A Perfect Mother

perfect parent (1)In honor of National Adoption Month

For me the catchiest tune in primary is “The Family is of God.” I can’t get it out of my head. Along with the tune come images of families from my time as an adoption social worker that contradict the lyrics as written. Images of nurturing fathers and mothers that provide and preside. Images of the most needy and rejected children.

Too often as an adoption recruiter I observed that the more a child needs a parent, the more terrible the behaviors they express, making the neediest children the least adoptable. As the tune trips through my head I keep thinking about the children that I struggled most to match with an adoptive parent/parents.

Anthony’s life was a series of disasters. An unexpected pregnancy to a drug addicted mother placed him in foster care upon her testing positive for methamphetamine at his birth. His mother lost custody of his two and three year old brothers before Anthony was born. Infants are generally easier to place for adoption, but Anthony was part of a sibling group and it took some time to find a home that would adopt the sibling set of three boys.

The four and six year old brothers were legally adopted by their foster parent, but three year old Anthony’s adoption had not yet finalized when awful physical abuse was uncovered. The older siblings with the adopted last name were removed from the home and sent to one foster home, while Anthony with his birth name went to another home. Unknowingly, the siblings with different last names were assumed to be unrelated and separated.

The older boys were legally freed from their adoptive parents and fortunately went almost directly to the home of a young single woman who fostered the boys for about a year before adopting them. Anthony was not so fortunate. In his new foster home he became the victim of an older teenage boy who befriended him and brutally raped Anthony repeatedly for over a year before the sexual abuse was discovered.

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If you’re not part of the solution…

imagesForeign policy analyst and academic Anne-Marie Slaughter made the decision to turn down a high level government position in 2011.  Her decision inspired her to write a widely-read article in The Atlantic called “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”  A year later she gave a TED Talk in which she argues that caring for family members is a human problem, not a women’s problem.  She says when people who work for her take time to attend to urgent family problems the work still gets done, and gets done better than if they were made to stay at work at the expense of their families.  She says breadwinning and caregiving are both necessary for proper nurturing of human life, and notes that while American culture has given women permission to do both, it remains for men to be allowed as much freedom of choice. She also talks about the barriers to gender equality and the costs of that inequality, asking:

“If breadwinning and caregiving are really equal then why shouldn’t a government invest as much in an infrastructure of care as the foundation of a healthy society as it invests in physical infrastructure as the backbone of a successful economy?”

Why, indeed.  It’s because of the deep and pervasive belief that caregiving is the problem of women.  While that belief is very old and people of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds ascribe to it, I’m calling out Mormonism as contributing to the problem of undervaluing caregiving when it should be part of the solution.  But before I go further, what does Slaughter mean by an “infrastructure of care?”  She doesn’t spell that out in her TED talk, but I think things like paid maternity/paternity leave, family tax credits, subsidized preschool, and health care for children are all under that umbrella.

Why is Mormonism part of the problem?  Because it explicitly states that caregiving is the purview women:

“By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” [1]

Why should Mormonism be part of the solution?  Because it also explicitly says that both breadwinning and caregiving are very important.  Our leaders take pains to say women and men are equal (but usually with the caveat about different roles).[2]  Fathers and mothers are “equal partners.”[1]  This is a foundation on which to build an argument for a better infrastructure of caregiving.  But it turns out that the majority of American Mormons are economic and political conservatives who tend not to favor policies and programs that support caregiving.  Why is it that American Mormons so consistently privilege the well-being of businesses in their politics?  Why are infrastructures of care dismissed as too costly, or too intrusive to the private lives of families?  Why are people who use social services condemned as leeches?

I think the answer lies in the very real costs that come from siloing women and men into roles determined by gender.  Those costs include the personal happiness of women who may feel trapped by the daily grind of caregiving or men who may feel equally trapped by the thought of being chained to the corporate gallows.  But there are economic and social costs as well.  And if caregiving is forever the personal problem of women, then why would governments, corporations, or other institutions support infrastructures of care?  They wouldn’t.  And in the United States, where the that belief is quite common, they really don’t.  There is no mandatory paid maternity or paternity leave in the U.S. and relatively small tax credits for having children [3].  For example, compare the U.S. where the Child Tax Credit is $1000 per child per year to Australia, where an ordinary family would be eligible for about four times that amount, and paid maternity leave is mandatory [4].  In addition, there is virtually no help for people getting back into the work force after taking time off to care for children and there is no Social Security for the unpaid work of caregiving.  There is very little social support for men who opt into a primary role of caregiver.  It’s still the case that for men who fail in the home, other successes more than compensate, and the reverse is not true.[5]

But Mormonism has the theological foundation to counter that worldly idolization of the bottom line.  Mormons see children as “an heritage of the Lord.”[6]  “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness.”[1]  “Families Can be Together Forever.”[7]  And “The Family is of God.”[8]  Mormons practically make an idol of the nuclear family, but in making nurturing the primary responsibility for women (but not for men) the Church contributes to the social problem of forever privileging breadwinning over the other needs of families.  There is just no way to gather the political will to seriously support infrastructures of care if the problem of caregiving is forever the personal problem of women.

If political expediency, even for a cause as worthy as helping families, were the only reason for doing away with siloed gender roles in Mormonism, then I would not support it.  But, as I’ve argued elsewhere,[9] nothing in Mormon theology adds up to women and men possessing separate but equal spiritual attributes that would necessitate them being in forever separate-but-equal roles.  In fact just the opposite.  Both men and women strive to acquire, through the grace of God, attributes that are godly and indistinguishable between genders.

Mormonism rightly understands caregiving to be at least as important to the human condition as breadwinning.  It could become a small but important part of the solution to intractable gender inequality in the world if the Church made these few revisions:

By divine design, parents are responsible to raise their children in love and righteousness, to nurture them, and to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.  In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.

Of course, undervaluing caregiving was a problem before The Proclamation was written, and eradicating separate-but-equal gender roles from the Church wouldn’t suddenly make the U.S. a world leader in support for caregiving.  But shouldn’t the Church show moral leadership wherever it can?  By teaching that women are primarily responsible for nurturing the Church puts the problem of caregiving primarily on women’s shoulders.  If it were seen as a human problem rather than a women’s problem I think we’d start to see more support for caregiving overall, which would be to the benefit of everyone and be more consistent with true principles of gender equality.

 

[1] The Family: A Proclamation to the World
[2] “Men and women are equal in God’s eyes and in the eyes of the Church, but equal does not mean that they are the same. Although responsibilities and divine gifts of men and women differ in their nature, they do not differ in their importance or influence.” Melvin J. Ballard at BYU Education Week, August 20, 2013.
[3] That’s only a meaningful comparison in context of the overall tax rate, so I compared countries that have tax rates that are roughly the same as the US: Australia, Germany, Japan, Canada, China, and South Africa.  In all cases family tax credits are income-tested.
Here are approximate tax credits for those countries:
US - Child Tax Credit of $1000 per child per year
Australia – Family Tax Benefit estimated about $4,000 per child per year.  It’s a complicated calculation.
Japan – Kodomo Teate Law estimated about $2,700 per child per year
Germany – Kindergeld, averaging about $3,000 per child per year
Canada
– Canada Child Tax Benefit estimated about $2,700 per child per year.  It’s a complicated calculation.
South Africa - No family tax credit
China - No family tax credit
[4] Quimby Masters kindly provided me with a detailed explanation of the Australian Family Tax Law.  Taking an example of a school teacher’s family with an income of $66,000 AUD per year, if that family had five children ranging in age from 5 to 15 they would receive $26,832 per year in family tax credits, bringing their actual income to $92,832, of which they would not be taxed on $26,832 of it.  In addition, every employed woman is entitled to 6 months paid maternity leave, paid at minimum wage.  Individual employers may add to this.  All women are also entitled to 12 months off work, with the guarantee that they will get their job or an equivalent back if they return to work at the end of 12 months.
[5] “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.”  David O. McKay.
[6] Psalms 127:3 
[7] Families Can Be Together Forever 
[8] The Family is of God
[9] I wrote about this in “The Attributes of God Point to an Egalitarian Priesthood,” Exponent II, Vol. 33 No. 4 (Spring 2014).

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Dear Sister Sassy: Our Resident Agony Aunt

adbf0f6196d792210049c0cd48fc3f0eHere at the Exponent we’re proud to introduce a column by our resident Agony Aunt, Sister Sassy.  An expert in homemaking, spirituality, doctrine, culture, morality, and pretty much everything else, Sister Sassy has been dispensing bad advice to fictitious readers for seven years and is excited to share her (dubious) recommendations with this audience.

Dear Sister Sassy,

It is my understanding that Family Home Evening is non-negotiable and key to my family’s happiness.  My husband is supposed to preside at our weekly gatherings.  When we were first married, we had FHE all the time, but it seems like now we’ve lost our spark.  My husband seems barely interested, even when I use themed printables! I am worried that he is going elsewhere to get slapdash spiritual lessons and forced activities.  Is he getting so much out of his Bishopric meetings he feels I have nothing left to offer him? Is this grounds for divorce?
Forlorn in Fremont

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Blessed Be the Mentors

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Saturday was a special day. It was the day Claudia Bushman was celebrated via the Mormon Women’s History Initiative Symposium. I was not able to attend, but I was able to sit in a seminar with Claudia and her husband, Richard, almost every day for six weeks, just a tiny bit earlier this summer through BYU’s Maxwell Institute. It was a deeply enriching experience, as I thought it might be.

Claudia added her wisdom and knowledge, her strong and honest voice, and her pleas to tell our own stories, as well as precious bits from her own. Once she shared the price of her gold wedding band ($5!). Another time she pinpointed a doctrine (magnifying your calling) that she perceived to be pernicious, with quite good, and quite funny reasons. My favorite (class) moment of all occurred after we discussed the significance of Eliza’s hymn, “O My Father.” Claudia quipped that we should all write poems about Heavenly Mother, because then they can become theology.

My favorite non-class moments were different. They were about the fact that I was in an intensive class, while caring for a (still nursing) infant in a state far away from where I live, and where my husband would be. 

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YW Lesson: How Can I Strengthen My Family? / Leçon JF : Comment puis-je fortifier ma famille?

YW Lesson: How Can I Strengthen My Family? / Leçon JF : Comment puis-je fortifier ma famille?

family

Click for French Translation/Traduction en français

We obviously talk a lot about families in the church. Personally, I think that is wonderful. However, the focus on traditional two parent family structure can be difficult for young women who don’t come from that background. I think it is important to emphasize to the young women that any family type can be a happy, strong family.

The lesson plan on LDS.org (found here: https://www.lds.org/youth/learn/yw/marriage-and-family/strengthen?lang=eng) suggests using the video, By Small Things. This would be a good jumping off point to help the class think of principles of strong families. It sounds cliché, but for me personally it really has been the ‘small things’ that mean the most to me; when I was in junior high my older brother would drive me to school and he actually talked to me. Now that we are all adults, and spread across the country, both my older and younger brothers call me at least once a week just to chat. Those little signs that they want to be involved in my life mean a lot. Other things that you might talk about are family scripture study and prayer, service to each other, and doing fun activities together. Ask the class to share times when someone in their family did something that made them feel loved and safe.

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The Church is Pro-Choice

Note: this post mentions rape, incest, abortion, stillbirth, death of infants, etc. If those topics are going to be triggering, please honor your health and pass on reading.

A few months ago, we were discussing the need for modern-day prophets in Sunday School. One woman raised her hand and said that she was grateful for modern-day revelation because of issues like abortion. I fought my urge to exclaim, “Yes! Isn’t it great that the Church is pro-choice?!” because it would really derail the lesson, so I’m going to say it here.

Isn’t it great that the Church is pro-choice?!

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