My jaw dropped. “What do you mean, you’re getting married?”
“I mean that Hyrum asked me to marry him and I said yes!” Katie bubbled, giddily.
Katie lived down the hall from Kesa and I. I’d run into her at the campus copy center where she was busily working on her wedding invitations. Social decorum would have dictated that I compose myself with dignity and respond with congratulations but I was too shocked for that. “But you’ve only been dating for three weeks,” I stuttered, confused.
Katie shrugged. “So what? When you meet ‘The One’ you just know. Why wait?”
“Because he could be a serial killer?” I suggested.
Katie gave me a look.
“Ok, so he’s probably not a serial killer but … but … but aren’t you kind of young to be getting married?”
Katie was getting annoyed with me now. “No. I’m 18, which means I’m a legal adult. This is God’s plan for me. I was meant to be a wife and a mother.”
I let it go. I even complimented her on her wedding invitations (which may as well have had Hello Kitty stamped on them she was so young). It wasn’t Katie’s fault. She was just one participant in a larger cultural trend. I wasn’t going to do any good by raining on her parade.
This was the 5th conversation like this that I’d had in recent weeks. We’d been in school less than a semester and yet my peers were getting hitched like the draft was coming back. It was alarming and perplexing but as confusing as I found it, I understood its source.
Marriage was held up as the golden standard in the Mormon community. Even as young girls my fellow LDS peers and I had been rigorously schooled in the art of homemaking. We were taught to cook, sew, decorate and diaper. At least once a year there was a marriage Q & A panel or other marriage-themed activity. I don’t recall a single career-themed lesson but we spent many a church activity writing out a list of what to look for in a future husband. The beginning – righteous, returned missionary, priesthood holder – was always written on the board to get us headed in the right direction.
Marriage was expected to be every young girl’s top priority and goal. We were constantly reminded that our role in life was to be that of wife and mother. That was what we should be preparing for above all else. It was our divine destiny. It was our life’s purpose. Everything else was secondary. This was reiterated over and over again.
My childhood best friend, Jessica, had gotten married a week after her 17th birthday. It wasn’t a shotgun wedding. It was her choice. But children quickly followed and Jessica’s life got really hard really fast. While I was going to the prom, Jessica was balancing the budget and juggling a handful of babies. I knew what early marriage looked like. Seeing it so flagrantly encouraged without regard to the individual consequences enraged me.
My mom and step dad’s short courtship had lead into a marriage that was difficult. They had come out of it but the impression of those early years had not dimmed in my mind. After watching all of this first hand, marriage itself felt daunting. Externally motivated, rushed, premature marriage was terrifying. Yet my peers and I were being actively encouraged to this end. My personal experiences juxtaposed violently with the rosy images of marriage being continuously paraded before me.
Now all of the marital preparation and indoctrination had reached a fever pitch. At BYUH the importance of finding a marital partner was the central tenant of countless Sunday school lessons, firesides, devotionals and more. There was even a bulletin board in the student center dedicated solely to the posting of marriage announcements.The goal of finding a worthy young man, who had served a mission, to marry in the temple was a more commonly visited subject than all scholastic topics combined. The torrential onslaught of pressure was overwhelming.
Strict religious chastity rules often pushed kids to get married before they were really ready. On several occasions, we were advised that it would be better to get married than to succumb to temptation and violate the law of chastity.
I watched as girls barely out of high school met and married their “worthy returned missionary” often within months or even weeks of meeting. It was insane but this behavior was being actively encouraged by the adult leadership. Sometimes these girls continued their studies but often they dropped out of school to “be a wife” and start a family, as Katie shortly did.
This cultural phenomenon blew me away. What would happen to these girls years down the road if (God forbid) their husband left, died or was unable to work? They would have no means of supporting themselves and the families they had created. What if abuse entered the marriage? With no education and no tools for bettering their situation, they would find themselves trapped.
Even if everything went perfectly, wouldn’t they regret never having had the time to find out who they were as an independent and unique human being? Never having developed their sense of individuality and tested their personal strength? Certainly, people could grow within a marriage but key cornerstones of identity are always lain differently in the company of another.
At the time I could see marriage and family life as important and impactful human experiences for those who chose to pursue them, but I also witnessed the extreme insistence of our elders leading many young girls to accept that a wife was all they were meant to be and that meekness and docility were pre-requisites for the job.
In 1950 the average age for a woman’s first marriage was 20 years old, according to the US census. 50 years later that average had risen to 25. Despite the advancement of time and the women’s movement, however, in my world it was still 1950. Even 20 was a little late.
I struggled with the culture of young and hasty marriage being paraded recklessly around me. My religious incompatibilities seemed to be compounding. I was troubled. But worse than the disagreement I felt was the absolute isolation and loneliness of my beliefs.
It was a small thing, practically insignificant when viewed in a global context. But at the time it felt far bigger. My individual will, still newly blossomed, felt dwarfed by a strong and powerful outer narrative. I felt vulnerable. The pressure to conform was immense, especially for someone with so little experience in active resistance. I could feel the heavy weight of an invisible hand pushing me along the stepping stones of a pre-determined life, one I didn’t know if I wanted. Or if that even mattered.
This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.