Oven Doors and Derivatives: Applying Academic and Spiritual Knowledge to Motherhood

Brittney Braithwaite Harmon, “Oven Doors and Derivatives: Applying Academic and Spiritual Knowledge to Motherhood,” in BYU Religious Education 2010 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2010), 153–166.

Oven Doors and Derivatives: Applying Academic and Spiritual Knowledge to Motherhood

Brittney Braithwaite Harmon

The rain drizzled peacefully down the window at my side in stark contrast to the frantic chaos that surrounded me. I was studying for an AP calculus test with two friends: Mario and Luiz. This test was important, and we all wanted to do well. As we analyzed different methods of problem solving, Mario asked me why I studied so hard if I was just going to be a mom, pushing strollers, feeding babies, and cleaning up after everyone. His question immediately froze all my thoughts of numbers and math. Suddenly, the quiet rain outside seemed as loud as a thunderstorm. This was a question that I knew I needed to deal with.

Mario, Luiz, and many of my other friends planned to attend Ivy League universities, qualify for impressive jobs, and earn lavish salaries. That was their idea of success. However, when we shared dreams as friends, it was obvious to them that my plans were different. Like them, I loved school and was ecstatic to receive a higher education at a university, but unlike most of them, I also looked forward to motherhood with great anticipation. As the conversation progressed, my friends reasoned that I should stop studying so the curve for the test would work more to their advantage. This would provide them a greater chance of getting into prestigious universities that would springboard them into high profile jobs so they could be a better asset to society than I could ever be as a mother. Luiz reasoned, “You don’t need to know derivatives to open an oven door.”

I was flabbergasted. Although there was no logical link between a knowledge of derivatives and the ability to open an oven door, I knew in my heart that “there is no more noble work than that of a good and God-fearing mother.”[1] How could I reconcile these differences? How could I help my friends understand that studying academic subjects was important to me because of, not in spite of, my dream to be a mother? I did my best to explain to my friends why knowing how to do derivatives is important to motherhood, but through the years I have learned more about the subject that I wish I could have shared with them at the time. The more I study and ponder this question, the greater my conviction grows that an education enables a mother to serve her family better. Truly, a mother is more able to fulfill her divine calling when she possesses a knowledge of derivatives and other academic subjects. Equally important to magnifying motherhood is a firm understanding of spiritual derivatives such as knowing from what sources different philosophies come and knowing that a mother’s own identity and her children’s are derived from a heavenly heritage.

Academic Derivatives

No matter what subject matter we study during our formal education, there are many skills that academic disciplines can offer mothers. Elder Carlos E. Asay recounts what his education taught him: “How very grateful I am that Mr. Lyle Asay [my father and math teacher] taught me to think, calculate, and solve problems.”[2] Thinking, calculating, and solving problems are all essential skills in motherhood.

A mother must know how to think to serve her family. Bishop H. David Burton reminds us of the blessings of being able to control our thoughts. He says, “As we allow virtue to garnish our thoughts unceasingly . . . our children and families will be strengthened.”[3] Part of controlling our thoughts includes being able to train them to search out truth. In the Doctrine and Covenants we are reminded that in order to receive revelation we must first “study it out” (D&C 9:8), thinking for ourselves about the possible pros and cons. The Lord tells Oliver Cowdery that he erred because he “took no thought save it was to ask” (D&C 9:7; emphasis added). It is essential that a mother know how to receive revelation in behalf her children, for they are not her own—“they are His children . . . for whom He will hold you [mothers] responsible.”[4]

The ability to calculate, another skill Elder Asay learned, is also crucial to motherhood. The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote to the Saints while in Liberty Jail, “Our circumstances are calculated to awaken our spirits to a sacred remembrance of everything, and we think that yours are also.”[5] If our Heavenly Father, the perfect example of parenthood, calculates circumstances for the good of his children, surely a mother should learn from his example and calculate family scripture study, family home evening, and other family activities for the good of her family, the most “fundamental unit of society.”[6] The Family Home Evening Resource Book describes how to calculate a family home evening to benefit all of the participants. In the first lesson plan we find suggestions that help parents establish and focus on a purpose, prepare with props and appropriate questions, select suitable songs, and consider the individual needs and abilities of each participant.[7] An effective mother will consider these suggestions and plan family home evenings and other activities for her children’s good.

This process mirrors the calculating skills necessary to write an essay. First, a thesis statement must be chosen, much like the purpose must be pinpointed for family home evening. Careful students will then select meaningful supporting examples and ideas geared at convincing their audience of the validity of their thesis. Similarly, a mother selects appropriate props, questions, and songs to help each individual child understand the eternal principles she previously identified, according to their age and personality. It is evident that as a woman learns to clearly articulate ideas and calculate how to present them in an academic setting she will be better prepared to teach and testify of truth in her home.

Problem solving, the last skill Elder Asay thanked his teacher for, is also critical to motherhood. One of my favorite books as a young girl was Mean Soup by Betsy Everitt. I loved when my mother read about how Horace, the main character, had a bad day at school because his teacher asked him a question that he did not know the answer to, and the show-and-tell cow stepped on his foot. Horace came home in a terrible mood. He stepped on the flowers on the walkway and growled at his mother, refusing to talk to her. Horace’s mother quickly realized something was wrong and suggested that they make mean soup. Horace was not excited about the idea at first, but as the two growled, hissed, and even breathed dragon breath into the pot, Horace felt much better. He even smiled.[8] My mother tells me that one day after reading this story with me, I turned to her and said, “That’s what being a mother is all about, isn’t it?” Indeed, being a mother is about identifying children’s needs and finding ways to help them resolve their problems.

Eve, “the mother of all living” (Moses 4:26), identified a need and was courageous enough to solve the problem. She started a “grand tradition” by understanding that “she and Adam had to fall in order that ‘men [and women] might be’ and that there would be joy.”[9] Problem solving required Eve to think with an open mind, beyond quick fixes. Similarly, “creative thinking—seeing facts in a different light and finding solutions beyond the obvious—is one of our most valuable tools for solving difficult problems.”[10] When a young woman studies various methods of problem solving in her formal education, whether in math, English, or science, she will think more creatively and be better prepared to face the unique challenges of motherhood.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “Our young women’s primary orientation toward motherhood is not inconsistent with their diligent pursuit of an education, even their efforts of study that are vocationally related.” [11] Education and motherhood are intertwined endeavors. Mario and Luiz’s purpose of an education was to increase their ability to do well in the work environment. Although my purpose for an education was much different, it was just as valid, for I was preparing to lead my family to exaltation, one of my greatest purposes on earth, requiring all the skills I possess. A recent job posting for a data acquisition propulsion engineer reminds me of the responsibilities of motherhood. For example, the first responsibilities listed for the engineering position is to “support and [direct] . . . both in-house and contracted efforts.” [12] Similarly, the Family Guidebook states that two of the three basic family responsibilities are to “provide for their own spiritual and physical needs and . . . share the gospel with others.” [13] In order to fulfill these family responsibilities, a mother must have the ability to “support and [direct]” the spiritual growth of individuals, “both in-house” and outside her home.

The description of the engineering job continues by outlining the applicant as one who can “focus on the analysis, design, and testing.”[14] How do these seemingly scholastic tasks apply to motherhood? Let us begin with designing. Sister Vicki F. Matsumori said, “The challenge for each of us is in providing an environment where the Spirit can be felt daily in our homes.”[15] Beyond colors, textures, and shapes, a home must be designed to invite the Spirit through uplifting music, conversations, and activities. Fathers and mothers must carefully counsel with the Lord, considering the needs of their children and designing a plan of action. After the design is created, it must be tested, another task that mothers share with engineers. Testing is not as easy as it sounds. Implementing the plan of action requires faith. Elder Robert D. Hales reminds us, “Courage and faith is what we need as parents and families in these latter days.”[16] This is especially true when we have collaborated with Heavenly Father in the designing process. To do his will and follow his divine design for our individual families, mothers will need to stretch themselves, stepping outside their comfort zone. After testing our design, we must analyze the outcomes, another responsibility listed in the engineer’s job description. President Gordon B. Hinckley has counseled the mothers in Zion to “sit down and quietly count the debits and the credits in your role as a mother. It is not too late.”[17] More specifically, parents have also been told to “evaluate [their] family home evenings, and work to improve them.”[18]

The engineering job description additionally states that the applicant must be able to “[assist] research and co-authoring.”[19] Similarly, a mother researches as she follows President Brigham Young’s counsel to “study [her children’s] dispositions and their temperaments, and deal with them accordingly.”[20] She is a coauthor, entering “into a partnership with [her] Father in Heaven to give mortal experience to His sons and daughters.”[21] She works on a team with both her husband and her Heavenly Father. Lastly, the engineering job description explicitly states that the applicant must “possess . . . a strong interest in”[22] the subject matter. Likewise, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland quoted a mother who expressed the importance of a woman having a strong interest in her children. She said, “Maybe it is precisely our inability and anxiousness that urge us to reach out to Him and enhance His ability to reach back to us. Maybe He secretly hopes we will be anxious and will plead for His help. Then . . . He can teach these children directly, through us, but with no resistance offered.”[23]

It is obvious that if an education prepares an engineer to “support and [direct] both in-house and contracted efforts . . . focus on the analysis, design, and testing . . . [assist] research and co-authoring and . . . possess . . . a strong interest in”[24] the subject matter, then surely an education can do the same for a mother in her unique field of work. A mother’s responsibilities are just as challenging as, if not more challenging than, the professional responsibilities an education can prepare one for. As Sydney Smith Reynolds said, “Mother. The title is deceptively simple. For, as those of us who hold it know, the responsibilities it carries are many and varied—nurse, home economist, teacher, and psychologist, to name a few.”[25] If so much is required of mothers, it makes sense that the more academic education they have, the more able they are to do their work.

From Mario and Luiz’s perspectives, education and motherhood are unrelated and independent, but the Lord clearly defines them as interdependent. After the Lord commanded, “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning,” he immediately followed up with an admonition in the next verse to “prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer” (D&C 88:118–19, emphasis added). From these verses we learn that the command to gain as much education as possible is to prepare us to establish our homes. The two commandments build upon each other rather than contradict each other. Heavenly Father would not set us up for failure by giving us two opposing commandments that make it impossible to obey one. President Thomas S. Monson promised mothers, “Your talents will expand as you study and learn. You will be able to better assist your families in their learning, and you will have peace of mind in knowing that you have prepared yourself for the eventualities that you may encounter in life.”[26] Those eventualities may be as obvious as the death or disability of a husband, requiring a mother to work outside the home, but they also include the more sublime, but equally important, everyday needs of her family. These eventualities be resolved by the ability to answer a child’s question concerning the truth of what their teachers tell them by being able to think, calculate, and solve problems or they may even include helping a restless two-year-old sit reverently by designing, testing, and analyzing teaching methods in collaboration with her husband and Heavenly Father.

Spiritual Derivatives

Equally important to motherhood is the knowledge of spiritual derivatives. A secular education will do mothers no good unless they have a strong spiritual foundation. Remember, the Lord has commanded that we are to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118; emphasis added). A knowledge of spiritual derivates includes the ability to discern if doctrines and principles are derived from worldly sources or from heaven and an understanding of where to turn to find answers when we do not know. Additionally, a knowledge of spiritual derivatives includes a mother’s testimony of God’s character and a surety of her and her children’s identities as sons and daughters from a heavenly home.

In our quest to understand the role of spiritual derivatives in magnifying motherhood we begin by discussing the importance of knowing the source from which various principles and ideas are derived. Without knowledge of this type of derivative, families will be “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). If a mother cannot personally identify truth from error, how can she teach her children? Joanne B. Doxey said, “We need to be knowledgeable and full of faith. When we are firm in our own convictions, we can give our inner strength to those about us with confidence.”[27] We develop this firm knowledge and assurance of truth by being “devoted to the studying of the scriptures” (D&C 26:1). It was through the iron rod, or the word of God, that the gift of discernment was given to the righteous in Lehi’s dream, even when the mists of darkness surrounded him (see 1 Nephi 8). “The Book of Mormon and the holy scriptures are given . . . for [our] instruction” (D&C 33:16). Through them mothers can be sure if various philosophies and doctrines are derived from God or man.

Certainly there will be times when mothers do not know what is right and what is wrong immediately. It is at these times that mothers must understand that all revelation and intelligence is derived from God. As previously discussed, study and thought are essential to receiving revelation, but if this is all mothers do, forgetting to “ask [the Lord] if it be right,” then he will not be able to “cause that [her] bosom shall burn within [her]” or to send a “stupor of thought that shall cause [her] to forget the thing which is wrong” (D&C 9:8–9). A mother must both “study it out in [her] mind; then [she] must ask” (v. 8) to receive revelation. As Elder Hugh W. Pinnock said, “we are to use the spirit in solving problems.”[28] Barbara Smith testified of the blessings available to mothers when they know where to find answers: “No matter how limited we are in our experience in the Church, we all have access to that great testifier, the Holy Ghost, whose calling it is to bear witness to the truth. With this testimony in our hearts, we can move forward in service.”[29] President Spencer W. Kimball reiterates the blessings of knowing where to turn for guidance. He said, “What inner strength would be in every person if he knew that the Master and His teachings were indeed his greatest source of guidance, his great source of correct example, his great source of help! That is our prime goal in all our teaching in the home.”[30] Elder Holland recounts the testimony of a mother who knew to what source to turn for understanding. She “pounded on the doors of heaven to ask for, to plead for, to demand guidance and wisdom and help for this wondrous task.” A mother must trust the Master as the source of truth in order to teach her children to do the same. Elder Holland adds his own testimony, saying, “That door is thrown open to provide you [mothers] the influence and the help of all eternity. Claim the promises of the Savior of the world. Ask for the healing balm of the Atonement for whatever may be troubling you or your children. Know that in faith things will be made right in spite of you or, more correctly, because of you.”[31] We, as mothers, cannot “claim the promises of the Savior of the world” for us or our families if we do not know that he is the source of our strength and knowledge.

A mother’s testimony that God is a God of love, power, glory, light, and intelligence is evidence that she knows him. She gains this knowledge by studying what derives from him, or in other words, His fruits (see Matthew 7:17). She knows who God is because she has personally tasted of His mercy and long-suffering. President James E. Faust said, “Coming to know God is the principal spiritual gift that can come to any man or woman.”[32] As parents, mothers want to give the best gifts they can to their children. A mother cannot give them the gift of knowing God unless she can testify of him herself. It is imperative that a mother know God’s true character.

If a mother knows who God is, she can be certain of her own identity as well as the worth of her children. Joanne Doxey reminded the mothers of the Church that “true personal worth comes from a secure relationship with Heavenly Father. Individual worth is intrinsic; it is internal; it is eternal.”[33] It is essential that mothers base their self-worth on Heavenly Father’s opinion of them, not the world’s. Like Mario and Luiz, the world tries to make us believe that choosing to be a mother is a waste of time and talent. Similarly, Sariah “complained against [Lehi], telling him that he was a visionary man” (1 Nephi 5:2). He responded by testifying with the Spirit, “I know that I am a visionary man” (v. 4). He then listed the blessing of being a visionary man (see vv. 4–5). When friends, colleagues, or even family members tell righteous women they are, or will be “just mothers,” they need an inner assurance of their personal worth and glorious role as a mother in Zion in order to declare with joy, “I know I am a mother.” Like Lehi, a mother’s testimony of her worth in the calling God has given her will bind hurt hearts and unite family members. In the workplace and in the pursuit of education there are accolades, good grades, raises, and praise. A mother does not receive much of this worldly recognition, making it easy for her to be discouraged. She must make sure her worth is derived from God’s opinion of her. Elder Holland reminds us, “The very fact that you [mothers] have been given such a responsibility is everlasting evidence of the trust your Father in Heaven has in you.”[34] Sister Julie B. Beck reminds mothers of their potential to bless their families when they have based their identity on God’s opinion of them. She says, “When mothers know who they are and who God is . . . they will have great power and influence for good on their children.”[35]

It is equally important for a mother to know her children’s identities as it is for her to know her own. This knowledge can also be acquired by seeking the Lord’s opinion. Craig H. Hart, Lloyd D. Newell, and Julie H. Haupt have said, “The Savior cherished His relationships and interactions with children. As we seek to view our children as He does, we can be filled with charity toward them.”[36] A mother is empowered to fulfill her calling when she knows the worth of her children as spirits derived from a heavenly home. Ultimately, we have been promised that “A mother’s . . . love for and confidence in a teenage son or daughter can literally save them from a wicked world.”[37]

It has been three years since Mario and Luiz told me I did not need to know derivatives to open the oven door. I have since gone to school and married, and I am now expecting a child. How grateful I am for my academic and spiritual education. Even though I am not yet a mother, I have seen how my formal education has blessed me with the ability to analyze our home and, with the help of my husband and the Lord, design a safe haven for our child. My formal education has blessed me with the ability to calculate the needs of our future child and determine how I need to spend my time before and after it is born. How grateful I am that I need not rely solely upon my academic education for these responsibilities. Because I know answers can be derived from heartfelt prayer, focused scripture study, and tuning into the Spirit’s sweet voice, I am less fearful about my future as a mother, knowing that “my Shepherd will supply my need.”[38] When asked what my future plans were, I used to somewhat apologetically say that I would not go to graduate school but just be a stay-at-home mom. However, because of my growing knowledge of my worth as a child of God following His individualized plan for me, I do not need to be ashamed. Motherhood is a glorious calling, made all the more glorious when we apply to it all the academic and spiritual education we can. A mother will still be able to open the oven door if she does not understand derivatives, but an understanding of academic and spiritual derivatives will change how she opens the oven door. Academic and spiritual education combine to help a mother magnify her sacred calling.


[1] Ezra T. Benson, To the Mothers in Zion (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1987), 1–2.

[2] Carlos E. Asay, “What My Teachers Taught Me,” New Era, September 1992, 8–9.

[3] H. David Burton, “Let Virtue Garnish Your Thoughts,” Ensign, November 2009, 78.

[4] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Your Greatest Challenge, Mother,” Ensign, November 2000, 97.

[5] Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 361.

[6] “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, November 1995, 102.

[7] “Building Our Family through Home Evenings,” Family Home Evening Resource Book (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1983), 3–6.

[8] Betsey Everitt, Mean Soup (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992).

[9] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Because She Is a Mother,” Ensign, May 1997, 36.

[10] “Brainstorming,” Family Home Evening Resource Book, 267–68.

[11] Dallin H. Oaks, “Women and Education,” Ensign, March 1975, 56.

[12] Jackson and Tull, job listing on www.careerbuilder.com.

[13] Family Guidebook (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2006), 12.

[14] Jackson and Tull, job listing.

[15] Vicki F. Matsumori, “Helping Others Recognize the Whisperings of the Spirit,” Ensign, November 2009, 11.

[16] Robert D. Hales, “With All the Feeling of a Tender Parent: A Message of Hope to Families,” Ensign, May 2004, 88.

[17] Hinckley, “Your Greatest Challenge, Mother,” 98.

[18] “Building Our Family,” 3.

[19] Jackson and Tull, job listing.

[20] Brigham Young, quoted in Craig H. Hart, Lloyd D. Newell, and Julie H. Haupt, “Love, Limits, and Latitude,” Ensign, August 2008, 60.

[21] Hinckley, “Your Greatest Challenge, Mother,” 97.

[22] Jackson and Tull, job listing.

[23] Holland, “Because She Is a Mother,” 36.

[24] Jackson and Tull, job listing.

[25] Sydney Smith Reynolds, “Teaching Values—A Mother’s Commission,” Ensign, March 1984, 20.

[26] Thomas S. Monson, “Three Goals to Guide You,” Ensign, November 2007, 119.

[27] Joanne B. Doxey, “Strengthening the Family,” Ensign, November 1987, 91.

[28] Hugh W. Pinnock, “Making a Marriage Work,” Ensign, September 1981, 34.

[29] Barbara B. Smith, “A Mother’s Insight,” Tambuli, June 1978, 15.

[30] Spencer W. Kimball, “Therefore I Was Taught,” Ensign, January 1982, 4.

[31] Holland, “Because She Is a Mother,” 36.

[32] James E. Faust, “Lord, I Believe; Help Thou Mine Unbelief,” Ensign, November 2003, 19.

[33] Doxey, “Strengthening the Family,” 91.

[34] Holland, “Because She Is a Mother,” 36.

[35] Julie B. Beck, “Mothers Who Know,” Ensign, November 2007, 76.

[36] Hart, Newell, and Haupt, “Love, Limits, and Latitude,” 65.

[37] Benson, To the Mothers in Zion, 12.

[38] Mack Wilberg, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need (Chapel Hill, NC: Hinshaw Music, 1995).