Photo Tour of Mormon Country Part 1.5 – Roadtripping Mormons

As I was writing the first installment of my Photo Tour of Mormon Country, I realized I need to explore the topic of Mormon roadtrips a little further.  A lot of people–Mormons included–have no idea just how Mormon their journeys are.  Our Church has more members outside the United States than inside, so I doubt this aspect of Mormon culture extends to all Mormons.  But if we’re talking Mormons in the U.S.A., we’re probably talking roadtripping Mormons. 

Let’s do the athropological math: 

a=Family relationships are hugely important

b=Huge families

c=Mothers who raise children rather than earn money

d=Ancestors who walked across frozen rivers and over barren mountains

e=Brigham Young’s colonization ideas

f=Interstate highway system

g=U.S. gas prices

a(b/c) + e(f+g) = Mormons in the U.S.A. think it’s normal to take four children under the age of eight on a 16-hour roadtrip to visit relatives

Just a couple weeks ago, a Mormon friend told me about relatives who spent their summer break visiting family.  They drove with four children, ages 10 and under, from North Carolina to Indiana to Texas to Colorado to Idaho to Calgary to Montana to Illinois to Tennessee to Indiana and then back to North Carolina, which comes to about 8,000 miles.  Only in Mormondom!

As I wrote earlier, the downside of Mormon roadtrips is they’re an exercise in misery.  The upside is they set the stage for miracles to happen.  Also, after a few years of healing, the participants have a great story to tell.

One of my family’s storied roadtrips was the ride home from Boise to Seattle in our big yellow sudan, known in our family as the Banana Boat.  I’m pretty sure the Banana Boat was a Buick.  It was shaped like the car in the picture below, and had a brown roof and bright yellow body. 

It might have been a nice car when it was new in the 70s.  Our roadtrip, though, took place in the late 80s.  One or two of my older siblings were gone to college, so that made four or five youths and two adults riding in style. 

The day of our storied trip was hot, and the engine started overheating, so my dad turned the heater to its highest setting in order to cool the engine.  To prevent us from heatstroking, he rolled all the windows all the way down.  The wind roared in our ears and our hair whipped in our faces.  Occasionally, my dad yelled over the noise to inform us how well his fix was working.  It wasn’t.  His next solution was to pull over to the side of the road and carry buckets of water from irrigation ditches in the nearby farm fields and splash them over the engine, cooling it enough for us to drive a little further.  This trick took us all the way home.

My second oldest brother must have inherited his car sense from my dad because he too believed in driving seconhand vehicles and milking them for every cent of value until they were a scrap heap along the freeway to Utah.  My brother’s time at Brigham Young University overlapped with mine, and he ferried me to Provo my first two years as a student there.  

Our first back-to-school roadtrip was in his little golden Subaru, which was at least ten years old, maybe twenty.  We stuffed our boxes and suitcases into the Subaru until there was no more room.  We opened the rest of the suitcases and shoved their contents into the remaining nooks and crannies.  When the back seat area was so full that opening the doors would mean spilling duffel bags and shoes onto the driveway, we rolled the windows down a few inches to stuff in a few more socks and shirts.  My mother, thinking this was a good time to clean out her cupboards, offered us several nearly-empty containers of food.  I thought there really was no room for anything more until my friend, who had come to say goodbye, suggested we open the trunk and sprinkle the Cream of Wheat over our suitcases.

Finally I squeezed into the front passenger seat, wedged my feet into place between the bags in my floor space, and braced myself for the 14- to 15-hour drive to Provo.  What should have been a lovely bonding time between brother and sister became instead a time that welded our souls together like comrades in battle.  Sometimes it seemed the Subaru was our enemy, but really it was the Blue Mountains.  The road from our parents’ home to Provo is about a thousand miles long and five thousand miles up.  I can’t remember exactly what was wrong with the car, but overheating was part of the problem, especially when going up hill. 

We drove the entire way at about 30 miles per hour, less than half the speed limit.  Several people offered to help us, but we weren’t about to flee in battle.  If our forefathers got to Utah by sailing across an ocean in a wooden ship and then pushing a handcart halfway across a continent, well then we could ride in a Subaru at 30 miles per hour.  My brother the hero drove non-stop for 24 hours until we arrived in Provo just as Freshman Orientation was ending.

The next year, being a true comrade, I trusted my brother to ferry me to school again.  Once again we took his little golden Subaru.  He planned to buy another car as soon as he arrived in Provo, but he wanted to squeeze one thousand more miles out of his Subaru.

My mom was at work when we were leaving, and for some reason she didn’t have her car there.  She needed someone to bring it to her, which wasn’t a problem, since she worked right along the route we would be taking out of town.  I drove her Volvo the 15 minutes to her workplace and waited in the parking lot for my brother to show.  I expected he would be just a minute or two behind because he was getting into his car when I left the driveway. 

An hour later he arrived. 

He told me the Subaru hadn’t started at first, but after trying for 40 minutes, it was now going.  So I hopped in and we headed over the Cascade mountains.  We stopped for gas in Eastern Washingon when, to our consternation, the Subaru wouldn’t restart!  The stage was set.  We needed a miracle.  We bowed our heads and with all the faith we could muster, prayed that our Subaru would start and take us safely to Provo.  My brother closed the prayer and turned the ignition one more time.  The subaru started. 

We weren’t interested in testing our faith again, though, so we decided to keep the car running, even when we stopped for gas.  We rolled into gas stations, disembarked the vehicle, locked it up, filled it with gas, and went inside to use the restrooms, all while it was still running. 

This trick took us all the way to Provo.

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My New Favorite Blog

A few months ago, just after I wrote my post about preserving traditional marriage in order to protect children’s rights, I googled “Mormon blogs gay marriage” to see what other Mormon bloggers were saying about the issue.  I found the writings of James Goldberg, a graduate student at Brigham Young University in Provo.  His series about gay marriage is extremely insightful, and when I came to the part where he compares heterosexual marriage to breastfeeding, just as I did in my first post about gay marriage, I felt for a moment like I’d discovered a long-lost brother.  

I finished reading the gay marriage series and kept on going, coming across a post in which he discusses one of my favorite quotes.  I have thought for some time that if I should ever write the novel that’s in my head, I would put this particular quote at the beginning.  And so the deal was sealed.  James Goldberg is my e-BFF.

I’m not easily impressed, but this guy is an exceptional writer.  All of his posts are interesting, profound and considerate.  Plus he has time for research.  Take, for example, this post.  It’s exactly what I have tried to think before!  Or this post or this post or this post or this post

Bravo Brother Goldberg!  I’m putting aside my jealousy to be your best fan!

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Photo Tour of Mormon Country Part 1 – Road Trip

My husband and I recently loaded up our four children and drove to Utah for our annual summer visit.  My husband was raised in the Salt Lake area, and his parents and siblings still live there.  I have three sisters in Utah, as well as aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins.  As we started our trip, I thought, “What better way to give non-Mormons a glimpse into our culture than to post a photo tour of our family vacation?”  So here we go.  Let’s fasten our seatbelts and head for the Rocky Mountains.

Loading up a minivan with children and treking to Utah is quintessentially Mormon.  When I was a kid, my parents took us there regulary to visit relatives.  Sometimes we did a little sightseeing as well, touring places such as Temple Square, Capitol Reef National Park and Lake Powell. 

The drive from my home in Sequim, Washington, to my in-laws’ home in Sandy, Utah, takes about 16 hours.  We’ve tried slicing and packaging this drive in several different ways–staying the night in a hotel half way, leaving in the evening and driving all night, leaving at 4 am and driving all day.  We’ve found, though, that in the end, however we do it, the math comes out about the same:

  

  

x  16 hours

  

  

= Fate worse than death

I love western Washington, but sometimes I wonder if it might be worth moving closer to my in-laws in order to avoid this annual exercise in misery.  The air conditioner can’t blow hard enough.  Every inch of footroom is crammed with pillows, bags, food, books, diapers and shoes.  The children are junk-food sticky.  We stop because a child needs to go number one.  Fifteen minutes down the road, the same child needs to go number two.  Then we listen to a tantrum because one child desperately wants quiet, while another child desperately wants to hear a book on CD.

My chivalrous husband insists on driving the entire way.  I get to relax in my passenger seat.  Between relaxing, I dangle my body over the back of my seat to wrestle the cooler lid open and hand out food, wipe up sticky faces and fingers, dig through footroom oblivion to find lost binkies, adjust pillows, mediate arguments, answer questions, help children urinate onto diapers to avoid more stops, and re-buckle my toddler, who has found a way to break out of his four-point harness.

If I lived just eight hours away, I would have absolutely no reason to complain, but sixteen hours of this is really not bearable.

Much of the road from Seattle to Salt Lake City is through a barren wilderness.  Think lonely brown moutains, sage brush and tumbleweeds.  Whenever I drive through it, I conclude that whoever believes the world is overpopulated has never been to Idaho.  About an hour before we reach Salt Lake, we begin to see signs of civilization:  first cows, then neighborhoods, then ugly billboards lining the freeway, then Mormon temples framed by the Wasatch mountains.

I think tourists would have a much better impression of Utah if all the signs were taken down.  Downtown Salt Lake City is remarkably clean and beautiful, but from the freeway, all one notices is billboards and rundown industrial buildings.  Utah is heavily Republican, which may be why free speech trumps community planning. 

Particuarly hideous are the billboards advertising lipo-suction and plastic surgery.  I failed to take a picture of one, but every year we see some.  These kinds of billboards feed the impression that Utahns are unusually vain, an impression that research indicates may be accurate.  I chalk this up to a few different things: one, Utah has the youngest population of any state in the country, and young people are generally more concerned with glamor than older people are; two, Utah falls into the southwestwern culture bloc, importing much of its fashion from hyper-vain California; and three, Mormons believe in taking excellent care of their bodies.

When we finally roll into my in-law’s driveway, exhausted and bedraggled, we are met with lots of love. 

I enter my in-laws’ comfortable home with its gigantic family photos and patriotic paintings, and I think, “Oh, yes, now I remember what Utah is like.”  I unpack my belongings–pausing to re-read the word art hanging on the walls–and I try to regain my bearings. 

Though my ancestors settled the place; though my mother and husband were raised here; though I attended college here; though I visit at least once a year; every time I come back to Mormon country, I experience a day or two of culture shock.  Utah is dramatically different from my home in western Washington.  Nevertheless, it’s a part of who I am, and in no time I’ll feel right at home in the hot, thin air.   

To be clear, Mormon country encompasses a much larger area than Utah alone.   Mormon pioneers settled places from Cardston, Alberta, in Canada, to Las Vegas, to Mexico’s Chihuahua state.  Parts of Idaho, Nevada and Arizona are every bit as Mormon-y as Utah.  On the other hand, Utah itself, especially Salt Lake City, has lots of non-Mormons.  I’m always amazed at the number of Protestant, Catholic and Muslim facilities I see as we drive around town.  Here we have a Catholic church and school located in Bountiful, Utah:

 

We stopped at Costco for some supplies, and I noticed a lot of minorities–a lot more than I’ve ever seen in my hometown’s Costco.  Like any big American city, Salt Lake City has residents from every part of the world.  About two thirds of Utah’s population is Mormon, but the percentage gets lower the closer you are to Salt Lake City.  Of those two thirds, many are non-observant–from what I’ve heard, about half of Utahn members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are active in the religion.  So, altogether, about a third of the state’s population is actively Mormon; another third is inactively Mormon; and another third has no tie to the Church.

If you’re familiar with the culture, it’s easy to guess from appearances who is an active Mormon.  Husband and wife with six children in tow?  Definitely Mormon.  White T-shirt underneath a tank top?  Mormon.  Knee-length shorts?  Mormon.  Clean-cut young man exuding smiles?  Mormon boy just back from his mission.  Sexy girl in a one-piece swimsuit?  Definitely Mormon.  By the way, Utah is teeming with beautiful girls.  If you are a single man and want to marry a gorgeous woman, you might consider taking your own roadtrip to Utah. 

And now it’s time for a pit stop.  If you want to see pictures of those gorgeous  Utah women, stay tuned for my next post: “Photo Tour of Mormon Country Part Two – Everything’s Cuter in Utah.”

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Mormon Girls Discuss “The Book of Mormon Girl” by Joanna Brooks

I recently moved from the Olympic Peninsula (of Twilight series fame) to the Seattle area.  I left behind some good friends, and one of them is Rebecca Bratsman.  Rebecca and I love to get together and talk while our children play.  Our discussions range from politics to swimming lessons to husbands.  Over time they have also become an informal book club as we share what we’ve been reading and recommend books to each other.  A few months ago we both read “The Book of Mormon Girl” by Joanna Brooks and decided to discuss it through email rather than over seven kids eating quesadillas. 

Lara: So what did you think of “The Book of Mormon Girl?”

Rebecca:  I always think that it is dangerous to read a memoir and then project the memoir onto an entire culture/religion/era. So I was a little defensive while reading Joanna Brooks and kept telling myself when her story didn’t match up with my own experience growing up in the church, “Well, that’s her personal version of Mormondom”. I also think that the Western Mormon experience, and even the California Mormon experience are truly unique. I knew women with big birthing hips, 10 passenger vans, a cookbook full of casseroles, and an odd predilection for caffeine-free generic grape or orange soda growing up (and yes, most of them were originally from the InterMountain West), but I don’t know very many modern Mormon girls like that now. The female Mormon experience is changing, has changed, and I’m not sure “The Book of Mormon Girl” conveyed that.

Lara: I agree—for a memoir to be valuable, it must be interpreted as a snapshot, not a guidebook.  I enjoyed reading “The Book of Mormon Girl,” but it certainly didn’t mirror my own experience.  A few aspects of Brook’s childhood were familiar to me, such as the special bond she felt with other Mormon children and, later on in the book, her experience with “born-again” friends who attacked her faith.  But so much of the book was definitely not familiar.  Her parents were followers of Cleon Skousen; I had never heard of Cleon Skousen.  She adored Marie Osmond as the epitome of Mormon womanhood; I only vaguely know who Marie Osmond is.  She interpreted object lessons on chastity as a lesson about women retaining their value; I understood the lessons on chastity to be about avoiding a sin that is just as serious for a man as it is for a woman. 
 
What parts of the book were most familiar to you?

Rebecca:  Because I grew up in the Midwest, I completely missed out on the Osmond era. Well, maybe it was mostly because my parents were too cheap to pay for television. But I absolutely identified with Brooks’ furtive scouting of other Mormons any time she encountered new classmates. And it was always a relief to find some other members and suddenly not have to explain half of my life because it matched up with half of their life too. Asking your friends to stop swearing got old after awhile, even if every curse word struck my back like ice cubes, always shocking and never expected. I also always kept my eye out for large families, girls in knee-length shorts (a true penance in the Midwestern humidity), and one-piece swimming suits. Always. Even as an adult sitting in the park with my children, I keep an eye out for other Mormon moms because we are likely to have college, parenting values, or people in common (the church is really that small still). And it’s nice to not have to explain why I’ve got three kids and I’m only 30, or why I don’t work, or why I’m still married after a decade.
 
Like Brooks, I also felt that my life would be more glamorous and amazing if I made it to Provo! Utah, home of Marie Osmond.  And do you know what?  It was.  I loved Provo. It was a fantastic city, and BYU really did change my life for the better. Of course I also came out of BYU married, and I imagine that that had a pretty powerful impact on my memory of my university time.
 
So now for the slightly controversial parts of Brooks’ memoir: what do you think about Mormon feminism?

Lara: You never would have found me in knee-length shorts!  (I am, by the way, officially sorry about all those short shorts I used to wear, and I hope my daughters will learn the importance of modesty at a younger age than I did!)
 
As for Joanna Brook’s feminism, I found it maddeningly vague.  We gather that she has a feminist beef with the Church, but she never states directly what that is.  For example, she describes an overweight woman who wears gigantic tampons, ostensibly because she has given birth to eight children.  She leads us to cringe as we imagine the woman’s birth canal.  But what is her point?  Surely the woman is fat because she has spent three or four decades eating a mainstream-American diet, and the thought of any baby sliding through a birth canal makes me cringe, whether it’s the first or fourteenth child. 
 
I believe the Church does promote the interests of women, so I want to argue with her, but I’m not sure exactly what I’m arguing about. 

Rebecca:  I thought Brooks objected to the men holding the priesthood, like every other Mormon feminist I’ve ever met. You know, “Women are stuck at home having baby after baby, and the men get to run the church and the world.”  Or, as she puts it, “Women in the ten-passenger vans of life are always driven, never the driver.”  Do you feel like you’re being driven some place you don’t want to go, perpetually pregnant?

Lara: No, I don’t feel that I’m driven some place I don’t want to go.  If I had a controlling husband who pressured me to have more children than I wanted then I’d probably feel that way.  I’m sure some Mormon men are like that, but I can’t think of anyone I know who fits that description, and my husband is on the opposite end of the spectrum.  He gets nervous whenever I get an idea because he knows if I become convinced that we ought to do something, then it’s probably just a matter of time before I talk him into it.  In fact, I’m the one who wants to be perpetually pregnant.  My husband probably would have been satisfied with three children, but I want a big family, and I’ve convinced him that the right thing to do is to have as many children as we can handle. 
 
I believe every man and every woman at some point looks at where life has taken him or her and says, “Wait a minute!  It wasn’t supposed to be like this!”  Adulthood is never the fantasy we created when we were children.  Sometimes I think feminism is a way for women to use men as a scapegoat for the frustrations that are natural to life.  What do you think?   

Rebecca:  I think I can count on one hand the number of Mormon men I’ve met who’ve wanted their wives to have lots of children (my father is included in this number), but all of these men genuinely love, love babies and children. My dad still goes and steals the newest baby in the world to cuddle on. My husband, and all of the other Mormon men I’ve met, might like children, but are far more aware of their responsibility to support and pay for all of the children they might have. Honestly, it’s always seemed to me that the women in the church are very in charge of their fertility, and very in touch with how many children they want to have (sometimes lots, and sometimes not). If that type of direction and sureness in who they are as women or what they want isn’t feminism, than I’m not sure we even speak the same language as other feminists (if we are calling ourselves Mormon feminists). I am always taken aback when I meet women who are emphatic about never having children, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to respect the women who choose being doctors or such over motherhood. I like working with female pediatricians and librarians and lawyers.  I just wish that women in professional careers also appreciated that I choose to have children right now, and that I can pick up the slack volunteering at the elementary school and helping out with cub scouts because I have the time and they don’t.
 
By “frustrations natural to life,” do you mean waking up and realizing that having children severely limits the choices we can make in life?  Rather, they seem to limit women’s choices, and not always men’s.

Lara:  To be clear, I know Mormon men who want more children than their wives do, but in the cases I’ve seen, the wives’ wishes have always had more weight than the husbands,’ which I think is right because they have the greater burden in procreating and parenting.  On the other hand, I know of a Mormon man whose wife lied about taking birth control and purposefully got pregnant without his consent.  He felt utterly betrayed.  This case is on the opposite end of the spectrum but, in my opinion, equally wrong to a man bullying his wife into having children against her will.  The bottom line is that the decision to have children should be made by a husband and wife together, and no one should be coerced or tricked into procreating. 
 
When I wrote “the frustrations of life,” I did not mean specifically the frustrations of parenthood.  What I mean is the setbacks and disappointments that everyone experiences, whether they are a man or a woman, parent or not.  Nobody’s life follows the course he or she plans for it, and everyone is discouraged at some point or another.  Hard work and problem-solving are part of the human experience, and so is the tendency to want to blame someone when we don’t have everything we want.  
 
A few years back I lived in a Seattle ward where the women got together every other week for what we called “Discussion Group.”  One week the discussion was about “how to get the corner office,” and the discussion leader wanted to brainstorm how we women could push harder to “have our needs met.”  At this point in my life, I stayed at home with my one baby while my husband worked part-time and went to school full-time.  I remember making two points:  First of all, no one always has all their needs met, so we women should be careful about our expectations.  Second of all, I had a lot more balance in my life than my husband did.  Many of the women there were in situations similar to mine–stay-at-home moms with a husband in medical or dental school–and they agreed with me.  Our husbands were sacrificing just as much as we were for the good of our families.  We weren’t going to ask them for any more than they were already giving.  The discussion leader–who seemed to be a feminist by Mormon or non-Mormon standards–didn’t get too far with us.  We didn’t want the corner office; we wanted a cute nursery! 

Rebecca:  I think that your definition of feminism is grossly oversimplified. And with good reason. Every new generation puts their stamp on what the women’s movement means to them, and so it’s this confusing mess. Boomer women are all, “It’s my body and my right (with regards to birth control)!” And our generation just assumes that right, and wants to know when we’re getting better maternity leave. My definition is, of course, yet another gross simplification of feminism.
 
As for Brooks’ definition of feminism, I agree that it’s vague. But I really think that she objects to the patriarchal order that the Church uses, and I think she sees the leaders in Salt Lake as a bureaucracy who are running a church like a business. The prophet and apostles at the head of the Church aren’t really spiritual leaders for her, but this giant Other in her mind. She always refers to them as Salt Lake, as if they are this mysterious men’s club in the shadow of the Wasatch Front issuing edicts and excommunicating at whim. If one doesn’t have faith that the leaders of the Church are called of God, and that Jesus Christ is at the head of the Church, then anything the apostles do is suspect.

Lara:  I think you’re right about Brooks’ view of the Church leadership and about the always-changing definition of feminism.  Brooks wrote that she was offended by Apostle Boyd K. Packer’s infamous statement that feminists are enemies of the Church.  I consider myself a feminist, but I’m not bothered by his statement because I know he was referring to a different kind of feminist, the kind who thinks we ought to remake the world so that men and women have the same abilities and the same roles. 
 
My version of feminism is not just comfortable with Mormonism; it is derived from Mormonism and is a crucial part of my faith.  My version of feminism is shaped by the prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, who said, “Woman is God’s supreme creation.  Only after the earth had been formed, after the day had been separated from the night, after the waters had been divided from the land, after vegetation and animal life had been created, and after man had been placed on the earth, was woman created; and only then was the work pronounced complete and good.”  My feminism is also shaped by Brigham Young, who said, “You educate a man; you educate a man.  You educate a woman; you educate a generation.”
 
I also wholeheartedly believe what the prophet David O. McKay taught, that the most important work we will ever do will be within the walls of our own homes.  If one believes this teaching, as I do, then one might argue that women fulfill a more important role than men do because we do more work within the home.  Indeed, President McKay also said, “The noblest calling in the world is motherhood. True motherhood is the most beautiful of all arts, the greatest of all professions.”

In my version of feminism, men and women are equally valuable and play equally important roles.  But if you were forced to say one gender was more important or more godlike than the other–if you had to choose–it would be women.

 Rebecca:  I find it harder than I thought to define what I think of as Mormon feminism because for me it’s the exemplification of two seemingly separate qualities: strength and kindness.

 When I say strength, I mean the conviction to say something is wrong or right, and then DO something about that conviction. And the strength to get up and change your life for the better, even if it means leaving behind family, friends, culture, and everything familiar because you know there’s something better out there. The courage to stand alone and do what you think is right even when you stand against a tide of humanity that laughs at your ideals. That to me is Mormon feminism.

 But on the flip side, I also think of Mormon feminism as gentleness and kindness. It’s exemplified when women come to help you after a crisis, and you are glad to see them because you know they will envelope you in a perfumey cloud of love. When I was young I thought these lovely, soft women were the antithesis of the strength that exemplified True Women. But as I’ve gotten older, I now understand how hard it is to love other sisters no matter their circumstances in life because the ugly head of judgment can rear its head all too often. It’s hard to be kind when you’re tired or busy or it’s the tenth time said sister has asked for help, and why on earth can’t she help herself by now? Yet women who are loving and patient are, to me, the best kind of women because it takes a different kind of strength to be kind in this world where so many people are wrapped up in a cocoon of selfishness. That also is Mormon feminism to me.

 Actually, Mormon feminism for me has nothing to do with men. In fact, they don’t even register in my thought processes when I think about women and their roles. Let men figure out for themselves where they fit in this world. I know that I’m a daughter of God, and I have felt Him tell me time and again that I have purpose and value in this life. That’s all I need.

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Protecting Children’s Rights

Last week North Carolina voted on the definition of marriage and came down on the side of tradition, while President Obama changed his stance on the issue, declaring his support for granting gay marriage rights.  Since that time I’ve been a little crazy, frantically debating with everyone on Facebook who’s willing to debate with crazy people.  One of my debates with a Facebook friend of a Facebook friend by the name of TJ ended with his question, “Who defines morality?  And where did they get that authority?”  I started typing my answer on Facebook, but got carried away and realized I was writing a blog post, not a Facebook comment.  So here is my answer, a summary of my moral philosophy and how that applies to the gay marriage question:

Dear TJ,

God defines morality!  Do you believe in God?  If not, do you believe in good and evil?  I don’t understand how anyone can deny that there is light and dark, good and evil in this world.  If there is good, then the source of that good (or the good itself) is God.  For most of us, some things are obviously evil, such as murder or greed, and some things are obviously good, like kindness and generosity.  But sometimes it’s difficult to see clearly what is light and what is dark, and often it’s hard to choose light even when we recognize it.  By nature, people have selfish inclinations and must work to choose good even when it might seem unpleasant.  Also, evil influences can confuse us, especially if we’re not taught well and if we’re not actively seeking light.  Light leads to happiness and darkness to misery.  I believe the more we honor our knowledge of good and evil, the better we become at discerning good and evil.  Part of honoring that knowledge is admitting to ourselves and others when our thoughts and actions violate our sense of right and wrong and then striving to become better.

No one can force another person to adopt her morality, but morality can be taught and learned.  I subscribe to Aristotle’s idea that morality is learned mostly by influence—a less moral person learns from observing and interacting with a more moral person, especially children with adults.  But articulating morals is important too – I think there’s quite a bit of research indicating that an effective teacher practices and preaches.

I also believe that when we’re surrounded by moral people, it’s easier to act morally, and when we’re around immoral people to act immorally.  As families, friends, communities and nations, we often become more moral or less moral together.  That’s one reason I care about the gay marriage issue.

My belief that marriage should be a title reserved for the relationship between a man and a woman rests on the moral premise that people should not create a human being without taking responsibility for that new life.  In other words, I think biological parents have a moral responsibility to provide for, protect, nurture, love and teach their children.  A child is most likely to have invested and available biological parents if the child’s father and mother are married, especially when the father and mother have chosen carefully and have fallen in love.   My moral premise indicates that absentee fathers and mothers are not acting in a moral way.

One might ask, “What about widows and orphans?  What about divorce?  What about teenagers who give birth and are not yet responsible enough to be a parent?”  I believe all of those things are tragedies, sometimes preventable, sometimes not.  When a tragedy occurs, we pick up the pieces and move on the best we can.  Substitute parents are found.  But it’s never the ideal.  That doesn’t make the child less precious.  It doesn’t doom the child to a life of misery.  But it creates challenges for the child.  In my observation, those challenges often don’t fully manifest themselves until the child is a teenager.  If the absent parent is absent because he or she chose to be absent, the child will feel this.  No one wants to feel that all she was to her mother was a chance to make a few thousand dollars by donating an egg.  No one wants to feel that his life and his needs are an inconvenience for a parent who was just trying to party and satisfy a lust.  No one wants to feel that even though she was loved to a degree, it was too much work and not enough fun to stick around and raise her.

Who is not familiar with the stereotype of the “wicked stepmother” or the “redheaded stepchild?”  And haven’t you noticed that most fairy tales begin with a child who lacks a biological mother, causing the listener to immediately feel pity for the character?  There is good reason to feel pity; for most people, Mom is their number one advocate in life.  Especially mothers, but fathers too, bond easily with their biological children.  For a father, bonding is a little different, usually less immediate, less physical, but if he is around the baby, it doesn’t take much time or effort on his part to become completely devoted to his offspring.  I am not suggesting that the stereotype of stepparents is the reality or that forming a strong bond is impossible; but there’s a kernel of truth in the stereotype, which is that non-biological bonding takes more effort.

The secular/hippie/modern morals movement, along with the availability of amazing medical technology, has created a lot of confusion for people on this issue.  But the new morality—which seems to me to rest on the premise that we do not need to be careful about how and when we create a new human being–just doesn’t add up.  For example, if I donated an egg to a gay couple so that they could have a baby, a lot of people would think I was somehow a hero.  What if I don’t just donate the egg, but also the womb, and I grow a baby for the two men, using one of their sperm and my egg?  Do I give birth and hand off the baby as a hero?  Is it heroic to donate or sell children?  I don’t think it is.

I watch as midwives check my daughter's vital signs just moments after birth. Babies come into the world defenseless and dependent. I believe each one has the natural right to be fed, protected, nurtured and loved by the man and woman who created her life.

In other words, when a woman conceives a child and decides to give it up for adoption because she does’t feel she can give the baby what it needs, she may be making the best choice for her situation.  But we must admit that conceiving the child in the first place was not wise.  No normal person conceives children in order to give them up for adoption.

So back to the original question: “Who defines morality?”  My answer was “God does.”  That begs the question of how can we know what God’s definition is.  My answer was that everyone intuitively knows to some degree—we call this intuition our “conscience.”  Secondly, my answer is that by honoring our intuitive knowledge, we gain keener discernment of what is moral and what is not.   And thirdly, that people learn morality from someone who is more moral them him or herself, especially from parents.

I have learned from people more moral than myself that children have a right to a mother and a father, and I was fortunate to be raised by a biological mother and father who are married.  Growing up, I saw that it was easier for me to feel confident, secure, and happy, than it was for my friends who didn’t have married biological parents.  Also, because my parents were acting morally, it was easier for me to act morally.  I have siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and many friends who did not grow up with married biological parents, and I have observed that lacking a biological parent hurts.  Some of them adore their stepparents.  Some of them have emotionally disowned their biological parents and emotionally adopted a stepparent.  In other words, they have recovered to some degree or another because another adult stepped up and fell in love with a child.  That doesn’t change the truth that the biological parent was acting immorally.

To finish my explanation, if we can accept the idea that a child has a right to be raised by her father and her mother, that it’s morally repugnant to create a human life without intending to devote oneself to nurturing that new life, then it follows that marriage between a man and a woman is special.  Marriage ties together a man and woman, united for life as one entity with a shared home, shared resources, and shared procreative powers.  Whether the couple intends to have children or not, the relationship they have is the ideal environment for a new life to begin and grow.  Understanding this truth, it becomes clear why cultures all over the world revere marriage and use words like “sacrament” to describe it.

How does this apply to the gay marriage movement?  Obviously, a homosexual couple cannot create a new life, and so their relationship, however loving and healthy, does not have the unique job of creating an environment for a child to be born and raised.  “Marriage” is the word that we and millions of our ancestors have used to describe this special relationship.  To call some other type of relationship a “marriage” is confusing.  Many—maybe  most—Americans have lost sight of the moral truth that life should not be created in a casual, accidental or mercenary way.  Many—maybe most—Americans have lost sight of the truth that children have a right to be raised by a biological mother and father.  Calling a gay or lesbian couple a “married” couple will not help people regain sight of this moral truth.  It will further confuse people, especially children.

I can already hear someone’s retort:  “How can you say that children have a right to something that nature sometimes take away?”  In other words, some children lose a parent through an unpreventable death.  How can we say they have lost a “right” if Nature does the same thing on a continual basis?  My response to this question would be: do you not believe that human beings have a right to life?  Nature eventually takes away every person’s life, but that does not make it morally permissible for another person to do so.  The parallel, then, can also be true:  Nature might sometimes take away a child’s father and mother, but that does not make it morally permissible for a person to do so.

I can also imagine the response, “But birth control has made it so that we have more control over when a life begins, thus making sex less risky and marriage less important?”  The irony of this question is that the availability of birth control has not seemed to help our society prevent children being born out of wedlock.  Single parenting has become more prevalent since the pill was invented, not less so.  The last time I read about this subject in my Seattle Times, the latest study indicated that 50% of all pregnancies are unplanned.  My interpretation of this situation is that the availability of birth control has helped people to see sex as more recreational than procreative, leading them to become increasingly casual about sex.  Birth control doesn’t always work, for both technical reasons and social reasons, and where promiscuity is rampant, so are unwanted pregnancies.

So, TJ, Facebook friend of my Facebook friend, my answer to your question is that God defines morality, but he does not force it upon us.  He leaves us freedom to find it ourselves and to choose to be moral or immoral.  In our great nation we have government of the people, by the people and for the people, and so our laws reflect the morality of our people.  They also influence our morality as they encourage or discourage moral behavior.  As a society we must grapple together with questions such as how life ought to begin and what words we should use to describe different relationships.  We also must answer the question of how the state should regulate behavior in order to protect others’ morals and rights, especially children’s, without violating the truth that people deserve a large degree of freedom.  There’s not an easy answer; there’s no system that can in and of itself prevent evil and preserve good.  In other words, there is no replacement for individuals making moral choices and thus creating, collectively, a moral society.  If the majority of people stop trying to be moral, there’s little hope that the next generation won’t follow our poor examples.  We are all in this together.

That being said, I believe that anyone who is sincere and thoughtful, who is willing to admit that not everything he or she does is moral, and who has observed and loved moral people, can grasp the basic moral truth that children have a right to be raised by their biological mother and father, and that marriage is a special and unique special relationship because it protects this right.

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About Those Boys on Bikes

My second oldest nephew, who will soon enter the mission field.

In Latter-day Saint vernacular, “RM” is short for “returned missionary.”  For example, a daughter might inform her mother, “I’m dating a really great guy,” and her mother replies, “Is he an RM?”  Every devout Latter-day Saint girl wants to marry an RM, and for good reason. Consider what a missionary must be and do, and it’s obvious why returned missionaries make good husbands.

Almost everyone has seen Latter-day Saint missionaries riding their bikes or knocking on doors.  Today there are more than 50,000 missionaries serving throughout the world wherever they are legally allowed.  In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, young women have the option of going on a mission; young men, on the other hand, have an obligation to go on a mission.  As priesthood holders, they have been commanded to go forth and preach the gospel to all the world (Matthew 24:14, Mark 16:15).

Latter-day Saint boys are ordained to the priesthood at the age of 12 years after they have been interviewed by the bishop and stake president and found to be leading a moral and faithful life.  Over the years, these boys move up through different offices of the priesthood.  When they turn 19 years, if they are willing and are in good health, and are continuing to live a faithful life, they are ordained as an elder and go on a mission.

Perhaps you have wondered whether these missionaries are paid for their services.  The answer is no.  In fact, the young men and their families (sometimes another benefactor) pay for the cost of their mission.  Do they choose where they will go?  Another no. They receive their “mission call” in the mail from Salt Lake City from the prophet himself.  The Bible directs that everyone should have the chance to hear the gospel in his or her own tongue, and so these young men are expected to learn the language of the people they serve.  The Church has seventeen Missionary Training Centers around the world where they go to study for three weeks if they are going to serve a mission in their own language.  If they must learn a new language, they stay for about two months.

A young man’s mission lasts two years.  During this time he cannot go home.  In fact, he cannot even call home, except on Mother’s Day and Christmas.  He must spend seven days a week getting up early, studying the scriptures, teaching the gospel and giving service.  He is not allowed to date, go to the movies, watch TV, surf the Internet or read the news.  He must be with his partner (his “companion”) all the time.  One day of the week is called “Preparation Day.”  On this day he has about eight hours for himself to do housework, run errands, and do something enjoyable within the rules of that particular Mission Area, such as sightsee, play basketball or write letters to friends and family.  It’s a little like boot camp in the level of discipline required, but it’s two years long, instead of six weeks, and instead of shooting guns, it’s preaching and giving service.

I was lucky enough to nab a quality RM for my very own.  He served his mission in Moscow, Russia, in the late 90s.  A few years ago he was a student in a graduate level psychology course when the class studied prolonged adolescence.  Prolonged adolescence is the academic term for what happens when people delay taking on adult responsibilities such as marriage, parenthood and financial independence.  It is a subject explored in movies like “Failure to Launch.”

Young people’s failure to transition at an appropriate time from an adolescent identity to an adult identity is becoming the norm in western culture and is becoming an increasingly important field of research for sociologists and other academics.  In my husband’s university course, he studied how rites of passage have been used in many cultures to help teenagers make this transition, and how in the United States today the mainstream culture lacks a rite of passage to adulthood.  As my husband studied these things, he realized that the Latter-day Saint subculture has several rites of passage in place, most notably a two-year mission for young men.

A psychologist’s definition of a rite of passage is a ritual that marks the transition to adulthood or full inclusion into a group.  It has three parts: separation, transition, and reincorporation.  Rites of passage are usually more important for young men than for young women because women have a natural rite of passage in the process of pregnancy and childbirth.

As my husband learned about rites of passage (and taught me about it too), he saw our church’s missionary program from a new angle.  Of course, missions are about faith, responsibility, sacrifice and service, but they also are about changing from a boy to a man, specifically, the kind of man that is acceptable to the larger group of Latter-day Saints.  Once a young man has returned from his mission, he is considered ready to get married and to actively pursue a vocational path.  He is ready to occupy leadership positions in the Church.

It is a beautifully designed rite of passage. The rituals involved are ordination to a higher priesthood office, initiation into a higher form of temple service when they receive their “endowment,” and the assignment to speak in Sunday service when they leave and when they return.  In addition to the rituals, there is also clear and substantial separation from the past, real sacrifice and real change.  We send out our boys and they come back not just as men, but as men who have seen something of the world, who have spent two years loving and helping people from every walk of life, who have disciplined themselves, who have learned to act with confidence and speak with conviction.   My father has a blog where he writes his memoirs and has described his experience serving as a missionary in the early ‘60s in Norway.  His recollections are typical of how other men have portrayed their missions to me.

I’ve watched many young men go on missions and seen them come home.  Many times the change is astounding.  Shy boys come back friendly.  Arrogant boys come back humble.  Silly boys come back more serious.  Lazy boys come back more self-disciplined.  Rude boys come back kind.  Indifferent boys come back zealous.  Selfish boys come back more caring.  All of them seem improved.

A few weeks ago, a young missionary in our ward, Elder Weston Butler, spoke about his experience as a missionary.  Raised in Utah and in the Church, he had always believed what he was taught about the gospel from his parents.  But, he said, it was not until he was on his mission that he fully grasped the gospel because it was first time he had really practiced the gospel.  And, he said, for the first time in his life he was truly happy because his life was devoted to helping others improve their lives by coming close to Christ.  While other men his age are drinking beer, playing video games, and sleeping with their female cohorts, he is making the world a better place and becoming a remarkable man, the kind of man that God wants.

Elder Butler’s companion was from Moscow, Russia, which was exciting for my husband and I because my husband served his mission there and because I actually visited Moscow when I was a teenager.  We have had them over to our house for dinner a couple times and enjoyed getting to know them better.  Elder Butler is your typical Latter-day Saint missionary – from a great big family in a little town in Utah.  He’s handsome, friendly, intelligent, hardworking, honest and kind.  He’s a dyed-in-the-wool Latter-day Saint.  “Yeah, yeah,” I thought.  “Big deal.  That’s what all the Mormon missionaries are like.”

As for his companion, now he’s something unusual.  He’s also handsome, friendly, intelligent, hardworking, honest and kind.  He’s also a dyed-in-the-wool “Mormon.”   But he’s Russian!  Elder Victor Grachev showed us some pictures from home.  His father is not a member of the Church, but his mother has been a member for some time and raised Elder Grachev and his younger brother in the Church.  Elder Grachev showed us not only pictures of his family (which he talked of in glowing terms), but also pictures of himself and his friends at Church youth activities.  He pointed out friends and said where they were serving their missions.  His brother will leave on his mission once Elder Grachev gets home.  Elder Grachev has already earned a law degree and will look for work when he gets back.

Wow!  This young man was born a few years before the Soviet era ended, a time when atheism was the rule of law, and yet he was raised in the Church’s culture of optimism, community involvement and service, loving families and faith in God.  Talking to him gave me a burst of hope for the world’s future.  Young men like these two missionaries are truly the hope of mankind.

When my husband served in Russia, he received a lot of interesting feedback.  Some people didn’t actually believe he was American because America was the stuff of TV and fantasy, and it seemed impossible that an American boy had actually traveled to their little Russian town to teach them about Jesus.  He also received feedback to the effect of, “I’ve never seen anything like you before.  There are no young men in Russia who are clean, happy and hopeful.”  In a country where many people hardly cared whether they lived or died, they could hardly believe these Mormon missionaries were real.  A decade later and Russia is producing these Mormon missionaries, just as bright, clean and hopeful as any American missionary.

I am amazed, but really it’s not unexpected.  The same thing has already happened in countries all over the world.  Russia has not allowed missionaries through its borders for very long, but The Church is growing there and becoming firmly established. In countries where the missionaries have been allowed for some time, for example, Brazil, Hong Kong and Germany, the Church has a strong foundation.  Elder Grachev will return home to help build a similar foundation in Russia.

This year seems to be for me the year of missionaries:  my oldest nephew just returned from his mission in Mexico.  My next oldest nephew will soon leave on his mission.  And a Russian missionary is serving in our ward.  Here they are.  Don’t worry.  It’s okay to have a crush on them–they just can’t have a crush on you!

Elder Weston Butler and Elder Victor Grachev.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had “the elders” over for dinner on a recent Spring afternoon for some borsch and carrot cake.  Bo Turner, who is preparing for a mission, and Yuri  Tyshnikov, who is not a member of the Church but is a skilled guitarist, came over to jam on their guitars:

 

From left to right: Yuri Tyshnikov, David Updike (my very own RM), Weston Butler, Victor Grachev, Bo Turner

 

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Watching the Romney Campaign

As a sixth-generation Mormon, I’ve watched Mitt Romney’s presidential runs with the interest of a relative.  We’re not related. I’ve never spoken to him.  He leads a lifestyle of affluence and prominence that I can scarcely imagine.  And yet he’s familiar to me.

Mitt seems like an old acquaintance because we are both products of a small, insular, unusual culture–Mormonism.  Our ancestors were followers of Joseph Smith.  They settled the Rocky Mountain west, and they handed down to us a potent faith that churns out men of unmatched caliber.  Men like my father, like my husband, like my brothers, like Mitt Romney.

To most Americans, though, Romney is far from a father figure.  In fact, for many voters, his faith is a cause for suspicion.  The words people use in opinion polls to describe Mormons are mostly negative, and, almost invariably, voters consider Romney’s faith a liability.  If Romney were Protestant, he could go home now to rest before his coronation.  But as it is, he can’t seem to seal up the nomination no matter how lousy his opponents
are.

I assume this is because voters are ignorant about Mormons, but it’s still disturbing.  We’re your neighbors, your dentists, your teachers.  We’re the patient in your hospital, the customer at your cashier register.  We work alongside you in the PTA.  You coach our child’s soccer team.  We serve together in the military.  And when you’re running for office, we vote for you.  We’re really nice.  And we’re very American.  So what’s the problem?  Why can’t you vote for us?

I’m reminded of an interview I did with a Navajo student while studying journalism at Brigham Young University.  He complained that other students exhibited prejudice toward him in assuming from his appearance that he was Hispanic.  “But isn’t that ignorance, not prejudice?” I asked.  His reply has stayed with me:  “There’s a fine line between ignorance and prejudice.”

In defense of ignorant or prejudiced Americans, I admit it’s often hard to get to know us.  Many Americans have never met a Mormon, or at least don’t realize they have.  Others may live next door to us, and yet our worlds only intersect superficially.  We’re so busy running our Church (we have an entirely lay ministry) and raising great big families, that most of us don’t find time to socialize with the larger community.  You might see us mow our lawn and load up the van for a Boy Scouts expedition, and yet the word “Mormon” still
brings to mind a bearded polygamist.

So who are we really?  What does the word “Mormon” bring to mind for someone who has spent her life inside that world?

To me, Mormonism is my mother singing, “Saturday is a special day, it’s the day we get ready for Sunday.  We wash our hair and shine our shoes, so we don’t have to do it on Sunday.”  The next morning, I wake to the sound of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  Now mom has curlers in her hair as she chops onions and potatoes for the crock pot.

Mormonism is an electrician who wears a suit on Sundays.  His son wears a white shirt and tie so he can pass the sacrament to their church congregation.

Mormonism is hymns that sound like lullabies, with lyrics like “I Am a Child of God” and “Home Can Be a Heaven on Earth.”

Mormonism is dancing in a gym to Brian Adams.  My boyfriend kisses me on the forehead and a chaperone appears to gently remind us that this is not appropriate.

Mormonism is sermons about saving money and teaching children to work.

Mormonism is dressing in white to make covenants with God.

Mormonism is saying goodbye to 19-year-old boys who are excited to give up girls and movies to talk about Jesus Christ in a different language.

Mormonism is dusty little towns in Utah and Idaho that were settled by my ancestors.

Mormonism is contemplating history and eternity.

Mormonism is believing the world’s most powerful demographic is mothers.

Mormonism is feeling guilty for not studying the scriptures every day.

Mormonism is wealthy families with five children.  Their houses look like ski resorts and every child plays the piano.

Mormonism is canning peaches and grinding wheat.

Mormonism is teenagers going to church at 6 am to study the Bible before school.

Mormonism is knowing that God meant for you to be a leader.

Mormonism is BYU, where clean shaven young men still open doors for women.  Many students have turned down Ivy League opportunities to study there, and half are fluent in a foreign language.

Mormonism is a 12-year-old girl speaking before hundreds of people.

Mormonism is Book of Mormon heroes, prophets who obey God no matter the cost and warriors who fight to defend their religious freedom.

Mormonism is ice cream, Jell-o, board games and trampolines.

Mormonism is a handful of men standing in a circle with one arm resting on the next man’s shoulder.  Their other arms are stretched out to hold an infant between them.  One of these men is the father, who offers a special prayer announcing the child’s name and pronouncing blessings upon her.

Mormonism is my family debating whether it’s wrong to watch R-rated movies or drink caffeinated soda.

Mormonism is a toddler wandering the aisles during a Sunday sacrament service.

Mormonism is a young bride and groom exiting the temple to the applause of family and friends.

Mormonism is trying to fit in without lowering my standards.

Mormonism is watching Romney’s campaign with some of my own ego on the line.

Mormonism is believing that if people understood us, Romney’s faith would be an asset, not a liability.

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Why I Keep Having Children

Nesting for our fourth baby

My husband and I are currently in a state of limbo, waiting for a new baby. On the one hand, my earnest desire is to get this baby out of my body. On the other hand, my husband is hoping the baby won’t come until he’s caught up at work, and I won’t feel ready until I’ve mopped all my floors and vacuumed the garage. It’s hard to get to these things because we already have a six-year-old, five-year-old and two-year-old to feed, dress and clean up after.

Having a fourth child isn’t the norm these days, and from time to time a friend or coworker will ask us why we keep having children. Some seem concerned that we take on too much, my husband working many evenings and weekends to provide for us, while I finish many of my days, to be frank, feeling tired of housework and children.

So why do we do it? Why stretch ourselves so thin? Why put my body through the ordeal of pregnancy and birth? Why increase our financial burden and our workload at home?

A different idea of normal

I could answer these questions many different ways. The simple answer is my husband and I are Latter-day Saints and are steeped in a culture of large families. I am the youngest of seven children; my husband is the oldest of four children. My mother comes from a family of nine children, my dad from a family of five; and I have more than 50 first cousins. Many of my friends growing up were Latter-day Saints who came from similar backgrounds, and so large families are not unusual to me. In my little world, a family with four or five children is normal–it’s those teensy, tiny families with one or two children that are odd!

But beyond growing up with a different idea of normal, the reason I want a big family is because I love big families. I had a wonderful childhood in my great big Mormon family. It was often my sisters who braided my hair before school, and my brother who taught me to ride a bike. We loved board games and card games, singing, and making each other laugh. Of course we quarreled too, and on road trips to Grandma’s house I had to sit on the emergency hand brake, but altogether my brothers and sisters made life fuller and happier than it could possibly have been without them.

While parents who have many children must spread their time and money further than those with only one or two, the children themselves are a significant resource to each other. Children from large families have learning opportunities that those in smaller families don’t have. As children, we learn creativity, cooperation and tolerance from playing together. We learn to forgive the sibling that eats our Halloween candy or knocks over our fort, to negotiate what music we’ll listen to, to put up with a younger sibling that wants to tag along, and to appreciate someone as awkward as a thirteen-year-old brother. As the youngest child, I’ve benefited from older siblings setting an example for me in making friends, working hard in school, going to college and raising their own families. Now that we are adults, we help each other through the difficulties of life. From financial problems to sickness to divorce, we are there to serve each other and do so with a willingness that isn’t often replicated outside of families. My sisters and brothers are my best friends, my favorite people to confide in, to lean on, and to have fun with.

The Latter-day Saint doctrine of families

My idea of normal and my good experience growing up in a large family are only my surface reasons for wanting children. I also have deep religious feelings about motherhood. As most people know, Latter-day Saints are singularly devoted to family life. This is not a chance tradition, but a tradition rooted in our theology. We see God as literally our Father. We believe our spirits were born to Him in a pre-mortal life. He then sent us to earth to obtain bodies, to learn, and to prove our willingness to obey God’s commandments.

So in light of these beliefs, we consider our children as existing spirits, waiting to come to Earth. Though not official doctrine, many Latter-day Saints believe they chose their spouse or children in the pre-mortal life. Even before I was married, I felt a connection to my unborn children and looked forward to knowing and loving them. I’m sure it’s a strange concept to someone who has never considered the possibility, but the idea that we are spiritual beings having an earthly experience, rather than earthly beings that might have spiritual experiences, is one that resonates for me.

The highest ordinance (an ordinance is a ceremony with spiritual significance) for a Latter-day Saint is the temple sealing. In this ceremony, a man and woman are married for eternity, meaning they and any children they may have are bound together forever if they are faithful to the promises made in the temple. A pure and happy family life, then, becomes the ultimate goal of Mormonism. Latter-day Saint leaders and heroes are not monks or nuns, living celibate lives of study and devotion, or professional theologians and pastors, but husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, who serve and strengthen families.

Learning to love the Lord’s work

What may be a chore to one person, may be a pleasure to another. As a follower of Jesus Christ, it is my goal to learn to love the Lord’s work. I believe that God’s work is creating life and teaching that life to follow the good. As a woman, I am doing God’s work as I bring spirits into this world and teach those spirits to love righteousness. Doing so comes with personal sacrifice, especially in a culture that considers self-expression and material comfort as the highest goods. In sacrificing my time and my body–my life–to do this work, I seek to emulate Jesus Christ, the Light and Life of the World, who laid down His life that we might live.

Do I enjoy doing the Lord’s work of creating and nurturing children? The obvious answer would be “not all the time.” No parent enjoys every minute of parenting. Then again, every normal parent would agree that children are one of the supreme joys in life. None would trade a child for all the money in the world. Few experiences in life even come close to matching the wonder of birth and then of nurturing a baby to childhood and on to adulthood. As a mother of four, I can attest to the fact that having children has become more enjoyable with time. It’s not the children that are getting better, but me. As I become more competent and mature in my role as a parent, parenting becomes more a joy and less a burden.

In my view, our society’s trend toward smaller families boils down to materialism, the love of things, pleasures and convenience. Our society has a higher standard of living than any society in history. We are rich beyond the comprehension of the vast majority of people that live and ever have lived on this earth. We are able to afford pets, cars, computers and vacations, and yet often we feel we cannot afford children. Ironically, it is women in poverty who bring the most children into this world. I find it puzzling that we consider saving someone’s life to be the greatest act of heroism, and yet creating life is often looked down upon. Do we value life, or do we not?

I value life, and I express that value not only through my belief that abortion is wrong (with a few rare exceptions), but also through my willingness to bring children into this world. I have chosen children instead of seeking a prestigious career, instead of a better house, instead of sleeping in and eating out, instead of vacations, instead of hobbies. It’s a choice I’ll never regret. My babies are truly my pride and joy and more valuable than a career, house or hobby.

The Sanctity of Personal Decisions

Decisions about procreation are personal and private. As Latter-day Saints we are instructed not to judge one another in this matter. Even bishops—the equivalent of a pastor or minister—are instructed that decisions about when to have children and how many children to have are not decisions that a bishop should help couples make. These are decisions to be made between a husband, wife and God. In sharing my reasons for wanting a large family, I do not mean to criticize those who do not share my beliefs, but to help them understand a different worldview in which large families are something to be celebrated.

For more information about Latter-day Saint doctrine on procreation, see these articles on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Web site:

http://lds.org/study/topics/birth-control?lang=eng

http://lds.org/general-conference/2011/10/children?lang=eng&query=october+2011+general+conference+neil+andersen

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A Concept With Huge Potential

The Perpetual Education Fund
In the mid 1800s the Mormons relocated to Utah from Illinois to find a place where they could live without persecution. At the same time, missionaries were sent to Europe to find new converts. Although there was opposition in Europe, there were also thousands of people who embraced the message and were encouraged to come to America.  Many of these people were poor and therefore had no money to pay for the journey.  To solve this problem the Church leaders established the Perpetual Emmegration Fund. Those who needed help with travel could borrow from the fund and then, after they were established in America, they would pay back the loan.  The money could then be used to help others. Many thousands took advantage of this program.

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California’s Prop 8 – The Case for Traditional Marriage

Author’s Note: My intention with this blog is to help people understand the Latter-day Saint (Mormon) religion and culture.  Because the gay marriage movement is an important issue of our day and because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has opposed this movement, I wrote this post.  However, my arguments are not “Mormon” arguments; they are my personal views.  Our church has received a lot of attention for its opposition to legalizing gay marriage in the state of California, but I have never once heard a sermon or Sunday school lesson on the topic of homosexuality or gay marriage.  The Church and its leaders have spoken and written on the topic, but it’s not something we preach in our church meetings.

What is special about marriage between a man and woman?

Whether marriage is a commandment from heaven or man’s invention, marriage between a man and a woman is the primal way in which communities are organized and children are created and nurtured. This type of marriage is found in every society on earth and has been so long as history remembers. Ellen Sauerbrey, U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, explained at the fourth World Congress of Families in 2007, “The family predates all states, and can be found in every culture, in every era. … The state did not create the family; rather, families created the state.”

Furthermore, beyond its universality and antiquity, marriage between one man and one woman is the best environment for raising children. Social science strongly suggests that children raised with both their biological mother and father in the home have the greatest chance for well-being. In a July 2009 Time magazine article titled “Is There Hope for the American Marriage?” author Caitlin Flanagan writes,

“On every single significant outcome related to short-term well-being and long-term success, children from intact, two-parent families outperform those from single-parent households. Longevity, drug abuse, school performance and dropout rates, teen pregnancy, criminal behavior and incarcertaion – if you can measure it, a sociologist has; and in all cases, the kids living with both parents drastically outperform the others.”

Flanagan goes on to quote David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values:

“There’s a ‘sleeper effect’ to divorce that we are just beginning to understand. … Children have a primal need to know who they are, to love and be loved by the two people whose physical union brought them here. To lose that connection, that sense of identity, is to experience a wound that no child-support check or fancy school can ever heal.”

Later in her article, Flanagan reports the research on cohabiting. She quotes Robert Rector, a senior research fellow of domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation. She writes

“When children are born into a co-habiting, unmarried relationship, says Rector, ‘they arrive in a family in which the principals haven’t resolved their most basic issues,’ including those of sexual fidelity and how to share responsibilities. Let a little stress enter the picture—and what is more stressful than a baby?—and things start to fall apart. The new mother starts to make wifelike demands on the man, and without the commitment of marriage, he is soon out the door.”

Science is beginning to uncover what tradition has already assumed – that, where possible, children should be raised by their biological mother and father who are married. This is not to say that children who come from other types of homes cannot prosper. It is only to say that other situations are substitues and usually present some difficult challenges to the children involved.

Marriage in our nation is in decline with more and more children born outside of wedlock (currently about 40% of American children), and each year the number of divorces is about half the number of marriages. The breakdown of the traditional family is enormously costly to our nation, associated with poverty and nearly every other societal ill, and so states and citizens on all ends of the political spectrum are working to fight the disintegration of marriage.

Beyond recognizing that heterosexual marriages have a special role in society, one might still believe that homosexual partners deserve the institution of marriage. Homosexuality has certainly been practiced in all parts of the world throughout history. There are even a few recorded instances of governments recognizing these relationships.  Nevertheless, homosexuality has always been considered an aberration from the norm, and never until our time have homosexual relationships had the same status before the law as heterosexual relationship.

In other words, while homosexuality may be a fact of life, same-gender couples have never been considered an institution. Social experiments with the status of homosexuality may have been tried in the laboratory of history, but none of those experiments have survived for any notable length of time. Heterosexual marriage, on the other hand, was an institution before governments were an institution. Heterosexual marriage is no experiment; it is the tried and true building block of civilization.

Same-gender couples may provide each other with the social and financial benefits that heterosexual couples provide for each other. Furthermore, their emotional and sexual loyalty to each other may provide some benefits to society. Homosexual couples do not, however, have the unique physical ability nor the social responsibility to create and nurture children. A platonic friendship is sometimes the paramount relationship in an individual’s life, but it’s not a relationship recognized or promoted by the government. Homosexual relationships may indeed be of paramount importance to individuals, but they do not further any vital societal need such as creating and nurturing the next generation.

The term family is often used loosley, but it has always connoted a blood relationship. The term marriage has always described a relationship that is designed for procreation. In my view, calling a homosexual relationship a “marriage” or a “family” amounts to what George Orwell, author of Brave New World, would call doublespeak. It recognizes that homosexual partners can have deep affection and commitment for each other, as do married couples, but it obscures the fact that nature never gave homosexual partners the ability or responsibility of parenthood.   

What might be the legal consequences of legalizing gay marriage?

If homosexual marriage was institutionalized on the basis that homosexuals can have emotional and physical feelings as deep as those of a heterosexual couple, the state would be setting a problematic precedent. Consider two sisters who are single, never intend to marry and share a home. Their relationship is not sexual, but their love and commitment to each other might be just as deep as that of a married couple. Additionally, they may wish to benefit from the financial and legal benefits of marriage. How can we bar them from the social and financial benefits of marriage when we have given those benefits to others merely because their relationship is sexual? How can we bar threesomes or foursomes from obtaining marriage rights?

One can only imagine what legal complexities might arise and what difficulties courts would have in enforcing marriage laws if the depth of two people’s social connection and their desire to commit to each other should be the rationale for granting them marriage. And yet, this legal precedent is already being tried. My understanding is that California’s Proposition 8 was overturned on the basis that barring homosexuals from marriage interferred with their constitutional right to “the pursuit of happiness.”

In my view, the court in this case interpreted “the pursuit of happiness” too broadly. Defining the pursuit of happiness is, of course, difficult because happiness is subjective. Certainly the government interferes in our private lives every day in ways that could reasonably be said to counter our pursuit of happiness. A few examples are drug laws, prostitution laws, the regulation of medical professionals, FDA regulations, income taxes, the taxing of alcohol and cigarettes, and institutionalizing psychiatric patients.

Some may think the government should stay out of the situations listed above, but most believe this would be an impractical or impossible way to govern a nation. I believe the government must sometimes interfere with our personal lives in order to promote the greater social good, especially the well-being of children. It is the job of citizens, politicians, and courts, to find a practical and moral balance between interferring with the rights of individuals and protecting the welfare and stability of society at large. I do not believe government is overstepping its bounds when it defines marriage legally as a union between one man and one woman.

Many groups who oppose granting marriage status to homosexual couples, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church), do not oppose civil unions or domestic partnerships for homosexual couples, which allow them to make a lifelong commitment to each other, to share a home and finances and to support each other through sickness and death.  In my experience, most people who oppose homosexual activists are not bothered that gay couples want to make life-long commitments.  What they are bothered by is calling such a relationship a “marriage.”  Calling a homosexual relationship a “marriage” amounts to changing the English language; doing so implies that families are a construct of the state, rather than a natural institution merely recognized by the state.  Furthermore, when a state requires its citizens to call a homosexual union a “marriage,” the state is, in effect, coercing its citizens to value homosexual and heterosexual relationships equally, a stance that threatens their religious liberty.   

What might be the social consequences of legalizing gay marriage?

Proponents of gay marriage believe legalizing gay marriage would help society acknowledge the equality of homosexuals and heterosexuals as human beings and as citizens. I cannot pretend to know what will happen if gay marriage is recognized by the state, but I do believe it is a dangerous experiment because it further erodes and obscures the cultural ideal of traditional marriage.

A good comparison to the traditional family is the practice of breastfeeding. Both breastfeeding and the traditional family are the natural and historic way of nurturing children. Both the traditional family and breastfeeding create strong social bonds and provide physical benefits to all participants. Traditional families and breastfeeding are universal. Throughout time, both have sometimes been an impossible ideal and substitutes have been found. However, until the 20th century, never have substitues for either breastfeeding or traditional families been considered ideal, nor have they become so widespread as to challenge the norm.

In the 1940s, infant formula gained cultural acceptance as a proper way to feed a child; it was considered the modern and scientifically-proven way to feed a baby. A few decades later, in many parts of the world, breastfeeding became the exception, no longer the rule. This is unfortunate because only after the formula-feeding trend was firmly established did scientists begin to understand the significance of breast milk. Not only does the milk provide perfect nutrition for the baby, changing with the baby’s age, it transmits antibodies from mother to child. Furthermore, the frequence and physical closeness of nursing is thought to nurture the baby mentally and emotionally. Breastfeeding reduces a child’s risk for a myriad of ailments and correlates with higher IQs in adulthood.

When the state came to realize that breastfeeding is so beneficial to infant health, they began promoting it through the WIC program, through Medicaid and through media campaigns. A primary goal in these efforts is to reduce the cost of medical care to children, a cost that society largely bears together.

It is conceivable that some feminists may find this offensive. Who is the government to impose its ideas of gender roles on the public? Women are surely more valuable than their breasts and may find it restrictive to their lifestyle to breastfeed. Shouldn’t men help bear the responsibility of feeding infants? One might argue that the differences between breast-fed children and formula-fed children are so minimal that government is certainly overstepping its bounds in promoting breastfeeding—that government is unnecessarily intruding into the privates lives of women.

The government’s campaign to encourage breastfeeding seems to be working: breastfeeding rates are rising. What if feminists opposed to the government’s actions on this issue should fight for states to give the same support to bottle-feeding as it does to breastfeeding? What if they demanded that bottle-feeding also be called “nursing” so as to show that bottle-feeding is also an appropriate and loving way to “nurse” or nurture a child.

In the same way that bottle-feeding challenged the tried and true way of feeding a child, the idea of homosexual marriage challenges the tried and true way of creating families. The difference is that bottle-feeding has already been normalized and found to be inferior, while gay marriage has yet to become widespread. It is my belief that if we legalize homosexual marriage, within a few decades, the scientific evidence will accumulate to show that our nation’s experiment with homosexual marriage only added to our social problems.

Children are too valuable to be experimented with, and thus we should support policies that increase the likelihood of children being raised by their biological mother and father. We should preserve the ideal of mother-father-child.

What is a good solution to the LGBT community’s request for marriage?

One solution to satisfying the LGBT community’s desire for greater equality before the law would be to create a “significant other” law that could benefit anyone who is not married. It would allow any two people to make a lifelong commitment to mutually care for each other, share employee benefits such as health and life insurance, share finances, and make decisions for each other in the event of mental incapacity. This type of law could give all people the same legal advantages that marriage gives heterosexual couples.

A “significant other” law, along with enforcement of laws barring discrimination in employment and housing, would create a situation in which both traditional families and gay couples may prosper. To those who believe this amounts to discrimination, I agree. The true meaning of discrimination is simply to differentiate.  Discrimination can be evil or false as in differentiating between blacks and whites on the idea that one race is inherently superior. However, in other instances, differentiating between groups of people is not only morally acceptable but necessary, as in legally differentiating between adults and children with the age of eighteen. In the case of heterosexual and homosexual couples, I believe it is crucial to our nation’s well-being that we do differentiate between them so as to preserve the norm of the biological family, giving children the best possible start in life.

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