Thursday, February 7, 2008

The List

This year marks my 12th consecutive year of having daughters in the YW program, and I've become accustomed to having little lists lying around the house enumerating the qualities the girls would like to see in their future spouses. This ritual is a strange one which I think must be peculiar to the Latter-day Saints. I tend to view it as rather pernicious and dangerous. Perhaps its roots lie in good intentions. Indeed girls should be looking for young men to date who are following certain standards. I believe that communication should take place before young people get seriously involved so that a girl who wants 10 children doesn't end up married to a boy who doesn't want any. However, the lists I've taken out of pockets in the laundry tend to include items like "he should have blue eyes," "must be rich and have good taste in ties," or "will already have graduated from med school." Are my daughters simply being facetious in what they are writing on these lists? Or are they really culling from my future family possible brown-eyed son-in-laws?

What is the purpose of such a particular list? Should a girl who considers education important really refrain from dating a good LDS boy because he plans on becoming a mechanic rather than aspiring to a degree in medicine? What happens when she falls in love with a boy who doesn't meet every requirement on her list? Will she always feel in her heart that she lowered her standards to marry this individual? How will this girl react when (as happened in one of our Ward Standards Nights) a bright-eyed newlywed pulls a list out of her journal and gushes that the man she married fulfilled every requirement on her list?

Well, it must be that time of year again, for this week I found two lists written by each of my two teen-aged daughters. This list was a pre-printed one from some apocryphal YW materials entitled "A Future Husband" and which included several categories of inspection. The YW leader, in a burst of creativity, had the girls cross out the word "husband" and write in "wife." Apparently they were to decide what qualities they were to develop which would make them a worthy wife to the man they would someday marry. This seemed an improvement upon the standard, but upon perusal, I still became disturbed.

Following are the results of each list:

(14-year-old daughter)

Career Objective
  • Job to fall back on (lawyer?)
    Spiritual Preparation
  • Patriarchal Blessing
  • Temple Recommend
  • Mission
  • Caregiver
  • At least a college degree
  • Law Degree
  • Well Educated
    Special Skills
  • Know how to care for house and family
  • Have good work ethics
  • Selflessness
  • Good teacher
  • Kindness
  • Piano player
  • Reading
  • Play sports
    Physical Traits
  • Appreciate my body
  • Good hygiene
  • Treat body like a temple

  • (16-year-old daughter)

    Career Objective
  • Something to fall back on
    Spiritual Preparation
  • Worthy to go to Temple
  • R.M.

  • College graduate

    Special Skills
  • Good with kids
  • Trustworthy
  • Honest


    Physical Traits
  • Healthy

  • This was all quite a surprise to me. First of all--my readers will know that BiV has never taught her children that a career is "something to fall back on." Why did both of my daughters use these same words? Is this something our YW are being taught in Church? Should women look upon a career as simply "something to fall back on?" Does my intelligent 14-year-old have a passion for law? Does her question mark indicate an awareness of its unsuitability as a backup career, or is she unsure if this choice of career will fit in with the Latter-day wife expectation?

    And my amazing, multi-talented 16-year-old wrote nothing down in the space provided for talents/hobbies/interests. Did she just get bored with the activity, or doesn't she think her talents or interests would be useful in her future role as wife?

    I'm especially interested to know if any of these responses would have changed if the purpose of the list had been to describe "MY FUTURE ASPIRATIONS" instead of "A FUTURE WIFE??"


    amelia said...

    i'm thoroughly horrified, in all honesty. not that i'm surprised, because i was in young women's and subjected to the list-making myself. so i know to expect it. but it's been a while since i encountered such a list and i'd forgotten how troubling they are.

    although they're troubling, they fit into wider mormon attitudes. there's this prevalent idea that external characteristics and behaviors correlate with internal worth. i think the listing behavior regarding future spouses is just part of that attitude. but it's so incredibly misguided. because it focuses on things like career and body and hobbies, rather than shared values and the kind of deep compatibility that makes for a good relationship. those things typically can't be written out in a list--especially not by a teenage girl who has a lot of growing to do before she's ready to marry.

    i think you ask important questions when you ask about the purpose of such a list and whether we should adhere to the things we put on them strictly. maybe i'm prejudiced--at the moment i'm dating someone who's not mormon, and that he's mormon was so implicit in these lists that it was of course never stated. but i'm incredibly happy and i feel right about this relationship. had i adhered strictly to my lists (all of which had things on them about return missionary status and worthy priesthood holder status), i wouldn't be dating john. and i wouldn't have dated half of the other men i've dated. and i think that would be really sad. i'm a firm believer that we shouldn't use lists in guiding our dating and marrying. because honestly, if something is important to us, it's likely that we won't find ourselves attracted to someone who doesn't have that quality or experience--not in the long-term, lasting way that leads to marriage.

    i think you should talk to your daughters about their lists. ask them about that "something to fall back on" entry under career and share with them some of what president hinckley has said about young women gaining all the education they can and preparing for a career. try to help them understand that while it's important to look for men to date who are good and motivated to be better, who share values with them--that it's not good to use a checklist or think in terms of an ideal against which they measure all potential dates/spouses.

    C. L. Hanson said...

    One time I asked my husband what kind of person he imagined (when he was younger) he'd one day marry. When he said he'd never really thought about it, I thought that was weird. But maybe it's not...?

    Ami said...

    Well, Future Asparations is a broader topic than "A Future Wife". What if the question had been "A Future Career" with the appropriate categories. The answers might have appeared non-mothering. But the idea to write a list to choose a husband, I always thought that was just silly.

    Franklin Covey certainly has us. I've even seen it preached over the pulpit, Daytimer in hand and raised.

    But in a slightly different direction, I think the advice to have children young is good. The reason is because we are STILL YOUNG when they are in school and old enough to be independent at home. Our 'fall back' option is now the career we can begin or continue. I think the idea of having stages in life is an important one.

    rachsticle said...

    BiV, I very much love your blog (I am one of Zillah's closest friends). I very much agree with Amelia. I am horrified. I feel that such lists objectify women and reinforce harmful, stereotypical ideas of what women "should be." The exercise is focuses on externalization of perhaps "wordly" aspirations rather than things we need to do to internally make us happy.

    Now I am a young, single LAWYER. In YW, I always struggled to fit into that YW listmaking. I was the only one in YW that wrote on my list that I wanted a career as part of my own self-fulfillment. In comparison to the 16 or so YW from way back then, I am the only one that does have a career or graduate education. It is just interesting and ironic I suppose.

    Janell said...

    I'd say 90% of the LDS college-aged women I talk to view a degree as merely, "something to fall back on." It's very frightening. For me being a stay-at-home mom is a luxury I'd like to have, but certainly not a plan A I can count on.

    I'm the girl who got so sick of always being told to make a list that I made a list of several hundred items to flaunt at those requests. The items included "prefers strawberry jam to grape" and "knows how to slice a pineapple." In my teenage way I was trying to demonstrate that lists can become quite useless.

    My concern is that teenage girls don't know themselves well enough to know what they want. My serious list as a YW included, "must be an RM." Now that I'm older I realize that that isn't really what I want or wanted at the time. What I really meant was, "must willingly follow the commandments of God."

    SilverRain said...

    I don't see what is so wrong with wanting a career primarily to fall back on, especially when compared to counsel for a man to find a career that will provide for his family. That's what careers are - necessities! Very few jobs are fulfilling, they are just something to put food on the table. The church does teach that a woman's primary responsibility is the nurture of her children. That isn't to mean she should pursue a career that she hates or ignore her education and career entirely, but that she ought to have her priorities in the right order.

    It is ideal to have one parent focus on interaction with the family and the other focus on meeting the family's monetary needs. That way each can focus on one thing, rather than feeling so stretched thin, trying to be all things at once. Realizing the need to choose a flexible career that can be a fall-back if things become less than ideal isn't "brainwashing" or "horrifying", it is acknowledging the realities of life and accepting responsibility for them.

    And what if the girls really do want to be mothers first and career women second? Is it not more "objectifying" to force them into a role they don't want than to encourage them in the righteous desires of their hearts?

    amelia said...

    "I don't see what is so wrong with wanting a career primarily to fall back on"

    This is what I think is wrong with it: it's unrealistic for many, many people. While it's fine to hope for a luxury, i think it's wrong to plan for a luxury. and while it's true that jobs are necessities, that doesn't mean we shouldn't do everything we can to plan a career thoughtfully and prepare ourselves for it so that it's as fulfilling as possible, rather than mere drudgery.

    i find this statement from silverrain nearly as disturbing as the lists themselves: "It is ideal to have one parent focus on interaction with the family and the other focus on meeting the family's monetary needs." in my mind it's obvious that this is far from the ideal. neither parent's "focus" should be on meeting monetary needs. both parents' focus should be on nurturing and caring for their family. obviously each family will have to distribute the need for income as they see best. but both parents' first priority should be caring and nurturing for their family. ideally, our society would be such that both parents could spend significant amounts of time caring for their children, rather than requiring that one or both spend the majority of their time outside the home.

    i'm all for recognizing realities and planning responsibly to deal with them. which is precisely why i think we should train our youth--both male and female--to do everything in their power to develop themselves as individuals equipped to work hard, prepared to be thoughtful and self-examining, and committed to living good lives. and then we should leave the choices as to how they go about doing so, whether as a career person or as a stay home parent or as some combination of the two, up to them instead of prescribing it so strongly that they spout platitudes like "something to fall back on."

    Bored in Vernal said...

    Chanson, lol. I think that typically girls think about the characteristics of who they will marry much more than guys do. Add to that the Mormon factor and we end up with a bunch of Sleeping Beauties waiting in an almost somnolent state for their Prince Charming to come.

    I totally agree with amelia that pondering on a future spouse would be much more apropos if focused on shared values and deep compatibility. Perhaps this is what these lists are trying to accomplish. I wish I could think of a better way to focus the girls' minds on these things than the lists, which seem to be failing dismally.

    I'm glad to have Silver Rain's perspective here, because I think feminism must celebrate and support the choices of women who choose to place their focus on children, home, and family. However, putting all of our eggs in this basket at age 14 seems unrealistic. This attitude of puttering around with a career to "fall back on" whilst waiting around for that tall, blue-eyed, athletic RM who can slice pineapples to arrive is so damaging. I'd rather see my girls throw themselves into their studies and their interests with enthusiasm for the pure love of doing them. At this age, shouldn't we be helping them identify what excites them and helping them see how many options are available?

    Bored in Vernal said...

    Oh, I also want to invoke Zillah (for those of you who don't know, she is preparing for her graduate work in medieval studies, which is obviously not a very practical field to enter, nor one which a person can typically "fall back on") anyway, she posed this question on someone's blog recently:

    So, here's my question: you bring up circumstances where women need to work, but what about the desire for personal fulfillment and growth in areas other than those relating to nurturing a family? [I'm in no way disparaging family and motherhood; I should state that quite clearly.] Is it immoral to work for that desire? In the same vein, is it immoral for a man to choose a line of work which he loves, but which does not provide for his family as well as other possible jobs? He still provides adequately, but it could be more if he didn't choose a job based on personal fulfillment.

    Is giving up our personal interests for the sake of family necessary and desirable? (losing your life to find it), or does God work with us more effectively when we are using and developing the interests and talents we have been given? (not hiding our light under a bushel)

    Anonymous said...

    List making re future spouses isn't just LDS. My friends and I did it--of course that was in the 50s and early 60s.

    I think that both men and women need to have fulfilling work, if at all possible. That may mean that a family has its needs provided for and has to work together for extras. Or that it does without extras. But no one should "follow their dream" if it means their children will have to do without basic things --food, shelter, clothing, etc. If the need to follow a dream is totally selfish--then don't have children. If you have children, be responsible for them and follow the dream when they leave home.--Norma P

    SilverRain said...

    I apologize in advance for my passion on this subject. As you can probably tell, it's one I've spent over a decade compulsively pondering and wrestling with. It has utterly changed my life. I'm really not intending any offense, just to share the powerful experiences I have lived so far in my life.

    "ideally, our society would be such that both parents could spend significant amounts of time caring for their children,"

    No, it wouldn't be. That's the life I'm living right now, and I feel so stressed and stretched thin that I'm going crazy. My husband is in a similar boat. Remember that "focus on" or "set a priority on" does not mean "ignore the other". To focus on providing the financial means for a family does not mean one should ignore the family's other needs. It is specialization, but not marginalization.

    When Christ told the Pharisees to focus on the weightier matters of the law, he was not saying "don't pay your tithing" or even "pay it as an afterthought" he said, essentially, "pay your tithing with the weightier matters in mind." That is ideal: for the father to work for the means of the home while never losing the reason behind why he is doing it, for the mother to focus on keeping house and teaching her children while never losing focus of the eternal glory of it.

    One of the things that is so often missed in the argument for "seeking after fulfillment beyond the family" is that it assumes that "seeking after fulfillment" is the most needful thing a person can do and that the same fulfillment cannot be found while caring for children. Do you (speaking in the general) never wonder why the Church teaches the things in the Proclamation to the World? It is because true happiness is counter-intuitively found when one stops obsessing about oneself and starts focusing on others. That is why a family is so important - it teaches us selflessness and it forges bonds with other children of God, in all their imperfection and glory.

    Yes, some exceptions exist where the mother needs to work for pay and where the father may need to carry some of the burden of homemaking, but BOTH paths, for father and mother, are about sacrifice, about looking beyond one's own needs, and about coming just that much closer to the Saviour. Those who have difficulty with the concept stand in the greatest potential for perfection and understanding within it.

    This is not to say that one should extend beyond one's reach, run faster than one has strength. There is truly balance and moderation in all the teachings of the Lord. If you run too fast, try too hard, you will trip and smash your nose.

    I speak again from experience on both counts. Once, I believed as you (general) now preach. But I have found for myself that the seeds of thought planted by the prophets are good seeds, for I have felt them "enlarge my soul" and "enlighten my understanding" as I have planted them and nurtured them, despite my original resentful feelings on the matter.

    And, indeed, the doctrines taught have become "delicious to me" and brought me more joy than I had ever imagined.

    ixoj* said...

    In defense of YW groups throughout the church, I think that making a list of the qualities desired in a spouse is not unique to the LDS church. I would bet that at some point in their lives, most teenage girls make at least a mental list of the exact characteristics they plan to find in their future spouse. Although the specifics of the list may be less than encouraging (as your daughters' lists showed) I think the general idea behind the list is to help young women to start thinking now about what they want in the future, and, in turn, to start living worthily of that goal, which is an admiral goal. Obviously, those lists will change over time (when I was a YW I had “orthopedic surgeon” as my desired occupation and instead chose graduate work in Linguistics) and maybe your daughters will develop more concrete career objectives as they grow up.

    I guess the real issue here is why a career objective for women is perceived to be simply a fallback. When I was a YW, I felt like that’s what we were supposed to say, because that’s what good young women say. Good, “normal” LDS young woman want to have a family first, and then a career only if they must. You become “different” if you happen to have to want to work. I think this is starting to change in the church, but there is still that feeling that women who want to work are not quite on the right track.

    *another friend of zillah's

    East of Eden said...

    I remember making those lists in YW, but also on my head was in the clouds when I was a teenager. Looking back, it bugs me that we had to do this in class and that the teachers/leaders gave us this la-la-land fairy tale expectation of life.

    I remember too, putting on my list and thinking this was one thing that I HAD to have, that my future husband must be an eagle scout. (This was right after Pres Benson gave a talk about how good YM would have an eagle).

    My life did not turn out the way I thought it would from how I wrote my list. I didn't get married till I was 30 (and spent many years feeling like a failure because of this) and my DH is not an eagle scout, but better than most men with eagles I knew and dated.

    I don't think having expectations of what you want in a spouse is bad, but I don't think it's healthy to dwell on who or how your spouse will be. I also wish the YW program would preprare YW for a life where all of your expectaions and plans sometimes don't happen they way you think they will. At one point in my 20s I realized that might not ever find a husband, so I buckeled down and got busy with my career and hobbies and life and I was very happy. When I finally did meet and marry my husband I brought these things with me to our marriage, and I think we are better for it.

    Maraiya said...

    I have to admit that I am a bit of a fan of the list, but then I'm a list maker by nature. Like most things taught in the gospel (not that this is an essential doctrine!) there is a surface as well as a deeper component. I think it is a worthy exercise to think of whom I would want to marry and who I want to be when I grow up. I certainly had my lists. My DH does not fulfill everything on those lists of yore but I think they helped me to form ideas of what was important in my future husband: a devotion to myself and the gospel and a personal relationship with God. Do teenage girls always see this? No. I didn't. I was so boy crazy at the time. But I think that's part of the effort behind the list; to think beyond now and into the future and what I would like that future to be.

    I also wanted to add to the career talk. I was a YW advisor for 2.5 years and really struggled with the homemaking lessons. I'm a SAHM but it has and is a hard road for me. I definitely passed this struggle onto the girls. Most notably for me, beyond the difficulty of marriage, was the difficulty of choosing a career/education path. I went to college and got my bachelor's assuming that I would have time to continue pursuing a career. I got pregnant, unplanned, within the first few months of marriage. I worked after my first child but after the second child it just didn't make economic and emotional sense. However, my family has been strongly burdened by my student loan debt. I talked with my girls and have struggled with just myself wondering if my education was worth the current difficulties caused by the resulting debt. I still don't have an answer and have no idea what guidance I will give my own daughter when she is older (she's 4 now).

    Bored in Vernal said...

    Maraiya, that is an interesting take on the education for women angle. I confess, I haven't considered the role student debt plays in starting a family. My husband and I started marriage with student debt from both of us, but mine was paid off relatively quickly. I would have considered my education worth any price or hardship. But I wonder if possible future financial hardship has caused many LDS girls to think twice about embarking into higher education?

    SilverRain said...

    For what it's worth, it was a deciding factor for me. I wanted to be a veterinarian, and had the opportunity to be sponsored and everything. When it came down to the time to choose, I realized I couldn't dedicate another four years to school with the $100,000+ dollars of debt that is virtually guaranteed. (They don't allow you to work through parts of vet school.)

    That is why I entered the graphic design career field and still feel rather like a sparrow trying to swim.

    amelia said...

    another perspective on student debt: at 24 when i was deciding whether to accept an offer of an un-funded spot in a top-ranked department for my master's degree (in english--not exactly a lucrative field), i very nearly decided not to go because of the debt I would have to accrue (nearly $40K just in tuition). when i talked to my conservative, fiscally responsible, traditional, stake-president father, he told me to go. to not let the cost deter me from getting all of the education i could. i believe church leaders have also told us that education, like a home, is one of the justifiable reasons to go into debt.

    now, i'm not saying someone is wrong to not continue because doing so would require going into debt. i'm not criticizing anyone who made the opposite choice from mine (i went and incurred the debt). nor am i suggesting that this not be carefully and prayerfully considered. i'm simply suggesting that there is no pat answer to the question. in the same way that i insist that no matter how right being a SAHM is for some women, that doesn't make mother focused on the family and father focused on earning money the absolute right answer for everyone.

    we are individuals with individual needs and responsibilities and gifts and opportunities. obviously our individuality becomes tempered when we marry. but it doesn't disappear. and i think that if we're smart we marry other individuals with whom our own identity as an individual meshes so that we don't have to lose that individual identity in marriage and family. one of the problems i have with these lists is that they encourage groupthink and conformity, rather than learning to think critically and carefully for oneself and behaving in a way that will simultaneously honor the importance of both the individual and the group.

    Michemily said...

    Wow, you have long commentators who should probably just write blogs about it. Anyway, I thought your daughters probably wrote the list first without knowing that they would be changing it to reflect on themselves. Also, why not ask them your questions?

    Anonymous said...

    Oh please. These are teenage girls. I remember my "list" from when I was a teenager.
    "Taller than me" was always on there. I remember wanting him to be able to sing (I had to give that up to marry my husband). It's not like I made guys sing acappella for me before I'd date them.
    A list like this is SO much healthier than imagining some hot guy who you'll be in love with, and never bothering to notice will he be a good spouse?
    Sure, a 14 or 16 year old's list will be immature and simple, but she will build on it as she matures.
    As for the "wife" list, I think it is a good lesson to teach people that if you want a certain type of person, you should try to be a certain type of person. A man doesn't come along and "save" you, or find you lying in a coma in the forest where he falls in love with you and kisses you. He falls in love with you as a whole person not some object!
    I think a list like this is in the right direction for some girls.
    There are plenty of teenager girls in this country who have children out of wedlock with complete losers because of not bothering to think anything through like....would this guy make a good husband or father? do I want to have pre-marital sex and risk pregnancy with a guy like this?
    And as for a career to fall back on, is it really horrible that your girls might want to be a SAHM, and also want to be prepared for a career?

    Anonymous said...

    Be carful BiV... Now you have the Cha Cha Brotherhood quoting your LDS Criticisms. BT from the Cha Cha is making your site look bad. I hope you change your tone and try and remember that these lessons are inspired. Fualt finders eventually fall... Be careful...
    The anti BT

    Anonymous said...

    Watch out now the Cha Cha's are quoting you...

    Bored in Vernal said...

    Who and where are the Cha-Cha's?