I recall a day when my Grade 4 class had a substitute teacher, Sister Jones, a member of my ward. Sister Jones was 50 or so, grey-haired and single. I remember her presence in the classroom as embarrassing. I talked to my mom that night and told her I didn’t want to be single when I was old, I wanted to be married. At 10, I already knew to fear singlehood.
I thought about that day when I passed my 29th birthday as single. Then 30. Then 31. At 33, I’ve eased up on church attendance. Being single in the church wasn’t the reason, but it certainly didn’t make my experience any easier.
Newly 31, I attended my local family ward. The first Sunday I saw a few acquaintances and long-lost friends, people I’d gone to seminary with, now wrangling 4 or more children in the overflow. I said a few hellos after sacrament meeting, then dutifully marched up to the front of the chapel to introduce myself to the bishopric. The first counsellor greeted me, quickly shook my hand, said he’d heard I was coming into the ward and that they’d have a calling for me soon. However, I noticed during our exchange that he avoided eye contact with me and seemed fidgety, even nervous.
“I’m sorry, what was your name?” I asked him, realizing he hadn’t introduced himself.
“Oh, Brother Smith,” he said, and walked away. I thought this was strange, but shrugged it off.
I attended the ward for a few more weeks with about the same level of interaction. To her credit, the person who took the most interest in me was the Relief Society president, although we only spoke over the phone due to her being out of town. By the fourth week, I assumed that invisibility was the way of the single in a family ward. But the next Sunday I brought my non-LDS boyfriend to church. After sacrament meeting we were surrounded by people, young couples mostly, introducing themselves and welcoming us into the ward. The bishop and that same counsellor greeted us with enthusiasm and were clearly disappointed to realize we were not a new married couple. After church, my boyfriend asked, “Are they usually so friendly?” I realized that no, they weren’t.
I sipped punch at my cousin’s mission farewell open house, chatting with a man maybe 15 – 20 years my senior. He worked in the same industry as I did, and we talked shop, enjoying a lively conversation about mutual acquaintances and experiences in the field. I knew he was married as he had mentioned his wife and children in passing during our 15 minute conversation. At one point he asked if my husband was at the party. I replied that I was unmarried. Within 15 seconds, he ended our conversation and moved across the room.
A Mid-Singles event attended by over 300 people. Gathering in the gym of the church, one of the organizers, a woman my age, was trying to split the crowd into groups for the evening’s activities. Also in the gym were the event’s chaperones, married couples from the host Stake. “Okay, everyone!” she shouted. “Split yourselves up and go stand by the grown-ups in each of the corners of the gym!” My jaw clenched at ‘grown-ups’. I’ll remind you this was a mid-singles event, ages 27 – 40.
Unfortunately, there are more anecdotes; mine are just a fraction. It’s a curious state, being a 30+ single in the LDS church. On an individual level, most people treat older singles in a perfectly normal fashion. We are, after all, human beings. But the ‘otherness’ is palpable and our religion is responsible in part for creating this stigma. Most activities and lessons focus on family, or more specifically, the ‘ideal’ nuclear family. In our doctrine, the highest level of exaltation requires a spouse. I don’t think that should change, but it’s ridiculous to gloss over a group of people for something beyond their control.
The plight of older singles has been discussedmany times around the bloggernacle; stories of infantilization, condescension, invisibility. Again, I realize it’s not like that for everyone; I have friends who have happily carved out niches for themselves in family wards. Although, is seems that most people who are successful are in wards with family or pre-existing friends.
But still I’m concerned. I’m particularly concerned about single women. (Likely because I am one.) In a culture where women are given the most power in roles defined by who they are attached to, mother and wife, single women are virtually powerless. Then add the proviso of only interacting with other women to ‘avoid the appearance of evil’. It can be demoralizing.
When pondering this topic, I recalled a comment on a blog post about the plight of singles. It’s an attitude I hope is not prevalent.
“But for the record, I agree that the church isn’t “friendly” towards singles in the sense that it validates singlehood, and I don’t think it should be. Marriage and family is a fundamental purpose of life and if someone is an exception to that, they have to understand that they’re an exception.”
Tough luck, singles. You’re an exception.
Ultimately, I fear that the only people who really care are the leadership who see singles (apparently) leaving the church in droves, and singles themselves. I wish that more rank and file members understood that excluding and ignoring single members is noticed, that ignoring single women for the sake of appearances sends a very clear and disturbing message. In a community with amazing outreach skills, with multiple activities and classes for all age groups, there could be an abundance of good works wrought within the community if singles were not seen as ‘exceptions’.
We can do better.
[This is the first post in this series; See all the posts in this series here.]