The Fatherhood Shift
“We’ve demonstrated that women can do what men do, but not yet that men can do what women do. That’s why most women have two jobs—one inside the home and one outside it—which is impossible. The truth is that women can’t be equal outside the home until men are equal in it.” –Gloria Steinem, 2009.
Occasionally the gendered language of the church is more hurtful towards men than it is towards women. We hear it when women are spoken of as naturally more righteous or when men are said to lack self-control. The gendered culture of Mormonism is so strong that most of these messages, for most Latter-day Saints, go unobserved or unchallenged. It’s the landscape we live with every day. But it is damaging for everyone.
In the Saturday afternoon session of General Conference Elder L. Tom Perry said this in his (mostly good) talk about the crucial need for good parenting:
Let us first look at the role of the mother. Listen to a quote from President Gordon B. Hinkley, ‘Women who make the house a home make a far greater contribution to society than those who command large armies or stand at the head of impressive corporations. Who can put a price tag on the influence on her mother? Particularly that influence that she has on her children, her grandmother on her posterity, or aunts and sisters on their extended family.
We cannot begin to measure or calculate the influence of women who, in their own way, build stable family life and nurture, for the everlasting good, the generations of the future. The decisions made by women of this generation will be eternal in their consequences. May I suggest that the mothers of today have no greater opportunity and no more serious challenge than to do all they can to strengthen the home.’
Now let’s look at the role the father plays in our lives. Fathers give blessings and perform sacred ordinances for their children. These become spiritual highlights in their lives. Fathers are personally involved in leading the family in prayer, daily scripture study, and weekly home evenings. Fathers build family traditions by being involved in vacation trips and outings that will involve family members. Memories of these special times with together will never be forgotten by their children. Fathers hold one-one-one visits with their children and teach them gospel principles. Fathers teach sons and daughters the value of work and help them understand worthy goals in their lives. Fathers set an example of faithful gospel service. Please remember brethren, your sacred calling as a father in Israel, your most important calling in time and eternity, a calling from which you are never released.
My husband, Patrick, who is the calmest, gentlest person I have ever met, shook his head in annoyance. He is righteous man who is extraordinary to me in his ability to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and be patient with differences in opinions or beliefs. “This is horrible,” he said quietly. “It’s like I’m a visiting high counselor.”
Beyond the potential for inducing guilt, I don’t have a problem with what Elder Perry said about mothers and women, except that it’s equally true of fathers and men. Both Patrick and I have made sacrifices in our careers to place our family as the clear priority in our lives. Patrick is better at playing with our kids than I am and he’s often more patient with them. As Elder Perry (sort of) said, one cannot begin to measure or calculate the influence of how he is building our family life and nurturing generations of the future.
But this glorifying language of motherhood was not matched in Elder Perry’s description of fathers, which focused mostly on events, not on the day-to-day hourly grittiness of an involved parent. Fathers are there for the spiritual highlights, the fun weekend activities, the memorable vacations. By his description fatherhood does not sound an immersive, life-altering experience. It sounds like a very important job.
However, Elder Perry’s description of fatherhood sounds really close to my grandparents’ experience and their ideas about parental roles. It even sounds a little bit like my parents’ experience. But my generation (I’m in my early 30s) is entering parenthood with the assumption that men can and should be richly involved in the grittiness, and not just “visit” their children’s lives. This shift seems to have universally, if not equally, affected all the young fathers I know, Mormon or not. Even the most orthodox young families in my ward have fathers that play a vastly different role than the one their grandfathers adopted. While there’s plenty of room for growth, these are men who know their way around a diaper bag. And they’re proud of it.
I can’t help but think that when these men become leaders in the Church, they will not speak of motherhood and fatherhood as being so very different. Having immersed themselves in parenthood to a greater degree than perhaps any previous generation, they will be sensitive to both the potential dangers of venerating and the offensiveness of side-lining one half of the parenting partnership. The way parenting challenged and changed them will improve the Church. As Gloria Steinem indicated, men doing traditional women’s work will fundamentally alter the landscape.