SUNSTONE’S Motherhood Issue

This entry is cross-posted at Self-Portrait As.

I recently edited issue 166 of SUNSTONE magazine, aka “the motherhood issue.” I am proud and happy to announce that it is SUNSTONE’s most popular and best-selling issue. It has far outstripped all other issues in terms of people ordering individual copies, while other people (including my own father) who let their subscription lapse have renewed and asked that their resubscription start with issue 166.

I worked very hard on this project and am very proud of the contents, which include personal essays on topics like miscarriage and post-partum depression as well as scholarly articles on Mormon midrash and Mother in Heaven. A somewhat curmudgeonly SUNSTONE constituent commented to the office staff that “the essays in it were truly inspiring, instead of just whining as sometimes is the case at the symposia.” And someone sent in an anonymous note on three-by-five cards saying, “Artist Galen [Dara], the cover front & back of the March 2012 edition (#166) of SUNSTONE is worth the price of a three-year subscription CONGRATULATIONS!”

I admit I am in love with the art, which I think is not just beautiful but important. Shortly after editor Stephen Carter asked me to do the issue, I started thinking about the cover. I could not execute it myself, but I knew what I wanted, and I knew who I wanted to do it. I have been a fan of Galen Dara‘s work since long before I learned that her mom was my mom’s visiting teacher or that our grandparents were good friends in Tucson back in the day.

Anyway, I knew that I wanted a gender-bending version of Michelangelo’s fresco on the Sistine Chapel depicting the creation of Adam. As I wrote in my introduction to the issue,

Michelangelo’s depiction of God animating Adam with a single touch of his divine finger is one of the most famous images in all of art. In the 500 years since the fresco was completed, it has been reproduced, reinterpreted, and even satirized. But as far as I am aware, it has never before been re-imagined as a way to depict the power of the Goddess. I’ve been told of a belief in Gnostic circles that the Goddess is the figure under God’s left arm–but that figure is still off to the side, still secondary. Our depiction here puts the divine feminine and the human feminine–as well as the relationship between them–front and center. The image was created as a celebration of the unique, nourishing, and powerful doctrine of Heavenly Mother. Mormonism is one of the only places in Christianity where such an image could find resonance.

I want to make a couple of things clear: one, I didn’t go rogue on this; I got permission to have a depiction of a pretty robust Heavenly Mother animating a naked and bosomy Eve before Galen and I got started. Two, even still, I had to fight for it–and I did fight for it. Michelangelo’s original image is very horizontal, and SUNSTONE needed a vertical image. There was a point where we were playing with a close-up image of Heavenly Mother lifting up the chin of a forlorn Eve holding an apple, and I put my foot down. Many email discussions ensued with different people, and some different versions. In one, God the Mother and Eve occupied the same position as in Michelangelo’s painting, but Mother God was handing Eve an apple. I wrote,

I still don’t like it, and here’s why: having God the Mother give Eve the apple puts both of them in the position of following patriarchy’s script. It turns Heavenly Mother into the serpent. And maybe she is…. But before we change the story that way, and explore what it means for a feminine deity to be the source of human wisdom (in defiance of her husband’s commands), we need to first establish and legitimate both these female characters as powerful, in their own right, through their own beings and essences.

In Michelangelo’s painting, God and Adam offer nothing but power. They don’t need props, because their power is self-evident, thorough, and innate. They express their power and identity merely by showing up.

If God the Mother and Eve have to express their power and identity through the possession and use of props, they are secondary and subordinate to male gods and human beings.

It might not be as fun as changing a lot of elements, but the most subversive and provocative thing we can do is to show God the Mother as the equal, in every way, of God the Father (except maybe fierceness–he does look pretty mean). She has just as much power to animate human beings with a mere touch of her finger as her male counterpart does. She has just as much interest in human life. She recognizes human women as an expression of her divinity and power, and she doesn’t need to give them anything but life to make them extremely powerful and wonderful.

The final product, because it had to be something the postal service would deliver and that SUNSTONE could stand by, involved getting permission and agreement from several people. But permission and agreement were obtained on some pretty terrific points. You’ll notice, for instance, that Eve’s breasts are bare, because we agreed to expose them instead of covering them with her hair (though we agreed that she couldn’t be very nipple-y). You’ll notice that there’s a black Angela Moroni in the upper-left corner. You’ll notice that there are two lady angels initiating a fairly intense embrace in the upper-right. you’ll see that there is an inter-racial same-sex angel couple holding hands at the right edge of the image just below Heavenly Mother.

We also had A LOT of fun coming up with illustrations for essays by noted feminist scholars Janice Allred and Margaret Toscano. I’m pretty sure it was originally Galen’s idea to depict Heavenly Mother in four different manifestations, and she wanted some sort of way of unifying them. My suggestion: “one thing that struck me was the similarity of the four images you propose with the queens in the tarot deck.” Galen didn’t limit herself to a strict adherence to what the suits represent or how they’re expressed, but that was useful. We played with different ways to Mormonize the images–one easy thing was to add a beehive to each. But the most fun was to make the Goddess of Cups, the “Mother Nurturer,” a hot blonde pioneer woman in a prairie dress offering you a long cool drink of water while a wagon train passes in the distance behind her.

My favorite of those images is the Goddess of Swords, or, as she’s called on the banner beneath her portrait, “Mother Protector.” She’s sort of a cross between Galadriel and Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Woman Warrior.” My second favorite is the Goddess of Coins, or our “Mother Teacher,” a four-armed black goddess reading the gold plates. She has a traditional goddess symbol, the triple moon, above her head, and is in a building that we imagined as a Mormon meeting house, though the details that would have demonstrated that were too fussy and disappeared.

This is what I was working on when the whole Randy Bott thing erupted. One of my friends wrote to ask me why I hadn’t weighed in on it. I said I was too busy, but that what I was busy with would provide some commentary on it all. I think that depicting a Mormon goddess of wisdom as a black woman reading and teaching from gold plates is a pretty good response to all that nonsense.

If you haven’t seen the issue, I hope you will check it out. And if you like the art, you can purchase it on everything from a maternity t-shirt to a shower curtain to a plain old poster at Sunstone’s cafe press page for this collection.

And if you’re coming to the Sunstone symposium this year, there are two sessions about Heavenly Mother I’m organizing. Session 131, Thursday 26 July, 11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., “Images of the Feminine Divine,” is inspired in part by the art in this issue, though it will encompass other topics. The other, Session 171, Thursday, 26 July, 5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m., “Heavenly Mother and the Letter of the Law,” is a session in which people will read letters to Heavenly Mother since we can’t have a prayer or testimony meeting devoted to her. You can find abstracts for the sessions in the Sunstone preliminary program online.

“Not in some sissy way”

Sometimes I feel like I’ve been out of Mormonism so long that I can hardly remember what it was like. Yet it’s in there — deep in the bowels of my brain — perhaps built into the foundation of my personality.

Since my kids have gotten old enough to enjoy Legos (which I love!) — and since now I’ve been enjoying some Minecraft adventures with them — I caught this message involuntarily popping into my thoughts:

Once there was a little boy named Jamie. He had some great friends, but his greatest friend was his mom. Not in some sissy way. She was just different than the other moms. While they were busy going to her fashion shows and bridge parties, she was home with him. They would go on bike rides and hiking and have long talks. She was the best football player on the whole block! At least, that’s what the other guys said. They wished their moms were more like her.

Now, I’m not going to sing you the rest — perhaps you recall, it’s a song about a boy whose mom dies. But the above-quoted paragraph is the part that really stuck with me — it’s the part I remember from my childhood.

Sure, guys-who-just-wanna-be-guys are people too, and deserve to have their stories told. Yet, I suspect that the point to the above is rather that the writers don’t want the males who are sensitive about their masculinity to just tune out when they see that this is a sentimental story. So they throw in a gratuitous jab at “sissies”. And at women who like hanging out with other adult women. Not that there’s anything wrong with moms who play bridge or go to fashion shows, it’s just that they’re not quite as deserving of un-sissy-like love as moms who stay home to play football with their sons.

The problem is that boys on their way to becoming manly men aren’t the only kids in the audience. Try watching it from the perspective of a girl who’s being constantly told in a million subtle ways that her worth is determined by how pleasing she is to the males in her life; that the boys have exciting dreams and ambitions, whereas her interests aren’t much more than a plus that makes her potentially cute or useful.

Now if you’re a girl and you love American-style football, that’s great! Personally, I can hardly imagine anything more boring (at least anything that takes place outside the 3-hour block). So, as a kid, I kind of had difficulty relating to this filmstrip. Of course, I also find fashion and bridge uninteresting, but to me it said that what made those other moms inferior was that they had their own friends and their own interests. Yet, my own mom was a faithful, stay-at-home Mormon mom, and she absolutely had her own friends and interests. To me, that’s a big part of what made her a fantastic mom!

Now that I have my own kids — two sons, ages 8 and 10 — I’m happy when I can find common interests with them, so we can enjoy doing something fun and creative together. I’m also happy that I have my own life, my own friends, and my own hobbies and interests (some of which, perhaps, my children will someday share). And they can feel free to love me in a “sissy way” or a non-sissy way or however they like!

Did any of the rest of you have similar memories or reactions…?

Sunday in Outer Blogness: Women’s Day Edition!!

So, the CoJCoL-dS managed to make it through a whole week without generating a new scandal!! Here’s the latest on the earlier two:

In unwanted proxy baptisms, the CoJCoL-dS has solved the problem by keeping people from searching the database. So now, even if you have a legitimate reason to check the status of Elvis’s temple work, you can’t!

In the Professor Bott fiasco, Dave Banack posted an amusing scorecard in which the LDS PR department wins and the BYU Religion department loses (naturally — now that the LDS Newsroom is the new mouthpiece of the Lord — even Mitt Romney defers to them — and has used this authority to denounce incompetence in the BYU religion department). And the CoJCoL-dS itself also wins for deftly deflecting the taint of its racist doctrines. The faithful are left viewing the church as a crazy uncle:

The church is like your crazy uncle, you love him, but boy do you hate it when he gets drunk and drives through the town shouting obscenities at children and kittens. You cant defend his behavior, but you dont want to abandon him either.

Some people are celebrating International Women’s Day with fabulous fantasies for the church!! Others by turning women’s bodies into a battleground!! Rush Limbaugh made an ass of himself, then offered a not-pology for his particular word choice — even though the fact that he said “slut” was the least of the problems with his offensive tirade. Predictably, people then made the usual mistake of confusing criticism with an attack on free speech. Has the GOP jumped the shark? On the other side of the aisle, why aren’t more people concerned about this?

Meanwhile, some guys contemplate their straightness and experiences with gay people. Dad’s Primal Scream doubts that Kirk Cameron actually has gay friends.

In personal stories: Prairie Nymph recounts speaking in tongues!! Invictus Pilgrim now writes a journal for himself, not for use as future scriptures. Ardis helps an exmo connect with his family history. People don’t like sitting through all three hours of LDS church meetings. The church can encourage you to embarrass yourself. Was your Mormon experience like this?

The world inside of Mormonism was shallow and small… Ill-fitting like a sweater that had shrunk too much and chokes you at the neck every time you twist or turn in a funny way… Yep Mormonism was a choky sweater… Scratchy too.

In discussion topics: Raising girls to be strong. Interesting discussions in blog comments. Catholic funerals have something in common with Mormon funerals. How important is food storage? Andrew discovers that Mormons don’t like their religion to be seen as a hobby. In other news, the faithful love boundary maintenance. Believers and apostates anaylze each other.

And let’s close with a random thought/image: How would you like to be a member of this family?

Have a great week!!!

SAHMs: Who’s got your back?

Parents invest more time and money in their kids than ever, but the shocking lesson of twin and adoption research is that upbringing is much less important than genetics in the long run.

There are so many things wrong with Bryan Caplan’s reasoning outlined in this article. I think the first and obvious is that — even if extreme tiger/helicopter parenting is probably not a good idea — it doesn’t automatically follow that the opposite extreme is better.

But there’s another point that I’ve been trying to put my finger on ever since I read that article a couple of weeks ago. It’s that — by the same logic — staying home to raise your kids full time is a complete waste of time. And this recommendation is coming from Deseret News which is run by the same church that teaches that moms need to sacrifice their career ambitions to be at home for their kids. Thanks, Deseret News, for letting us know just how much you guys value women’s time and talents!

Since some of my very earliest blog posts I’ve been arguing that (contrary to popular myth) the feminist movement benefits SAHMs. When a woman has the option of supporting herself and her kids (if necessary), then she has more leverage in her relationship, even if she never takes that option. If a husband isn’t the one thing keeping your kids from starving, then bye-bye abusive husbands!

And then there’s the question of status and respect. Plenty of women (and even men) who have the talents and opportunity (or potential opportunity) to earn money and respect in the business and professional world choose nonetheless to stay home with their kids instead, demonstrating that homemaker is not just a role that one settles for but is a role that has value.

I recently read (via clobberblog) an interesting article giving some historical perspective on these same points. Read the whole thing, but let me just highlight a couple of quotes:

Contrary to myth, The Feminine Mystique and feminism did not represent the beginning of the decline of the stay-at-home mother, but a turning point that led to much stronger legal rights and working conditions for her.

Domestic violence rates have fallen sharply for all wives, employed or not. As late as 1980, approximately 30 percent of wives said their husbands did no housework at all. By 2000, only 16 percent of wives made that statement and almost one-third said their husbands did half of all housework, child care or both.

Most researchers agree that these changes were spurred by the entry of wives and mothers into the work force. But full-time homemakers have especially benefited from them.

From 1975 to 1998 men married to full-time homemakers increased their contributions to housework as much, proportionally, as men whose wives were employed.

Contrast this with the 1950’s, an era so often held up as an idyllic time for motherhood:

Typical of the invective against homemakers in the 1950s and 1960s was a 1957 best seller, The Crack in the Picture Window, which described suburban America as a matriarchal society, with the average husband a woman-bossed, inadequate, money-terrified neuter and the average wife a nagging slob.

Meanwhile, modern books are making it clearer and clearer that there’s no sharp dividing line between career women and stay-at-home-moms. Middle-class mothers these days (and fathers too!) typically sacrifice some career advancement for their kids and sacrifice some potential kid/family time for their careers. So, as I’ve argued in my series on women’s conflicting interests, the following is the wrong model: