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.