I named and blessed my daughter on Sunday. Of course, the name (Samara Tracey Kramer) was decided upon in advance by her mother and me, so in that sense the naming was mostly a formality, a kind of ratifying gesture (not that I take lightly the significance of conferring names via priesthood power onto those who have entered a new realm, but such is the stuff of other posts…). It was the blessing portion itself that got me thinking about writing this post. I thought about gendered divisions of labor in the Church, not solely because my wife did not participate in the ordinance but also because it was an occasion for my serious contemplation of and concern for what the future holds for this tiny little girl.
Our (LDS) attitudes toward and language about women have changed rather dramatically over the past century or so. Of course, one should avoid the suggestion of sweeping generalities here, and the complexity and varying extent of those changes must be acknowledged. But for a Church whose leaders once speculated that women were roughly as accountable for sin as small children, the new language of a husband/father presiding as a first among equals, the very definition of presiding as equal partnership, seems like a pretty radical shift.
A big part of this change has been the (re)new(ed) emphasis on the central importance of work most commonly associated with the purview of women: work in the home. This goes back at least as far as President McKay’s injunction to priesthood holders that the most important work they could do in life would be in their homes. It has been a staple of Mormon discourse about family responsibility ever since. At the same time, and perhaps as a consequence of this paradigm, Church leaders speak more and more on the importance of parenthood and especially motherhood. Raising children, we are repeatedly told, is the greatest work anyone can do in this world. And it is primarily (though by no means solely, as President McKay’s admonition reminds us) the duty of the mothers in the Church to carry out this great work.
I recognize that there are no clean and absolute divisions here between male and female roles. Even in more “traditional” LDS households where the man is the primary provider and the woman is a stay-at-home Mom, there is typically crossover in responsibilities, as women contribute to the day to day survival of their families in the world and men share the responsibility for nurturing their children. I suspect that, on some level, the vast majority of LDS accept — they are certainly strongly encouraged to accept — some degree of traditional division of labor within the family. And, to reiterate, we are told that the labor that typically, perhaps ideally, falls on the women’s side is the more important of the two.
My question is, Do we really believe it?
I’m a pretty ambitious guy, and I have high hopes for my professional career. I intend to exert a widely felt influence on the academic world (a sphere I consider to be pretty important) through my own scholarship as well as my mentoring of future students. I hope to make groundbreaking contributions to my field (Anthropology of Christianity) and to be a well regarded scholar. I also hope to raise wonderful kids; but since in spite of my very real effort to play an active and engaged role in their lives, I can do nothing about the fact that I spend copious amounts of time each week away from them while my wife gets to remain with them, I am forced to admit that the achievement of this latter goal will likely be due largely to my wife’s work, with me functioning as a drastically inferior understudy. I like to think I’m a pretty fun Dad; but she’s an absolutely astonishing Mom.
Do I mean it when I say that what she is trying to accomplish in our home is more important than what I am trying to accomplish in my studies?
I don’t have much experience as a minority. I’m a white male, raised in an upper-middle-class family in suburban America. Not even my Mormonism has furnished cause for my feeling the sting of minority status, since I was raised in Utah. I am a bit more of an outsider, at least in this regard, now that I am studying outside of Mormon country, but my religion hardly comes up. What does come up, and quite regularly at that, is the fact that I have no less than four children as a first year student in a PhD program. And I certainly feel the difference when I speak to fellow grad students or faculty members with children versus those without. The former are typically quite understanding, approving, even admiring of our unusual fertility. The latter often come across as confused, condescending, perhaps subtly critical of our family planning choices. Even putative compliments like, “I could never survive being a grad student and having kids to worry about,” tend to feel rather back-handed. No one has been even remotely impolite; but when the politeness feels feigned or the admiration less than sincere, it makes me feel uncomfortable, insignificant, judged. Perhaps I just need thicker skin. I certainly have no idea what it feels like to experience this masked prejudice for something more front-and-center — like race or gender. I imagine it feels awful. And yet I imagine that many people endure it on a far more regular basis than I ever have.
Which brings us back to the question: do we mean it when we say that what goes on in our homes is “the most important work” in the world? We can’t exactly avoid saying it, now, can we? It has become such a salient part of our dominant discourse that we are almost forced to repeat it and to formally voice our assent to it on practically a weekly basis. Since we can’t really opt out of saying it, we have only two options: we can keep saying it even if we don’t believe it; or we can change our beliefs. This is not a trivial point. It makes all the difference in the world. Do I really believe that even if I achieve all my professional and academic goals, even beyond my fairly ambitious expectations, my accomplishment will be greatly exceeded by the fact that we (mostly she) have managed to raise healthy, more-or-less socially well-adjusted kids, capable of taking care of themselves independently by the time they reach adulthood, hopefully capable of thinking independently, hopefully having strong testimonies, hopefully prepared to raise well-adjusted kids of their own — do I really believe that this is a greater work than anything I might be able to accomplish outside of my home? Because if I don’t believe this with absolute sincerity, then when I tell my wife that what she does is really important, I’ll just be making her feel small, making her feel deeply and regularly what I experience on a far smaller scale when I wonder if my colleagues are secretly sneering at my fruitful loins. What an awful thing for the man she most trusts to subject her to.
The only reasonable way for us to avoid the condescending, hypocritical, and terribly hurtful process of telling the women we love — the wives, mothers, and daughters in our lives — how important they are but only half meaning it is to accept the truth: theirs (and ours to the degree that we embrace the chance to participate in it) is indeed the most important work in the universe, worlds without end.