Delayed Adulthood

I remember talking to several ex-Mormons in the days after The Bishop’s Wife came out, who complained about not having learned how to be an “adult.” When the rest of the country was experiencing teenage years of experimentation with alcohol, drugs, and sex, most Mormons were being “good” and “doing what was right.” We dated in groups until after missions, committed to not doing more than kissing until marriage, dressed modestly, and didn’t even know if we liked the taste of coffee. When people leave Mormonism, many go through a delayed phase of adulthood where they may seem like teenagers who are experimenting and making stupid mistake far past the age when they should have figured this stuff out. But we never did.

A non-Mormon friend of mine complained that when he moved to Utah, he spent time trying to cultivate friendships with Mormons by inviting them over for dinner. But he never received a return invitation. He wondered if he’d offended everyone or if they were afraid of him somehow. But eventually, he decided that they were simply busy with their Mormoning.

Even figuring out how to find friends was something curated by Mormonism. In Primary, you had kids in your Primary class who came to your birthday party because their parents made them. In Young Women’s, you had the other girls in your class who were assigned to be nice to you no matter what. If you got mad or stopped coming, they paid extra attention to you to get you to come back.

As an adult, it became even more formalized because you were assigned visiting teachers in each ward you were in. You also often found friendships through shared callings. You felt like you knew everyone in the ward if you went to church. Often, you felt no desire to make friends who weren’t Mormon. This wasn’t always a conscious choice, though it sometimes was, if you felt they were a “bad influence.” Even if you liked them, though, you might not feel you had time away from church and family obligations to really have friends.

Ex-Mormons are also often angry, and many Mormons see this as proof that they’ve gone off the deep end and would have been happier if they’d stayed in the church. I believed this for a long time, especially about close friends and family members whose persistent anger was disturbing to me. I think rather differently now, both about blaming Mormonism for delayed skills of adulthood and also for the whole idea of the “angry ex-Mormon,” which I think is partly just a healthy reconnection to the spectrum of negative feelings that Mormons are encouraged to repress and ignore and which we therefore often are afraid of when we see them in others who aren’t following the rules of passive-aggressive behavior.

I think now that there is a whole set of things that Mormons don’t learn in their growing up years, especially if they are “good kids” and follow the Mormon rules of teenagehood. If they never touch alcohol, never even come close to having sex, go on group dates until their missions are finished, and go to a church-approved school, a lot of choices are made for you. I liked that a lot as a Mormon. I remember thinking even in my twenties that it must be scary to have no idea what the right choice was, and having to think about it every single time, multiple times a day. Far easier to outsource those choices to someone else who was trusted.

Easier, yes. But does it make you capable of real adulthood?

Maybe if I’d never strayed from Mormonism, I’d never have seen this gap in my experience. But I did. And now I do.

If I outsource none of my choices, there is a huge burden to carry around of deciding everything from what car to drive, where to shop for clothes or food, if I should use reusable bags, how much to worry about global warming and the environment, when to go to sleep, what lifestyle to live, how much money I need to earn, what to do with free time, what shows to watch (R-rated or not), what breakfast beverage to consume, how to get my caffeine in, meat consumption, on and on and on.

I realize now that most people go through a phase in teenagehood where they rebel against their parents and then find some way to make these choices by adhering to a set of values that they pick. But I didn’t do that. I just swallowed all the Mormon values whole. Today, this leaves me doing what feels like the work of a teenager, picking through simple things like do I wear a sleeveless shirt, what makes me look like a grown-up, do I make friends on-line or is that too scary, and so forth. Yes, I’m aware how silly this sounds.

And yet, here I am. Here we are.

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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