Sunday, May 10, 2009

I don’t like Mother’s Day

Somebody explain to me, please, why Mother’s Day has become the single most important day of the Mormon liturgical calendar?

Yeah, i know, i know, Easter and Xmas are more important and all that—but we certainly don't act like we believe that, do we? If we’re honest about it, Mother’s Day is a bigger deal than either of those, perhaps than either of those combined. And i don’t get it.

Of course, i was raised by a mother who doesn’t like Mother’s Day, so i guess some of it rubbed off on me.

And to demonstrate my, erm, skewed view of Mother’s Day, i append the text of a sacrament meeting address i gave on Mother’s Day two years age. Why? Why not? (And if nothing else, having this floating around on the net may guarantee that i never, ever have to speak on Mother’s Day again.)


For those of you who don’t know me, my name is David Bowie. My family and I have been in this ward for closing in on four years, and this is the third time I’ve been asked to speak in sacrament meeting here. There’s been kind of a strange pattern to when I’ve been asked to speak—the first two were both the Sundays closest to Christmas, and now this one is on Mother’s Day. I don’t know—I feel like a superhero, where my superpower is public speaking on holidays: I’m HolidayMan.

But more seriously, it’s really rather odd for me to be speaking on Mother’s Day, because I’ve long been somewhat suspicious of the Day. I come by this honestly, though, since while I was growing up my mother was very, very vocal about which holiday was her least favorite: Mother’s Day. She gave a couple of reasons for this: Not only did she see it as a conspiracy of sorts on the part of Hallmark and FTD to sell more cards and flowers, she absolutely dreaded all the sacrament meeting addresses on the glory and nobility of motherhood and how being a mother is the greatest calling anyone could ever have and so forth.

So you’ll hopefully understand if I’m hesitant to use some of the standard tropes of Mother’s Day speeches. This raises the level of difficulty a bit, especially when the text for my speech is the following, from the statement the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve issued in 1995, titled “The family: A proclamation to the world” (better known as the “Proclamation on the family”):

Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children…Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.

Well, that text doesn’t limit itself to talking about mothers—there’s fathers in there, and that’s a subject with which I admittedly have more intense personal experience, as you could probably figure out yourself, if not by looking at me then at least from the fact that my first name is David, not Donna—but it’s a text that certainly does lend itself to the sort of speech my mother would roll her eyes at. So, to keep her from rolling her eyes when she asks me what I talked about today, I’m going to start with a perhaps unusual, and perhaps very basic, question:

What’s the big deal about mothers and fathers?

After all, the “Proclamation on the family” goes a bit further, saying that “children are entitled to…be reared by a father and a mother” Yes, it says shortly after that that individual circumstances such as death of a parent or divorce may intervene—and for those of you in such a situation, I’ll hope that either you’re familiar with what it says about those circumstances or else you can look it up yourself, and so I won’t go into them here while I’m in front of you. Whatever it says about such circumstances, though, the clear default Good Thing according to the “Proclamation on the family” is a mother and a father together, and so that’s what I’m going to focus on exclusively today.

But—why fathers and mothers?

I mean, it’s not like nature militates toward having mothers and fathers work together to rear their children. Amoebas have been doing very well for millions of years, thank you very much, having children without any sort of male-female differentiation at all—and if genetic diversification is the goal, one could certainly imagine a species somewhere in which you have more than two sexes, although I’m not personally aware of any that currently use such a scheme. Further, while it’s clear that the many examples from nature in which neither parent cares for their offspring don’t really apply to humans, given that human infants are so utterly helpless, there are many, many cases in which only the mother does any of the childcare, and even some in which only the father raises the young. So what is it about us humans that makes the presence of both parents so important?

A reasonable idea, and one that I’ve heard quite often, is that mothers and fathers each have something unique to bring to the act of parenting, so let’s run with that for a bit. The “Proclamation on the family” actually lends some support to this idea, since it talks about different things that fathers and mothers are responsible for, saying that “fathers…are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families”, and that “mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children”, but it doesn’t tell us why these things might be—and as a researcher by trade, I always want to know why.

Interestingly, the scriptures don’t really give us anything to go by in this. If we read through the canon, marriage is generally presented as a positive thing, even to the point of the line in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, often quoted by those in our church especially, that “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.” (Further, infidelity is consistently presented as a negative, to put it mildly.) However, the reasons for a marriage between a man and a woman being worthwhile aren’t really foregrounded—it’s like it’s simply assumed that everybody agrees.

Of course, everybody doesn’t agree. The overall marriage rate in the United States, for example, has been dropping steadily over the past few decades. Some of this is attributable to a slow increase in average age of first marriage, certainly, which leads to the appearance of the marriage rate being lower than it actually is, but much of it is attributable to a rejection of marriage as a necessity, or even a good thing, by a chunk of the population. As a sidebar, I should note that there’s been a concomitant decrease in the divorce rate—in the US it’s now at its lowest in almost 40 years—so maybe those who do get married seem to be putting the necessary effort into getting their marriages to work, but like I said, it’s clear that we can’t take it as axiomatic that everyone agrees that marriage is a worthwhile thing. Who knows, maybe most, maybe even all of the people in this room do agree, but it’s a case we still have to make more widely.

So how do we make the case for fathers and mothers? We’re not alone in this, you know—there’s a number of social institutions that are devoted to promoting marriage. Now, there’s all sorts of ways to define what it means to “promote” marriage, and some of the definitions of it are insanely politically loaded, and so I don’t want to get into that here—what I want to do is consider some of the reasons that have been given for why it is that a mother and a father makes for a good environment for children.

We’ll start with a widely used one—that marriage between a man and a woman worked well as the most common institution for raising children up until people started mucking with things in the twentieth century, and it’s generally worked, so why mess with something that works? I have to say that there’s a nice logical flow to this one—it doesn’t really answer the question of why things ought to be like that, but there’s something to be said for millennia of tradition. After all, if one takes a logical view of things, if there was some other system that was superior, it would certainly have emerged by now, right? Of course, there’s one serious problem with this line of argument—it’s based on an untruth. Marriage as we know it today hasn’t been the norm for most of the world’s population, according to people who study the history of these sorts of things, and there have been plenty of other methods of raising children attempted—and some of them seem to have produced children that were just as well-adjusted as what we see nowadays from a married man and woman. So while the idea that marriage between a man and a woman is a good thing because of tradition sounds likely at first, the problem is that it really depends on whose traditions you’re relying on.

Fair enough—but according to the “Proclamation on the family”, there is still something about having a man and a woman parenting together that’s ideal. But if we can’t rely on history to answer our question, what can we rely on? Well, what about what’s right in front of our faces—I mean, if we want to get to why marriage between a man and a woman is such a good setup for raising children, we can simply look at what we can observe directly. Well, what can we observe? To begin with, men and women are different—that’s the way we generally define male and female, after all, following usually-visible anatomical differences. But simple anatomical differences aren’t the everything for this, or otherwise it would be clear that people with similar hair colors shouldn’t raise children, and Jeanne and I would be in trouble.

But people often ascribe differences to men and women in terms of attitudes and preferences—could this be where we find the reason? That is, if there are intrinsic attitudinal differences between men and women, then perhaps the fact that they bring these differences into the relationship is the source of why fathers and mothers.

The conventional wisdom certainly is that men and women are different—some even go so far as to say that the divide between men and women is so vast as to make it impossible for any man to understand any woman’s motivations and for any woman to understand any man, though I have to say I haven’t seen anyone produce any real evidence for such claims beyond momentary frustration—but different people claim different differences. The most common one is that men and women have different general proclivities, where men are more aggressive, women are more nurturing, and so forth—basically, when it comes down to it, a modern expression of some of Aristotle’s ideas of the duality of the universe applied to human relationships.

The sociologist in me is bothered by these claims, though. Claiming such differences between men and women ignores the differences between men and men, and between women and women—and these within-group differences are larger than the differences between the norms of each separate group. In other words, the conventional wisdom’s claims of the differences between men and women are not quite so cut and dried as it may seem.

However, there certainly is a difference in the means—that is, on average, men and women behave and react differently. The sociologist in me is bothered once again by this, though, because it’s impossible to tell whether this is the result of inherent differences between women and men, or whether it’s because in our culture we tend to raise boys and girls differently so that they become, by the time they’re men and women, different. This is further muddled by the fact that some of the things we see as differences may not actually be differences—study after study has found that people attribute feelings such as fear and frustration and kindness to children they believe are girls (even if the children are boys), and feelings such as anger and bravery and apathy to children they believe are boys (even if they are, in actual fact, girls). So like I said, it’s impossible to tell if there really is an inherent difference—but at the same time, it’s impossible to demonstrate that there is no difference. Not really satisfying, but there we are.

But a number of people argue that women just aren’t as good at, say, accounting as men, and men tend not to be as good at nursing, or that women are better suited to raising children as full-time parents than men—and if you look at the ratios of men to women in those fields, it does seem that maybe there’s something to it. But no less an authority, for our purposes at least, than Brigham Young urged people to look past such surface things, saying:

We wish, in our Sunday and day schools, that they who are inclined to any particular branch of study may have the privilege to study it. As I have often told my sisters in the Female Relief societies, we have sisters here who, if they had the privilege of studying, would make just as good mathematicians or accountants as any man; and we think they ought to have the privilege to study these branches of knowledge that they may develop the powers with which they are endowed. We believe that women are useful, not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic, or become good book-keepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and all this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large. In following these things they but answer the design of their creation. These, and many more things of equal utility are incorporated in our religion, and we believe in and try to practice them.

So. This is a point at which we can offer a sigh, and maybe start to give up all hope of figuring out an answer to our question—after all, if someone as blunt as Brigham Young isn’t going to point up some sort of deep difference between men and women, then where are we going to find any differences?

Or…If we consider what Brigham Young said a bit more intently, there’s some rather interesting claims there. According to Brigham Young, it’s entirely possible for men and women to have similar talents and interests. In fact, it’s entirely possible for women and men to be similarly useful in society. Maybe, then, all of this focus on differences between men and women that we see around us so often is actually more of a red herring than a means to enlightenment. After all, we all, hopefully, have the same end goal—to develop and exercise faith in Jesus Christ sufficient to exaltation in the Kingdom of God—and this regardless of whether we are male or female.

Consider: I said earlier that the scriptures give us little to no clue on differences between men and women. However, there are plenty of examples of, if not a lack of differences between men and women, at least some interesting similarities in purpose and action. For perhaps the most compelling, consider the description at the beginning of the fifth chapter of the Book of Moses, which says that “Adam began to till the earth, and to have dominion over all the beasts of the field, and to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow, as…the Lord had commanded him. And Eve, also, his wife, did labor with him.”

Adam and Eve actually worked together. They did the same things, laboring to improve their lot with each other. And it goes even further a couple verses down, where it says that “Adam and Eve, his wife, called upon the name of the Lord, and they heard the voice of the Lord from the way toward the Garden of Eden, speaking unto them”. They didn’t just do physical labor together, they did spiritual labor together, and were both edified together. In fact, the scriptures say that they took it still further, and after learning that Jesus Christ would come to redeem from the Fall all who would be redeemed, together they “blessed the name of God, and they made all things known unto their sons and their daughters”—they taught their children about the truths they knew together, and together they rejoiced at the good some of their children did, and mourned over the evil that others of their children did.

One might not think that this is a terribly radical concept, but it seems to have been lost in a lot of the public discourse over family responsibilities. For example, to quote a line from the “Proclamation on the family” that I read earlier in this, we are told that “fathers…are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families”, and that “mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children”. You know what I find fascinating about this? What I find most interesting is what we are not told. We are not told that “fathers are to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families”, or that “mothers are to nurture their children”. We are told that “fathers…are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families”, and that “mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children”. Basically, we have stewardships—we have particular things that God has given us responsibility over, and that we are to make sure are done and done well, but happily that we are not automatically left to deal with alone.

So, to go back to the text I started with, when the “Proclamation on the family” states that “husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children”, it really is—and very appropriately, I’d say—a joint commandment for both the father and the mother to fulfill together. Further, when it says that “husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations”, it means that mothers and fathers will both be held accountable.

In a very real way, this is freeing—if nothing else, it means that I, as a father, am not shut out from the nurturing of my children, and that makes me happy. And, yes, this means that I’ve gotten to the end of this whole line of reasoning without getting to an answer to my initial—and still, I think, important—question, but as it turns out, that question simply provided a springboard for a what I think is a more important conclusion: that the important thing about mothers and fathers is the “and”. And hopefully that’s a good point to end on, which I will do, as is traditional, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

I actually spoke on a similar subject earlier this year, coming to a similarly unsatisfying non-conclusion—it’s just what i do. I’ll have to post that one some other time.

And yes, i do use words like axiomatic as a matter of course when i speak in sacrament meeting. I use words like that in my everyday discourse, so why should i change it up for public speaking?


Butter said...

Huh. And I always got from Mommie that her least favorite holiday was Valentine's Day. Go figure. It was the wilted flower at church on Mother's Day she wasn't fond of.

I've gotta say, though, since living in NoVa I've liked Mother's Day a lot more because the gifts at church have been great. Books, really expensive chocolates... no flowers!

Butter said...

3 big squares of individually wrapped Ghiradelli chocolates this year tied with ribbon. Good stuff, I tell you!

David B said...

This may be heresy, but we've really gotten into Dove chocolates lately. They have milk chocolates that taste nearly as rich as dark, and their dark chocolates are as smooth as milk. Not as intense a chocolate flavor as you'd hope for, but at least half of the chocolate experience is the texture, and they got that part of it perfect.

Who knew that a mass-market American label could actually get things right?