Monday, June 01, 2015


In church yesterday, we discussed (in part) aspects of the proclamation on the family, first released by the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1995. At the time this proclamation was released, it wasn't particularly controversial, but twenty years on, it has come more and more into conflict with the ever-changing values and mores of society.

One of the complaints commonly leveled against this proclamation is its supposed rigidity of gender roles for fathers and mothers. Critics complain that such roles are unequal, outmoded and probably impossible to achieve, and that they do not take into account the differing desires of individuals.

Let's take a brief look at the verbiage in question:
By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation. Extended families should lend support when needed.
Critics tend to vent their spleens on the "dads lead and make money, moms take care of the kids" section of this statement without bothering to read and synthesize what comes directly afterwards, to wit: parents are equal partners who help each other, individuals should adapt to their specific circumstances, and other family members should provide support as those circumstances warrant.

Interesting, isn't it, that critics refer to these differing male and female duties as "roles"? What exactly is a role, anyway, and does it mean only what critics want it to mean -- rigid and inflexible play-acting? Or could the word be interpreted a little differently?

As I've written before, I love the musical Wicked and have been lucky enough to see it produced numerous times on stage. One of the things I particularly look forward to seeing is the way the role of Elphaba is played by different actresses. Some things stay the same in every production: Elphaba always wears green makeup and a black witch hat, always sings the same songs and speaks the same lines. And yet, while staying within the bounds of that well-defined role, every actress manages to create her own very different version of Elphaba: one aloof and passionate, another bubbly and optimistic, a third shy and bookish, yet another bitter and angry. There's more than enough leeway to allow for almost infinite variations on a theme, depending on what each actress brings to the role and how she chooses to interpret it.

Something similar is happening in my own life. I bring my particular experiences, abilities, biases and problems to the "role" of wife, and they determine in large part how I choose to interpret that role on a daily basis. According to the proclamation, the ideal role for an adult woman in a family is motherhood: raising and nurturing her own children. But the proclamation also fully acknowledges that individual circumstances don't always make that role practical or even possible. My personal circumstances happen to include infertility, so I can't be a biological mother. I guess I could spend all my time beating myself up over it, or I could take heart from the phrase "circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation" and adapt. And that's what I've chosen to do. While we probably won't ever have biological children, for the last eight years Captain Midnight and I have been extremely fortunate to have a fantastic niece in our home, whom we love like a daughter.

Certainly I'm not alone. I could easily come up with a half-dozen examples of people who have adapted their roles to specific conditions. In the wake of my father's early death, my mother was thrown into a situation where she suddenly became both the family nurturer and the primary breadwinner. More than one sister in my ward has experienced similar double-duty roles after going through divorce. Some women long to be married and have children, but never get the chance to do so. Others go a little stir-crazy staying at home with the kids and have a real psychological need to hold an outside job. Occasionally circumstances make it more practical for Mom to work and Dad to stay home. In all cases, the response is not an inflexible "NO YOU HAVE A ROLE STICK TO THE ROLE DANGIT!!!1!!1!" but practical, supportive advice encouraging us to adapt, to interpret, and to find out what works best for our specific situations. God knows we don't always get to live under ideal circumstances; fortunately, they aren't necessary to carve out good, well-balanced and happy lives.

(Oh, and by the way? NOTHING in the proclamation spells out any of the other individual duties family members may hold. There's nothing that says men have to take out the garbage and mow the lawn and kill spiders, nothing that says women have to do the laundry and wash dishes and bake bread. The business of determining who does what chore in any particular household is left completely up to the members of that household to decide. I guess the proclamation doesn't define roles nearly as rigidly as people are led to believe.)

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