt kind of stuck, like a definite stupor of thought.
At that point, some of that imprinting from my childhood started to crop up. My mother had had children every two to three years—that was just kind of the pattern that had imprinted on me—so in this kind of stuck state, once that two to three-year timespan had come and gone, I started feeling some anxiety about this gap in our family. Every passing month exacerbated that feeling. I was just waiting for God to step in and solve it for me, because after all, wasn’t this the question that he most cared about, my family? It turns out he was letting me struggle so I could learn some big lessons.
And then there were a few other stressors besides this gap: children getting older, and parenting became a little more complex, and they were requiring a lot of guidance. So all that anxiety led to some obsession about the problem and that led to a little bit of depression, neither of which I understood at the time because I came from a pioneer “Just get over it” kind of upbringing. I was soldiering through the best I could not really realizing why I was feeling so stuck in this decision.
What are the lessons that you feel you were learning during that time?
A lot of them I was learning in retrospect. I was kind of getting more and more stuck, and more desperate for an answer. When I got sufficiently humbled, and I understood the stuckness was not going away, I started realizing, “There’s something wrong with the way I’m approaching all of this, because I’m not feeling good. I’m not moving through it.” So I had to start looking at some of my paradigms and I realized that I was someone who needed to be taken care of, too. I needed to learn more about health, and the interplay between physical and mental and emotional health. It was just a big process of discovery. It took a while for me to stop and say, “I’ve got something to learn here. I can’t keep waiting for God to step in and say, ‘You shall do this.’ ”
Can I ask what self-care solutions you came up with?
Well, I started realizing that we weren’t placed on this planet alone to figure everything out for ourselves—that there were people out there who had answers to things. So I went to some different doctors to figure out what in the world hormones were about, met with a great counselor who informed me that my thinking was causing some of my problems. I needed to maybe let go of a few more things, exercise, and have great nutrition—all those things that I had thought, “Well, I’ll get to that when it’s convenient. Right now, I’m focusing on my family.” As it turns out, I needed to be focusing on me, too.
While you were dealing with all of this, and deliberating over whether and when to have another child, what did your husband feel and what were your communications with him like?
He was always really loving and supportive and respectful of my health and my desires. He personally, I think, could have felt peace and closure with four children, since he wasn’t burdened by any of that messaging that I had from my own youth. But he also welcomed the idea of having another child. He’s a great daddy and loved his kids, so we communicated openly and often about it, but in the end he felt that I should be the one to make the decision since it would have the greatest impact on me.
Was he aware of how much this decision was affecting you?
Yes and no. We talked about it enough that he was aware, but obviously he wasn’t worried about that all during the day while he was at work, and I was at home thinking, “What do I do?”
How did you know when it was time?
I think I finally just realized that indecision was kind of a de facto decision, so I got brave and stepped out of my analysis paralysis long enough to muster some courage, and I just took a leap of faith and said, “Okay, let’s just try.” Which seems so simple, but it took a long time to get to that point.
So you became pregnant, but you experienced a miscarriage at sixteen weeks. What were your conversations like with God during that time?
Conversation is a good word for it. I did become pregnant immediately. I thought that was kind of telling. I’m like, “Oh okay. I got it,” and then I was really sick that entire sixteen weeks which is not characteristic for me, really. And the miscarriage was fairly dramatic and I mourned, and I wondered, “Well what in the world is God telling me? Is this yes? Is this no? Is this not yet? I’m confused.” My prayers were from a place of really deep need and humility at that point, and I was learning firsthand that righteous desires and even righteous actions don’t necessarily spare a person from suffering.
A few months later, I was inspired reading the story in Ether about the Brother of Jared carrying his sixteen stones to the mountain as his proposal for lighting the barges. I needed light, and so I decided to carry my own sixteen stones to the mountain. I went to the temple and I told God that I would try to get pregnant for three months, and then after that, I had to move on for the sake of my health which again had suffered with that miscarriage, and for the sake of the rest of my family. It wasn’t really like laying sixteen stones on an altar. It felt a little more like laying myself on the altar. But I got pregnant, the third month of that three month window, and I quickly sought out a perinatologist who put me on some hormone treatments. We ended up with a beautiful baby girl who is almost eight years younger than her next closest sibling, and she has blessed our lives for ten years now. She has some of the advantages of an only child, and some of the advantages of being raised in a pack and we have had a wonderful journey of learning together.
As you’ve observed your children over the last ten years, what has that eight year gap been like for them?
It’s just been fascinating to watch. When she was born, she became kind of the family mascot. I mean, everyone was just so enamored by her, and such a delight. Having six grown-ups, practically—big people to her anyway—taking care of her for her whole life, she’s just a very mature young lady. It’s been really good for us. It has provided a different perspective than we would have had otherwise, and certainly nothing I ever would have ever planned. But maybe that’s part of the beauty of it. I mean, I planned to have her, but the eight-year gap would not have been planned.
Did you feel yourself resolving some of the anxiety and the fear that you had had during the years previous? Did you come to a place of peace?
Yes. Regarding courageously going ahead and having that last child, yes, I definitely did. As soon as she was in our lives, it was just—you know how it is with children; once they’re there, you think, “How did ever be without you?” So yes, definitely peace, but there was still some time to kind of rebuild health after several years of struggle, and keep working at it. She was such a wonderful motivator for me because I had this little girl, and I thought, “We’re going to be happy together, and I need to get in a really healthy place so I can be a really healthy mom for these kids.”
What role did your faith in Christ play in this whole journey for you?
I really had to tap into the Atonement during this time for sure. I studied and thought often of the healing, sustaining, compensating, illuminating grace that’s promised from the Atonement. In my prayers, I regularly called for God to apply this power in my life; I had believed in Christ from the time I was a little child, but now when I sing “I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” my mind typically goes to this episode of my life. It was a time when I felt very humbled and somewhat helpless, and I remember that He did not leave me alone in the dark. I think all of my children are miracles in one way or another. I have felt His watchful care over each one of us, and if God had chosen not to send me that fifth child, I feel like the “But if not” principle would apply; I would still have faith that God loved me and had a plan for me.
Did you feel a sense of completion after she was born?
I did not immediately because I still was thinking in terms of those patterns from growing up, like “Oh, then maybe we need one more that would be two years apart from her so she could have a little buddy.” So my good and wise husband at that point stepped in and said, “No. This is good. This is enough, and this will be wonderful because she will bond with all the older kids. Let’s move on.” I was proud of him for being the real clear thinker in that situation.
Did you come to terms with that yourself?
I did. It took a little time, but I did, and when I think on it now, I think, “Wow, that was great.” It feels good now. So yes, I do have closure. It just took a little bit of time.
Circling back, after all of these experiences that you’ve had, how do you feel today about the messages you absorbed growing up regarding family size, and about the obligations and privileges associated with bearing children?
I’ve had lots of reasons to think about this. I obviously value children, but I have moved away from thinking of things in narrow, dogmatic terms, because they tend to shrink my capacity to appreciate the complexity and variety of people’s lives, including my own.
So in answer to my earlier programming, I have a new, improved set of beliefs:
I believe a woman’s worth lies in the very fact of her being a daughter of Heavenly Parents, and that her purpose is to have joy and to grow into a fully developed, divine being.
I think motherhood can be a source of significant joy and growth and it can give a woman insight regarding her Heavenly Mother.
I believe that marriage is for the health and happiness and progress of the marriage partners, and for the bearing and rearing of children when possible.
My life has been richly blessed by the gift of five children, and I hope that all of my children will have the opportunity to experience marriage and parenthood whether that’s in this life or the next. Regardless though, each of my children is a whole person of infinite worth in her or his own right.
Another belief I have is that a family is a sacred responsibility and it’s worthy of one’s best efforts. I think family planning is between the wife and the husband, and it’s best done with the guidance of the Spirit. Families come in various sizes and various sibling patterns and that’s okay.
In the process of creating a family, I now believe that the parents’ mental and emotional and physical health, their personal strengths and weaknesses, their individual goals and interests and their financial circumstances are legitimate factors for consideration. I think faith and sacrifice are required in rearing families just as they are in most any worthwhile endeavor.
I feel I am accountable only for covenants I’m aware of having made. I believe our Heavenly Parents are keenly interested in our family groupings and they’ll provide personal revelation on that topic when it’s for our best good. I also believe that they’re advocates of agency and that they’re prepared with multiple backup plans in order to achieve their work and their glory. So my job, then, is to act in wisdom and in faith.
Lastly, I do believe that women should be encouraged to graduate from college, but I believe it’s so they can have opportunities for personal development and fulfillment and so they can make greater contributions to their families, to their workplaces, to their communities and to the whole world.
So that’s my new view on things, my expanded adult view.
At A Glance
Interview Produced by Meredith Marshall Nelson