In the past 25 months, I’ve taken three children to the Missionary Training Center in Provo where they trained to be full-time missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Each time I’ve returned, as I did on a recent Wednesday, friends and neighbors have said, “Did you cry all the way home?” or “Oh, you must be so heavy-hearted” or “What a sad day.”
I’m baffled by these comments. Those three visits to the MTC have been great days. And here’s why:
I knew this day was coming.
In the case of our two sons, my husband Dave and I knew when they were just blips on the ultrasound that we wanted them to serve Mormon missions. Dave also made sure to refer to their future missions not in terms of “If you choose …” but “When you go …” We’ve been anticipating this day for literally our sons’ entire lives, and we have three more boys who we hope will follow their brothers’ examples.
Nor has the day of their missions arrived suddenly; it’s not like we’re living 150 years ago when calls were extended by Brigham Young at the pulpit telling the congregation which men needed to be on their way in the next week. Missionaries today even get to choose their availability date. There’s no surprise. We’ve been filling out papers and shopping and packing for months.
Our daughter serving a mission, however, was a surprise to both us and her. She decided she was going about one hour after the age change was announced in October 2012. Still, we had weeks and months to plan for that day, and we eagerly anticipated it.
Serving a mission is an awesome adventure.
Be it to Tokyo, Japan, or Toledo, Ohio, a mission is going to provide experiences they’ll never get otherwise. Some days will be discouraging or even disillusioning (such as eating meats one would normally keep as pets), but many days will also be uplifting, motivating and faith-building. I wouldn’t want my children to miss out on any of that.
I’ve heard mothers express concern about sending out missionaries, worried that they wouldn’t be taken care of properly or that their children wouldn’t be able to deal with the demands.
But if we think of life as an adventure, a brief moment in our eternal existence to gather experiences, then raising a child to be old enough to go on a mission only to balk at it is akin to driving for 18 years to get to Disneyland, but then staring at the park and realizing there are crowds, lines and sun, along with the amazing rides. Choosing at that point to stay in the shelter of the parking lot is a waste of precious time. Get out and grab that adventure, whatever and wherever it may be.
The separation is only temporary.
Our former bishop told me that his son’s two-year mission went by a lot faster than he anticipated. (His wife disagreed.) But now that our daughter and one of our sons have returned, I look back on the time and am astonished at how quickly it went by.
Don’t get me wrong, I definitely missed my kids. On their birthdays and at Christmas I felt a bit melancholy and hoped they got their packages.
And they missed us. One of my missionaries missed a sister’s wedding, and another has yet to meet his first nephew, and they both couldn’t attend their grandmother’s funeral. But would I want to have kept them home for those events? To celebrate with us, or comfort me when I mourned?
There will be more weddings, more births and, yes, even more funerals. What my children learned while serving the Lord is far more than they would have gained or could have provided me had they stayed at home.
And really, it has gone by fast.
Missions mean they're on the right path.
Why should I be heavy-hearted or sad that my child has decided to go and serve the Lord?
I’m celebrating! I’m rejoicing! Indeed, I rather wished there were a big hand on the side of the Missionary Training Center where parents could high-five the building and announce, “We did it! Our child is a missionary!” (I had the same feelings in the temple as we brought each of our children to receive their endowment.)
They’re really not my children; they are on loan.
Each time a newborn was placed in my arms, I distinctly felt that the Lord was entrusting me with one of his children — one of my spiritual siblings — and that he would require an accounting of my doings with that child, and that someday he’d want that child back.
Like Hannah of old bringing her son Samuel to the temple (see 1 Samuel 1:28), I’ve happily been able to return four of our children to him so far and felt an enormous sense of satisfaction as I’ve entered the temples with them. I’m praying the next five will be as valiant, despite their parents.
I’ve also felt a great sense of release — as if a burden were removed from my shoulders — as I watched my children head to the MTC doors. It wasn’t so much that I knew the grocery bill and laundry piles would go down (they do, which I confess is a nice little perk). But I knew, without any doubt, that they were now in the Lord’s care, which was far safer and more instructive than my care ever could be.
It’s true that occasionally a missionary is involved in an accident, and tragically some die. But Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “young men and women are eight times safer in the mission field than the general population of their peers at home. In view of the hazards of missionary labor, this mortality record is nothing less than a miracle” (see mormonnewsroom.org/article/missionary-safety). Clearly the Lord does a better job with 19-year-olds than the rest of us do.
But interestingly, as the mantle of missionary was removed from my daughter’s shoulders last autumn, I felt the mantle of motherhood come upon me much heavier again, as if the Lord was letting me know about her spiritual maturity, readiness for next possible steps in life — college, marriage, motherhood — and that she was entrusted back to me — and that I needed to try to not mess things up.
Yes, I have cried and sobbed.
I’ve heard that no parent can take too much credit for how their children turn out, nor should they take too much blame. We have many dear friends and family who, despite being parents as faithful as Lehi and Sariah, have children who have turned out more like Laman and Lemuel. I’ve shed tears for these parents as their children of great promise turn away from the gospel and choose not to serve missions. I would feel guilty for crying that my child chose to go, knowing how desperately so many of my friends wished to be in my shoes.
Yes, I confess I sniffled a bit at the MTC, choked up when I tried to tell my son that I loved him, but couldn’t get the words out before he chuffed off happily to his new missionary life.
But I sniffled not out of sadness, but pure joy.
Joy that, in a world which is increasingly self-absorbed, my child volunteered to be absorbed in the Lord's service instead.
What could be a greater day than that?
Trish Mercer, a mother of nine, is a native of Utah and blogs at forestedgebooks.com.