Suppose for a moment that you are standing in a very large circle, and you are free to move around within that circle but at some point you reach the edge and can go no further. You are free, but by nature of your situation, you have limits.
I like to think that everyone (not just me) has limits. We can fill our lives with all kinds of things, and many things, but at some point we reach our limits and cannot go further unless we go back a little first.
To put it another way, imagine that you are asked to hold a token of some sort for every single thing you have in your life. The tokens are mostly small, and you have ones for work, one for each kid in your family, one for your calling, one for each hobby, one for each friend. As you add things to your life (friends, jobs, kids, stuff that has to be cared for), you eventually get to a point where you physically cannot hold anything more. Your arms get full. If you want to add another thing, you would have to first drop something.
So, hold that thought. I'll come back to it.
I find it fascinating that God put us here with the very most important things we have to do (eating, sleeping, drinking, etc) built into our systems as required and unavoidable. These things are not optional in life. How we do them is up to us, and can lead to great health and joy or great misery, but doing them at all is not really a choice.
Up until recently, having children was one of those things. It was mostly out of our control, and it was inevitable.
With that thought in mind, that women were just going to have babies with a little but not very much control over when and how many, suddenly the traditional family structure and rules make a whole lot of sense, don't they. Without birth control in the picture, it is actually desirable for men to marry the women who are bearing their children, and for the men to be the ones who are tasked with protecting and providing for their families, since the women were a little busy actually building the families. It even makes sense to women to be allowed to stay home and bear and nurse babies without the added burden of going to work (although historically most women didn't really have this privilege because their families were too poor, and everyone had to work).
Now, though, we have a choice on that matter. It might be one of those most important things, that God made inevitable for most of history, but we found having children hard work, and most people prefer to have some control over that. (And, actually, I think that's a good thing.) But it is interesting to think about the reality that it wasn't intended to be fully optional. We're not really designed for reproduction to be a choice, and recent research indicates that making it a choice and using that choice to strictly limit the number of babies we have is actually not very good for women's health or babies upbringing (people with more than 3 children can't helicopter parent--it's not possible--and are more likely to have one parent as a full-time stay-at-home parent).
Consequently, when we're filling our arms with stuff, children can be one of the things but can not be one of the things.
Okay, so change gears again, but all of this is going to tie together in the end (I promise).
Suppose that God is serious when He gives us instructions about how to fill our arms and our lives. Suppose that, like the Word of Wisdom, all the instructions He gives us are actually hints, rules, directions, and guidance to avoid pain and suffering, to keep societies and families stable, and to guide us to being happy. The world protests, of course, that God is doing it all wrong because it doesn't make sense according to our understanding of things, but since when was our understanding superior to God's? We haven't the ability to have the kind of vision and wisdom and knowledge He has. Our brains are not developed enough to even hold all the information we encounter in our own lives, let alone everything God knows.
So when He says--and makes it a matter of sacred covenant (and, previously, an inevitability)--that we should multiply and replenish the Earth, it makes sense that, despite the difficulty of actually doing that, and the despite the lack of desire most humans seem to have, perhaps this is not just God being a bully, but is actually for our own good.
Considering that God has said his work and his glory is to bring to pass "immortality and eternal life" for people, it should not be a surprise that many of the commandments actually deal with things that make families more stable. How did I jump from immortality and eternal life to families?
There are three requirements for immortality: you have to get a body, you have to die, and Jesus had to do His work. The Jesus part is done. The death part is inevitable. The getting a body part requires a woman to be willing to carry a baby and give birth to it. God's work and glory requires us to have families. It's not optional.
Eternal life requires a lot more. It still requires Jesus, but it also requires us to make constant small choices that lead us the right direction, punctuated by occasional large choices that set the path we're walking on--often dramatically, and with profound results. Where do we learn the lessons and get practice and feedback as we try to figure out how to make choices? In our homes, from our families. This is also not optional: Where and how we grow up has profound and far-reaching effects on us and our ability to make good choices.
No wonder God spends so much time and effort encouraging us and teaching us how to have and grow families. No wonder so many (dare I say all? I want to say all) of the commandments directly impact our ability to parent children (whether they are our own, our grandchildren, nieces and nephews, children in our ward, etc)--the health codes, the "social" rules, the 10 commandments: all of them lead us to better health, greater clarity of mind, increased abilities, a more stable and secure social environment, cultural stability. All of these exist to help God with His work and glory, which is to help people have stable families that can bring children into the world and teach them to function and make good choices.
Families and parenthood are sacred obligations and sacred privileges. But do we actually hold them sacred? Are we as offended when people degrade motherhood or try to break down families as we are when people desecrate garments or try to defile the temple? Usually not, which is sad. There is even a movement among the perpetually dissatisfied members of the Church complaining against the church's focus on families--these members believe the focus should be on individual salvation, not families. They complain that the focus on families is damaging to our ability to be saved as individuals.
But with this understanding that God's work and glory requires families, and with the idea that God knows that we can only hold so many things in our arms, and that our puny mortal lives are bound by limits of all kinds, I have spent the last few weeks thinking about some of the more controversial commandments.
The discussion, for example, of women and the priesthood. What if God is not belittling women or elevating men. What if He knows our arms can only hold so much, and He really would rather them be full of babies? What if He understood that our arms will get full one way or the other, and if He gave women the priesthood there would be one fewer baby in each family because the women's arms would be full already? And what if He would rather us do the work of the one more baby than the priesthood? That in addition to the reality that the priesthood ties men to the families in a way that is necessary and beneficial. What if, in His wisdom, God decided that only men having the priesthood is actually the very best way for His work to be accomplished? (Of course any reasons we have to explain this are just suppositions. We don't know why God has done this. We know men and women are equally capable of doing the kind of work the priesthood requires, but we also know that men actually can't physically have or nurse babies, even though they have their arms full parenting them, too.)
(I guess the real question, when all the discussion and "what ifs" boil away, is are we willing to go along and do the work God has assigned us, individually, even if it's not what we thought we'd be doing, are capable of, or want to do? That requires both faith and humility, and neither seems to be a natural state for most people.)
I heard some missionaries explain to a non-member once that men have the priesthood and women have motherhood, and I wanted to laugh because it was a wholly unsatisfying answer. Men have fatherhood, so doesn't that negate that reasoning? But I think the reason the answer is unsatisfying is we don't hold motherhood or family in the proper sacred light. We don't understand how vitally important it is, or what sacred means, or what motherhood actually is even though we all do it. It gets reduced to housecleaning and trying to survive on little sleep.
I'm not trying to demean fatherhood, of course. The role of the father, to protect and provide and love and care for his children and wife, is vital, too. Women so often agitate, though, to prove that they can also protect and provide. And they can! But that fills their arms. And what if God asked the men to protect and provide so that the women wouldn't have to, so that their arms would be less full so they could focus on having babies and raising them? Every job, every committee, every late night is one more thing in our arms, and perhaps God asked the men to take some of those things out of our arms whenever possible (and it's not always possible) so we'd have more space for His work in our arms, so that we wouldn't reach our limits too soon and at the expense of our children.
I have friends who, for economic reasons, have to have jobs. MANY friends, actually. And it is sad to hear them talk about the emotional exhaustion they have to deal with, and the stresses that accompany them even at home thanks to their jobs. Their families suffer for the moms arms being full. Another baby is not an option, even if the women want one. Being a calm, collected, focused mother is not an option because the limit has been reached, and there is no more emotional energy, no more "spoons" to go around.
How would God want His work done? That seems to be a key question that helps me wrap my head around the commandments and structures of the church. How would He want children to get bodies and to learn how to make choices? What environment would He ideally wish for every child?
I'm pretty sure ideally it would involve both male and female influence, siblings, and a stay-at-home parent who is not at her limit, and whose arms are not so full that she can't give the calm, steady, reliable time and attention she wants to give. The glory of the family system is that it is adjustable--God can send some kids (who need them) to smaller families, and some (who need them) to larger families. He can send some women (who need it) fewer children and some (who need it) more. He can give some people the chance to do children and a career. He can give some people the responsibility to be that second set of hands and that second trusting stable influence for children who are not their own, but who they love. There are roles and refinements for every soul within a family structure.
How would God want his work done? Apparently He wants individual salvation--immortality and eternal life--done in families. And if we keep that in mind, instead of focusing (as our culture does) on individuals' desires, needs, development, etc, a lot of the issues start to resolve themselves.