Guest post by Lizza Jacobs Nelson
A few weeks ago after a long day of freeway and hours of listening to the Year of Polygamy podcast, the Boise temple unexpectedly appeared in my windshield, a literal beacon of light in the starless night as it was so often metaphorically explained. Except this time I didn’t feel the usual drop of peace or nudge of a smile. I felt sick, like I wanted to purge not only from the stomach but from the blood and brain and heart too. I unexpectedly and unwillingly had a moment of clarity.
All the shards of my confusion, loss and doubts from a broken shelf lined up in seamless formation with my hopes, anchors and history with the result that I realized deep in my bones that all the years I had spent feeling like a failed righteous Mormon woman wasn’t because I was lazy or sinful or had a chemical imbalance. It was because my life had been hijacked by the spirit of polygamy.
The temple, this sanctuary that had been a place of spiritual and physical refuge, became a Judas, mocking me with current wedding policies, haunting me with the reality that one day I will be expected to share my marriage bed, my husband, and my life. And any resistance is proof of faithlessness. No such test is required of my husband; indeed, the only marriage that God has authorized is one where he is allowed as many women as he wants, but at least two to gain glory.
The loss of what the temple used to mean can never be compensated and no other lens will help me see it differently. Enduring until God works everything out is no longer an option. The part of my heart that it used to fill will be now a bleeding place of constant mourning and I’m looking for a tool besides apathy or anger to cauterize to wound. I have lived my whole life with a daily voice that constantly reminded me how far I was from God’s standard.
I spent years walking away from church and general conference feeling small and powerless but with a list of “shoulds” that inspired me to believe one day, if I manage to get my act together, I’d finally be worthy. The string to the carrot I wasted years running after finally had a name. It was hidden in plain sight, but I didn’t have eyes to see because I trusted the story that God’s ways are not my ways. Now I’m wondering what kind of God I’ve been worshipping. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have this raw yearning to feel good enough. Since it’s been the soundtrack of my every day, I never knew how to take a step back and look at the source. It was just how life is, how God wanted our lives to be.
When I heard the hushed confessions of other faithful women, I knew the weight nagged at them too. I felt some kind of weird companionship in mutual silent suffering. It became a kind of grotesque competition, who could hide the deepest pain all the while espousing gratitude as the ultimate band-aid. I became addicted to fixing myself so I could finally gain God’s approval through his male leaders. Sometimes it worked and I felt like God’s special daughter, elated and practically manic with the connection. For a few days or a few moments, I refueled so I could tackle the list of impossible demands placed on my shoulders. It was always short lived though. Most days I felt like I was in a black void of endless pressure.
In my years of searching to rid myself of this awful tension, I looked at therapy, medication, yoga, clean eating, prayer, fasting, service, temple worship, the list went on and on and the expectations only grew bigger. Yelling at the kids, going to bed too late, or indulging in two desserts brought with it a Sisyphean effort to get back on the wagon of being perfect like Jesus, a broken record of Mormon hail mary of penance as I pushed myself that much harder at the gym or on my knees. I never once looked behind the obvious door of polygamy as a possible source because it was the thing that didn’t matter. It was in the past. It was over. There was nothing to talk about except to say in low rushed tones that it’s the higher law and one that we’ll all have to live. But not to worry! Once I mastered my natural (wo)man by loving my husband enough to never need him but always serve him, I would be selfless enough to truly understand the type of love God required. Move the class forward please to more important matters like obeying the prophet and the miracles of tithing.
Despite the constant emphasis to leave polygamy in the past, it lurked in the background, the unwelcome white noise whose crescendos and fermatas I unconsciously obeyed like a puppet, all the while thinking, “The only string I see is a bad attitude. I can choose to be happy in whatever situation I’m in.” I internalized the messages that a righteous woman’s power is back stage. Lights, costumes, design, she’s very much needed to make the production work. But if she ever wanted to take front and center in her own life, asking men to go behind the scenes to support her, call out the hounds of heresy and the scarlet letter of apostasy. God has a proper design for families and the church and if we want to follow the gods of our own hearts we’d cause colony collapse. Autonomy became synonymous with selfishness.
Upon deep reflection, I’ve come to see that this ghost of polygamy has infected all of my decisions and belief systems, the tares among the wheat. It has woven its insidious roots into the garden of my marriage and my mothering, the things I value the most because of the satisfaction that kind of heart intimacy is meant to bring. Unfortunately, family can also bring the most devastating kind of suffering too. If I’m honest, I’ve never been satisfied with my roles or choices, because they were never really mine. They were a script that promised eternal happiness and longing, trusting, people-pleasing me latched onto those promises like mother’s milk. I was hopeful for years that I could be satisfied if only, but that hope vanished in my rear-view mirror with the next bend on a dark night in Boise.
If I’m raw and honest, polygamy has ruined marriage and motherhood for me. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I’m cut out for the kind of plan of happiness god has for his daughters. If I’m honest, I finally understand why I always felt enslaved to the children I wasn’t ever sure I wanted but was expected to be the only purpose of my life. I finally get it though. I get why I feel pressured to be okay with a marriage of friendship instead of romance. I get why I feel “needy” wanting my husband’s attention. Why my goals and dreams are expected to take a back seat to his career. Why I felt so guilty whenever I wanted to say no. Why my body has never belonged to me and I’m supposed to be grateful for the opportunity to sacrifice. Why I felt worldly and selfish for a wanting a lifestyle that lacked constant financial squeezing. Why I think marriage and motherhood are about duty and obedience instead of home or love. Maybe I should have been born a son? No, I feel very connected to my identity as a woman; I’m just chronically underwhelmed with my mortal options.
This budding voice is getting stronger, or maybe just more desperate. Something dormant activated in me that night. Something trapped that always felt silenced and embarrassed at admitting just how damn unfair this whole system is. How maybe the prophets got it wrong. Or if not, how God might be a jerk. Just how hard it is to be a woman in the church despite the never ending dialogue of how amazing we have it in comparison to women of the world. Just how unrewarding raising kids can be. I always felt the pressure to qualify it. It’s hard, but so worth it. I miss belonging to myself, but I’d never go back. I hate feeling alone in the house all day, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Well, guess what? I would have it another way. I would have liked to have been raised in a place where getting married and having children was a choice. An IF not a WHEN. An actual choice where people aren’t scared for you if you don’t want to. Where they don’t pressure you to rush through the process of falling in love and building a life with someone. Where waiting to have kids or stopping at one or two is not an indicator of righteousness. I would have preferred belonging to a church where my opinions carry weight even when I disagree with leadership. I would have liked to have been taught how to actually make love with someone you care about instead of women are gatekeepers before marriage and then prostitutes after, using washing dishes and watching kids as currency. Romance should be reciprocal not transactional yet I have failed to see any of my elders show me how that actually works. I would have liked the option to decide together who’s going to provide and who’s going to nurture and when based on personality instead of genitalia. Part of believes there is a third door where I can escape the binary, where I can still be Mormon and me and keep my relationships and my voice intact. Part of me thinks it’s a pipe dream; the community is not ready for my story. Nor is it ready for the stories of how polygamy damages men, because we still struggle with validating a man’s pain or confusion as a normal part of human existence.
My husband carries damaging programming too, but in ways opposite of me. It has pushed him into circles he’s not comfortable living in and forced him to deny parts of his true nature. It has taught him methods of marriage that drove a wedge between us when he was honestly trying to love but lacked the skills to create a real connection. We daily drank the prescription of roles, duty and sacrifice meant to cure any strife between us. At the end of our first year, we prided ourselves that we never fought, recounting the times when white-haired men spewed wisdom over the pulpit that anger is devilish and will drive a wedge. It took us a long time to learn that withholding anger drives an even bigger wedge. Now we’re rebuilding a marriage of honesty, accountability, and boundaries, slumping our shoulders and shaking our fists that we didn’t have the wisdom to do this from the beginning. We both knew entering our life together that we were already married to the church. We were blindly foolish enough to think it would bring us closer together; instead it was the Book of Mormon at a YSA stake dance. It’s a strange relief to finally know why I have struggled so much in the only roles that God has designed just for me. And why whenever I felt brave enough to breathe the smallest complaint I felt the Mormon brigade defend their position as God’s truth by dismissing my pain and throwing me outside the city gates. My disease might infect our youth! How easy it is to fall from grace; it just takes a bit of honesty and vulnerability.
Sometimes I think this fork in the road is worth it because of the power I finally have to protect myself from spiritual bondage, to listen to my heart first instead of after. Other times I fear I will be forever homeless, wondering if the price of the red pill was too high. While listening to these women in Year of Polygamy talk about how they felt and why they made the decisions they did, I found a surprising solidarity. Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Young is my third great grandmother. I have heard her story and read her journals and named my first born after her. I have always marveled at her power and vision. Now I stare between the lines and wonder what kinds of things that silence would reveal. Did she have secret doubts that kept her up at night? I don’t want to see the past with rose-colored glasses or the dark lens of personal validation, but I can’t help but interpret her first marriage to Henry as a Shakespearean tragedy. A budding romance of two young hearts, connected through music and hope and religion, torn asunder by the trust placed in a prophet and her own revelation.
Betrayed? Saved? A bit of both?
We might not currently practice polygamy outside the temple, but we’ve never stopped teaching polygamous gender roles. I no longer believe God’s greatest desire for women is to lay ourselves on the altar, which is code for erasing one’s needs and loving singularly while never expecting to be singularly loved. I no longer believe a man’s need for love is only fed with a woman’s body and loyal heart and he can’t help himself by wanting more than one flavor. I no longer believe the formula for parenting success is overly-involved fretting mothers and distant polite fathers.
Truthfully, I’m not sure I can finish listening to these podcasts and retain any good feelings about the church when they so expertly pinpoint the cause of so much needless suffering as something we all accept as eternal truth. I really want to remain thoughtful and not deny the good and the power of Mormonism. I want to make my inherited tribe the tribe I belong to by choice. I want to walk this squeezing delicate middle ground but I’m finding it harder and harder to care about the good the church provides when I’m wading through the discarded bodies of its empire, mine included. I’m tired of the masses turning a blind eye in order to protect the hierarchy and thereby keep themselves safe. Were the temples built on the bones of our women? When Jesus says he hears blood crying from the earth for vengeance is he talking about them? During those years of trying to prove my Super-Mormon powers of smiley perfection that masked a tight throat and panicked eyes, my husband asked, “I want to protect you from everything hurting you. But how do I protect you from you?” I never knew how to answer because it felt true; it felt like I was at war with myself. But now I know better. It wasn’t me fighting against me. It was the life my grandmothers were expected to love fighting against my birthright to be an agent unto myself.
Lizza Jacobs Nelson is first and foremost a human and resists all other labels. Professionally, she’s curated art, taught yoga, instructed teenagers, picked cherries, and nannied Italian babies. She loves traveling (but hates plane rides), being in nature (but hates bug bites), and asking lots of questions (and usually hates the answers). She lives in the Seattle area with her family. You can find her hanging upside down in a yoga hammock, reading to her kids or trying really really hard to stay mindful with the pressures of post-industrial American housewife daily living.