An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for March, 2010

Families Can Be Together Forever–But Is That Really a Good Idea?

As a kid, my concept of heaven was a sort of Star Wars eternal battle against good and evil. I visualized myself serving God as a sort of messenger (i.e. ministering angel). The notion of becoming a god myself seemed arrogant—besides, I was a girl.

I’ve always been an independent person who needs solitude to replenish my spiritual and emotional well-being. Growing up, I valued home and family, and I wanted to be with my mother who died when I was ten. But my desire for a temple marriage didn’t surface until I had a houseful of kids. I adored my children and wanted to be with them forever. I even half wished they could remain innocent, young kids in our nuclear family—although I knew that wouldn’t have been fair to them.

With my children grown, I realize the notion of mothering my little brood of children for eternity is a myth. They are all capable adults caring for families and responsibilities of their own. Their idea of eternal family is being with their own children and having Granny and Granddad visit occasionally. Eternal family life, unless you factor in eternal procreation, is really eternal marriage. Here again I have a problem. Wife is a subordinate, care-giving role.

Another problem is that parent and child roles evolve throughout life. My mother died when she was younger than my youngest daughter. I can’t visualize a mother-daughter relationship with her. While my mother’s life was too short, my dad’s life was too long. Our roles reversed as I became his caregiver. While I would like to see my parents in heaven, I really can’t imagine myself as a child in their nuclear family. And where would George fit? How do we live with my family and his family and our kids and their families and their spouses’ families? I picture a sort of golden ant hill—with no place to hide.

The notion of eternal procreation makes the situation even worse. For several years the entrance to the women’s dressing room at the Jordan River Temple had a painting of Heavenly Mother surrounded by numberless offspring. The painting was removed several years ago—probably because of comments that Heavenly Mother’s face, which was intended, I’m sure, to radiate peace and joy in her posterity, actually resembled a woman who was stoned out of her skull and in great need for a room of her own— far from a multitude of little voices trilling, “Mom!”

Don’t get me wrong. I dearly love every member of my immediate family, most of my extended family, and even some of my in-laws. It’s not the people I have trouble with; it’s the relationships. I don’t really want to be anybody’s wife or mother or daughter forever and ever. Now, sister, I could handle. My brothers make few demands. For my money, being friends with George, our adult children, and our parents and other relatives is enough. Trying to restructure hierarchical family relationships sounds like a good way to turn heaven into hell.


Wishing for Zion in Literature

The AML has had an online discussion about the expectations Mormon readers have for Mormon literature. One idea put forth is that a fair amount of hypocrisy is involved since Mormons boycott LDS fiction with more than a G-rating while devouring PG-13 movies and equivalent non-LDS lit. And some of my experience verifies this notion. Our ward RS book group is reading Charlotte’s Web this month. “It’s just too hard to find adult books that aren’t full of ‘inappropriate’ things.” Inappropriate being code for sex. While our official RS book group would not select any of the Twilight series with their fascinating sexual tension for a group read, I know most of the desperate housewives in our ward devoured every Twilight book hot off the press. Still, I don’t think the division of appropriate and inappropriate books is really about sex or is a form of hypocrisy.

Before I morphed into my present incarnation, I was as divided about literature as any secret Mormon Twilight fan. I enjoyed realistic novels from non-Mormons –Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich,  Paule Marshall and Marge Piercy. But in the back of my mind, I knew the characters in these books would have dealt with their situations much better if they’d only had the gospel to guide them. Same thing with movies. If Meg Ryan had only been a good LDS girl, she wouldn’t have leaped from under the covers with the wrong guy and into Tom Hanks’ arms. The heroine would have kept her virtue, converted the wayward boy friend, and none of the bad stuff would have happened. 

The fact that I’d never seen such a wondrous scenario in real life didn’t keep me from believing that in a fictional world where characters truly lived the gospel such a happy ending was possible. And that was why I didn’t read Mormon literature. Conflict couldn’t exist in a Zion world, so Mormon authors had nothing to write about. And cheesy popular LDS fiction proved that.

The first serious Mormon novel I read was Maureen Whipple’s The Giant Joshua. I was captivated by Clary, of course, but when I got to the part where her 60-year-old husband abandoned her and his first wife to take a new, young wife and head for his calling as Logan Temple president, I was outraged at Whipple. The church would never have called a man that calloused as temple president. And I also objected to the portrayal of Erastus Snow wondering about the purpose of life. An apostle would never express doubts about the gospel plan.

Age and experience have changed my world paradigm and my faith that the gospel can perfect human beings. But I understand that for people in my previous mind-set, realistic Mormon fiction is unappealing, even heretic. And no, I don’t have a solution to the resistance of Mormons to realistic Mormon fiction. Who am I to undermine the security of people who believe the gospel can solve every problem?

Purdah–A Good Fit for Mormons?

Dreams of Trespass, Fatima Mernissi’s memoir of growing up in the seclusion of a Moroccan family, intrigues me. The cloistered life of these Muslim women—sheltered from the cares and threats of the outside world, all economic and public responsibilities on the shoulders of the husbands—sounds like a great deal to me. Who wouldn’t like a life without responsibilities beyond caring for the kids and seeing that meals get on the table? If the Moroccan women had just been allowed access to shopping malls and TV, it sounds pretty ideal. Actually, it sounds kind of like the Mormon poster family. Many Mormon women do pretty much limit their interests and activities to the confines of their own home.  

And I wonder—are Mormon men happy to shoulder all the economic responsibility? Or do they sometimes cast envious glances at neighbors with wives holding jobs that provide health insurance and retirement accounts?

And this leads me back to Mid-Eastern purdah.  How do they get the men to go along with it?  Mernissi’s father and uncle support a huge extended family. Besides their own wives and children, they are responsible for their mother, their unmarried sisters, and divorced female relatives and their children. Since the women can’t leave the home compound except for lady’s day at the public bath, the husbands make family decisions, enroll the kids in school, and do the shopping including picking the right colors of embroidery floss—all while earning enough to keep this mammoth family fed. And what’s in it for the men? Sex—children—a smoothly-running household.

Is that enough? Well, I guess that depends on the quality of the benefits. I’m not sure I’d want to bet my economic security on my ability to satisfy on those three counts. I did provide George with five offspring, but I don’t recall him leaping with ecstasy each time I whispered in his ear, “Honey, I think I’m pregnant again.” It’s probably a good thing I was able to help put food on the table. It was also a good thing George was willing to help prepare the food and clean up afterwards.

For us, purdah wouldn’t work except maybe in reverse. At his current age, George prefers staying home and wouldn’t mind being secluded from shopping, church or any other outside activity. And so long as I don’t have to choose embroidery floss, I’m okay with our arrangement.

Seminary–Count the Cost


Research showing the dire effects of sleep deprivation on adolescents has some LDS parents concerned about the effects of early-morning seminary on their children. That was not an issue in the ‘50s when I attended seminary for high school credit in Utah. At that time seminary was a three-year program with credit for both Old and New Testament. Grades counted on the high school transcript. Church History, the third year, was non-credit, but was treated as a regular class, sans homework. I enjoyed seminary and actually learned some gospel principles despite spending time on the back row writing “in the bathtub” after titles in the hymn books. “I Stand All Amazed” was my personal favorite.

My 14-year-old brother moved in with George and me while we lived in Wyoming. I enrolled David for early-morning seminary over his objection. We carpooled with neighbors to get him to seminary and then to junior high on the cold, dark mornings. The seminary teacher, an authoritarian type, had actually hit one of the students the previous year. David hated seminary, but I insisted he continue. Midway through the year, my precocious brother began bragging about theological arguments he was having with Brother Knotzi. David was pushing for what might literally be a “knock-down/drag-out,” so I allowed him to drop out. The following year the stake hired a competent teacher (ST’s received a stipend then), but no way could I convince David to give seminary another try.

Before our own kids were old enough for seminary, I spent one memorable afternoon substituting for a seminary teacher. It was nothing like the seminary of my youth and nothing like subbing in regular high school classes. Since it was non-credit, teachers had no way to motivate appropriate behavior. The kids insisted Brother Nice always let them make a donut run at the beginning of class. I didn’t, and they got even. At that moment I vowed seminary would be optional for my kids. What was the point in forcing kids to attend if they’re just going to disrupt? And was it really a good idea to have 9th graders in the same classes with 18-year-old seniors?

Our kids took seminary when they could work it into their schedules—basically to be with friends. None of our kids enjoyed it. The only evidence I saw of learning was the summer after Jaycee’s 9th grade. We planned a family picnic up Millcreek Canyon and Jaycee refused to go. Her seminary teacher had told a story about some kind of devil worship that had taken place there long ago and insisted that evil spirits still lurked in the canyon.

While teaching in Utah, I saw students who really loved seminary and considered it the high point of the day. Seminary definitely benefits some students. But not all. The church publishes statistics citing the higher incidence of missions and temple marriages for seminary graduates. Of course the incidence is higher. Only kids from active LDS families attend seminary. A control group of kids from active families who don’t graduate from seminary has never been studied. And never will be. The church has invested millions in seminary buildings and staff. Why would it research the effectiveness of a program with which it is stuck?

 LDS parents need to weigh the costs—less sleep (outside Utah), fewer elective choices (in Utah)—and evaluate real vs. hoped for benefits of seminary for their children. Seminary attendance, like family planning, is an individual choice which cannot be delegated to church authorities.

Comfort Food

My mother occasionally made a loaf of homemade bread which we devoured hot from the oven in thick, crumbly slices with butter melting through. Aunt Dutie made homemade bread too, but it wasn’t the same. Homemade bread at Aunt Dutie’s house was cold and cut into thin slices almost like store-bought bread.

My mother’s cooking was pretty standard for the ‘40s and ‘50s—meat, potatoes, gravy, and a canned vegetable. After our mother died, Dad dashed home from the family grocery store each night with the kind of instant food available in the early 1950s. One night a week we had meat pies from the butcher case with cardboard-flavored crusts topped with Franco American beef gravy—a thick, dark brown sauce that had no more than a nodding acquaintance with beef. Another night was Franco American spaghetti—similar to the Spaghetti-Os which contemporary mothers serve to condition their small children for school lunch. Thursdays were best with paper-wrapped tamales from the butcher case, topped with catsup. Salsa was unknown in Provo in the 1950s. Pan grilling was too slow, so one night a week Dad charred cheese sandwiches under the broiler and served them with Campbell’s tomato soup stretched with two cans of milk to feed the four of us. Dinty Moore beef stew was also stretched with a can of water. Dad owned a grocery store, but didn’t want to eat up all the profits.

 Except for my mother’s homemade bread and sugar cookies, I don’t really have a yen for the food of my childhood. And neither do my grown children who now try to “introduce” us to exotic foods they refused to taste at our table. You know, it really wasn’t me who picked celery out of the turkey stuffing and begged for Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup at every meal.

 I tried to serve my kids nutritious foods while they were growing up, but, except for broccoli, they balked. They only ate broccoli because, in a stroke of genius, I called the florets trees and said only giraffes could eat them. Unfortunately, I was never inspired with an animal motif for any other vegetable. By the time our kids hit their teens, our menu was limited to five items: hot dogs with sauerkraut (they would eat fermented vegetables), hamburgers, spaghetti, tacos, and enchilada casserole. I can’t tell you how an empty nest has improved our diet.

Now George and I cook vegetarian. We love foreign foods—Thai, Indian, Middle-Eastern. For us, comfort foods are not from a nostalgic past that wasn’t all that good. Comfort food is now.

Black and White Thinking

The problem with black/white thinking is that people I love to hate occasionally disappoint me by uttering reasonable thoughts and committing rational acts. George W. Bush is a case in point. People like me who see war as the opposite of pro-life and who don’t believe Big Oil is the solution to our energy problems loved picking on poor W. But then he proposed a valid solution to the Social Security shortfall problem—means testing for recipients, and he told Africa that further foreign aid from the US depended on their cleaning up government corruption and working on their own solutions. Can I paint one little corner of the Bush with a white brush?

On the flip side, I’m disappointed that President Obama has increased troop levels in Afghanistan and that he put Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, two of the crowd who caused the current economic crisis, in charge of the treasury. Black marks for my white knight.

Life would be so much easier if people were either all good or all bad. Or if God always blessed the righteous. Can I tell you what a shock it was to read the DHC and discover how often Joseph Smith was sick with la grippe or colds? While I knew the prophet was mortal, sniffling and flu-like symptoms just don’t fit my picture of a prophet. 

Mormon culture facilitates b/w thinking with its heavy emphasis on obedience to church leaders. How can we unquestioningly obey leaders if we believe they sometimes make human mistakes? Or sometimes misinterpret God’s will—as in the belief that plural marriage was necessary for exaltation or that members of African descent could not hold the priesthood.

The only reasonable solution to my dilemma is to start seeing shades of gray. I think I can handle that in religion and politics. But no way can I see anything but darkness and evil in fashion designers who have decreed that women dress in clinging fabrics which reveal every ounce of cellulite and make any woman over 100 pounds resemble a python digesting a goat.

And They Lived Happily Ever After

My independently financed study of the successful and unsuccessful marriages of people I know reveal that the best way to have a happy marriage is to marry someone like yourself. Our oldest son is a Yuppie who married a Yuppie. Our oldest daughter, a granola, married a granola. Our recluse daughter married a recluse and Technie married a fellow geek. All four couples appear reasonably contented. Our independent, ambitious daughter married a needy, dependent guy. They are now divorced.

The problem with marrying someone like yourself is that people often marry before they’ve lived long enough to know who they really are. My nonconformist brother, Dooby, married Cecily while both were college students and she was rebelling against her strict Mormon upbringing. As soon as Cecily outgrew her post-adolescent rebellion, their marriage foundered. The happy ending for them is that both moved on to find companions more like themselves and now enjoy successful second marriages.

In some cases, marriage itself might be the problem with a relationship. My friend Lark and her husband could not agree on finances. The first thing she did upon their divorce was to buy a nicer house, new furniture, and a new car. They got back together after a few years, but have never remarried. She handles her income and he handles his.

Of course, no young couple ever thinks compatibility issues through before buying a wedding dress-to-die-for and renting a tux. Certainly George and I did not. Like most couples, we married because we had the hots for each other. By the time we discovered that’s not enough to hold a marriage together, we had a bunch of kids to hold together. By the time the kids grew up, we’d each adopted enough of the other’s bad habits to make us totally incompatible with anyone else—but rather endearing to each other.

So, my advice to young people contemplating marriage is:  Wait until you’re old enough to know who you are before deciding who to spend your life with. And if you’re really repelled by people like yourself, consider staying single.

For those already in an unhappy marriage:  Consider the possibility that marriage itself may be the problem. Tearing up the contract and living in sin may be your best option.

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