Family Size is The First Thing Reported about Mission Presidents–and That’s Good

I noticed the other day when looking up a recently called mission president that the mission president bios follow a pretty standard format: name, age, number of children, past church callings, and background. 

Now, this is one of those things that was probably decided by a mid-level official in the COB, so I don’t want to read too much into this, but it seemed like in the past occupation was usually included and family size was included later if at all. I like the new emphasis. In a Latter-day Saint context honoring people for their family makes more sense than honoring them for their occupational accomplishments. (While it is true that not everybody can have a family or a large one, the same is true for occupational success, and often for reasons that are just as arbitrary as infertility, but one hardly hears that we shouldn’t congratulate people for their degrees or other worldly accomplishments.) 

Recently there’s been some discussion about the mixed messages women in the Church receive when rhetorically childbearing and rearing is emphasized, but professionally successful women, some with small or no families, are put on pedestals whether in leadership positions or the “I am a Mormon” campaign. 

In terms of leadership, I’m fine giving those positions to people with managerial experience as long as we move away from honoring leadership as the most righteous by definition; also, I wouldn’t be surprised if the “I am a Mormon” tableaus were chosen by a mid-level PR executive in the Church who wanted to make us look hip, but still, given how much we honor leadership in the Church the “whiplash” point is well taken.  

There is also a male version of this as well (and before people jump down my throat, I’m not making a claim of equivalency here). The fact of the matter is that, for both men and women (although especially for women) it is difficult to become world class in your field while having a large family. While occasionally a Professor Valerie Hudson or President Russell M. Nelson (and yes, Prof. Hudson is world class despite attempts from some on the left in the Church to excommunicate her from the intelligentsia for her heresy against progressive ideological orthodoxy) can pull it off, it’s pretty rare. As a male, if you were to use the demographics of the brethren to try to emulate them, you would have 3 or so children, try to get into a top-ten professional school of some sort, and have a very successful career. (Of course, if you build your life around the demographic and socioeconomic [not spiritual] characteristics of who happens to be in Church leadership you’re going to feel pretty dumb on your deathbed).  

Now, the brethren with smaller families (in a Latter-day Saint context) have been very open about their different medical challenges that have led to their smaller families (e.g. Holland and Renlund), which provide examples for why we should not assume in any individual case that smaller families were chosen to specifically help their career (but let’s not pretend that’s not a thing in the Church or society in general). Still, it’s likely that Elder Holland would not have gone to Yale and Elder Uchtdorf would not have been a highly successful aviation executive had they had 10 kids. 

While the mixed messages concern is warranted, for me from a Latter-day Saint perspective it’s a no-brainer what the tradeoff should be when family size is explicitly weighed against occupational success (there are other reasons to not have as many kids that I’m not addressing here such as financial stability or mental health, this is specifically about occupational achievements vs child number tradeoff, and again please spare me the gaslighting that that’s not a consideration for some).  

As a millennial (albeit an atypical one who was married at 21 and a father at 22), I tend to agree with many of the criticisms of my generation (of course true to form I think most of them apply to the people who came after my cohort…). However, one area where I think we got it more right than our parents is that we are less suckered into the scam of trying to find meaning in our status at work. That was always a bit of a ponzi scheme, and I think my generation finally caught on. 

In my generation at least it seemed every high schooler with a 4.0 thought that they were going to be a Joseph Kennedy or Thomas Edison, but the fact is that the vast, vast majority of our professional work is doomed for the void after we die. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t eat our bread by the sweat of our brow, but rather that we should not grant our earthly work the same kind of supernal significance we grant family. 

In my family growing up we had a saying that “that which is not eternal is too short.” If you zoom out on the historical timeline far enough, even the accomplishments of the people we read about in our 20th century history textbooks will become another Ozymandian sculpture buried in the sand, and the infinitesimally few who are granted legitimate historical immortality happened to be at the right place at the right time in history; in other words, it’s not something one can or should really aspire to. 

Conversely, it’s clear from early and contemporary Church rhetoric and teachings that our childbearing and rearing has eternal consequences and is a fundamental part of Latter-day Saint cosmology. While people love to talk about the sealings to many wives in Nauvoo and Utah, much less discussed but just as important in the Latter-day Saint worldview were the sealing adoptions of many children. The hypernatalism of the early Church was well supported by the theology and teachings of the same. (I discussed this to some detail in a paper I wrote at a Maxwell Institute Seminar under Claudia and Richard Bushman; unfortunately despite being rather anodyne it appears to have been memory holed, which I wouldn’t mind except I didn’t keep a final copy since I assumed it would always be online). 

Parley P. Pratt said that Joseph Smith taught him “the idea of eternal family organization…which [is] at the very foundation of everything worthy to be called happiness,” and we have a faith where literally the defining characteristic of the highest realm of heaven is the creation of an infinite number of children. So I think I’m on strong theological footing to say that for both men and women making it to the C-suite is of infinitesimally small worth compared to having more children. Less theologically, children are associated with the most tender and intense feelings for good or ill that we’ll feel in our lives. It’s clear that however much late stage capitalism tries to convince us that that board presentation matters on the most fundamental level, our inner gut is still primarily hardwired towards protecting our babies on the savannah. (Even taking religion out of the framing, the tweet, while done in jest, kind of pithily makes the point why emphasizing career is a raw deal no matter how you look at it). 

While there is a gendered component to it, even for men like me with a stay-at-home wife (who couldn’t care less about her or my professional accolades), it’s clear that I will never be world class with my family size (and sleep needs), and that’s completely fine. I’m around world class professionals enough in my work in DC that I see what the end of that road looks like, and while it’s not an unpleasant road and more power to them, at the same time it’s really not any more pleasant than what I have now, and we all end up in the same ground, so I’m not going to build my life around getting the corner office or being the person who drops into the call for two minutes, makes the big decision, then leaves for another meeting. When I think of my children I can’t imagine exchanging even one of them for all the “chief seats” in the conference room tables in the world. 

12 comments for “Family Size is The First Thing Reported about Mission Presidents–and That’s Good

  1. I doubt we will ever avoid attributing a greater degree of “righteousness” or God’s favor in leaders. It’s a well-embedded meme in LDS consciousness. Although I would argue it is a very poisonous one for all concerned. Just seriously question many local leaders and you’ll have your loyalty and testimony questioned, even be challenged on if you sustain your local leaders.

    And mid-level church bureaucrats only make the decisions on projects that fail or fall by the wayside. Successful projects are generally attributed to higher ups.

    I do agree that no father in their right mind would knowingly surrender their relationships with their children for a few prestigious titles on their church or career resume. But we all know those who have done so.

  2. Family size has always been included in the bios, at least for the last twenty years. It was that format in the Church News paper we used to get and is still that way.

  3. @ Old Man: I’m fine with members assuming a correlation between righteousness and leadership callings, I’ve definitely seen that in my own life, the problem comes when we assume that there’s nothing else at play and that it’s an exact rank-ordering of God’s favor.

    @sameasithasalwaysbeen: Before this post I googled around for a few moments and found bios that had child number at the end and included occupational accomplishments. I vaguely recall reading some earlier that didn’t have child number, but I might be wrong.

  4. Successful people are usually successful in multiple areas of their lives. While those who struggle usually struggle often do so in multiple areAs of their lives. Very seldom do you see a dichotomy

  5. The standard format includes number of children where one would expect to see the wife’s age. They never provide the wife’s age. So…husband, age, wife, number of children. Several years ago I emailed an editor at the Church News asking them to include career or educational background for the wife in addition to the husband (when they used to include it). I was told they had be asking permission to do that for years but it was never granted. Instead they removed the career info for the husband.

  6. @ Roman: Sure, there’s probably a correlation, but there are enough professionally successful people who are schmucks in their personal lives to make me wary of making that correlation out to be more than it is, plus doing so beats people who are already down which seems to be contrary to the humbling the exalted and exalting the humbled ethos.

    @Also have whiplash: Good catch re the age point; I missed that. They probably didn’t want to get involved in the “mommy wars,” even implicitly. There are gendered norms in the Church about employed women, but they don’t want to appear too gendered because exceptions and making people feel bad, so how gendered exactly kind of depends on the moment, etc. It was probably just easier to drop occupation altogether. Whatever the underlying rationale, as noted in the OP I like them dropping occupation for both men and women, we have enough prosperity gospel in our culture and reporting professional accomplishments probably doesn’t help.

  7. For new stake presidencies, the Church News lists name, age, OCCUPATION, and wife’s name. Nothing about children. Nothing about current or previous Church callings. Skimming through these monthly lists, I’ve noticed that a) there is a great variety in jobs, but b) in the U.S. a LOT work in some kind of medical or dental care. And, in Latin America and Africa, a LOT are employed by the Church. (Analyzing this data could be an interesting study.)
    On the other hand, for the most recent batch of area seventies. the Church News included occupation PLUS the data listed for mission presidents.
    So, why the discrepancies? Could it be because stake presidencies and area seventies continue to work in their “day” jobs while serving, and members deserve to know what they are? I would think that missionaries and their families might be interested in what their mission presidents did as “day” jobs–plus that could impact how the mission presidents act and react (there have been recent posts on businessmen and wealth…).

  8. As an infertile woman with just a few children (adopted rather than born to me), the whole concept of larger families equaling more righteous people is a huge turnoff, so it’s not something I want to see highlighted in these Church leader bios. All it tells us is the status of someone’s fertility, which has absolutely nothing to do with their worthiness to hold such a calling.

    I enjoyed seeing the person’s occupation listed and would love to see that done for both the husband and wife. I have never viewed it as a status-symbol. Rather, I feel like it actually tells us something about the person and their interests; it humanizes that person and adds interest in a small way to what is otherwise just a bland list of stats. Even though I am a stay-at-home mother myself, I’ve also always enjoyed seeing women’s professions highlighted and seeing women who are single, childless, and/or who have had careers be called to high profile callings. It shows us that women in all situations have something to offer and that not having the opportunity to be a mother doesn’t mean you can’t serve or that you aren’t worth anything to the Church. There are still plenty of women who have had a more traditional family experience who are also serving at high levels. This just means more room for everybody.

  9. I can’t help but think there has to be a way to thread the needle between, 1) not otherizing people who don’t have children or large families, and 2) not pretending like having and rearing a large family is not an accomplishment or ideal that should be honored in a culture as theologically pronatalist as Mormonism. So not seeing that as a marker of righteousness, but as an ideal to strive for or an accomplishment to honor.

    Right now it feels like people tip toe around the issue so much that the norm towards larger families is becoming attenuated. We glorify people with professional accomplishments but we don’t glorify people who fostered 10 kids (although it was great to see a Sister Jean B. Bingham’s foster parenting noted in Church materials, and if there were any male leaders who fostered it would be great to see that mentioned as well). While there is some ambiguity in the Church towards employed women, the fact is that whether male or female occupational success comes with its own esteem from society at large, parenting really doesn’t, so I’m okay with the Church’s influence tipping more in the glorifying family direction relative to careers; the single, successful lawyer billing $900 an hour in a custom tailored suit already has his or her honor from the world, the stay-at-home parent simply does not.

    I agree that women with a variety of family situations should serve in leadership callings (although I’m fine with the very strong norm for male leaders being married, but that has to do with sex ratios and marriage markets and is a whole other can of worms that would take a whole post to carefully delineate), and I like the idea of putting material in the bio that adds some texture and color to the person, but again I’m a little worried about how occupation might lend itself to encouraging a prosperity gospel outlook.

  10. I guess for me, family size isn’t the only or even the main evidence of accomplishment in parenting. There is a lot of effort that goes on behind the scenes that can’t be seen or measured. A couple who give birth to and parent six kids may likely have not put any more effort or sacrifice into that than the couple who endured years of trying to conceive and/or infertility treatments or went through the adoption process but has only one or two children to show for it. And maybe those one or two children have some severe challenges that the family with six kids doesn’t have to experience. (When adoption factors in, that’s very likely–almost every adoptive parent I know is parenting at least one child with extreme challenges.) So why should the first be seen as an accomplishment and the second not? I think the only ideal when it comes to family size is to have the children God meant you to have in the time and way He meant you to have them, whether that’s two or ten or none.

    I would love to see people honored for fostering children, but it’s not about the number. It’s because I know enough foster parents to know the kinds of intense difficulties they are dealing with.

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