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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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Celibacy, agency, and monasticism

“Celibacy is undertaken voluntarily as part of the monastic vocation; but an unsought celibacy is the lot of many people, something they would never have thought of as their vocation, though it now seems required by their fidelity to Christ. Many of the separated or divorced who believe their former marriage to have been valid, the spouses of the seriously ill, the people who hoped to marry but somehow never found the right person — all these may be driven to find God in a painful aloneness….

“Fasting, celibacy, night vigils: all traditional monastic disciplines that have their counterpart in the lives of many for whom the experience was neither freely chosen nor laden with obvious spiritual significance. Within the unthinkably close union of us all in Christ’s body, there must be a communion of life and grace here, and in some cases perhaps a hope and encouragement, when those who struggle can use the monastic parallel as a sign to help them find God in their own situation.”

– Maria Boulding OSB, “Living the Rule in Solitude,” The Benedictine Handbook

I recently picked up The Benedictine Handbook, published by Liturgical Press. Ever since learning about St. Benedict and his famous Rule, I was keen on getting my grubby little hands on a copy. So, when The Benedictine Handbook showed up at the local Half-Price bookstore, which included a translation of The Rule for actual Benedictine monks, as well as a slew of commentary and a collection of the prayers and lectios used, I purchased it without a second thought.

Monastic life has always held a fascination to me. If I was not Mormon and married, most likely I would have become a monk by the end of my years. During my high school years, I fantasized about running away to a Buddhist monastery (and for a while, seriously contemplated my escape from this earthly world). Mormonism as a whole rejects the idea of monasticism (though it’s arguable that missionary service is a type of Mormon monastic service), mostly I feel on the grounds of celibacy. Mormonism is a very earthy, mortal religion, celebrating not only what is to come, but what has already come to pass and what continues to come to pass today. We celebrate mortal families as a type of the immortal family of God, and we teach that marriage is essential to exaltation and living in the presence of God. Families and marriage are Big Deals in Mormonism, and this is part of the strong draw it has on many people.

Still, while celibacy is not required for, say, clergy, because of our strong belief in a strict law of chastity, many Mormons can and do end up in a form of involuntary celibacy. As Maria Boulding suggests, they enter into this celibacy because “it now seems required by their fidelity to Christ.” Unfortunately, because of how our religion is set up, this celibacy often comes without much support. Aside from the more apparent “single” situation that many adults in the Church find themselves in, Boulding suggests also those who have chronically or terminally ill spouses, or the divorced and widowed. These, too, need support, but often, both members and church programs come up empty-handed and clueless on how to help them. What compounds this type of celibacy, as opposed to that celibate vow freely entered in by those of monastic orders, “the experience was neither freely chosen nor laden with obvious spiritual significance.” Celibacy can act as a type of fast, a communion and sacrifice with God. But involuntary celibacy often is seen as a heavy burden that one must carry, possibly for the rest of their lives, and many see it as unfair and wholly unwarranted. Worse, in some cases (perhaps even in many cases), other members may often view this unwanted celibacy as “their fault in the first place.”

Here, Boulding suggests that monastic life can act as “a communion of life and grace here, and in some cases perhaps a hope and encouragement, when those who struggle can use the monastic parallel as a sign to help them find God in their own situation.” This is not to say that all of our members who find themselves in celibate lives should run off to a monastery. However, while reading about monastic life from various primary sources, I can see how some of the activities and principles those who participate in the monastic life live can help heal that rift between God and child, and even consecrate that sacrifice to God as a gift and grow ever stronger and closer because of it.

I’ve met singles who are bitter, and singles who have learned to work around this unexpected life development. Those who learn to accept and transform the trial into a blessing often incorporate some of the ideas in monastic life — deep contemplation and self-examination, honesty to self and others, simplicity in life, selfless service to others, a deep understanding and love for the scriptures, consistent prayer, and so forth. I am no expert in monastic life and I offer no real concrete suggestions at this time (nor am I really qualified to do so). But Joseph Smith once said, “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” While we as a religion may reject the idea of life-long monastic living, certainly the principles found therein can be used to fortify those areas in which we lack. And certainly, as members, we could all show a little charity to those who have found themselves in such a vow of celibacy, and do all we can to bring them fully into the body of Christ. In a church with a doctrine so intrinsically focused on traditional nuclear family life, we continue to offend and drive away many of God’s children through our well-meaning, but unintentionally wounding, attitudes towards celibacy, family life, and agency.

One should ponder from time to time if there is at least some value in monastic tradition, as it is just one more way to bring another subset of people into the shepherd’s flock, rather than turning away others because of a single-minded, narrow world view, which is most tragic when those who feel rejected have come into life circumstances through no fault of their own.

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Wearing the pants

My wife wears the pants in our marriage. I’ll gladly admit it. I’m too much of a monkish personality to care about things like money and careers. I like sitting in my home, slowly transforming it into a monastery, living out a steady life filled with the litany of domestic chores and sitting at my desk writing out illuminated manuscripts. My wife, as an accountant, actually enjoys doing things like balancing the checkbook or making out budgets, so why not let her do things she actually wants to do? In the end, it works out pretty well for us, and though people are really wary sometimes about our supposed swap of gender roles, it makes our marriage run very smoothly. We’re very happy with the arrangement.

The problem is, while my wife can wear the metaphorical pants in our family, she cannot really wear pants in church.

Well, okay, she actually can — well, sort of. Mormon.org tells newcomer visitors that they should wear a skirt to Sunday meetings, if appropriate. Apparently, women who work as Church employees need to wear dresses or skirts to work. And while I’m not sure if they’ll turn you away from the temple if you wear pants, it’s highly discouraged to do so (if you’re female). What I thought was a cultural tradition actually kinda isn’t — it’s about as officially enforced as you can get without having the For Strength of Youth pamphlet specifically endorse it (I’m actually surprised it doesn’t, but that’s for another day).

So the question I have for you readers is, of course, “Why?”

Jana Reiss, who writes on the blog “Flunking Sainthood,” gives several reasons why she chooses to wear pants to Church (despite cultural and unofficial official opposition), including “Well, in all those dreams I’ve had where I showed up to church having forgotten my pants, nothing ever ends well.” She has some really good points. It’s easier to be modest in pants. When she works in the nursery, she has greater mobility in pants. When it’s cold out, it’s much easier to stay warmer in pants. So why skirts and dresses?

Ask Gramps, a wonderfully charming question and answer blog about Mormon subjects, tackles this one as well. He proposes that “Recommending ‘Sunday attire’ is a wonderful way to instill in our young people a sense and attitude of reverence to the Lord. Wearing dresses to church rather than casual slacks should be taught as an opportunity and a privilege, rather than as a restriction.”

But slacks being “casual” for women sounds a lot like more of that bizarre dichotomy that we erect for gender roles in the Church. Domestic work and primary care giving is the most noble and hardest work of all — unless you’re a man; then he is lazy and shirking responsibility. Slacks are casual if you are a woman — unless you’re a man; then it’s appropriate Sunday attire.

This subject is divisive. While looking for what others thought about this unofficially official “no slacks for girls” rule, I found several forum threads swiftly locked because the discussion took a turn for the worse by the third comment. The issue most likely smarts for many Mormons because it’s just another attack on the traditional gender roles we rigorously attempt to enforce. And in an age of gay marriage, abortions, stay-at-home dads, career moms, and easy-to-obtain contraceptives, anything that even resembles bucking the traditional gender roles (even women wearing pants to church or the temple) is paramount to high treason. Interesting indeed that from a sociological perspective, such a trivial thing (for our modern day) like women wearing pants could become such a powerful symbol for dissent, rebellion, or even apostasy.

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The Burning Palace

Tashrak, a pseudonym for Yisroel-Yoysef Zevin (1872-1926), adapted Buddhist tales into a Yiddish tradition. In one of the collections, “Five Stories about Buddha, the Indian Prophet”, he tells a story called “The Burning Palace.”

A rich man lived in a palace. The palace was very large but also very old. The walls and the columns were rotted and the roof was very dry. One day, while sitting there, the rich man smelled smoke. He dashed outdoors and saw that the entire building was ablaze. The man then remembered that his children were playing inside the palace, and he shuddered.

The terrified father stood there, not knowing what to do. He heard the children running about indoors and jumping and shouting merrily and cheerfully. He knew that if he told them the palace was on fire, they wouldn’t believe him. They’d think he wanted them to play outdoors. And if he dashed into the building and grabbed just one child at a time, he’d be unable to save the others, who’d scoot away from him and be lost in the flames.

Suddenly the father had a wonderful idea. “My children love toys,” he mused. “If I promise them some beautiful playthings, they’ll obey me.”

He now yelled: “C’mon children! Look at the lovely presents your father has brought you! Why, you’ve never seen such wonderful toys in all your lives! Come out as fast as you can!

And lo and behold! Children came running from all parts of the burning palace. They were mesmerized by the word “toys,” and their good father had brought them some marvelous playthings. But the children then ignored their presents, they gaped at the fire and they realized what great danger they had been in. They thanked their intelligent and loving father, who had saved them from certain death.

The prophet is well acquainted with human children, and he tells them that if they are good, they will receive good things, and that is how he saves them from evil.

And there are times when the children see the great danger that the prophet has saved them from, and they praise his name.

I am not a parent yet, and so I wanted to ask parents out there — is this good advice at all? On the one hand, I can see how this form of — well, for lack of better word — bribery could help, but in the end, it could also backfire, right? What do you parents think out there?

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An Open Letter to Sisters of the Church

Dear Sisters,

I still remember the day I went up to my mom and told her that I wanted to be a mom just like her. She immediately became uncomfortable, patted my head, and told me to play outside, but even as a child I could understand that something was wrong. As I grew older and learned more about my role as a man in the Church, I became bitter at the idea that the Church teaches that men cannot hold the sacred office of motherhood, no matter how righteous we are or no matter how much we want it, and, I will admit, I became quite bitter against the Church.

But I was soon blessed with a wonderful marriage to an amazing wife who has taught me that though I may see the fact that men can never hold motherhood unfair, this is all part of God’s divine plan. You see, my wife explained to me that men are still special and wonderful and valued in the Church. She told me how women need to have motherhood because men are already more pure and virtuous than women, and that without motherhood, women wouldn’t have a reason to improve themselves. Just look at all of the women neglecting their children’s needs, she said. Need I look for more proof? I knew in my heart what she taught me was true; after all, the women in Relief Societies often met together for “Enrichment” to improve themselves, away from their families, while the men in the Priesthood quorums rarely ever had any outside activities – we were too busy making a living, building careers and providing for our families to indulge in such things! Women are just generally selfish and self-centered, and they need motherhood to train and domesticate them to be more nurturing and loving. It all suddenly made sense. Men already do so much in the Church, my wife explained with a wink, and imagine if men were priesthood holders and mothers as well? Why, should we expect that men should be bishops and prophets and apostles and mothers and Relief Society Presidents and Primary Presidents? What would be left for the women to do? My mind boggled. I had never thought of it that way before!

I guess what I want to do is apologize for my near-sighted stubbornness. I now understand that motherhood is a great equalizer, and more of a burden — not a blessing — and despite all of your pre-disposed faults, your husbands and fathers love you despite them, and perhaps even because of them. All I ask is just to please remember us little guys, and to respect fatherhood and to treat your husbands with respect. And we’ll hold up our part of the bargain and support you and your important work from afar. The Church teaches us that motherhood is the most important calling of all, and though I wish I could help, and though I wish I could bring my naturally gifted nurturing and caring talents to such an important work, I understand that my place is outside of the home, and I will be blessed for my obedience, no matter how distasteful I may at first find it to be.

Godspeed,

Ted

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Announcements, announcements, ano-o-ouncements!

So, the wifey and I have very exciting news to report!

It's our baby! Meet Flipper

Meet Flipper

We’re expecting a small bundle to join our family this mid-July, and its nickname is Flipper. You may now coo with joy.

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Obligatory President Packer’s talk edits analysis

If only I had waited a day later to post my obligatory President Packer talk analysis. Just one day.

Oh well.

I planned on this one being short, but I ended up ranting. I ranted, deleted, ranted, deleted, ranted, then deleted some more. This is the short version.

By now, most of you have probably heard the hullaballoo of the edits made on President Packer’s talk once the written form of Conference hit the Church website. The three major changes of import (and you can see a great blog post comparing the spoken and written version here) are thusly:

1. The edit which changed the Proclamation on the Family from a “revelation” to a “guide.”

2. The edit which changed President Packer’s statement that “tendencies” cannot be inborn to “temptations.”

3. The edit which completely eliminated President Packer’s rhetorical question: “Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?”

My thoughts:

1. This one is huge. I had always heard of the Proclamation on the Family as some form of revelation. It’s always been considered psuedo-scripture, or even with the same force as scripture. Whenever people want to cite the Church’s prophetic mantle, they cite this as revelation. Whenever people ask “Where have all the revelations gone?” this one is usually cited. I find all of these views on the Proclamation on the Family as problematic, but kept silent since this Proclamation is a huge sacred cow in the Church. For the deliberate edit demoting this officially from “revelation” to a “guide” is of great import, but will most likely (predictably) ignored.

2. This one people will probably be cheering about. There’s already a level of smugness about it for more liberal Mormons. This one doesn’t move me, nor did President Packer’s original statement bother me, but that’s because I’m jaded. Does this edit really change much? It’s moving the talk more towards the centrist “we talk about action, not orientation” position of the Church when it comes to homosexuality, and that’s that. Will it change the thoughts of more conservative Mormons when it comes to homosexuality? No. Absolutely not. Those who want to continue to believe homosexuality as a choice rather than part of your biological makeup will continue to trawl through past General Authority quotes to find what they want. In reality, this edit has a net difference of zero in our current situation.

3. This edit made me sad. Why? Because it’s a really, really good question, that’s why! I feel this is a dangerous move our Church has made in the interest of reducing some of the hate it’s attracted. But by golly, this is a deep theological question that everyone should struggle with for the rest of their life.

Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Why would he allow people to be born in abject, spirit-breaking poverty? Why would He allow children to be born to abusive parents who don’t even want them? Why would He allow women and children to be sold into sexual slavery and raped until their intestines fall out? Why would He allow people to butcher each other in wholesale slaughter? Why would He allow child molesters to kidnap children and brutally torture and scar them? Why would He allow that young mother of six to die of cancer when her family really needed her? Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?

Ruminate on this question. Let it marinate in your soul. This ultimate question of evil is that which we should wrestle with all night long, like Jacob did with the angel of God. We are the inheritors of the birthright of Israel, literally he who wrestles with God. Yet when President Packer brings up such a crucial theological question, we sweep it under the carpet. Sigh.

First thought that went through my head when I saw the update: What’s the point of watching General Conference anymore? Watching General Conference is like participating in a beta – it’s buggy, there’s bad information and code, and in the end, it’s probably gonna be fairly different when it finally ships.

This brings up a really good question, though. President Packer’s message was off enough where the Church (or, at least President Packer) decided to edit the remarks for the printed, written format. In a way, outside political events forced this issue, but it’s an important one.

What if prophets are wrong?

It’s just as hard as the “Why would Our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?” question. Another really good one to think about. It holds thunderous implications about how we view the Church and God’s interaction with her.

In closing, I feel bad for President Packer. He’s an 80+ year-old man. He’s someone’s grandpa. Oh no! An 80+ year-old man thinks that gay people choose to be gay? WHAT A SHOCK. JUST LIKE, OH, I DON’T KNOW, EVERY OTHER 80+ YEAR OLD MAN EVER IN THE EXISTENCE OF 80 YEAR-OLD MEN. Seriously. Let’s all calm down. I’m done talking about this, really I am. I’m so sick of the whole gay issue. Let us all agree on this as Church members, yes? Gay people are still Heavenly Father’s children and they deserve to be treated as such, and if we so much as judge them mentally, or mistreat them verbally or physically, or refuse to accept them into the family of God, imperfections and all, then we bring upon ourselves the displeasure and judgment of a God who knows that we know better.

Nobody is benefiting from this. Not Church members, not gay rights activists, no one. No one is benefiting, and no one will win. We will only have losers if we continue down this route. We need to change tactics, we need to change how this discourse pans out and fast, because right now, nobody is winning. Everyone’s just losing.

And it’s making me sick to my stomach, how we’re so willing to tear each other apart and scream and rant and throw feces at each other like the primates we descended from.

That is all.

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