Friday, June 16, 2006

Being Single and Adult

I've been a legal adult for more than a decade now. However, as a single woman without children, in a church context I often feel relegated to a kind of pre-adult status. Don't get me wrong: I'm perfectly willing to concede that there are quite likely unique life lessons and experiences involved in marriage and parenting that can't be gained elsewhere, and I'm not out to downplay the value of those things. Nonetheless, I'd like to find a way to talk about adulthood which didn't assume that it necessarily included those elements.

The thing is, I don't see myself as being in some preparatory, not-yet-real phase of life where I'm simply passing the time while awaiting the possible arrival of a husband and children. Yes, I'd like for those things to happen. But I'm living a real life right now. I have challenges and problems and things I'm learning and opportunities and stresses. And it stings to hear comments about those who don't yet know what life is about because they aren't married or don't have children. Likewise, I have no desire to be an object of pity. The truth is that my life is actually pretty good. I study something I love. I have some amazing friends (as well as a bunch of lively if not always completely sane siblings). Sure, there are things that are awfully hard at times, but that seems to be a fairly universal aspect of the human condition.

I'm currently watching several of my single friends struggle to stay active, ones who have far fewer doctrinal difficulties with the church than I do. I wonder what would make it easier. I've long been a bit jealous of the Catholic view that adults can follow a variety of legitimate spiritual paths, marriage being only one of them. As I said, I'm open to the possibility that some things can only be learned through marriage and raising a family. But I also think I've learned important things from my own life circumstances, perhaps things I wouldn't have learned if my life had gone in another direction.

Talks to singles tend to go along these lines: "Marriage and children are the greatest of all blessings, and we have great compassion for your difficult state. Try not to feel too bad, though, because God will fix it all in the next life." And while I know it's well-meant, I'm rather tired of hearing about singleness as some kind of tragic affliction to be endured and single adults (women in particular) as victims in need of sympathy. (In many ways I think single men have it even worse, as they are more likely to be blamed than to be pitied.) It's difficult to remain in an organization that sometimes seems to see your very existence as a kind of problem in need of explanation. I would far rather hear something like, "You have a unique and valuable perspective on life, and we hope you'll bring it to the table." As much as anything, I simply want to feel that I too have something to contribute.

I honestly don't mind that the church places a lot of emphasis on families and parenting; I think they're tremendously important. But ultimately I think our focus should be on becoming better Christians, in whatever life situations we might find ourselves. And in that endeavor, I don't think that any particular group of people can claim a privileged position or inherently greater insight; surely we all have much to learn from each other.


Blogger Seraphine said...

When I was in Utah last month, my fiance and I were talking to his sister, and she told a funny story about how a few years back one of his nephews had asked if my fiance was an adult. The nephew clarified that his uncertainty was due to the fact that my fiance was unmarried.

While it is a humorous story, I think it's telling that a kid in the church makes the assumption that an unmarried uncle (who is over the age of 30, and therefore quite different in age from his nephew) is not an adult due to his unmarried state.

6/16/2006 12:48:00 PM  
Anonymous mogget said...

Another good post. I sometimes get invited by the high priest group leader to participate in temple trips with the Youth.

No way I'd actually have my own endowments, ya know? But they're good guys and we laugh about it afterwards.

6/16/2006 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger Eve said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post, Lynnette. I know almost nothing about life as a single adult in the church since I married at 24 only a year after returning from my mission, but I've had my fill of the related problem of being relegated to perpetual dewy-eyed newlywed status as a married but childless woman.

I really like what you say about our view of the single life as a passage to some other life, a phase of marking time. We have a pretty clearly defined narrative in the church, for men especially: mission, marriage, kids. For women it's more flexible (mission and higher education optional) but marriage and kids are even more important. What to do when life doesn't conform to that narrative and all anyone can think to ask is when you will get back on track? (The thing about deviations from the norm is that they constantly have to be _explained_). People are well-meaning, but they say thoughtless, hurtful things, trying to explain my infertility to me or verbally scootch me back toward normal, wanting to know when I'll have kids or if I've tried this or that, or they just don't know what to say. I don't attribute malice to most of them, but dealing with it wears me out. Every time we move I have to face figuring out what to say all over again. (And I've never figured out something to say that I feel good about. I inevitably walk away from conversations about my childlessness feeling sick or angry or both.)

I've heard people say over the pulpit that marriage doesn't start until you have children (and this in a unit where the branch president and his wife didn't have any!). During one of the worst periods of my life when it was all I could do to keep my head above water, the Relief Society president told me that being childless must be like a perpetual honeymoon for my husband and me. I get especially tired of the unthinking condescension of women who are my age or only slightly older who assume that I'm twenty (because the last time they didn't have kids, that's how old they were) and pat my hand and give me advice as if I'm a giddy girl.

One thing I have to admit that I envy a little about the single thing, though, is that you have singles wards (where _everyone_ deviates from the norm together). Sometimes I've been jealous of your and Kiskilili's descriptions of your wards. But I suppose the dating scene and all the ick that accompanies it is the price you pay, so you may not come out ahead.

6/16/2006 06:12:00 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

I didn't get married until I was 29. Life happens, but I remember it being very hard.

I've heard people say over the pulpit that marriage doesn't start until

I get especially tired of the unthinking condescension of women who are my age or only slightly older who assume that I'm twenty (because the last time they didn't have kids, that's how old they were) and pat my hand and give me advice as if I'm a giddy girl.

When my wife and I were down to one child, we got a lot of that. Not to mention the criticism we still get from time to time now, when we have only two living children.

People see what they see, and they don't see the eight pregnancies or the three funerals.

Luckily, our ward is great, and we've been here long enough that no one treats us that way.

6/16/2006 08:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Brad Haas said...

Thank you to all for your candor in the post and comments. As an outsider, I don't see much of the interior struggles Mormons face in the great drama of salvation. I have known a few who got married at a much later age than usual, and who had to suffer these same things.

The Catholic view of vocations is indeed more accommodating, though any vocation must be discerned through sustained prayer and thought. A vocations director at a seminary would likely not accept "I'm contentedly single" as a statement that a young man is called to the consecrated life. :)

I don't want to step on anyone's toes by saying this, but I figure it'll be okay because it's not the same stuff you've always heard. I believe that God has different callings for people, and that a person's calling is the happiest and easiest way to grow closer to Him. I know it's not part of your faith, but I would encourage you to try to discern if in fact your vocation is to the consecrated single life. (if you didn't know, "consecrated" literally means "set apart" and "vocation" means "calling" - not that any Mormons are set apart for THAT calling)

Maybe just maybe, we Catholics are on to somethin, and maybe you are called to be single, and you can keep having the joy of living the life to which God has called you. Or maybe not, and somewhere along the line, you'll have a family.

If it doesn't really work out that way, you can always chill in one of the Participant Ribbon kingdoms with me. :)

6/17/2006 12:00:00 AM  
Blogger Katya said...

I hate to burst your bubble, Eve, but one of the things I hate about my current ward is that we’re all single. Granted, no one thinks the less of any one of us for our single status, but the fact that we’re all single and all “broken,” in that respect, seems to make our single status the underlying theme of all our interactions. Relief Society lessons on “faith,” “trials,” or “temple marriage” become lessons on “faith (that we’ll get married some day),” “trials (like being single),” and “temple marriage (which all we wish we had).”

I was in a family ward for three years before moving out here, and one of the things I appreciated about those sisters was seeing that marriage wouldn’t end all of my problems. I saw married women, divorced women, women with lots of children and childless women who still had a lot of the same problems that I faced; if marriage wasn’t such a global panacea, then perhaps being single wasn’t so bad. (Of course, none of the women my age would talk to me because they were all “young marrieds,” but I had a few older friends who were less immature.)

Having moved out into “the mission field,” I do appreciate the fact that none of my classmates or coworkers thinks it’s the least bit odd for me to be unmarried and unattached. This makes it all the more jarring to hear church members constantly reassuring me that I really will find someone some day so I shouldn’t worry about being single and just live a good life. (I don’t really think about being single except for when I’m at Church – if it’s only in the Church that I’m reassured about my single status, then it’s only the Church that thinks there’s something wrong with it in the first place.)


I've heard people say over the pulpit that marriage doesn't start until you have children

So . . . does this mean you’re living in sin? ;)

6/17/2006 09:04:00 AM  
Blogger Eve said...

Katya, that's quite all right--a lot of my bubbles need to be burst! I hadn't thought about it in those terms, but reading your comment made me realize that in my experience, the more diversity a ward or branch encompasses, the more comfortable it is. The wards and branches I've liked best have encompasses a wide range of ages, life situations, political and doctrinal opinions, and even levels of mental health. The hardest wards to be in, by contrast, have been the most uniform. I found the Wymount ward my husband and I lived in for two years hard because it was so lock-step. There is just something wrong with any unit where 98% of the members have temple recommends.

And I can see how a culture of waiting can so easily develop in singles' wards in the types of Relief Society lessons you describe. It makes me think that if I were in a ward of infertile couples, that's probably all we'd talk about--the magic day when we'll have kids. And that would drive me nuts. I'm not interested in sitting around and wringing my hands over my childless state. As Lynnette said and others ahve said, I want to live my life _now_.

I've had a very similar experience to yours in that no one at school even thinks to ask about my childlessness; the only place it's an issue or a problem is at church.

I guess I am!--living in sin, that is. How exciting!

6/17/2006 09:41:00 AM  
Blogger Ziff said...

I like your idea, Katya, of integrating single people with married people rather than dividing them.

I frequently chat about church experience with a Methodist co-worker. She got married about six months ago. I remember asking shortly after about how getting married had affected her church experience. She told me that it was pretty much the same as before. She and her husband attended the same church together as they had before getting married. They did the same kinds of church work as before, coordinating young adults' activities. It sounded so different from the Mormon experience, where singles are singles and marrieds are marrieds, and never the twain shall meet. We believe in no "young adult" category that includes both single people and married people.

I wonder if the condescending attitude of married people might not be reduced if singles' and marrieds' wards were combined into just plain members' wards. As you point out, Lynnette, we can all learn from each other, regardless of where we are in life.

6/17/2006 04:55:00 PM  
Blogger Lynnette said...

Thanks for all the comments!

Singles' wards. Yeah. I have a lot of conflicted feelings about that topic. I've had some really good ones and some really bad ones. The bottom of the barrel was BYU, where the wards seemed to primarily function as marriage markets and everything centered around that. But others have been more positive— in one in particular that I was in a few years ago, there were half a dozen female grad students, and I loved not feeling strange for my academic pursuits. Also, my last experience in a family ward wasn't very good, and I have to admit that's made me worry about eventually going back to one. On the other hand, I know people who've been much happier after ditching a singles' ward for a "regular" one— so, as with many things, it could well depend on the ward.

Brad, thanks for the input from an outsider. I've talked about this issue with Catholic friends, and they've had a similar take on things— some people are called to be single. The soteriological necessity of marriage in LDS doctrine frames the issue a bit differently, but I think it nonetheless allows for at least the possibility that God could call people to singleness in this life, which is an interesting thought.

Katya, I totally relate to your comment that people outside of church don't even think about the issue. At school, no one cares a whit about my marital status, and I love it.

Eve, I always knew you were living in sin. But I was under the impression that it was due to things like the presence of Mountain Dew in your home. ;)

6/17/2006 06:09:00 PM  
Anonymous stacer said...

Eve said: "One thing I have to admit that I envy a little about the single thing, though, is that you have singles wards (where _everyone_ deviates from the norm together). "

But that only lasts so long. Then comes the magical, somehow meaningful age of 31, and you are no longer one of many, but one of the pitiable few who didn't "graduate."

I've spoken with other friends about this issue, and we all agree that if singles were only in singles' wards for the duration of undergrad, and that everyone went back to family wards at about 24 or 25, it might not be such a pariah-ish age. As it is, I got asked to leave, and what little social life I had in the singles' ward dried up entirely. I'm never invited to anything anymore, and I'm not welcome at the ward activities, or at least, I don't feel welcome.

So you go from having this support network of having people surrounding you just like yourself for about 13 years (18-31), but somehow you hit that birthday, and wham. You're done. Off you go to be all alone in the family ward.

But being in a singles' ward for so long conditioned me that I could only relate to people who were in my age and marital status bracket, and it's taken me a year to get over that. Happily, after a year of wandering from family ward to family ward, not really feeling welcome or a part of things, I have found a ward that welcomes me with open arms. I even spoke today, on Father's Day, giving a different perspective than the youth speaker or the high counselor (without anyone dwelling on my singleness). And in being able to share my heart about my dad and how that relates to my feelings about Heavenly Father, I was able to reach out to a few people in the ward who came up to me and said stuff like, "My dad isn't a member, too, and your talk really touched me"--helping me to feel once again like I can make connections with people who are different than me.

6/18/2006 05:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't get me started on singles wards. How do you spell "ghettoization"?

I'd be curious to know if you encounter these kind of comments as much in the Church in an urban college area as in, say, Utah? At least here in NYC, I think most everyone is sufficiently sensitized to avoid the most egregious comments. However, we can't totally escape the larger Church environment.

The key is that that larger Church environment is becoming and will remain more and more single. With a large number of converts (usually disproportionately female), the recognition that gay men should not pushed into marriage (probably a higher proportion of the active LDS male population than the general population), and higher inactivity among men in general as men who don't make the mission hurdle cut are marginalized, (and probably a number of other reasons) it is arithmetically inevitable that there will be more and more single people in the Church. Is there a better way to accomodate this doctrinally?

Here again (I am picking up from a comment on the "Universal Salvific Will" thread) I think we could fruitfully borrow from some of our Christian friends, starting with Brad Haas, whose input is really helpful and appreciated. Doctrinally I think Mormons would find it difficult to accept that someone is called to celibacy for eternity but the fact is that many Mormons are called to it in this life given that our strict code of sexual morality bars us from other sources of initimate companionship available in modern larger society.

So I would suggest that we Mormons need to start Celebrating Celibacy. Such a positive emphasis would give single people some deserved praise and credit for keeping these strict standards of chastity. However, mostly it would need to draw on the rich tradition of worshipping God through celibacy that exists in Christian history, not as a doctrinal matter, but as an example of personal sacrifice and service. Single LDS sacrifice and serve as much in their circumstances as marrieds.

Of course, those Christian faiths with a history of celibacy are struggling with it as well in current society. What a PR and missionary opportunity! As a practical matter, in contemporary society Mormons may be one of the largest groups of celibate Christians around. How can the Church PR people be missing this? Let's get out the press release!

Now I don't expect the Church to take up such a program officially (it would probably come out creepy if they tried) but could single LDS use this kind of approach to change their immediate Church environment? At least with this emphasis we can let our married co-religionists know that comments such as the ones cited in your post are part of the suffering we endure, but that's OK, Christian martyrs in the Scriptures and through history have endured worse.


6/18/2006 06:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I honor my commitment (and have been grateful for the choice on many occasions), the thought of celebrating celibacy as a 34 year old single Mormon woman is sickening and depressing. My fear is that the idea of a such a movement will perpetuate the falsehood that no sex = more righteous.

Don't count me in. Blech.

6/18/2006 06:47:00 PM  
Blogger Seraphine said...

I've had both good and bad experiences in singles wards, and while I haven't had any bad experiences in married wards as an adult, I've admittedly only been to one (and its an amazing ward).

I've found what others have found as well--the diversity of the ward makes my own idiosyncracies stick out less. Everyone is so different in the married ward I'm in now, my singleness is just one aspect of my differentness. And it certainly helps that my ward is on the very non-judgmental and accepting side of things.

6/18/2006 08:10:00 PM  
Blogger partygirljessica said...

well i know what it feels like being single. i used to hate it really, until i couldn't take it anymore. i tried my luck in webdatedotcom and my dating life had really improved a lot.

6/20/2006 12:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous who says "Blech" -

I actually share your ... sentiments. The idea that no sex = more righteous is the slippery slope of celebrating celibacy. But contemporary Mormonism does not exactly celebrate marital sex either (even though our theology could suggest a very positive attitude toward physical intimacy). In the practical context of contemporary Mormonism and the larger contemporary society we are where we are and where we are is on the celibate side of things. So I'm just thinking we can make something positive of living our covenants instead of letting the more annoying of our co-religionists define our lives as waiting for God knows who (literally) to get with in the Millennium.


6/20/2006 01:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In both the Church and the world at large, many, if not most, people think that people who don't have sex are children, or very, very, very weird adults.

I remember when I first came to the Bloggernacle there was a very bright, kind blogger (I think her name is Annegb or something) who said something really shocking, but it's probably representative of what many members don't say, but actually think. Mind you--she's an elderly Mormon woman, married with children. She said that single adults in the Church who had never had sex should just go ahead and have sex, repent if they want to later, and get over with it, because virgins of a certain age are "weird" and "icky."

This from an active member!

I know many people look down on singles wards as a "land of the misfit toys" where teeming hormones and unfulfilled angst create nervous monsters.

So sad, really.

6/20/2006 05:48:00 PM  
Blogger ZD said...

Please leave any further comments at the new location of this post here.

6/21/2006 02:40:00 PM  

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