23 August 2007

Barefoot & Pregnant

Only the other day a letter came to my desk from a woman who wrote at length of her troubles. In a spirit of desperation she asked, "Does a woman have any promise of some day being a first class member of the human race? Will she always be a piece of chattel wrapped in a chuddar acting only by the permission of the man who stands at her head?" (A chuddar, incidentally, is a very simple shawl worn by women in India.) She then continued, "To me the answers to these questions are no longer important, but I have daughters. If it is possible for a woman to look forward to an eternity of anything than being barefoot and pregnant, I would like to be able to teach them this.

There is bitter tragedy in the lines of that letter. I fear there are many others who may feel that way. The situation is tragic because it is so extremely different from what our Father in Heaven would have for his daughters. Behind this woman's words I see the picture of a wife who is discouraged, starved for appreciation, ready to give up, and not knowing which way to turn. I see a husband who has defaulted on his sacred obligations, who is calloused in his feelings and warped in his perceptions, who denies through his manner of living the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I do not doubt that there has been fault on her part as well as his, but I am inclined to think that his is the more serious. . .

I am offended by the sophistry that the only lot of the Latter-day Saint woman is to be barefoot and pregnant. It's a clever phrase, but it's false. Of course we believe in children. The Lord has told us to multiply and replenish the earth that we might have joy in our posterity, and there is no greater joy than the joy that comes of happy children in good families. But he did not designate the number, nor has the Church. That is a sacred matter left to the couple and the Lord. The official statement of the Church includes this language: "Husbands must be considerate of their wives, who have the greater responsibility not only of bearing children but of caring for them through childhood, and should help them conserve their health and strength. Married couples should exercise self-control in all of their relationships. They should seek inspiration from the Lord in meeting their marital challenges and rearing their children according to the teachings of the gospel 
--President Gordon B. Hinckley, Cornerstones of a Happy Home, (1984), 1–11
The first time I ever heard the phrase "barefoot and pregnant" was from Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees. I had wondered about the phrase privately, and I see that randomly trolling around Google is within the spheres of influence of the Lord to answer our most private and desperate questions. But I've had some time to ponder "barefoot and pregnant," and I admit that I linked it immediately to the image in my mind of Molly Mormon; a woman who, among other things, is too afraid to have her own thoughts and to stand up for them.




And perhaps I should clarify about my perception of Molly; I don't begrudge the woman who seeks after a more traditional lifestyle with a man at the head of the household. I've seen the formula in practice, and it works in making the family functional when it's done correctly. What I dislike is what the Prophet recognized right away; when those traditional roles are used against a family out of petty need for control, and in the end it leaves the whole unit destroyed.

President Hinckley's image of a family where encouragement and love do away with the need for such dominance and dysfunctionalism is, in a word, beautiful to me. And for some reason, it's rare; even among the Saints I know. I give the Saints a lot of credit; they divorce less, they are more connected as families, and they tend to be more loving and positive people. But there seems to be a misconception, even among us who should KNOW better, that some of us are a little closer to Heaven than we actually are.

I think every ward has those one or two families that do their best to shine their light, and go the extra mile. Those families that volunteer all of their time and energy into helping the church programs, who never miss a Sunday, and whose children and home radiate the spirit to all who come to visit. On the surface, they look as though they've got it all figured out. And I know I depended on that for the longest time as the vision of my future, that level of perfection and selfless gospel living. But when you're friends with someone long enough, you find out about the skeletons in their closet. And you still love them anyway. But inside, you feel taken aback because you wonder, "if they aren't as close to perfect as I thought, then what shot did I ever have of getting it right?"

Or maybe it's just me. But that anecdote is absolutely true about one of the families in my branch. And I joked with my friend that I died a little bit inside when I discovered the reality of the situation, but it really did change my expectation of myself within the Church because I literally saw that no one is perfect-- nope, not even them.

We're fortunate in that our Father in Heaven wasn't the one who suggested we strive for perfection. He gave us agency that we might become righteous, which really does provide hope for nutters like me.

My best friend has been struggling with his testimony ever since I met him over two years ago, and I've literally said and done anything and everything I have thought of during that time to get to the root of the problem. If I can stop one heart from aching, I shall not live in vain, right? He would laugh if he heard me say that because he knows it's true. He's like my older brother, and it pains me to see him suffer. He has never told me what he struggles with specifically in his testimony, but my guess is that he resents the expectations.

For him, I think righteousness and perfection have always been links in the same fence. I think he has always wondered if there isn't more to this life that he just doesn't get to see because people have been trying to "shelter" (his word) him with fences all the time. My disdain for Molly and Peter, I think, are rooted in everything I've experienced with Jacob. He has taught me that just because a young man doesn't want to go on a mission doesn't mean he has lost his place in Heaven. He has taught me that testimonies don't have to be cookie cutter repeats in order to be "right." Most of all, he has taught me how to reach people who need someone to see them; not the mold that they're being shoved into, but THEM. He has taught me to see a person's needs, not my wants for someone else's life.

And I think for now, that's the only way for the Saints now to live with those who are on different walks of life. We can't all be saints and martyrs, but we can still "be one." (D&C 38: 27)

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