When the Primary President Doesn’t Love Kids

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Today’s guest post comes from Rebbie Brassfield, a copywriter in Los Angeles.  

I was 29 years old and just discovering our infertility when I got called as the Primary President.

This calling was so far from any natural ability I possess that I had not seen it coming. Not even when the Bishop invited us to his office on a Saturday.  Not even when the words came out of his mouth.

I sat there stunned, unable to hide my dismay.  It made no sense to call a childless woman to be in charge of a bunch of kids – what could I know about them? Not to mention that since growing up I’d always been self-conscious of the fact I wasn’t naturally “good with kids.” I worried over how I would fare as a mother when I seemed to be the only one of the Young Women who disliked babysitting.

I was currently serving as the Primary secretary, and the calling had been both a reminder of the children I yearned for and a potent birth control.  Each week I sat in the back, awed that such small people could wield so much power.  They rarely behaved or folded their arms or listened – some weeks it felt like they intentionally rallied to torch the whole lesson or bleed the teacher of all her candy.  They frankly terrified me, and that terror swirled in my mind as I sat looking up at my expectant Bishop.

I found my voice enough to tell him how unqualified I felt, that I would happily serve anywhere else, and to ask, was he sure he’d felt prompted to call me?

“It’s not about being qualified,” he responded, “because there’s only one thing that really matters: do you love the children?”

I honestly didn’t.  But what else could I say?

“Yes,” I lied. And we left his office quickly so I could throw a tantrum in the car.

I’d never been one to gripe about callings, but I was in a strange place with my testimony and had really been in the mood to coast at church.  Even more annoying was the sense I had that I’d read this story in the Ensign before – the crotchety 29-year-old working girl who learns to swoon over kids because that is who God-fearing women should be!

Maybe you’re thinking I should have just said no. But I couldn’t bring myself to, because the ward was small and struggling, with hardly enough active members to fill the leadership callings. Blessedly, this meant the primary was small (30 kids) and the bar was about two inches from the ground. I thought of my sister-in-law serving in a Utah primary with 100+ kids and figured it could be worse.

It was bad in the beginning. Our numbers were small but also wildly inconsistent, swinging from 8 regulars to a horde of 40 (thanks, Disneyland), which made planning near impossible. Inconsistent teachers also meant my counselors and I often had to teach Sunbeams at a moment’s notice, for a whole hour!

I did what I could to make up for my lack in experience and confidence, surrounding myself with women who had kids, or taught school, or were trained music therapists. But there was infinite potential for chaos, and my Type A personality was so desperate to bring some order, that soon I found myself exhibiting unrecognizable behaviors.

I gave elaborate object lessons, with objects I’d hand-made. I sang children’s songs a capella (I’m an alto, bordering on tenor).  I’d hear myself speaking to a kid in baby voice and then wonder if I’d been possessed.  I made a fool of myself in every imaginable way, desperate to maintain some control.  In the process, I made a game-changing discovery: kids are hilarious.  One Sunbeam raised his hand every chance he got, and his answer was always, “Jesus.”

Why do we say prayers?

Jesus.

Who made the earth?

Jesus.

Why did Nephi and his brothers go back to Jerusalem?

Jesus.

He wasn’t wrong.

The kids’ delightful hilarity became a barrier breaker that allowed me to let go of some of my fears and begin to adore them. But even as I became more comfortable in my calling, the pain of infertility grew.

Both my counselors became pregnant within a few months. Both commented that it had happened more quickly than they’d planned – offhanded remarks intended to express their (wholly valid) stress, but which still felt like a smack in the face. Somehow every primary activity landed on a day I had learned I was yet again not pregnant. I’d smile through it, escaping to a spare classroom when I could to curl up in fetal position, fighting the pain of menstrual cramps, the pain of not being pregnant.

It was hard to not read into the timing of it all. Was God preparing me for motherhood? Was he punishing me for waiting? I reject the idea of a punishing God, but have you taught a dozen Sunbeams on a moment’s notice?

I found my subconscious (or perhaps years of Sunday School conditioning) trying hard to cast myself in the Ensign story.  I was the childless woman, given an opportunity to love the Primary children as a substitute for the ones I didn’t have.  But I couldn’t buy it.

I couldn’t buy it because it is not the only story there is. It’s just the only one we like to tell: that women in the church are mothers and if not, they can make up for it by serving kids another way.

I do not say this to belittle the service so many childless women give in Primary organizations — I revere and respect women who serve wholeheartedly in positions that may also bring them pain.  I’m glad there are avenues for childless women who want to nurture young kids to do so, but that is not my story.

Though I grew to love the kids, that love did not make up for the pain of my own childlessness.  Though I loved them, that love did not transform me into Mr. Rogers. Every Sunday was scary.  Every time I stood to give a lesson, I felt an anxiety I wished deeply not to have.  Every week intensified the loneliness of being a Latter-day Saint woman when what is supposed to be innate does not come naturally to you.

I grew to love the Primary children because I served them.  Just like I would have learned to love the women if I was a Relief Society President or the people of Thailand as a missionary.  I have come to wonder if perhaps that is what makes a mother’s love so strong – not her inherent motherness, but the fact of her whole-self service.  I can’t say, because while I have since moved out of the ward where I served as Primary President, I am still slogging through infertility.

All of this may go without saying; it may be merely a projection of my own insecurities. But I hope that when we tell stories of women and children, we do so with care. I hope before we use bitter childless schoolteachers as cautionary tales, or before we call Mid-single women to Primary, we give grace to their pain.  We understand if they say no.  We don’t equate babysitting with motherhood.

I hope we don’t always assume that the Primary President loves kids.

Photo by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez on Unsplash

Comments

  1. I love this so much.

  2. Oh Rebbie, to ever think I was your teacher at any point when you teach me so much with your words and wisdom. Love you.

  3. What a marvelous piece of writing, and such a real and honest expression! Thank you.
    The only thing I’ll add is that my own experience testifies to the truth of this line:
    “I grew to love the Primary children because I served them.”

  4. I love absolutely everything about this. “I reject the idea of a punishing God, but have you taught a dozen Sunbeams on a moment’s notice” is my favorite sentence of the month, at least.

    It seems to me that lots of good men need to believe that all women love children, because if they acknowledged that women have the same range of feelings about children as they do, they’d start to feel really bad about always making women the default caregivers.

  5. The power to truly love someone comes from God, and service is how we access that power. Of course, just because we love the kids we serve, that doesn’t mean we like them 100% of the time. It does, however, make it easier to continue to serve when we’re not particularly enjoying it.

    I, too, accepted the position of Primary President in our tiny branch because there simply wasn’t anyone else to do it. It was an emergency restructuring of the Primary presidency, due to the fact that the woman leading us at the time was scaring everyone in the Primary (adults included) with her “strict” style of teaching. They’d already been scraping the bottom of the barrel when they called her, and I’d been desperately hoping that she’d straighten up and fly right so that I wouldn’t be called to replace her. I never wanted a leadership position in the church, and I often think to myself that it’s a blessing we currently only have three semi-active children. Then I feel bad because I should probably be worrying about the kids who aren’t coming.

    Sometimes, being an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints means treading water for an indefinite amount of time and relying on God to make up the difference between what we feel we can do and what we know must be done.

  6. Not a Cougar says:

    Thank you for this. It reminds me of my time serving in a Young Men’s presidency. I loved some of the boys, was lukewarm to some, and still utterly despise at least a couple of them (kids of stake leaders tormenting sweet kids from rough backgrounds until they stop coming to Church tends to do that to me), but I never found that true love for all them that I was told all leaders feel for youth. I don’t miss it and doubt I will ever accept a similar calling again.

  7. EnglishTeacher says:

    Fellow infertility struggler here. The feelings are so weird and complicated as it is—I admire your willingness to let them get weirder and more complicated with this post. Thank you!

  8. Brooke! My days in your Sunday school class are some of my best church memories. Plus you helped me see it was okay to get married after age 25. :) So happy to hear from you, as always.

  9. EnglishTeacher I’m so sorry we have to relate over this. I know nothing makes it better but I’m here with you in the weirdness!

  10. I’m learning a lot about neuro-diversity this month as family and extended family are being tested and diagnosed for… neuro-diversity. I am in the infancy of understanding a lot of this, but I am struck with how love, as defined and described as a feeling, is not going to be in the wheelhouse of some of my family members. They are not going to do feelings the way most of society understands them. The question “Do you love the primary children?” or “Do you love the Lord?” isn’t one that is going to make a lot of sense to my neuro-diverse family members. So much about church is based on feelings, but if feelings aren’t easily understood… where does that leave a person?

    I have always bristled on the instance that I need to love first and above all else when it comes to my callings in Primary. Feelings, I suppose, are complicated for me too. I like what everyone has said about serving. If I define love as an action and not as a feeling, than yes, I am loving abundantly in my Primary callings because I am serving abundantly.

    Hugs to my sisters who are struggling with infertility. Your struggle and pain are so real, and I wish I could offer more than my virtual hugs.

  11. AHHHHH! So awesome to see a very very very very very similar painting of the primary I served in since I was 19! Yeah, the frustrations haven’t gone away, and yeah, nor does the desire to show other human beings that they have value and, are quite creative and funny. (Our primary kids do the Nay Nay for Do as I’m Doing, and also answer Jesus for everything).

  12. I don’t like groups of children. Frankly, I don’t like groups of adults either, but there at least a much less performative aspect there. There are some children I like and some I even love, but I’m glad that God has the wisdom to have never put me in the same position as OP.

  13. One of my favorite pieces of writing at BCC for a long time, and also (and pretty much always) what Kristine and Amy said.

  14. I don’t love children and I’m a school teacher. God has a weird sense of humor.

  15. I have served on Primary, YW and RS presidencies, as RS and Primary teacher, as youth SS teacher and Institute teacher. I have never, ever felt love for those I served in my callings in spite of putting my all into them. Never. It’s one of those things I simply do not understand when people say they do.

  16. I relate through my experience as a missionary. They told me I would love the people of my mission, I heard everyone claim that I would, and yet those people drove me nuts.

  17. I appreciate your honest and valid point of view. You have nothing not to be proud of, you did your best in an exceedingly difficult situation.

    The problem is that at church we assume everyone can do anything. They can’t. Scriptures tell of gifts and talents…The ensign stories are the exceptions, but most of the time we live by the mundane not the unusual. Loving the children is important but it is not enough. Our wards don’t have to be too small, we could decide to make them larger or be more inclusive. Lots of people see church for children as free babysitting while they go out for Sunday brunch, if the experience for their children is positive and fun. Many women like teaching children.

    Children are only that age once and it isn’t for very long. Every age is crucial in their development. The primary should be at the top, front-and-center in the food chain for talent in the ward calling scheme. If enough women and men with experience, ability and compassion are not available, the wards should be merged until they are found. Economy of scale is important, the right scale. One good teacher can better teach 8-10 children than an inexperienced or less capable one can teach 2 or 3. Older women often have these gifts, if they have not been burned out when younger. The male ward leadership micro- and mis-manages the primary far too often at both the ward and stake level.

    My children had horrible experiences in primary. One president was so lax and loose that it was a free-for-all. Missionaries bringing investigators to church still addicted to cocaine and working in the adult entertainment industry with older children nearly ready to launch their own careers in criminal activities didn’t help. Laughing and doing nothing when her own daughter stood up in front and took all of her cloths off at about age 8 was telling to say the least. She had DFACS investigating her supposedly for letting them run wild all over the neighborhoods for hours unsupervised, but it might have been for more than that.

    Another primary president was fresh off the BYU reservation with her first babe in arms, a ram rod seeped in rigid rules and unrealistic expectations, and completely lacking in experience and understanding and compassion. She made primary like a prison. My children were in trouble all the time while being model students at school and every other activity. We had an experienced grade school teacher and trusted friend, not of our faith, attend our ward primary posing as a relative from out of town to help give us some insight. She advised us that our primary was the most toxic situation for children she had ever seen and advised us to find another church immediately. My children being natural ring leaders, went to war with these type of leaders and basically won. Until they got kicked out permanently or stopped attending.

    My wife loves children and teaches preschool. She helped as much as she could but was limited by the leaders and was never in charge. She was not alone. Several capable and willing women and a few man sat idle on the side lines while the ward primary went to hell.

    I know that in the grand scheme of things the church thinks it has bigger fish to fry than the primary. But the long-term solution to every problem is on the shoulders of our children. We could do better in every ward giving them the best experience in primary as possible by doing a better job calling and training their teachers.

  18. Rebbie! Thank you for sharing this. I am single, never married, 40 year-old who was just called to teach the four to five year-olds in the Primary in my ward. I’ve served in YW too. I struggled to love the young women and I also tried hard to prepare them for the possibility of never marrying. Funny thing, I think most of them are married. Ha ha. I love the kids I teach. One always wants to sing Once I was a Snowman. Every single Sunday. I’ve come to a place where I’m at peace with not being married (the innocent romantic view of my 20s is replaced with the realization that marriage is hard work and I’d have to give up my freedom) and not having children. Although it hits me in strange ways. I found a baby outfit I’d bought years ago and was going to give it to a dear friend who is unexpectedly pregnant with her fifth, but I changed my mind at the last minute. I just couldn’t let go yet.

    And I love being in Primary. I miss the interactions with the “adults,” but I don’t miss being almost constantly reminded that I am not a wife or a mother. Even the very helpful discussion on how to minister to the single sisters in the ward quickly turned to a focus solely on the widows. I’ve struggled to make friends since I moved because I don’t fit the usual mold. And I love kids. I’m also very glad they’re not mine.

  19. @SisterStacey I love your comment so much. There can be so many strange pains lurking in the pews, and I don’t think I understood that until the last couple of years.

    My greatest hope for church lessons/discussions/programs is that they can become less demographically focused (i.e. how do we minister to widows, or lessons on motherhood) and more simply centered on characteristics of Christ. It’s the only way I can think to not alienate people who don’t fit the mold. I get that we’re in the minority, but we’re still here. Thanks again so much for sharing.

  20. It sounds like the OP did love children, just didn’t know yet she wasn’t lying when she said yes, just loved them in a different and unique manner and brought different talents and perspectives. What is true is that she accepted out of compassion for a need in her ward, and there are worse places to launch from, sort of like how Bilbo didn’t inherit the ring of power by murder (sort of? – yes I know the LOTR is not yet canonized – but still, can’t help it). I really loved this post, honest and please forgive me if my take on it seems to deflect the main point of the title, I have been guilty of hubris many times, perhaps even more than most. (hehe).

  21. Mr. Schmidt says:

    I’ve struggled whenever I’ve had to serve in a calling with youth. I just don’t understand them (my parents used to say I was born old, I’ll just accept that as an explanation). So I guess this resonates with me. I can see the thinking behind “trying to cast myself in the Ensign story” – I’ve tried to do that myself at times when I’ve been asked to do something that involves someone else’s agency and I “fail.”

    You know, in the end, I was deeply impressed by the talk in the last conference by Joy Jones – “For Him.” And I think it is applicable to my situation, and the situation you had in Primary. The culture tells us we’ll “love the kids” and all that. But in reality, the best we can do is to serve because we love God. The rest will either happen or not, I won’t kill myself over it any more. I think that is a powerful reframing – and helps us serve in situations that may seem counter-intuitive (and outright painful, as in your circumstances).

    (of course, even in “for him” she shares how they succeeded in helping someone exercise their agency to change in a positive way … something that I’ve yet to experience)

  22. Jack Hughes says:

    I have two kids and I love them deeply, and I take every opportunity to remind them of that fact. However, I can’t stand other people’s kids, have no patience for them, and don’t care a whit about their well-being. I also tend to be privately critical and judgmental of their parents. Perhaps as a man I get more cultural leeway on this than I deserve.

  23. Another Roy says:

    @Michael, I too have noticed that our primary is not structured for the enjoyment and learning of the children. My impression is that we teach them by …. forcing them to memorize songs to then be performed at the annual Primary Program. How many of us would voluntarily choose to attend such a class even with our relatively larger adult attention spans?
    Comparing our Primary to the children’s ministry of many other Christian churches, it seems clear that we expect the children to attend Primary because their parents make them. Considering our orientation to “duty, obligation, and obedience” in much of our religious dialogue this is not terribly surprising. (I do believe that our youth programs start to gain value with YW and YM)
    @Rebbie, Thank you for sharing your experience with us – especially without the storybook ending. My wife was called as Primary President about a decade ago. We felt that we should explain our reasons for our hesitancy to the bishop and see if he still felt inspired. We were about 3 months along on a pregnancy of our third child and my wife tends to get severe post-partum depression. Our bishop not only still felt inspired in the call but he promised us that if she worked hard at the calling then she would be blessed in her personal and family challenges. My wife worked hard for 6 months, then our baby was stillborn a week prior to the scheduled delivery and our family life basically imploded. I try to look charitably upon this bishop. He was just trying to fill a demanding calling by using the “commitment pattern”. We had done similar in trying to convince people to be baptized on our missions. However, In laying the decision at the feet of the bishop we gave him entirely to much responsibility for making the choice on our behalf. Also, Bishop in promising us blessings for faithful service was well intentioned but ultimately he had no way to fulfill on that promise. My marriage survived (barely) and my activity in the church survived (barely) but I am now much more assertive about accepting callings and much more wary of “promised blessings.”

  24. Thank you for sharing this. Love is patient, love is kind, etc., but love is also messy, and lots of hard work. It doesn’t always come cheap or easy.

  25. Juanita Verma says:

    Beautiful, thank you, as a single and childless women and one who will not be able to have kids. There are times where I’ve been really happy to serve and primary such as when I was a Sunbeam teacher at times in the past when I’ve had other primary calling so I’ve been an activity days. Currently I would not be able to serve in primary due to grief I deal with due to being single. Definitely one of those areas where there is a time and a season and a place depending on where we are in our personal journey.

  26. Rebbie you are amazing. I echo every positive comment on you and your writing ability. Thank you for sharing. Thanks for opening our eyes to some of those feelings. Made us laugh and cry. We love you.

    Think one of the whole purposes of the Church is for us to serve so we get outside ourselves. Wish it were easier! I know for me this has been tough in many circumstances. Can’t imagine how hard this is for you though. Thanks again.