The definition of a young single adult in the LDS church is simple. An unmarried person between the ages of 18 and 31. I first joined a YSA ward in September of 2001, a couple months shy of my 18th birthday.
Cuz I’m super sneaky like that.
I will turn 31 in about 8 months.
I have been a YSA member of the church on three continents, in four countries, and held callings in a dozen YSA wards up and down the Mormon corridor.
This makes me as close to expert in the field of Mormon young single adulthood as anyone ever can be, so let me tell you a little about it, with the preface that I do not pretend to represent anyone else’s feeling or the intentions of the church that I love so dearly.
When I left the only home ward I had ever known, to start school at BYU-Idaho, I began a phase of life that believed would be a short but vital blip on my journey to real adulthood. The 10 year plan I had laid out for myself at age 15 looked like this:
This was the traditional path, the plain road. The course my mother and three sisters were all in various states of accomplishing. To my mind marriage and parenthood were the two states of being that defined a true adult. That was the plan, the expectation, and desire that I had chosen with the encouragement of my family and the fabulous army of Young Women’s program leaders, Sunday School and Seminary teachers, and priesthood leaders who had loved and guided me so tenderly all my life. I loved this plan. I was SOO EXCITED ABOUT IT!
During my late teens and early twenties, along with acing my way through college as a theatre major, I consciously prepared myself for life as a wife and mother. I bought excellent children’s books and movies. I made a notebook of activities I would do with my kids someday. I read about marriage and relationships. I carefully noted the examples of fantastic wives and mothers who I met. I chose a career path that I thought would be conducive to school hours or part time work. I tried, and I think pretty successfully, to “become the kind of person you want to marry,” as all the wise people had told me.
And yet, despite my efforts, there were no men for me. I had guy friends during high school and college. I had a lot of crushes. I even asked a few of them out here and there, but there was never a second date. I didn’t blame the guys. I knew I was not the prettiest girl. And I frequently reminded myself that those great guy’s I was crushing on had every right to take their pick from the sea of beautiful, intelligent, spiritual women I found myself surrounded by. Though it cut a little every time, I didn’t resent the many times a guy in my ward would befriend me only to quickly reveal their interest in my roommate. After all, my roommate was (usually) pretty awesome.
However, there is a little wound that develops one church meeting, game night, linger-longer, and ward family night at time. Every time, you pin hopes to your heart and tell yourself, THIS IS THE DAY. TODAY I WILL MEET THE MAN I’M GOING TO MARRY, and then you return home alone, not having had a real conversation with anyone at the party, and you unpin your hope again along with your earrings, and every time it leaves a little scar.
It becomes a small but constant ache. And you have to fight to keep the infection of bitterness from growing in it. From time to time, that pain put me on my knees, tears streaming, wondering what more I could have done. Didn’t I deserve this righteous desire? Did I need to repent? Had I missed something? Why didn’t anyone teach me how to flirt?!?
Unfortunately, the easy balm of comfort for this pain is commiserating with other singles about what is wrong with YSA culture and the church, or what Peter, who was such a great guy!, could possibly see in Molly!
That was wrong of me, but it usually felt good.
I’ve been blessed with a healthy ability to fight off physical and spiritual infections, and those hours of lonely struggle have made me stronger. I’ve had a solid relationship with my Father in Heaven throughout my 20s. This relationship was aided by my experience as a missionary and by my temple covenants.
In her excellent article this UVU student says “sometimes I feel like I should try harder, to be a good Mormon girl and focus solely on getting married. That sounds exhausting. I think I’ll conquer the world in the meantime.” Like her, I’ve always found taking on the world to be much easier than wrestling with my relationship issues in Zion.
Unlike her experience, no one—not my family, another YSA, or a priesthood leader—has ever made me feel uncomfortable for being an endowed single woman in the church. Like her, I had a strong desire to receive my endowment at an early age. I saw my 18-20 year old girl and guy pals going to the temple to be sealed or serve missions and I knew I wanted that too! And I wanted it now! What could be wrong in that desire? I was also struggling with my own grief over my father’s death and wanted to feel more connected to him and the rest of my endowed family by attending the temple. The very Sunday I made up my mind to speak to my bishop about preparing for the temple was the Sunday he read a letter from the first presidency announcing the ‘raising of the bar’ for missionaries and that no one should be endowed until their mid 20’s unless marriage or mission was imminent. That was ‘a hard saying’ for me, but the spirit comforted me that I could still prepare for the blessings of the endowment on my own. I studied carefully for the temple as I also prepared to serve a mission. When I at last received my mission call, I was more excited to enter the temple than I was to enter the MTC.
I was able to participate in all the temple ordinances multiple times before leaving for the mission field. This was a huge boon to my testimony and my work as a missionary. My love for the temple has remained constant through my life. I have been able to talk confidently with many brides and missionaries who are understandably nervous about the unknowns of the temple ceremonies, garments, and the promises they are making. I have also born witness of the peace and blessings of the temple to those outside my faith. The temple covenants have been an enormous blessing for my life during the struggles of my 20s. I LOVE the temple. I have many single girlfriends who have struggled for years with their own desires, or their priesthood leader’s pushiness or resistance to make the choice about when to enter the temple. In my opinion, it is a choice that the church should allow every young person over 18 to make on their own with the Lord’s guidance.
I needed the strength of the temple and the promises given to me there most especially during the crisis that hit me when I was 26. My first real relationship was a trial of my faith for many reasons, but the climactic moment came when, 13 days before our wedding, the man I had chosen to spend eternity with revealed to me that he was not able to be married in the temple. Our wonderful YSA Stake president, perhaps the most Christ-like man I have ever met, told us plainly that he would marry us outside the temple without hesitation. But I hesitated. I knew cancelling our temple wedding would raise a few eyebrows in my family and community, but that was not my real hesitation. More importantly, I knew immediately that getting married to this man I loved so very much would not help him. His struggle and the very unfortunate treatment that so many good men of the church receive is a topic for another time, perhaps. In any case, he had healing to do that had nothing to do with me. So though I stayed with him for more than a year hoping to be a helper in his healing, eventually the Lord helped me find the courage to give up on what had become my fondest hope and begin to move on. THAT SUCKED. ALOT.
And it left me feeling bold and a bit unsteady.
I began to weigh my options more seriously. I started grad school, where I met a world of interesting people with ideas that have challenged me and forced me to take stock of what I really believe. This has not been a test of faith so much as a thinking through of ideas. I have read, and thought, and written a great deal in my quest to refine what one professor has called my Values, Attitudes, and Beliefs. I have felt healthfully stretched. My faith is in the process of being pruned and is springing up in new buds. I’ve also seen the church I love beginning to shift in very exciting ways.
So it was that after much internal debate, and an unexpected invitation that I decided go on my first date with a non-LDS guy. Now, Mom, don’t freak out, it’s not going to go anywhere with him for various reasons, but I spent the whole time pondering if pursing a relationship outside the church could be right for me. This was a good, genuine, humble, and kind man. It gave me pause. If I found a man who loved me and was supportive of my faith and desire to raise children within the teachings of the church, could I form a life with him? Is it time to start looking beyond my church to find some one to share my life with? My fears would be two fold.
One: That as the solo spiritual force in the home, I would fall short of providing my children a strong foundation of faith.
Two: That I would live in false hope that one day my husband would join the church, rather than being able to accept him for who he is and isn’t. I feel like that would be a kind of wedge that could drive a marriage apart quickly.
And yet, I have seen many powerful examples of Mormon men and women with non-member spouses who raise children to love the church. It may be a hard row to hoe, but so is being alone all your life, or never having children at all. The Lord grows his church in unexpected ways, often making do with the tools he has available. And my tool shed is looking a more than a little ill supplied. Does the Lord want to me explore some new horizons?
My intentions and dreams have not changed in since I was 26, or 14, or… 3. I want a temple marriage and happy children. I love my work. I am passionate about my studies, but what I know will fulfill me spiritually throughout my life is building a family of my own. And here’s the thing, if I am ruling out marrying outside the church, I am cutting myself down to a pool of what I would guess is about one million eligible men in the WHOLE world—and of that million I have a really high standard for the man I will marry. Beyond being worthy of the temple and being willing to marry me, I need to find someone who I can trust implicitly. I’m not expecting perfection from him, but if I am going to make the promises that temple marriage requires I make to my husband, then I need to find a man who understands and loves God even more than I do, and who I can actually imagine myself enjoying hanging out with FOREVER. And EVER. And EVER.
I’ve still never met a man that I loved that much. And if I never do in this life, then I need to…just be ok with that?
It is a fact that every year the pool of options gets a smaller, and a lot of the time it feels plum dried up. My 10 year plan has failed. The revised five year plan I made at 26? That has failed too. And the one year plan that I made 18 months ago, yeah, that didn’t happen either. Maybe it’s time to stop making those plans.
It can be hard not to remind myself that at my age my mother was expecting me, her fifth and final child. It is hard not to look at some of the leadership of the church and want to tell them, “I DID IT ALL and IT DIDN’T WORK!” It can be very frustrating to go to another YSA activity and feel like I will never be recognized as an adult in this church. It is hard not to punch someone in the face when they use the term ‘graduating’ to describe getting married and leaving the YSA ward. Does that mean I am flunking out?
It is hard when I feel that I am failing at the one thing that has always mattered most to me.
But I am comforted by a thought that I will explore in the next post:
Maybe there is no such thing as a traditional Mormon woman.
And, it could be worse: