Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Feelings of Inadequacy: How to Help Your Missionary Child Through Them

We all have feelings of inadequacy from time to time, and our missionary children are no different. When my husband served as Mission President in Boston, it was one of the things we learned was inevitable with a new missionary--he was going to feel inadequate. No doubt about it. Brand new missionaries would arrive in our mission, look at the Assistants and how capable they were and say to themselves, "I'll never be as good of a missionary as they are." Many of them would prepare for failure by telling themselves all the ways they could fail. It was definitely, in their minds, a way to protect themselves in case things didn't go the way they hoped. But, in truth, those negative feelings weighed them down and held them back and it took even longer for them to get in the groove and start to progress as a missionary.

It is important to mention that learning a new language adds to the tendency missionaries have to feel inferior and makes it even more important that they are receiving encouragement. We recognized a pattern that emerged among our missionaries: when missionaries felt inadequate, they almost always got discouraged. When they got discouraged, they almost always got depressed. And when they got depressed, they were headed on a downward course that needed immediate attention. My husband and I began to brainstorm about ways we could help our new missionaries avoid feeling inferior, because this seemed to be the time of their missions when they were most susceptible to discouragement. It made us sad when we sensed that some missionaries felt less than people around them. We wanted to build them up, help them appreciate the good in themselves, and encourage them to be patient as they grew into their role as a missionary. That became our primary focus when new missionaries walked in the door of the mission home that very first night. It was much easier to deal with this at the beginning--when they were facing the "inadequacy" stage rather than the "depressed" stage--so we would sit our missionaries down the day they arrived and tell them the following things:

1. "You are YOU. Don't try to be anyone else. We love you just the way you are!" As a Mission President, you hope all your missionaries will come to you with good self-esteem and an understanding of who they are. But, unfortunately, this is not the case. So many come from difficult situations and bring with them a lifetime of experiences that have made them feel less than valued. Many have struggled with feelings of inadequacy their whole lives. Some have never really felt loved and appreciated for who the person they are. Make sure your missionary child is not one of those. Be sure he knows he is loved unconditionally for who he is, exactly the way he is--warts and all!

2. "Every single Assistant in our mission was once a new missionary too! They once felt inadequate. They once felt like they would never really arrive as a missionary. But look at them now. It will be the same for you!" Eventually, your son or daughter will look back on the first months of their mission and be so surprised at how much they have grown since then. Remind them that it will happen a little bit every day and, although their growth may seem at times almost imperceptible to them, it will accumulate as time goes by. It may be hard for them to believe, but, before long, THEY will be the experienced missionary that all the new ones are admiring!

3."Don't look too far ahead. Just take one day at a time. And every day, take one step forward to becoming the missionary you want to be." I try to imagine how my missionary sons felt the first night at the MTC. I try to imagine how they feel that first week...that first month...even the first six months. I'm sure the question crossed their minds: where will I be a year from today (and to a young adult boy or girl, a year feels like ETERNITY!) And then the answer: oh wow, I will STILL BE ON MY MISSION! That realization can be (and most certainly is) so overwhelming to them. It can push them into a depressing and discouraging place if they dwell on it. It is so important that they don't look too far ahead because, well, it is just too hard. Encourage them to look at tomorrow, and only tomorrow! Some missionaries who are in the beginning stages of their adjustment can't even look past today without feeling hopeless. Help them focus on the NOW and remind them that all they need worry about is just getting through that small, do-able period of time. Help them see how to eat an elephant...one bite at a time!

4. "Be patient with yourself. Good things take time and being able to teach with confidence, speak the language well, and become a strong missionary is no different. It will take time!" We all need to remember this fact:growth never happens overnight. It takes a constant effort and day after day of righteous choices to become the person (or missionary) we want to become. Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy (or quickly, for that matter!) Teach this to your missionary child. In the words of Elder Neal A. Maxwell: “Personal, spiritual symmetry emerges only from the shaping of prolonged obedience. Twigs are bent, not snapped into shape.” And speaking of Elder Maxwell, we would always give our missionaries a condensed version of a talk he gave called: "Notwithstanding My Weakness." It is amazing and says it all, just the way Elder Maxwell alone can. You can find it on lds.org and I will also put a link to it in the comments on this post.

As mothers, we can constantly remind our missionary children of their worth. We can remind them that they are so very loved. And we can fill them with positive thoughts that will help them overcome feelings of inadequacy. In this, and so many other ways, we can truly make a difference.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Called To Serve: Now What?

It seems like the Call will never come. Then, one day, it finally does. You now know where he will serve, when he will leave, if he will speak a language, and which MTC he will be sent to. You have all the pieces of the puzzle and he is ready to pack his suitcase and walk out your door except for one thing: It's not time yet. There are still weeks (or months!) to wait between call and departure date and, trust me, these will be some of the most trying days yet. Most likely he will be living at home without school or work to keep him occupied. You don't want him getting into trouble because he has too much time on his hands and you don't want him spending too much time with his girlfriend (remember, I've had 7 missionary sons!) So what's a mother to do? Here are a few ideas:
1. Spend as much time together as you can (as much as he will) because the day will soon come when you will look back and wish for one more minute with him (and, it might surprise you, but when he is gone, HE will wish for that, too.) Shopping for clothing, supplies, and whatever else is on his list of things to take along is one great way to do that.
2. Have him pack up his room and tape the boxes shut--very tightly if he has younger siblings who might want to wear his clothes or "borrow" his things while he is gone. Unfortunately, I learned this from experience. Prepare for the inevitable moment after he returns home and finds a few things missing. I was much less accountable for those "lost" things if I had HIM pack up his stuff and store it away before he left. I offered to pack up one son's belongings and when he got home and realized not everything was there, he looked at me with wide eyes and mouth open as if to say: MOM! How could you? I learned my lesson with that one. From that moment on, I always had my missionary son do it himself so I wasn't in trouble when he got home.
3. Suggest to your child (or even the entire family) to read the Book of Mormon during this time with an eye for missionary scriptures. It's amazing the things you discover when you have one subject in mind as you read. It will be a fun activity and your missionary child will love this memory once he is in the mission field (and will probably find a whole lot of new scriptures to use, as well!)
4. Help him practice things he will have to do on his mission. We have a son who was so timid in high school that he wouldn't even call the pizza guy on the phone because he "didn't know him." (Seriously, though, who DOES know the pizza guy?) So while he was waiting to leave, I made sure we changed that and, not only did he start calling for pizza, he learned it really wasn't all that scary to talk to people he didn't know. As a matter of fact, most of my boys felt that same kind of anxiety prior to leaving, and talking to strangers (investigators, members, companions, other missionaries, even his Mission President!) is really what missions are ALL about. If your missionary son or daughter is challenged by this, try to find situations around home in a familiar environment where they can practice this in more comfortable circumstances.
5. Most of my boys served foreign missions so I sent them with a big ziplock bag full of over-the-counter medications that they wouldn't be able to get abroad (Advil, Immodium, Allergy meds, etc.) I spent some time teaching them how to use everything (or in other words, teaching them to read the directions on the package and not just count on me to give them the right dosage.) I knew they would need to know how to remedy some things and I also knew they probably hadn't paid a bit of attention to that in years past. This was a great time to educate them.
6. Help him build self-confidence because self-confidence turns into courage and everyone needs a boatload of that on a mission. Remind him of his strengths and compliment him often. Teach him the right words to say in different situations. I know that's what we mothers have been trying to do all their lives. But a mission will present unique situations that your child has never before faced and he needs words that he just might not have. For example, when he meets his Mission President for the first time, teach him to look him in the eye, shake his hand and say "Hello President." That might sound simple (and it is) but you would be surprised how many missionaries came to us in Boston who were too shy to look us in the eye or speak one word. It helps SO much if we as mothers can prepare them by helping them know the words to say.
7. Time for a few cooking lessons! Stick with simple things like scrambled eggs and grilled cheese sandwiches (hey, your child might already know how to make those things but my boys sure didn't!) Knowing how to cook rice could be valuable in Asian countries but when my son served in Japan, most missionary apartments had rice cookers. (Hopefully that's still the case for you who are sending children to Asia.) General rule of thumb: ask yourself what the bare minimum is for your child to eat to survive. And then teach them how to make those things.

Quick story: our oldest son finished his senior year in Utah when we were serving as Mission President and wife in Boston and received his call at the end of his senior year. He then came to Boston to spend 2 months before he was to report to the Provo MTC. Being in the missionary mindset that I was as the Mission President's wife, I was SO sure he would come to Boston wanting to work hard and prepare for his mission. We couldn't wait to memorize scriptures with him, have him go on splits with the missionaries every night, and a million other things that would transform him into a real missionary right before our eyes. Imagine my shock when he got to Boston and ALL he wanted to do was sleep, eat, and watch movies. Like...that was IT. I still laugh when I remember how frustrated I was. But, you know what? That was exactly what he needed (and hey, we watched movies together sometimes, so there's that) and still, he became a wonderful missionary! I guess what I'm saying is, don't panic if your child isn't in missionary mode yet. That is normal. Don't ruin your last days together by nagging him and trying to tell him what to do. Make suggestions but then step back and let him set the pace. Make it a peaceful, happy time in your home. THAT is what he will remember most once he is gone.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

When They Come Home--Our Shifting Role As Mothers

A friend of mine makes a banner for each of her children at the end of every school year and writes on it the grade they just completed (For example...Kelsey: Third Grade!) She and her husband hold the banners up one at a time and let each child run through theirs, breaking it in two. It makes them feel a sense of accomplishment, she says, and gives them the sense that they are moving forward to something bigger and better. I love that and think of it often when I see young men and women returning from their missions. Maybe, I have thought, we should take the banners we tape to the front of our houses announcing their return and hold them up, instead, for our missionary children to run through. After all, if anyone deserves to feel a sense of accomplishment, it's them.

But how about the second purpose of my friend's running-through-the-banner idea? How do we as mothers help our newly-returned missionary children move forward to something bigger and better? Part of being a mother is learning to adapt our role as our children pass through different stages. Switching gears from "mother of a missionary" to "mother of a returned missionary" can leave us feeling confused and frustrated if we aren't prepared to make the shift. Here are a few things I have learned through the years as my children have returned from the mission field. Some of these lessons have been difficult for me to learn and I have struggled in a very real way with others. You may read them and wonder why I included some of them on the list. But these are things I have figured out--sometimes the hard way--that I wish I had known when my children first returned home. It would have helped us avoid some of the bumps in the road and helped them keep their spiritual/emotional/intellectual momentum going once they left the mission field.

1. First of all (and this is a hard one), accept your limitations as his mother. You are no longer in charge of his world. He loves you. But he will come home feeling very independent and wanting to remain so. I am one of those mothers who wants her kids to do what she says until they turn 90 (OK, maybe even longer...) and I've had learn to suppress my tendency to plan out my returned missionary son's life. Here's the thing: I know what is best for them. I really do. I remember telling my oldest son, "Look, now that you're home, we could do this 2 different ways. You can get a job, get good grades in school, keep reading your scriptures and going to church, and be a responsible kid. OR you can do it your way--and eventually you will come full circle and realize that what I wanted you to do was the best way all along!" Needless to say, he did it his way and after failing a semester of college (which he had to make up 3 years later so he could bring his GPA up to get into graduate school) he figured it out on his own. It doesn't really matter that I knew what was best for him--what mattered was that is that he learned on his own what the best thing was. After all, learning to use our free agency is a valuable thing and going through the process of learning for themselves is the only way their decisions will truly be lasting.

2. Speaking of feeling independent, if at all possible, have him move out and live on his own. I know you've missed him and want him around. But all in all, it is better for him to be in charge of his own life from here on out and that's tough to do when you are living at home feeling like you are a 16-year-old again. When our oldest son returned (I'm kind of picking on him today...but he was my first experience with returned missionary children and he taught me a lot!) he planned to live with us for the coming school year. When I told him what his curfew was, he looked at me with a blank stare and said, "Mom...are you serious? I've been walking the streets of Japan all alone for 2 years and now you're going to make me have a curfew?" To be fair, he wasn't alone in Japan. He had a companion. And a mission president! But after a few weeks of the curfew being a problem between us, my husband and I decided it was best for him to move in with roommates who didn't care what time he got home. It was one of the many ways I had to let go and give up some control so he could learn to take responsibility for his own life. I wanted to preserve the relationship we had been building with him while he was gone and, even more than that, I wanted him to feel responsible for himself.

3. Don't treat him like a child anymore. But don't treat him like an adult either. During the past two years, he has matured in some ways--but not in others. Be perceptive about ways you need to let go and ways you should keep holding on.

4. Missions are very controlled environments. There are missionaries who come home and feel like kids in a candy store. It feels so good to be free of all the mission rules, some have a tendency to go too far the other direction and crave the feeling of absolutely no rules or expectations at all. Rather than harp on them about specific things they are or are not doing (remember you are not in charge of their world anymore) keep focusing them on listening to the Spirit. Talk to them about times they felt the Spirit on their mission and ask them to share stories with you. Keep bringing to their remembrance those moments when the Spirit guided them. Without coming right out and saying it, let those experiences work on them and keep them focused on making choices as they are guided by the Spirit still.

5. Expect a few bumps in the road. Very few missionaries come home and have completely smooth sailing. Practice saying this: "I trust you. I know who you are. Everything is going to be OK." Your role in his life now involves a lot more cheerleading and a lot less coaching. Encourage him. Love him. And more than ever before, pray for him.

Oh, I could go on and on. Maybe I've got a book in me somewhere on this subject. As a Church, we are losing so many of our youth--even after missions. I don't say that to scare you or discourage you, but to prepare you as a mother to love and support your returned missionary child. They need us more than ever at this stage of their lives. As mothers we will never stop praying there truly IS something bigger and better ahead for them after their missions. We will never stop praying that--with our love and support as well as the Lord's guidance, they will find it.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Best Kept Secret in the Church--Missions are Hard!

Several years ago we sat in Stake Conference and listened to our Stake President talk about the responsibility we all share for missionary work. "Why do we call it missionary work?" he said. "We should call it missionary fun!!" I remember at the time feeling like I should stand up and pump my fist in the air and yell, "YEAH! We should call it missionary fun!" It wasn't until my husband and I took our family to Boston where he presided over the full-time missionaries for three years that my eyes were opened. It didn't take long until I completely understood why we don't call it missionary fun. Because...well...it's NOT fun (at least not in the way chocolate milkshakes and rides at Disneyland are fun!) Yes, the satisfaction of seeing people accept the gospel is rewarding. The joy of seeing the gospel bless lives is incredible. Missionaries definitely have some fun times. But, generally speaking, we need to call missionary work what it is if we want to give our missionary children the credit they deserve. Serving a mission is one of the most demanding, exhausting, challenging things anyone will ever do. It is hard work. No matter the weather, no matter how much sleep they get, no matter how they feel that day, no matter if they are depressed or discouraged or tired or homesick--they wake up early in the morning and go to work. Every. Single. Day. And for that, they deserve our respect, our gratitude, and our never-ending prayers.

As parents, we sometimes don't fully grasp what our children do every day on their missions. When I sent my first son to Japan, I had no idea what his day-to-day life would look like. Teaching the gospel, I thought. Going to meetings, I assumed. Maybe doing a little sightseeing here and there and having dinner with members. Other than a few pieces of anecdotal information, I knew very little. I certainly did not know he would be doing such hard things--and so many of them! I had no clue how demanding a mission really is--physically, spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and socially. Yes, I understood the obvious things. Like being away from home. Leaving life behind. Postponing education. Missing friends and girlfriends. But little did I know that the list of difficult things went way beyond anything I had ever imagined. Here's the truth: From the minute our children shut the car door at the MTC and wave goodbye until they have fully adjusted to life back home after their mission ends, they face one incredibly difficult thing after another. Their comfort zone is stretched in ways they could never have predicted or been prepared for. They carry on conversations with complete strangers, live with someone they hardly know and knock on doors (or however they contact people in their mission) from morning 'til night. Many do not have cars so they walk. And walk. And walk. (Sounds like a Primary song, doesn't it?)

People ask me all the time if serving as Mission President and wife helped make our own boys better missionaries. And I always say yes. It definitely made them better--but not in the way you might think. They didn't know more scriptures than the next guy. They weren't necessarily better teachers or leaders. Serving with us in Boston made our kids better missionaries for one reason alone: it helped them understand that missions are hard--harder than anything they had ever done before. Our mission helped them see that all missionaries struggle from time to time--so that when (not if--when) that happened to them, they knew they were not alone. It helped prepare our boys so that when they had challenges, they didn't feel isolated thinking they were the only ones dealing with these kinds of feelings. Our mission developed within each of our missionary children an awareness of what they would experience and what missions are really like. Because of this, they weren't surprised by the difficulties they faced.

It is not only important for us as parents to teach our missionary children that missions are hard--it is vital to their success. Being prepared for the tough times makes them so much easier to face. And here's the thing: everyone has those hard times. No one is exempt. I still remember our oldest son writing us from the MTC saying: "How come some missionaries are laughing and joking and having fun in here, and I'm not. How come it isn't as hard for them as it is for me?" I couldn't wait to write him back and fill him in: truth be told, every single missionary struggles at some time. The only difference between them is the way the sadness, homesickness, anxiety, stress and fear manifest themselves. Not every person deals with challenges in the same way. Some missionaries laugh to cover their sadness; some cry to relieve it. But there is comfort in knowing that everyone experiences pretty much the same emotions. Knowing this strengthens them as they see how other missionaries deal with hardships. It helps them deal with their own and grow because of them.

Before we left for our mission in Boston, a friend shared something with me that I have thought of often and lived by ever since--especially during our 3 years there (yes...missions are even hard for Mission Presidents, their wives and their families.) Here it is:

"When you come face to face with a mountain and you can't go over it, you can't go under it, you can't go around it and you can't go through it, your only choice is to grow to be bigger than the mountain."

And that is what serving a mission is all about--growing. Our sons and daughters leave us as children. They come home bigger than the mountains they faced (and even more prepared for the ones that still lie ahead.) It is those mountains that have made them who they are when they return to us. Knowing that helps us all as we suffer along with our missionary children through their day-to-day challenges. There is great purpose in the struggle. It is their struggles that will be their more cherished memories of their missions...for it is those moments that will have created in them the most profound growth.

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Mother's Greatest Fear: Will My Missionary Child Be Safe?

Just over a month ago, news of the explosion at the Brussels airport made it's way around the world and into the heart of every mother of every LDS missionary serving in Belgium stood still. That momentary fear--until news comes that your child is safe--is paralyzing. Was he there? Is he OK? If I pray hard enough for him will he come home to me, well and whole? How can I bear the uncertainty of wondering and worrying from day to day?

The truth of the matter is, some mothers do suffer the unbearable pain of losing a missionary child as they serve. We know it's true. We know it happens. Our hearts are drawn out to them--one mother to another--as we bear each other's burdens from afar. Truth be told, there isn't one mother (or father) who has said goodbye to a missionary child at the MTC and hasn't considered the frightening possibilities. We do our best to face our fears with faith, knowing the Lord is in charge. But what can we do when those moments of worry come?

Here are a few ideas:

1. Write to your missionary child every week and ask him to do everything humanly possible to write to you every week, as well. I noticed when my boys were serving, if I felt "out of the loop" because they hadn't told me about their week and what they had going on, I worried about them a lot more.

2. Be sure to stress to your missionary the importance of following mission rules. If they are exactly where they belong every minute of every day, the likelihood of running into trouble diminishes greatly. There are certainly times when missionaries are keeping rules and something completely unforeseen happens. But being obedient is always the best possible way to stay safe. Each mission has rules unique to that area of the world that have been tried and tested that provide every missionary with the very best ways of staying safe. For example, some missions restrict the amount of money missionaries can carry around, some have rules about keeping passports with them (or not.) There are many specific rules you or I would never think of because we don't have the experience the Mission President has. Remind your child that the mission rules are there for their protection and they must obey them.

3. Keep up with travel alerts or other information about the area of the world your child is serving by periodically checking for updates on the U.S State Department website. This will probably seem like a better idea if you never actually see an alert for your child's country. Knowing he is not in a place that is "on the list" can give you a lot of reassurance. It might not feel like such a good idea, however, if you do see an alert. I know from personal experience it can be a very upsetting feeling. A word of advice: if this does happen, please do not panic. An alert simply means you need to get more information about what is going on (see #5.)

4. You can feel confident in the fact that your child's Mission President and his wife love him and are doing everything possible to keep him out of harm's way. They think of him as their own during this time he is serving with them. I know it isn't quite as good as YOU being with him. But, trust me, it's pretty darn close.

5. If you have worries or concerns--especially when there is news of a catastrophe of some kind--do not hesitate to contact the Mission President. When my boys served their missions, I always made note of their Mission Presidents' email addresses for this very reason. If you are worried, send a quick email to ask about the situation and your son's well being. If it is urgent, call the Missionary Department and explain your concern. They will have the most recent updates on any worrisome situations.

All in all, the best piece of advice I could give you is this: stay focused on all the wonderful, positive parts of your child's mission. There are so many--too many to count! Thinking too much about negatives--especially things we cannot control--brings frustration and fear and sometimes keeps us from fully recognizing the incredible blessings that are pouring into our children's lives, as well as our own, as they serve the Lord. It is God's work they are doing and I have seen for myself the miraculous ways He protects His missionaries. That in itself, can bring great peace to a mother's heart.