Like many Latter-day Saint women, I have wrestled with questions of how to perform the prescriptive gender ideals set forth in the family proclamation.
Yet in all my angst about if I would marry and if I would have children and if I would have a career, I did not fully consider how the ideals in this proclamation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reflected a certain moment in white, middle-class America’s economic history.
I have come to question the value of tying the deepest questions of my faith and identity to a historically contingent economic system that devalues the caregiving labor usually performed by women.
For those who have struggled to live the model of a provider husband and stay-at-home wife, it’s helpful to consider this historical argument: The model arose and persists primarily because it meets the needs of employers for mobile, dedicated workers. Whether this model promotes the happiness of families has usually been a secondary consideration.
Today’s American Latter-day Saints are fully integrated into their country’s economy, and it’s unsurprising that the proclamation’s advice reflected the contexts of their lives in the times leading up to its publication in 1995. The church itself employs a gendered division of labor as stay-at-home wives enable men to attend priesthood functions, provide volunteer labor to the ward, and take children to church functions.
The current economy, however, has largely failed many of us who came of age in the 21st century. It is no longer news that supporting a family on one income is difficult in the wake of the Great Recession, the COVID-19 pandemic, wage stagnation, and inflation that has been especially high in vital areas such as housing and education. While my husband has enjoyed a linear, upward career enabled by my professional sacrifices, I have entered, exited and reentered the workforce in search of employment that would allow us to live in the same city, rear children, and provide needed income and intellectual satisfaction.
Indeed, too many mothers find themselves working a series of side gigs because they are uncompensated for the work they already do at home. Many have no financial safety net outside of their families. They raise workers but do not receive Social Security credits for their domestic efforts.
Essayist Meg Conley, who writes frequently about the Latter-day Saint experience, has demonstrated, for example, how multilevel marketing schemes can be appealing to mothers because they promise the ability to provide income while staying home, a perk often missing in the mainstream economy.
At the same time, today’s parents face the erosion of infrastructure to support children and caregivers. I spent several years as a stay-at-home parent in Boulder, Colo. I rarely met other adults because most parents in the neighborhood worked outside the home to meet family expenses. Socialization occurred primarily through classes, camps and preschools that were priced for two-income families.
These activities are now at risk even for those who can afford them. The pandemic hit the child care sector hard. My son’s preschool was forced to close due to a rent increase, while other preschools suffered staffing shortages. After-school care at our elementary school is full, putting further pressure on the child care market. Boulder was forced to reduce access to swimming pools this summer due to lifeguard shortages.
While one may dismiss Boulder as an expensive anomaly and suggest that we move somewhere cheaper, the housing market pressures that made Boulder unaffordable are visible throughout the West’s Mormon Belt. The Salt Lake City area, for instance, is feeling the strain of unsustainable housing and development patterns as it confronts the reality that it has overallocated water and triggered a looming ecological crisis from a shrinking Great Salt Lake.
The church cannot dodge the consequences of these shifts. As a Latter-day Saint, I feel the steady erosion of support for caregiving in my congregation. Ward activities provided essential support for my family when I was a child, but the financial pressures that have driven many families away from my community have made it difficult to staff our ward. Church activities are now infrequent. Our children’s Primary must combine multiple ages to form classes. I worry that our area cannot retain a critical mass of members.
The church is clearly aware of the pressures on families and their declining capacities to volunteer as evidenced by the shift to the two-hour Sunday block and the emphasis on a home-centered, church-supported gospel. Still, such changes have the practical effect of throwing yet more work on families (primarily mothers) who are already overstretched.
Broken systems are opportunities to reflect on how we can better live, work and raise the next generation. In future columns, I hope to profile voices within the Latter-day Saint community that are innovating to meet the needs of families. I worry that we have been so busy defining families that we have forgotten what they need. The church’s future might depend, however, on how we support the caregivers who support us.
Natalie Brown is a writer, scholar, lawyer, mother and Latter-day Saint based in Boulder, Colo. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not reflect those of the church or her employer.