Scene: A discussion on family roles in Relief Society. A sister (sitting next to me, nonetheless), pipes up with, “I heard something that really made an impression on me. You see, the man is the head of the household. But the woman is like the neck. She guides and controls the head.”
The sister went on. I was lost in the realization that the warning I had read on the Exponent II list about the proliferation of this analogy in Church classes in the wake of My Big Fat Greek Wedding was not, in fact, an urban legend.
To quote the immortal words of Marge Simpson, “I can’t even begin to tell you what’s wrong with that.” But I’ll try anyway. The movie itself (which I liked, really) shows that the mother is manipulative and deceitful in her dealings with her husband. That’s funny on the big screen, less so in your living room, regardless of which side of the gender war you’re on. That’s one problem with the head/neck analogy. Another, of course, is that necks don’t think; they are merely the muscles that carry out the will of the head, the seat of reason.
At the same time, I appreciate the need for analogies to help us understand, especially in this case. This may be a topic for a separate discussion, but it has always struck me as odd that so precious little direction is given through official channels about what ‘to preside’ in the home actually means. There was an Ensign article on this very topic earlier this year (Feb. 04, “Presiding Righteously in the Home”). But if you were reading it wanting to know exactly what someone presiding does, you would have felt much like a teenager trying determine the facts of life from a dimestore romance: “Yes, but what exactly do they do?”
Think about it. You may be familiar with how your parents did things (if they were members), how things are in your home, and maybe a few anecdotes from others. But there is very little heard from the pulpit as to what precisely constitutes or inappropriately constitutes presiding. I was shocked to hear a woman I respect state that she considers presiding to include the right to having the last word in cases of disagreement. I think that’s bunk. When I was in college, I visited a friend’s family. At one point, the entire family was in the room. Wife: ‘Honey, will you call the family to dinner?” Husband: “Everyone, time to eat.” This struck me as just silly.
At any rate, I am going to offer up a new analogy for your consideration. Here it is: spouses are like hands. Here’s why I like it:
(1) It would be possible for a being from another dimension to sit through a RS, EQ, etc., lesson on husband/wife roles and get the impression that 21st century LDS live in a culture where men and women are radically different people, with drastically different duties, living completely separated lives. How often do you hear emphasized the fact that basically, like hands, men and women, and their requirements in the church and in the home, are virtually identical? (Faith, baptism, repentance, service, prayer, scripture study, etc., etc., are all equally required of men and women.) I think there is a danger to not emphasizing the similarity; Satan would have us think that the gender divide is very wide, and that we can’t really get that close to our spouse. (I’d like to link to Hugh Nibley’s “Patriarchy and Matriarchy” here, but it is, curiously, a bad link from the FARMS page and I can’t find it online elsewhere. I would imagine most of you are familiar
(2) Not only are hands virtually identical, most of the time they work in tandem. This is how it should be in the home, as well. Too much emphasis on difference can lead to ignoring the fact that the highest ideal is seemless joint operation between spouses–unity in marriage. I met a woman once with a disability that caused one of her hands to literally wander away. She had to use her other hand to bring the wayward hand back to her side. You can imagine how this impacted her ability to do so many things. I’m sure you see the parallel to spouses who aren’t
united in purpose.
(3) You’ll notice my careful use of the words ‘virtually identical’ above. Hands aren’t identical (but if anyone introduces the word ‘dominant’ into this discussion, I’ll give them a virtual smack. All analogies break down at some point. . .) and, much as we are taught that men and women have different roles in an ideal family setting, hands specialize as well. I write with my right but can hold a baby more easily with my left. But, just as there are people who are right, left, or ‘both’ handed, not every family will assign jobs/chores/roles/characteristics in the same way as other families. My very innovative friends in Provo like to scandalize the missionaries and other guests when the wife calls on someone to pray. If they get any remarks or questioning looks, the husband explains that he has delegated this authority to his wife for the year; they alternate years (nifty, huh?).
(4) Along these lines, people with an injured or absent hand make accomodations and live their lives. Similarly, a single/divorced/widowed man or woman may be at a disadvantage, but isn’t quite as incomplete as a neck without a head, or vice versa.
(5) And, finally, neither hand is really in control. The head of both is God. As each partner seeks to be God’s hands in the world, God can aid them in working together for the benefit of others.