Families can be together forever, whether we want them to be or not! I’m old enough to remember when the Church really steered into the “forever families” concept in its advertising and proselyting. The Church had put out ads of eager-faced innocent children trying to get their parents’ attention, their sweet, cherubic faces falling in disappointment as parents put them off for other distracting concerns. In the end of the ads, the parents would set aside their cares and focus on their ecstatic child who was suddenly beaming with pride at being deemed important enough for this adult attention. As the commercial ended, a wise, warm paternal voice would intone “Family…It’s about time.” [end scene]
These ads, and the reputation of happy, close Mormon families in general, was the one uncontroversial thing that outsiders liked about the Church. This mattered a lot back then because the Church was still pretty small and mostly unknown outside the Western United States. That was 40 years ago, and it’s easy to overplay our strengths. The additional scrutiny on families has the unfortunate side effect of making them a prop in proselyting, evidence for or against the success of the Church. If you have a “bad” family, or one that doesn’t put the Church in a good light, you are hurting the Church’s image.
For those who grew up after the 80s, who didn’t experience this fresh focus firsthand, they may not be aware of the mindset that it creates for some parents. In trying to have picture-perfect families, not only may we fall short, but the desire to have a perfect family for public consumption is itself a problem that will always create negative downstream impacts. This topic is one E. Uchtdorf has cautioned against repeatedly.
I was listening to a podcast in which Mormon parenting and some of its common pitfalls were being discussed. I suspect many of these occur in all high demand religions, but others may be amped up by our Church’s almost pathological need to produce the wonderful, perfect, faithful families that others expect of us. Here are a few of the pitfalls this mindset can create that surface when a family member leaves the Church or loses faith or is simply discovered to have a different religious perspective:
- Parents who feel torn between loyalty to the Church and love for their family member. This can be as extreme as literally breaking ties with a child (or divorcing a spouse) entirely over religious belief or as mild as expressing shame or disapproval or withholding approval and attention.
- Conditional love, as expressed by parents toward children whose choices they don’t approve.
- Lack of curiosity about other family members’ views if they differ with regard to religious belief.
- Disinterest in discussing anything that is not Church-related. For some families, every discussion centers on Church life, one’s callings, one’s ward, how many times one attends the temple, what happened in Church that week, the people to whom one ministers, insights from scripture study. While these are fine topics, they don’t represent the totality of human existence. Yet for some, there seems to be little else to discuss.
- Authoritarian parenting, including the assumption that if a child is not following the Church’s plan, his or her moral choices will automatically be bad.
- Expressing the belief, usually through skepticism and disapproval, that any disagreement stems from a flaw with the person, not the idea. The use of gaslighting and judgment to try to coerce the family member to comply with the parents’ wishes.
- Lack of present-mindedness. Rather than enjoying the relationship in the here and now, so much focus is on “eternity” that the relationship that exists is not great.
- Stunted human development due to lack of moral reasoning and focus on following “the plan” or leaders. Rather than learning right from wrong and how to make choices, the children are raised to seek parental or Church approval, and to fear its loss.
- The realization that family members are living in completely separate worlds that don’t have the same rules or perspectives.
- Attempts at parental control of adult children rather than respecting autonomy and boundaries.
When I thought about the conditional aspect to some parental relationships in Mormonism, I was reminded of a scene from Out of Africa. Karen Blixen is talking with Berkeley about Denys, the big game hunter she’s curious about.
Karen : He has got lovely books. Does he lend them?
Berkeley : We had a friend… Hopworth, he’d got a book from Denys and didn’t return it. Denys was furious. I said to Denys… “You wouldn’t lose a friend for the sake of a book.” He said, “No, but he has, hasn’t he?”
In Denys’ mind, there are rules you must abide by within a relationship, and these principles are so strong for him that he won’t change them under any condition. Unfortunately, this intransigence causes him problems in life. His nomadic principles and demand for personal freedom are altered when he finally learns to love. He’s not happy to find that he can’t control others through his principles, but he realizes that he was wrong to be so certain and so inflexible.
I recently finished reading Untamed by Glennon Doyle, a woman who was raised Evangelical, and after her husband cheated on her, wrote a book about saving your marriage called Love Warrior. In a twist, her next book (Untamed) is about how she discovered she was a lesbian and married the love of her life, a woman named Abby.
My husband’s betrayal didn’t leave me feeling the despair of a wife with a broken heart. I was feeling the rage of a writer with a broken plot.Glennon Doyle, Untamed
The book Untamed is all about her need to quit telling her life as if it were a story and starting to actually live her life and become the person she was.
I’ll just tell it like a story instead of a life. As if I am past the end instead of stuck in the middle. I’ll tell the truth, but I’ll tell it with a slant: I’ll blame myself just enough; present him in the most sympathetic light; attach my bulimia to my frigidity and my frigidity to his infidelity. I’ll tell how the cheating led to my self-reflection, how self-reflection led to forgiveness and pain led to redemption.Glennon Doyle, Untamed
Mormonism, like many religions, is really a life path we’ve bought into, one that we are supposed to follow from milestone to milestone: birth and blessing, baptism, youth programs and temple trips, seminary, mission, college, temple marriage, having children, taking them through all those steps and rites, lather, rinse, repeat. But not everyone fits into that path. Some people don’t marry, marry late, or marry outside the Church. Some are LGBT. Some don’t go on missions or go and come home early. Some skip college. Some don’t want children or can’t have children. Some have marriages that are dysfunctional. Some have children with disabilities or who are defiant. There are so many possible variations that I really could never list them all.
Until I surrendered myself to the cages of others’ expectations, cultural mandates, and institutional allegiances. Until I buried who I was in order to become what I should be. I lost myself when I learned how to please.Glennon Doyle, Untamed
There are various descriptions for the life plan that Mormonism lays out for us: the covenant path, the plan of happiness. But what if the “plan” gets in the way of happiness? As the poet Robert Burns said, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” 
Glennon’s book talks a lot about freeing ourselves to feel our feelings, to trust our own instincts over dogma, to create and imagine our futures rather than trying to fit them into a mold that was handed down from someone else that may not suit us. If we don’t do this, we may eventually realize we haven’t lived our lives because we haven’t allowed ourselves to be ourselves. We haven’t been true to our own needs. This is not only damaging to us individually, but to our families.
A broken family is a family in which any member must break herself into pieces to fit in. A whole family is one in which each member can bring her full self to the table knowing that she will always be both held and free.Glennon Doyle, Untamed
She doesn’t give “wayward” family members an automatic pass either.
Rebellion is as much of a cage as obedience is. They both mean living in reaction to someone else’s way instead of forging your own.Glennon Doyle, Untamed
I particularly liked her look back at her last memoir’s life lessons. She maintains a healthy skepticism about her personal narratives because as humans, we are constantly growing into who we are; trying to tell our lives like a story, line upon line, precept on precept, is simply not how life works. We are living lives, not stories!
I was born a little broken, with an extra dose of sensitivity–SOME HORSESHIT I WROTE ABOUT MYSELF IN MY FIRST MEMOIR.Glennon Doyle, Untamed
Doubtless, there are many Mormon families that don’t define their relationships solely based on each person’s relationship to the Church, in which individuals share interests that are not Church-related and make memories based on enjoying each others’ foibles and idiosyncrasies. But, from what I can see, there sure are a lot that place a premium on Church membership, and several Church leaders encourage this way of relating. It’s a shame where that is the case because there’s nothing quite so boring as someone whose entire life revolves around Church, particularly when you don’t attend the same ward or know the same people.
What do you think?
- Do you think Mormon families are great PR for the Church or are they a liability?
- Do you see patterns of dysfunction in Church families? Do you see patterns of dysfunction in non-Church families? Are they the same or different?
- What do you think are the strengths within Mormon families? Are these strengths unique to our faith?
- Do you think the focus on eternal families makes families stronger or more brittle? Defend your answer.
 The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.