Mormon Men Write Their Own Script

[part 7 in an ongoing series about LDS missions and missionary work]

The organizers of the I’m a Mormon campaign produced inspirational videos about women who didn’t fit the mold of the traditional Mormon woman. One of the campaign’s authors stated that the videos were meant to show that “Mormon women write their own script.” 

Some LDS women reacted with confusion and a sense of betrayal. Neylan McBaine, one of the creators, captured this confusion by quoting a letter received by their marketing team

My wife has been on the couch in the depression for the last couple of days because the Church’s fancy PR agency is showing a woman who has pursued a career, whereas my wife gave up her education and her pursuit so that she could raise a family the way the prophet told her to. And now, you know, you’re telling her that she didn’t have to do that, she didn’t have to make that sacrifice. 

I wonder if a similar moment might exist someday for LDS men? Might there be a waking-up to the idea that men didn’t have to make the sacrifices they made? that they could have listened more closely to their personal authority all along? I’m not predicting that this will happen, but just throwing out the possibility.

If that moment happens, here are 5 ideas for the PR agency to consider making into videos:

  • “A couple of months into my mission, I realized that, while other missionaries were thriving spiritually, I was not. God helped me realize that I could be a representative of  Christ and be on the ski patrol. God inspired me to leave my full-time mission to respect that divine voice inside me, and here’s why my life turned out great because of it.”
  • “My mission was wonderful in many ways, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more. I had to bury an important part of myself as a full-time missionary. God inspired me to finish my mission earlier than originally planned. I couldn’t have predicted at the time that this one decision would give me increased credibility both inside and outside our faith community.” 
  • “I turned down time-intensive leadership callings while I had kids in the home. My relationships with my kids and spouse thrived during critical years. Here’s how my life turned out great because of it.”
  • “My wife’s mom had never changed a diap-…, I mean, never earned a dollar in her life. When we first got married, I asked my wife to learn how to contribute to the family finances. We both faced strong family pressure because of our views. Here’s how things turned out great because I held my ground.”
  • “I have never accepted a church calling which couldn’t have also been extended to my wife or any adult female member. At the time, I was viewed with suspicion, but now the Church needs more men like me to be examples to our youth and to the public. I’m humbled to be one of the few men in a position to be that example.” 

“You see,” this PR-campaign-of-the-future might tell us, “Mormon men write their own script.” 

What if this Mormon man – the one who didn’t serve the full 2 years of a full-time mission – was the man that was held up to future young men as a role model in church videos? What if this Mormon man – the one who turned down gendered leadership callings – was displayed to the public as representing the best and brightest of the men in our faith? What if the Mormon man who supported his professional wife was honored as the subject of a future “I’m-a-Mormon” type video campaign?

I recognize the fear that can arise in some of us when we contemplate LDS men not following the script. It seems that to suggest such a thing is tearing at the foundation of the family and the strength of the church. It’s easy to defend the current script by saying, “Even if a few men chafe a bit, it’s worth leaving the system in place because it works for everybody else.” It’s possible to see why these expectations are interpreted as commandments that apply to everyone.

Suppose my video scenes feel wrong or make you uneasy. In that case, you might understand the feelings that many of us felt when we considered women working outside the home back in 1997, and why there’s some mental whiplash with the recent honoring of women who didn’t follow the script.

In 1997, I was living in the Bronx. After a year of full-time child-raising, I felt excited to take a spot in the Juilliard School’s evening division. My husband wasn’t available during this time, and we needed help with childcare. I approached the only other LDS student-couple in our branch. This couple also had one young child. Would the wife be interested in the job? A few hours, once a week?

She was! She seemed interested but wanted to talk with her husband. 

She came back the next day, explaining, “We have decided as a couple that we don’t want me to be working for money, even though it’s not outside the home. However, if you really need someone, I’ll watch your son for free.” 

I understood the unspoken meaning in my friend’s response. I understood the unspoken meaning in my own hesitation to approach her in the first place. The idea that a mother should not be working outside the home or doing anything that would take energy away from her own family had been taught by the prophet, by general authorities, and repeated in church lessons. At the time, it seemed like a commandment – not a script – to many of us.

At that time in my life, it felt kind of low, kind of selfish, slightly dirty, for a woman with children to be working for money, especially outside the home unless financially necessary. I think that’s how a lot of men would feel right now if they were to consider returning from a mission sooner than expected or if they were to consider asking their wives to contribute to the family finances so that they [the men] could have more time with their kids. 

Serving a full-time mission, accepting any calling extended, magnifying that calling, showing up, serving as the sole or primary wage-earner for the family … These are all wonderful things that LDS men do. Many of us would even say that the prophet has asked LDS men to do these things. 

Does questioning the necessity of these sacrifices erode the sacred service of LDS men?  Does refusing to question their necessity cheapen the idea of personal revelation? 

I write all of this while also holding on to my own reality: I loved serving a full-time mission.  I’m also thankful for the large family I have, which wouldn’t have been so large without the script. I also acknowledge the structural and generational privilege that made it possible for my husband and I to have the option of raising a family on one income. 

******

Note from the author

This article is dedicated to my son, who first agonized – and then found peace – in his decision to finish his mission at the 1-year mark.

What I learned (or remembered) while writing this out: 

  • Someone else’s commandment can be your script and vice versa.
  • Our church culture is not the only culture that produces scripts. 
  • It’s normal, as I get older, to see things that I’d do differently if I could do it again. That’s part of the human condition, and it’s okay. 
  • Scripts simultaneously bless and limit me. 

Comments

  1. Thanks for this Holly. As a man who spent a lifetime fighting against a natural tendency to derive personal value out of hierarchal progression in the church, I can attest that many, many men struggle with this to the detriment of us all. Though I feel that in general the church does a great job helping men push back against their worst instincts and provides opportunities for personal growth, it also tends to work against authenticity when trying to fit men into “the mold.” It is a hard thing to handle psychologically when your upbringing is replete with fathers blessings, patriarchal blessings or promises from respected leaders who tell you your purpose on earth is X, yet you are not supposed to aspire to be X and if you do not become X then you have obviously failed or are not living up to your full potential.

    There is also the matter of powerful culture over doctrine. A mission is NOT a saving ordinance, nor is it required for exaltation. God’s tent should be a big one. Not everyone is going to end up in the C.K. making infinite children and that’s fine. Not everyone is going to or even has the desire (gasp) to rule and reign in the eternities or preside over others in this life. These men are not “lesser.” Until we can collectively get over the idea that “there are no point for second place” and small-minded issues like beards and blue shirts the Church will continue to stagnate and lose otherwise good men who give up because they don’t feel like they can measure up, or others who just fake their way through the process of “perfection” until it all comes crashing down.

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    “I turned down time-intensive leadership callings while I had kids in the home. My relationships with my kids and spouse thrived during critical years. Here’s how my life turned out great because of it.”

    I wish I could say this. My failure to adequately balance home vs. calling during my two years as first counselor to a nearly entirely absent bishop (in his defense, he had been bishop, then in the stake presidency, and then bishop again, for nearly 20 continuous years in those punishing roles) led to significant damage to my marriage and my family. It’s been the better part of a decade since I was released and I am still trying to make repairs.

  3. Both my mother in laws and my sister in laws all stayed home and raised large families. They were all displeased by the campaign.

  4. Ever since experiencing a series of faith crises starting around 2001, I became increasingly resentful at being expected to be the sole breadwinner, and would have liked to have shared more equally in the earning and parenting. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. John Charity Spring says:

    “Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — ‘No, you move.’l

  6. In 1997, I was a mother of 5 (ages 1-13) doing full time childcare in my home. Probably half or more of the women in my ward worked outside the home. I don’t know if any were judged for it, or felt guilty. If so, I was not aware of it. It seemed very ordinary. Maybe it’s that in our middle-class ward, working was kind of a necessity.

    So yes, the script was certainly there, and I don’t disagree with the point, but I don’t know how much it affected the women I knew back then.

  7. On the one hand, I think missions contribute significantly to the maturation process of young Mormon men. On the other hand, I also think it’s a shame that Mormon men seem to be faced with a binary choice at 18 or 19–show your faithfulness by serving a mission, or don’t serve a mission and signal (to leadership, to other church members, to women you might want to date & marry) that you’re not as faithful. I don’t think this is a fair assessment of men who don’t serve missions (my dad didn’t serve one), but this attitude definitely persists (and likely will for as long as mission service is a commandment for young men, rather than an option, as it is for young women). It’s just a very young age to have to make that kind of choice. How many fewer men would choose to serve a mission if there were less social pressure? I don’t know. Once women were given the choice to serve at a younger age, we wound up with significantly more women serving missions, but then, we only have a few years of data. I don’t know how much things will change with time, in terms of community expectations or behavioral trends.

    Childcare is a tricky issue. Each family has its own preferences, and every choice involves tradeoffs. I’d like to see a variety of choices shown as reasonable and good, with the “ideal” being what works best for your own family. Or maybe an acknowledgement that literally no arrangement is ideal.

  8. I should point out that serving a mission also contributes significantly to the maturation process of young women, but obviously there are a variety of life experiences that contribute to social/emotional maturation. A mission offers a lot of opportunities and can do a lot of good for an individual–provided it doesn’t do more harm.

  9. Angela C says:

    Until having a more open script benefits the institutional Church, and they become convinced that it does, we won’t see your Utopian future scenario. It’s not just about gender, although it’s very visible there, but the Church benefits greatly from fostering dependence on its advice (its scripts) aka institutional obedience. What if we instead focused on “teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves?” We would have much more diversity, better congregations, and more personal responsility and moral authority. But without telling everyone what to do, they might make choices that the Church doesn’t see as being in the Church’s interest and/or benefiting the institution. Unfortunately, bigger families, free labor from women, and female acceptance of patriarchy makes the institution go ’round.

  10. Steve LHJ says:

    There is wisdom in listening to and having the faith to follow and experiment upon the words of our leaders who have been entrusted with stewardship over us. It is in such experimentation that we can grow into knowledge and capacity that we previously did not possess. At the same time in the end we are responsible for our own lives and choices, and that we are beings meant to act and not merely be acted upon, and in follows that our personal inspiration and revelation after taking into account all external wisdom that we can gather is the must fundamental and important source to follow in governing our lives. I may have thoughts, suggestions and opinion on what a person should do in any given situation, but if they believe at the core they have revelation or inspiration to go a certain way, I always lean toward telling a person to be true to the spirit that whispers within.

  11. The world isn’t binary. When it comes to sex, marriage, or missions. There is no one size fits all. Individuals need to work out their own sexuality. And we need to respect their decision. Marriages need to work out their work, child rearing responsibilities. Each marriage is unique. And missionaries need to work out how they want to spend their missions. The time percentage between proselyting and volunteering should involve input from the missionary.

  12. Brian G says:

    A friend of ours was asked to participate in a committee at BYU to advice see the University how to recruit and retain more female faculty. My wife and I were discussing it with her after dinner at their house late one evening and my wife was shaking mad at both the BYU administration’s ignorance of the root cause of why they didn’t have equal representation and their unwillingness to adopt the recommendations of the committee.

    When we were young students my wife was very ambitious and had a double stats and biology major with plans for graduate work, but we married young, had kids right away and after graduating she decided to stay home with the kids while I went to grad school.

    We followed the script. And she has some real regrets and anger when she thinks of dreams she deferred or abandoned. Now we love our five kids and our life is good, but it is jarring when the church seems schizophrenic in its insistence on strong clear patriarchal gender roles and it’s celebration of people who break out of those roles.

    I could have and maybe should have been the one to defer or abandon my career for having a family. I would have been a good stay at home dad. I followed that script too but we should have not been afraid to break the mold.

  13. Thank you for articulating this! It is validating to hear that others reacted too the campaign in similar ways as I did. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it till now.

    I also love your foot notes. They bring a balance that is hard to achieve in a blog post. For a time I was angry about where my life choices (aka following the script) left me but the older I get the more I learn the same lessons you point out.
    “Our church culture is not the only culture that produces scripts.
    It’s normal, as I get older, to see things that I’d do differently if I could do it again. That’s part of the human condition, and it’s okay.
    Scripts simultaneously bless and limit me.”

  14. I’m so glad he made the best decision for himself!!! So wonderful!

Trackbacks