Working Hard for Our Money: LDS Single Women & Employment
by Naomi Watkins
Note: Naomi is the cofounder of Aspiring Mormon Women, a non-profit organization that supports and encourages Latter-Day Saint women’s professional and educational pursuits. Other posts about single women on AMW are here and here.
If I lived in an earlier era as an “older” (age 30+) single woman, I would be the Charlotte Lucas character of the story—the “old maid” friend of Lizzy Bennett in Pride and Prejudice—who is smart, sensible, and practical, yet who is not young or rich or beautiful. Her sensibility and pragmatism influence her decision to marry the maddening and empty-headed Mr. Collins, knowing that marrying him is her only opportunity to leave her parents’ home and secure for herself a level of social status and financial security.
Thank goodness that this is not a destiny that we as single women living in the U.S. have to choose today! We have ample opportunity to educate and provide for ourselves, allowing us to live happily independent—much to the chagrin of some. In 2013, the Pew Report shared that “today’s young women are the first in modern history to start their work lives at near parity with men.” But there are still advancements to be made and concerns to be had. Women still make less than men, and single women are more likely to live in poverty (particularly as they age) than their male counterparts.
Much of the conversation about women and work cycles around women juggling work and family, but as Rebecca Traister writes in her book All the Single Ladies, “Single women are helping the world get used to working women” (p. 159). In many ways single LDS women working towards fulfilling careers are trailblazers, and like most pioneers, we face a specific set of challenges, more so because of both our religious culture and the broader culture that places stigmas on single women. In speaking with other single LDS women about their educations and work, I found some common threads amongst our experiences. I focus specifically on the lives of never married, childless LDS women living in the U.S. primarily because that is my own experience, even though there may be overlap with divorced and/or single women with children.
We Planned for Marriage & Motherhood, Not Career
While already a well-told narrative, many of us share that we failed to make career plans; instead we envisioned marriage and children as the life path. Higher education and working-for-pay were framed as Plan Bs in case of singleness, divorce, or a spouse’s disability or death. Given that “married with children” was sold as an inevitability (and because we were also young), we didn’t believe that these Plan Bs would be our futures. If not married (possibly with children) by college graduation, many of us took jobs in female-dominated fields that come with lower pay—jobs that we planned to work for a few years before a husband and babies filled our days. I remember deciding to enter the teaching profession because it was not only a “suitable” career, but it was something I could foresee doing for a couple of years, I was good at it, and I enjoyed it well enough. I did want to earn a master’s degree, but at age 23 and unmarried, I did not consider that a master’s degree had the possibility to be a pivotal career and earnings builder for me because I didn’t think it needed to be. I viewed a master’s degree as a means to earning all of the education that I could—a noble goal and accomplishment, sure, but not one that necessarily equated into more money or broadened job prospects.
In hindsight, I wish I had been more concerned about my own job prospects and earning potential rather than the job prospects and earning potential of a hypothetical husband. I wish I had the models and mentoring to help me see the steps to make these possibilities happen. My own lack of long-term career planning became blatantly obvious to me when I conducted an informational interview with an LDS man as I contemplated a career change. He shared with me how his educational background and each of his jobs provided him with different experiences and skill development and how they were helping him reach his long-term career goals. This type of thinking had never been modeled to me before. In contrast to this man’s goals and plans, my own educational and career path, while frequently spiritually guided, has been more about me looking around every few years and figuring out what to do next.
Lynae remarks, “I feel like I’ve ended up in a pretty good job/career, but that definitely wasn’t due to long-term planning on my part…I’m incredibly grateful that it worked out for me (and I also feel that I was spiritually guided in several areas), but I know many other women my age who also didn’t have long-term career plans…and things haven’t worked out so well for them.” Susan adds, “I wonder what dream I would have dreamed for myself if I had known I would always work?”
Many single LDS women also return to school or switch careers after several years in the workforce, realizing that the short-term plans they made in their early 20s were not lifetime plans. They cite disinterest in their current work, lack of advancement opportunities, and wanting to earn more money as catalysts for change. Fortunately, we have latitude to make career course corrections regardless of our age or marital status. However, I have met other single women who continue to stick with jobs they do not like, feeling stuck or afraid of the risks and setbacks–financial and emotional–that can come from starting anew. Katie explains, “Since I am the sole breadwinner, I don’t have the luxury of experimenting with a different career in the same way as someone who has a second income. It’s not impossible, of course, but it’s scarier and I’d have to prepare my own safety net beforehand.”
However, there are also those of us who despite both LDS and broader cultural messages and pressures have built fulfilling and lucrative careers. Unencumbered by a partner’s career or children, we can often move our careers ahead at a faster clip than our married-with-children sisters. For example, Jennifer had the foresight to purposefully plan and take advantage of the independence singlehood offered her. She says, “I didn’t want to spend my single years in a low-paying job or in a job I didn’t like, so I worked hard and strategically chose positions and companies. Being single meant that I could accept a job that required a lot of international travel…my career now supports my family as I am the sole breadwinner. That wouldn’t be possible if I’d been content with a low-paying job just waiting out my single years.”
We Can’t Have It All Either
Conversations about work/life balance center rather exclusively on the lives of those married with children. A major part of expanding the work/life balance conversation is recognizing that all of us (single or married) are more than our work—that we all need to give space for providing and caregiving—both for ourselves and others. This exclusion assumes that singles have unlimited free time and do not have multifaceted lives in need of balance. Julie explains, “Work/life balance for me [means] making sure I don’t work 70+ hours a week because ‘I can.’ At church, people are confused as to why I can’t be at everyone’s beck and call. Being a teacher compounds this problem, because so many think I am done with work at 3:30 and spend my weekends frolicking around the countryside.”
Laura adds, “I work as a freelance writer in addition to my full-time job and I told [a client] once that I simply didn’t have time to write a piece for him when he asked if I could fill an assignment. He said something like, “What do you mean you don’t have time? I don’t understand people who don’t have time to do things when they don’t have a family to worry about.’ When you’re a single, working professional, you’re working at least 40 hours a week, fulfilling a church calling, involved in various volunteer activities, maybe you even have a second job to help tie loose ends (because you don’t have a spouse to help pay for things), you have family and social obligations, etc.” And while we do not have children, we are still members of families. We not only spend time with our family members, but we are often simultaneously striving to maintain active social lives, forging and nurturing friendships, and seeking to build future families of our own.
Additionally, as women without partners, we have the responsibility of not only earning a paycheck, but also of running our households. There is no one to share the load or divide the labor. Kathleen shares, “All of the things I need to do to make life happen are things I do myself: chores, shopping, all of the stuff I do in addition to working at least 60 hours a week.” True, many single LDS women live with roommates to offset living costs and to divide home responsibilities; other single women live alone and/or are homeowners who take care of their own home maintenance and yard work, or if they have the financial means, they may hire out this work. A single LDS friend once told me, “I never hate being single more than when I’m at the self-serve IKEA area, and I am trying to get a heavy box onto their squirly carts.”
Like many, single women also report burnout because we bear life’s emotional, physical, and financial responsibilities on our own. As singles, we frequently pick up the slack at work for those who do take time off for weddings and honeymoons and children-bearing and -tending. If we get sick or disabled, we often have no one who can take care of us. We lack a partner who is equally invested in our responsibilities and decisions. Many single LDS women report worrying about how they will save enough money to retire, especially with the very real possibility that they will not have the option of family to care for them as they age. Stacy writes, “Too many times it was implied by everyone around me that there’d always be your husband’s money. The idea that ‘a man is not a financial plan’ is too often glossed over.” As singles, we do not qualify for married privileges such as tax breaks and insurance benefits. It’s been found that health, life, home, and car insurance all cost more for single people, and when women are in lower-paying fields, these expenditures consume more of their take-home pay. Teaching young women about how to budget, invest and strategically save money should be a top priority.
We Swim in Cultural Assumptions & Pressures, Too
LDS singles frequently cite the infantilization at church as problematic, especially in contrast to their outside-of-church lives. Many LDS women feel that there is no recognition of their educations and their job-related accomplishments and skills at church. Julianne writes, “Because marriage is the typical rite of passage into adulthood, there is an infantilization and no recognition of accomplishments and skills that could be of great benefit to the ward. When I was called to be the Relief Society President of a small singles branch, they assigned the Branch President’s wife to be my ‘advisor.’ This role might be helpful for a [college] freshman RS president, but during this same time, I was working for the world’s largest retailer and had direct responsibility and decision-making oversight for literally millions of dollars, but church leaders didn’t think me capable of managing a group of 30 women.”
M’kynzi explains, “I work hard all week, and I am climbing that career ladder, and I am supported in my ambition and my efforts by amazing coworkers. But I go to church and come away feeling beat up for all of the good things I’m doing for myself, for my community, and potentially for my future husband and children. I feel at odds with other church members because my normal doesn’t fit the accepted norm.” Julie adds, “I’ve had some leaders express worry about my ability to fulfill callings before because I don’t have the support of a spouse.” While I personally can relate to such treatment, I have also attended wards where my professional skills and expertise have been recognized, used, and valued. A former branch president regularly referred to me as “Doctor” from the pulpit, and my teaching and leadership expertise have been utilized in a variety of ways in my local congregations.
Those of us with advanced degrees and careers have faced scrutiny because of our life circumstances and choices with people assuming that we have chosen career over family. Some may blame our educational and professional accomplishments as the reason for our singleness—that we have worked our way above and beyond eligible LDS men. Eve shares, “I remember a guy telling me that he didn’t think I wanted to be a mother because I had a career. I was like, ‘I’m 36. What do you expect me to do?’ One man thought I didn’t like children because I didn’t have any.” Monica adds, “I got dumped or not asked out again because I told [my dates] that my education was important to me and that I would graduate with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.” And Missy writes, “I feel that people view my career as ‘extreme’ … I wish some people did not view what I do as sub-par to being a mother. I would go as far to say that I feel some people feel sorry for me which is not necessary. I feel very lucky to have what I consider an awesome job and great coworkers!” And yet, while this judgment happens, our educational and professional ambitions are given more latitude because we aren’t wives and mothers. Like most cultural messages to women, it’s a double bind—be ambitious, but not too ambitious.
I see this double bind in the lives of single women who hold themselves back educationally and professionally because they are afraid that their ambitions will eliminate marriage prospects. Believing that marriage is the “beginning of life,” many single women figuratively wait around, holding back, unhappy in their present state while waiting for a future that may not be. Looking back, I wish I had taken more risks and worried less about whether this or that decision might mean I would miss out on a marriage opportunity. The Lord’s timing and the skewed LDS single male to female ratio are realities that need to be more frequently and fully addressed. Personally, I am adamant that it will be because of my educational and professional paths and accomplishments—experiences that have shaped me into who I am now—that will be major plusses to my spouse if I do marry. And any man who cannot see that value—my value—is not worth eternity.
We are Fulfilled By & Passionate about Our Work
In the most basic terms, work-for-pay is about subsistence, however, it can also provide fulfillment, passion, identity, and personal development. The accomplishments and social and psychological benefits from a successful career in any industry should not be discounted or reduced simply to a monetary necessity. I recently spoke on a panel for BYU students and fervently shared with them that my life is not a Plan B. I find great fulfillment in my work, and I have discovered that it is because of my educational and professional preparation that I am more fully able to provide for not only myself, but I am also able to contribute to my community in immeasurable ways.
Laura writes, “I love having a job where I am contributing to something bigger than myself and seeing the fruit of my efforts. I enjoy making connections, and I love traveling to learn more about current trends in my particular field and bringing them back home.” Kristen adds, “There is something really nice about having the freedom to explore my interests and develop my skills and career without the added pressures I know will come with marriage. Having a career is seen as a plan B by many, but for me it’s just my plan for my life. It’s really not pitiful at all; I quite enjoy it, and maybe I don’t want to drop everything when I do get married.” Unfortunately, discussion about work—paid or volunteer, traditionally female or male—and how it fulfills and develops us as women is tempered or silenced by ourselves and others. Recognizing how all kinds of work are part of living and growing and contributing would greatly benefit us all.
While we do have worries and responsibilities, like any other adult, we also have many opportunities. Single or married, we struggle with similar concerns and tensions even though the details and specifics may be different. Yet, these details and specifics are also important. It’s not about comparing whose details and specifics are more difficult or challenging or better, but about providing space and support for us to navigate and discover what is best for each of us personally.
Naomi Watkins is the cofounder of Aspiring Mormon Women, a non-profit organization that supports and encourages Latter-Day Saint women’s professional and educational pursuits. A former middle school teacher and university professor, she currently she develops and implements school-wide initiatives to improve teachers’ literacy and language instruction at a Title I high school in the Salt Lake City area. She earned her B.A. in English Education from Brigham Young University, a M.Ed. in Language and Literacy from Arizona State University, and a Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning with a literacy emphasis from the University of Utah.