Guest Post: And Kings Shall Be Thy Nursing Fathers

by Mayalynn

I think that a discussion of fatherhood — perhaps by men themselves — is long overdue.  I think it is just one part of the equality equation — the part that asks, “What does it mean to be a nursing father?”  It might help us tease out some of the threads that have gotten tangled up in the complementarity discussion and shift our conceptualization of a nurturing God.

I am the eldest of 8.  My father, who was bishop and scout master several times over, was absent for most of my childhood doing important things with other men and boys.  To my mother’s chagrin, he used our family vacations to take the Boy Scouts (including 2 of my brothers) on trips to the Unitas.  This is even more remarkable, considering that we lived in Iowa.(Boy Scouts have always had more resources than Young Women).  He left my mom home for long stretches of time in order to engage in emotionally less costly, more prestigious (even at times, escapist) church service while she took care of the day-to-day management and maintenance of the family.  The only time my mom got time off — this was in the 1970’s — was when she went into the hospital to have another baby.

When my Amiable Husband and I had young children, I kept urging him to step up to his “leadership” role in the family and in the church.  This was a role he did not want.  My spouse is a nurturing, thoughtful person, and he wanted no part of the “power over” equation.  He has never held any so-called “high” church positions.  He is, on the other hand, very good at engaging with and showing affection to our kids.I’d be interested in hearing from Mormon men about what it means to them to be fathers and in what ways that does/doesn’t fit with how they conceptualize priesthood.  (Obviously, this is also a topic that daughters and partners could weigh in on.)

I like psych professor/editor Michael Lamb’s research on fatherhood.  Here are some points from his 1987 book, The Father’s Role:  Cross-cultural Perspectives.

  • “Responsible involvement” in parenting is the extent to which the parent takes ultimate responsibility for the child’s welfare and care, and can be illustrated by considering the difference between being responsible for childcare as opposed to being able and willing to “help out” when it is convenient.
  • Even when both mother and father are employed 30 or more hours per week, the amount of responsibility assumed by fathers appears negligible, just as it does when mothers are unemployed.
  • [In raising sons] paternal warmth or closeness is advantageous, whereas paternal masculinity is irrelevant. . . .better adjustment on the part of children seems to occur when the relationships between fathers and children are close and warm.  In general, the same is true for mothers, so that children who have close relationships with both parents benefit from having two supportive, nurturant relationships and are psychologically better off as a result.  As far as influence on children is concerned, there seems to be very little about the gender of the parent that is distinctly important.  The characteristics of the father as a parent rather than the characteristics of the father as a man appear to influence child development.
  • The same surveys that show a majority of men wanting to be more involved show that somewhere between 60% and 80% of women do not want their husbands to be more involved than they currently are. . . . .More importantly, increased paternal involvement may threaten to upset some fundamental power dynamics within the family.  The role of mother and manager of the household are the two roles in which women’s authority has not been questioned; together, they constitute the one area in which women have had real power and control.  Increased paternal involvement may threaten this power and preeminence. [Emphasis mine.]

This last point (granted this was nearly 30 years ago, so the percentages of women wanting to maintain parental pre-eminence may have dropped) could be one reason why ordination is so threatening to many Mormon women.  I think it needs to be part of future conversations. 

But how about a discussion of “And kings shall be thy nursing fathers” for Father’s Day, which is coming up in June:  What does it mean to be a father?  What did that look like in your family of origin?  What does it look like now?  In what ways does your idea of fatherhood fit/nor fit with how you conceptualize “priesthood” and/or “leadership?”

MayaLynn is a therapist and graduate student instructor, specializing in women’s issues

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17 Responses

  1. Emily U says:

    Thanks for this post, Mayalynn. I think you are really on to something when you write that women not wanting more involvement from their husbands could be related to objections to ordination. It’s a brilliant insight. Objecting to ordination makes sense if the women stand to LOSE something.

    My mother, and so many women I know, have a lot of responsibility and decision making power at home. Often this is the only place they have these privileges. They’re also stretched thin as far as how many things they juggle. If ordination meant more work + upsetting their comfort zone at home, it’s no wonder it doesn’t sound good.

    It’s fascinating that the survey found involvement to be important, but very little relating to gender as being important. Growing up Mormon I believed that motherhood and fatherhood were ineffably unique, but now I’m not so sure. For babies and toddlers there’s usually a special connection with mom, but for my son that started to disappear around age 3. I think my husband and I contribute uniquely to nurturing out kids, but that’s primarily a function of the fact that we’re different PEOPLE, not different GENDERS.

    In my childhood dad worked and mom stayed home. He was more the “help out when I can” parent than primarily providing care. He was the (sometimes scary) disciplinarian. I have good memories of playing with dad and of his stories, but if I had a problem I always went to mom. My toddler comes to me for everything. Generally, she prefers me all the time. My 6 year old comes to me for food, but he’s probably equally likely to come to either of us for anything else. At the end of the day I always ask him “what was your best thing today?” And lately he says “when you and daddy were both home.”

  2. Caroline says:

    Thanks for the great post! I think that point about women not wanting husbands more involved with their kids, so that women can maintain authority in that realm, is fascinating. As you mention in the following paragraph, I get the sense that that dynamic has changed for a lot of women in the last 30 years, though maybe not as much for some Mormon women. Personally, I love the fact that my husband is highly involved with the kids, and in my ideal world, we’d both work part time and parent equally.

    I actually get the sense that Mormon men over the last few decades have been instructed repeatedly to involve themselves more and more with active parenting and nurturing. Which I think is great, as I mentioned above. But I’m waiting for the moment when women are instructed by Church leaders to take larger roles in Church administration/callings and providing. That would provide an important balance: as men take on more nurturing roles, there needs to be space for women to take on more ecclesiastical and breadwinning roles. (I think Mormon women have already made some inroads on breadwinning front.)

  3. Alisa says:

    My husband was the SAHP for our son for his first 2.5 years of life, so when people say that babies have a greater bond with the mom, I tend to really disagree based on exactly what I see from stay-at-home fatherhood. My son has such a close bond with his dad, and my husband knows just as well as I do how to meet our son’s needs. I was also very involved, breastfeeding and pumping until 18 months, taking the time to work from home twice a week, and taking the charge on researching his special needs and being the one to work most closely with developmental specialists because I had the drive to do it and it made sense for one of us to be the deep-dive researcher with the other having the cheerleader role. This means my son has had a lot of attention from two parents, probably more than a child with one parent working outside the home all days of the week. In all honesty, we don’t have strict roles with raising children–we both change diapers equally now, we both give meds and make meals for him. We both play rough-and-tumble games, and we take turns with the bedtime routine so the other one of us can get exercise every other night, and the bedtime routine’s the same except we each have our own set of lullabies. Honestly, we’re both nurturers.

  4. Em says:

    Thanks for an interesting post. I appreciate the thoughtful look at what drives women to not want the priesthood. It is easy to be dismissive of a point of view that doesn’t seem to make sense to us, and I think we’ve put a lot of analysis into why ordaining women would be a good thing, but less analytical thought into why it would be threatening.

    My dad was entirely uninvolved with raising me for all that my parents were married. In my adult life he has referred to this as not “poking at me” and giving me my space. This is appropriate when your children are in their twenties. It is not appropriate as a parenting strategy for toddlers, elementary or adolescent children. He is not a member of the church, but his service positions at the university provide much of the same functions in terms of family life — taking him away, giving him prestige, giving him endless ways to fill time, giving him satisfaction and sociability but meaning he never saw his family. Which is how he wanted it. Ah well.

  5. spunky says:

    This is brilliant, Mayalynn. It very m uch engages the concept of masculinity studies- or what is culturally percieved to be manly, but on a fatherly level. But along those lines, I was just chatting with a YSA friend about this last night– about how so many YSA women seem to be waiting to be married so they feel like they have something — a household (?)– which will give them some type of authority.

    I think the fatherhood issue is also not limited to within the church. I think the church is a powerful vehicle and a justifier of this behaviour.

    My father died when I was 18, but from memory, he was the fun guy who swept in and played, and hadsome deep conversations, but for the most part, he was working. That being said, he was an inactive Mormon for as long as I can remember, so I probably had it better than most. But I did notice the weight my mother had alone, with 7 children, especially with church in being spread so thin, so we were often pawned off on other church members with like-age children to get rides to activities and such.

    I also felt sometimes like a pawn for my mother to try and enlist my father back into activity. One time, I gave a youth talk in church, and my father missed it, as was usual. After the talk, my mother wanted me to present the talk at home at dinner, just so my father could hear it. I wanted none of it, and said if he wanted to hear my talk, he could have gone to church. My mother shamed me for not being an aid in the manipulation to get my father to do more church stuff, and I feel, never supported me church-wise again. (I once gave a talk on a Sunday as a youth and had to get my brother to give me a ride to church because no one else in my family f elt like going to church that day.)

    For my mother, I think, church and family was one and the same. My father saw it differently, but having the competeing ideologies made for an uncomfortable, angry, spiritually divided youth that I never want to repeat. My husband is more like my father, he has a smaller calling, and blows it off for family stuff. I love him for it. I want preisthood for myself and my family so he isn’t burdened with that alone, so we can truly share as co-parents. He is fine with that as well.

  6. X2 Dora says:

    The husband I want to talk about it … my youngest brother. We were talking the other day, about looking forward to retirement. My brother is very financially savvy, and saves/invests a fair amount. However, he is leery of retirement. He said that he find great satisfaction in working, and although he grumbles about going, gets a lot of satisfaction from the work he does. He doesn’t have many hobbies, and says that he doesn’t know how he will react when he is retired, and that he finds most of his self-worth from working.

    Now, I am glad that he is finding satisfaction at work. He and his wife have not had children yet, are are both successful professionals. However, I laughingly cautioned him to make sure to build a life that will be worth living, outside of his work.

    I wonder how many other men have this same situation: they find great satisfaction at work, and not much elsewhere. Certainly that goes against the grain of what the LDS church teaches. I wonder how many women feel this way … particularly stay at home mothers who are anti-priestesshood, since that is one of the topics in this post. Do these women find such satisfaction in being the most important person in the home, that they don’t want any intruders in their kingdom? Wow, that really sounds harsh, and I didn’t intend it to be, but it’s the image I got as I read the post.

    I just think that there should be moderation. In finding work-life balance. In sharing the joys and the responsibilities of the home. I believe that there is so much joy to be had, that it’s just silly to restrict ourselves to finding it only in small and cramped places.

  7. April says:

    The idea that women may not want father involvement because it upsets their place of power within the home is something that never even occurred to me, perhaps because the two fathers I know best–my own father and my husband–are so involved and naturally nurturing. Although, now that you’ve planted the idea, I wonder if this is related to the jokes I sometimes hear making fun of fathers for perceived incompetence at cleaning and child care? Maybe some women need to feel like this is their special role and a man just couldn’t do it?

  8. Two related comments:

    I would love to see a conversation by men about their desires for their roles for fatherhood. I find it somewhat disturbing when men tell women how they should fulfill their roles, especially when women are dissecting this complex issue so intently themselves and can’t agree, to the point it even has a name–The Mommy Wars. I truly think that men do want to be more involved in their children’s lives, but isn’t that just the same?–me, a woman, telling men how they ought to feel and behave and how I think they really feel. I would love to see what they think among themselves, when given the opportunity (and encouragement) to speak honestly about it.

    I agree that perhaps some women are not entirely comfortable with the idea of sharing more of that sphere in the home. But, I think families–moms, dads, and kids–would all benefit from more equally shared co-parenting and involvement.

    Thanks for a great post.

    Kate @ BJJ, Law, and Living

  9. jks says:

    This makes total sense to me. Of course I want my husband to be involved in nurturing our children but I don’t want him to take over or even share it 50-50. I am good at it. I like it. It feels important.
    Not only did my husband grow up in a very unhappy family so he doesn’t have a good example to follow and doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, but also as a girl growing up in a mormon family I would think about what kind of family I wanted and how I would manage that family and how to raise kids because I was going to be a mom someday.
    It is very difficult for some women to know that when their husbands’ take care of the kids they get a different standard of care. While I don’t care if the kids wear matching clothes or have their hair brushed, I care passionately if their intellectual, spiritual and emotional needs are being seen to. My husband is not even close to being up to doing the job that I do raising them.
    That isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate what he does do as a father, I just appreciate that I have more time with them and the time and resources to dedicate to raising them the way I think they should be raised. And I should say I take his ideas, values and opinions about what he wants for our children into consideration and implement them.
    Everyone in our family would consider it a tragedy if Dad was the SAHP. However, I would just trust there would be a learning curve and he’d catch up. He’s been a dad for 15 years and he is way better as a dad now than he was at the beginning. Way better.

    As for the either gender thing about parents, I wonder just a little bit. I see some definite benefit to my children having a “father” instead of just a mother when my oldest have hit about 11. Every risk factor that comes from not having a father at home I see my oldest daughter and oldest son overcome because they get parenting from their dad too, not just me. I may think I am an excellent mother, excellent parent, but I see them get something from having love, attention and guidance from a “father” not just another parent. My daughter having a father affects how she relates to boys and the world and her self esteem and confidence. My son having a father affects his self esteem, confidence, his ideas of his future.

    My husband has rarely spent any long amounts of time on a calling. He does have a time consuming calling now and while he doesn’t like it and doesn’t like having to do it and be away from home, I think it is great because he is doing something worthwhile and what the Lord wants him to do. In reality does it take him away from his family that much or would he have spent at least some of those evenings just watching TV or playing Xbox mostly anyway. And when he didn’t have a calling that sent him to church early it is not like he was getting kids ready all morning anyway.
    My husband doesn’t love his job but its a good job and he is fairly good at it although he isn’t perfect and sometimes has problems at work and he would not appreciate needing to be more in charge of the kids’ doctor appointments or schooling or buying clothes or signing up for soccer, etc. There is only so much energy he’s got.
    It breaks my heart to think of becoming a single mom, working mom, or somehow being forced to delegate the parenting of my children that I am doing. My husband and I are both happy with how we are parenting our children and our children’s needs are being met and they are well adjusted and successful. I have four children and have been a mom for 15 years. Sure, there are dozens of little things that get lost in the shuffle but I know if I had to have another priority it would be difficult.

    I am sure it is easier for younger couples to share parenting more. My husband tried to take care of our first baby but he really did call me at work and ask me to come home from work after 20 min. because the baby was crying and wouldn’t take a bottle. He was different by the time we had our fourth but his learning curve is always behind mine. Most of the women my age have marriages where the individuals have specialized. It means we are better at something and our spouse isn’t. Plus, I do have status in my family as the mom. I like it. It would be just as hard to have the church give women the priesthood as it would be to register for the draft. It would seem to threaten to come between me and my most important work. Men go off to war, women stay home with the children. It is anxiety producing to imagine my country or my church would rather me go off to war and the fathers stay home with the kids.
    I am sure my children will feel a little differently because the world is changing. And their marriages will be less specialized be gender.

    • Emily U says:

      JKS – I have a friend who’s an economist and once when we were talking about the home/work balance between ourselves and our husbands she said, “I’m an economist. I believe in specialization.” I think all families do this to some extent and it’s a very normal, functional thing to do. As long as people are given real choices about what they can specialize in.

      You’re not the only woman I’ve known to have a gut-level negative reaction to the idea of women being ordained, and if it had to mean a role reversal, I can really understand that feeling. To me it wouldn’t mean a role reversal or an undoing of specialization, though, I envision it more as win-win for everyone. My husband and I would get to co-bless our children, which would be a way of enhancing my most important work.

  10. EmilyCC says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Mayalynn. I hope we’ll hear more from you!

    My husband and I waited for a few years to have children after we were married. We always shared household responsibilities equally.

    When our first son was a year, we moved for his work, and I stayed home. It took some therapy to realize how much extra work I took on and how critical I became of his housework and parenting because I felt like I had no authority anywhere.

    I suspect this is why so many Mormon women are the strongest gatekeepers of patriarchy.

    And, I fear that there are still plenty of fathers in my generation who do what your father did–too much time with work or Church callings because they haven’t been taught or given permission to develop their more nurturing side.

    • mayalynn says:

      Exactly, Emily! When you and your husband sharing household responsibilities equally, did he also take responsibility for the managerial function of parenting? That is, was he the one who remembered the lunchboxes, the dentist appointments, the birthday treats, the Spider Man costume that needs to be washed, and that your son likes peanut butter but cannot stand mayonnaise? Was he the one who held the needs of your son in his head and, like a gyroscope, oriented himself in relationship to those needs? That’s what Michael Lamb refers to as “having full parental responsibility.” His research shows that even the most engaged fathers play with their children but do not assume full responsibility. Why not? Because, as you describe here, their partners never give them the chance to learn, to do things differently, and to make mistakes.

  11. ludlow says:

    The father of my children once made the comment that he’d learned from his father’s generation how not to be a father. He didn’t like the distance his father had from him. He did not intend to make the same mistake. My children certainly benefitted from having him so emotionally available to them. I will always be grateful to him that he spent so much time with them.

  12. EFH says:

    To me, women being ordained is not about what I am good at as a mother or getting the farther more involved. It does not have to do with that at all. For me it is about what the power I possess that is being ignored and underutilized. I do have the priesthood because it is the power of God. Ordination is simply an official nod from the church institution to allow me to use it officially among the members. It empowers my role as a member of the church but not as a mother or a woman. I already have the priesthood because I am a child of God like men are. The institution of church simply needs to recognize that my eternal destiny is the same as that of men.

    I see that many women from both camps respond to this issue very emotionally. One side doesn’t want it because it disturb the status quo and the other one wants it to be more equal in leadership. However, ordaining women is about what is eternally true and absolute. It is about who we truly are.

    And to all the women who think that priesthood would spread them even thinner, I say that you can say ‘no’ to a calling that is beyond your time and abilities for the moment. Your power can be officially recognized even though you do not have the time to use it all the time. But the power of priesthood needs to be recognized in all of us regardless of our circumstances.

  13. Mike S says:

    This post resonated with me. The absolutely worst time in my family life and marriage occurred when I had a “high profile” calling in the Church. I was gone dozens of hours per week for meetings and everything else. I hopefully had some positive impact on those with whom I worked (YM President for 60-70 YM), but they are now on missions and getting married and realistically gone from my life. Yet I still carry scars from what it did to my family and I resent it to this day. Perhaps someday when all of my kids are gone I will consider such a time-consuming calling again, but until then, I would be extremely hard-pressed to accept something similar.

  14. Danyel Roselle says:

    These days, working at home isn’t just a pipe dream — it’s an economic necessity. The Great Recession forced more than 300,000 stay-at-home moms to return to work. And in a recent retirement poll commissioned by Allstate, nearly 70% of near-retirees said they plan to continue working past age 65. .

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