(On a three-child-induced career sabbatical, Libby spends her time sewing lavish Halloween costumes, reading, and volunteering on the board of her daughter’s cooperative preschool. She lives near Boston.)
My son was born in May, prematurely and with a short but frightening list of complications. A seven-week NICU stay resolved most of them; the rest are navigable. Those NICU Sundays were precious to me; they were days I could justify spending hours upon hours at the hospital, unburdened by normal weekday duties. My husband took our daughters to church while I snuggled my boy, read to him, whispered his name into his hair. I prayed for him to be healthy, to remember to breathe, to keep a regular heartbeat. Even after he came home I kept him away from church for another month; after that I spent weeks and weeks in the foyer, where the noise from the organ and microphone were less likely to jar his ears.
And then it was time to give him a name and a blessing, and I fell apart. My father and father-in-law came into town to stand in the circle. My husband invited his few friends to stand with him – most of whom had never touched the baby before that moment. I sat in the pew and compiled a mental list of women who should have been there instead: my mother and sisters; the Relief Society women who had driven me to the hospital when I was still on painkillers, who had held his tiny body when it weighed less than four pounds; the friends who had taken my daughters for playdates while I struggled through a too-hard pregnancy; the beloved nearly-sisters who lived far away but volunteered meals (“I can still order you a pizza!”) and paid for the special car carrier when he couldn’t sit in a car seat. Who were these men? What authority could they possibly have in the matter of a small baby?
Today I walked into church just in time for the confirmations of a new family. As soon as the missionary who confirmed the father said the words “the patriarch of your family,” I started digging my fingernails into the back of my other hand – now, eight hours later, the marks are still there. I made my escape to the foyer as soon as I could, but the damage was done. Here was a brand-new member of the church, hopeful, believing – and he’d already been infused with Patriarchy.
I thought I had made my peace with patriarchy and the church years ago. I had an inspired, beloved, sainted bishop who steered me toward the thinking side of Mormonism when I was 15 years old, and I figured that if there were men like that in the church then institutional change couldn’t be all that far behind. There were setbacks and flare-ups: the boy in college who suggested that my roommate and I were “prime marriage material” but “too career-oriented” (I started his lecture with the words, “First of all, you don’t refer to another human being as ‘material’”). I served a mission and suffered my fair share of overzealous 19-year-old leaders – even read D&C 121 to one of them (“Elder, I’d like to share a scripture with you”). More recently, I’ve had a bishop dismiss our presidency’s well-prayed-over list of Primary callings and send us people utterly unsuited for the job of guiding children in the gospel. But I could write these experiences off as social gaffes, as the functional stupidity inherent in large organizations, as youth and bravado masquerading as authority. I believed the church was good, and that the goodness would require it to change. I even believed a little bit that it already had changed; that there really was, at some level, a reasonable amount of equality which just hadn’t trickled to my particular corner of the world yet.
Why the frustration and alienation should surface because I have a male child is beyond me. I already have two daughters. They are wonderful, tough, smart, goofy human beings. Maybe because I grew up female I think I know how to navigate girls through Mormon life. If they read Paul in Sunday School and the boys in their class tease them about submitting to their husbands, I can ask them if they’ve ever seen me cower before their father. If their seminary teacher says they should cover their shoulders for modesty’s sake, I can pull out photos of their mother in a polka-dot strapless dress at a Lambda Delta Sigma formal dance (fashion mistake, but I’m trying to make a point here). If they see a circle of men standing to confirm a new member, I can point out with a wry smile that even the youth holding the microphone is wearing a white shirt and tie, and aren’t we taking the priesthood privilege thing a little over the top?
But I don’t know what to tell my son, who will see every week a message more seductive and flattering than the one that I try to tell him. Is there any chance that he will survive a lifetime in this church without internalizing the chromosome-based superiority he sees on Sundays? And when he turns 12, and receives the Aaronic Priesthood, and his sisters realize that in the eyes of the church he will always have more authority and power than they do – and, indeed, more than his mother has – what will I tell them?