Last month for Mother's Day, I shared my opinion that the greatest gift men could give their wives and mothers for Mother's Day is to wake up and behold their suffering. This Father's Day weekend I am wondering if there's a corresponding invitation for men.
I have to conclude that maybe it's the same one: to wake up and behold our OWN suffering, and and see the trouble that comes when we see each other as a role instead of as a person.
With the social pressure men already feel, that "true" masculinity never shows weakness or is emotionally vulnerable (or even admits there is a problem at all) it takes courage to speak about ourselves in ways that aren't considered overtly masculine. It takes courage to acknowledge our own suffering as men and seek support in it. While masculinity is a good, crucial, and even divine part of who we are, there are some aspects of cultural masculinity we have inherited that hurt us, both men and women. It is especially problematic when false binaries based on gender stereotypes highjack a sacrament meeting or Sunday School class.
Now I am going to say something a little bit controversial here, but I think sometimes our gender role fixation built up around post World War II American middle class family dynamics is akin to a modern day golden calf.
Don't get me wrong, I believe in the Proclamation to the World on the Family, and I embrace the teachings of modern day prophets about marriage. I believe that "gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose." But the model for men AND women that should be lifted up for us to behold, on Father's Day and Mother's Day (and always) should not be based on any particular cultural gender construct. There is nothing in the scriptures that convinces me of that, and plenty of real life experience to convince me otherwise.
Instead, the model that should be lifted up is Christ.
Christ showed us that a person can develop a balance of "masculine" and "feminine" characteristics in oneself without having to rely on a complementary opposite sex spouse to be made perfect/complete. In Christ, we all can learn to become whole individuals, to be "at-one" with ourselves through Christ's at-one-ment, rather than turn into lopsided men and women who can't hardly function without the other one filling in the gaps. And this actually happens. It makes for terrible relationships. The way we make that balance work for us will be as unique as we are, but it must always be a balance.
I will be quick to point out that it is never helpful to judge individuals or leaders when we fall into this kind of idolatry and lose focus on Christ as our model as men and women, but it is helpful to call out the wicked systems that make it happen. We can start by recognizing that a lifetime spent in patriarchy hardens men and encourages toxic masculinity, abuse, addictions, and shame. This is because the feminized traits that we ALL need as men to be made whole are devalued and even feared. This leads to a myriad of social ills.
Christ's invitation is to help heal all that. His invitation is for men to receive His priesthood and exercise it in order to become more tender, to witness suffering and minister to it, to weep, talk about feelings, show affection, nurture youth—to become what some social constructs might define as "feminine." Through priesthood service, we can learn how to balance feminine traits in ourselves while still holding onto our masculinity with an appropriate sense of balance. For those who are fathers, being an active part of raising children can also help us develop those traits naturally.
While so much of patriarchal systems teach men to focus on efficiency and productivity over feelings and connection, to dominate in social hierarchies at all costs, or to amass wealth and seek after individual accomplishments, many men choose to reject that model and reorient themselves towards a balance of masculine and feminine qualities. Fatherhood can help make that happen, but it doesn't happen automatically. It isn't even instinctive. The natural man has always been "an enemy to God."
And that's why I honor the many men, especially my own father, who deliberately work to protect a space for community and the feminine collective spirit to flourish. I am grateful to know men who know how to do this very well, and even wear out their lives trying to make it happen.
No father is perfect at this. "We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion." (D&C 121:39) We know Christ's priesthood "cannot be controlled not handled, only upon principles of righteousness." (vs 41) This is a near impossible task in a power structure that is totally invested in encouraging men to do exactly the opposite of what Christ invites us to do. But we keep on trying, anyway.
I see the suffering of men as they try to provide for their families without getting consumed in the process. I see the struggle of men who confront a system that attempts to turn our divinely ordained diversity into 9-5 drudgery, making us a cog in an economic machine that everlastingly tries to separate us from our wives and families. I see the suffering of men who are taught by the devil to fear emotional vulnerability and to run away from beholding our own weakness.
But I also see the many good men who have chosen fatherhood in the fullest sense of the word: men who use their privilege in a patriarchal society to sacrifice and serve to help foster a place for families to flourish, transcending nonsensical gender labels in order to restore masculine/feminine balance in our communities, in our marriages—and most of all in ourselves.