When I signed up to contribute to “Essays in Discipleship,” I thought family would be an easy topic. I love my family. I have written books about family. Isn’t family great?

But, the truth is, family has been one of the most glorious parts of my life and also the toughest. I have no idea how to write an essay on what someone else’s experience might be with family. Experiences are wildly different. So, for this, I decided to lay down some truths. Not capital T Truth but more like truth-for-me truth. Because I feel in speaking truth, it helps to make us realize we can live and feel and experience authentically. That there is no one way a family should be. That we can all take a collective sigh and just work from where we are.

So let’s dig in. In no particular order, these are my family truths…and I hope they can lift you in some way too:

Equal in Might and Glory by Heather Ruttan

Equal in Might and Glory by Heather Ruttan

No matter what other kind of family you have, you DO have Heavenly Parents who love you.

This is the most important truth there is. Let that sink in. They are PERFECT parents who know how to love us all perfectly…if we will let Them.

“On a particularly difficult day,…what would this world’s inhabitants pay to know that heavenly parents are reaching across those same streams and mountains and deserts, anxious to hold them close?”[1]

Ride for the Brand.

When people ask me how my family is doing, I actually think first of the family I was born into. I think this is true for a lot of reasons— one being that I didn’t get married until I was 37. So, for a longer time than most folks, my family WAS the family I was born into. And my current family looks almost nothing like the family I would have predicted for myself. I have had to both let go, expand, contract, and generally change all my ideas on this. That has not been easy. But I carry with me my family-of-origin motto: “Ride for the Brand.” This motto has deeply influenced the choices I make. (And, if your family of origin is not the brand you want to ride for, then DON’T.)

Take what you want from your parents.

The family I was born into is not perfect, but it IS fabulous. And my parents have just gotten more superb with age. I know, obviously, this is not true for everyone. But I think there is power in talking about things that we admire from other families . . . I know my friends have benefited from knowing my parents. So, from my parents, I would take their selfless service. I would take their unconditional love of their children. I would take their “roll with it” mindset. I would take their adventurous spirit. I would take their love of the earth. I would take their mad dance skills. I would take my Dad’s still-impressive cannonball into a body of water and my Mom’s relentless optimism. I would take their “it’s going to be one big giggle.”

And, if there are other aspects of your family-of-origin that need to be left behind . . . then leave those parts (or even people). You get to decide. (Well, in part. The trick with family is that it DOES involve other people, which is both a miraculous gift and a pain.)

Family is family, no matter the size.

I was also a family unit of one for many years. As I mentioned, I was single until I was 37. That means, as a family of one, that I still had to develop traditions, I still had to have family councils and goals, and holidays. I had to live my life as if it MATTERED, even if it did not include a spouse and kids.

“No matter what our family looks like, each of us can work to strengthen our own families or help in strengthening others.” [2]

Learn to Love, Part I

When I was single, I had the time and resources to be a rock star aunt. And I LOVED being a rock star aunt. One family, in particular, I lived closest to. Those nephews taught me some of the most important lessons about love. They taught me about learning to love in a style that they needed to receive. One of my nephews would flinch when I would come tackle him…in the very normal McArthur style. I decided I wanted to be good at loving him. So I watched to see what he needed, and what he responded to, and what made him be comfortable. What made him feel LOVED. And I did it. I had to LEARN to do it. But it taught me that even if the emotion of love is there, you still have to learn the actual actions of love. (More on the nephews below.) My husband recently bought me a raft for my birthday and I laughed with delight. (He also did NOT buy me diamonds though he had received serious peer pressure that diamonds are what a woman would want.) My husband knows me. He had learned me. You CAN learn what acts of love matter to someone.

“Family life . . . is preparing us for eternal life.” [3]

Learn to Love, Part II

And acts of love can be woven into life for free. My mother used to send love notes with us when we went on basketball trips. A friend I know often drops notes in the mail; every time I see her handwriting I feel loved. My Dad would check the oil in my car when I came home. My roommate would keep the noise down on Sunday afternoon sacrosanct naptime. My sisters show up. A friend delivers cinnamon rolls. When I make this litany of love I can feel my heart radiate with joy. I am loved. So how can I share that with others? I think in family life, there are times when you hit bumps. And you don’t feel very loving. But if you can practice acts of love, that can smooth out a lot.

The Sisters by Kathleen Peterson

You get to choose your family.

Also, when I was single I developed sister/friends. There is one woman who I have actually lived with longer than my blood sister. (My sister was four years old when I left for college.) And that is a glorious concept… you get to choose your family. Just claim them!

Families may or may not look like what you expected…Get creative.

My patriarchal blessing and my early life experience would have led me to think my family looked like x. But, actually, it looks more like “octopus” or something not even in the same zone of an x. Ha!

We have a blended family and the other members in my family don’t share my faith, my country, my holiday traditions, or most of my values. Rituals and traditions are hard to do when you split time…family council only every third week? Yeah. Tricky. But, I also know, that this means I just have to get more creative. So, we don’t have many weekly or faith-based traditions, and while these are ways my family-of-origin was created, it doesn’t have to be the only way.

Families need light.

Whatever way you decide to nurture, I think a guiding idea is that we all need light. Is something you are doing with your family adding to the light? Does it take you a step closer to God? I can tell you, sometimes those answers have been tricky in my family. My husband works six days a week – it used to be seven days a week. He did not come into our marriage with the concept of a Sabbath. So, we each brought to the table how Sundays would work—we do morning spiritual study (we live 400 some miles from church so attendance requires a plane ride or 15 hours of driving . . . so the spiritual angle is not always attending church). This has been sometimes challenging for my family as they were not raised to think in terms of structured spiritual teaching time. I have had to remind myself that sometimes just doing it counts . . . even amidst the moaning and silent protesting body language. Then the afternoons are spent on family time . . . which to me feels more like Saturday afternoon play time than “keeping the Sabbath holy” time. It has not been comfortable for me to live like this. But, I can see, these activities bring light to our family. And that is a principle I can live by.

“But I have commanded you to bring up your children in light and truth.” [4]

Families are the place to learn to love The Other.

Along those same lines, loving the children I got through marriage was easy. They are marvelous. But there are many things about them that are the quintessential OTHER. Loving these girls has given me the opportunity to love The Other. It is easy to love what is just like us, but I think families (and not just blended ones), give us the opportunity to learn to love people different from us. And THAT, is a vital skill to becoming perfect, I think. In my family of origin, most of my brothers hunt. I am (mostly) vegetarian. We vote differently from each other. We raise our children differently. These things do not need to take precedence over love.

Heading Home by Colby Sanford

But also you have to respect your own offering.

However, I also learned I had to love my children in ways that may be uncomfortable for them. I believed in rules and values that they did not. Yet if I was going to be the kind of parent that felt I could give a good reckoning in courts on high, I had to parent the way I felt best . . . even if it was not always very comfortable for them.

You can’t quantify family love.

When I was single everyone told me that when I had “my own children” that I would love them differently than other children. And, that is partially true. I have loved my daughters-by-marriage in a different way than other children in my life. I have loved the child I gave birth to in a different way. But different is not MORE. When I gave birth, it did not make me love my True Love nephews any less. Why bother quantifying? Family love can be as expansive as it needs to be.

Eternal families are created.

When I asked if I should marry my now husband, I got the most clear answer to prayer I have ever had. It is a NO DOUBT kind of answer. Which was very useful as there were all sorts of things that made me question— including he is not a person who follows my faith. Doesn’t believe, doesn’t follow, and, in fact, sometimes really wishes I did not follow. This can be hard. But, I always come back to the idea that my Heavenly Parents told me to marry him. They knew him, They knew me. They love us both and saw us as eternal beings-in-process . . . not just where we are now. So, if God told me to marry him, it must be ok. When people talk about eternal families, I remember that my family is ALSO eternal.

Eternal families take work.

Yeah. Work. Like every day. We go to work and we get a paycheck. There is a nice cause and effect that can be seen almost immediately. But the work of families is relentless and does not always show obvious dividends (and sometimes even seemingly-significant debits). And then I try and take a deep breath and channel Julie Beck. (And, if that doesn’t work, then curl up in a ball for a few minutes/days/weeks either literally or figuratively until I can get back at it…)

“Because families are eternal, we cannot afford to be casual or complacent about those relationships . . . Families mean work, but they are our great work—and we are not afraid of work.” [5]

Embrace an expansive definition of family.

In fact, family is the entire world. We call each other brother and sister because we mean it. I live in India and this is one of the truths of Christianity that matters most to me. People cannot be “above” or “below” us in a hierarchy of worth— because we are children of God. We are all brothers and sisters. Now, if we truly believed that about family, how would that change our behavior?

That said,

You don’t have to love your family or everyone in your family.

I have friends who have had to cut family members out of their life. The family members were toxic and a relationship with them was damaging. Family can be family, but from a safe distance. Loving families can wear you out. It’s okay to hide from family…whether briefly or permanently. Family bonds are eternal— if we choose them to be.

Families are Eternal . . . and that’s capital T Truth.

This is one that is not just from me. Families ARE eternal. And what that means to me is that they are worth our time, talents, energy, effort. They are worth not giving up on. Just find the way family can work for you . . . but, remember, there is an eternal relationship at work here. The people we knew and loved in Earth and Heaven, we will know and love again. Our Heavenly Parents loved us then, love us now, and will continue to love us. When we talk about investing in eternal families, we need to remember that a relationship with our Parents is worth the investment too!

“We can picture home again with our Heavenly Parents in that wonderful place, not only as sons and daughters but husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, grandsons and granddaughters, bound together forever in loving families.” [6]

And, if we truly think families are eternal, what truths do we live by each day?

Daily, remember the miracle.

As I was trying to get out the door, my young four-year-old daughter clung to me and whined, “But I just want to be with you.” My immediate gut response was, “I have THINGS TO DO.” And, then, I remembered: this is a miracle. She exists. She values our relationship. The way she shows this is by wanting to be with me. She loves me. And I was able to have a much more patient response. Because, the truth is, it’s a miracle to have a child and a miracle to be loved and wanted. Not to freak you out, but this hit me today:

A father, who lost his young son to brain cancer, urged those who still have sons and daughters to “embrace them with a little added rapture and a keener awareness of joy.” [7]

Daily, remember the importance.

And, while we all have a bazillion things to do, the truth is, also, REALLY, that our family is our most important. Now, I could argue it is not an either/or situation. We can do family AND do other things. It may be a time and season, but I would not want a woman to think the daily grind of family life is her only lot. (In fact, all should contribute to the daily grind.) Not that families are a woman’s “only” lot— I am not denigrating the required work of family life. However, the temporal tasks have to be done— but they do not have to be our sum total of meaning. I have never found cooking to be particularly satisfying and the fact I need to look elsewhere for soul nourishment is just fine. It is also just fine if someone DOES find cooking to be soul-nourishing.

I think the things I choose to do beyond my family life are worthwhile. (I made a commitment to not piddle time on my phone.) But, still, let’s take note of the divine model. And this is what we know— WE are our Heavenly Parents’ work. And if we are worth THEIR time/talents/energy/effort, then isn’t our family worth ours?

“Everything we know about our Heavenly Father is connected with His parenthood and His loving care for our souls. He loves each of His children unconditionally. We can do the same in our families.” [8]

“Our heavenly parents want us back with them. That is their goal, their work, and their glory.” [9]

Daily, cultivate your values.

I think this is a daily choice . . . and can be challenging. Understatement. But, if you can have a family council and together decide the family values you want to live by, well, it helps. It doesn’t make it easy, but it helps. And then, put your values in public spaces as reminders. Let all your family members hold all of the other members accountable. Say prayers together asking for help. And let your teenagers teach the lessons sometimes. It’s good for them…and you.

“Loving, protecting, and nurturing our children are among the most sacred and eternally important things we will do . . . Therefore parents and children must work together in unity to fortify family relationships, cultivating them day in and day out.” [10]

Choose long-term vision.

Sometimes, often, perhaps daily, family is hard. And this is when I turn to this quote about Eve and her role in the family— she had vision. From the time she chose to eat of the fruit until her thoughts we have recorded in scripture— she chose to celebrate vision. And we can too! WE can be the visionaries of our families to encourage us all to play the long game…

“We don’t know all the help Eve was to Adam and to their family. But we do know of one great gift that she gave, which each of you can also give: she helped her family see the path home when the way ahead seemed hard. ‘And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.’” [11]

And, most of all, know that you (we all!) belong to the family of God

No matter who you are, what you look like, what you do, what you have done, who your family is, how much you succeed or fail on any given day— you are loved. Perfectly.

We each belong to and are needed in the family God. [12]

[1] Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, However Long and Hard the Road (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 47.
[2] Barbara Thompson, “His Arm Is Sufficient,” April 2009 General Conference.
[3] Larry Gibson, speech at BYU, “Following Heavenly Father’s Plan,” March 11, 2014
[4] Doctrine and Covenants 93:40
[5] Julie B. Beck, “What Latter-day Saint Women Do Best: Stand Strong and Immovable,” October 2007 General Conference
[6] Elder Henry B. Eyring, “The Family,” Ensign, Feb 1998, 10, 12–13.
[7] John Gunther, Death Be Not Proud: A Memoir [1949], 259.
[8] Patricia P. Pinegar “Caring for the Souls of Children,” April 1997 General Conference.
[9] Theodore M. Burton, “A Marriage to Last through Eternity,” Ensign 17 (June 1987): 14.
[10] W. Douglas Shumway, “Marriage and Family: Our Sacred Responsibility” April 2004 General Conference
[11] Henry B. Eyring “Daughters in the Covenant” April 2014 General Conference.
[12] Carole M. Stephens “The Family Is of God” April 2015 General Conference