For nearly 50 years, I loved the LDS Church. I loved and love the friends I have gained and am gaining within the church. I found peace in certain doctrines I was sure could be found nowhere else, and which deeply resonated within me. Working with teenagers and children was sometimes drudgery, and sometimes exhilarating. As a single Mother for a few years, I always, always took my children to church, and spoke with them daily of God’s love and the perfection of what I had learned to be his plan for us as his children.
But what I did not share freely were the questions and concerns, the frustration that built within me over conflicts and decades of changes within the church. I knew there were only two reasons for a member of the church (especially one who found happiness within it) to have doubts: that person (me, in this case) was either a) unworthy (aka” sinning”, like that was such an unusual happening), or b) not studying the scriptures enough. Or not praying… paying… attending church… serving… holding family home evening… enough. Heck, this begins to sound like a works-based religion… which is exactly what was presented to me by the church itself, during my growing-up years.
I did not grow up hearing about or understanding the doctrine of atonement. Instead, I felt (because I’d been told) that I might be a board with nails in it. The nails (sins) might be removed, but the holes would still be there (probably one for each time I’d been “bad” after age 8). Or, more likely, because I’d allowed a boy to kiss me at age 13, I was a white rose that had been touched and was now wilted and brown, never to be pure again. Do you hear anything about healing, about redemption, in those little object lessons/metaphors? Neither did I.
Things change… big things… within the LDS Church. The older people (like me) can often be counted on to forget; and the younger people and new converts may never even become aware of the changes. But they are real, and they have been serious. It eventually became impossible for me to trust that the church is anything more than a corporation run by (mostly loving and well-intentioned) old men.
In addition, despite many attempts to receive a clear and undeniable answer (if not the actual “knowledge” claimed by so many), I never did. But that was just the unworthiness thing again….
I met my amazing, believing husband at church in 1998. He would be beside me throughout this journey and he would see me as I studied, prayed, and sometimes wanted to scream throughout the years. He has listened with all his might and tried to assist me in seeing through his eyes. He knows how difficult this has been, and you can find his story under “Stayers” and the name “Daddio.”
If indeed I have had issues with the church throughout my adult life, why did I stay? Here is why:
First: My very young parents joined the church in 1959, elated to have discovered what they believed to be the greatest gift possible: the Truth. God still spoke to mankind through a living prophet, his mouthpiece. We could count on being guided, spiritually, and upon knowing God’s will! This was so precious to them, and it made me really happy when they quit smoking.
Second: I did NOT, until now, have the courage which my children would display at much younger ages. I would not outwardly question the religion which my parents had taught me. Also, I loved God and could not imagine living without some sort of explanation for why we are on the planet.
When I became a mother, I determined that I would give to my children the same gift my parents had given me. They would be smarter and better than I and thus able to receive the revelation I had not. They would be capable of treasuring the gift more than I had (though not for lack of trying).
It didn’t work.
Two months after returning from a mission honorably served, Jefferson – my youngest birth child – announced that he was leaving the church. I was devastated, and yet… honestly… also amazed. My child… MY child… whom I knew to be a committed seeker of truth and to have worked diligently to gain a testimony — had found the courage to be honest about his failure to receive the sure answer I’d been seeking for decades.
Leaving cost Jefferson a lot, more than most will ever know. Over the year which followed his announcement, unexpected visits on my part often caught him with the remnants of tears on his face. He suffered, but he was determined to follow the only path that felt honest to him.
Jefferson’s courage gave me the strength to finally face my own testimony-blocking demons. I bargained with myself : I didn’t have the right to change the game in my marriage to a wonderful, believing man who, by the way, I met in church 14 years ago. So I’d stay. I would just accept the fact that I was one to whom it was not given to know, but rather to believe on the words of those who know. But finally, I saw that these solutions would require me to sacrifice integrity, and ultimately myself. There was no bargain that would make untruth, true.
My second-eldest child, Marinne, had rejected religion by 1994, at age 16. She was weary, and angry, at the constant judgment levied against “outsiders” by a few of our relatives, and by seminary and Sunday School teachers who, I felt, were too insensitive to be entrusted with young, forming minds in the first place. On top of that, she fell in love with a boy who smoked! She left the church, and then left our home. I was devastated, and I missed her very much. I understood her reasons, but I couldn’t tell her so. It was my job – I thought – to remain stalwart and stoic, to model the Believing Mormon Mother so that my daughter would one day return to the fold… both folds. To do this was unnatural to me, but openness with her would have required me to look too closely at what was right before my face, and I was not yet ready for that.
Mikelle, my eldest, left the church gradually and without fanfare. She had not expressed any depth of belief since childhood. She proved to be a changeling, mirroring whatever beliefs were prevalent in whatever company she kept. I was certain that this quality, dangerous for a teenager, would be a blessing to her later on; that her faithful siblings would be able to influence her back into the church.
I began to panic when my third child, Emily, left the church four years after being married in the temple. Emily was a spiritually-minded girl, but as a teen she began, privately, to judge herself very harshly for her imperfections as measured against the standards of the church. I did not, and do not (in looking back) know why this would be. She was beautiful and intelligent, and did not deserve to be so miserable within.
I did not support Emily in her divorce, judging (too much judging!!!) that she had not tried hard enough to make her marriage work. I, who had been her closest spiritual confidante, abandoned her when she did not conform. Years later, as I tearfully told her of the pain I felt at losing all faith in the church, Emily would look at me with sad eyes and say, “Mom, I know!!! That is exactly what I was feeling when you left me all alone.”
My daughters and I are long-reconciled and very close. I cannot understand how I thought my Mormon Mama behavior then was serving any positive end.
Jefferson left the church right after his mission, as I’ve earlier described. I would be next, though mine was a fairly secret struggle. My husband and I have always openly shared our feelings about the church and its’ doctrines; but now, in addition, we each worked to understand the other’s perspective. Though we learned so much, we each found it impossible to see through the other’s eyes. Which of us is right and which of us is wrong? Is that what matters, or is it the fact that we now love each other more than ever?
Perhaps the greatest pain I have felt in seeing my children leave the church came as Nathan, my child-soulmate and eldest birth son, began to face his own questions in 2010, as I was midway through the process of leaving. All of his siblings had already left. I couldn’t bear the thought of, in effect, abandoning the vision we’d shared, during younger years, of church activity together throughout our lives. As we danced together on the evening of his temple wedding in 2009, he leaned down to me and said, “Momma, I promise I will never give up until Jefferson and the others return to the church.” His sweetness and sincerity melted my heart, even as his words stabbed clear through it.
When, after many months, Nathan told me that he, too, was leaving, it brought me no happiness. What would he do without the framework of the gospel? It seemed so knitted into his very nature.
Truthfully, I am less than overjoyed about some of the decisions my children, religion-free, now make. It more than bothers me when they drink alcohol, or even swear, and it probably always will. But they are free agents, and I am thankful that they trust me – and you – enough to be open regarding their beliefs. I know my children. Their motives are good, and they are moral individuals who will leave the world a better place. They will find happiness… probably more quickly than has their stalwart, stoic, Formerly Believing Mormon Mother.
As for Daddio and I… what he knows, it seems that I cannot. I believe that 10 years of serious, constant effort on the heels of all the church activity and study that went before, is enough. The answer I sought is not coming… to me. But I am so happy now. In these last few, challenging years, my values – what matters most to me – have come into much greater harmony with my behavior. This is how I define integrity, and it brings me peace.
And that… is how I felt when I, as a Stayer, saw each of my children leave the church. And it is also how I became a Leaver.