A waaay over-long navel-gazer of a post:
Seraphine at Zelophehad’s Daughters has had a long-running series of (to me) fascinating posts on what it is like to be a 30-something single in the church (current post here). With apologies for poaching on her idea, I’d like to jump forward a couple of decades and explore what it’s like to be a 50-something single in the Church.
The good news is that it’s almost – almost – always easier and better to be a 50-something single than a 30-something single. Most of that has to do with your own maturity; virtually nothing has to do with improvements in the situation at Church.
Church Programs for Singles
Those of us in our 50s have come to realize that we were born too early for the Church to know what to do with us as a group.
When I was in my 20s, a returned missionary, there was a young adult Sunday School class for those who had graduated from high school on up to who knows what age. The only single adult wards I was aware of were student wards at BYU. Most of my non-student singles cohort dropped out of the Church entirely after a few years of this. Singles wards may have been around somewhere, but the first time I heard of a singles ward for non-students was just after I turned 30 and moved to a new ward …
… where I was the only young single working woman (i.e., not single by virtue of having been widowed) in the ward. There was no ward singles program of any kind for people in my circumstances. I’d call the regional singles hotline once in a while hoping for something, but the only events I ever heard announced there were the monthly dances (which interested me not at all), and the single parent discussion group (which was not relevant to me).
I never heard the term “midsingle” until I had aged out of that group.
Now I’m in a ward with a large singles population, so large that we’re divided into groups by age. At 52, I find myself one of the youngest, with nothing socially in common with the other end of the group, retired people – mostly widows and widowers – approaching 70. I suppose they’ll come up with a name and a program for us about the time I turn 70 and age out of that into the most senior singles group, and they’ll come up with a program addressing the needs of that age the week after I’m buried.
I wish it were otherwise – I wish there had been something appropriate to my peculiar needs as a single woman all through my life – but I don’t really blame the Church for there not being such a program. I came of age at the end of a wave of a generation that still took it for granted that virtually every woman would become a wife and mother – it’s what I expected for myself. It wasn’t until the swelling numbers of single Church members had grown large enough to attract attention that the Church began addressing our needs. I’m just ahead of the curve – the aging single population, and consequent Church attention to our changing needs, lags behind me by five or ten years. Too bad for me.
Awkward Social Moments at Church
By and large the awkward, prying, inappropriate comments about marital status have run their course by the time a single woman reaches her 50s.
The inappropriate question for a 20-something single was “Who are you dating?”
The inappropriate question for a 30-something single was “Are you dating?”
The inappropriate question for a 40-something single was “Why aren’t you married? It’s not too late – a lot of men are getting divorced at your age.”
Generally, the inappropriate remarks directed to 50-something singles have ceased, beyond the occasional updating to “a lot of men are being widowed at your age.” Some people thought it appropriate to offer the unsolicited advice to a 30-something single to shed 30 pounds; even the densest of them realize that it won’t help to advise a 50-something to shed 30 years.
A Single Among Marrieds
It’s still awkward, and sometimes embarrassing, sometimes even humiliating, to be treated as though my single status is a sexual threat, either to me or to others. My home teachers arrive in separate cars, and whoever gets here first sits in his car waiting for the other, even if it’s 20 minutes or more, even if it’s in the middle of winter. Neither one will come in and visit me alone. Still, this is better than it was when I was in my 30s and 40s and couldn’t have home teachers at all; according to the bishops of my ward during those years, men are not allowed to call on single women. (And in a double bind, as the only single working woman, I couldn’t have visiting teachers, either – when I asked for them, I was told that “ladies” – not sisters, not women, but “ladies” – like to be at home with their families during the evening, so they had no one they could send to me.) (I do realize that this behavior is not uniform throughout the Church; it was the practice in the ward where I lived, though, through most of my 30s and 40s.)
Where the situation has really gotten better as I age is in my opportunities to socialize publicly and briefly with married men, with whom I often have far more in common, as a working professional, than I do with stay at home mothers. It used to be that if I stopped to say a few words with a male teacher about a class discussion, or with a male whom I might have known professionally, in a few seconds flat the man’s wife would be hanging on his arm, making herself a part of the conversation. In my 50s, other women finally seem willing to accept that I’m no threat (really, I never have been a threat, both because of my physical appearance and because I would never have chosen to intrude into someone’s marriage), so I can actually have satisfying conversations, even go to lunch with colleagues, without jealousy and suspicion.
Relevance of Church Lessons
With the Mormon Cult of the Family, lessons have often been irrelevant to my life, even when the topic is ostensibly something that any individual needed to understand and practice. Lessons on the atonement, or prayer, or enduring to the end have been routinely presented as “how you can teach this principle to your children” or “how my husband and I can support each other in practicing this virtue.”
An added dimension of irrelevance has grown as I age, though, and become older than many of my teachers. Our Relief Society lesson a few weeks ago about the Holy Ghost, for instance, was illustrated by the young teacher with her personal testimony of her most moving experience with the Spirit: Had she listened to his promptings when she was a sophomore in high school, she would not have been in the hallway to be sprayed by a can of soda by a rowdy student. Last week’s lesson on obedience drew the tearful example from the teacher of how she and her boyfriend, after dating for two months, wanted to get married; her father said no; the couple dated for another month before marrying, and, she said, this lesson on obedience to her father has made all the difference in her brand new marriage because she knew her husband soooooo much better after that additional month of dating. I just don’t know how to be inspired by life experiences that are so far behind me, so disconnected from the real life challenges that I am facing.
On the other hand, I have matured enough in my knowledge of the gospel and my teaching experience that I can conduct Gospel Doctrine classes that engage my own interest and that meet my own needs as well as, it seems, the needs of my class members. I know enough to define a purpose for the class session, and to make selections from the material in the manual, and to bulk up those selections to meet the needs of adults rather than generic members.
Acceptance as an Adult in the Church
This was tough for me as a 30-something and 40-something. Despite being a returned missionary, despite having supported myself for decades, despite being a home owner at one time, despite everything I could do, short of marriage, I was not seen as fully adult. This was reflected in the mistrust that denied me home teachers. It was mostly reflected in wards’ failure to use my talents or meet my needs by extending callings. In the first 28 years after coming home from my mission, I taught a few Relief Society lessons one year, and taught the 5-year-olds in Primary for a few months. Otherwise, my most challenging calling was as third assistant Primary librarian, where there were far too many of us tripping over each other in the library to have the privilege of passing out chalk and erasers.
Most of the time, for years on end, I didn’t have even that much of a calling. And begging your pardon, but I wasn’t the only one who was the loser for that situation – I had something to offer, but it didn’t occur to anyone to call on me, solely, I believe, because I was single and not seen as fully adult.
It’s better now. I love teaching Gospel Doctrine. I no longer feel ignored or unneeded. Although there’s no objective proof, I think the willingness of recent bishops to extend callings to me is due in large part to my age; I was capable, smart, willing, and faithful enough to have done as much in my 30s and 40s, but no bishop noticed me.
(You may notice that I don’t talk much about the current singles program or my activity in it. I don’t participate, and that largely belongs in this category of recognizing me as an adult despite my singleness. Singles programs are always administered by a married couple, which I resent, because it implies that we are incapable of directing our own activities. The couple “in charge” of my age group in my current ward don’t see us as adults; they see us as overgrown children. This is reflected partly by the fact that they don’t want us to call them “John” and “Mary,” but “Brother and Sister Smith” as if we were children who owed that particular courtesy to our elders. It is most egregiously seen in the types of activities that are planned for us, the same things we might have done as 20-somethings. I have no desire, for instance, to sit around someone’s living room and listen to a very old couple reminisce about how their daughter won a silly beauty pageant a full generation ago. I do not want to listen to lectures based on “For the Strength of Youth.” I do not want to play silly games, or be expected to put on a bathing suit for a pool party, or go roller skating, or lie on blankets next to strange men as we look at the stars in the canyon. Service projects that require some commitment and some use of our individual skills? Yes. Classes on gospel topics that are relevant to us as adults? Yes. But none of this overgrown Boy Scout and MIA Maid nonsense.)
What I Wish the Church Would Do for Singles That It Does Not
Today’s Relief Society/Priesthood Meeting is on eternal families. Someone is sure to state, or to read a quotation from some general conference talk, about how no blessing of which we are worthy but which we are denied in this life will be withheld from us in the eternities. This statement will come up in the context of singles, although it is relevant to married people as well.
I believe this principle. I have hope in the religious sense that it is true. I know it is offered for comfort and inspiration.
I hate it.
What I hear when the statement comes from a general authority is, “We have nothing for you – you’ll be better off dead.”
What I hear when the statement comes from a ward member is, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you singles and I don’t really care. This is my nod to your existence. I don’t have to say anything that is relevant to your life – having made this obligatory nod, I can ignore you and go on with talking about how wonderful marriage is.”
Occasionally this statement is “discussed” to the point where, as one member said in Sunday School two months ago, “after all, everybody is related to somebody.” Yeah, that’s true. But when is the last time you heard anybody bearing a testimony and saying something like, “Heaven won’t be heaven if my second cousins are not there with me”? Hmm?
What I wish the Church would do is address the peculiar needs of singles in a practical, doctrinal way. Rather than telling us to bake cookies for the neighborhood kids as a substitute for motherhood – or, in the case of a current Ensign article, as a substitute for real integration into the ward – I wish the Church would get specific about why marriage and family are so great. I am told all the time that marriage is awesome. I want to know why it is awesome.
If we could tick off a few points about what eternal principles married people are enabled to learn and practice by virtue of their being married, and tick off a few other points about how learning such things enables a soul to progress on its eternal journey, then we could go on to the next step of thinking about how singles could, in part at least, work on those same principles, make that same progress, despite our singleness. It’s got to be about more than sex, right? But I have yet to have it made clear to me what marriage teaches that I will have to learn after I die when suddenly everything is supposed to get all better for me.
That’s the one thing I need from the Church – far more than a social program – that I’m not getting. The absence of such teaching hasn’t changed since I was a 20-something, and I don’t see any signs of it changing now.
Maybe when I’m an 80-something.