Erica Littlewolf is from the Northern Cheyenne tribe of southeastern Montana and currently lives in Kansas. She works for Mennonite Central Committee Central States with the Indigenous Visioning Circle where she is committed to the work of decolonization, authentic relationship and healing. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and American Indian Studies and applies her schooling to social justice issues and how they affect Indigenous people. Erica is a member of the steering committee for the Women in Leadership Project of Mennonite Church USA.
It is difficult being unmarried or single in the church.
I first noticed it in college. I went to the church on campus and it was fun because we had a college students group that all went to church together. I soon found out it was a place that a lot of people went to find a partner or people of similar interests to date. As each of my friends got married and began having children, I realized I started hanging out solo or with older people who were also single.
After college I moved to Phoenix, I had single friends and we would hang out all the time, but none of them went to church and neither did I. I continually tried to attend different churches and found none of them met me where I was or spoke to where I was in life.
At this point in my life, I’ve moved around a few different times and have a bit more life experience. I am now 35 years of age, but I still find church difficult, because it doesn’t meet me where I am at. I have yet to find a church that accepts me regardless of the roles I play, my marital status, who I am outside the church doors.
I long for unconditional love and support as I find my way in the world. I want to be free of the compulsion to preface, elude or pretend to be someone or something I’m not. I want to feel valued and encouraged for who I am deep in my soul.
I want to be seen and the gifts I offer to be valued. I want to be invited to do things, asked to go places, loved as a family member when I’m not biologically related. Instead, at church I see young couples pairing off, couples with children pairing off and older people with their partners pairing off – everyone has a place and knows their place. It seems I am left in an odd mix, unsure of where I fit, where I belong. And even more painful, after all the pairing has happened, the assumption is that I too should pair off in a romantic relationship.
People have said some incredibly surprising things:
“The right one is just around the corner.”
“Sometimes you have to work on yourself first.”
“God knows the timing.”
These comments imply that there is something wrong with me, that in order to be complete I must get married and that once I do get married, then surely I must have kids. I tried carrying these expectations by getting married and settling down. But my story didn’t end happily ever after. I lived with lots of internal tension. I quit a lot of my church work to be focused on being home. And eventually I discovered my calling was in both areas, not just one. The reality was that while I was married, I felt more accepted by the church, and yet I felt further and further from myself. Through my divorce, I felt pushed out and not supported by the church – like I’d somehow been muted – yet I felt the most like myself.
After my divorce, I saw the gift singleness can be. I have flexibility. I can plan trips for myself – no extra people or extra packing. After a long day of work, I can go home and zone out on television and not have anyone depending on me. Singleness can indeed be where it’s at!
But eventually I confronted my own personal reality: I deeply wanted a husband, but that was not the circumstance I was living in. I was scared to name what I wanted, because marriage might not be in my future. I realized that what I wanted may not be my journey in life.
So I’ve learned to be content with my place in life – with my reality.
I recognize that neither state of being is better than the other – single or married or somewhere in between, we all matter and have gifts to offer. As a divorced and unmarried person, I have a story that isn’t common in the church and a unique perspective because of my experiences. I’ve realized my story and journey are relevant despite the ending. Because I don’t live near my family, I am called to be present and to making relationships outside of my immediate family. I find I am a good “all hours” support person. People can call me at unexpected times. I can be on-call when needed. For example, I was able to care for my sisters other children while she was having another baby.
I recently was at my neighbors’ house for dinner with my mother, and we were talking about this very issue – not fitting in in church. They asked what would help me. The simple answer is for the church to meet me where I am in life. I should not have to be something acceptable to pass through the doors on Sunday. Practically speaking, it’s the little things that mean so much; like watching my dog while I travel for work, picking me up from the airport, picking me up from surgery when I can’t drive, inviting me to dinner and valuing me as a unmarried woman.
I don’t want to be stereotyped. I don’t find my value and worth in my marital status and I hope others don’t either.
Don’t assume I’m not happy. Don’t assume that I’m out to get your husband. If I end up married (again), celebrate with me. If I don’t, please don’t call me an old maid. If I have children congratulate me. If I don’t, do not belittle me with side conversations regarding my fertility.
I firmly believe we all want a place to be who we are in the present, feel valued and given space to change and grow. And I find myself wondering … is this a single woman thing? Is this simply the burden of a single woman or do men experience a similar reality?