Guest Post: The Price of Benevolent Patriarchy?

"The Son of Man" by Magritte

by Abigail T.

I know an LDS family — a very nice family. Salt of the earth, every child practicing LDS.  Good, good people, every single one of them. There are 6 adult children, the mom has been a stay at home mom since her early 20’s, and the dad — the full time wage earner — has served in numerous bishoprics and stake presidencies over the last 40 years.

I’ve had several chances to observe this family intimately. And something I noticed, as well as something that the adult children have remarked upon, is that none of the children talk to the dad. Oh, they do the superficial ‘how’s it going?’ thing with him. They’ll ask about his church work for a few minutes. (He loves to talk about that.) But they don’t really communicate with him on any kind of level beyond the superficial. All real communication goes through the mom, who then tells the dad what’s going on in the lives of all their children.

It’s kind of sad. The dad is a good man who loves his kids and is willing to help them out when they need it. Yet there’s just no intimate communication.  Only one or two of the sons will have any kind of extended conversation with him, since they are more willing to listen to his Church stories than the others.

I can’t help but wonder if this is a common dynamic among LDS families with fathers who have spent the children’s growing up years deeply entrenched in both work and church service. Is this the price that many LDS fathers have paid for all their service? Is this what has been sacrificed by many families for all that service — real relationship and intimate communication between father and children?

I don’t know how widespread a phenomenon this is. Maybe this is just a fluke dynamic that has arisen within this particular family. But I’d love to hear your experience with this. Do you see adult children communicating as openly and intimately with their fathers as they do with their mothers, particularly in families in which the father has been involved in intense church service?

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33 Responses

  1. April says:

    I don’t have personal experience with this family dynamic. However, it seems to me like this would be a logical result of strict gender roles coupled with intense church service on the part of the father. I watched a documentary produced by BYU once when I was a teenager that was designed to promote this kind of family model and it left a lasting impression on me, and not in the way intended. It highlighted a couple who maintained strict gender roles. One of the “advantages” of this model was that, because the wife had nothing to do while her kids were at school, she had ample time to volunteer (i.e., work without pay). Meanwhile, one of the “worthy sacrifices” the couple made to keep the wife out of the paid workforce was that the husband worked an extra job at night, so he never saw the kids. Hmm. If a father’s main usefulness to his family comes through wage earning, could a father be replaced by a large inheritance or lottery winnings?

  2. Diane says:

    My brother lives in Scotland and was converted there while he was in the military. I haven’t seen him in action with his children. But, he very much is like this with me., so, I would think he’s like this with his kids as well. And to be fair, he was like this way before she ever stepped into the picture, I would have to talk to his foster mother to find anything out about him, because he just wouldn’t talk. I have to talk to his wife because he will not speak to me. I have since stopped attempting to communicate with him. I find this to be very cold and manipulative.

  3. BethSmash says:

    Ooh! What a great question. I grew up in a single-parent family, so I have no idea of the answer in my own personal life. BUT, I have seen this before, but with families that were older than mine, I thought it might have been a generational thing… Like the early babyboomers (those born in the 40s) who had kids in the 60s – who didn’t have the best relationships with their dad’s since dad’s from that time (the greatest generation) were stereotyped as stoic and not all touchy feely and stuff and the disciplinarian. (totally true in my family for my grandpa) – So I thought it was a learned behaviour from that!

    Can’t wait to hear everyone else’s answers.

  4. Shauni says:

    I’ve been thinking about this very thing! I grew up in a home with very strict gender roles. My dad is a mechanical engineer (the *epitome of masculinity*) and served as a bishop during my high school and early college years. My mom has been a stay-at-home mom since her early twenties. As a result, I obviously spent much more time as a child and teenager with my mom than my dad, but as an adult, I’ve actually found my dad to be more approachable. When I call my mom to talk, I can almost always hear dishes clanking in the background or other sounds of multitasking, but my dad will actually sit down to have a conversation. When I go to visit my parents, my mom is always busy with one project or another, and I have to chase her around the house if I want to talk to her. My dad, on the other hand, will usually take the time to go on outings or just sit and talk. I think part of it is just that since my mom spends almost all of her time in her “work zone” (home), she feels lazy or unproductive if she takes time to sit and chat, whereas if my dad is home, he is usually in relaxation mode and doesn’t feel guilty for sitting around and talking. Plus, I think serving as bishop helped him develop good listening skills.

    That’s my personal experience! I’m interested to hear what others have to say!

  5. Whoa-man says:

    In certain ways this family could be my own. My dad is a wonderful man, but not very communicative on anything but religion and on that subject there is not much discussing that goes on. There are specific people in my family that have very rough relationships with my father and others who could REALLY use an empathetic loving father (i.e. both brothers-in-law have lost their fathers recently). It makes me so sad that we don’t have this type of relationship with him, but then again, he didn’t have one with his father either. You know he loves you because he goes to all the sports games, and does the dishes, and such, but it is hard to get him to SHOW it in other ways. After some apostle said to tell your family you love them more, he has said the words better, but if I want a really deep or authentic conversation about feelings, that is very difficult. I can’t tell how much is personality and how much is religious role, but it is hard sometimes to determine if he cares about us much more than making sure we all get to the celestial kingdom some day.

  6. Alisa says:

    I am fortunate that this is not the case with my father. My dad is an engineer, a very male-brained person as he likes to say. But he is deeply intellectual and loves discussing ideas. He was the patriarch in the home, and led family prayers 2x a day, family scripture study, regular FHE/family council/fast-Sunday interviews with the kids. He’s pretty much done things by the book, and though he hasn’t been perfect, he actually IS a person his kids enjoy talking to. I take my on-the-job problems to him and ask him for career and financial advice, and we discuss deep gospel doctrines together. Our relationship is not perfect, but I am fortunate to be enough like him that we really enjoy each other’s company.

    • Alisa says:

      Of course, he did work long hours and volunteered a lot, but he was also very present when he was home. I think that makes all the difference.

  7. EM says:

    Good article and one that I’ve had experience with. My father, bless his cotton socks, was one of those people who were fully engaged in “doing the Lord’s work” – in South Africa. Since before and returning from the WW2 he has always been doing church work. Some of my aunts cannot remember him ever being at home, he was always out with the missionaries, and therefore didn’t know too much about him growing up. He married had 7 children and continued – as he puts it “serving with all your heart, might, mind and strength”. I don’t remember my father being home much at all. He’d come home from work, have supper, which was always on the table when he walked in the door, and then he’d be off doing who knows what. He served in Branch Presidencies and Mission Presidencies, was a valiant home teacher where he would take the bus and train to make his visits – he would have 7 or 8 families to visit. My father was also the disciplinarian. It was a case of “just wait till your father comes home” – and we would get punished severely. He ruled with an iron fist. Not sure if that was a result of the war or his guilt for not being home very much. Consequently, I and my siblings really don’t have much to communicate with him on. This past year I went on a 2 month trip with him back to SA and to Scotland, me doing Family History, he for pleasure. I did this in the hopes that I could develop a closer relationship with him. Although I must say it was the first time in my life that I had control and he didn’t as he is 90% blind and was somewhat dependent on me. I tried really hard to get close to him, but not so; he’s still the dogmatic, “I’m right, you’re not”, insensitive kind of person that he’s always been. The only thing we have in common now is my involvement in family history and the chance I have to pick his brains. I’ve always thought it to be very sad indeed. My mother really wasn’t any better. She ran the household, and with 7 kids, near drove her crazy. She was not a talker, kept her feelings to herself. I’ve often thought if this is how our family is here on earth, what hope is there for us in the next life.

  8. Braids says:

    I think it isn’t uncommon for adult children to feel more common talking to their mothers. That’s certainly how it was for me, and my father was very involved in my life growing up. In fact, he is extremely egalitarian, was fully involved in all child-rearing duties (my mom worked full-time), organized his work schedule so he could get the kids off to school in the morning (so my mom could go into work early and get home earlier), and although he has always been an active, believing member of the church, he was never on the “leadership track”. We were very close when I was growing up. But sometime after high school it became more and more difficult to talk to him. When I was away from home at college or graduate school, I would really only talk to my mom and she would relay info to him. I don’t know why this happened–maybe it was just easier to talk to my mom because we are both women? My husband has similar difficulty talking with his dad, although his dad was not as involved in child-rearing as mine.

    However, it has seemed like my dad has been making an effort to talk to me. The first time my dad called “just to talk” I kept waiting for him to pass the phone to my mom. My kids were sick and he was calling just to see how we were doing. It was really sweet. Over the past couple of years he has done this more frequently, and made an effort to talk to me when we visit. Our communication has improved, but I still don’t feel as comfortable just talking with him as I do with my mom.

  9. Ru says:

    My dad was never the “patriarch” type — more the “banished to be ward librarian for a decade” type. He had a successful job, but when it came to church, he was always the guy who showed up to help someone move, never the guy to get a sort of ladder-climbing calling. I don’t know if this has anything to do with it, but I have always found my dad to be more approachable than my mom, and now that we’re all adults, my siblings (who were more in sync with our mom growing up) now go to him almost exclusively with any “real” problem we have. Part of that is because even though my dad wasn’t the presiding type, our mom definitely fulfilled her half of the traditional gender role, and now all our adult problems (jobs, investments, buying houses, pursuing advanced degrees, dating as an adult instead of as a teenager, etc.) are more up his alley. I think any time you force yourself to only fit into the nurturer/provider mold, you are setting yourself up to be somewhat alienated from your children at some point in their lives (either earlier, or later).

  10. Chris says:

    My husband has been in Church leadership nearly all of our married life and during all the time that our children were in the home, serving as bishop and branch president, in stake leadership, etc. Before he was called into leadership, we was very engaged with the children and with me. After he was called into leadership, his work and church responsibilities were so heavy that he lacked the time and energy to engage as a parent. I believe our children have paid a heavy price for having an absentee dad, since that had no uncles or grandparents in their lives so lacked a male father figure. My husband is retired now but has a difficult time engaging with his children. I am sad that the Church took him from his family for so long. I believed the Lord would compensate for my husband’s service but now believe that my children have paid a heavy price for their father’s neglect.

  11. TopHat says:

    I have heard that your relationship with God is related to your relationship with your father. I wonder how this plays into that. Just musing on it…

    • BethSmash says:

      That better not be true – my dad’s dead. Never met or knew him that I can recall. 😉

      • TopHat says:

        There was a correlation, but nothing for sure. For example, if your dad was very authoritarian, you were more likely to view God in an Old Teatament way.

      • BethSmash says:

        So, I’m more likely to view God the Diest way then? … That actually kind of fits. 😀

      • Toni says:

        This comment box is in the middle of your (BethSmash and TopHat) conversation, so I don’t know where this reply will actually end up.

        Anyway, I can’t add to the main discussion, but I can identify with BethSmash. My parents were divorced when I was a baby. I remember seeing my dad twice while he was alive.

        I got my view of God from my mother. I really struggled with an absentee God because my father was absentee, then I looked at my mother, who was absolutely wonderful (all of her kids thought so, even when they were teenagers). I saw in her everything I thought Christ was, so I modeled my view of God on her. So, to me (for example), God became loving, forgiving, understanding, and easy to talk to because my mother was that way.

  12. Abigail T says:

    Thank you for all the great comments!

    April, yikes, that is a very problematic scenario — the dad working 2 jobs and the mom volunteering during the day. That makes no sense to me. It’s one of those scenarios that reinforces to me that patriarchy and strict gender segregation hurts both men and women.

    Diane, thanks for sharing.

    BethSmash, good point about this being generational. This dad I’m talking about is 70, so that’s a very different era he was raising his kids in.

    Thanks for sharing your experience — very interesting that your mom’s (and I suspect a lot of women’s) penchants for multitasking might impede communication.

    Whoa-man, so interesting to hear that your experience with your dad is similar to the one I described. This dad is very similar – helpful with dishes and around the house, etc. But just no ability to communicate with his own kids.

    Alisa, I suspected there would be quite a few families that wouldn’t match the dynamics of this one. I’m glad to read that you and your dad have maintained close communication, despite his long hours away. Maybe it is all about quality, over quantity.

    EM, how sad! But that was really good of you to go on that trip and try to see if that connection can be formed. At least you’ll always know that you really tried.

    Braids, it’s sweet that your dad is trying to form that bond and relationship with you now. I’m sure that’s difficult after some years of distance. Good for him!

    Ru, thank you for sharing your experience. It does totally make sense that adults would be able to connect to their dads on issues like careers, finances, etc. Makes me wonder what is missing from this family I describe, that they don’t even communicate on that level.

    “I believed the Lord would compensate for my husband’s service but now believe that my children have paid a heavy price for their father’s neglect.” That’s heart-wrenching. I suspect there are many LDS children who will likewise pay that heavy price — and it makes me wonder if there’s anything to be done by us to stop it, other than insisting that the dad not take all sorts of time consuming callings.

    TopHat, yes, I’ve heard that as well. Women’s image of God is inextricably tied up with their images of their fathers, this study found. Very interesting — maybe these LDS kids with absentee dads will have a vision of God that is loving but distant?

  13. E says:

    My dad was not active when I was growing up and was always home in the evenings and on the weekends, but this same dynamic exists in our family; we all speak more with my mom. Not exactly sure why.

  14. E says:

    Although I have not personally experienced it, I also think having a father who is always either working or doing church service is a very unfortunate situation. I think there are some fathers who justify neglecting their children by “magnifying” their church callings and it isn’t okay. Also, I’m sure, some who are really trying to do the right thing and do not know when to say no.

  15. CatherineWO says:

    My experience mirrors that of Chris. My husband was a bishopric counselor, then bishop, then stake presidency counselor for most of the years that our four children were at home. He also had a very demanding job that required some evening hours, so the children saw very little of him except on Saturdays mornings. Other people used to tell me and the kids how blessed we were to have such a fine husband and father, but mostly it was just hard, and we all now mourn the loss of time together as a family and a couple. It affected each of our children to different degrees, the worst being one daughter, who has forgiven her father more than she has me (for putting up with the situation), but has an underlying anger that I fear will never disappear. I am pleased to see that all four of our children (a son and three daughters) do not have the same dynamics in their own families.
    As for communication now, my husband has really tried to change. Recognizing how damaging his absence (and his emotional separation) was all those years, he tries to be more communicative with the children as adults and is a very affectionate grandfather. However, for the most part, they do call me most of the time and I then relay information. I have my own resentments too, but that’s for another discussion. Mostly, it just makes me sad. My husband and I have talked about it and agree that we would definitely do things differently if we had it to do over again.

  16. I’ve always liked the reminder I’ve gotten from various Bishops and Stake Presidents, no matter what calling was being given:

    Your callings are always in this priority (as they apply to your time in life):
    1. Son/Daughter of God
    2. Spouse
    3. Father/Mother
    4. Church callings

    My dad has never been very good at communicating with his children, and my mother tended to over communicate. Church callings never got in the way – life did. Growing up with an older sibling dying of cancer will do that. I do what I can to have good communication with my kids as they grow, while giving them some distance to learn and grow on their own. I don’t think there is any “right” ratio, so long as you are at least trying.

  17. Davis says:

    My father was the owner of his own firm, and for the most part held leadership positions in the Ward and Stake the entire time I was growing up. He did not however neglect his duty as a Father. We (my siblings and I) have always had a great relationship with both of my parents. It was not uncommon for my father to not attend a meeting due to family responsibilities. He also counseled others to do the same. I do not feel that the Church takes men away from their families. I think some men remove themselves from their families and use the Church as a scapegoat. I don’t know why they do it, but I think the fault lies with the individuals, not the Church.

    • CatherineWO says:

      Davis, I think this is true for many men, but I also think that there is a lot of pressure in some wards and stakes (from leaders and from members) for 100% devotion to the calling. I think that pressure has become less in recent years, but when my husband was bishop in a rural area of Oregon in the mid-80s, the expectation, from both the stake president and from ward members, was that he was available 24/7 to help ward members. There were several more scheduled meetings then also and all temple recommend interviews had to be done by the bishop (not his counselors, as it is now). It was assumed that the bishop’s wife would be a SAHM and handle all of the home duties (I was told as much when he was called). And the regular talks from GAs about the eternal rewards for earthly sacrifice only added to the stress.

  18. Anon says:

    I feel like I have an opposite experience. Looking back at my childhood, my father appeared to eschew the idea of benevolent patriarchy, and was extremely emotionally available to his children – almost too much so in my mother’s eyes. He never held any high priesthood callings that I knew of and seemed to be in constant pursuit of the job or career that would allow him to make the most amount of money with the least amount of effort so that he could play Mr. Mom (which he never seemed to find and we bounced around because of it). It was an odd dynamic, and even though I appreciated him being around and willing to talk to me and let me confide in him in high school, it feels now that he was and is almost too emotionally needy. I find it hard to talk to him on a personal level anymore – but I’m sure that has other factors, including knowledge of certain things that preceded my parent’s divorce. And it doesn’t help that he feels the need to compete for emotional ties now. So I don’t know, I would almost prefer him to be less *soft* and overly involved for the sake of our relationship, because I just can’t stomach the wounded puppy dog attitude that he uses to garner sympathy and loyalty.

  19. Naismith says:

    I wish y’all wouldn’t use “patriarchy” as a synonym for “despot.” In my book, patriarchy is servant leadership, which requires dad being involved with the kids when he is home.

    In our family, my husband was a wonderful patriarch. And the kids were/are more likely to talk to him about things because he was the “off duty” parent. I was the mean “on duty” parent who expected things from them.

    When the older kids were in college, it was convenient for them to stop by his office and chat. But they would call me for advice on how to do something.

    • Petra says:

      I don’t think anyone is equating patriarchy and despotism here, Naismith, though you’re certainly right that that is occasionally done elsewhere. I think the point here is a patriarchal system, which inevitably requires men to serve in most of the most time-intensive leadership positions, can have the unintended side effect of removing those men from spending time with their families. That’s not about being a despot or a righteous servant-leader, that’s simply about time.

      I’m not sure I really buy the hypothesis, though–what it seems like many of these comments point to, and my own experience suggests, is that the dynamic is usually far more about the personalities involved than any fact of a patriarchal system or a father’s church callings. I’ve seen bishops who stayed close to their children, even in adulthood, and I’ve seen non-bishop fathers who can never seem to figure out intimate communication, no matter how much time they spend with their children. Like Alex says below, it seems as much conditioned by how the mothers and fathers in question were raised themselves as by the facts of Church service.

  20. JakeHalford says:

    It seems that a distant relationship with their children is entrenched in a strict patriarchal dynamic coupled with religious commitments. If you just look to the early church when priesthood holders would be sent on missions for years away from their family. I suspect that spending such a great amount of time away from home would also make them distant from their children. Further, when you look at polygamy and the dynamics there, again it suggests a distance between father and child. How could Brigham really be a close father to ALL of his children? I think this sacrifice of a close parental relationship is related, as the OP suggests, with devotion to the church. I don’t think that patriarchy necessarily causes this, but it probably doesn’t help. The notion that the male goes out and serves in church whilst the wife stays at home, however, is going to effect it.

  21. Alex says:

    I wasn’t raised in the Church and my parents have both worked full-time for my entire life yet I still ended up with this family dynamic. My father only ever worked one job and he was never really involved in anything particular besides work so he was home a ton of the time, we just never bonded or got along. Even when I still lived with my parents in high school, all of the personal updates were relayed through my mother. I can’t remember ever having a conversation with the man.

    I think it has a lot to do with how my parents were both raised. My mom came from a family where everyone talked to each other every day. My father, however, was raised in a home where the children were obedient and silent.

    In general, I think the way people raise their children and the parent/child relationship has an awful lot to do with the way the parents were raised. I think as parents we take what we see as the positive and negative aspects of how were were raised, and alter our own parents’ methods to give our children what we think they need/want.

  22. Lisa H. says:

    Your post describes my family exactly. Seriously – six kids, bishoprics, stake presidencies…everything. The way you describe the father/children dynamic was also spot on. The sad thing is, my father now has Alzheimer’s and I feel like the chance to really connect with him is gone.

  23. newt says:

    I don’t really communicate intimately with either my mom or my dad. I love them very much and care about them and they love and care about me, but they just don’t seem to be ‘intimate’ people.

    They converted to Mormonism as adults and aren’t super church leadership people, except for a couple isolated instances in inner-city congregations.

    I confide in my sisters waaaaaaay more than either of my parents. I stopped confiding in them in middle school maybe?

  24. Kalinin says:

    I have the opportunity to speak at a Stake Priesthood Leadership Taining Meeting next month during Stake Conference Weekend. I had already planned on expressing that our church service should not come at the expense of ruining the relationships within our familes. This is counsel that I’ve heard repeatedly throughout my life. All your thoughts echo this and provide reinforcement to the principles I plan on teaching. It’s sad that so many priesthood leaders neglect thier primary responsiblities as husband and father while serving in the church.

  25. I’ve seen this in my own family. I love my dad and I think we have a lot in common, but I never got to know him very well growing up–my relationship with my mom is a lot stronger. Now that I’m an adult and living across the country, I don’t know how to develop a better relationship. I believe my dad feels that he shows his love by providing for his family–and he worked very, very hard to give us nice things. However, I wish there was more emphasis on men spending more time at home with their children, even if it means giving up a few luxuries.

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