Christmas Series: The Parable of the Nativity

Guest post by Quimby

 

“And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! And this is the gospel, the glad tidings, which the voice out of the heavens bore record unto us – That he came into the world, even Jesus, to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness; that through him all might be saved.” (D&C Section 76)
nativityMy son was born on Christmas Eve. His birth came the year after our family’s most disastrous Christmas ever – a fairly remarkable statement, considering my extended family includes evangelical Christians, fundamental Muslims, and militant Atheists. My heart was still heavy with the events of 12 months prior when I cradled him in my arms and thanked a loving Heavenly Father for giving me this child, at exactly this moment, to soothe my troubled soul and let me find, once more, the beauty of Christmas. I looked into those slate-blue eyes and saw he already had all of the wisdom of the world, and he was anxious to share it with me. I kissed that soft spot on his head and cooed, “It’s alright, little one; we don’t have to worry about that just yet.”

Of course I couldn’t help but think of another mother, who had also cradled her newborn son one Christmas long ago. I marvelled at her courage and wondered if she did not rail at the injustice of it, that her child – so perfect – would have to carry such a heavy burden for us all.

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Mixed Messages

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“Education is an important part of Heavenly Father’s plan to help you become more like Him. He wants you to educate your mind and to develop your skills and talents, your power to act well in your responsibilities, and your capacity to appreciate life. The education you gain will be valuable to you during mortality and in the life to come.” – For the Strength of Youth

When I was about 15, I remember having a combined lesson for Young Men and Young Women where we discussed education and college. As someone who always enjoyed school, and was already looking forward to college, I was excited to hear about how to achieve my goal of a university education.

We started out the evening with the quote from For the Strength of Youth above. It is something that always resonated with me: knowledge is power, the glory of God is intelligence, the truth will set you free and all those old clichés. I had been reared on words like those in the FSoY and prophets endorsing the importance of learning.

Imagine my surprise then when the Young Men’s president, the only speaker, addressed his remarks almost exclusively to the young men. He advised them to pick a career that would be fulfilling and lucrative, so that they could be consistent and support their wife and children. He told them to work hard now so they could keep their options open for later. He encouraged them to take initiative and network with people in the ward who were in careers they were interested in pursuing.

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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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Nachos and Green Tomato Salsa

canning jarsMy husband is getting ready to attend a play with friends. I am happy to stay home and putter, but he hesitates with keys in hand, looking around the kitchen with a concerned expression. “I may not be home in time for dinner.” One of the many perks of our empty nest is that occasionally I find myself blissfully alone. “I know. I will be fine.” He opens the fridge. “There may be some leftovers.” “I told you, I will figure something out.” He says, “You ate all the Wheat Chex last week.” Now I am annoyed. “Go! I will cook for myself.” He snorts and leaves. I go off and hermit around my workspace until hunger drives me back to the kitchen. I peer in the refrigerator, the freezer, the pantry, the refrigerator again.

My husband is truly gifted at cooking. I am not. This was established early in the relationship. On our first date he made a picnic lunch with teriyaki pheasant. A few dates later I burned a chicken concoction and we went out for pizza. In the first year of our marriage we attempted to trade off, but when my husband started graduate school, he took over. He said he wanted a “creative outlet.” We were both relieved.

It is hard to know what came first – my profound lack of aptitude or my subsequent lack of interest. One usually follows the other. For years I have sat on a stool at the edge of the kitchen island, watching my husband intently, trying to figure out the difference between us. We are both smart. We both love to eat. Perched there, eating scraps of food out of prep bowls, I have discovered clues. My brain thinks in geometric lines, taking apart and putting things back together in a linear process. If the points are not perfect in my quilt blocks, I remake them until they line up. I think: what is the most efficient way to go from point A to point B? What are the steps to achieve a specific result? My husband’s brain thinks like a lava lamp, organic, he perceives a million details at the same time. He chops and stirs and sautes this and roasts that. He senses temperature and color and somehow five dishes appear at the same time. If something doesn’t taste right he adapts the other ingredients to balance. He thinks: what flavors go together? What recipe fits the weather?  

Today I decide to make myself nachos. I find chips, pre-shredded cheese and an old piece of steak which I chop up and layer on the top. I turn on the broiler and can hear my husband’s voice in my head telling me not to burn them. In fact, why not use the microwave?

Our children grew up in a home where Dad was master of the kitchen, not just cooking, but preparing gourmet meals that people came to rave about. Dinner at our house was a culinary adventure and we loved entertaining as a family. I tried to feel that my contribution was bringing home the bacon rather than frying it up in a pan, but the referenced woman in the commercial could do both and look sexy. I worried that my lack of domestic proficiency diminished my value as a wife and mother. One Mother’s Day this was reinforced when the boys came home from Primary presenting a project they had made in class. It was constructed of two paper wheels held together by a brad. The top wheel had a window revealing tiny messages and pictures underneath. The title read: “My mother does many things for me!” and when the child turned the wheel, the captions below read “She bakes cookies!” “She makes dinner!” “She washes my clothes!” “ She meets me after school!” To which my little son gleefully confessed, “I told them that my mom doesn’t do any of those things!” My older son shook his head thoughtfully. “No, no she doesn’t.”  

I also faced incredulous clucking from other women assuring me of my “luck” in finding a man who would “help out” and cautioning that I had better “hang on to him” as if my inability to time an egg threatened our long term prospects. At first I would defensively explain that it all evened out, that he had a surly disposition and I cleaned the toilet. Eventually I just surrendered and shrugged. I had been judged by the dial-a-good-mother wheel and found wanting.

I don’t burn my nachos but they look boring so I dig through a pile of jars created from my husband’s new hobby, small batch canning. I find something green and chopped and open it. It smells like salsa. I taste it. The hacienda heavens open and choirs of mariachi angels sing. It is delicious. I dump it all over my nachos and devour them.

In his book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, Andrew Solomon shares that most parents love their children at birth, but must learn over time to accept them. He says that “love aspires to acceptance” and that most parenting happens in the grey area between what we try to change in those we love and what we choose to celebrate as it unfolds. I believe this applies to how we view ourselves as well. Learning when to develop and push ourselves and when to simply be ourselves is an ongoing challenge. There are so many bad habits I know I must fix – my selfishness, my dental hygiene, my matchstick temper. In comparison, I can shelve the less urgent deficiencies, ignore the lists of shoulds catalogued by others and even revel in the quirks that make me who I am. My children may appreciate a mother who can make sock monkeys dressed as literary characters just as much as a mother who knows that Honey Nut corn flakes and strawberry yogurt should not be used to bread chicken nuggets. In the words of the very wise Queen Elsa, I am going to let it go.

Later that night, when my husband comes home, he asks what I ate for dinner. I tell him nachos which actually required use of the oven. Then I say, “So that green stuff I found in the pantry? It is amazing. I ate the whole jar.” He lights up. “It is green tomato salsa. The neighbor brought us all these green tomatoes and I made up the recipe in order to use them.” I assure him that it was the best salsa I have ever tasted. And that I never take his gifts for granted. He wonders if he will be able to replicate the recipe again. I say, “I am sure you will come up with something.”

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Filling the Seats – General Women’s Meeting

Last night I listened to the General Women’s Meeting in the company of my sisters from the Mt. Vernon, Virginia Stake. I enjoyed the added international presence, the messages from our leaders, and the inspiring music.

As the camera captured the large stand in the Conference Center I noticed the many, many empty seats. These seats will be full to capacity next weekend during General Conference with quorums of our leadership, but last night the General Boards of our female auxiliaries filled only a couple of rows.

I had a vision – as I looked at those empty seats.  A vision of hope.  One day – I see quorums of women filling those seats! A happy thought.

Do you have this same vision of hope? Do you see women in leadership filling those seats?

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