When I was a missionary, I was not a very good senior companion. I drove myself very hard, and my companions were along for the ride. This is probably why I never trained anyone. My failures as a senior companion—the "presiding" role in a companionship—illuminate principles of divine leadership and power. What does it mean to preside? What does it mean to nurture, provide, protect? What does it mean to be a good wife, or a good husband? How is the Lord's power different from mortal power?
My thoughts on this topic are a product of my marriage, my dating, the Family Proclamation to the World, some feminist mores, conversations I've had with people, and my observations of others' approach to romantic relationships, divorce, leadership, and parenthood. I talk a lot to people. I'm interested in them, in learning how they deal with life, God, and others. My opinions do not come only from my own experiences, though they are of course filtered through my understanding of others' experiences.
I know most feminists and liberals read the Family Proclamation to the World (the Proclamation) with a critical eye. To them, words such as "preside" conflict with "equal partners." But I have learned to delight in the balance it strikes. It is a remarkable document, especially considering when it was issued. In a recent conversation with my brother about dating, I realized it is what I want out of marriage.
When I first received my Patriarchal blessing, it outlined in remarkable detail what my life would be like, how my husband would be, and my duties to him, my family, and others. The things it told me to do and the future life it painted for me was NOT what I wanted. At the time, I was afraid to be a mom. I did not think I'd make a good wife or mother. It was also difficult for me to build my life around the agency of another, invisible and future, person. But over time, I used that Patriarchal Blessing to reshape my opinions of myself, to change who I was.
I spent the better part of a decade recreating my opinions, feelings, and paradigm. I "bridled [my] passions," (though I'm still working on the charity.) Piece by painstaking piece, I peeled off layers of emotional protection that kept me insulated from the world, and wrestled with the idea of future parenting. While I served my mission, one of my companions said to me, "Sister [Rain], I have never met anyone who thought as much about how they are going to be a wife and mother than you do." And it was true. I was determined to change so that I could receive the life the Lord had in mind for me. At first, it was a sense of duty. But eventually, it grew into a deep and burning desire, especially after I experienced a marriage where my hopes to be a mother were battled, I was criticized rather than cherished, and instead of being part of an eternal team I was alone, convinced I was the problem. As excruciating as it was, my divorce allowed me to become myself again. Now, I do not live the ideal, and can believe in a realization of the model outlined in my patriarchal blessing by faith alone.
If I choose to marry again, I want to be vulnerable. I want to love without fear, to open my whole heart to my husband. We would know and value in each other the parts we have never shared. He could preside over me by caring for me and my needs, so that I could nurture others without worrying about myself. As a single mother, I try. But far too much of my time and energy is taken up with providing.
It is popular for women to talk about "self care," to make sure we don't run faster than we can, that we conserve our energy and take time for ourselves. This isn't a bad thing. But it is so much better if there is someone to help us do that, to focus on our needs so we can focus on others' needs (including theirs!) To me, "preside" is like a shepherd watching over his flock. Sheep can live without shepherds. On mountains, alone, they are still able to be sheep. But with a shepherd, they can concentrate all their energy on being sheep. They don't have to watch for predators or keep the flock in mind. They know that their shepherd will keep them safe, healthy, and together with the flock.
Granted, this is a limited analogy. Domesticated sheep are a lot stupider than their wild counterparts. And that isn't the point of the preside/nurture dynamic. The task that women do requires a great deal more thought and skill than simply eating and growing wool. In a marriage, the wife is the shepherd of some things, and the husband the shepherd of others. But the analogy, well-used as it is, is still worth exploring.
If I, as a woman of God, am learning to nurture and focusing my time on my family, my husband as a man of God can focus on freeing me for that task. As a man is working on providing for his family even in ways beyond finances, as a wife, I can free him for that task and support him in his efforts. As a single mom who has been working hard to reach out to others and help where I can, I know how difficult it is to return from a day of work, keep ahead of the chores, and still try to focus on ministry.
A righteous husband may not ever go to the cannery or help babysit someone's children so they can work or go to the temple. He may not do as much to keep the house clean or teach his children. But by working to provide for his family and accepting that responsibility, he can free his wife to focus on those things. By his caring for her needs, she is free to serve everyone else more fully. If a wife focuses on nurturing and caring for her family and home, she frees the husband to focus on his job. A wife may never bring in a penny, but she can support and enable her husband in his career and priesthood responsibilities. Both providing and nurturing require sacrifices. Both are difficult in their own ways. (I know, I have to do both.) And of course, there is a great deal of overlap. The husband still needs to nurture his kids, and the wife still needs to frugally manage finances. But they can trust each other to focus on their special tasks.
The problem with this domestic specialization is the same as economic specialization: when one party fails to accomplish their tasks. At that point, just as the Proclamation says, individuals must adapt. And some individuals are not well suited to one task or the other. But the family is most powerful when both parents work for this goal of mutually respected and specialized tasks (biological and otherwise,) and respect each other's sacrifices to facilitate each in accomplishing them.
I may never be able to live the things promised to me. But I will continue to do what I can to be worthy of it. I can see how beautiful the harmony of a husband and wife working together as a team could be. I want that. I want to be that for someone. Hopefully, if the Lord wills it, someday I will.