When I first worked up the courage to return to school six years ago, my two children were aged three and one. I had not formally worked outside the home for three years and was painfully limited in the social realm. Often, I will admit, I was so deprived of normal human interaction that I would avoid using the self-checkout at grocery stores because a few seconds of casual small-talk with a cashier would be the only conversation I would get that week, outside of my own small family. I felt like a starved animal lunging at the walls of my den; the four walls of my little home a prison that kept me wallowing in my despair, clawing at the confines of my shrinking brain. So desperate was I for social interaction that, I am ashamed to admit, I settled for what I could get.
My husband’s family never approved of me, because I, Jezebel that I was, had kept their son/brother from leaving with much fanfare on a celebrated Mormon mission, considered requisite for every young man (and women who hadn’t managed to fulfill their true calling of binding themselves to a priesthood-holder and getting pregnant with Mormon progeny in seconds flat). Fornicating in the back of his 1994 Geo Metro was a burdensome task to stop for two hormonal 19-year olds. Despite the threat of eternal damnation driving me to tears daily, biology proved stronger than God.
At the instruction of my then-boyfriend’s bishop, we wedded. He had stated with much exasperation that to appease God we had only two options: stay out of each others’ pants and refrain from interacting with each other at all so he could repent and go on a mission, or, option two, get married and make all this love-making acceptable. It was a tearful time for two barely-adults who thoroughly believed God’s one true church condemned our rabid sexual escapades. My boyfriend, Chase, resisted. His guilt consumed him. He was the fourth boy in the family and would be the only one to disappoint all his community by not proudly opening a mission call in front of an enamored audience. He watched his friends and peers stand before the congregation, being treated like a God, as they testified of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon and the bishop patted their backs and the girls gathered around hoping for a hand in marriage- after two years of chaste proselytizing, of course.
My own bishop had shamed me until I believed suicide was a viable option to escape the terrible wrath of God that was sure to rain down upon me. At 17 I shakingly confessed that I had “done stuff” with my boyfriend, and the stern patriarchal glare I received left me withering. This man lived three doors down from me and had a daughter my age. Sitting in his office, he told me that I would never have my virtue back. This was devastating for a girl raised to believe that all my worth resided in my vagina. In my purity and virginity and the ability to submit to a Priesthood-holding man and have his children. I had spent every Sunday chanting a Young Women theme that included the importance of being virtuous. Every week I had done activities that involved preparation for marriage and motherhood, which were heavily emphasized as the true, eternal destiny and purpose for every girl. My purpose was to get married in an ostentatious Mormon temple, the only way to secure your family for eternity. At 17 I was sure that I had ruined all of eternity for myself.
Now, near the close of my second semester in the summer of 2016, I would learn that a third child would be joining our family. This was my eternal destiny, after all, to not limit the number of children I had for worldly purposes. I was not yet 25, and would have three children under the age of five. My husband was not yet done with nursing school, and I had recently endeavored to go to school as well. To complicate matters, my husband had just lost his job, due in large part to conflict between his work and school schedule. Shockingly, the prosperity gospel was not working for us.
For anyone with common sense, it seems obvious that we had destined ourselves and our children to poverty through making foolish decisions, yet we had been indoctrinated into a prosperity gospel that emphasized the selfishness of delaying children and asserted that faithful church members who served and paid their tithing would be provided for in their time of need. I had heard this from childhood and believed it whole-heartedly. Reality did not pan out as mapped by demanding religion, however.
I sat in church sweating and pregnant, a baby in my arms and a toddler at my knees, tugging at my skirt until my garments were exposed. I felt ugly, unwieldy, and more than anything else, ashamed. I did not want to be a welfare mom. The women’s class, called the Relief Society, taught teachings of our modern prophets as I hunched in the back row fighting back tears. In this late August the lesson was about the importance of self-sufficiency. The older women in the room launched into angry tirades about people being unwilling to work and budget and I burned with shame and anger. My husband and I had worked so hard, and were so poor and so frugal that I cried every time I needed to buy my children new shoes. Expenses seemed insurmountable and wages were low. The irony struck me with the force of hurricane winds: I was in this position of poverty because we had listened to the teachings of our church, and yet it was our church condemning us most harshly for needing help. At my most alone, at my most afraid, the most they could give me was denunciation. Something fierce was happening inside of me, brewing a storm that could not be bided down much longer.
This is a story that doesn’t end here. In fact, it has yet to end. I am no longer in poverty, and I am no longer a Mormon, but the deep indoctrination I received from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints still haunts me. The emotional turmoil and the financial burdens it placed upon my husband and I are not easily forgettable. I am branded with them.