I have been a missionary mama for exactly 100 days. It has been the hardest 100 days of my entire life in many ways; I would be lying to you if I said it’s been easy. There have been moments that I have found gratitude for, but for the most part, it’s been a lot of hard.
That’s the thing that no one talks about – the hard. It seems as though we missionary mamas aren’t allowed to complain about it because our children are off doing honorable work, and are growing in really important ways. Ways we want them to grow in.
It’s sort of like having your cake, eating it, too, and then complaining about the heartburn it gives you.
But this heart burn is as real, poignant, and powerful as you imagine it to be. I’m going to share some things that I wish I would have known going into this whole process – things that every missionary mama seems to know, but seldom talks about.
Number one: Departure Day is excruciating.
If you think you know what it feels like to say goodbye to your child for two years, you don’t. It’s life-shatteringly awful. And not just for you, but for them, and every other member of your family. [I wrote about that experience for our family here.] You’re not only saying goodbye to the daily presence of this child in your life, but you are saying goodbye to your existing family dynamic. Forever. This departure signals the end of an era that has taken at least 18 years to create and perfect. You will leave that airport so empty that you will wonder if you even have it in you to walk to the car.
And when friends and family text or call throughout the day (and believe me, they will; your phone will be lit up on departure day like no other), you will hate having to return each text and call because it will cause you to relive the goodbye moment over and over again. You’ll have to recount for everyone in your life what it was like to let him go when you’ve barely processed it yourself. Your broken heart will be shattered again and again with each retelling.
Number two: There’s a grief that can’t be spoken
In the days and weeks following departure day, you will feel as though you are in a fog. Everyday tasks will be difficult and overwhelming. You will wonder how the rest of the world has the audacity to carry on with existing while your life has been damaged in a way that feels irreparable. You will want to talk of nothing but your missionary, but will see weariness on the faces of those in your life who don’t get it. You will be teary and cry all the time. You will wonder if there is something wrong with you, if you might need medication, and if you’ll ever be the person you were before they left.
You will absolutely live for P-Day, and emails, and photos of their face. This will be the only bright light of hope in your weeks for a while. Just know that this is normal, and that it does get easier. The grief will manage to surprise you now and again, popping up to remind you of its presence, even though forgetting is an impossibility.
Number three: Others will envy your trial
You will bump into missionary mamas whose children have come home early (whether due to illness or sin or other reasons) and they will try to ease your pain with the very best of intentions. At least your child is still on a mission, they will tell you.
While you know they would give anything to be missing their child as you are, it does not (nor should it) diminish your pain and heartache. You are entitled to grieve. You miss your child. You mourn the change in your family dynamic. You should not have to minimize your sorrows because someone else wishes for that sorrow instead of their own. This is your life, your feelings, and you are entitled to them. A mother whose child has died could easily say to the well-meaning friend, At least your child is alive. One-upping each other in grief is harmful, cruel and unfair, but people will do it anyway.
Number four: Writing emails is just not going to cut it
Your missionary is going to get roughly one hour each week to communicate with you via email. It sounds like a lot of time, but it is not. It goes by in the blink of an eye and will leave you wanting more. My son hand-writes his main blog letter when he has free time at night. He then snaps a picture of it with his camera and emails it to me on P-Day. I transcribe it and share with family and friends. This has been incredibly helpful, as he is not spending time in that precious hour transcribing this group letter.
We then chat over Google Hangouts for the remainder of the hour. (Do you know about Google Hangouts? This is the best discovery my son made in the MTC. Your child’s LDS Mail is a gmail account. Within this is the Hangout feature which is essentially an IM conversation. We have added our immediate family to ours and the four of us IM in a group message with our missionary every week. It’s fantastic.) He pops in and out to answer emails from friends and family, while we sit waiting anxiously for our turn.
Hearing from your missionary will be the highlight of your week and you will do nothing on P-Days until you have heard from him. Since you do not have any idea what time this will be each week, you will often spend the day in your pajamas, afraid you’ll miss him if you jump in the shower. So instead, you’ll keep hitting refresh on your phone or computer for hours, pining longingly for a boy halfway around the world.
Number five: Learning a language sucks
While I never expected that learning a language would be easy, I assumed my child would take to it just as countless missionaries before him have. What no one tells you is just how incredibly hard this is going to be on your child. He has been thrown into a foreign country, does not speak the language, and is (likely) spending 24/7 with a companion who doesn’t speak any English.
My son has written letters home to my husband (trying vainly to spare my feelings) describing some of the struggles he’s had, and it has nearly torn my heart in two. He has fought homesickness, loneliness, and felt totally overwhelmed. He is all by himself, with no support system around him, and is left to just figure it out. No one prepared me adequately for this, as I think so many parents try to protect their kids’ vulnerabilities in these early days of struggle. When people ask how a missionary is doing, most parents reply with a lot of Great! Fantastic! And We’re so proud of him!
As I’ve shared my child’s struggles with close friends and family members, I have found that our experience is not unique. Every missionary has these feelings. Living alone in a foreign country is hard. Learning a language in this environment is painful. It is going to be tough; and that is normal. Knowing that what my child was going through was normal was helpful for me, and allowed me to trust that it would be okay.
You are not protecting your child by keeping these normal struggles hidden. You are preventing others from benefitting from your experience and wisdom. You are shielding others from comfort. Share a little of your missionary’s vulnerability with close friends. You might find that it comforts you, too.
Number six: The first Skype call is all kinds of awesome and awful
This is the biggest kept secret in the church. That first call home is not at all what you think it will be. We had been looking forward to it since the dreadful departure day. It was the one consolation prize in all this misery.
Just know that saying goodbye to them at the end of it will nearly kill you.
Your missionary has been homesick for you, and they will cry when they see your face. This will devastate you to see. Your child will get to spend an hour nestled in the familiar safety of your family banter, only to say goodbye and have to return once again to their lonely, foreign existence. Their tears will mirror your own and your heart will rage against the cruelty of this separation. In the hours after the call is over, you will feel as though you have just ripped the bandaid off a fresh wound, reopening it, and rendering it more painful.
Is it worth it to get to see them and talk and reconnect? Absolutely. But I was unprepared for how I’d feel for several hours after it was over. [You can read more about how this was for our family here.]
Number seven: Your child will be broken
In the past 100 days, my son has been in the presence of a companion for nearly all of his waking hours, but has never felt more alone in his entire life. He has gone to bed some nights feeling like a failure, not having understood the majority of what people have said around him, despite his best efforts. He has had to navigate the winding, country roads of a small town in Chile without the help of a smart phone, google maps, or even a vehicle. He has had to live with someone he can’t talk to, and fight fierce homesickness while missing holidays, his birthday, and countless family traditions. He has been asked to help breed horses and paint houses – neither of which he knows anything about. He has had to eat salsa made of lamb’s blood and been fed cow testicle.
At the same time, he has grown in ways I could never have imagined. He has taught lessons in a language he didn’t used to know. He has visited families in homes with lean-to walls and dirt floors. He has sat humbly in these homes – so unlike the embarrassingly comfortable one he grew up in – and been fed meals that resembled feasts. He has been served and been able to serve. He has learned to speak enough Spanish that he now feels confident and proud.
He has spent Christmas with very few gifts, and found gratitude for simple things like water and sunshine. He has navigated foreign airports, bus systems, and train stations – all on his own. He has learned to rely on the Savior like never before. He is thriving in the hardest of adversity, and I couldn’t be prouder.
In these 100 days, he has been broken down and is being rebuilt into the man I want him to become.
He really is doing Great! Fantastic! and We are so incredibly proud of him!
But it’s been the hardest 100 days of our lives.