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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. 

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