On Being a Single Parent

Sister Lewis asked me to talk about being a successful single parent tonight and I've been quite flummoxed by her request, firstly because I don't feel particularly successful. In fact, in many ways I'm a dismal failure. I'm giving it a shot here under the proviso that we all need to realize that anything I have to say doesn't particularly apply to only successes, to only mothers, or to only singles. There are three handouts: the white one contains the quotations referenced herein, the blue one features wisdom garnered from the listserve I run, freely given by sisters much wiser than I, and the yellow one contains Internet stuff--one about being a mother and one about clutter, both of which subjects I touch upon tonight. The back of the white handout has a copy of Neal A. Maxwell's lessons learned from cancer, which I put on there because everyone should read them, and I didn't want to waste the paper.

In my adult life I've fallen under the following matrimonial categories in the following order: Never Married Sister. Bishop's Wife. Wife of Less Active Brother. Widow. Then, for a time, I was married to a nonmember. Now, I suppose you could call me a single parent, but for the life of me I can't figure out what is any different about this state than any of the above named categories, except that now I don't have to deal with The Big Kid. You can see, therefore, that whatever the situation, I have been there, done that, and wiped mascara on the crying towel, so anything I have to relate should be at least somewhat useful to every woman here. Here is what happened to me.

I have a B.A. from BYU in Comparative Literature, which was a lot of fun to get because it is, like me, a rather scattered discipline^Öa few units of this, a few units of that, and not enough of anything to really earn a living by. This was not going to be a problem because my plan was to continue on to law school. After graduation I went home to Sunnyvale for a couple of years and worked in some law firms in San Jose to pay off my student loans and save some money. After I moved to Los Angeles and started law school, something happened to me that I had never thought would happen. I got married. When I got married, I respected the wishes of my husband and dropped out of law school. Sometimes during the years I was home with my babies, I went back to the law firm to work during someone's vacation or maternity leave or other emergency, but always on a very temporary basis. One Sunday seventeen years ago, when Rachel was a newborn, I sat in RS holding her and listening to a lesson much like this one, wherein the teacher quoted some gloomy statistic to the effect that something over 80% of women in the church will, at some time, be responsible for supporting ourselves and our families. I sat there holding my new little baby and the Spirit prompted me to know that this was going to happen to me, that I was soon going to be alone.

I was terrified. I had an incomplete education and three small children My oldest was four years old, my husband didn't believe in life insurance and was very secretive about our finances, my parents were dead, my siblings scattered, and not only that, my husband kept talking about quitting his job and moving off to the boondocks where my options would be even more limited. I dug in my heels, but I didn't have a lot of input into family decisions, and eventually we did move. Once we moved here I considered that law school was no longer an option since 1) there wasn't a law school to attend, and 2) I had worked in the field long enough to know that because of the long hours and type of commitment that type of career entailed, it was not something I thought I could do and raise my children alone also. I waited until Rachel was four years old and then I went back to school to become a teacher. I had absolutely no support from my husband, who went off the deep end mentally and emotionally long before his physical condition deteriorated, and I really got a lot of flack from church members and from his family over my decision to return to school. I basically had to start over at CSUB because I didn't have enough units in any one subject to do anything with. One of my uncles and one of my brothers helped me, I started a Mary Kay business, and between those financial sources and part time teaching at CSUB and then at BC, I eventually acquired enough units to qualify for a credential. This was a very difficult thing to do and I am very proud of myself that I accomplished it during a time I had small children, a terminally ill husband, when I was living in a city where I was a stranger and considered an outsider not only by his family but also by members of the church. I learned during this experience that if I can go back to school and graduate, I can do anything, and in my opinion, so can anyone else. My husband came home from UCLA Medical Center with a diagnosis of very bad news twenty minutes before I had to leave to face five hours of grilling by the English faculty for my orals. I survived that day and have lived to survive many others since..

My theme tonight comes from one of my favorite scriptures, Deuteronomy 8:2, "And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldst keep his commandments, or no."

Sometimes, when we feel we are alone in the wilderness of life, it behooves us to remember the purpose for which the Lord gave us this earth--to prove us, to know what is in our hearts, whether we will keep the commandments, or not. As Elder Maxwell says, "It is best if we can be humble because of the word and not solely because circumstances compel us to be humble, but, if necessary, the latter will do." Another thought comes from an exercise in Mrs. Enright's typing class, which I still remember from high school because Mrs. Enright used to walk around the room with a ruler whacking us on the knuckles if we dared look at the keyboard: "Often people are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges." We Whitneys are said to have an engineering gene, and I've always had a thing for bridges, so here are some ideas for building bridges across life's wilderness.

Be Brave

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "In life, there are things which a person must do and times when a person must stand up and be counted, and a person can't do this if they are filled with fear." The Lord has counseled us that if we are prepared we shall not fear (D&C 38:30), so we must prepare as best we can for our wilderness journey. It does indeed take courage to forge our own path through the forest or the desert, to stand alone against the current, but we can and should be brave and strong. A woman should be prepared and educated to be able to support her family, as modern prophets from Brigham Young to Gordon B. Hinckley have attested. As we take steps to prepare ourselves and become financially self reliant, we will grow in faith and confidence.

Keep Your Home and Life in Order

It is important as we disembark for our trip through the wilderness, that we are not only brave and prepared, but also that we are not overloaded with things (or desires for things) that will not be needed for the trip. Such baggage will only weigh us down and during inevitable times of emergency, it could perhaps drown us. Michelle Passoff, who espouses a philosophy of "creating space for miracles by freeing yourself from too much stuff", enumerates the following aspects of "clutter".

  1. "In its most basic form, clutter is garbage." We women do not have room in our souls and homes for piles and piles of garbage. Don Aslett has made a career of helping us fight junk and has cautioned us against not only disorganized piles of paper and undone laundry, but also against poor use of our time and resources: "junk hobbies, junk relationships, junk ideas, junk collections, junk pastimes." A load of "things" will leach the joy from our spirits and prevent us from taking action when action is needed. One of my favorite refrigerator magnets says, "The best things in life aren't things."
  2. "A mass of mixed-up, jumbled, unlike objects is clutter." The Lord has counseled us to organize ourselves and establish a house of order (D&C 109:8). Everyone needs the spiritual solace that comes from a home filled with harmony and order; nobody needs the headaches of searching through piles of stuff for bills, permission slips, insurance claims, the stake directory, the $1.50 coupon for our favorite hair product, and the reassuring note from a dear friend.
  3. "Unfinished business turns into clutter... if left unattended for too long, clusters of petty unfinished business can turn into big problems, major headaches, and costly mistakes." Think of the consequences of a tax return, too long delayed, or auto maintenance, too long procrastinated, or spiritual reservoirs too long left unfilled.
  4. "Unconfrontable areas of life are clutter. Clutter is like a fungus growing on areas of life that you wish were not there in the first place but that will not disappear, regardless of how far down in the pile they are put." Elder Featherstone, in the last general conference, quotes Solzhenitsyn on short-sighted concessions as a process of giving up and giving up and hoping and hoping and hoping that perhaps at some point the wolf will have had enough, and Elder Featherstone promises us that "the wolf will never have enough." Elder Eyring, in the same conference, warned us that the temptation to delay repentance comes from our enemy, Lucifer. If there is something we need to accomplish in this life, we need to do it now, lest tomorrow it may be "everlastingly too late."
  5. "Dishonoring the past is clutter. If photographs are bunched in bags or tossed in with today's mail, they constitute a mess, not a fond memory that can be fully shared or appreciated." It is important for us to build memories for our families, to review our lives, and to revere our ancestors. This is why I make scrapbooks and do genealogy. My children don't even remember the good times because they were too young when the bad times began. In preparing the memory books of our lives, I can illustrate in a tangible way that we really are a family, and I can help them to know my parents, who died when they were babies, as well as other family members we too rarely see because of the limitations of our circumstances. As we remember the stories of our past, we brighten our futures.
  6. "Indecision turns into clutter. Take a more positive approach to making choices before you push things aside and watch your confidence grow." We are encouraged to set goals and to accomplish our purposes in life. Spencer W. Kimball said "Do it!" long before Nike did. When our lives are in order, we are able to serve others better, unhampered by the weight of our own accumulation of junk, sins, guilt, procrastination.....

Support Network

Too many people depend only upon the church for their every need. There are many other resources we can and should use, beginning with building our own internal resources. We should also nurture continuity with our families and sustain our communities and our society in positive ways. As we do, we can ensure that we will have a "safety net" to catch us during the inevitable down times. Some of the ways we can help this happen are by giving service, by nurturing friendships, by doing missionary work, by mending emotional fences, and by keeping in touch with close family, neighbors, distant family, ward members, friends, co-workers, and with the Lord.

Keep Making Progress

Elder Holland said in the last General Conference, "Every one of us has times when we need to know things will get better... For emotional health, and spiritual stamina, everyone needs to be able to look forward to some respite... It is enough just to know that we can get there, that however measured or far away, there is the promise of 'good things to come.' My declaration is that this is precisely what the gospel of Jesus Christ offers us, especially in times of need. There is help. There is happiness. There really is light at the end of the tunnel. It is the Light of the World, the Bright and Morning Star, the "light that is endless, that can never be darkened." It is the very Son of God himself.:

As my home teacher and I left the stake center after hearing Elder Holland's powerful address, he asked me, "Do you think we can keep on walking now?" We decided we could, that we could endure to the end and keep pressing forward, one step at a time, toward that light at the end of the tunnel, which is not after all the approaching headlight of the oncoming train, but which is the eternal light of Christ. This is the hope that the gospel gives us, and I add my testimony to that of the apostles, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.