Earlier this week I wrote a piece for Meridian Magazine entitled "Where are the Role Models for Single Women?" Today I read a great piece in the Washington Post, "Some people never find the love of their lives. And live to tell about it." It is accompanied by the results of a fascinating survey about single life.
As a Single Mormon Woman I found that I could relate to much of the article, but less so to the survey results. Very rarely were my answers the same as the majority of answers. I believe this is partially due to my Mormon background, as well as my discomfort with my current financial and professional situations (which, yes, are improving, but are far from perfect). It is possible that if those two areas of my life were more stable and secure that I may have different answers.
Yesterday something very interesting happened to me. I have lived in Roanoke for nearly two years, and for the first time since moving here I was invited to a social event [that wasn't with my family members]. Yes, for the first time in nearly two years, I got invited out to play. At first I was just happy to be invited and to attend. It wasn't until a few hours before the party that it hit me- I'm the only single in this town. I'm going to a party that will undoubtedly be all married couples- and me. I've been in these situations before and they can be downright miserable when you are the third wheel. However, I thought about it, and knew that it was very likely that the other guests would all be couples I am friends with. I went to the party, and I had a good time. I was very grateful that someone would think to invite me, rather than exclude me just because it might be strange to have that one single girl there in a room full of couples. Because heaven knows, we singles do get left out often enough because we don't have a spouse.
With all of that in mind, I'd like to expand a little bit on what I read in Meridian, and reference the Washington Post article, as I make a few more points. I have inserted more thoughts throughout the piece below than just what originally ran on Meridian. I have not indicated when I have not done that.
What the Young Woman Lesson Manual Said
“Invite an exemplary sister (preferably one who has married in the temple and has a family), who has been approved by priesthood advisers, to speak to the young women about the joy of being a woman. Ask her to relate some joys and challenges she has experienced, including some when she was the age of the young women in the class. She might tell about specific experiences and choices that helped her stay close to Heavenly Father and the blessings and joy that resulted. She should emphasize the joy of being a woman at every age. Suggest that she take about twenty minutes. Ask her to allow time for the young women to ask her questions and express their feelings.
“You may invite a grandmother, mother, and young married woman, who have been approved by priesthood advisers, to briefly express the joys of womanhood they are presently experiencing. You might suggest that they also mention joys they experienced when they were the age of the young women. Stress to each that she is allowed only five or six minutes. You might offer to time them and signal when their time is up.”
What I (the single, never married, young woman adviser) Heard-
Single women are not impressive. And we don’t want girls to think single women are role models. Oh and apparently a man is needed to determine what a good woman is, women can't figure that out for themselves.
This is copied, verbatim, from the Young Women Manual, Lesson 5: Finding Joy in Our Divine Potential. And it was the lesson taught this past Sunday to young women around the world. It even included a sub-heading “We Can Experience Joy at Every Stage of Life.” I’m just curious, did anyone remember to include the “stage” of being single? Did anyone explain to the young women how this stage is not the same as your college years? Didn’t anyone mention that while we hope and pray they get married, and have a family, that statistically speaking that for 50% of them “single” wouldn’t be a “stage” of life, it would be how she will spend her entire life?
No? No one. I’m not surprised.
Who Will Be My Role Model?
For the past few years I have used the following description in my professional writing biography, "Erin Ann is equal parts Mother Teresa, Anne Shirley and Carrie Bradshaw.” This description has been met by a few to great criticism. What was an LDS woman doing describing herself with a Catholic nun and as the fictional character from “Sex and the City?” Let me explain- they were single women I could relate to. Carrie Bradshaw was a single woman in her thirties, a writer, and looking for love. In that respect I had a lot in common with her. Of course if someone were to make a sitcom about my life it would probably have the less than tantalizing title "No Sex in the Suburbs.” I may not be Carrie Bradshaw in many respects, but I can definitely relate to her.
Mother Teresa and I have only a little in common as well. She balances out the Carrie Bradshaw in me with a desire to do good and stay involved in humanitarian work. And sometimes I do feel like the equivalent of a Mormon nun.
And Anne Shirley? The imaginative freckled lass in search of romance that loves to pen a good tale, and gets in unbelievable scrapes? I just wish I wore puffed sleeves better and could find my Gilbert.
If I could find a well-loved, well-known, LDS single woman that I have heard about my whole life to use in my description, I would. But I have struggled for years to find a good LDS role model for single women. We don’t have lessons on what makes a good single woman. We act like a woman's "single years" are a mere stepping stone, a brief moment in time, and there’s no reason to define it or set expectations for it, except that maybe it should involve a lot of chocolate and roses. But the truth is, that is completely unrealistic, isn’t it?
But we do teach lessons over and over again that validate and reinforce the choices of the married women and mothers. For crying out loud, we've created entire industries to validate women's choices. Half of the blogosphere is mommies trying in vain to make it sound like they are so happy with their lives, and pretending like they aren't jotting down quotes about how great their lives are supposed to be, watching Oprah for motivation, and making Pinterest boards full of quotes defending their choices. (If you have to defend it, we don't believe you are actually happy.)
I have no problem with most church lessons being about family when the Gospel is very family-centric. But I do struggle with not preparing the young women for real life. I was not prepared for real life. I see far too many single women struggle deeply with depression because they were not prepared for life alone, and each week they are taught over and over again that a woman needs to be a good wife and mother. The only lessons we are taught tell us we need to be something we are not. Believe me, there is nothing I would like more than to be a good wife and mother. But until that day happens, I need to be making the most of my life. I’ve been “single” for twenty years now and the problem is, I don’t know what a good single woman looks like.
Six Actresses, Three Dead Women, and One Secretary of State
From the Washington Post, "Just 51 percent of the adult population is married, down from 72 percent in 1960. So we talk about swinging, “Sex and the City” singles and extended adolescences. We talk about the delay of marriage or the rise of cohabitation and single motherhood. Depending on our perspective, we cheer the broadening definitions of family or bemoan the breakdown of the nuclear unit.
As I prepared to write this I searched online for “role models for single women.” The results were incredibly disheartening. In a list of “women redefining spinsterhood,” I found six actresses/models/singers, Condoleezza Rice, Mother Teresa, Jane Austen, and Susan B. Anthony. More than half the list are women who are respected for their looks. Is that how we want a “good single woman” to be defined? Her looks? (And we wonder why so many single women struggle with depression.)
I’ve turned to fiction and entertainment for a good role model as well. The examples of single, professional women are completely unrealistic. We’re portrayed as having very expensive shoes and purses, fabulous hair, and spending a lot of money on mani/pedis, and we don’t know how to change a baby’s diaper or cook dinner. Ironically, I know more “stay at home mothers” with weekly manicures than I do women with paychecks. The women with paychecks are too busy going to work to get weekly mani/pedis.
Working single women are just as busy as any married working professional. We go to work all day, come home, and handle the household issues. If anything, we have more to deal with. There is no wife waiting with dinner, plus we're on our own for house work, paying the bills, etc. There isn't a second person to balance out the work out. (I will gladly, and without reservation, add in here that single parents are the busiest, most overworked people on the planet. And I respect you all for juggling so much.) We don't lead fabulous amazing lives most days. Families go on family vacations. Singles don't. If you think our vacations are more fabulous than yours, it is your perception. We're just doing something different.
From Her Father’s House to the Sorority House to Her Husband’s House (and everything in between)
Let’s back up to Sunday and the YW lesson.
Earlier in that same day one of my dear sweet high school seniors had come to me asking for advice on preparing for college. I am the only woman she knows who has gone away to college. She is nervous about living on her own, and isn’t sure she is ready or prepared for that next step. This is a brilliant and talented young woman who absolutely belongs in a university where she can grow and learn more. She has so much to offer the world.But she is right, she has not been prepared for life alone. But she can change diapers, balance a checkbook, play the piano, lead music, and is excellent at crafts. While I am happy she came to me for advice, I mostly feel like the YW program has failed her. We’ve encouraged her to learn to cook meals for her family, do good deeds, and taught her a number of crafts. But in just a few months from now, will she need any of those skills when she leaves for school? How many more years will it be until she does need those skills? And have we taught her anything that will help her “in the meantime?” (My “meantime” has lasted 20 years now.)
I think back to the dozens of times I was encouraged over and over again to get an education so that I could get a job in case “anything ever happened to my husband,” or so I could “teach my children.” Or my favorite, to pursue a field that would work well with having a family (like teaching or nursing). I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am that I didn’t take any of that advice. How miserable would I have been if I had pursued not what I enjoyed and was good at, but what would have worked well for a life I’ve never found?
Again, from the Post, "Things would almost certainly be tougher for a single person with fewer friends or financial resources. But even for Braitman, it can be a struggle. Family reunions are fraught. Baby showers can be intensely awkward. And at weddings, she feels acutely alone. “Sometimes,” she says, “the only thing left is to know that it’s okay to be uncomfortable."
How many times have I heard a family pray that their children would grow up to get married in the Temple? Or how many prayers are sent up asking for help for an older child who has not yet found a spouse? But has anyone ever thought to pray to help a single person not feel alone (leaving out the spouse part)? Or to help a single person find a balance between work, being alone, and being in a family-centric church?
I am in my late thirties and I have never heard one lesson that would help me know what a good single woman looks like. But I can give you volumes of information on the importance of family prayer, date nights with my imaginary husband, and how a good mother behaves. I truly do hope and pray to use that information someday. But until then, I could use a role model and a handbook on how to be an LDS single woman that isn’t about dating.
"After several hours in Braitman’s comfortable home, with Rose curled up on the couch, it’s striking to think about how much of the distress surrounding her singleness stems not from her actual existence, but the reactions of others, whether real or perceived."
So much of being single, the perceptions, the assumptions, the well-meaning comments that sting, the thoughtless questions, all come down to that doesn't it? "HOW MUCH OF THE DISTRESS SURROUNDING HER SINGLENESS STEMS NOT FROM HER ACTUAL EXISTENCE, BUT THE REACTIONS OF OTHERS, WHETHER REAL OR PERCEIVED." If people actually believed and accepted that a single woman was a good woman, a good role model, and not "she's a good [insert anything here], even though she's never been married," how different would our lives be, our social acceptance be?
How often are we (singles) good at something either in spite of our marital status, or because of our marital status? We're good at our jobs because never got married. Or we're good with children in spite of the fact that we never got married.
Someday I hope to be good at something because I was good at it, and that no one adds on a disclaimer, "because she never got married." I'd like to think that with or without someone sleeping on the right side of the bed, I am still a good writer, a humanitarian, and good person. I hope that I will get invited to a party again because someone liked me, and not left out because there is an unused pillow on my bed.
I hope that someday we'll hold up a woman and say, "This is the face of a good single woman," so I can have that measuring stick. I want to define what makes a single woman a good woman. But I want it both ways. I also want us to stop holding up a woman and saying, "This is a good woman, even though she never got married." And more than anything, I want more people to understand the difference and why it matters.