The daily work of families—the ordinary hands-on labor of sustaining life—has the power to bind us together.
Illustrations by Rich Lillash
I grew up in a little town in Northern Utah, the oldest daughter in a family of 13 children. We lived on a small two-and-a-half-acre farm with a large garden, fruit trees, and a milk cow. We children loved helping our dad plant the garden, following behind him like little quail as he cut the furrow with his hoe and we dropped in the seeds. Weeding was less exciting, but it had to be done. I was never very good at milking the cow. Fortunately, my brothers shared that task.
In the autumn, we all helped with the harvest. I especially loved picking and bottling the fruit. It required the hands of all 13 of us plus Mom and Dad. We children swarmed through the trees picking the fruit. My dad would fire up an old camp stove where we heated the water to scald the fruit. My mother supervised putting the fruit in jars, adding the sugar, putting on the lids. My youngest sister remembers feeling very important because she had hands small enough to turn the peach halves if they fell into the jars upside downand they usually did. When the harvest was complete, I loved looking at the freezer full of vegetables and all the jars of fruit. They looked like jewels to me.
Caring for our large family kept all of us busy most of the time. Mother was the overseer of the inside work, and Dad the outside, but I also remember seeing my father sweep floors, wash dishes, and cook meals when his help was needed. As children we often worked together, but not all at the same task. While we worked we talked, sang, quarreled, made good memories, and learned what it meant to be family members, good sons or daughters and fathers or mothers, good Americans, good Christians.
As a young child, I didn’t know there was anything unusual about this life. My father and mother read us stories about their parents and grandparents, and it was clear that both my father and mother had worked hard as children. Working hard was what families did, what they always had done. Their work was “family work,” the everyday, ordinary, hands-on labor of sustaining life that cannot be ignored—feeding one another, clothing one another, cleaning and beautifying ourselves and our surroundings. It included caring for the sick and tending to the tasks of daily life for those who could not do it for themselves. It was through this shared work that we showed our love and respect for each other—and work was also the way we learned to love and respect each other.
Many social and political forces continue the devaluation of family work.
When I went to graduate school, I learned that not everyone considered this pattern of family life ideal. At the university, much of what I read and heard belittled family work. Feminist historians reminded us students that men had long been liberated from farm and family work; now women were also to be liberated. One professor taught that assigning the tasks of nurturing children primarily to women was the root of women’s oppression. I was told that women must be liberated from these onerous family tasks so that they might be free to work for money.
Today many social and political forces continue the devaluation of family work, encouraging the belief that family work is the province of the exploited and the powerless. Chief among these forces is the idea that because money is power, one’s salary is the true indication of one’s worth. Another is that the important work of the world is visible and takes place in the public sphere—in offices, factories, and government buildings. According to this ideology, if one wants to make a difference in the world, one must do it through participation in the world of paid work.
Some have tried to convince us of the importance of family work by calling attention to its economic value, declaring, as in one recent study, that a stay-at-home mom’s work is worth more than half a million dollars.1 But I believe assigning economic value to household work does not translate into an increase in its status or power. In fact, devaluing family work to its mere market equivalent may even have the opposite effect. People who see the value of family work only in terms of the economic value of processes that yield measurable products—washed dishes, baked bread, swept floors, clothed children—miss what some call the “invisible household production” that occurs at the same time, but which is, in fact, more important to family-building and character development than the economic products. Here lies the real power of family work—its potential to transform lives, to forge strong families, to build strong communities. It is the power to quietly, effectively urge hearts and minds toward a oneness known only in Zion.
Back to Eden
Family work actually began with Adam and Eve. As best we can discern, they lived a life of relative ease in the Garden of Eden. They “dressed” and “kept” it (Moses 3:15), but it isn’t clear what that entailed since the plants were already flourishing. There were no weeds, and Adam and Eve had no children to prod or cajole into watering or harvesting, if such tasks needed to be done
When they exercised their agency and partook of the fruit, Adam and Eve left their peaceful, labor-free existence and began one of hard work. They were each given a specific area of responsibility, yet they helped each other in their labors. Adam brought forth the fruit of the earth, and Eve worked along with him (Moses 5:1). Eve bore children, and Adam joined her in teaching them (Moses 5:12). They were not given a choice about these two lifetime labors; these were commandments (Moses 4:22–25).
Traditionally, many have considered this need to labor as a curse, but a close reading of the account suggests otherwise. God did not curse Adam; He cursed the ground to bring forth thorns and thistles (Moses 4:24), which in turn forced Adam to labor. And Adam was told, “Cursed shall be the ground for thy sake” (vs. 23, emphasis added). In other words, the hard work of eating one’s bread “by the sweat of thy face” (vs. 25) was meant to be a blessing.
According to the New Testament, the work of bearing and rearing children was also intended as a blessing. Writes the Apostle Paul: “[Eve] shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety” (1 Tim. 2:15, emphasis added). Significantly, Joseph Smith corrected the verse to read, “They shall be saved in childbearing” (JST, 1 Tim. 2:15, emphasis added), indicating that more than the sparing of Eve’s physical life was at issue here. Both Adam and Eve would be privileged to return to their Heavenly Father through the labor of bringing forth and nurturing their offspring.
According to scripture, then, the Lord blessed Adam and Eve (and their descendants) with two kinds of labor that would, by the nature of the work itself, help guarantee their salvation. Both of these labors—tilling the earth for food and laboring to rear children—are family work, work that sustains and nurtures members of a family from one day to the next. But there is more to consider. These labors literally could not be performed in Eden. These are the labors that ensure physical survival; thus, they became necessary only when mankind left a life-sustaining garden and entered a sphere where life was quickly overcome by death unless it was upheld by steady, continual, hard work. Undoubtedly the Lord knew that other activities associated with mortality—like study and learning or developing one’s talents—would also be important. But His initial emphasis, in the form of a commandment, was on that which had the power to bring His children back into His presence, and that was family work.
Since Eden many variations and distortions of the Lord’s original design for earthly labor have emerged. Still, the general pattern has remained dominant among many peoples of the earth, including families who lived in the United States at the turn of the last century. Mothers and fathers, teenagers and young children cared for their land, their animals, and for each other with their own hands. Their work was difficult, and it filled almost every day of their lives. But they recognized their family work as essential, and it was not without its compensations. It was social and was often carried out at a relaxed pace and in a playful spirit.
The wrenching apart of work and home-life is one of the great themes in social history.
Yet, long before the close of the 19th century this picture of families working together was changing. People realized that early death was often related to the harshness of their daily routine. Also, many young people longed for formal schooling or to pursue scientific careers or vocations in the arts, life courses that were sometimes prevented by the necessity of hard work. Industrialization promised to free people from the burden of domestic labor. Many families abandoned farm life and crowded into tenement housing in the cities to take jobs in factories. But factory work was irregular. Most families lived in poverty and squalor, and disease was common.
Reformers of the day sought to alleviate these miseries. In the spirit of the times, many of them envisioned a utopian world without social problems, where scientific inventions would free humans from physical labor, and modern medicine would eliminate disease and suffering. Their reforms eventually transformed work patterns throughout our culture, which in turn changed the roles of men, women, and children within the family unit.
By the turn of the century, many fathers began to earn a living away from the farm and the household. Thus, they no longer worked side by side with their children. Where a son once forged ties with his father as he was taught how to run the farm or the family business, now he could follow his father’s example only by distancing himself from the daily work of the household, eventually leaving home to do his work. Historian John Demos notes:
The wrenching apart of work and home-life is one of the great themes in social history. And for fathers, in particular, the consequences can hardly be overestimated. Certain key elements of pre-modern fatherhood dwindled and disappeared (e.g., father as pedagogue, father as moral overseer, father as companion). . . .
Of course, fathers had always been involved in the provision of goods and services to their families; but before the nineteenth century such activity was embedded in a larger matrix of domestic sharing. . . . Now, for the first time, the central activity of fatherhood was cited outside one’s immediate household. Now, being fully a father meant being separated from one’s children for a considerable part of every working day.2
By the 1950s fathers were gone such long hours they became guests in their own homes. The natural connection between fathers and their children was supposed to be preserved and strengthened by playing together. However, play, like work, also changed over the course of the century, becoming more structured, more costly, and less interactive.
Initially, the changing role of women in the family was more subtle because the kind of work they did remained the same. Yet how their tasks were carried out changed drastically over the 20th century, influenced by the modernization of America’s factories and businesses. “Housewives” were encouraged to organize, sterilize, and modernize. Experts urged them to purchase machines to do their physical labor and told them that market-produced goods and services were superior because they freed women to do the supposedly more important work of the mind.
Women were told that applying methods of factory and business management to their homes would ease their burdens and raise the status of household work by “professionalizing” it. Surprisingly, these innovations did neither. Machines tended to replace tasks once performed by husbands and children, while mothers continued to carry out the same basic duties. Houses and wardrobes expanded, standards for cleanliness increased, and new appliances encouraged more elaborate meal preparation. More time was spent shopping and driving children to activities. With husbands at work and older children in school, care of the house and young children now fell almost exclusively to mothers, actually lengthening their work day.3 Moreover, much of a mother’s work began to be done in isolation. Work that was once enjoyable because it was social became lonely, boring, and monotonous.
Even the purpose of family work was given a facelift. Once performed to nurture and care for one another, it was reduced to “housework” and was done to create “atmosphere.” Since work in the home had “use value” instead of “exchange value,” it remained outside the market economy and its worth became invisible. Being a mother now meant spending long hours at a type of work that society said mattered little and should be “managed” to take no time at all.
Prior to modernization, children shared much of the hard work, laboring alongside their fathers and mothers in the house and on the farm or in a family business. This work was considered good for them—part of their education for adulthood. Children were expected to learn all things necessary for a good life by precept and example, and it was assumed that the lives of the adults surrounding them would be worthy of imitation.
With industrialization, children joined their families in factory work, but gradually employers split up families, often rejecting mothers and fathers in favor of the cheap labor provided by children. Many children began working long hours to help put bread on the family table. Their work was hard, often dangerous, and children lost fingers, limbs, and lives. The child labor movement was thus organized to protect the “thousands of boys and girls once employed in sweat shops and factories” from “the grasping greed of business.”4 However, the actual changes were much more complex and the consequences more far-reaching.5 Child labor laws, designed to end the abuses, also ended child labor.
At the same time that expectations for children to work were diminishing, new fashions in child rearing dictated that children needed to have their own money and be trained to spend it wisely. Eventually, the relationship of children and work inside the family completely reversed itself: children went from economic asset to pampered consumer.
In almost every facet of our prosperous, contemporary lifestyle, we strive for the ease associated with Eden. . . . Back to Eden is not onward to Zion.
Thus, for each family member the contribution to the family became increasingly abstract and ever distant from the labor of Adam and Eve, until the work given as a blessing to the first couple had all but disappeared. Today a man feels “free” if he can avoid any kind of physical labor—actual work in the fields is left to migrant workers and illegal aliens. Meanwhile, a woman is considered “free” if she chooses a career over mothering at home, freer still if she elects not to bear children at all.
In almost every facet of our prosperous, contemporary lifestyle, we strive for the ease associated with Eden. The more abstract and mental our work, the more distanced from physical labor, the higher the status it is accorded. Better off still is the individual who wins the lottery or inherits wealth and does not have to work at all. Our homes are designed to reduce the time we must spend in family work. An enviable vacation is one where all such work is done for us—where we are fed without preparing our meals, dressed without ironing our shirts, cleaned up after wherever we go, whatever we do.
Even the way we go about building relationships denies the saving power inherent in working side by side at something that requires us to cooperate in spite of differences. Rather, we “bond” with our children by getting the housework out of the way so the family can participate in structured “play.” We improve our marriages by getting away from the house and kids, from responsibility altogether, to communicate uninterrupted as if work, love, and living were not inseparably connected. We are so thoroughly convinced that the relationship itself, abstract and apart from life, is what matters that, a relationship free from lasting obligations—to marriage, children, or family labor—is fast becoming the ideal. At every turn, we are encouraged to seek an Eden-like bliss where we enjoy life’s bounties without working for them and where we don’t have to have children, at least not interrupting whatever we’re doing.6
However, back to Eden is not onward to Zion. Adam and Eve entered mortality to do what they could not do in the Garden: to gain salvation by bringing forth, sustaining, and nourishing life. As they worked together in this stewardship, with an eye single to the glory of God, a deep and caring relationship would grow out of their shared daily experience. Today, the need for salvation has not changed; the opportunity to do family work has not changed; the love that blossoms as spouses labor together has not changed. Perhaps, then, we are still obligated to do the work of Adam and Eve.
For Our Sakes
The story of Adam and Eve raises an important question. How does ordinary, family-centered work like feeding, clothing, and nurturing a family—work that often seems endless and mundane—actually bless our lives? The answer is so obvious in common experience that it has become obscure: Family work links people. On a daily basis, the tasks we do to stay alive provide us with endless opportunities to recognize and fill the needs of others. Family work is a call to enact love, and it is a call that is universal. Throughout history, in every culture, whether in poverty or prosperity, there has been the ever-present need to shelter, clothe, feed, and care for each other.
Ironically, it is the very things commonly disliked about family work that offer the greatest possibilities for nurturing close relationships and forging family ties. Some people dislike family work because, they say, it is mindless. Yet chores that can be done with a minimum of concentration leave our minds free to focus on one another as we work together. We can talk, sing, or tell stories as we work. Working side by side tends to dissolve feelings of hierarchy, making it easier for children to discuss topics of concern with their parents. Unlike play, which usually requires mental concentration as well as physical involvement, family work invites intimate conversation between parent and child.
We also tend to think of household work as menial, and much of it is. Yet, because it is menial, even the smallest child can make a meaningful contribution. Children can learn to fold laundry, wash windows, or sort silverware with sufficient skill to feel valued as part of the family. Since daily tasks range from the simple to the complex, participants at every level can feel competent yet challenged, including the parents with their overall responsibility for coordinating tasks, people, and projects into a cooperative, working whole.
Another characteristic of ordinary family work that gives it such power is repetition. Almost as quickly as it is done, it must be redone. Dust gathers on furniture, dirt accumulates on floors, beds get messed up, children get hungry and dirty, meals are eaten, clothes become soiled. As any homemaker can tell you, the work is never done. When compared with the qualities of work that are prized in the public sphere, this aspect of family work seems to be just another reason to devalue it. However, each rendering of a task is a new invitation for all to enter the family circle. The most ordinary chores can become daily rituals of family love and belonging. Family identity is built moment by moment amidst the talking and teasing, the singing and storytelling, and even the quarreling and anguish that may attend such work sessions.
Some people also insist that family work is demeaning because it involves cleaning up after others in the most personal manner. Yet, in so doing, we observe their vulnerability and weaknesses in a way that forces us to admit that life is only possible day-to-day by the grace of God. We are also reminded of our own dependence on others who have done, and will do, such work for us. We are reminded that when we are fed, we could be hungry; when we are clean, we could be dirty; and when we are healthy and strong, we could be feeble and dependent. Family work is thus humbling work, helping us to acknowledge our unavoidable interdependence; encouraging (even requiring) us to sacrifice “self” for the good of the whole.
God gave us family work as a link to one another, as a link to Him, as a stepping stone toward salvation that is always available and that has the power to transform us spiritually as we transform others physically. This daily work of feeding and clothing and sheltering each other is perhaps the only opportunity all humanity has in common. Whatever the world takes from us, it cannot take away the daily maintenance needed for survival. Whether we find ourselves in wealth, poverty, or struggling as most of us do in day-to-day mediocrity, we need to be fed, to be clothed, to be sheltered, to be clean. And so does our neighbor.
When Christ instituted one of the most sacred of ordinances, one still performed today among the apostles, what symbolism did He choose? Of all the things He could have done as He prepared His apostles for His imminent death and instructed them on how to become one, He chose the washing of feet—a task ordinarily done in His time by the most humble of servants. When Peter objected, thinking that this was not the kind of work someone of Christ’s earthly, much less eternal stature would be expected to do, Christ made clear the importance of participating: “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me” (John 13:8).
So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?
Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.
For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. (John 13:12–15)
And so for our sakes this work seems mindless, menial, repetitive, and demeaning. This daily toiling is in honor of life itself. After all, isn’t this temporal work of tending to the necessary and routine currents of daily life, whether for our families or for our neighbors, the work we really came to Earth to do? By this humble service—this washing of one another’s feet—we sacrifice our pride and invite God to wash our own souls from sin. Indeed, such work embodies within it the condescension of the Savior himself. It is nothing less than doing unto Christ, by serving the least of our brethren, what He has already done for us.
Family Work in Modern Times
If family work is indeed what I say it is—a natural invitation to become Christlike devalued by a world that has shattered family relationships in its quest for gain and ease—what can be done? Families working harmoniously together at a relaxed pace is a wonderful ideal, but what about the realities of our day? Men do work away from home, and many feel out-of-step when it comes to family work. Children do go to school, and between homework and other activities do not welcome opportunities to work around the house. Whether mothers are employed outside the home or not, they often live in exhaustion, doing most of the family work without willing help.
Yet we cannot go back to a pre-industrial society where hard family work was unavoidable, nor would it be desirable or appropriate to do so.
Life for most people may have changed over the century, but opportunities to instill values, develop character, and work side by side remain. We have all seen how times of crises call forth such effort—war, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods—all disasters no one welcomes, but they provide opportunities for us to learn to care for one another. In truth, opportunities are no less available in our ordinary daily lives.
The length of this article does not allow for the discussion we really need to have at this point, and there will never be “five easy steps” to accomplish these ends. Rather, the eternal principles that govern family work will be uncovered by each of us according to our personal time line of discovery. The following, however, are several ideas that may be helpful.
Tilling the Soil.
Although tilling the soil for our sustenance is unrealistic for most Americans today, modern prophets have stressed the need to labor with the earth, if only in a small way. Former LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball was particularly insistent on the need to grow gardens--not just as a food supply, but because of the “lessons of life” inherent in the process as well as the family bonds that could be strengthened:
I hope that we understand that, while having a garden, for instance, is often useful in reducing food costs and making available delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, it does much more than this. Who can gauge the value of that special chat between daughter and Dad as they weed or water the garden? How do we evaluate the good that comes from the obvious lessons of planting, cultivating, and the eternal law of the harvest? And how do we measure the family togetherness and cooperating that must accompany successful canning? Yes, we are laying up resources in store, but perhaps the greater good is contained in the lessons of life we learn as we live providently and extend to our children their pioneer heritage. (Emphasis in original.)7
Exemplifying the Attitudes We Want Our Children to Have.
Until we feel about family work the way we want our children to feel about it, we will teach them nothing. If we dislike this work, they will know it. If we do not really consider it our work, they will know it. If we wish to hurry and get it out of the way or if we wish we were doing it alone so it could better meet our standards, they will know it. Most of us have grown up with a strong conviction that we are fortunate to live at a time when machines and prosperity and efficient organizational skills have relieved us of much of the hands-on work of sustaining daily life. If we wish to change our family habits on this matter, we must first change our own minds and hearts.
Refusing Technology That Interferes With Togetherness.
As we labor together in our families, we will begin to cherish certain work experiences, even difficult ones, for reasons we can’t explain. When technology comes along that streamlines that work, we need not rush out and buy it just because it promises to make our labor more efficient. Saving time and effort is not always the goal. When we choose to heat convenience foods in the microwave or to process vegetables in a noisy machine, we choose not to talk, laugh, and play as we peel and chop. Deciding which modern conveniences to live with is a personal matter. Some families love washing dishes together by hand; others would never give up the dishwasher. Before we accept a scientific “improvement,” we should ask ourselves what we are giving up for what we will gain.
Insisting Gently That Children Help.
A frequent temptation in our busy lives today is to do the necessary family work by ourselves. A mother, tired from a long day of work in the office, may find it easier to do the work herself than to add the extra job of getting a family member to help. A related temptation is to make each child responsible only for his own mess, to put away his own toys, to clean his own room, to do his own laundry, and then to consider this enough family work to require of a child. When we structure work this way, we may shortchange ourselves by minimizing the potential for growing together that comes from doing the work for and with each other.
Canadian scholars Joan Grusec and Lorenzo Cohen, along with Australian Jacqueline Goodnow, compared children who did “self-care tasks” such as cleaning up their own rooms or doing their own laundry, with children who participated in “family-care tasks” such as setting the table or cleaning up a space that is shared with others. They found that it is the work one does “for others” that leads to the development of concern for others, while “work that focuses on what is one’s ‘own,’” does not. Other studies have also reported a positive link between household work and observed actions of helpfulness toward others. In one international study, African children who did “predominantly family-care tasks [such as] fetching wood or water, looking after siblings, running errands for parents” showed a high degree of helpfulness while “children in the Northeast United States, whose primary task in the household was to clean their own room, were the least helpful of all the children in the six cultures that were studied.”8
Avoiding a Business Mentality at Home.
Even with the best of intentions, most of us revert to “workplace” skills while doing family work. We overorganize and believe that children, like employees, won’t work unless they are “motivated,” supervised, and perhaps even paid. This line of thought will get us into trouble. Some managing, of course, is necessary and helpful—but not the kind that oversees from a distance. Rather, family work should be directed with the wisdom of a mentor who knows intimately both the task and the student, who appreciates both the limits and the possibilities of any given moment. A common error is to try to make the work “fun” with a game or contest, yet to chastise children when they become naturally playful (“off task,” to our thinking). Fond family memories often center around spontaneous fun while working, like pretending to be maids, drawing pictures in spilled flour, and wrapping up in towels to scrub the floor. Another error is to reward children monetarily for their efforts. According to financial writer Grace Weinstein, “Unless you want your children to think of you as an employer and of themselves not as family members but as employees, you should think long and hard about introducing money as a motivational force. Money distorts family feeling and weakens the members’ mutual support.”9
Working Side by side With Our Children.
Assigning family work to our children while we expect to be free to do other activities only reinforces the attitudes of the world. LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said: “Children need to work with their parents, to wash dishes with them, to mop floors with them, to mow lawns, to prune trees and shrubbery, to paint and fix up, to clean up, and to do a hundred other things in which they will learn that labor is the price of cleanliness, progress, and prosperity.”10
Most of the important lessons that flow from family work are derived from the cooperative nature of the work. Christ said, “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise” (John 5:19). Perhaps this concept is more literal than we have assumed.
Several years ago one of my students, a young mother of two daughters, wrote of the challenges she experienced learning to feel a strong bond with her firstborn. Because this daughter was born prematurely, she was taken from her mother and kept in isolation at the hospital for the first several weeks of her life. Even after the baby came home, she looked so fragile that the mother was afraid to hold her. She felt many of the inadequacies typical of new mothers, plus additional ones that came from her own rough childhood experiences. As time passed, she felt that she loved her daughter, but suffered feelings of deficiency, often to the point of tears, and wondered, “Why don’t I have that ‘natural bond’ with my first child that I do with my second?”
Then she learned about the idea of working together as a means to build bonds. She purposely included her daughter in her work around the house, and gradually, she recalls, “our relationship . . . deepened in a way that I had despaired of ever realizing.” She describes the moment she realized the change that had taken place:
One morning before the girls were to leave [to visit family in another state], Mandy and I were sitting and folding towels together, chattering away. As I looked at her, a sudden rush of maternal love flooded over me--it was no longer something that I had to work at. She looked up at me and must have read my heart in my expression. We fell laughing and crying into each other’s arms. She looked up at me and said, “Mom, what would you do without me?” I couldn’t even answer her, because the thought was too painful to entertain.11
In a world that lauds the signing of peace treaties and the building of skyscrapers as the truly great work, how can we make such a big thing out of folding laundry? Gary Saul Morson, a professor of Russian literature at Northwestern University, argues convincingly that “the important events are not the great ones, but the infinitely numerous and apparently inconsequential ordinary ones, which, taken together, are far more effective and significant.”12
To Bring Again Zion
Family work is a gift from the Lord to every mortal, a gift that transcends time, place, and circumstance. On a daily basis it calls us, sometimes forces us, to face our mortality, to ask for the grace of God, to admit that we need our neighbor and that our neighbor needs us. It provides us with a daily opportunity to recognize the needs of those around us and put them before our own. This invitation to serve one another in oneness of heart and mind can become a simple tool that, over time, will bring the peace that attends Zion.
I learned firsthand of the power of this ordinary work not only to bind families but to link people of different cultures when I accompanied a group of university students on a service and study experience in Mexico. The infant mortality rate in many of the villages was high, and we had been invited by community leaders to teach classes in basic nutrition and sanitation. Experts who had worked in developing countries told us that the one month we had to do this was not enough time to establish rapport and win the trust of the people, let alone do any teaching. But we did not have the luxury of more time.
In the first village, we arrived at the central plaza where we were to meet the leaders and families of the village. On our part, tension was high. The faces of the village men and women who slowly gathered were somber and expressionless. They are suspicious of us, I thought. A formal introduction ceremony had been planned. The village school children danced and sang songs, and our students sang. The expressions on the faces of the village adults didn’t change.
Helping one another nurture children, care for the land, prepare food, and clean homes can bind lives together.
Unexpectedly, I was invited to speak to the group and explain why we were there. What could I say? That we were “big brother” here to try to change the ways they had farmed and fed their families for hundreds of years? I quickly said a silent prayer, desirous of dispelling the feeling of hierarchy, anxious to create a sense of being on equal footing. I searched for the right words, trying to downplay the official reasons for our visit, and began, “We are students; we want to share some things we have learned. . . .” Then I surprised even myself by saying, “But what we are really here for is, we would like to learn to make tortillas.” The people laughed. After the formalities were over, several wonderful village couples came to us and said, “You can come to our house to make tortillas.” The next morning, we sent small groups of students to each of their homes, and we all learned to make tortillas. An almost instant rapport was established. Later, when we began classes, they were surprisingly well attended, with mothers sitting on the benches and fathers standing at the back of the hall listening and caring for little children.
Because our classes were taking time from the necessary work of fertilizing and weeding their crops, we asked one of the local leaders if we could go to the fields with them on the days when we did not teach and help them hoe and spread the fertilizer. His first response was, “No. You couldn’t do that. You are teachers; we are farmers.” I assured him that several of us had grown up on farms, that we could tell weeds from corn and beans, and in any case, we would be pleased if they would teach us. So we went to the fields. As we worked together, in some amazing way we became one. Artificial hierarchies dissolved as we made tortillas together, weeded together, ate lunch together, and together took little excursions to enjoy the beauty of the valley. When the month was over, our farewells were sad and sweet—we were sorry to leave such dear friends, but happy for the privilege of knowing them.
Over the next several years I saw this process repeated again and again in various settings. I am still in awe of the power of shared participation in the simple, everyday work of sustaining life. Helping one another nurture children, care for the land, prepare food, and clean homes can bind lives together. This is the power of family work, and it is this power, available in every home, no matter how troubled, that can end the turmoil of the family, begin to change the world, and bring again Zion.
- Study by Edelman Financial Services, May 5, 1999, (see http://www.kidsource.com/kidsource/content5/mothers.worth.html).
- John Demos, "The Changing Faces of Fatherhood," Past, Present, Personal: The Family and the Life Course in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 51–52.
- See R. S. Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1983).
- William A. McKeever, "The New Child Labor Movement," Journal of Home Economics, vol. 5 (April 1913), pp. 137–139.
- See Viviana A. Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child (New York: Basic Books, 1985).
- See Germaine Greer, Sex and Destiny (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), and J. Van de Kaa, "Europe's Second Demographic Transition," Population Bulletin, vol. 42, no. 1 (March 1987), pp. 1–57.
- Spencer W. Kimball, "Welfare Services, The Gospel in Action," Ensign, November 1977, p. 78.
- Joan E. Grusec, Jacqueline J. Goodnow, and Lorenzo Cohen, "Household Work and the Development of Concern for Others," Developmental Psychology, vol. 32, no. 6 (1996), pp. 999–1007.
- Grace W. Weinstein, "Money Games Parents Play," Redbook, August 1985, p. 107, taken from her book Children and Money: A Parents’ Guide (New York: New American Library, 1985).
- Gordon B. Hinckley, "Four Simple Things to Help Our Families and Our Nations," Ensign, September 1996, p. 7.
- Michelle Cottingham, unpublished paper.
- Gary Saul Morson, "Prosaics: An Approach to the Humanities," American Scholar, vol. 57 (Autumn 1988), p. 519.