I arrived to a sea of twisted blue ribbons plastered on the walls and “It’s a Boy” confetti splashed across a dining table. Extended family members and strangers ate slices of cake and homemade Jell-O salad. The compulsory chorus of “Oh, so cute!” arose after each familiar gift was opened by the glowing mother-to-be, my cousin. This was last November, and I was at my fourth baby shower in three months. So although I was — and remain — childless, I knew Target’s baby department a little too well.
I’m Mormon. Invitations to baby showers come as often as my electric bill, albeit in prettier pastel envelopes. It doesn’t stop at showers, either. I receive requests to attend baptisms, birthdays, and baby holidays that appear to have originated on Pinterest. Because many of my Facebook friends are also Mormon, posts with baby photos and videos of baby firsts fill almost my entire News Feed.
I’m hardly the only 38-year-old woman to feel inundated with baby content. But for Mormons, family is everything. As Catholics display crosses as wall decorations, Mormons hang “The Family: The Proclamation to the World.” It states that “the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.” Mormons believe families and marriages last forever — even longer than until “death do us part.” In his bestselling 2009 book Standing for Something, then-president of the church Gordon B. Hinckley wrote that homemakers are more important to society than army generals and CEOs. “Who can put a price tag on the influence a mother has on her children?” he asked. The Bible — which Mormons believe in — states that we are here to “multiply.” Mormons believe marriage and children are not part of the plan of happiness — they are the plan of happiness. Large families are what we do.
But outside the church, I’m far from an anomaly. In 2012, the Pew Research Center found that the number of never-married Americans aged 25 and older had reached an historic high: 1 in 5. (In 1960, the statistic was 1 in 10.) Its survey data shows that 50% of adults believe “society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children.” I’m part of that half — against the teachings of my church. At the most recent Mormon General Conference, held over Easter weekend this year, a church leader said Mormons have a responsibility to “preserve and protect the family as the basic unit of society and eternity.”
Regardless, more Mormons are delaying marriage, for the same reasons as non-Mormons — to pursue higher education and establish their careers. The result is that the church has divided its singles wards — the congregations originally created for unmarried Mormons in college — to include young singles (18-31) and midsingles (31 and up). For devout Mormon women, being single might not be a choice. In Utah, unmarried women outnumber unmarried men 10 to 4. Where I live, in San Diego, the numbers are even worse. I have only one single, childless Mormon friend, but she wants to have a family someday. I don’t.
When she and I grab dinner, the conversation always leads to how hard it is to date inside the church. She’s committed to dating Mormon men and keeps a profile on Mormon dating sites. I haven’t dated a Mormon man in more than 15 years because the subject of family comes up almost immediately. It’s easier to date outside the church, where parenthood isn’t presumed.
Over the years, I joined secular dating sites and stopped mentioning my religion to the men I meet. Once, I told a guy on a first date I was Mormon. His face froze. “I wish I knew,” he whispered. “This would have changed things.” Changed things how? I’m not looking for a man to instantly put a ring on my finger. I follow the Word of Wisdom, the Mormons-don’t-drink rule, but I still like to have fun. When my alcohol abstinence comes up I say it’s a “personal choice,” nothing more, nothing less. I’m the same way with new friends — not overtly open about my religion.
I feel more comfortable around non-Mormons in general. Nobody asks me about having children. My friends and I gripe about work and finances, discuss our shared hobbies — running, cooking, comedy — and debate our favorite Netflix shows. Rarely do conversations turn to religion, and I prefer it that way. I relish the company of inquisitive people who learn and do new things. It’s one of the reasons I want to remain childless — so I can too. I surround myself with these people and never feel lonely. But when I attend church, I sit by myself in a sea of families and feel utterly alone.
After a worship service with all members, we split into demographic groups for Sunday School. One of the groups is called Young Women, designed to help teenage girls navigate the social pressure to become immoral. I loved attending Young Women when I was a teenager. I made friendships I maintain to this day. But I was saddened when my only single, childless Mormon friend, who teaches Young Women, told me she was asked to invite an “exemplary woman” to speak to the class about the joys of womanhood. “Preferably one who has married in the Mormon temple and has a family, to speak on the joys of being a woman,” she was told. My friend is stunning, articulate, and hardworking. She has an education and works at a job making more money than most men I know. By church standards, she is not considered exemplary. I can only imagine that she feels hypocritical trying to lead teenage girls.
In fact, it’s hard for any single woman not to feel inadequate. The church offers no lessons for people living outside the ideal. We are these lost souls trying to find our way and carve our own path with no direction from any church leaders or even friends to turn to for advice. I’ve become almost bitter about it because I want to belong, but I know I won’t ever truly fit into this family-centric religion.
Once, my church held an activity focused on the theme of “goal setting” — how and why we need to set goals in our lives. I presented a slideshow to women and men about how I achieved my goal of running marathons on every continent. I hoped to inspire other Mormons to discover their passions and pursue them. Lots of women approached me after the event, and one said she felt inspired to register for a 5K. Then a single man in his twenties, whom I didn’t know personally, asked, “Don’t you want to wait to have those experiences with your husband and children?” He probably assumed I was younger and still had time to raise children and travel later on in life. But it was rude and unwarranted. If I had waited to create these memories after marriage and children, my journal would have contained empty pages for 38 years.
In my secular life, I feel proud of my accomplishments. But in the church, I’m surrounded by an aura of awkwardness and shame. On Sundays, I attend a group called Relief Society, similar to Young Women but for those over 18. We often receive lessons on families and women complain/brag about their children’s exploits for the week — as any mother would do. I nod my head and ask questions. In response, I’m asked if I’m seeing anyone, and when I will start my family. I have never been asked, “Do you want to get married? Do you want kids?” We are not to think that way.
I once thought I would live the typical Mormon life: graduate college, get married, and start a family. When I was growing up, there was a 32-year-old single man who attended my church. Once, he came over to our house and, as he left, my mother said, “He needs kids in his life.” Everyone felt sorry for him and wondered aloud how he would find a woman to marry at his old age. I was just a kid, but I naturally started to think it was how I should feel. I even selected my baby names before I was out of elementary school. By the time I was in my twenties, I had a picture what the rest of my life would look like: every night with my husband and children, teasing one another with playful inside jokes as I cooked dinner.
But as the years ticked by, I never met a man who asked me to marry him and the desire to become a single mother never materialized. By my mid-thirties, all maternal aspirations disappeared, and I embraced it. Instead of spending my days thinking about the future — when I get married, when I move into a bigger house — I began to live in the present. I acquired new hobbies, like beach volleyball and stand-up comedy. I make jokes about not wanting to be a mother. A guy once took me on a date to Disneyland. Disneyland is kind of a waste of time for me. I already know I don’t want children. People in comedy clubs laugh. Mormons brush it off with, Oh, that’s just a joke. But it’s more than a joke. It’s also how I feel.
I maintain nothing but the utmost respect for mothers; I imagine one will find no harder job on earth. I appreciate my own mother and the sacrifices she makes every day for the happiness of my brothers and me. But I like my life of last-minute solo road trips and quiet evenings after a long day at work. I don’t want to follow in the steps of my mother and feel at peace with my decision. But as I age, my relationships with Mormon women feel a tad strained. Moms seek out other moms; couples pursue couple friends. I don’t have much in common with stay-at-home Mormon women, even more so now that many of the Mormon women my age are raising teenagers and spend their evenings swept up in their family’s lives.
In a Relief Society meeting two years ago, a woman in her mid-forties asked me, “If you don’t have kids, who will take care of you when you’re older?”
I admit this question does give me pause. Who will take care of me when I’m older? But having a built-in caretaker does not seem like good enough reason to have a baby. I may never have someone who calls me Mom and get to use the baby names I chose so many years ago. My life will not involve sippy cups, midnight feedings, and watching the movie Frozen alone without embarrassment, but I get other life experiences that are, in my opinion, pretty darn great.
At the same time, I appreciate my religion. Its members are quick to volunteer and serve others. I once spent the night in the hospital for severe migraines. Immediately, Mormon missionaries offered to visit the hospital, and the Relief Society president called the next day. We take care of each other and whenever people even casually mention they are Mormon, instant bonds form.
But I want to the church to feel more inclusive. I want room for every type of woman. I want the Young Women to have a guest speaker who has some cool hobby. If there are Mormon women who don’t want kids, I recommend giving lessons in church explaining why and what we can offer other members. We have an opportunity to show other Mormons our talents, teach them about our careers and educational pursuits, and expand their minds so they look at us with electrified eyes instead of pitying ones.
Until then, I'll remember the time, years ago, when I was at a church event and a 21-year-old asked me my age.
“Twenty-five,” I said.
Her eyes grew. “Aren’t you seeing anyone? How are you going to start a family at your age?”
I wonder how she would look at me now.
Jennifer Purdie is Southern California-based freelance writer for publications such as "The Los Angeles Times," xojane.com, CNN, "Running Times," and various other publications.
Contact Jennifer Purdie at email@example.com.
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