I had a beautiful experience last week. I went through the temple with one of my Sunday School students/neighbors, a young man headed to the MTC on Wednesday Sept. 13. Last week, another of my SS students/neighbors left for his mission. There is one other member of the neighborhood of age to serve a mission, but he will not be doing it. He is my son.
As I watch him flounder (though he would not choose that verb), I am haunted by the well-rehearsed Mormon mother guilt trips:
Would he have been ready for a mission if I had baked bread and had that lovely aroma greet him every day when he got home from school? He has a mother who always has her fingers in a number of academic and creative pies, and rarely makes the pastry kind. (In fact, she buys pre-packaged graham cracker crusts when she makes pies at all.) Is the other kind of motherâ€”the one with the spotless house and adorable scrapbooks–better at preparing missionaries? Isnâ€™t that other mother less selfish?
Would he have been ready if I had changed the subject when he said, â€œWell, I ran into some anti-Mormons today. They had some things right, but they got a lot wrong. They said Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. He didnâ€™t, did he?â€? I didnâ€™t change the subject. I answered his question.
Would he have been ready if I had been less angry about the huge, long-standing disagreement my husband and I had over his involvement in Dungeons and Dragons? I did not want it in my home; Bruce found it harmless.
Would he have been ready if I had won the argument and we had succeeded in removing D&D?
Wouldnâ€™t he have been in the temple with my husband and me if I had just been perfect? A better housekeeper, a more vocal testimony-giver, a person with flannel board Bible stories for every Sunday afternoon? Someone who never lost her temper? Someone else?
I remember years ago when I was struggling with guilt about my sonâ€™s rebellion (which was evident even then). I went over the list of my failings, and then had the sudden thought (I hesitate to call it an impression), â€œWhat is it youâ€™re good at in your home, Margaret?â€? The first answer (the impulse) was a catalogue of what I didnâ€™t do well. But the second answer was much clearer: â€œYou are good at loving your children. Why would you risk that gift in order to do everything else you think you need to do?â€?
The implications of my many guilt trips extend to my children in compelling and frightening ways. I wonder what their lists are. I know my teenaged daughter gives herself messages all the time: â€œAs soon as I lose thirty pounds, Iâ€™ll be all right.â€? â€œIf my complexion would clear up, some cute guy would ask me out–but I’m so ugly right now.â€? â€œIf I can get straight Aâ€™s, I wonâ€™t have to prove Iâ€™m smart.â€? (This last expectation has resulted in her trembling to her marrow before even entering an AP class, because itâ€™s either an A or an F to her. Consequently, I have pulled her out of public school and put her in a far less demanding place. And yes, I do see that problem among my BYU studentsâ€”the â€œBut I HAVE to get an A!â€? mentality.)
My oldest daughter surprised me a month ago by saying, â€œI always felt such pressure to graduate from a university.â€? I replied that I never thought I had pushed academia. She answered, â€œYou didnâ€™t have to. Youâ€™re you, and Dad is Dad. It was in the air.â€? She suggested it went back generations. Sheâ€™s right.
So my final question is not about what I couldâ€™ve done differently to enforce my will on my son, but about the expectations which are in the air in a Mormon community. For some, like my neighbors, these expectations (coupled with private pilgrimages) have produced profound and beautiful commitments in almost-missionaries. For others, they have become crippling categories in a world which already seems to demand perfection.
How do we nurture those who donâ€™t needâ€”and maybe shouldnâ€™t have–the list of projects for their Young Womenâ€™s Recognition Award or their Duty to God, but simply someone to walk quietly with them? How much do we lose when love yields itself to lecture? How do we gracefully drop our own plans for someone else and simply, silently apply a balm? Can we raise our children to judge themselves and others less harshly when the question â€œAre you WORTHY?â€? is all around us, taunting us for our imperfections rather than reminding us that there is only one worthy, and that through Him, we may find the version and vision of ourselves which He has always known.