Toxic Mormon Masculinity Series: Pressure to Provide

 

As part of our Toxic Mormon Masculinity series, we are featuring guest posts from men who share their experiences of operating within the masculinity culture unique to Mormonism. (Introductory post here.) We are happy to accept new submissions of guest posts to this series and welcome any of our male-identifying readers to share their perspectives. 

 

By Ziff 

I grew up in a large family. I’m second of seven siblings, so I had a front-row seat as a new sibling was added every year or two. But I grew up in Utah Valley in the 1980s, so my family wasn’t at all unusual. The other families in our ward, and my friends at school, were seeing their families expand just as quickly, or even more quickly. I’m sure it wasn’t until years later that I read this message stated explicitly in Mormon Doctrine, or some other such book, but it was clear to me from a young age that it’s a good and important thing to have a lot of kids.

Another norm that I grew up with was that fathers were employed and mothers were SAHMs. This probably isn’t surprising given how costly child care is when you have a large number of children, not to mention church teachings about how mothers shouldn’t be employed unless it was absolutely necessary. But like with large family size, this was a norm that I observed and understood long before I heard or read anything explicitly being said about it.

Given these two norms, then, it was pretty easy for me to work out what my calling as a Mormon male was: I needed to make a ton of money to afford the many children that my wife an I would inevitably have. Unfortunately for me, this was a huge source of anxiety. I knew that my parents worried a fair amount about money, and as a generally anxious kid to begin with, I was ready and waiting to have their worries leak onto me. This worry was exacerbated further by my inability to work out in my head how I was ever going to get a job at all, let alone a job that paid well enough to support a large family. I totally lacked self-confidence as a kid, and the whole complicated process of getting jobs and going to college to get better jobs just felt completely hopeless.

As a result of all this anxiety, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told people I wanted to become a tramp. People generally took this response as a joke, but I was saying it at least semi-seriously to try to hold my worries at bay. I felt like if I set the bar for my life nice and low, nobody would be surprised when I ended up amounting to nothing. Also, I decided that I clearly was not going to be getting married, as getting married led inevitably to having lots of kids, and needing lots of money, and since I wasn’t going to be able to supply that, I figured it was best to just avoid the whole thing entirely. That way at least I’d be only letting myself down when I couldn’t ever find a job.

This is all interesting to reflect back on now, as I’m in middle age. I’ve been married for a couple of decades, we have kids (although only three, far below the Utah Valley norm of my youth), and I’ve even ended up being the primary provider for most of that time. So how did I get past my teenage wannabe tramp phase? Well, it turned out that I was able to get a few jobs and manage some school, and even more importantly, I found that marriage wasn’t all that easy for me to pass up. To my great fortune, though, when I explained to my wife-to-be about my anxieties about being the sole provider, she pointed out to me that it didn’t have to be that way. “We’re a team,” she told me, “and if we both need to work, we’ll both work.” This was a tremendous relief. And she backed her words up. Even as we started to have kids, she found ways to be employed that helped take the sole provider stress off of me. For this, I will be forever grateful to her.

So I’ve had the good fortune to be married to someone who has been willing to go against the cultural norm of man as sole provider. I’ve been lucky. Not all men are so lucky. I think we Mormons would be so much better off if we could discard this aspect of toxic Mormon masculinity, and just accept as the norm the idea that couples can work out for themselves which of them will be employed and how childcare will be handled. The church has taken a step toward this in (grudgingly) accepting that members are going to use birth control, and aren’t going to consult their bishops about it. I’m hoping for more steps in this direction in the future, like maybe walking back the language in the Family Proclamation about gender roles and just saying something like that it’s up to couples to work out how they want to handle employment and child care.

 

How has your partnership managed the balance of providing for a family vs. child care? Did you come to that decision together? Were you influenced by an outside narrative for how it must be done?  How has that balance changed over the course of your relationship? 

Violadiva

Violadiva is an oxymoron, a musician, a yogi, a Suzuki violin teacher, a late-night baker of sourdough breads, proud Mormon feminist, happy wife of Pianoman and lucky mother to three.

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16 Responses

  1. Andrew R. says:

    I too grew up in the 1980’s – but happily not in Utah Valley. I was in the UK. And here almost all LDS were first generation families, with a very few second generation ones. Anything past that has emigrated to Utah.

    Although we had the same General Conferences, and the same general feeling that you express, the realities were based on up-bringing in the UK.

    Sure, my parents joined the church we two children and by the time they were sealed were having the third of an eventual four. I have lost count of the number of people I know whose families were sealed with a new baby on the way (my wife’s family was the same). My mother was a teacher, but she had become a SAHM before joining the church. Over the years she did supply work when it was needed.

    My sister also became a teacher. And apart from maternity leave, has worked at least part-time the whole of her marriage – thus far (20+ years) – including the time her husband was bishop. My wife has generally been a SAHM – but she has child-minded, and done other things in a family business to help bring in money when needed.

    Out stake RSP worked for many years, our stake YMP still works as a teacher part-time (with four children), our stake PP doesn’t work – but has in the past. In the ward, RSP (MSc) has worked, YMP (MA) doesn’t work – but they are childless and she doesn’t need to, she does have a very small home business making soft toys, PP (MA) is a teacher while her husband is a SAHD/student. Every one of these sisters is a second or third generation member, married to a second or third generation member.

    So, in short, whilst the church message was as you say, the reason it has softened is probably more to do with the rest of the world, and the realities the rest of the world faces.

  2. Emily U says:

    Hi Ziff, I really felt the anxiety of the teenage you as I read this. I also remember feeling like I’d need to do certain things when I grew up, but had no idea how they were actually done. I didn’t feel pressure to provide for a family, though, since being female, this was not expected of me.

    It struck me how “inevitable” having a large family felt to you. I think that’s a huge contributor to anxiety–the feeling that we don’t have choices. That a righteous life is a certain mold that we’ll have to squeeze ourselves into. I think the rhetoric that’s still quite pervasive at church about living according to “His” will continues to keep that trope alive and unwell in the church, though I’m sure it’s usually meant well. It’s taken me a lot of reflection to realize that there is no mold for my life or anyone else’s.

    And of course I completely agree with you, can the church please just say it’s up to couples how they manage employment and childcare and just leave it at that?!?!

  3. rah says:

    Ziff,

    So many nails. So many heads. So much to add to here. For our generation this all happened as the economy in the US shifted and median wages went from steady growth to what has turned out to be almost 4 decades of stagnation. Yet our church teachings and to a lesser extent our church culture has been slow to catch up. So for those that were coming of age in the 90s we were under the expectation of men who had cut their teeth in the 50s and 60s and 70s when you actually did see wages growing in tandem with productivity and costs. It WAS reasonable for a reasonably hard working (white male) high school or college graduate to expect to be able to be on a path economically to support a family. By the 90s? Just not true. No we have to be in the top 10-15% of earners to be able to provide middle class financial security to our families as a single earner. Oh and in an economy where risk was being shifted from organizations onto families. Health care benefits were disappearing. Profitable employers were restructuring and laying people off. Private equity firms were buying profitable mid size companies – loading them up with debt while extracting management fees and laying people off.

    And we wonder why Mormons men may be gun shy about dating and marriage – especially if they believe like you that marriage means kids in the first year or two and a wife not working. Oh while under a pile of student debt (yours and hers because get all the education you can). And of course if you aren’t prepared to take all that on within about a year of starting to date then should you even be dating seriously? Its a mess.

    To make matters worse this gets reinforced even further by ecclesiastical status in the church. Because we have lay bishops and SPs, and those positions need people that have managerial skills for the ward and the time and flexibility to do those jobs your average bishop and definitely SP president are well off men. So our YM see all these men with status who have happen to make it. You don’t see the struggles. Those that almost made it. Those are struggling to get by.

    Its a real mess. Thanks patriarchy.

  4. Rita says:

    I had a BYU roommate who pointed out that the “Summertime” lyrics that say “your daddy’s rich, and your mama’s good-looking” are emphasizing the things that have been historically valued in men and women. I have plenty of personal experience with the pressure to be good-looking as a woman. Thank you, Ziff, for enlightening us about the pressure for men to be rich. All of it needs to be torn down.

  5. Angela C says:

    I experienced the flip side of this anxiety–the total fear of being completely dependent financially on a man who might not earn as much as I could or who might leave me or who might get injured, leaving me with no work experience to be able to earn enough. My best friend’s parents divorced when she was 8, and her mother always struggled financially after that, so I saw firsthand what could happen to a woman in this vulnerable situation.

    Plus, at about age 10 I realized that in a world in which women are entering the work force and having careers, eventually that means everyone must work and earn because it’s a single income economy, not a “family income” economy like in the 1950s and 60s. Precious few people can afford to support a second adult on their sole income in addition to children.

  6. Thanks for this, Ziff. Rigid gender roles hurt people of all genders. It is good to hear how these roles play out in negative ways for boys and men too.

  7. DB says:

    Ziff – A couple of questions for you. You explained how the expectations you felt as a child/teenager about being the sole provider for a large family created anxiety for you. Do you feel this is a common experience for young men in the church? I ask because from my own experience while a youth and my experiences with youth, I don’t see that with the young men at all. The anxiety definitely develops as one starts a family but I think that is very uncommon among teenage boys.

    You talk about cultural norms and cultural expectations within in the church but you also explained that these cultural norms and expectations were experienced while growing up and living in Utah. So my next question is, do you feel that those were more LDS cultural norms (i.e., church wide culture) or Utah cultural norms? I understand that it may be difficult to distinguish the two when living in Utah but my experience has been those are more Utah cultural norms than LDS cultural norms. Outside of Utah, LDS families tend to be larger than average but smaller than Utah average. I’d say four kids is a fairly normal sized LDS family outside of Utah and there really isn’t the cultural expectation or pressure to have a large family or as many kids as possible. And while I agree that the expectation within the church is for the husband to provide for his family, the expectation that he will be the sole provider and the wife should not provide is probably more Utah culture as well. Where I live now, I’d say about half the married women currently work at least part time and I’ve never felt that there was any pressure on the men to be the sole provider though I personally don’t know any families where the wife is the sole provider. I am the sole provider in my family because it works out best that way for us. Personally, I’ve never felt any anxiety about having to be the sole provider for my family though I’ve certainly felt plenty of financial anxiety in my life.

    So in summary, my two questions for Ziff and everyone else is firstly whether you feel this anxiety, especially at a young age, from the perception of the expectation to be the sole provider for a large family, is common among LDS men or is more of a unique experience and secondly whether these cultural norms and expectations are more LDS culture or Utah culture?

  8. Risa says:

    Thanks for this wonderful insight, Ziff. Growing up in Utah in a part-member family, I was taught by my parents that a man is not a financial plan. They pushed us all to go to college or a trade school, so that we had a way to support ourselves as adults. I experienced that cog dis going to church, especially in Young Womens, where the expectation was for me to be a mother and to only get a college education so I could teach my children, and/or “just in case.” I’m glad I listened to my parents.

    I get the fear of having to support a family because my spouse and I are partners in that right now. My paycheck is very much needed, especially as our kids are getting older, I’m pursuing my Masters, and next Fall I get to start paying college tuition for my oldest. I’m just thankful that my spouse and I set up a partnership not based on the gender roles The Proclamation on the Family outlined for us, and instead supporting our family and nurturing our children are things we both do.

  9. DB says:

    I just wanted to make a comment about the Proclamation on the Family. Most of the statements in the Proclamation address responsibilities and roles of men and women jointly. The only part that differentiates the responsibilities of men and women is the following:

    “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.”

    The third sentence in the quote is pretty clear that while fathers are responsible for presiding and providing, mothers are obligated to help with those responsibilities. So according to the Proclamation, men are not expected to be the sole providers for their families; women are expected to help with the providing too. I’m just not sure where people get the idea that husbands are supposed to be the sole providers and wives are supposed to be the sole nurturers.

    • Emily says:

      I mean, I guessssss you could come away with that interpretation, but it’s hard to deny that most devout Mormons seem to come away with the opposite one, and that that’s been the cultural expectation for decades. There was all that talk in the early 2000s about how it’s okay for women to work to meet basic needs, but not so that the family can have good vacations.

      When I was a teenager, I noticed the very next sentence after the one that you quote: “death, disability, or other circumstances may necessitate indivisual adaptation.” Which I interpreted as, okay, if the husband DIES or IS IN A WHEELCHAIR, then the wife should work. Because the text puts “other circumstances” in parallel with death and disability, it seemed to me that any “other circumstances” needed to be something life-altering. Also, the verb “necessitate.” Not just “other circumstances may lead to adaptations,” but “something will NECESSITATE deviating from the cultural norm so the family can survive.

      I don’t believe those things anymore, but that’s how I grew up. I had literally graduated high school before it occurred to me that I might not get married and have a husband to make money before I finished college.

      • DB says:

        What I wrote is not an interpretation but rather word for word what it actually says. Interpreting it to mean that the husband should be the sole provider is an interpretation that is not supported by the language of the document. What the Proclamation states is contrary to the idea that the husband should be the sole provider.

        When you say that most devout mormons interpret it to mean the husband is the sole provider, do you really mean most mormons worldwide or just Utah mormons?

      • Emily says:

        Honestly, I’m not an expert on worldwide Mormons…where are you from? I’ve lived all around the American west, including Utah (but only a couple years). Things may be changing, but everywhere I’ve lived, the backbone-of-the-ward type families have had stay-at-home moms, and I’ve heard comments and conversation my whole life emphasizing the importance.

        I disagree that the proclamation doesn’t, at the very least, strongly encourage men to be the sole providers. Men “preside,” “provide,” and “protect,” and women “nurture.” Yes, they help each other as equal partners, but as you pointed out, this is the only place in the proclamation where roles are separated out. Why not just say “parents are responsible to preside over, provide for, protect, and nurture their children,” if it really doesn’t matter who does what?

        Also, I think we agree that my 14-year-old self was wrong about my interpretation. But is it really productive to say, well, I just should have known better? This was a belief that affected my life from the time I was young, and I know I’m not the only one. If you wonder why Mormons believe these things, well…it’s because that’s what we grow up hearing, seeing, and living.

      • DB says:

        Emily, I’m certainly not an expert on world wide Mormons either but I’ve lived in enough areas in the U.S. (the south, the west, including Utah for a while, and the mid-west) and overseas on my mission many years ago to know that LDS culture and LDS cultural expectations differ widely depending on where one lives.

        Everywhere I’ve lived, the norm among LDS families has also been the working husband the stay-at-home wife but the expectation that the husband has to be the sole provider and the wife has to stay home and not work is not prevalent everywhere. Like I wrote earlier, a lot of the married women where I live now work part time, full time, or have a small side hustle.

        The Proclamation does indeed strongly encourage men to be providers but nowhere does it state that men or women are to be the sole anything. Read it forwards, backwards, as many times as you want, that type of language just isn’t there. While the Proclamation does separate certain responsibilities between men and women, it applies no strict guidance on how those duties are actually performed or managed and specifically states that husbands and wives are expected to help each other with their responsibilities. Any interpretation beyond what is actually stated in the Proclamation is simply that, an interpretation.

        I would never fault anyone for believing what they were taught as a child. As children, we believe what we are taught. I did too but I see and understand things differently now as do you. I’m sure I now disagree with a lot of things my 14 year old self believed too but I don’t blame my 14 year old self for what I believe now.

        Thanks for responding back to my comments Emily, I enjoy the conversation.

    • Risa says:

      You’re not in an equal partnership when someone presides over you. Do all the mental gymnastics you want to make this okay with you. The rest of us know words have definitions.

  10. Risa says:

    I grew up in the President Benson era where mothers were heavily discouraged to work. So much that my mother, who wasn’t even active in the church until the early ’90s, felt guilty for having to take a full-time job to help my sister pay for room and board at BYU.

    I was a mother who had to listen to Julie Beck give a talk about “Mothers Who Know” and basically only mothers who are perfect homemakers are mothers who know how to be a righteous Mormon mother.

    I’ve sat through countless Relief Society lessons about the patriarchal order of things and how my husband (you know, that “equal” partner of mine according to the PotF) presides over me. I had an entire RS class in my most recent ward scream at me for daring to think I could ever ask my own child to say a prayer in my home or take the lead in a Family Home Evening lesson. I have been looked down on my entire career as a mother and professional from the women and men in my various wards for choosing to work outside the home. My local newspaper did a profile on me and the work that I do and all of the comments on the website, besides my friends and family, were “how dare she work as a mother.”

    I’m so tired of Mormon apologist MEN coming on this site, which is supposed to be about giving WOMEN a voice, and telling us our perceptions and knowledge are wrong. It’s the ultimate form of gaslighting. Unless you experience the world and the church as a woman, you don’t get to tell us our collective lived experiences are just “misunderstandings” about church teachings and doctrines. That there isn’t any social pressure to let your husbands lead and preside while you nurture and raise the children. Consider for a moment you’re the one who misunderstands.

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