Dealing with Culture Shock: Latebloomer’s Story

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Latebloomer” is a pseudonym. Latebloomer’s story was originally published on her blog Past Tense, Present Progressive. It is reprinted with her permission.

There was always an expectation in my family that I would go to college. Both of my parents had a college education and saw its value, and they didn’t cave to the general attitude at our homeschooling cult church that higher education wasn’t appropriate or necessary for girls. Even though my parents’ expectation was for me to attend an extremely fundamentalist Christian college simply to get a skill to “supplement my future husband’s income, if necessary,” that expectation was more than what many of my female peers at church had, and I’m grateful for it. And, unlike many homeschooling families in our circles, my mom also put in the necessary work to make sure I wouldn’t encounter any roadblocks on my way from homeschool high school to college–she made a very professional-looking and detailed high school transcript that included my GPA, she signed me up for the CHSPE (California High School Proficiency Exam) so that I could have a legal high school diploma, and she made sure that I took the SAT.

Still, it took me three years after graduating from homeschool high school before I began to pursue higher education. Years and years of severe isolation had not emotionally or socially prepared me to deal with the world outside my home. Years of listening to sermons about the evils of the outside world had left me terrified to leave the “shelter” of my home, even though my home life consisted of nothing more than broken family relationships and debilitating depression during those years. Years of heightened spiritual sensitivity had also paralyzed me with no sense of direction in life, waiting for a sign from God about what to do with my life, terrified of making a mistake.

With no end in sight, the darkness of those years gradually increased my sense of desperation until it was finally enough to overcome my inertia. I decided to be a moving vehicle that God could steer, and I would simply make the best decisions I could until I heard from him. I started taking a full load of classes at my local community college a few months later.

I entered my classes confident in my academic ability. Thanks to my mom’s willingness to administer yearly standardized tests and my scores from the SAT, I knew that I was an above-average student. As I expected, I performed well on tests and got great grades.  But I had other college struggles that caught me off guard. For instance, I was used to simply reading textbooks for the info I needed, so I had no idea how to take good notes in class, and my handwriting and rushed spelling looked like a child’s. In class, I’d get distracted occasionally by hearing the pronunciation of words that I had only ever seen on paper and had been saying wrong in my head for years. I sometimes had questions, but no idea about the etiquette of asking questions during the lecture.  Additionally, my teachers were surprisingly fond of group work, something that I had no experience with, and I was at a loss as to how to collaborate or give/receive feedback.

But for me, the worst thing of all was my discomfort with myself, my body, my existence. While everyone around me seemed to just plop down easily on any available floor space or chair in order to study and eat and chat, I simply couldn’t do it. I could never relax and be at ease where there was even a chance I might be seen by another person, and attempts to talk with others left me breathless and sweaty, with my heart racing.  At this time in my life, I couldn’t even eat in front of another person–not because of an eating disorder, but because of anxiety. The pressure of eating and chatting at the same time made me physically shake, because I had only really experienced eating silently together with my family, and we never had people over for meals. Because of these issues, I couldn’t handle being on campus for a second longer than necessary. For breaks between classes, I would sit in my car or drive home and come back just in time for the next class. The stress of being in public and being surrounded by people was too much.

But over time, my continued practice and effort started to have positive effects. As I went into my second semester in community college, I wasn’t constantly teetering on the edge of panic, and I started to notice positive things happening despite my social stress. People around me didn’t seem bothered by me. People sat by me in class. People smiled at me. People tried to talk to me. I started to feel a spark of human connection and see that people could be kind and decent even when they didn’t share my beliefs and even when they had no agenda and nothing to gain from it. It confused me because it didn’t fit the narrative I grew up with, but it also gave me a vague sense of hope about the life I might be able have as an adult out on my own.

Meanwhile, I was ramping up to transfer to a conservative Christian university far from home, in a place where I didn’t know a single person. It sounds like a big deal, except that I really had almost nothing that I was leaving behind–really, just one close friend that I had made several years before and that I’d been able to confide in, a person who was similarly sheltered and homeschooled. The thought of a fresh start somewhere was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I figured that the culture of the Christian university campus would feel at least a little familiar, and that having my own room on campus to hide in would be a welcome relief. I made sure to request an international roommate so that my weirdness–my odd clothing style, my poor conversational ability, and my nearly-total ignorance of my peer group’s slang, movies, music, etc.–wouldn’t be as obvious.

In the environment of gender-segregated dorms, no alcohol, no sex, no drugs, and no dancing, there wasn’t too much around me to shock me at my Christian university. Instead, it was the little things that made life challenging. One of my daily challenges was dealing with the shared dorm bathroom, where there were always at least a couple other people milling around. Even though it was set up so that there was no need for public nudity, I didn’t have any idea how to pee or shower in a shared space. I couldn’t stand around casually wrapped in a towel doing my hair and makeup and chatting with the other girls, not a chance. I couldn’t even pee while other people were listening.  This was a completely foreign experience to me and one that took me months to get used to.

For the first semester, my life on campus consisted of going to class, doing homework in my room, and hanging out in my room, which was luckily often empty since my Chinese roommate, despite having just arrived in the country, already had a life and friends. It sounds like a recipe for homesickness, but this is something that I never experienced the whole time I was in college. Instead, I was the happiest I’d ever been (really, it was just that I was less severely depressed, but at the time it felt like happiness in comparison to the previous years). Even though I had no idea about how to connect with the other girls in my dorm and was too anxious to really try, I saw that they were nice people and I felt like the future was full of possibilities.

Things started to change after a few months, thanks to a couple good dorm events that brought me out of my room. This proved to be just enough for one of the outgoing girls in the dorm to seek me out later and start to pry into my little closed-clam-shell of a life. Friendship with just one outgoing person in the dorm served as a bridge to making more connections and boosted my confidence to attend other school events. Although at first I just drifted along trying not to cause anyone any trouble by having opinions or problems, during the next few years I was able to start figuring out more about who I was, what my interests were, and where my place in the social scene of life was.

Figuring out my place in life turned out to be much more complicated than simply getting past the worst of my anxiety though. Even though I was several years older than my dormmates and classmates, I had years of catching up to do, learning about things like cliques, gossip, power dynamics, the art of self-deprecation/teasing/complimenting, and how people seem to group themselves based on life habits, clothing choices, and hobbies. It’s hard to explain, but I simultaneously felt I was decades older than my peers, and also much much younger, which meant that I either felt like I was taking someone under my wing or basking in their glory. I had no idea how to connect to someone as an equal, and I didn’t even start to learn that until I was about to graduate from college.

Looking back now at my transition from homeschool to college life over a decade ago, I feel a sense of pride in how much I grew and changed in a few short years. I finished college able to relax in class and chat comfortably with friends. I no longer hid away in my room all the time. I stretched myself. I attended dorm events. I cheered with enthusiasm at sports games. I worked out at the school gym. I went to parties. I dated. I asked out a guy. I got away with breaking the campus rules about gender segregation and alcohol. Years of pushing through my anxiety paid off, and I finished college feeling ready to tackle life and live on my own as a working adult.

Given my set of issues, I can’t imagine how I would have transitioned to adulthood any other way. The most important things I learned in college were not academic, but instead life and social skills that paved the way for me to have a satisfying life today.

Voices of Sister-Moms: Part One, Introduction

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HA note: This series is reprinted with permission from Heather Doney’s guest series on her blog, Becoming Worldly. Part One was originally published  with the title “Quiverfull Sorority of Survivors (QFSOS) & Voices of ‘Sister-Moms'” on June 24, 2013. This is a slightly modified version of the original post. If you have a Quiverfull “sister-Mom” story you would like to share, email Heather at becomingworldly (at) gmail (dot) com.

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Also in this series: Part One: Introduction by Heather Doney | Part Two: DoaHF’s Story | Part Three: Maia’s Story | Part Four: Electra’s Story | Part Five: Samantha Field’s Story | Part Six: Mary’s Story

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Part One: Introduction by Heather Doney

I hosted a guest blog series about the experiences of “sister-Moms” in Quiverfull families.

This was actually the first time I’ve had people do guest posts on Becoming Worldly. I was excited about it  — and really couldn’t think of a better topic to start with!

Before beginning with the first guest post, an account by a young woman who’s going by “DoaHF,” I figured a brief intro about the kinds of issues young women and girls who were raised in these sorts of environments often face would be appropriate. This intro is a generalization. But based on my experiences, research, reading blogs, and conversations with many other Quiverfull/Christian patriarchy daughters, the following troubling patterns and issues for girls emerge:

  • Being a “parental child” and having an adult level of responsibility within the home starting at a young age.
  • Inappropriate and enmeshed relationships with parents, particularly fathers, encouraged by daughter-to-father purity pledges, purity balls, and purity rings and teachings saying that daughters are under their father’s “spiritual covering,” much like a junior wife of sorts, until (and if) they receive permission to marry through a parent-guided or arranged process.
  • Lack of age-appropriate financial, social, emotional, physical, or educational independence during formative years (and often into adulthood).
  • Social isolation and indoctrination as part of a controlled, restricted, and separatist “us v. the ungodly world” perspective.

In May I briefly spoke out about my personal experiences as part of a BBC World Radio Heart & Soul documentary on the Quiverfull movement. The “A Womb Is A Weapon” radio piece is half an hour long, with some adorable British accents and one distinctive New Zealand one. I speak starting at minute 11, and Nancy Campbell totally sounds like a racist Disney villain. Yep…not even kidding!

Within this sort of isolated, dogmatic, and restricted environment where the parents are consumed by what they see as duty to “the Father,” the eldest daughters of Quiverfull families are enlisted as junior mothers to their own siblings. While Quiverfull proponents such as Nancy Campbell often talk about how helpful this system is to mothers of large families and focus on how much these daughters are learning about childcare, the drawbacks of the lifestyle to the daughters doing this constant care are numerous. They are only recently coming to light because, as these daughters ourselves, we speaking are out about them.

That is the focus of this “Voices of Sister-Moms” guest post series.

Note: The rest of these issues apply to daughters of Christian patriarchy as well as Quiverfull daughters. While many in Christian patriarchy families did not have to care for numerous siblings, most still had the rest of the accompanying teachings, rules, and expectations.

The “Dad in charge of everything, particularly guarding his daughter from the interest of young men” is a standard thing in Christian patriarchy (with a watered-down and often more symbolic version of this occurring in mainstream society). But it can become much more extreme when a daughter is homeschooled. Then she literally can be hidden away from all outside men and boys, encouraged to look to Daddy as the manliest of manly examples in her life, and I don’t think I have to get into how very wrong this can sometimes go.

Daughters who do eventually disobey or disagree with their fathers (often by choosing higher education without approval or planning to marry someone he disapproves of) describe a subsequent shunning that takes place by dear old Dad as being “like a bad breakup.”

This, folks, can be referred to by the icky name for what it actually is — emotional incest.

Some young women report not being allowed to work outside the home in their teens and early 20′s, others report being able to do so under heavy monitoring and sometimes then only at certain types of workplaces seen as appropriately “feminine” or gender-segregated enough, and others report being able to only work in or start home-based businesses or do tutoring and childcare. Some report engaging in long hours of unpaid labor for family businesses, others being forced to turn over their earnings to their parents, and others having what they are allowed to spend their savings on tightly controlled by their parents.

Either way, becoming physically and financially independent is often not allowed.

A number of Quiverfull/Christian patriarchy daughters say that they were not permitted to get their diploma, a GED, or their drivers license. Some even did not have social security numbers issued to them due to being the product of an unreported home birth.  Their parents chose to use withholding these things as a way to control them. Some have even said that they were told it would be their future husband’s choice as to whether they eventually got these things, or were simply told that they would not need them for a life of housewifery and motherhood.

For many, a college education is intentionally set out of reach, whether being described as an unbecoming or immoral goal for daughters.

The young woman is repeatedly told she is not intelligent enough or doesn’t have the right aptitudes to obtain higher education. Or her parents might refuse to sign FAFSA paperwork enabling her to be eligible for student financial aid.

Many girls report only being able to socialize with siblings or the daughters of likeminded families, and then only under supervision, steeped in a strong “informant culture” inculcated into the children that generally curtails secret-telling. In addition to often being kept away from peers, most girls report being encouraged or required to wear “modest” dresses that are several sizes too big or more appropriate for someone several years younger or a great deal older, having their Internet and phone conversations closely monitored, and having friendships with boys disallowed or ended for superficial reasons.

Another thing often mentioned by young women who grew up in Quiverfull and Christian patriarchy homes is that very coercive and often both emotionally and physically abusive “discipline methods” were regularly used on them to keep them toeing the parental line. “Spankings” that consist of multiple hard hits with a belt, a piece of plumbing line, or a wooden stick or utensil (sometimes occurring well into their teenage years), “taking of privileges” that may include meals or basic necessities, and being put “on restriction” by being given punishing chores and/or temporarily shunned and shamed by the family for any form of questioning or disobeying.

Often there are threats of having even minimal contact with the outside world removed and replaced with punishments if a girl gives so much as a hint of showing disagreement or displeasure towards her parents, which is referred to as “having a bad attitude.”

As such, smiling and “being joyful” are often the only moods permitted for young women like us and the struggles with depression, guilt, self-harm, and self-esteem that might be expected in such an emotionally repressive environment occur with regularity. In addition, and this is often reported to be one of the most painful of the control techniques, young women raised in Quiverfull/Christian patriarchy families often are told that they are risking their very souls, God’s wrath, and the entrance of demonic and satanic forces into their lives if they do not “honor their mother and father” by cheerfully complying with every parental request. Some parents will also tell their children that the bible permits and may even require rebellious offspring to be put to death.

For most young women who do choose to leave (or are forced to leave) the Quiverfull/Christian patriarchy way of life, the outside world can be quite overwhelming and scary in many ways and the transition difficult on many levels. Some initially find shelter in marriage and family, others though university attendance, others through paid employment, and still others through the help of extended family and friends.

A few even manage to find their way to places like Meadowhaven for cult deprogramming.

As we come of age and grow in our understanding of what happened to us and gather to tell our stories, there is a sense of comfort, healing, and solidarity in finally being able to compare and share our experiences, to know that we are not broken, we did not “imagine things,” and we are not alone. Together we can face the truth and recognize (if not come to an in-depth understanding of something seemingly so unfathomable) that the indoctrination that took place in our formative years was indeed done by the same people who brought us into this world and our parents were likely indoctrinated themselves.

While growing up in this lifestyle may seem pretty extreme or foreign to someone looking at it from the outside (or even to someone like me who grew up in it but didn’t really see it through this sort of framework until many years later) there is something important to keep in mind. First, it was normal for us because it was what we knew. Also, although it certainly can bring hardship and pain — after all we never asked or chose to be raised in such an environment — there are many strong, smart, dedicated, and likable young women who have escaped it and “pass for normal” in our society today.

I have so much respect for many of the ones I’ve had the honor of meeting and getting to know and look forward to being introduced to more.

When you choose to move on despite the fear, the hardships, the shouted threats by “leaders” and patriarchs, even while knowing you may face a loss of connection with your own family, you do it because something inside you says you have to be free to live, not because you want to leave your loved ones behind. Despite the unnecessary hardships that many of us have had to overcome (and are still overcoming), today we know that we have both the right and the ability to let ourselves out of the cage that this harsh and harmful lifestyle is.

As more of us come of age, more will continue to do so.

We hope to make it easier for them.

The Quiverfull/Christian patriarchy movement is still young. It’s mostly the “big sisters” who are speaking out right now.

But as time goes on our little sisters will likely join us.

So while these sorts of formative experiences do leave scars, today those of us who are out can choose what directions we would like our lives to go. We can take back these stolen parts of our lives. And as we let others know what happened and how we felt about it, we can find assurance in the knowledge that we are discovering and shedding light on a dark side of human nature. We are also highlighting the resilience of the human spirit and the power of community.

We might have each felt hopelessly alone and silenced while we went through this stuff before, as children, teens, and young women. But we are not alone today.

We now have the words and confidence to share what happened to us, what is still happening to others, and the confidence to ask you to understand and help us do something about it.

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To be continued.