One popular way of slashing through the Gordian knot that is the term “preside” in Mormon thought is to assert that it is merely ceremonial and thus utterly insignificant to the power dynamics of marriage. In this model, specifically in order to be consonant with a system of equal partnership, “presiding” by definition must entail the fulfillment of tasks of such a thoroughly trivial nature that they in no way impinge on the wife’s status as full equal–such as calling on someone to pray, or (presumably) showing up at Family Home Evening in a ceremonial miter–activities inconsequential enough that they no more risk disequilibrium than does the wife’s turning on the stove without reporting to her husband first. In this system, “presiding” in the home entails the following situation: (a) it must involve performing tasks that are fundamentally insignificant, lest the equal partnership balance be tipped; (b) by their nature, insignificant tasks tend to be simple activities (virtually anyone can perform them with minimal expenditure of effort: hence their insignificance); but (c) these tasks must nevertheless be assigned to the father exclusively, “by divine design.”
In other words, our twisted model of presiding that is sprouting up around equal partnership rhetoric suffers from its own internal tension: presiding must be insignificant at the same time it must be of eternal import. Its value, therefore, is not inherent to our model of appropriate family government (in contrast to the more traditional model of presiding, in which the father’s role is absolutely central), but is artificially assigned.
The oft stated rationale for this model is that fathers tend to float on the periphery of family interaction, drawn to other family members by the weakest of gravitational forces. Although they’re not an inherently necessary or even important element in family dynamics, something should nevertheless be done to at least keep them in orbit.
Purportedly this is a way of claiming that fatherhood is non-fungible. Unfortunately, our extension of trivial tasks the average two-year-old can carry out to fathers, far from making a statement about the essential, irreplaceable importance of fatherhood, is a tacit admission of exactly the opposite: fatherhood is entirely expendable. It’s a made-up calling, like ward bulliten board straightener: if no father is present to choose someone to pray, the situation will simply take care of itself. (I’ve witnessed this repeatedly with roommate prayers: rather than waiting for a stray father to wander into the room and preside, someone just volunteers.) The fact that we’re bent on making fatherhood matter is itself an indication that we think it really doesn’t.
(Of course, fathers have a more strenuous assignment–”providing”–that can be accomplished without any family interaction. But the focus of this post is fathers’ significance to personal family dynamics.)
Or maybe presiding is simply the lure. Maybe once fathers start calling on people to pray, they’ll become interested in those people’s lives, while if they weren’t given such a duty, they’d remain entirely oblivious and emotionally inaccessible. But if this is the ultimate desired outcome for which presiding is merely a hook, why not be explicit about it? Presiding doesn’t ineluctably lead to family involvement any more than asking the cashier at Dunkin’ Donuts for a receipt leads to lifelong friendship.
Thus our solution to the apparent incongruities between presiding and equal partnership only raises further problems whose implications are deeply troubling. The assumptions underlying this model strike me as entirely false and demeaning to fathers. Undoubtedly as a result of nature and nurture operating in tandem, men and women are different, and while there’s a lot of room for overlap, a male parent is just a flat-out irreplaceable asset to a family, regardless of how spectacular or flexible a parent the mother is. Fathers don’t need to be patted on the head and given hollow ritual duties; we don’t have to ask them to flip the light on in the morning and then sit patiently in the darkness of voluntary helplessness until they wake up. Fathers matter in ways far more profound than providing or our attenuated definition of “presiding” indicate, and a father’s absence reverberates far beyond confusion over who should bless the food. Fathers matter not because they preside when present, but in spite of the fact that mothers can easily preside in their absence. In fact, fathers’ ideal duties might best be represented by the term “nurture.” But I don’t think we have to be afraid that gender confusion will result because this is the mother’s primary role. If we’re serious in our claims that men and women are naturally different, we have nothing to fear from the prospect of fathers and mothers nurturing together. Let’s acknowledge fathers’ natural centrality and importance to the family rather than concocting vacuous tasks to keep them minimally at the periphery.
Conclusion: If presiding means exercising authority, fathers are indispensable but mothers are infantilized. If presiding means carrying out trivial and inconsequential ritual functions at family meetings, fathers are entirely dispensable. How about just retiring an overworked term?
- 30 September 2008