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.
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?