Beliefs Columns Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

When your child resigns from Mormonism

Mette Harrison

A guest post by Mette Harrison

When my daughter stopped going to the LDS Church, she was 13. It was a long, complicated battle. She’d had a blow-up with one of the other girls her age and said she wanted to go to a different ward with one of her friends. I agreed to this for some months, until I happened to go home in the middle of church one Sunday to get something I’d forgotten, and I discovered her watching television in the front room.

I was angry. I felt like she had lied to me. I tried to think of some punishment to fit the crime, but when I sat down with her and talked about it, she made it clear that she’d only lied because she couldn’t tell me the truth. She didn’t believe in the church anymore. She’d tried to go to her friend’s church for a few weeks, but she just couldn’t. She didn’t believe in God. She was an atheist.

You may think, like I did at the time, that thirteen is too young for anyone to decide anything so life-changing. You may think it was a “phase” she was going through. You may wonder how her choice would ripple through the rest of the family. If she was allowed to stay home from church, what about the younger children? Wouldn’t they all want to stay home, too?

But in the end, that’s not what happened. At least, it wasn’t so simple. I won’t say that my other children have all ended up with firm testimonies of the gospel. They haven’t. But we’ve mostly adjusted.

This daughter was married at the end of last year in a beautiful non-temple ceremony. She wore a strapless princess gown that made her grandfather slightly uncomfortable. She and her fiancé wrote their own vows and it was the first time I’d felt that motherly sense of joy. I’d created this human.

The wedding!

 

Somehow, her gorgeous face and this wedding came from me. I don’t know how because we’re very different (even though I know people tell me all the time that we’re exactly the same). I didn’t feel an ounce of sadness that she’d chosen a wedding outside of the temple. It was perfect, just as it was. And I loved her vows, in which she stated that she didn’t believe in anything like destiny in bringing lovers together, because you had to seek out love and make yourself right for it, and you had to choose the other person. She chose her fiancé and he chose her.

So why was it that when my daughter told me she and her fiancé had chosen to have their names removed from the records of the church that it hurt me? A little at first, and then more and more as I examined what this meant between us. I’ve known for ten years that she was an atheist. I’ve (mostly) given up the idea that she might someday change her mind and come back to the church. I’ve found my peace with her having a different way of seeing the world, knowing that she would make different choices than I’ve made. Some of her choices are better than my choices, and some of her choices (like changing her name to her husband’s) were similar in ways that surprised me. But this choice to formally resign from the Mormon church did not make me feel any measure of happiness or peace.

I’ve spent some time since then trying to figure out what this hurt was that I felt and thought it might be useful to share with a wider audience. The statistics are clear. Many Millennials are leaving Mormonism. Perhaps not at the same numbers as Millennials who grew up in other religious groups, but about half of them will no longer be active in the church as adults. I won’t say there’s nothing we can do to stop this, but I do wonder if the more we try to stop it, the more we just end up ruining our relationships with our children, and I definitely don’t want to do that. So we mourn together and think about what it means.

The biggest part of the hurt I felt was rejection. Not of the church, if that makes any sense, because I knew she’d already rejected the Book of Mormon and the prophets and so on. But of my tribe. I felt that when she resigned she was rejecting my heritage, my background, all the lessons I’d learned as a child. And even if she’d rejected them internally before, this external act was a firm and final pushback.

I also felt a severing. Maybe not the kind of severing we in Mormonism are taught to fear—being denied an ever-after ending—but a severing nonetheless. She was cutting herself off from her past, not just mine. She was saying, “you were wrong to raise me in this church that hurt me.” And yes, that hurt, maybe more than other times when she said I had made a mistake.

It might not have helped that this all happened at the same time that she was getting married, which was another severing, and that she and her fiancé chose to do this at the same time, together, as an act of building their relationship. One thing that has drawn them together is the sense that they feel like “black sheep” of their families, I think. They’re the non-Mormons in families of Mormons, however broadly I am now drawing out that definition in my own faith journey.

But like her marriage, this is her life, not mine anymore. Parenting has always been a lesson for me in how little power I have over these other lives that touch mine. From the moment they emerge from the womb, you cannot tell them when to eat, when to sleep, or when to poop (no matter how much Dr. Spock made me think I could do that with my first child). You can’t make them hold your hand crossing the street. You can’t make them do their homework. You can’t make them like the ice cream or candy you like.

Instead, your children just keep telling you more and more things you can’t tell them to do. They are who they are and they let you know in small and big ways every moment that you have not created a new version of yourself. They don’t exist in order for you to redo your own life and get things right.

Yes, it is a rejection. But it is also a new creation. Her life. Her world. Her terms. And my job is to embrace all of those parts of her, even this one that is difficult.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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