Earthly father, invisible mother, sort of like our Heavenly Parents?

There’s a new video on the YouTube Mormon Channel comparing earthly fatherhood to Heavenly Fatherhood, and I generally agree with the sentiments about the importance of fathers, but a few things really bother me. First, there’s the implication that fatherhood is primarily about providing materially. Second, the wife of the father featured in this video is barely portrayed at all. Yes, I know this video is about glorifying fatherhood, but as my brother commented, “I wonder when we can expect the sequel about Heavenly Mother.” The mother, who is doing the bulk of actually being with and raising the kids (as is expected) is reduced to an unstated assumption. (“Of course she’s important! Why do we have to say she’s important?”) But this actually closely parallels the way Heavenly Parents are represented in Mormonism. Yes, we have a Heavenly Mother, but let’s not talk about her or to her. (Though other faiths eschew feminine representations of deity, too. I’m not sure which is a more harmful message: that there’s a female deity, but she has to stay sequestered in some back room, or that there’s none at all.)

The Mormon model of Heavenly Parenthood is actually the opposite of what Mormon parents are expected to do. Heavenly Father is the one we talk to and build relationship with; Heavenly Mother(s) is there, but we are not to get involved with Her, and if She’s involved with us, it’s solely by stealth. Whereas the earthly parent paragon is the father who goes off and provides, while the mother is the one in the trenches, kissing scraped knees, helping with school projects, comforting, encouraging, building relationship. Ironic and interesting to me.

Leah blogs at Via Media.

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26 Comments

  1. 1
    Chris F. says:

    I can kind of see what you are talking about, but I honnestly wouldn’t have thought anything of it if you hadn’t mentioned anything.

    From my perspective, this was about the father of the home. There certainly does need to be one about the mother, but I don’t believe that a greater pressence of the mother/wife was needed. If I were to make a video about my father, or myself as a father, the narative of that video would be fairly similar regarding mother/wife.

    You may call that doctrinal conditioning, but if you were making a 4 minute video about someone, and that person’s function in the family, how much time would you spend on others. If you were to make a video about yourself as a mother, cut down to 4 minutes, how much would you mention your husband? I know that if my wife were to make such a video, I would barely get a mention either, because she does so much for them that there just isn’t much room to mention me, and I’m ok with that.

       0 likes

  2. 2
    Holly says:

    @Chris F: ” If you were to make a video about yourself as a mother, cut down to 4 minutes, how much would you mention your husband?”

    The church claims that marriage and parenting are completely equal partnerships. So ask, “If you were to make a video about your role within a completely equal partnership, how much would you mention your completely equal partner?”

    If it’s barely, it’s probably not a completely equal partnership.

    which raises the question: why pretend that it is?

       3 likes

  3. 3
    Leah says:

    Even the shots of the kids at home while the father was gone barely showed the mother. I’d have to go back and watch again (which I don’t really want to do) to count the screen time, but I think she got maybe 2 seconds out of four minutes, and that was the back of her head. And don’t get me started on the patronizing, “My wife likes nap time.”

    I think my point is that there probably won’t be a video about mothers, or if there is, it won’t be in comparing earthly mothers to Heavenly Mother. It will probably take the slant of how wonderful mothers are for fulfilling the beautiful role Heavenly Father designated for them. This makes them obedient daughters to their Heavenly Father rather than autonomous adult women emulating their Heavenly Mother. The comparison of parental roles to heavenly beings is solely male-sided, even though I don’t think what this father does closely parallels what Heavenly Father supposedly does. I presume Heavenly Father doesn’t have to earn a living. He’s the one who’s supposedly primarily involved with us. But on earth, it’s exactly the reverse.

    I’m a single mother actually, though my boys’ father is a good father and we share custody and parenting. If I made a video about myself as a mother, it wouldn’t feature their father much, just because I’m not personally involved with his interactions with our children. I don’t have much interest in making a video about myself, but if I did, honestly, what I do as a mother wouldn’t be the focus. My kids would be in there, sure, but I don’t define myself through them.

       1 likes

  4. 4
    chanson says:

    Did you see the response on T&S? Definitely worth the read.

    I think my point is that there probably won’t be a video about mothers, or if there is, it won’t be in comparing earthly mothers to Heavenly Mother.

    I agree. The CoJCoL-dS has a serious problem with the doctrine of Heavenly Mother, because growing up to be like her is the supposed reward for far more than half of all faithful Mormons. And aspiring to be someone whose entire role is wife and mother — but who is completely invisible to the point of having no access to her own children — is the opposite of a reward in any reasonable sense of the word. So every faithful Mormon woman has to find a way to put this painful biggie on the shelf.

    I think that a big part of the problem is that Hinckley set a precedent that the CoJCoL-dS cannot officially embrace any unique doctrine that will make Mormons seem weird or heretical to Christians. We can’t say anything about Heavenly Mother — not because there’s a doctrine that women need to be totally invisible, but because it would be “speculation”.

    It’s doubly sad because it’s a point where Mormons have an interesting doctrine that could potentially be something positive. But since they won’t officially endorse any unique doctrines anymore (outside of the correlation handful), the “Heavenly Mother” doctrine lives in this limbo of neither embraced nor disavowed where it ultimately does more harm than good.

       2 likes

  5. 5
    Chris F. says:

    @Holly- This isn’t a video about marriage, it’s about fatherhood.

    @Leah- I agree that there likely won’t be a video about mothers with respect to Heavenly Mother. Though I don’t know why they bothered with the Heavenly Father parallel in this one. He was just thrown in there loosly at the end as an attempt to tie the rest of the video to the divine nature of fatherhood. It was pretty weak, and frankly, the video would have been fine without it.

    @chanson- Yeah, the political games that the Church likes to play is one thing I hold against it. I’m sure Hinckley didn’t realize the concequences of that declaration, specifically that it assists in alienating women. I’m not sure he would have cared even if he did know though.

       0 likes

  6. 6
    Suzanne Neilsen says:

    Chris F.
    As far as I can tell the video isn’t about fatherhood. It’s about showing proper respect to God.
    The end quote at the conclusion says it all,
    “of all the titles of respect and honor and admiration that are given to Deity, he has asked us to address him as Father.”
    Apparently, it diminishes God to call him by anything not masculine. We define God with the terms that matter.

       0 likes

  7. 7
    Chris F. says:

    @ Suzanne- that is your interpretation, and I can see how you came to it, but my interpretation is different.

       0 likes

  8. 8
    Holly says:

    Chris F @5 “This isn’t a video about marriage, it’s about fatherhood.”

    Yep!

    After I left my comment, I got to thinking about how parenthood and spousehood are weirdly separated in Mormonism, despite the ways that premarital sex is discouraged, single parents don’t get much respect, divorce is discouraged (though not forbidden), and couples are encouraged not to postpone having children for “selfish” things like education or financial stability.

    Marriage is portrayed as a partnership in the church largely because the roles within it are supposed to as equally important in terms of how they relate to children, not to the individual men and women in a childless marriage. Who cares if a wife works if there are no kids to stay home with? The question becomes important only if she’s not around enough to properly nurture kids according to some standard of maternal propriety.

    in practice, you’re supposed to get married before becoming a parent and stay that way once you do, but really, the roles are separate and distinct enough that divorce really shouldn’t be a big deal. After all, as Chris is demonstrating, you can be an ideal father without any attention to what kind of husband you are. That’s not how it should be, really, in a religion where eternal marriage is both a requirement and a reward for true righteousness–but that’s how it is.

    So that’s one more reason why the video is misleading delusional crap: it makes it too easy to make statements like “This isn’t a video about marriage, it’s about fatherhood” and act like that’s a reasonable statement in terms of LDS belief.

       0 likes

  9. 9
    Leah says:

    @ Chris F, I strongly disagree that Heavenly Father was just “loosely thrown in” at the end. They are quite explicitly drawing comparisons between earthly fathers and Heavenly Father. The title is “Earthly Father, Heavenly Father” and the description on YouTube says,”Men on Earth have the opportunity to become fathers and experience some of the same joys that our Heavenly Father feels for us.” The narrative emphasizes over and over how the father is the powerful being that provides for his children’s world, even if they aren’t aware of it. The whole underlying message is, “Isn’t it great how fathers can be like God?” And there will be no equivalent for mothers.

    And I actually think Holly was on the right track with her first comment (#2) linking marriage and parenthood. It’s practically impossible to separate the two in Mormonism: You are not supposed to have kids unless you are married, and if you are married, you are supposed to have kids. Parenthood should be an equal partnership (regardless of your faith or lack thereof), and this video portrays this man’s wife as superfluous and incidental to his role as a father, which is exactly how Heavenly Mother is portrayed in relation to Heavenly Father. I think my ex-husband would probably give me more acknowledgement for my mothering than this character’s wife got, and we don’t even live together.

    @chanson, I agree, it’s a shame that the CoJCoL-dS downplays the doctrine of Heavenly Mother so much. It could be a beautiful, empowering thing for LDS women to relate to and identify with her. But then, recent events suggest that the CoJCoL-dS doesn’t want women to feel empowered.

    But on the bright side, I do remember during the time in my life when I was “inactive” but still believing and worried about my salvation, I considered what I thought about Heavenly Mother’s fate (silent, subordinate, etc.) and thought, Well, I don’t think I really want that anyway. :-)

       2 likes

  10. 10
    Leah says:

    chanson, just went over and read the Times and Seasons post. Very good! And so interesting to me that that writer had so much the same reaction as I did, namely, “Where the hell is mother?!”

       0 likes

  11. 11
    chanson says:

    @10 Yes, I think the author of the post linked @4 did a good job of summarizing the essence of the problem:

    When such a strong message is given by the church to show how important this earthly-divine connection is, can’t they see how important it is that for half the church the connection is nonexistent?

    As did CJ Douglass over there @46:

    the video message (and Mormon theology) begs for a female exact equivalent. Allison is simply asking for the second half of the sentence.

    And did you see the comment thread over there? Wow!!! It’s like Woe unto you if you dare to criticize the fruits of the Church Office Building!

       0 likes

  12. 12
    chanson says:

    p.s.: Here’s the trick for making a video fit in the main column at MSP:

    On YouTube, select “share” then “embed”. Copy the embed code and paste it here. This embed tag contains values to specify the dimensions of the video window. Set the width to 450, and set the height to whatever is correctly proportional for the video (given a width of 450).

       1 likes

  13. 13
    aerin says:

    This is an interesting topic. I was thinking of doing a top level post – not sure if I need to turn in my feminist card – but I never really cared all that much about heavenly mother or talking about her more.

    I was trying to figure out why, because it does seem to be an important issue for many mormon feminists and others.

    I realized it has a lot to do with thinking of God as gendered (Heavenly father) and gender being eternal.

    Eternal gender and separate beings (i.e. not the trinity) are a huge part of mormon doctrine. It’s part of what makes mormonism unique.

    Why isn’t (a female Deity) a bigger issue for other faiths/mainstream Christians?

    I support mormon feminists calling for gender equality and for more insight into the gendered nature of the faith. I simply wonder if the Heavenly mother debate is mormon -centric.

       0 likes

  14. 14
    Holly says:

    I never really cared all that much about heavenly mother or talking about her more.

    I was trying to figure out why, because it does seem to be an important issue for many mormon feminists and others.

    I didn’t care much about heavenly mother for a really long time, first because she seemed so worthless and ineffectual, and second, after I lost my faith, because I don’t think she’s real.

    But at some point I decided she’s a real idea, in the same way that Bella and Edward from Twlight are real ideas with real consequences for the way we think about relationships. I think Heavenly Mother is actually one of the most powerful tools Mormon feminists have for forcing the church to be accountable for its statements about women, its treatment of them, and many of its doctrinal inconsistencies.

    Why isn’t (a female Deity) a bigger issue for other faiths/mainstream Christians?

    Are you sure it isn’t?

    Many christian feminist theologians have long advocated for more inclusive language/ways of thinking about God, which is arguably easier in religions that don’t insist that maleness is an essential and eternal part of the identity of God the Father. If the basic doctrine of your church is that “Heavenly Father” is a metaphorical way of referring to a deity who cannot be contained in human categories, then also using the metaphor “Heavenly Mother” is not at all illegitimate, even if it is shocking to people who just aren’t used to it.

    p.s. Chanson, that comment thread on Times & Seasons is nuts!

       2 likes

  15. 15
    Chris F. says:

    I agree with Holly @ 8, there is a wierd disconnect in the Church culture between parenthood and marriage. If you get a divorce, you suffer a harsh rumor mill, certain positions in the Church become closed to you, and you are otherwise treated pretty much like a leper. Unfortunately, this treatment is often more servere for women than for men. It doesn’t even change if everyone knows that abuse or adultery were involved in the marriage.

    On the flip side, as long as you are having your share of children, it’s amazing (and apalling) what you can get away doing to your kids with and still stay in the good graces of the church. As long as your tithe checks are clearing and your marriage is still there, they don’t really care all that much about the actual welfare of the children. Individuals may care, but you would have to do some pretty terrible things for the Church to give you the same treatment as they do if you get divorced.

       0 likes

  16. 16
    Chris F. says:

    P.S. The fact that the video has an obvious lack of representation of motherhood is the reason why there are blogs about it in the first place. Whether purposefully or not, either the Church PR department or the producers of the Mormon Channel (or both) are presenting the idea that men are more important than women.

       0 likes

  17. 17
    Suzanne Neilsen says:

    ” I think Heavenly Mother is actually one of the most powerful tools Mormon feminists have for forcing the church to be accountable for its statements about women, its treatment of them, and many of its doctrinal inconsistencies.”
    Amen.
    It’s just not the lack of female representation that’s troubling. It’s the glorification of maleness.
    The way some people talk about the power of the priesthood, it sounds like they think CERN is about to make an announcement that matter has mass and it’s Male.
    And while some artwork features a female Christ or an androgynous Jesus, the Mormon Jesus looks like he’s ready to step off a longboat. Loki better behave.
    I dunno, maybe the heritage of Mormons getting their butts kicked around so much out there in the desert, mixed in with the fifties, means their God has to be super virile.

       1 likes

  18. 18
    aerin says:

    Another reason many have suggested that no one wants to talk about Heavenly mother is because according to some mormon sources, polygamy will take place in the after life, and there would be Heavenly Mother(s), not just one.

    Also, I was thinking more about it, and the notion of a “goddess” is verboten in mormonism. But essentially that’s what Heavenly mother is, “the” goddess.

    Could mormonism separate itself from eternal gender, eternal polygamy? I don’t know. Obviously it’s distanced itself from eternal polygamy.

       1 likes

  19. 19
    Chris F. says:

    @ aerin- Actually, if you think about how temple marriages work, and the fact that people are always encouraged to have a living help meet, eternal polygamy is an inevitable concequence.

       0 likes

  20. 20
    Holly says:

    Another reason many have suggested that no one wants to talk about Heavenly mother is because according to some mormon sources, polygamy will take place in the after life, and there would be Heavenly Mother(s), not just one.

    A few years ago I spent a day with some women from Centennial Park, the more liberal and open polygamous community in Hilldale and Colorado City (as opposed to the ones who sided with Warren Jeffs). They were fascinated and horrified to learn that the mainstream church avoids talking about heavenly mother(s). They talk about their heavenly mothers often, since the goddesses are foundational to their theology and their earthly lives.

    But this is what i mean about heavenly mother being a way of holding the church accountable. If LDS women really are signing on to be one in a harem of heavenly wives in the next life, with repeated celestial pregnancies, that could make a difference for who joins the church and who stays, and how excited they are about the whole sorry business.

    And it also means that all this talk about marriage being an equal partnership in both this life and the next is just a flat-out lie.

    those old men in SLC hate being held accountable. They hate being accountable for what they’ve said. They hate being accountable for what they’ve done. They hate being accountable for what Joseph Smith said. They hate being accountable for what Joseph Smith did. They hate being accountable for what anyone ever said or did. They don’t think they should have to answer to anyone but God, and since he doesn’t talk to them, that means they shouldn’t have to answer to anyone.

    But the fact of the matter is, the LDS concept of stewardship means that they are supposed to be servants to the church, and they are responsible to the membership for the decisions they make. They owe us a clear account of what the doctrine is. And if they don’t have one right now, if they truly lack wisdom, then they should ask of God. I hear he giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not.

    LDS history suggests that it’s at least worth a try.

       3 likes

  21. 21
    Alan says:

    chanson @ 4

    but who is completely invisible to the point of having no access to her own children

    This is a succinct way of putting the ridiculousness of the way Heavenly Mother is currently depicted. Everything we understand a “mother” to be would imply that she should have access to her children (unless she committed a crime of some sort). So, the current idea of Her should be obviously broken on its face. The fact that it’s not obvious is…weird. Or I guess it’s one of those things about which people are just expected to have eternal patience, since “nothing” can be currently done about it. But how long can such an obvious brokenness just sit there as if it weren’t broken?

    There were a couple Mormon missionaries on my campus today (one male, one female: I don’t recall ever seeing co-ed proselytizing before), so I took the opportunity to debate feminist issues. The young woman said, as almost rehearsed, “We have motherhood, and the men have priesthood.” And I said, “The men have fatherhood and the priesthood, and the women only have motherhood.” And then, “Women have Relief Society.” And I said, “Behind the Relief Society President, there’s a man who makes the final decision.” I linked the issue of gay relationships with female ordination for them, and eventually the guy (a kind Chinese guy) ended the conversation, but not without first saying that he highly respects gay people, because they’re fighting for themselves just like Mormons are. Anyway, I hope I planted some thinking-seeds. Although, I think there’s a tendency for young people to just assume that the way things are in the Church is the way it’s supposed to be; because how can it not be…it’s the Church?!

       0 likes

  22. 22
    Leah says:

    I never thought all that much about Heavenly Mother when I was growing up. I knew she was there, but we didn’t talk about her so I figured she just wasn’t all that important. I’ve never been close with my own mother so maybe there’s some psychological connection there (lack on interest in my own mother led to lack of interest in Heavenly mother, perhaps). When I started to wonder about Heavenly Mother was after I became a mother myself. I felt very sure that the way I loved my baby was different from the way my then-husband loved our baby, not as a better/worse or more/less comparison, but definitely different. The love I felt for my baby was a kind of love that I couldn’t remember having been on the receiving end of (I did have a pretty good relationship with my dad, felt love from him, felt love from what I perceived as Heavenly Father), and it made me wonder about Heavenly Mother, Does She love me this way? Is She looking out for me? Is She there? Could I love Her back?

    @Holly:

    If the basic doctrine of your church is that “Heavenly Father” is a metaphorical way of referring to a deity who cannot be contained in human categories, then also using the metaphor “Heavenly Mother” is not at all illegitimate, even if it is shocking to people who just aren’t used to it.”

    Yes. Mary Daly, Elaine Pagels and other feminist Christian theologians have advocated for more inclusive imagery and metaphors. I’ve written about it too, and had other women tell me that, yes, we need to broaden how we describe God.

       1 likes

  23. 23
    Leah says:

    We could also make a case for how portraying a deity whose primary role is as a parent invalidates people who are not parents, either by choice or circumstance. If parenting is the greatest thing you can possibly do and the activity that makes you most like God, that seems to make all other pursuits not quite as worthwhile, not as valued, not as good. My 20-year-old LDS sister-in-law had a Facebook status a few months ago that she felt like her accomplishment of carrying 18 credits and finishing her degree just didn’t seem like much compared to her friends who were having babies.

       0 likes

  24. 24
    Suzanne Neilsen says:

    I think much can be learned about a culture, by what attributes it gives its God.
    Is God funny? Have anger management problems? A soccer fan?
    So is the Mormon God a nice guy who works all day at an cosmic office job and comes home to eat a celestial dinner with the kids? It’s a busy life running the universe, but it’s all for them. He’s a father.
    Is a womans value in quietly producing clean well-behaved offspring for his glory.
    Perhaps we don’t hear on this world (boarding school earth) about Heavenly Mother, because she’s in the spirit world nursery keeping things clean and tidy.
    But I hear her sister goes on some pretty wild hunts. I think I’ll stay indoors and read.

       0 likes

  25. 25
    Holly says:

    Perhaps we don’t hear on this world (boarding school earth) about Heavenly Mother, because she’s in the spirit world nursery keeping things clean and tidy.

    Or maybe she left that nasty bastard Elohim with all his anger issues ages ago and he’s just trying to make excuses to everyone else while convincing himself that she’ll be back, she can’t live without me, she’ll see she made a mistake and she’ll be back, you just wait.

    that’s the problem with telling us that their marriage and parenthood are models for earthly families: earthly families can be used to explain theirs, which clearly has problems.

       2 likes

  26. 26

    [...] other LDS gender wars, folks are not pleased with Heavenly Mother’s invisibility, and have set off to find [...]

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