Family: Isn’t it about…gender roles?

The wife and I gave talks in Sacrament Meeting today, the wife on the Book of Mormon and mine on the The Family: Proclamation to the World. I’ll admit, talking about family in a public gospel setting is something I don’t really enjoy, mostly because there are a million ways to legitimately offend someone. However, lots are lots, and I drew this one, so I decided the best way to talk about the family is to be upfront about what kind of family we will most likely turn out to be.

If we were to put our family on a resume, it would actually look really Mormon. When we got married, one of us was almost finished with a degree in accounting, so the other spouse decided to delay school for the accountant to finish and start a career to support the family. One of us is, on the Meyer-Briggs personality test, an INFP, a rare, classic nurturer. The other is an INTJ, a rare, classic career person. When our baby is born this July, we’ve arranged it where one of us will stay at home with the child, and the other will continue to work. We try hard to live frugally, and we’re happy that we’ve found a great arrangement to complete the things we need.

There is no resentment in our current arrangement. The soon-to-be child-rearing spouse finds children adorable and loves to teach things. This spouse finds the monotonous schedule of housework Zen-like and fulfilling. The other spouse loves working and advancing in a career. This spouse finds the fast-paced office life exciting, and enjoys shouldering the responsibility of providing.

Of course, by now, you’ve probably figured out that my wife is the provider, while I’m the nurturer. It’s just how God created us. One time, we tried to live the traditional gender roles, and it was an unmitigated disaster. The wife stewed at home, bored out of her skull, while the husband toiled in a thankless office job, wondering how he found himself in such an existentially demeaning anomie. We soon switched again and never looked back since.

As a completely unintentional gender role smasher, life can be hard in the Church. You’re constantly having to justify your very existence and membership and faith. For the first few years of our marriage, we would evade questions with vague answers and try to keep up the facade. Finally, we decided with this ward, we’d stop trying. Go figure that this Sunday I would have to talk about our Church’s teachings on the family.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t love the Church’s teachings on the family, because I do. Joseph Smith had a sweeping vision of what family life’s potential could be. He lived in an age where industrialization and unmitigated capitalism was ripping the extended family system apart, in favor of the more isolating nuclear family structure. He saw a visionary end goal for humanity — to be saved as a family of God, working together in perfect harmony on Earth as well as in Heaven. For Joseph, Zion was more than just an economic utopia or a political theocracy, but a radical re-thinking of what and who family is. This obsession with family permeates every level of everything we do, and as an INFP, I love it.

The ideal Mormon family, circa 1860s.

Which pains me when I see the Church emphasize that all families must look cookie-cutter, because that’s not what Joseph had in mind. Ironically, the Church, which so repudiated the nuclear family in the early days, now wholly embraces it, sometimes at the expense of everything else. Families come in all shapes and sizes, made up of all kinds of people. Does it really matter whether it’s the wife or the husband who does the job, if both are working their hardest to provide the best home possible for their children? If husbands and wives are really supposed to work equally, side by side, as Elder Cook recently said in General Conference, then does it really matter if the husband passes off the provider duties to the wife and the wife tosses the baby into the father’s arms?

In the end, family is greater than what husbands are supposed to do and what wives are supposed to do, or specifically, what boys are supposed to do and what girls are supposed to do. Families are about love, charity, experimentation, adaptability, of teaching and discipline, of working together and learning to be a team player. It’s about never turning your back on family, even when times are tough, and yes, in our crazy Mormon family, about how everyone is a potential brother or sister that you just haven’t met yet.

So let’s not get hung up on the little things and focus on the big things — of the eternities, of creating heaven on Earth, of the immortal soul and the heritage of the Lord that we’re all a part of. In a trillion, billion, million eons, when we’re all hanging out in heaven still, sitting around with our eternal family, rubbing shoulders with the trillions of people who’ve lived and died and passed on, basking in the presence of Ultimate Goodness, will it really matter that I did the dishes and my wife worked in the office a trillion, billion, million eons ago?

Ideal Mormon family, circa today (not pictured: The six other children).

Or will it matter more that when the clock was ticking and the odds were stacked against us, my wife and I pulled together as a team and pulled out our brilliant Hail Mary play for an upset victory against Team Satan? That when times were tough, we knew each others’ strengths and weaknesses enough to consult Coach Jesus, and trust him enough to do what he told us what to do, even if it seemed to fly against common convention?

I expressed these thoughts (expressed is a generous word; in reality, I fumbled awkwardly through them) and sat down.

Later, a bunch of people came up to us, saying they enjoyed their talks, as usual, introducing themselves. But near the end of the line, one good sister came up and said, “In my family, we had a disabled child, and I had to work as a teacher because it was the only way to get insurance. I worked as a teacher for 35 years. And I have never regretted my decision, because I gave my children the best gift I could — a father. We do what we need to do to get the job done.”

I loved how she put it — we do what we need to do to get the job done. I want to make this our family motto, write it in fancy calligraphy on our family crest. Of course, the wife and I prefer the way we’ve assigned “gender roles” to each other, but it’s more than that. They’re family roles, at this point, regardless of gender. It doesn’t matter if the husband or the wife does them, as long as they get done. We’ve divided the tasks and now shoulder them the best we can, because we do what we need to do to get the job done. We don’t do this to make some kind of political or social statement; we don’t do this to break gender barriers; we don’t do this just to gratify our own selfish desires. We do this because we’ve found a perfect medium that maximizes our individual gifts while minimizing our individual quirks and shortfalls. We do this because we’d rather be realistic and work for the best outcome rather than have false hopes that God will somehow miraculously change us to match some 1950’s American cultural ideal. We do this because we love each other and we love our child and we love our family, and we are determined to make this work, come hell or high water, even if it means I’ll be scrubbing toilets and changing diapers, and the wife will be working overtime occasionally.

I honestly don’t think God asks for more than that.

Our Mormon family, circa 2008.

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