"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
February 26, 2014
Penguins and Polar Bears
by Emily S. Jorgensen

As anyone who has seen March of the Penguins knows, penguins are pretty much the ideal parents of the animal world.

After courtship and mating, both parents stick around until the egg is laid, then the mother hands off the egg to the dad so she can journey a long way back to the ocean for food to replenish the energy it took to have the egg. While she is gone, the baby chick is born. Dad, who is slowly starving to death by now, feeds it its first meal, and waits for mom to come take over so he can go eat.

Somehow she knows when to leave the ocean and trek back to feed the newborn chick from the food she has stored in her body. Then Dad heads back to the ocean until it is his turn again. They do this all season, until the ice around them melts such that the ocean is close enough for the chicks to learn to feed themselves.

Penguin parents somehow know when it is time to take their turn for the childcare; they somehow know exactly when to leave the ocean and walk several days back to the exact spot they left their mate and chick. They work as a perfectly synchronized pair, even when they are miles away from each other.

Contrast penguins with polar bears. Polar bears mate and the male leaves well before the cubs are born. Good thing, too, since as a top-of-the-food-chain predator, male polar bears see their offspring as potential rivals and tend to kill and/or eat them.

The mother polar bear must keep her children safe for about 2 ½ years, until they can fend for themselves. Sure, wolves are a potential predator for the bear cubs, but the main threat is often their father or any other males in the area.

We would all like to be like penguin parents, I am sure — equally sharing the duties, intuitively knowing what our offspring need and when, putting their needs above our comfort. However, many parents find they are forced to be a mama polar bear instead, protecting their children from the other parent. (And, believe me, I know this role can be filled by either gender).

I first became concerned about this when I had only one child and she was trying to assert herself more as she left babyhood and entered childhood. My husband was starting to become more punitive, less patient, even angry, taking her little defiances personally, like she was rejecting him rather than rejecting the expectation for good or safe behavior.

I spoke to a friend of mine who had a couple of children already. Her response was “well he is her father” as if that explained everything — as if that meant I needed to stand by and let him parent the way he wanted to, even if it was abusive.

But I already knew how that story ended. This is pretty much the tack my husband’s mother took, thinking it was what the Church expected of her. My husband’s father raised his children in an emotionally abusive atmosphere, making them feel stupid, taking their disobedience as a personal affront rather than a natural process to maturing, placing ridiculous expectations on them.

And, for the most part, until she divorced him, my mother-in-law allowed him to run the house this way. In part, she thought this was playing the role of the righteous Mormon mother, supporting her husband the way she should. It is an unfortunate side effect of the entire situation that she has since left the Church, which she associates with this type of abuse.

But I am also well aware of the pitfalls inherent in constantly siding with my children over my husband, and with taking over all the parenting and thus wordlessly communicating to him that I don’t think he is a good dad, and to my children that they shouldn’t trust their father.

It is often difficult to decide what to do. It seems that every day a new situation arises, where I must make choices, finding the balance between protecting my children and honoring my co-parent, without undercutting him.

The last thing I want is for my children to distrust their father. But, when he is clearly wrong, and they know it — when he is acting out of pure selfishness — it does not serve them for me to support that; this teaches them they can’t trust me either. Then what?

I truly wish he never put me in this situation. I wish we could always be penguin parents, who seamlessly switch off duties, who are each willing to make sacrifices in turn, who never fight about what is best for their child.

And I know I have sometimes overreached my agency; I have sometimes made mountains from molehills, I have sometimes undercut him.

But, I do not regret the times I have stood my ground when he was consumed with wanting a child to do things his way for no other reason than he wanted to have control over the child. I don’t regret asking him to leave the room and go take a break when it was clear his emotions were mastering him and not the other way around.

And, when I have been in the right, he always sees it later, when the red is gone from his vision, and he agrees I made the right choice.

Because at the end of the day, I know he loves our children as much as I do. He just lacks some of the parenting skills I have. (And, it should be fairly noted, he has some parenting skills in spades that I lack as well.)

However, I wish he could see how distorted his thinking was in the moment. Sometimes I go all teenage-type angsty that I have to deal with this, and bemoan the fact that it may never get all the way better. But at least he is humble enough and righteous enough to see afterward that what he did was wrong.

I know there are many parents out there who are married to polar bears that are always polar bears, and not just on occasion like my husband is. In this way, I count myself lucky.

And I truly pity those parents, because they have to make the really tough choices. Stay or divorce? Fight this battle or let this one slide so the family stays together another day, week, year? Which is better for the children — today, tomorrow, in the future?

The enormity of this deliberation is overwhelming to parents who truly care about their children more than they do themselves. In talking to parents who have been through this, it is apparent that only a strict reliance on the Lord and earnestly seeking His guidance can help one get through it.

And though the choices I face (skirting the line between protecting my children and honoring my husband) are somewhat less grave than the deliberation to stay or divorce, I too only find peace about my choices when they are made with the Spirit’s help and confirmation.

I know when I am operating with and not against the Spirit when I can speak to my husband calmly instead of yelling, when I can hold my tongue rather than speak out of my hurt, when I can tell my children their daddy does love them, but he needs time alone right now, and when I can say without bitterness that we should be patient with and forgive him, as I set the example to do this.

We may never be in perfect sync like a couple of penguins, but maybe we can come closer to it than when we started.

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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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