Thoughts on Fatherhood from The Book of Mormon Girl
Joanna Brooks has been busy. You may have caught her a few nights ago on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where she had been invited to talk about her newly released book, “The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith” (watch her interview here or read her amusing behind-the-scenes account here). Or you may have come across her popular blog, Ask Mormon Girl, where she fields questions that range from the sincere to the hostile and offers an “unorthodox but friendly perspective on Mormon thought and culture.” Or perhaps you came across her name in Politico.com’s “50 Politicos to Watch” list or the Center for American Progress’ “13 Religious Women to Watch” list. All of this while teaching at a Southern California university. A busy Mormon girl indeed.
In the midst of all this, Joanna’s father recently passed away after a long, debilitating illness. As I read on her blog some of her thoughts about what her father has meant to her, I couldn’t help but be moved. Even though Joanna’s “Mormon journey” has been admittedly unconventional, and her choices may not have always been what he had hoped, he was always there for her.
I asked Joanna if, despite her busy schedule, she would be willing to share with our MDB readers any thoughts she had on how his example could help us with our parenting responsibilities, especially those of us who may be blessed with unconventional kids (is there any other kind?). Here’s what she had to say.
The year before I got baptized, my father would sit with me in bed at night, and we’d hold the Book of Mormon on our laps, and read from it together.
He was a busy man: a bishop, with four young children, a long commute to a demanding job, and a hectic travel schedule. But those nights he managed to carve out a few minutes at bedtime to open the Book of Mormon with me—I remember his warmth beside me, and the way he’d take a strand of my hair between his fingers and roll it back and forth, as we read verse by verse through Lehi’s dream, and in his tenderness I gathered a sense of how sweet and beautiful the fruit on the tree of knowledge must have been. So beautiful, especially, against the closing darkness and chaos of the world outside.
It’s this story of Mormon fatherhood I tried to tell in the first chapter of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith, just released by the Free Press (available on-line and at bookstores and major retailers). I wrote this book after a New York City editor told me Mormons were too “weird” for people to want to read about us. Ridiculous, I thought. And all the more reason to keep telling our stories. Until the world sees the beauty and humanity in our faith.
My father plays a tremendous role in my Mormon story. He was a man who always took his faith seriously and was a dedicated local church leader, but he also had a tenderness that came, I think, from being raised by a single widowed mother. His example reminds me of the verses from Isaiah that read “kings shall be your nursing fathers.” I love that seemingly contradictory image of the “nursing father.” I think it points to an ancient wisdom that nurturing and affection can come naturally from both parents.
Just about a month before The Book of Mormon Girl came out, my father died after a long battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a debilitating neurological illness. I’ve thought so much since his death about his legacy to his children—a legacy of hard work, service to others, thoughtful parenting, and careful planning. We laughed, his children, as we remembered how he would plan and spreadsheet out his goals for himself, his family, his church responsibilities. He was, by education, a chemical engineer, and his career was in finance, so he was a man who loved a solid spreadsheet the way other men might love a thick steak or a fast car.
Let them govern themselves
But you can’t spreadsheet your children into a seamless Mormon future. You can try! But learning to make independent choices is a part of Heavenly Father’s plan, even when it’s painful for earthly parents to witness. Over the years, I certainly made some choices that diverged from my father’s plans for me. I wrestled with my faith. Really wrestled. And there were difficult moments between us—moments when he was trying to grasp who I was becoming, and moments I wanted to be free from both his expectations and his disappointment. He did not force me to righteousness, because he simply couldn’t. Still, I found my way through, in large part because of how he raised me.
I imagine him, now, sitting up late nights in his home office, the kids asleep, the house quiet, the scriptures open on his desk, diligently plotting out goals and priorities, but reminding himself always of the fundamentals of faith–something to hold onto as he tried to guide his family through the mists of the chaotic world and to its tender sweetness. Here are the three fundamentals I learned from my dad: nurture, plan, and then—let go.