Families Fill Human Needs

Committing to Family

I am the fifth of six children. I always think of myself as the fourth, because I had an older sister I never knew, but she is still part of the family to my parents and older sisters. I have four children of my own. I wanted to be a father for years before I had my first child at 33. I spent thousands of hours babysitting my nieces and nephews. One of my favorite books during graduate school was The Emeperor's Embrace: Reflections on Animal Families and Fatherhood by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. I have his manifesto for fatherhood from the last chapter, inspired by the most loving animal fathers and human evolution, posted outside my office at work. Fathers evolved to play with their children. Fathers evolved to sleep with their children. Fathers evolved to carry their children. Fathers evolved to work with their children nearby. We don't have to be violent or neglectful fathers, like chimpanzees and lions. We can be nurturing fathers, like wolves and emperor penguins.

But I left the Mormon community that taught me to value family. The community that told me every week that family is important. That we need to protect the family. Six years distant from these constant messages, I read a devotional talk by a sociologist and historian, published in my Alma Mater's magazine, affirming that the sacred promises we make to live in families are commitments that help us thrive as humans. They are commitments that are essential to flourishing societies. And that sociological evidence supports our religious commitment to the family.

Ideological Signaling, Not a Call to Build Up Families

I read with a kind of sick fascination as I watched how sociological evidence was crafted to send the feel good message that everything you have absorbed from Mormon teachings and culture about the importance of family is not only inspired by God, but also supported by science to make people resilient, happy, and healthy. How powerful systemic pressures that strain, and even destroy, families of entire groups of people were ignored at the same time that the failures of these same groups were given as evidence of the importance of family. How evidence supporting feminist ideals was glossed over with vague terminology, leaving its interpretation open to whatever biased cultural messages live in the immature minds of the college audience. How a reference to “the languishing of men” gave queasy echoes of men's rights advocates in the same thought that evoked the dangers of sexualizing girls.

I thought, this is why I left. I can't spend my life fighting for more inclusive, more loving, more scientifically open Mormonism when the institutional powers are spending their greatest energy on a narrow, psychologically and socially destructive, identity politics. But here I am. Responding once again. Wishing for a world that supported families. That supported human flourishing. Wishing there were Mormons with such large platforms that could share messages that could change the world, instead of messages that function to insulate Mormonism.

Because I wish I could share a different message with a younger me, and so maybe I can let this go and move on to doing what I can to support children and families, I am going to take the sociological evidence presented by this scholar and share the messages I wish she had been able to share. I don't doubt the evidence, but I live in a different world than I did just ten years ago.

My Message

Care for children. Care for people. We need loving relationships. We need physical, economic, and emotional safety. Make safety in all these ways a reality for as many people as you can, from your family to the entire world. Look for evidence of what will do good. Believe people's experiences and lift them up.

What are some of the things that make people safe physically? Having a safe home you can afford to live in. Not having to worry about getting shot. Not having to submit to an abuser just because he is a man who can hide or suppress the reality of his abuse. Having affordable and accessible health care. Living in a world that doesn't perpetually threaten natural disasters, droughts, wars, and forced emigration.

What makes people safe economically? Affordable housing, housing near your work, jobs, distributed wealth and power, unions, fair taxes, fair pay, societal support for those who aren't working in the paid economy. What makes people unsafe? Concentrated wealth and power, unjust economic rules, capital being worth more than labor, women losing economic opportunity because of motherhood.

What makes people safe emotionally? Intimate relationships, equality and parity, mental health care, feeling valued because of who you are, not despite who you are. What makes people unsafe? Besides the obvious bullying and abuse, exclusion and devaluing based on who you are are major factors. Objectification and commodification of people is destructive to our well-being.

Families can provide a great degree of safety. Nuclear families consistently provide physical, economic, and emotional safety for many people. Families are an institution worth supporting. Paid family leave for new parents and for care-giving people should be a right and a norm. Workplaces that support mothers who work, both in the physical and mental requirements of caring for and bonding with their children, and in the development of their careers, should be the norm, not the exception. Quality housing, healthcare, and education should be available to all families.

One third or more of people in the United States do not live in biological, nuclear families. Some of them choose not, and some can not be in nuclear families. These people also deserve loving relationships and all the kinds of safety we aspire to for those in families. If we build a world where everyone is safe and loved, then we will have a world where families are strong, too. Let's use every tool available to us to reach these ideals.

Right Wing Mormonism's Message

I am now going to use Jenet Jacob Erickson's devotional message as a stand in for the messages of mainstream Mormonism about the family and society. To my great sadness, I have concluded that these beliefs and actions are very close to those of the right-wing, white, religious South. Thus, my response is not specifically an argument with Erickson, but an argument with the culture and institutions that both created her message and will direct the academic authority of her message toward ends harmful to the very society they say they want to save.

There are a few common themes throughout Erickson's discourse on family: 1. Nuclear family is good. 2. The nuclear family should be supported. 3. Other views of family are less good or not good. 4. Supporting anything other than the ideal is threatening to the ideal. 5. Children should be cared for in nuclear families. 6. The reality of those who do not (and even can not) fit into the ideal is only relevant as it supports advocacy for the ideal.

Now on to Erickson's claims.

1. We Are Deeply Relational

Human beings evolved to live in social groups, and we need connection and dependence to be healthy. Marriage and family life are a powerful context to fulfill these needs. In our society, economically, emotionally, and socially stable marriages provide many benefits for children. Erickson sites Carle C. Zimmermann's thesis that how a society nurtures its children defines the success of that civilization, after first referencing another Mormon scholar's arguments that man/woman marriage is the ONLY practical way to nurture successful children society wide.

Without entering the heated debate about the correctness or most meaningful interpretations of the sociological evidence Zimmermann and his later, conservative disciples have arrived at, there is a disturbing, and seemingly willful, oversight in these calls to save society by strengthening stem families. Erickson references a book by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas that reports on their five year study of poor, inner-city, single mothers. Caring for children benefits parents even when the parent is unmarried. But if two parent, stem families are the gold standard, this is where the obvious question arises—why is marriage far out of reach for these mothers? If we value family, what can we do to support marriage for these women?

Some of the answers are obvious, when you broaden your view to systems rather than individuals. I'll give two heavily documented examples: * don't imprison fathers and separate families in other ways. * don't tax poor marriages. By focusing on the “poverty, abuse, drug use, incarceration, and relational trauma,” but not addressing the societal factors creating these conditions that Mormons are partially responsible for, Erickson is able to hold up the banner of righteous ideals without acknowledging the need to contribute to present change. She can promote the past without providing an inclusive pathway to the future. It's ironic that she criticizes individualism while promoting ideals of individual responsibility for making family structures work.

This irony is not a one off occurrence. The context of Mormonism, and current American religious conservatism, is very much one where it is asserted and assumed that individual choice is the deciding factor in creating society. It is ok to punish individuals who do things deemed destructive to society—drug laws, punishing “illegal” asylees, anti-abortion laws, anti-transgender laws, etc. But it is not needed (and is even wrong) to regulate the powerful political, religious, and economic systems that create the context of poverty, abuse, family disintegration, and isolation within families. We will see further examples, going forward.

Returning to Zimmerman, he was arguing for the value of stem families (pretty much nuclear families) in a context of increasing individualization and mechanization. He was living in a world that was shifting from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy, and economic and social forces were pushing to turn people into factory tools. It wasn't ideals of independent, self-actualization that were isolating people from their families. It was capitalism and the free market economy. Not surprising to me that the Chicago school of sociology was pushing the same kind of individualistic, free market thinking that the Chicago school of economics was pushing in the same time period. Yet as right-wing Americans decry the fall of the nuclear family, they defend the rights of economic actors to destroy the family through the individualistic rights of the free market. It appears to me that Zimmerman's observations of rural families more closely align with Masson's evolutionary views of fatherhood than with the capitalistic, post-industrial, male bread-winner, nuclear family of right-wing America.

2. Birth mothers are primed to bond with infants. Fathers help with social and emotional development.

My older sisters are an IBCLC certified lactation consultant, and a former doula. They taught me years before I ever had children about the amazing benefits of attachment parenting, for mothers, fathers, and infants. I have no doubts about the value provided children by both mothers and fathers. However, Erickson doesn't use this evidence to promote things like more family friendly workplaces and jobs, living wages, or other things that would give parents more opportunity to bond with their children. She uses it to criticize casual sex—and really sex outside of marriage. I even agree that the evidence is that casual sex is some level of damaging for most peolpe. But Erickson uses it to imply that anything but man-woman marriage is broken. And not even to say that we should give more support to those who find themselves dealing with broken relationships, but to define the righteousness of Mormonism's valorization of man-woman marriage.

3. Sexualization of Girls and Languishing of Men

Erickson references a report from the American Psychological Association on the damages of the sexualization of girls, with a vague statement that we see what that has meant for children. Yet little in her speech specifically coincides with the APA report, and nothing in her speech addresses the solutions proposed by the APA to deal with the issue. I admit that being specific would be a fraught action in this setting, because it would require bringing up issues that run counter to mainstream LDS beliefs and some institutional practices and policies, and superficially run counter to Erickson's thesis that self-actualization is a bad thing. For example: * The APA points out the harm of messages that only value a girl as a sexual object. Yet LDS modesty doctrine frequently tells girls they are responsible for young men's sexuality, and messages about the sacredness of motherhood frequently tell women that their primary purpose is to be a repository of sex for making babies. * The APA points out that messages empowering girls and women reduce the harm of sexualization. They recommend creating opportunities for girls to define and control their own interests. Yet the LDS church continues to refuse priesthood power to women, and to only give power and authority in roles ultimately subservient to men. * The APA recommends regulating advertising to girls. Yet LDS Republicans routinely rail against any regulation of business. * The APA recommends comprehensive sex education. Including information for lesbian, questioning, and transgender girls. * The APA recommends exploring the impact of sexualization of girls on girls of color, lesbian, questioning, and transgender girls. LDS messaging uses these groups as cautionary tales and counterexamples far more often than they are thought of for care and support. Erickson herself treated them in this way with how she used Edin's study of inner-city mothers.

In the same sentence that Erickson misuses the APA report, she asserts the ills of the “languishing of men.” To me this brings up images of men's rights activists. How can someone wanting to fight the sexualization of girls even choose to hint at aligning herself with these men who spout the misogynistic rhetoric that is currently increasing the sexualization of girls in our society? She appears to actually be referencing a book by a sociologist who uses his expertise to actively opposes gay marriage. She has found another religiously conservative ally in her scholarship. They aren't clearly wrong in their science, although it isn't hard to question their conclusions. They are clearly not seeking inclusion. They clearly are seeking to defend an exclusionary society where only those who engage in creating stable, nuclear families are worthy of support, and all others are broken to a greater or lesser degree. I could admit all their evidence and still know they aren't creating a Zion where all who seek peace are welcome. They are working towards one heart and one mind by lopping off whatever doesn't fit their family ideal.

4. Fragmentation of Marriage

Marriages breaking apart is hard for children. Not just emotionally, but economically, physically, socially—any way you can imagine. That's as far as Erickson goes. She says how intensely sad divorce is just to say we should support marriage. Here was an opportunity to talk about the biggest forces breaking up marriages. But that would require talking about societal systems.

It would require admitting that if we want to save families we have to address poverty, and that means addressing the wealth gap, climate change, housing and healthcare.

It would mean admitting that our country actively broke up slave families, that Jim Crow did violence to Black families, and that our current justice system continues those harms in a new form, primarily through the drug war.

It would mean seeing how consumerist, self-serving capitalism is destructive to families.

It would mean giving real power to mothers, rather than just moral kudos. Because stable relationships require sharing the load, and as long as one partner rules over the other there will be widespread abuses of that power.

We Need Love

Erickson is right. Yes, we need love. Yes, we need intimacy. Yes, our families help us find this through times of great trial. Yes, we need to be known. Yes, we need to not be lonely. But instead of saying, “Thank you, God, for the great blessings of our families. Let us bless others and lift up all humanity!,” the message is sent, “Thank you, God, for teaching us the right way. If everyone else doesn't figure out that we are right, they're going to be sad and destroy civilization.” I once would have heard this as a message of hope. A message that I was doing things right and was a worthy person who just might find heaven one day. Today I hear it as identity politics defining the righteousness of Mormon America. I hear a message that the world can't be fixed. All we can do is prove our own righteousness and pray that others will, one by one, find the truth and join us in our hope for the day when everything will be miraculously made whole. I hear it as an abnegation of the moral imperative to act. A decision that we cannot build Zion. And I want to build Zion, even if I don't think I will be around to see it.