I have read with great curiosity about the “empty nest syndrome,” since I am not married and have no children. Perhaps sometime we can talk about the “empty arms syndrome,” i.e. the similar (yet dissimilar) feelings of women in the Church who have never had the opportunity to give birth (or adopt, because of our single status). The best advice I can give to those who are so afflicted, is to read, and re-read and memorize if necessary the talk given by Sister Smoot, General Relief Society President, at the April 2000 General Conference. It is titled We Are Creators. Her words are far too choice to summarize!
Please, you sisters who are grieving because of children who have left the nest, please read this! Our Relief Society President has given us truly inspired words which should help to ease the heartache. As for me, I'm 46 and still not married, so I can tell you sisters that there is something worse than having them leave home; not having children at all is infinitely worse! But it's a temporal concern, and a temporary problem, that will be “fixed” in the eternities to come.
An anonymous reader asks:
We have had some interesting opportunities to explore differences and some of the unique ways our motto, Charity Never Faileth, might guide us. Can you help us find some helpful approaches for deepening our relationships with our sisters with “Empty Arms”? I think our marital status is sometimes the most divisive factor in certain settings. How can we undo that stigma and help to carry the emotional burdens of our sisters who suffer silently, at times, from “Empty Arms”?
Carol, thanks for the new angle. Please read on about adoption, a subject you mentioned in passing. I'm going to forward some information from an LDS friend who has researched your issue at great length and has adopted an adorable little girl as a single sister and cancer survivor herself. Please bear in mind that we are not experts at all, and Mormon Momma is not in any sense endorsing any of these sources. That's not our purpose we share these sources only as resources for you to take a look at and evaluate independently if you would like to. We are looking forward to exploring single sisterhood, and hearing more from you, specifically.
Also, thanks so much for the tip on Sister Smoot. Those of us who were able to tune into Women's Conference a week ago, were also privileged to hear Sister Dew's talk, Are We Not All Mothers?, on the different applications of the word “Motherhood.” It included all women, not just those who are blessed with husband and family in this life. Also a very praiseworthy read.
Last Sunday in Relief Society, it was announced that a dinner was being held for couples and members of the ward 18 and over. This announcement was unintentionally ambiguous. My recently divorced friend leaned over to another divorced sister and said half-jokingly, “Does this mean we can't go?”
Before I was a contributing author to “Circle,” the wording of this announcement would have glanced off me without a second thought. I want to take this opportunity to thank you sisters; single, divorced, childless (either through infertility or empty nest), raising “special” children, or those having to leave empty arms because of terminal illness. What a blessing you have been in my life.
In these few months, you have opened my eyes and raised my level of sensitivity to issues that seemed quite removed from my own. You have allowed me a glimpse into your world and I have felt for a brief moment, your suffering, joy, despair, and faith. You have edified and enriched my life so much. Thank you, dear sisters for your loyalty and for making “Circle of Sisters” a part of your lives, as well.
Special Guest Carole Casteen writes:
It ?s an interesting question, and a difficult one. Marriage and family are the heart and soul of our Church, so much that our prophet and his apostles issued a proclamation specifically regarding these issues. Perhaps the better question (and certainly a much easier one to answer!) is how the single, never-married women in the Church can face the reality of empty arms, get over the disappointment (and grief I might add), and get on with other important ways to serve in the Kingdom of God.
As a single, never-married woman without children, I ?m familiar with the occasional but deeply felt ache of being so different from so many other women in the Church. A difference that was not of my choosing. In a recent fast and testimony meeting a sister stood up and bore her testimony that the blessings of her children and grandchildren came about through her baptism in the Church. I had the urge to tell her after the meeting that maybe I needed to be rebaptised because I had neither children nor grandchildren, so maybe the first baptism didn ?t work? (It was only a fleeting and humorous urge, which I fortunately ignored.)
The fact that there was a proclamation by a prophet of God and his apostles regarding marriage and the family is evidence that these matters are vitally important, not just in this life, but eternally. The lack of marriage and children has the capacity to yield deep sorrow for those of us who haven ?t yet experienced these blessings, because these blessings carry the potential of joy a joy that is unparalleled by any of mortality ?s other experiences. The absence of that joy means that our hearts ache when we don ?t experience those blessings in the expected time frame.
How we react to our circumstance (be it single status or lack of children) is up to us. “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” How true for every individual born into mortality, regardless of marital status. Single members of the Church have a different kind of pain. Whether or not we suffer is our choice. We can choose to wallow in self-pity, foolishly choose to seek something that is not attainable, or we can accept our situation and move on and upward in building the Kingdom of God.
The Lord will have, one way or another, a chastened and refined people. Some married members of the church receive their chastening via dealing with the problems as well as the joys of marriage. For some members, refinement may come through dealing with problem children, financial setbacks, personal or family illness, personal lack of faith or lack of testimony of family members. Single members of the Church aren ?t spared the refiner ?s fire, and rightfully so.
Married members sometimes have a hard time imagining the challenges of single members. A simple analogy might suffice. Being single is sometimes like being a child outside a toy store. We press our noses against the windowpane, looking at the wonderful toys inside and watching the joy of the children inside the store merrily playing with their toys.
We wistfully dream, “If only I had that toy,” or “Wouldn ?t it be wonderful to be inside, like the others, playing with the toys!” It's probably been that way for some of us, at some point or another, and it ?s not a happy experience.
But as with most of life, our attitude determines the quality of our experience. We can either look at the glass as half-empty or half-full. If we take the effort to look, we may find that we have ample toys outside the windowpane within our easy grasp. As long as we are keeping the commandments, trying to stay healthy, and making the most of the talents and opportunities that we have been given, we don ?t need to worry about our marital status. We do need to worry that our self-esteem comes from knowing who we really are daughters of God and that He loves us enough to send His only begotten Son as a sacrifice for us. Unless we make that knowledge part of our very souls and being, we won ?t have the self-esteem required to make it through this life without becoming angry, disillusioned, cynical, and defeated.
Recently I had an interesting patient come to see me. She was 95 years old, quite spry, and completely alert mentally. Her entire demeanor and countenance were absolutely positive. After a few questions I discovered that her nephew had driven her to my office because she didn't have any children (she had stopped driving a few years ago). She said, “No, I didn ?t have any children.” But she quickly added, “I have lots of nephews and nieces and I ?m a mother to them all!” Her glass, all the days of her 95-year old life, had clearly been half-full.
Single members of the Church need to trust in the Lord completely, that He is in control, that He will give us every blessing that we ask for in His own due time. We need to get to the point in our lives (and this applies equally to single and married women) where we can truly say that He is great, that He is good, and that He has given us an astoundingly beautiful world to enjoy. As A.W. Chambers said, “It is a beautiful and blessed world we live in and, while life lasts, to lose the enjoyment of it is a sin. ?
The Lord has promised us, “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when yea do not what I say, yea have no promise. ? D&C 82:10. The Lord is bound to bless the righteous single sisters (and brothers) of this Church with the blessings of eternal marriage and posterity if they merit those blessings. We know that His promises are sure. So we must ask ourselves, do we need to see evidence of that, or do we have faith that his promises are sure? If we know that His promises are sure, then we won ?t need to see our eternal partner and children because we know that we will see them in the eternities to come. The Savior Jesus Christ paid the price in the garden of Gethsemane for the sins of each individual who came into mortality, irrespective of marital status or family status. His love is for all of us, and He desires that all of us have joy both in this life and the life to come. Single members of the Church just have to wait a little longer than others to receive the full blessings of that joy. If so, so be it.
In the meantime, there are multitudes of opportunities for single members to assist in the building up of the kingdom of God. The scripture, “…. but as s for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. ? Joshua 24:15, applies equally to single and married members of the Church. As single members, we may have unique opportunities to serve Him in our Church callings. Wouldn't every Relief Society president love to have a single adult woman in the ward who can always be relied upon to do her visiting teaching? Wouldn ?t every bishop love to have a single adult priesthood holder who can always be relied upon to do his home teaching? Wouldn't our prophet, President Hinckley, be thrilled if all of the single members of this Church had charity, the pure love of Christ, and its accompanying spiritual power, which would enable them to reach out to others in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ?
We must look beyond our own face in the mirror, beyond our own circumstances, to find true joy. The opportunities are there for us to serve if we will but seek them. If we continually focus on what we do not have, quite simply we won ?t be able to focus on serving others, and we may lose the Spirit and the gifts thereof. The gifts of the spirit are “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” Galatians 5:22. These gifts are available freely to any member of the Church who is willing to make the sacrifice to obtain them. That sacrifice may involve taking the time to study, and re-study the Book of Mormon. According to Elder Russell M. Nelson, reading the Book of Mormon can help members of the Church (single or married) with their personal problems. “Each individual who prayerfully studies the Book of Mormon can also receive a testimony of its divinity. In addition, this book can help with personal problems in a very real way. Do you want to get rid of a bad habit? Do you want to improve relationships in your family? Do you want to increase your spiritual capacity? Read the Book of Mormon! It will bring you closer to the Lord and His loving power. He who fed a multitude with five loaves and two fishes- He who helped the blind to see and the lame to walk can also bless you! He has promised that those who live by the precepts of this book ‘shall receive a crown of eternal life.' D&C 20:14.
In 2 Nephi 32:5, we are told that if we will receive the Holy Ghost “it will show unto you all things what yea should do.” As single sisters in this Church, if we live with and follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost, we will not fail to receive all that we have been promised, both in this life and the world to come. There may be a few bumps in the road at times, but none of us were promised a smooth ride. What more could we ask for?
Sister Ardeth Kapp and Sister Sheri Dew both general church leaders, one single, both childless have shown anyone who didn't already know that one need not have children to be a powerful source for good in the Kingdom of God.
Although I would, of course, not choose to give up my children to exchange places with anyone, it has occurred to me that their great and particular service may not have been as effective ?or even possible ?had they had children.
When God's command to “multiply and replenish the earth” is not available to us, there are so many other commandments and pieces of counsel that we can engage in, probably to a greater extent than those with children. Use that time and energy for good and it will be a worthy offereing!
Special Guest Linda Vaughn writes:
“It's so difficult to attend church. I feel invisible; it seems people deliberately avoid me. No one asks how I'm doing. I even tried another ward last Sunday, but didn't feel part of that ward either. I feel so alone.” This sister is a convert and sealed in the temple to her husband and two children a year ago. She recently filed for divorce from her husband of 15 years.
“I want things to go on as they always have with my friends in the ward. I want to be included in dinner parties and activities. My circumstances may have changed but I haven't.” This sister is a lifetime member whose husband of eight years filed for divorce leaving her a single parent of their one child.
“Oh, how I long to be married and have children. I was promised in my patriarchal blessing I would be; but I guess the Lord is working on his time schedule, not mine. My biological clock is ticking louder every day.” This single professional sister is in her 30's.
“It's so difficult to come out to church. It's the music that still gets to me.” This convert sister was widowed a year ago from her husband of sixty years.
“I sit alone on the bench in Sacrament Meeting looking at the loving husbands with their arms around their wives as emotions of loneliness wash over me.” This divorced sister is a convert of two years and a parent of one child who elected not to join the church.
Our church membership consists of people in a variety of circumstances. Our ward families can include the typical “family,” extended families, the elderly, youth, babies, widows, divorcees, and single adults. The level of diversity brought by each individual enriches each of our lives.
Do we, as individuals, embrace our sisters regardless of their circumstances? Do we gravitate to sisters whom we perceive as experiencing circumstances similar to our own? Would we dare leave our comfort zone to reach out and embrace those whose life styles are different? Marital status should never be a pre-requisite in choosing those whom we embrace in the spirit of charity. Sure, we find it a challenge to stretch the bubble and tiptoe into new territory, but that is when and where growth is set in motion.
Everyone has felt alone, regardless of his or her situation. Our Savior felt alone as he hung on the cross knowing death was imminent but not knowing the hour. We know how it feels when we are overcome by loneliness. We want others to notice us and love us for who we are. We want to feel included and of value. As sisters, it is not our responsibility to judge another's situation and determine whether we can or cannot fill her empty arms with unconditional love and acts of charity.
How can we begin to detach the stigma from our divorced sisters and brothers? Simply stated, through acts of charity. Elder McConke noted in Mormon Doctrine, “Charity is more than love ?it is everlasting love, perfect love, the pure love of Christ ?love so centered in righteousness that the possessor has no aim or desire except for the eternal welfare of his own soul and for the souls of those around him.” Those possessing pure love are selfless, provide acts of kindness, and are long-suffering and patient.
We tend to be reticent in approaching the sister embroiled in the crisis of divorce. We may avoid the recently widowed sister for fear of saying the wrong thing. When I was divorcing, I know that some ward members were aware of my situation and others were not. I was never sure, because only a few members had the courage to broach the topic. Some days I needed a good hug. Other days, someone to talk to or to laugh with and, truthfully, some days I wanted to feel alive again and not discuss it at all.
We do not need to know the details surrounding a divorce. We may not agree that divorce is a viable choice. Sometimes curiosity about the minutia of the disagreement clouds our intent to provide acts of charity to those in need.
So go ahead and approach that widowed or divorced sister on Sunday; put your arm around her and sincerely ask how she is doing. You've set the act of charity in motion. Be guided by the Spirit as to whether you should acknowledge her situation and let her take the lead in the conversation. She may reply with nothing more than a brief “fine,” or she may begin to weep and want to talk. Remember, you can't fix her situation, but you can listen to her. Don't be offended if she is brief with you. It's not you who trouble her, but the overwhelming responsibilities that she faces as a newly single parent or sister.
Follow up with a phone call, include her in activities, and embrace her like the sister she is. Try to love her unconditionally. Offer to help. I know from experience that she will feel valued and loved because of your effort to leave the safety of your comfort zone.
I have been happily married for over 16 years. I have five wonderful, healthy children. In truth, I realize that I have no right, nor room, to complain of having “empty arms.” Indeed, some days the arms feel rather too full for comfort. Still, there is a part of me that understands some aspect of this phenomenon.
When my husband and I were dating, I told him, “I will have two children if I like the first one a lot.” Much to my surprise, a spiritual epiphany of sorts about six weeks after the birth of our first child changed the number to four. The second child's birth upped the ante to six.
In spite of my change of heart, my five children have come about only after ten pregnancies. To be sure, I realize this is not the most difficult road to bringing about a family. Being an adoptee, I am personally aware of many more difficult avenues. Still, loss of pregnancy is a real loss of the hopes and dreams for a child that comes complete with real sorrow.
After my fourth miscarriage I joined a private, moderated, internet email list reserved specifically for those who had experienced multiple miscarriages. I joined the group for up-to-date medical information and support as both are sadly lacking in the medical community and the population at large. (The general attitude from both groups tends to be, “Big deal. At least you can get pregnant. Just try again.”)
This kind of support system serves a vital purpose. Still I was struck by the negativity and self-pity that permeated the group. Many of these women were not just sad, nor just searching for answers, nor just seeking advice or comfort. Many were centering their lives on their misery.
One week the majority of the discussion focused on how many of the women spent hours every week watching “A Baby Story,” a docu-drama of sorts following a real woman from mid-pregnancy to delivery, “even though it tortures me.” A long, heated thread addressed how to properly chastise anyone within viewing distance who might dare to be happily pregnant (along with the parallel thread of chastising those daring to be unhappily pregnant). Another week discussed primarily all the rude, insensitive things every person on earth had said to them.
Having seen both sides of this issue, I feel that an equally important part of this equation lies with the person with the aching heart. We need to be open about our needs and desires. We need to be pleasant and receptive. We need to be difficult to offend and to take what is offered in the best possible light. We need to let our lives include something besides the pain we carry.
Personally, speaking to others about the miscarriages was therapeutic. Not so much because it gave me a shoulder to cry on, but because it gave me a chance to use my own shoulder for someone else. Since I didn't hesitate to speak about my experiences and answered questions openly, I was often the first person others turned to when they experienced a similar situation. The feeling that my sad experience could help others was healing and rewarding.
Certainly not everyone will deal with a loss in this way. Still, an honest word such as, “Thank you for your concern. I would really rather keep this private.” is likely to be respected.
I am reminded of an LDS Relief Society listserv I was on a number of years ago. Periodically women would join and express their pain at “not being included” or being “left out” or “without friends” in their wards, for one reason or another. Each time the outpouring of love and caring was overwhelming. And I could not help but wonder if the response would not have been exactly the same in their own ward if they had just mustered up the courage to pour out their hearts in the same way and to give the sisters who lived near them a chance to love them. In my experience, the women in the church are just looking for an excuse to serve those in need.
Bearing one another's burdens is part of our duty. Sometimes we just need to help others realize what our burden is and how they can lighten the load.