“Providing For A Family”; or, Why Engels Was Right

by Peter McMurray

When I set out to write this essay, I intended to offer a close-reading of several sections of Friedrich Engels’ 1884 treatise, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. I suspect, however, that my own experiences will resonate with other members and friends of the Mormon community, so instead I’ll keep my writing largely anecdotal, if I may so indulge.

I remember the moment in question well. I must have been fourteen-and-a-half, a mid-teens pubescent with few major concerns in life besides voice-cracks and acne. I had begun studying music quite seriously and was enjoying myself. One early Saturday morning, as my father drove me to a saxophone lesson, he asked, “So Peter, do you want to be a musician when you grow up?” I thought the question odd, but I mumbled some sort of vague response that somewhat affirmed the possibility. (I recognized even then that I certainly would not go down in the annals of decisive 14-year-old Mormon boys.)

My father’s response to my sotto voce mumblings caught me off guard, even more than his original question. “Now what exactly would you do with that?,” he asked. In my mind then, as now, I struggle with this question. What exactly did he mean by “do”? And what was “that”? And why at the age of fourteen-and-a-half do I need to know anything “exactly”? Of course, in hindsight the question is perfectly clear; I now understand the Mormonspeak regarding professional choices, and I can state quite certainly that my dad was speaking in code-language to me, sort of like my brother and I when we’d pretend to be commandos running and hiding throughout the neighborhood. (Disappointingly, Dad wasn’t wearing facepaint either). But eventually I cracked this little code. To translate, “do” meant “find gainful employment in a 9-5 job”; “that” was an intentionally vague pronoun suggesting that the speaker did not have any immediate acquaintances whose job title included the word “saxophonist” or even “musician” but referring obliquely to such titles; and “exactly,” I suppose, referred to the wage I might earn doing whatever that thing I do might be.

I’m quite certain that my dad was trying to encourage me to pursue music with his question. He himself was an English major-turned-lawyer, who often lamented how crass his professional life seemed. (Although to his credit, he chose to practice immigration law and has shown more social conscience than many self-proclaimed “progressive” friends.) Yet his question showed that even he was bound by the constraints of Mormon bourgeois thought, and particularly its ever-lurking question posed to all worthy male members, how do you intend to “provide for your family”?

The phrase, like my dad’s question, is nefarious in its apparent innocence. After all, who could deny the value of taking care of one’s own family? At least in a church that has defined itself in terms of family relationships over the past 50 years, I haven’t encountered many who would disagree with the value of this basic premise. But “provide for”–there’s the rub. What are the limits of “providing for”? When do we have enough? At what point does sustenance turn to excess and materialism? On the one hand, Mormon men seem to whimper when this question is posed. We fear the scorn and derision of our neighbors who work in stable, white-collar professions–I’ll dispense with the career-list–as we try to keep up with the Joneses, who also happen to be our priesthood leaders. So we keep on running, mistaking our occupational treadmill for the strait-and-narrow. On the other hand, Mormon women are effectively discouraged from pursuing employable skills (though recent emphasis on higher education for all has been a welcome renaissance), causing men to assume that the responsibility is solely theirs, even if their spouse (potential or actual) might in fact be better qualified to earn a stable income.

And here Engels becomes relevant. He points out that this system leads to an imbalance of power within the family, not in the voluntary sense that many Mormons would associate with temple marriage or family unions, but in a rigid sense of unyielding gender roles, whose one-size-fits-all requirements lead to depression and divorce as often as eternal happiness and higher tax brackets.

Well, after attempting to find a suitably bourgeois profession, I found myself back in music, now pursuing an advanced degree in composition. The questions continue–what am I going to do with that?–and my answer–”compose music”–remains as unintelligible to most of my Mormon friends as my mumblings were to my dad all those years ago.

As Mormonism grows globally and ages, perhaps these kinks will straighten themselves out and we will, to borrow the phrase, approach Zion. Or perhaps we’ve capitulated already, relegating Zionistic philosophy exclusively to the glorious past, along with half of Brigham Young’s teachings, ankle-length garments, and all sorts of other doctrines and cultures we’ve outgrown.

Either way, I’m sure that Engels is watching eagerly from the other side of the veil, of course–as it all unfolds.