Fathers in Heaven, Absent on Earth

HILDEGARD: In a recent conference talk, Church President Russell M. Nelson spoke idyllically of motherhood—that he valued it so highly as to have chosen his surgical career because he couldn’t choose to be a mother.

Let’s put aside for a moment that not every woman can choose to be a mother, either; and Life doesn’t always honor our choices anyway.

Let’s also put aside for a moment that careers outside health care are honorable, too.

I’d like to talk about what was notably absent in his treatment of the topic—what he left unsaid, that speaks volumes more to me than what he did say.

He couldn’t choose to be a mother, so he chose a health-related career. What value does he assign to his own fatherhood? Why would mentioning his earthly career take precedence over mentioning his divine identity as a father?

Let’s start by looking at where fathers are most often seen in the Mormon world.

They’re primarily seen on the stand, in meetings, helping with Scouts or Mutual, in more meetings, or at their place of employment. Mormon men are rarely envisioned at home except as presiding over… you guessed it: more meetings, in the form of Family Home Evening, personal interviews with family members, family scripture time, or other “official capacities.”

For a faith that talks so frequently about families and believes relationships transcend death, largely omitting fathers from the regular, workaday home environment is puzzling. It frames men as administrative supervisors rather than fully-participating parents or marriage partners. While I think this patriarchal role-filling likely harks back to the messy, early days of the church, with surprise mission calls and polygamy culture, we certainly needn’t keep that broken pattern going today. Boxing men into that Presider role harms them as well as their families.

As women, especially mothers, we are constantly told how important our work is, and how our service is so vital to our families and honored by God (who is still spoken of as almost exclusively singular and masculine despite theological support for a pluralistic or heterosexual union-God). We’re admonished to stop piling unnecessary things onto our stressed shoulders but then conditioned by the reality of our culture to assume primary responsibility for everything that happens in the home. And for what it’s worth, I can’t see that trend changing much with the church’s 2019+ plan for shifting to a two-hour Sunday schedule with a third hour of instruction taking place at home.

But for fathers’ part, their absence while fulfilling the demands of callings precludes them from deepening the everyday family relationships and minimizes their influence at home, both with their children and within their marriage. Many men don’t want to be home partners in name only, but they learn that furthering the work of God has more to do with what happens in the church organization than it does with what happens under their own roof. And it’s true that a ward literally cannot function without enough men to fill certain callings.

That gender-based burden damages relationships. In talks we hear worshipful stories of exhausted stake presidents whose sacrifices for the church meant that they left the home before their families awoke and returned after everyone was in bed. We grimace and nod knowingly when a former bishopric counselor’s wife begins to discuss managing her children alone in the pews. And while our late Church President, Thomas S. Monson, was famous for his dedication to visiting the widows in his ward, we rarely, if ever, heard about his helping out at home.

Former Church President David O. McKay famously said, “No success can compensate for failure in the home.” Yet when these men have satisfied their church roles and are finally able to turn their attention to their homes, they may be disappointed that there’s often not much left for them to accomplish; their wives have, from necessity, figured out how to run things independently in their absence, (with varying degrees of success, resentment, and often doses of anti-depressants).

I see and hear this absentee-husband/father trend generating a great deal of pain not just for myself and my female friends who are trying to manage in the face of it, but also in the lives of my male friends who make comments about how their wives are “really in charge,” or who lament how little say they have in anything that happens in their own home. And it’s heartbreaking.

That’s not a true partnership. Instead, it’s evidence of a cultural-practical divide, where the church is for men, and the home is for women. How can we truly co-parent when the faith around which so much of our family life is based, virtually erases a father’s importance in the family’s daily life?

And then there’s the question of what this divide means for the eternities: LDS theology asserts that the family unit will continue in some form after this life. But if the glorified absentee-father families we form here are what continue, that’s not a model I hope to emulate. In fact, people’s perception of an absentee Father-God is a familiar criticism of the very idea of God’s existence. Fortunately, “God as an absent father” is neither my goal nor my experience.

It’s my observation that the church’s dismissal and near-preclusion of men’s service and value at home leaves all of us poorer. And it’s my prayer that we in LDS culture can learn to value fatherhood—not just Priesthood placeholding—as well as motherhood. We can stop dumping all things home-related onto mothers, and we can stop stealing fathers away from truly partnering to support their families.

That sounds truly glorious to me.

~Hilda~

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