Staying with polygamists
Part of me didn’t want to believe it was true, and yet I knew it was. The girls all in dresses with long hair done up in styles of a by-gone era. The young faces, not all with traces of family resemblance and yet all sharing the same last name. The remote location, far from prying eyes (and any shopping or convenience). Yep, now that I look back it’s quite clear that I should have more strongly suspected I was headed into the unknown; I was going to be a guest of a group of polygamist women.
And not just any polygamists; fundamentalist latter-day saints. In the barren, northern farmland of eastern Idaho, I found myself facing an adventure and a challenge. The occasion that brought me far from home (with a nursing toddler and temporary nanny in tow) was a midwifery skill lab for the institution that I am receiving my education in childbirth from. Over the course of the year, several skill labs are offered around the country based on interest level in a particular region. And as it happened that 7 women from this small farm town were interested in hosting a lab, this became the closest and most timely location for me to attend.
Several other women from around the country were in attendance, along with the instructor that traveled from Virginia to teach us the skills commonly associated with midwifery. We arrived late Sunday night in order to be present for the 8am start Monday morning, and to say it was a strange drive out into the wilderness is laughable. After several wrong turns on lightless back roads, we made it to the large machinery shop on the outskirts of a larger compound of buildings and houses, which we were told would be our dormitory. In the fluorescent light of a ground level door, we were met by three young girls prepared to show us to our rooms.
On the third level of the large aluminum building, rising above the shop floor, were several bedrooms, bathrooms and an open room for instruction (with old church pews lining the walls) . A kitchen on the floor below would be host to three hot, home cooked country meals a day for the three days of the event (with fresh raw dairy on hand from their complement of 100 cows, in addition to fresh eggs and produce from their multi acre garden!) We were quickly and quietly helped into a room on the end of a long hall with a hand carved mahogany king size bed. It also appeared to double as an office for whatever went on below. I thanked the young hostesses as questions began to percolate in the back of my mind.
The morning brought with it only more questions. Two older women were there for the class in addition to the three girls from the night before and there were two young mothers as well, one with a 5 month old and one in her 39th week of gestation. It was these two women that caused me the most perplexing anxiety over the course of the three days. At most they looked as though they might be 18 years old, an age for which I could understand starting a family out in the remote countryside. But by the end of the first day it was clear that this was not their first journey into motherhood. One had two other children being tended to elsewhere, and the pregnant one was on her fourth.
It was this realization, as well as a conversation with another student that had done more research before coming than I had dared, that finally pulled the wool from my eyes. I began to see what I hadn’t wanted to see. The deception in response to harmless questions about the nearby homes. The outright lying about ages from the younger girls. The nervous, lofty glances elsewhere when relationships between the older and younger women were questioned. Either they hadn’t prepared themselves well enough, or they hadn’t had time to synchronize stories, but to say they weren’t forthcoming or completely honest is grossly understated.
And then there was the “sister in law” from a nearby town that had married a brother (to whom he is a brother it is still unclear). Dressed in blue jeans like the rest of us outsiders she was clearly not part of the tribe, and yet, welcomed as family. Not that she was any more candid than the young sister-wives, but she was definitely sympathetic to how it all must have appeared to the rest of us.
So here I am, in the middle-of-no-where-Idaho, the only person aside from our hosts with any ties to Mormonism, learning about childbirth alongside women that I suspect see it more often than anyone could guess (and have more interest than the rest of us in keeping it under wraps at home), in a building that I was beginning to question the purpose of. And yet, amidst my concerns and doubts, I was strangely at ease and at home in a way that I still can’t quite explain.
Perhaps it was our common goals and the process of seeking to understand the miracle of birth and life that brought us together. Or maybe it was the genuine love and interest that these women, old and young alike showed to myself and the other visiting students. In many ways, these were some of the most Christlike and accepting women I have ever met. In fact, I found myself wishing more women I met at church were of the same demeanor and attitude. These were not sheltered women either. Well educated and informed, with interests outside of their small farming community. They even had (although obviously duplicitous I now see) Facebook accounts. And their sweet disposition did not harbor any falseness of belief. They were whole heartedly devoted to their choices and lifestyle. Though it was the very idea of “choice” that began to get under my skin by the end of the third day.
After watching and connecting with these women in a way I hadn’t expected to, I began to feel angry and sad at their situation. I didn’t want to pity them, nor did I want to think my choices fundamentally better. Who am I to tell other consenting adults what to do with their lives and bodies? But that’s just it. Were these girls consenting adults when their “choices” were made? I couldn’t shake the answer that I knew to be true. These girls were just that: girls. And yet they were mothers and wives….and sisters and friends and seemingly very happy. Who was I to feel sorry for them or judge them? I still don’t know. I can’t stop thinking about them. They were so kind and loving to me and my son. So interested in us and able to see us without judgement or filters. I want to be that way.
Did their living situation equip them with those gifts? Does tolerance and understanding and patience and love flow from the constant sacrifice of self and individuality that must be required of such a one-sided agreement as polygamy? And again, I have no answers. I just know that they weren’t what I expected. Whatever polygamy is, it isn’t something we can understand from the outside; I do know that. And I know that a part of me feels a great deal of love for these women that were like sisters to me for three strange days in northeast Idaho.