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Mormon women find joy in their not-so-ordinary journeys

By Emily Jensen

For Mormon Times

Published: Saturday, Oct. 2 2010 5:30 a.m. MDT

Opera singer Ariel Bybee, former Miss Utah Karen B. Larsen, Peru Andes Education Fund founder Debra Goodson and former BYU Women’s Institute director Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill sat down together to discuss “To Everything There is a Season” at the Mormon Women Project’s inaugural salon event on Thursday, Sept. 30, in Salt Lake City.

You could also label these women as mothers, wives, educators or just faithful Mormon women who are anything but conventional.

Or don’t label them at all because the panel discussion centered on themes such as rejecting labels and finding yourself, dealing with the unexpected, not judging others, breaking Mormon cultural stereotypes and putting trust in God.

Ariel Bybee began by describing the impetus of both her testimony and her love of performance. She remembered being a 4-year-old who watched her mother present a simple Primary lesson on the power of seeds and felt her faith blossom. A few years later, she walked into a high school auditorium, and “I looked out on that stage, filled with light and color and I looked up at my mother, as if she had taken me to heaven!”

Through no choice of her own, Bybee only had one child. She described the stigma that resulted, especially among Mormons, who judged her to have chosen a career over family.

Bybee believed that “as long as Heavenly Father has not given me any more children, I’ll just keep singing. I felt I had permission from the Lord and felt like I was an emissary of the gospel and the church organization. There was never a moment’s doubt that I was not doing the right thing.”

Karen B. Larsen discussed that as young as high school, she made a promise to give herself completely in the service of the Lord. She relished this after winning Miss Weber State and Miss Utah and shared her testimony everywhere she went. Later, however, she doubted her service after financial, health and family trials made her question her identity as “the perfect Mormon mother.” So, in an effort to find herself, Larsen decided to go back to school, and while her family has needed to make adjustments, Larsen has found she “can rely on my Heavenly Father and myself again.”

Debra Goodson described the adventure of accompanying her husband as a mission president to the Philippines when she was only 32 years old. While she was frightened of “not making it out alive” at the time, she came away with a profound gratitude for the experience. As both family and financial trials have come in succeeding years, she looks back on her mission experience as an important foundation for their family and testimonies.

She wished that everyone would take more “joy in the journey.”

Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill depicted her life as “out of sync” with the stereotypical Mormon woman’s life. She earned her doctorate in 1966 “among a cohort of total men,” was married at age 34, could not have children and finally held her first adopted baby when she 43 years old. Her husband was afflicted with a debilitating illness, and Ballif-Spanvil was widowed at 55. Now, at 70, she just retired from BYU and for the first time in her life is a stay-at-home mom.

Ballif-Spanvill described the discouragement she received in trying to gain her education. She wished that people would stop judging one another and she explained that she received the needed encouragement and peace from her “conversations with my Father in Heaven.”

In concluding the discussion of stereotypical roles, Ballif-Spanvill said that Mormon women “need to get rid of the scripts” and “focus on the fundamental principles.”

Neylan McBaine, founder and editor-in-chief of the Mormon Women Project, organized the salon event and moderated the discussion. McBaine also announced that the Mormon Women Project just produced their first video interviews that can be found on the website. They are filing for non-profit status. For information, please e-mail mwpeditor@gmail.com.

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