Writers Discuss Fatherhood in Mormon Culture

Father hugging his son

With Father’s Day coming up, three of our writers, Christopher Cunningham, Gale Boyd, and Marian Spencer, had a conversation about the role of fatherhood in Mormon Culture.

Christopher: Motherhood is a big honking deal in the Church. It seems like hardly a general conference goes by without some remarks about motherhood, Mother’s Day is practically part of our liturgical calendar, and missionaries get to call home when we celebrate Jesus’ birth and Mother’s Day. In comparison, fatherhood doesn’t seem to receive that same kind of emphasis. Why might that be, and do you feel it’s changing?

Marian: No question, Mother’s Day generally gets the bulk of the attention. Why? As we know, men and women—and, therefore, mothers and fathers—play roles that are different but equal in importance. One of the most important roles a father plays (in our faith) is priesthood holder.

Now, tell me what you think of this. Do you guys think it’s possible that we emphasize Mother’s Day more because we, as members, think the topic of fatherhood is being covered when we talk about the priesthood? Is fatherhood being oversimplified, and, therefore, under-appreciated?

Gale: I wasn’t born into an LDS family. When I married a faithful Mormon returned missionary, I really had no clue what to do to structure a Mormon family or raise kids in the Church. I’d never been to primary, and the home I was raised in was adult-oriented.

Now, having raised six kids in the Church, I can say that I had no idea how thankless and taxing it would be to always be on call, to have to organize so many logistics to simply walk out the front door. I think we all know what mothers go through and that they need to be honored thoughtfully and enthusiastically one day a year.

As for fatherhood, my husband was a completely different father to our kids than my father was to me. He changed diapers and cleaned up throw-up, did acrobatics on the lawn and played horsey to six riders. Sometimes, he was in charge of discipline, but often he was the sugar-daddy and got to have way more fun than I did.

Marian: Gale, that’s awesome that your husband has fulfilled his role as father so well! I’m not married, but I’m really blessed to have a dad who’s managed to be both a role model and a pal to me. Needless to say, Father’s Day has always been just as big of a deal as Mother’s Day in my family. Honestly, it gets just as much attention.

Christopher: A lot of my family’s Mother’s Day and Father’s Day celebrations were the same too. We would give them both breakfast in bed and bring them both presents. But there was one major difference.

When I did my recent Mother’s Day article, I asked a ton of mothers how they celebrated Mother’s Day, and one of the most common celebrations was that mom was not expected to do her part of the family responsibilities, which in those families were all domestic responsibilities (taking care of kids, cleaning up, cooking).

My family did the same thing. So Mother’s Day was a major departure from our usual routine. My father’s major responsibility was his employment, which he never did on Sundays anyway. So in this very visible way Father’s Day was a much smaller deal than Mother’s Day. Based on the folks I talked to, it was probably the same for a lot of LDS families.

Marian: Really, really good points. Christopher, it’s interesting that some of the most noticeable differences between Father’s Day and Mother’s Day lie in how we celebrate the domestic aspects of motherhood and fatherhood.

Gale: I think dads do notice the difference in celebrating Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, but they probably don’t take into consideration how much easier it is to think of what to do for mothers.

To do something unique for fathers, it would probably have to take place on another day instead of Sunday, like washing his car, mowing the lawn, etc. I have heard my husband mention that Father’s Day is not noticed or honored the way Mother’s Day is. But the reason is what you have described—a mother’s work is never done, so relieving household tasks on Sunday is a gift.

Marian: I think that changing the day of Father’s Day could definitely help dads feel extra celebrated. Of course you’d run into the complicated question of who actually counts as a father.

Christopher: But do LDS fathers need more celebration? Do they need father-specific celebration?

Marian: What if celebrating mothers and fathers were more about our relationships with them than relieving everyone of their domestic duties? Acknowledging sacrifices seems like it would come naturally if that were our focus, and then we wouldn’t be so caught up in who qualifies and who’s sacrificing more, etc.

Gale: It was interesting to live in foreign countries that have truly “chauvinistic” cultures.

In one, my husband’s secretary had to stay late at the office, and she called her husband and asked him to get their two little kids into their pajamas. He refused because that was the mom’s job and hers alone.

Men in these cultures are almost totally uninvolved with child rearing, leaving it all to their wives. In these cultures, women talk about American men as if they are super-heroes, because of their involvement at home, and Mormon men are way above that, almost idolized by women who can hardly believe men like that exist.

Christopher: One complaint I hear often among Mormon feminists is that women are put on a pedestal in the Church. That there’s a persistent benevolent sexism, that crops up in places such as Mother’s Day.

Gale, what you said reminded me of that kind of language but this time directed toward fathers. Which feels strange. This feels like a departure from how we talk about men generally.

Extending Marian’s idea from earlier, when we praise men, it’s usually couched in discussions of the priesthood, and when we praise women, it’s couched in discussions of motherhood.

Obviously, these ideas are far from analogous, which would leave some people and ideas out of the conversation. We’ve heard many stories from LDS women who aren’t mothers and feel excluded. Maybe on the other side, men, in general, are included via the priesthood while the specific role of fatherhood tends to be left out.

Marian: Is this a problem? We hear from women who aren’t mothers that the way we celebrate Mother’s Day hurts them. Does the way we celebrate Father’s Day hurt any group of LDS men?

Gale: Women who want to be mothers and are not—that’s a very sensitive issue, because, for most of them, it is a real heartbreak. No other challenge remotely comes close in type or long-term sadness.

On Father’s Day, there are certainly men in the congregation who are not fathers but would like to be, but you never hear anyone express concern for their feelings. Nor have I ever heard any of them speak up about feelings hurt when fathers are honored.

Christopher: What does that say about either LDS culture in particular or the larger culture that we are a part of that for women who can’t become mothers, “No other challenge remotely comes close in type or long-term sadness,” yet men who can’t become fathers never say anything?

Are men just as hurt and not saying so? Or is fatherhood just not an essential part of LDS male identity the way motherhood is for LDS female identity?

Gale: This sounds like something that could use a general study, and I’ve never seen one. Being a Mormon mom myself, I’ve been personal friends with many Mormon women who have never been married or are unable to conceive, and the hurt is something they constantly struggle with. I’ve also seen a lot written about their feelings, but nary a word about childless men. Singleness among men I have read about, but not childlessness.

Christopher: I am a full-time father, and my son’s primary caregiver, so fatherhood is a major part of my identity now. But I don’t know that it felt like an inevitable part of my identity as a young adult.

As a Mormon man, there’s no way I could have remained unmarried without a major sense of loss, disappointment, and stigma. Unmarried men in our culture are definitely looked down on, and many of them feel that. Marriage felt like a crucial part of my future identity. But fatherhood didn’t.

Marian: Okay, I’ve got a lot of thoughts.

I was just reading through “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” and I discovered something interesting. I’d always read the description of mothers as the definition of a woman’s role, and the description of fathers as the definition of a man’s role in this life.

Women are “nurturers” and men are “providers.” The problem with that reading is that outside of a family unit, men and women seemingly have no purpose. I’ve seen plenty of people put their lives on hold because they weren’t in a position to start a family.

Obviously, we are all individuals unique personalities, talents, and experiences that a loving Heavenly Father has designed for us, and he expects us to progress independently as well as in our relationships.

But by extrapolating these family roles, to gender roles, we start to speculate as to the “whys” behind them. Men provide because they’re stronger and smarter; women nurture because they’re more loving. BIG problem. I’ve known girls who’ve thrown away opportunities because they didn’t feel that their education was important, and I’ve seen men encourage these kinds of choices. That’s not always how it goes, but it’s happened.

Christopher: I agree that viewing the Proclamation as a description of gendered abilities is a misreading that has some cultural sway. Do you think that our culture’s de-emphasis of fatherhood then primarily hurts women?

Marian: So, sorry, what does this have to do with men’s feelings on Father’s Day?

The bottom line is that generalizations are harmful. Just because men aren’t described in the Proclamation of the Family as “nurturers” does not mean that they somehow love their families less, or that being without a family hurts them less.

If we can avoid oversimplifying our roles as men and women (without neglecting our divine roles within the family unit), and see ourselves and others as individuals as well, I think we’ll find ourselves feeling more understanding, less limited, and less stereotyped.

Christopher: Looking at what we’ve said about fatherhood in LDS culture, our conclusions have tended to be that fatherhood is respected, LDS fathers are highly involved, and that men are not too negatively impacted. The conclusion has largely been that the Church and LDS culture are doing fantastic in this area. Are there exceptions?

Marian: I’m not a man or a father, so I’m probably not the best spokeswoman (haha). But when it comes to truly understanding and appreciating motherhood and fatherhood, I’m not sure that “fantastic” accurately describes how we’re doing in LDS culture.

I think there’s a lot of confusion about fatherhood vs. priesthood—not to mention the weird belief that motherhood is somehow the counterpart to the priesthood. There are a lot of imbalances to work through.

I will say, though, that my dad is so much more than a bread-winning priesthood holder—those things are huge blessings in our lives, but if that were the only roles he played in my life, something would be seriously lacking. This Father’s Day, I’m going to celebrate the unique qualities he brings to my family, and I know that he will be celebrating his own father that day, too.

Gale: My husband and I happen to live in an apartment-style condo development. As a result, our ward is also highly transient. Unfortunately, some of this impermanence is caused by divorce. Some single parents show up that are right in the middle of litigation, hoping they can have custody of their kids. Others have been single parents for years but are in limbo hoping to transition into a new, better reality. They are unsettled in their roles, under loads of stress, financially strapped.

The divorced fathers—a couple have custody of their children—feel cut loose, disconnected. They may not seem as emotional as the women do, but they are really going through some horrible stuff and radical introspection. Women are freer with their emotional support of each other, while men do much of their suffering alone.

For fathers in intact families, much rides on their shoulders. Inability to earn enough income, job loss, disagreements with their spouse, difficulty communicating with children—all of these things are heavy burdens. But I think we need to be aware that female suffering is mostly apparent, while male suffering may be well-hidden.

Christopher: Marian, Gale, thanks for taking the time to chat. I hope our readers enjoyed this format. Continue the conversation below. What do you think about the role of fatherhood in LDS culture? What topic would you like us to take on in our next chat?

Christopher D. Cunningham is the managing editor for Public Square Magazine and contributor to Third Hour. He loves emphatically celebrating the normal healthy development of his sons Albus and Whitman, writing about the Church of Jesus Christ, finding the middle ground on most controversies, and using Western Family generic brand lip balm. Christopher is a proud graduate of Brigham Young University-Idaho, and a resident of San Antonio, Texas.
Marian is a seasoned traveler and third culture kid, having spent most of her life in Australia and Southeast Asia. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University in English with an editing minor, and is passionate about all things beautiful, meaningful, and edible.
Gale Boyd is the managing editor for She is a Jewish convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and has lived all over the world. She has raised 6 Third Culture Kids and is always homesick for somewhere.