Sisterhood in the Seats

I’m two months away from giving birth to our third daughter. This means my husband and I will have three sisters living and loving just across the hall from us. Raising daughters is a joy containing all the shades of that word. Raising sisters is a work of wonder and wondering. Some aspects of sisterhood seem innate, others need to be learned. I’ve spent my daughters’ childhoods helping them navigate what sisterhood can mean, what it must mean, and what it doesn’t have to mean at all, not one little bit.

I’ve had to learn how to navigate these things myself. I’m still learning.

Sometimes my oldest needs permission to lay aside what she perceives to be the requirements of sisterhood. She’s still being taught that caring doesn’t always have to mean care-taking, that giving someone what they want isn’t worth the cost of denying yourself what you need, that being a little taller, a little wiser, doesn’t always help you see a better way. Sometimes our youngest needs to be reminded that we don’t always ask for what we know a sister will give, that not knowing as much does not mean not being able to learn more, that sometimes the littlest can take the hand of the oldest and lead her to the places that wait – bedtime, a ride at Disneyland, down the tall slide at the park.

I grew up with sisters. They live far away from me now. We talk on the phone. We send pictures to each other of our kids. We love each other and we need each other, but we are too far away to lift much more than spirits. And there is something truly vital to that, there is. They save me and,  occasionally, I save them. When we get to see each other once or twice a year, it’s as if we’ve been holding hands, not just hearts, all along.

Still, there is something powerful about having a sisterhood in your own immediate environment. You know, the kind I had when I was growing up. Something sustaining and expanding about the leading and the following and the marching side by side, hand in hand. The whispered nights and cartoon mornings. The sisterly bonding over and against parents, teachers, shared existence. I know how hard it is to go into the world and lose physical access to that intimate female sodality. To look for something like it and stumble alone – leading and following and holding your own – because you cannot find it.

Relief Society is supposed to be a sisterhood. Much like the kind I grew up with and into with my sisters. When it is functioning well, it can get close. (I still haven’t found a perfect stand-in for the kind of sister – blood related or not – that knew you when you cried over never being able to meet Leonardo Dicaprio. I’m not sure it exists.) I’ve been in Relief Societies where I felt like an outsider, Relief Societies where I felt like a visitor, Relief Societies where I felt like a friend. And I’ve been in a very few where I’ve felt something approaching a lived-in sisterhood.

My favorite example of this hails from the sometimes hallowed, sometimes harrowing, land of Provo, Utah. During our early years of marriage, my husband and I moved into a ward split fairly down the middle – on one side, men and women that had lived in Provo since jello salad was still cool and on the other, very young families like mine. I loved the diversity of thought this brought into our old, musty Relief Society room. Loved to be developed by the older women’s insights and learned to be instructed when we disagreed. Sometimes the instruction changed my mind, sometimes the instruction taught me to love their minds even when they didn’t meet mine. I loved the younger women, too. The ones my age that – between work and family and school – sat on their front porches and talked with me while our babies played in grass.

I miss those front porches a lot. Sometimes I miss that old Relief Society room more.

Other Relief Societies I’d been a part of had always – through clear dictate or some kind of unspoken understanding – put the mothers of pre-nursery age children in the back of the room or out in the hall. These young mothers, tired and isolated after a week of work and childcare, were either grouped in a cramped row of seats with other young, tired isolated mothers or expected to pace the halls with their children while occasionally bumping into other young, tired, isolated mothers.

(Tanget! Why didn’t the fathers have these babies? Good question! Some did! Or some had callings third hour that made it difficult to have children with them. Or some babies were breastfed and needed to eat. Or some babies were hungry for mama. Or mama was hungry for baby. Or some babies didn’t have a daddy that came to church. Or some babies didn’t have a daddy that came home. And, of course, some of the dads were just church-going deadbeats that should have been parenting their children but decided to talk Star Wars theology in the halls. Either way – there were women with babies.)

This ward was different. In this ward, the women with children sat all over the room and every single Sunday, an older woman or two, a single sister or two, a mother of older children or two, would sit on each side of her. When the child fussed, one of these guardian sisters would reach over and pluck it from the mother’s arms. They’d pace with it. Take the toddlers on little walks along the back of the room. A crying child would be hushed out the door by a woman done with babies for twenty years while the young mother sat and listened. Sat and listened, often with her eyes closed, taking in a half hours fill of sisterly communion. Just enough to maybe, MAYBE, last the week until the next time another sister sat by her side and lifted what she’d been carrying.

I remember the first time I was flanked by women who were willing to take, for just a moment, what I’d been given. Viola, our second child, was two months old. It was our first Sunday back at church. My husband had her second hour but, since he was Young Men’s President, I had her third hour. My first time in Relief Society with a baby. I was terrified of her crying and disrupting the lesson. I was exhausted by the anxiety that follows each of my births and tired from the three hours of sleep I was getting each night. I sat in the back row. A woman I still didn’t know very well, one old enough to have grandchildren but still some years from great-grandchildren waved me up to the second row.

Thinking she needed something, I got up feeling resentful. A few Sundays before, she’d made a little fuss about me reverting to my maiden name. She’d pulled me aside and asked if I was worried about my husband feeling emasculated. (Spoiler: I wasn’t.) And now she wanted me to haul my baby, diaper bag and aching, still leaking body up to her? Didn’t she know any movement could wake this tiny, mewing, troll creature I’d brought into the world?

When I got to her, she patted the seat next to her,

“I’ll tell you what, Sister Conley. You sit here and let me look at your baby and in return I’ll bounce her if she gets a little fussy.”

I sat down. A few minutes later, a sister with two teenagers sat on the other side of me. When Viola woke up with a messy diaper, the woman with the teenagers took her out and changed her. When she came in still upset, the grandmother took her from me and fed her a bottle. And then we sat there, together, very different sisters who lift and a very different sister who allowed herself to be lifted.

An iteration of this – different sisters, with different offerings of relief – happened nearly every Sunday until Viola reached nursery age. Once she entered nursery, I found other tired, isolated sisters – some of them had babies, many of them did not – and sat beside them. I began to learn to do my best to lift where I’d placed myself. And I prayed that when I needed it again, baby or no, someone would think to place themselves near me. I know that there is a grace that buttresses in each of those positions.

The lessons taught in that Relief Society room were excellent, and some of them even came from behind the little pulpit we had perched on top of a lace covered card table. But the lessons that stay with me came from the sisters in the seats. I do not think we gather with our sisters each week in little rooms all over the world to go over well heard and well rehearsed bullet points in a manual. I think we gather to remember that each of us has something to offer, something to receive. I think we gather to remember – that no matter our circumstances or ideologies – we are each flanked by sisterhood. Thank God.

(Hey, Sister. Mind if I sit next to you?)

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Meg. I will forever be grateful to an 85 year old woman in my ward who loves my children and brought a teddy bear to church the day i showed up with my new baby. She has sometimes been a reason for me to show up on Sunday. I love this form of taking care of each other.

  2. lerosenoire007 says:

    Yes! Thank you so much for this article. I like that you point out not only what can be improved but also HOW to help others because you’ve seen it done right.

  3. Bro. Jones says:

    Lovely post, thank you for sharing.

  4. Joyce (Grammy) Taylor says:

    We have this sense of sisterhood in our RS and as the eldest ward sister I am always watching and listening for the interactions that I love so much. Thanks for hitting the nail right on the head and sharing your terrific experiences with us! xo

  5. I watched this same sistering take place just last week in our branch. Right now there is only one newborn in the branch and he got lovingly cooed at and bounce-walked by a few sisters during the lesson so his mom could sit and listen. It made me a little teary to see. Sisterhood can be so good.

  6. Happy Hubby says:

    Thanks for sharing. Hearing how great that RS was makes me want to go to RS. Instead I am in High Priests where the lesson reminds me of that famous movie line, “Bueller? … Bueller? … Bueller?” and the only entertainment is to count how many guys fall asleep and drop their iPads.

    I always took the kiddos whenever I could in 3rd hour as it was one of the quickest ways to get out of Elders quorum (it wasn’t quite as bad as HP is now, but still rather zzz). Not sure if I get any brownie points for that given my motivations, but I do think part of it was a break for my wife.

  7. When I was a single parent (and still nursing my youngest) my visiting teacher told me to sit with her and her two teenage sons in sacrament every week. (Her husband was Stake President, and was never in our sacrament meetings that I can recall) They helped take care of my two older children while I dealt with the littlest, or any combination of two who needed care while I dealt with one during sacrament meeting. I will forever love her for how she just filled that need and supported me and made it possible for me to actually hear some of sacrament meetings and get some spiritual uplifting from it. Thinking about it now, she was also teaching her sons that this is how you take care of people. The sisterhood is real, and it is divine.

  8. EnglishTeacher says:

    Big fan of your writing, Meg! Looking forward to reading your work here at BCC.

  9. Love this, RS, the emerging sisterhood I see between my three teenage daughters, my connection with my female cousins, and most of all with my own two sisters. We are spread across the country and across a decade, but this past year my sisters and I have conquered busy schedules and work and family life to have a weekly SCC (sisters conference call), and it is such a blessing and haven to me. All week long we text things back and forth and if it’s something that needs more conversation it’s added as an SCC agenda item; by the Monday call we might have a dozen random things to discuss (our son’s 8th grade bully, a new prescription, a friend’s divorce, a mother-in-law’s health, issues with reunion planning, the story of how one seminary lesson went, a book we loved, how mission prep is going for a daughter, a temple insight) and it’s therapeutic and delightful.

  10. When I was 24, my husband and I were both in graduate school. We had just had our second baby 15 months after our first. He was a counselor in the Elder’s Quorum (he took our older child who wasn’t yet old enough for Nursery) and I was the Young Women’s president. Sundays were hard for us.

    I will forever be thankful for my Personal Progress advisor, who took my baby and held her for me for the second and third hours of Church. Her own boys were grown and gone. Her husband wasn’t a member. And every week, after Sacrament meeting, she would offer to hold my baby and disappear to class or the foyer. She would bring my baby and stand in the back of the YW room, rocking her side to side why I did whatever it was I did during YW.

    This memory is how I imagine sisterhood to feel like. This sister made it possible for our small family to go to Church and do our callings by doing something she enjoyed. I know I told her thank you, but I don’t know if she realizes the depth of my gratitude.

  11. We have 5 girls and my wife, one of four sisters herself, constantly is imparting similar lessons to them concerning their responsibilities to each other. We pray and work to ensure they bond as best friends who will watch out for each other even after we are gone.

    As for the sisterhood, many of our best friends are those older sisters, some not that much older, who wrapped their arms around my wife and watched over her as she struggled with each new stage and each new child. The Relief Society President who offered all the care and concern and made my wife the center of her universe on a regular basis every week both at Church but more importantly during the week when loneliness and despair could take over. And then there were the 2 loving “grandmothers” who completely adopted our children when I was called into the Bishopric – right as daughter #4 was born – and could only look down at the pews with frustration as my wife struggled with 4 girls under the age of seven. These grandmas captivated and engaged with our daughters, learned everything about them and offered constant relief. Whether it was pulling children onto laps in the pew, walking a crying baby, offering to babysit, providing frequent meals, taking the children out on trips and adventures, or inviting us over and playing with the children while the two of us kind of collapsed on the couch. Their care and love and personal sacrifices humbled us through the richness of their service. They were literally the angels as referenced in 84:88 who surrounded us and bore us up.

    Ah the blessings of sisterhood.

  12. Well, that sounds like Zion, Meg.

  13. Gee I had a woman turn around and tell me to stop pinching my fussy baby. And then she and her seatmate both laughed. I was appalled and left the room with tears in my eyes.

  14. “She is still being taught that caring does not always mean caregiving”. Thank you for teaching this concept to your daughter – and to me. Caregiving is almost destroying my life and I had been feeling there was something seriously wrong with me. Me aunt assures that exhaustion can play those tricks with your mind and that more than a decade of looking after a loved one is definately exhausting work. I fel a kindred spirit there. I have no sisters, but certainly felt a sisterhood with my aunt.

  15. I skipped over this (‘sisterhood’ and all (a confession) but also genuine lack of time while in a very complicated week). And now I’ve teared up over it. Thank you.
    I have seen the good model in action (including more men involved than you might first think) and the memory is sweet.

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