The Sorority of Silently Suffering Sisters

Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

Women Picking Olives, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

I remember the moment of desperation vividly.  It was days after the birth of my second child.  My mother-in-law had gone home, my husband to work and I was alone with my high-need pre-schooler and newborn for the first time. I stood, exhausted in the shower, blood running down my legs, milk dripping from swollen breasts, tears flowing from weeping eyes and thought, “How come nobody ever warned me it would be like this?”

Were there chapters in the “Handbook of Womanhood” I missed? In all of my preparations for pregnancy and birth, how had this moment of utter despair, emotional hopelessness, and crushing physical pain escaped my planning?

I called my mother and sobbed. I called my grandmother and sobbed.  They both had the same rection: they laughed! How dare they?! Then, with sincere empathy, they each said, “I know exactly how you feel.”  Separated by generations, all three of us walked the same path, and in an instant, I knew they understood.  Nothing practical about my situation changed, but I changed. I wasn’t weird, or wrong, or some bizarre anomaly anymore. I wasn’t alone. And that made a huge difference.

That day I formed an imaginary association, making them and me the first members: The Sorority of Silently Suffering Sisters. (SoSSS = Help!)  Not because suffering in silence is good, but since we all do it, we might as well do it together.

Would you like to join? No application necessary, the rites and passages of womanhood automatically qualify you for entrance at a variety of subscriber levels.  Though it’s not meant to be an Olympics of Misery, you can imagine a girl-scout-type sash displaying your Merit Badges of Womanhood. Oh, certainly not for any public accolades, but to help you find an emotional ancestor, a merit-badge adviser to guide your journey.  Badges could include: menstruation, sexual harassment, pregnancy, discrimination, miscarriage, infertility, birth, breastfeeding, childless, adoption, stretch-marks, menopause, plugged ducts, surrogacy, single, infidelity, divorce, death of child, single-parent, special needs child, caring for aging parents, post-partum depression, addiction, rape, abuse, mental illness, breast cancer, abortion, unemployed, family estrangement, transgender, working mom, stay-home mom, lesbian, birth control, in-school mom, caring for terminal spouse or child, faith transition, and widow, just to name a few of the potential milestones across the life of any woman.

Membership includes a community of empathetic, understanding women who have gone before your face, are willing to mourn with you, comfort you, bear your burdens, listen to you and share advice or words of support, that no sister among us might say, “…I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me…”

Solidarity out of solitarity.  Silence dissipated by Sisterhood.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose which badges to work on, or when, but we can seek out advisors for them.  Earning new badges seems like cruel hazing at first, but when we reach out to the wealth of experience surrounding us, buoying us up, and guiding us, we come to appreciate our embarrassment of riches.  Compassion is our common ground, if not empathy.

The name, SoSSS, is ironic – all of us are suffering in some way — but by bonding together and speaking out our truths, we find strength and resolve.  “If she got through it, so can I!”  We need not be silent in order to “bear our burdens with ease” or to “submit cheerfully … to the will of the Lord.”

Perhaps the pressure to appear strong and faithful through trials cripples our ability to ask for help, particularly from other women who are keeping their own experiences under cover. No more!  No woman is an island, entire of herself; every woman is a piece of the continent, a part of the main!

Perhaps we don’t want to be labeled by our struggles and wish instead to be known for our strengths.  When we show our weaknesses with faith and humility, and call upon the grace of God, weak things become strong.

Perhaps we fear judgment or disapproval from others by exposing ourselves. Above all, we must commit that the lived experience of every woman is valid, even when – and especially if — it is not the same as our own lived experience.  We must reconcile our own beams before digging out our sister’s mote.

As we continue this conversation over the coming months by highlighting stories from the individual badges, please return to share your experiences. To a neophyte, reading the perspective of one who has gone before can help ease the sting of their new pledge. If you are one that has gone before, share! We need your words! To those currently in the throes of the maelstrom itself, come here for respite.

We need acceptance and empathy-without-competition as a practical part of Relief Society — Christlike charity is paramount. The doctrine and theory in the footholds of Relief Society decree an unconditionally loving sisterhood! Yet many women lack such safe places in their local wards, and so it is for you – the sister who grieves in isolation — that I invite and open this space for your stories.  What badges are you working on? Which have you finished?  Which do you fear or anticipate?

As we unravel our stories to the very core of womanhood and the essence that makes us Daughters of Eve and Sisters in Zion, may our minds and hearts be inclined toward the great Mother God from whom we spring. Her presence and influence are embedded in the trials and the triumphs of womanhood.  We will find Her here.

Likewise our Savior, who went forth, “…suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind…he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people…and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy…. that he may know…how to succor his people.”

 

“…a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”

 Let it be our time to speak.

Violadiva

Violadiva is an oxymoron, a musician, a yogi, a Suzuki violin teacher, a late-night baker of sourdough breads, proud Mormon feminist, happy wife of Pianoman and lucky mother to three.

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26 Responses

  1. neva says:

    bear ye one anothers burdens and the burden will become Light

  2. J Willhite says:

    Amen, sister. I am here, by your side, with my own merit badges: some matching, some different, but here together. Not silent.

  3. Much love to you Carrie. Well said.

  4. Caroline says:

    What a lovely post, Violadiva.

    “Perhaps the pressure to appear strong and faithful through trials cripples our ability to ask for help, particularly from other women who are keeping their own experiences under cover. No more!”

    I think this is one of the things that most cripples our Relief Society meetings. So often people want to be positive and not talk about their vulnerabilities or struggles that it’s hard for me to feel like I know the woman in my RS well. Once in a while, on the very best of RS days, women will be vulnerable and admit to struggles or weaknesses or hardships or questions. Those for me are the very best of days.

    I have found the feminist Mormon blogging world to be that place where I can always find vulnerability and raw honesty. Thanks for this post that reminds me why I love this community so much.

    • Violadiva says:

      Your comment reminds me of how refreshing it was to hear Sister Marriott tell the story of recognizing weakness and sin within herself in her talk at the General Women’s meeting a few weeks ago. She modeled so well the idea that we can claim our vulnerabilities without them being accompanied by shame or fear.

      Seeing her do that in front of a world wide gathering of women and girls sends a huge message that it should be okay to be real in front of church audiences. I’m sure different congregations the world over would respond in a variety of ways, but I love what she modeled from the top-down!

  5. Emily U says:

    I’ll join the Sorority. I’ve got several of those merit badges and a few not on the list.

    I’m re-reading A Midwife’s Tale right now and this reminds me of an 18th century midwifery manual quoted there: “There is a tender regard one woman bears to another, and a natural sympathy in those that have gone thro’ the Pangs of Childbearing which doubtless occasion compassion for those that labour under these circumstances, which no man can be a judge of.” The specific example here is labor, because it’s a midwifery manual, but the point is more general. There’s something irreplaceable about sharing experiences with others who have been there before.

  6. Liz says:

    Agreed – so often we fear rejection by sharing our struggles. We worry about not being “enough” – spiritual enough, strong enough, righteous enough, normal enough – and so we keep it all to ourselves. This suffering in silence and “fake it ’til you make it” is SO OVERRATED. I agree with Caroline that I find so much refreshing vulnerability in Mormon feminism – The Exponent has always been a safe space to show my wounds and not worry about being rejected. I’m so glad to have it now, and I’m grateful for those who have benefited from it over the past 40 years.

  7. spunky says:

    This is a powerful post, Violadiva.

    I was struck by this: “Perhaps we don’t want to be labeled by our struggles and wish instead to be known for our strengths.”

    It is such an irony to me, having lived in several different wards and moving around a bit, that when I go to a new ward, there first comes the introductions, the politeness… and then comes the explanations and confessions of weaknesses of others. I think it is an invitation of tolerance, but a it’s core, it is gossip. Well-intended, but still hurtful. Sometimes people want to start fresh, and not feel weepy about the loss of a child, a bitter divorce, or a traumatic birth experience. And yet- while we put on the brave face, others are there, telling everyone else about our weaknesses, out of kindness, superiority or because it draws the spotlight away. Church culture is a complicated relationship, one that I don’t entirely understand.

    This has me thinking. Thank you.

    • Violadiva says:

      Since reading your comment earlier today, I’ve been examining the times I have done exactly as you describe. I have my eyes newly open to a tendency to overcome; Thank you! Each woman’s story should be her own to tell, on her own terms. I think I’m guilty of how you describe it, something along the lines of, “I’ll tell you her sad story so you’ll know and so she won’t have to tell you herself.” Or in other words, in case you didn’t notice that Scarlet A on her chest, let me point it out for you! There’s got to be something more organic in revealing your badges of womanhood to another person by your own choice than by having them revealed for you. Thank you so much for the paradigm shift.

    • Calliope says:

      Spunky, thank you for pointing this out, gossip in the guise of being ‘helpful’. This is something I have experienced and struggled with about church culture for a long time now and it’s one of the things keeping me from attending regularly right now.

      I’m quite a private person and am determined to tell my story if I ever so choose. To have other people try to be ‘helpful’ by telling it for me without my permission – or sometimes, what’s worse, them making something up on their own when they don’t know/understand the actual story – I lose all trust in those members and find it impossible to worship with them spiritually.

  8. Jenny says:

    Beautiful post! I love your vision of a shared sisterhood. I have also felt alone as I have earned my birthing and motherhood badges. I have made it my goal to help other women not to feel the loneliness I have felt. I especially love this paragraph: “As we unravel our stories to the very core of womanhood and the essence that makes us Daughters of Eve and Sisters in Zion, may our minds and hearts be inclined toward the great Mother God from whom we spring. Her presence and influence are embedded in the trials and the triumphs of womanhood. We will find Her here.” Yes! That is how we will bring Heavenly Mother into our lives and our church!

  9. HokieKate says:

    Lovely! My ward’s quarterly Relief Society activity just focused on the struggles of peri-menopause, something that hadn’t even entered my radar yet (I’m 28), though apparently symptoms can start in your mid-30s. There is so much we don’t talk about.

    • Violadiva says:

      This is brilliant! What a great idea. Relief Society would be a great place to have series of meetings on Women’s health: physical, emotional, sexual, financial, spiritual. Did they bring in a special presenter or doctor?

      • HokieKate says:

        The presenter was a woman who’d recently been doing a ton of research for her own concerns, overseen by our RS president who is a nurse. It wasn’t the most rigorous, but a good introduction to open the topic for discussion.

  10. winifred says:

    Trust in God with all thy heart and lean not unto thine own understanding.
    but if course feminists think their way is the only way

  11. Marcus says:

    This was very eye-opening for me. I was surprised to read the list of “Merit Badges” that were completely unique to the female experience. As a brother (husband/father/son) how could I be so aloof? These conversations could do so much to enlighten people across the gender spectrum and help us lift one another.

  12. Julie Berry says:

    What a lovely post, Violadiva. You raise so many thoughtful points. I think I am less forthright in church now about my private badges than I was when I was younger. Partly it’s because some of the things I might want to vent about impinge upon the privacy of others. Partly it’s because I’ve seen how judgment does, indeed, happen, along with gossip, and inappropriate curiosity. And, to be fair, my track record at this isn’t perfect, either. So, as other commenters have said, conversation in a ward community is complicated. But one on one, between friends, this sharing is crucial for our survival, and it knits us together. And, what’s more, whether or not we share badges in common with one another, we can try to respect the weight of experience, and suffering, that the badges may carry, and be slower to criticize or judge each other. It would be a beautiful thing if our default was that we looked upon our fellow sisters, and all mankind, as though each was doing the best they could under their circumstances. Whether or not they are falls to God to judge, but we can grant each other that benefit of the doubt.

    • Violadiva says:

      You’re absolutely right, Julie. Thanks for illustrating how to support someone who is working through something different – though equally difficult – as what we have experienced.

  13. Melissa says:

    What a great post! I love this idea, because I know there have been times when I’ve wanted to reach out, but didn’t know who to reach to. Or a time when I finally felt able to talk about some crazy postpartum hormones I had recently recovered from, (mostly), and was told that it was only satan trying to bring me down, so I needed to rely on God more… It is nice to think about having a place to speak, and have understanding, because in the end, that is really all I ever needed. And I venture, what most humans really need. I loved the idea you expressed that even though speaking to your mom, and grandmother didn’t change your situation, it did make it more bearable somehow. I totally get that.

    I’m currently working on an “I Stroll Out to My Mailbox Multiple times a Day as a Mini-break From My Crazy Fun Sons” badge. It’s amazing what that five second break does for me ten times a day ;). And also an, “I had a positive pregnancy test, but my period came ontime anyway” badge. Such a bummer!

    • Violadiva says:

      Melissa, whoever gave that response about your hormones being from Satan is nuts! I think an unhelpful remark like that is a litmus test for the person having very little clue what you just went through…..Ride on, Melissa, Ride on! to someone who “gets” it. The more I think about what a badge mentor looks like, it’s not the advice she offers that gives her away, but the questions she asks, and how well she listens. I hope you find your safe places in comfortable ways. If you’re okay with electronic friends, the Exponent has an excellent track record of understanding and helpful responses….and we moderate the meanies 🙂

      I think I need more 5-second breaths of fresh air (by myself) throughout my day with little boys! Thanks for the tip.

  14. Meredith N says:

    Beautiful post, Carrie. I felt the same thing after my son was born: why didn’t anyone tell me about this? I guess we try to be careful not to scare moms-to-be, but we probably don’t prepare (or support) them well enough either in general.

    But in defense of the SoSSS, there’s really no way to prepare a woman for the journey that (although we all share it generally) will be experienced uniquely by her. The best we can do is be there for her, to stabilize her when she stumbles.

    And you’re spot on that one way we stabilize each other is by sharing our stories. I’m thankful that in my RS women are really genuine and share their stories of fear and failure equally with their stories of faith and success.

    • Violadiva says:

      Isn’t that a fascinating paradox? There’s no way we can really understand something without actually going through it ourselves. That’s written into the by-laws of the SoSSS — every woman must earn her own badges. Requirements for badges may be completed at your own pace, but must represent your own work.
      It’s such a blessing to have stabilizers on many sides: to keep the path lit, to be a cheerleader, to hold your hand and pull. Blessings on your path, Meredith. It’s one I know well, and will be writing about very soon.

  15. Nonie says:

    Thank you for elaborating on this beautiful concept. I’m so grateful for sisters and best friends who aren’t shocked by anything I might have to say, even at my lowest. They are ever ready to empathize and lift. Your post inspires me to continue looking outside my intimate circles for other women who may need encircling.

    My mission president once told a group of us that everyone wears a mask, and that the only mask we’re ever allowed to remove is our own, never that of another. This seems to apply especially in the SoSSS. By vulnerably removing our own masks at times, we create a safe place for others to do the same.

    Sex is another badge that belongs on this list. So much silence there! When I was engaged, I went to lunch with one of my best friends from college, who had married just a few months prior. She was *SO GOOD* to sit down with me and talk about marital intimacy with a candor I had rarely heard on the subject. Her experiences as a newlywed had been very positive, and her advice to me so welcome and helpful. She, however, had a married friend who had done the same for her before she got married, and that friend painted a very bleak picture of what would probably happen on her wedding night. Because of that one anecdote, my friend was understandably quite nervous. Fortunately, her fears were groundless, and she in turn became a person who realized how much help she could give instead of worry. I, in my turn, have done the same for others. In one case, I was the only person in a position to do so, and that lady ended up as grateful as I had been as a soon-to-be bride. Spread the love of the sisterhood!

    • Violadiva says:

      Thank you for mentioning a very important one I forgot! That one has the potential to make both parties either extremely awkward or extremely grateful. Or sorta simultaneously both. I never had “the talk” with anyone when I was a young woman, but my younger sisters get no choice in the matter — that’s just what this meddling big sis will do! You make a very good point that we need to keep our eyes open for women beyond our inner circles who need to be brought in.

  16. EmilyCC says:

    This is just a fantastic post, Violadiva. I don’t have much to say other than, “Wow!” and this is what I have always hoped Relief Society would be.

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