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Guest Post: Good Dad/Bad Dad: Or A Study in Moral Relativism

by Jillian

Last year I flew to the other side of the country to help celebrate my friend Jane’s graduation from law school. In the days before the actual event, I stayed at her parent’s house with her and a few of our other friends and got a bit of a feel for her family dynamic. Before I arrived, I knew that Jane was having issues with her father; it seemed like the older he grew the grumpier and more demanding he became. This particular weekend was no exception.

Jane, our friends, her sisters, and I woke relatively early on Saturday to help her mom prepare for the graduation party that night. Her father, the high councilman in charge of the YSAs in the stake, was busy loading gear into his boat. He had decided last minute to take the YSA men to the lake. When her mom suggested he take my friends and me along, he curtly replied that there was no room.

Judging by her mom’s reaction, this was nothing unusual. She pursed her lips, fed the boys some breakfast, sighed a bit, and then wrote up some shopping lists. We spent the day driving to different stores across their small town, cleaning the house, and cooking. Her father returned around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, picked a fight in the kitchen, declared he wouldn’t come to the party, and huffed off to his office above the garage.

He did end up coming to the party just long enough to keep up appearances and make a few quips about my friend’s singlehood and lack of children for him to spoil. The rest of the time he bragged about his sons and their successes.

I found myself missing my own father profoundly over the course of the weekend, which I found a little strange considering his situation at the time. While I was celebrating Jane’s graduation and prestigious job offer, my dad was on a communication freeze in his addiction recovery treatment center and preparing for a church disciplinary council as soon as he got out. The problems and issues that led him there are complex and ongoing, so I won’t go into much detail other than to say that he broke his covenants and was eventually excommunicated. At this point, I still felt a lot of anger and hurt towards him, which is why I found it strange that I was missing him so much.

It took me a while to realize that I had been subconsciously comparing Jane’s father and my dad, and that, even in my anger and hurt, I infinitely preferred my dad. I found myself remembering countless family events, or even just regular Sunday dinners, where my dad helped shop, clean, set the table, stir something on the stove, and basically do whatever he could to help reduce my mom’s stress. It was so regular and so natural; I naively believed all fathers were like that. I saw how Jane’s father treated her and her sisters compared to how he treated his sons (and even the boys in the stake), and my anger found a new source. I was horrified and enraged by his favoritism and barely hidden misogyny. My dad, for all his faults, made sure my siblings and I felt valued and loved for our individual selves. I sometimes rib him about favoring my brother, but since he’s the youngest and the only boy and just about the best person ever, we’re all obviously a little too guilty of spoiling him. My dad praises me (sometimes, embarrassingly, in public) for my accomplishments, encourages me to push myself, and is one of the best listeners I know. He’s never harped on me to get married so I can finally be a “real adult” and give him grandchildren; instead, he prods me to continue my graduate studies, and if I meet a nice boy along the way, then that’s fantastic. My dad has never picked a fight with me, and if we ever did get into a heated or emotional argument, he was quick to apologize, express his love, and try to make it right. Even now, as my dad struggles through his repentance process and tries to make amends, I’m constantly amazed at his humility and empathy for others.

I looked at these two men. One has a steady and reputable job, holds a respected office in church leadership, and considers himself the priesthood leader in his home. One had just lost his job due to his indiscretions, broke his temple covenants and was facing church discipline, and was working to regain the trust of his wife and children. Taken at such stark face value, I can imagine that these two men are prime examples of A Good Mormon Dad (provides for his family, has a leadership calling, and presides in his home) and a Bad Mormon Dad (not all of those things).

Yet I’ll give you three guesses which one I prefer.


Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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20 Responses

  1. Nathan Bunker says:

    I love your post! Sounds like your dad has some good things going for him since he has such a good relationship with you. Hopefully he can turn it around. But I worry more about your friend’s dad. He might be so secure in the few good things he does (or the bad things he doesn’t do) that he doesn’t realize what a sad life he is living. The label “A Good Mormon Dad” is a shabby replacement for “disciple of Christ” and “Bad Mormon Dad” does not have a enough scope for a man who is willing to face the consequences of his mistakes. The labels are only for people who don’t take enough time to get to know the person they are labeling.

  2. mb says:

    I like your essay except for the statement that one of these men is a prime example of a Good Mormon Dad. Ultimately, he’s not fooling anyone except himself. Tragic.

    As North Americans we tend to adopt our cultural values (skill, wealth and leadership) and overlay them onto our perceptions of what is valuable in our religious life, which leads to the gross misconception you refer to.

    Which is why we need to have the last half of Doctrine and Covenants 121 in our canon. Which, in turn, is why people like you are not fooled.

    God bless your dad.

  3. FoxyJ says:

    I hope that Elder Bednar’s remarks in this last conference about hypocrisy in reference to our families will actually be heard by those who need them, but I doubt it. I also have a complicated relationship with my dad; he’s never been very active in the church and he has a lot of issues that aren’t well resolved, but he has been a caring, loving and involved father. I hope my children feel that way about their dad when they grow up and that they don’t judge him for not attending church. I think they’re smarter than that; children can tell when they are loved and when they are not.

  4. Moniker Challenged says:

    Funny, isn’t it? I grew up in a “failed” Mormon home: divorce, sprinkled with substance abuse, mental illness, and poverty. As I child I constantly fretted about how my family didn’t measure up to the middle class, temple-going, 2-parent ideal. I envied everyone else who seemed to have it. When I met my best guy friend’s (now husband’s)family I thought they were absolutely perfect and I wanted to be just like them. The children all served missions and married in the temple. They had callings, and respect within the church. What I later came to realize, was that things appeared perfect because the appearance of perfection was required in order to be accepted. Either you do what Mom and Dad want, or they don’t love you anymore. Now, a couple of my own siblings are miserable failures by many people’s standards, but they’re still loved. Whatever you are, you’re still family. I don’t feel like I have to buy my way into the organization. My family’s still screwed up, but I’m learning to appreciate what I do have.

  5. DavidH says:

    It sounds like your Dad is a righteous man. God bless you and him and your family. And God bless your friend, her father, and their family too.

    I like Hugh Nibley’s definition of “righteous.”

    “Who is a righteous man? Anyone who is repenting. No matter how bad he has been, if he is repenting, he is a righteous man. There is hope for him, and no matter how good he has been his entire life if he is not repenting he is wicked. The difference is the way he is facing. The man on top of the stairs facing down is much worst off than the man on the bottom of the stairs facing up. The direction we are facing is what determines if we are good or bad.”

  6. Anonymous says:

    When my sisters and I were teenagers, my father threw himself into his calling as the YM basketball coach. He spent hours drawing up plans to ensure that each boy got to play where he could do well and lots of time taking and going over statistics. He visited each boy at home and got to know him and his parents; in some cases he knew what classes the boys were taking in school and what their career plans.

    In the meantime he had little use for his own daughters. I spent two years on my high school swim team, and he never so much as showed up at a practice, let alone a meet. I don’t think he even knew I was on the team, although I’m sure my mother talked about it all the time. He had no idea at all what some of us were taking in school, or how we were doing in school, or if we were even attending school. (I wasn’t very much.)

    A few years ago I found myself trapped at a wedding reception for someone in my parents’s neighborhood by the father of one of those boys who spent half an hour praising my father’s incredible commitment, dedication, and care for his son. I had no idea what to say.

    My father is an active, temple-attending high priest who serves faithfully in all of his callings. I will take my atheist husband who hasn’t put foot in the temple since 1997 any day. When I see the way some “good” priesthood holders act, I feel no remorse whatsoever about my husband’s beliefs and choices.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    Jillian, thank you for sharing your story with us. It’s an important example of how labels just don’t matter. Blessings on you and your dad in your journeys.

    DavidH, thanks for the quote…it’s a keeper!

  8. Caroline says:

    This contrasting study between these two men reinforces, for me, the importance of the idea that love is at the heart of the gospel. Your dad may have struggles and weaknesses, but he is a loving and generous man. The other dad may do almost everything right on the Mormon checklist, but he is not loving and kind. I would prefer your dad as well. A thousand times over.

  9. Martie says:

    Moniker- As a convert I often wished I’d grown up in the Church in one of those prefect Mormon families. Over the years, however, I’ve discovered much the same thing you have: perfection is expected to be accepted, anything less will be rejected so kids conform. I don’t believe E. Oaks’ GC talk’s premise that God’s love is conditional upon our obedience. God’s love is unconditional, but parental acceptance is not.

  10. James says:

    Fortunately, Martie, Elder Oaks suggested no such thing. He clearly distinguishes between God’s unconditional and universal love and God’s conditional blessings through obedience in his talk.

    As to the OP, interesting ideas. Just a thought: What about the possibility that “Good Dad” was expressing love in his own way (i.e. works hard at a calling)? I don’t necessarily feel like this makes up for or justifies the deficiencies in other areas, but maybe there is a more sympathetic way to view him? He may not see his actions in perspective, but I suspect that if someone directly accused him of not loving his family, he would probably be deeply hurt.

  11. a wanderer says:

    the thing is, james, that you (and elder oaks in his talk) presume that there is a difference between love and its manifestation. what does it mean to love unconditionally but then to make feeling that love conditional on conformity? in my mind, that’s a meaningless distinction. either god loves us unconditionally or he does not; the question of obedience to his law is, to my mind, a completely separate matter. are there consequences to disobedience? i suppose there are. but do we as human beings know what they are? i really don’t think we do. in fact, i think just about everyone on this planet, including our esteemed church leaders, has no idea what the consequences of obedience and disobedience are. i think the efforts to spell out what the consequences should be, including efforts in scripture and church documents, are efforts of small-minded people who grasp at concrete, black and white answers in order to make sense of a very confusing world.

    for me, there is one commandment and it is very simple. love. love god. love self. love other. every other commandment is part of a hedge to that central commandment to love. and any talk that gives advice to condition one’s love, to qualify how it is manifest–well in my mind, that is a talk which violates god’s commandment to love.

    i appreciate all the comments here about preferring allegedly “sinful” fathers/husbands to the kind of “upright” man represented in this post. and no–i don’t think looking at his efforts to fulfill his calling in the church as a manifestation of his love is more sympathetic; that’s just whiting the sepulchre. the fact is that if you love someone, you don’t treat them like shit. period. nothing makes up for such behavior.

  12. James says:

    “the thing is, james, that you (and elder oaks in his talk) presume that there is a difference between love and its manifestation. what does it mean to love unconditionally but then to make feeling that love conditional on conformity?”

    Careful there, presuming what I presume. Feeling of God’s love is different than feeling the consequences of our choices. We often do too good a job conflating those two things, but I agree with you – they are separate. I also think Elder Oaks happened to say the same thing (at least based on how I heard it during conference and re-read it tonight before posting my original comment). Just my opinion – you may have interpreted his words differently.

  13. Jen G. says:

    I enjoyed this Jillian.

    It seems pretty simple. One man’s heart is open, the other’s is closed, for whatever reason(s). My dad was actually kind of a mix of the two described above…going back and forth…I was never quite sure which one I was going to get. Now that he is older, he seems to be all heart, and has apologized for harsh treatment in earlier years, explaining that that was how he was raised, and that was all he knew. But he sees how his son in laws treat their wives and daughters, and he is grateful it does not echo his own behavior at that stage. For him to come to such a place is a blessing. I hope your friend’s dad could someday get to that point, though he may not in this life, he sounds like one tough cookie.

  14. Jillian says:

    Thanks for the kind words, everyone. This has certainly been an interesting time for my family. I think we’re all learning a little bit better what it means exactly to be a disciple of Christ.
    I especially loved the Nibley quote that DavidH shared–it really is all about the direction we’re headed.
    Anonymous–thank you for sharing your story. I’m really starting to think that it’s far less important how exactly a person believes than how they treat everyone around them. Far less. I wish the best for you and your family.
    James–I readily admit I don’t know my friend’s father’s heart. I do know, however, how my friend has been feeling the past few years about her relationship with him. I’m sure there’s much that’s good about him–I don’t think she’d want anyone to label him a good or bad dad, just as I don’t want people labeling my dad. I was mostly interested in looking at these men with their potential labels, and seeing the problems behind these labels. I think too often in our culture we get hung up on certain boundary markers that make us “good” or “bad” Mormons, when our focus should be the first and second most important commandments. Thanks for commenting.

  15. julie says:

    Such a good post. I have a strained relationship with my dad who sounds so much like the “good mormon dad” in your post (except he has no sons)…I have always wondered what it is like to have the kind of dad you did. You are very lucky.

  16. jks says:

    Very interesting post. I love that you prefer your own dad. You should.
    I also hope that your friend, her mother and her brothers prefer theirs.
    Whether it is mid-life crisis (don’t read that as affair) or post-partum depression there are times when we are not at our best. Sometimes we are doing the best we can and our best is less than what our best used to be.
    What a wonderful experience for you to see that despite your dad’s mistakes there is much of him to love. I hope that your friend’s dad has measures of goodness that his family sees and remembers and loves him too through what appears to be an unhappy time in his life and he is able to become a better family member.
    I hope that this story isn’t your friend’s family’s entire story. There is probably much going on behind the scenes. Perhaps if you had visited five years earlier you would have seen an entirely different scene. I hope that if you visit again in the future the obvious unhappiness and stress will have disipated and in its place is joy and contentment.

  17. Kelly Ann says:

    “I love that you prefer your own dad. You should. I also hope that your friend, her mother and her brothers prefer theirs.”

    I totally echo this sentiment. I think what we experience shapes our views. I do however wish that everyone can feel loved in whatever family they are in.

  18. D'Arcy says:

    I remember growing up and feeling shame that my father NEVER had a big calling. He was never a Bishop or Stake President. He was never the EQ President, he was never anything more than a Home Teacher, he did scouts a few times, he was Sunday School teacher once and liked it. He NEVER complained about any calling, never sought any calling, quietly did each calling he was given.

    I grew up thinking he must not be as righteous as other people’s dads (because he did things like fish on Sundays and watch the occasional rated R movie!). Now I realize he just didn’t really play into any type of church politics and he never tried to be anything he wasn’t. He went to church every Sunday and then came home and went to the store to buy milk and a newspaper. And I love him for that!

  19. Carol says:

    Great post! It reminds me of the Savior’s chastisement of the Pharisees, who feigned righteousness but lack authentic good, and the publicans, whose humility was accepted by God even though society rejected them.

    My husband never played Church politics nor did he aspire to or want Church leadership, but he’s been a bishop, branch president, and bishopric member 4 times. Those experiences were stressful for our family but we also received many blessings. I would have preferred that he taught Sunday School–and so would he.

    Your post reminds me that many are called but few are chosen. Many good leaders serve with humility and faith but for some, it more an ego trip than an opportunity to serve and love others. My heart goes out to your friend’s family and to the father, who is missing out on the joy and peace that the gospel offers.

  20. AS says:

    I didn’t read all the comments, but it was an insightful post, and I would say that just because a sin isn’t concrete or fits into a category, doesn’t mean it is any less hurtful. We all have our faults and you’re right, just because one person is ex-communicated-especially if he is working to come back, that certainly doesn’t make him less than another person whose weaknesses are different, particularly if they are not trying to correct them.