Most LDS girls remember quite well the moment they heard about the Big Age Change. Some sat with their families in cozy Mormon living rooms. Others lounged in bed alone, appreciating a day of rest uncharacteristic of a college dorm room. There were probably a few hidden away, watching October 2012’s General Conference far from the prying eyes of disapproving family members. A select few, I know, saw a text from a better-at-watching-conference friend, and headed to the internet in disbelief of such a claim – that young LDS women no longer had to wait until the age of 21 to serve a mission; 19 would be fine and dandy.
I was on a school bus in Oregon when it happened. Being the heathen that I am, I had spent conference weekend at a very important marching band competition. It was on that fateful day that I got an excited text from my conference-watching friend as I rode home surrounded by my unaware nonmember peers, wondering what such an interesting turn of events meant to 17-year-old, LDS me.
Facebook quickly exploded with my Mormon lady-friends counting down the hours until they would serve. “Just two years, one month, and sixteen days until I will serve my mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints!” one read. “Six months, three days, and seventeen hours until I can submit my papers!” said another. They got tons of likes, and comments ranging from “you go girl!” to “If I could have gone on a mission before getting married at 21, I totally would have. Lucky!”
Meanwhile, my Facebook page remained untouched by such countdowns or words of praise.
The Mormon blogosphere had a lot to say about the Change. I remember reading several not-even-remotely-fringy posts regarding the announcement as obvious progression of women in the church. Suddenly, this policy-change, or as some saw it, doctrinal revelation, meant that the LDS patriarchy acknowledged EQUALITY between men and women, giving more women the chance to serve a mission with roughly the same amount of time to spare as their male counterparts.
I seriously questioned these people. Why does it have to mean so much, I wondered. Was this doctrine? Probably not. Was it a policy change that would effect and bless thousands of people? Certainly. Was it a policy change that effected me, at all? Probably not so much.
I never planned on a mission. Ever. The age change meant close to nothing to me. I thought for a little while that it would be fun to live somewhere different, but that is not what missions are for, friends.
Sure, I was happy for those girls who had been planning to serve their whole lives. Whether their mothers served and encouraged them to go as well, or they had their own independent personal revelation, I knew plenty of girls who knew they would put in their papers the moment they turned 21, and the shift to age 19 made a huge difference to them. I’m glad.
Other girls heard the news and impulsively decided, then and there, that they’d serve at nineteen, too. I wasn’t one of those girls, but that’s okay. Did they all end up going? Certainly not. But to those who did, I’m glad they had that opportunity open up to them.
But there were other consequences that were not so good.
Just to add a little a disclaimer, I attend BYU, and I’m aware that any small, probably-insignificant problem in the church is, like, 10,000X amplified in Utah. But I’m going to talk about it anyway, because I’ve seen too many young LDS women face unnecessary pressure from judgmental, misunderstanding people, and that’s not right.
Issue number one, freshman dorms are cesspools of peer pressure. I think. Full disclosure, I never lived in one, but I do know that entire floors of BYU on-campus housing are wiped out after Fall semester due to the two M’s: Missions and Marriage. THESE GIRLS ARE LIKE, MAYBE NINETEEN.
And all right, marriage is great. What seems crazy-young to me, or the outside world, could be exactly what’s right for someone else. I know plenty of girls who got married during freshman year to wonderful men, and everything so far has turned out great for them. They’re not all quite so lucky, but a stable, young marriage is far from impossible.
It’s the mission thing I’m more concerned about. A close friend of mine felt singled out at BYU-Idaho when two of her roommates immediately dropped out of school after getting engaged Freshman year, and the other three put in their mission papers as soon as they could. And this is a common experience. It’s always the same story: girl moves in, makes new college friends, all the college friends leave college, and girl feels alone and unable to justify her decisions.
I’m here to justify her decisions.
Women are given a Choice-with-a-big-C when it comes to serving a mission, and it’s for a lot of great reasons. While young men are generally expected to serve, we ladies should never feel expected to serve, unless that expectation comes from the Spirit influencing us to make that big Choice. Not our roommates. Not our relief society presidents. Not even our own families. We can listen, and appreciate what these people have to say, but the choice is ultimately ours. A mission is simply not part of every girl’s plan.
Choosing to forego a mission does NOT mean that your testimony is lacking, or that you don’t love Heavenly Father enough to devote 18 months of your life to him. It simply means that you have other aspirations while you’re still young. Not a problem, and not worthy of judgment, I assure you.
What, you may be wondering, are some good reasons to postpone and/or completely avoid a mission? Above all else, personal revelation. If you’ve been praying, and a mission doesn’t feel right, for whatever reason, do not assume it would be a good idea to submit your papers. I firmly believe that a girl should never, ever ignore a prompting of “no” in regards to serving a mission, because she realistically has no idea what awaits her in the future. Maybe she’s meant to finish her education before embarking, or perhaps an eligible young male awaits. Maybe she doesn’t feel mature enough, and maybe she just doesn’t want to. All those things are okay.
A mission is a huge responsibility. It is not selfish or unrighteous to choose other responsibilities, indefinitely or otherwise. Don’t let losers convince you that you’re worth less because you have chosen the road less traveled.
A few weeks ago, a high school girl I know posted a question to facebook: How would she decide to get married or serve a mission, if her whole life she’d been preparing herself to be a good wife?
One answer in particular irked me. An equally-young, smug know-it-all of a boy (can you tell he brought out my inner angry woman?) replied with, “If you have been preparing to be a wife, go on a mission because it won’t just make you a good wife. It will make you an amazing wife.” Wrong answer, dude. Such a wrong answer.
I’m here to tell my fellow Mormon teens and twenty-somethings that your ability to be an amazing wife, or even (gasp!) an amazing single woman does not depend on your mission status. Do missions help some women become amazing wives? Of course. Do college degrees, study-abroads, and work experiences also help women become amazing wives? Yes, without question! Don’t discount that, smug losers.
Maybe I just feel defensive because I blew whatever mission budget I may have had in my name on, well, studying abroad. The only part of a mission that felt right to me was the travel aspect, so I went with it. I paid the fees and packed my bags and fled the country for four months. I served in a ward there teaching young women, took hold of my independence, embraced cultural diversity, and learned a lot of important things about my field of study. Will I be any less of a wife in my future because of that? Heck no.
As I approach my 21st birthday, I’ve been wondering if things would have been different for me without the age change. I’m nowhere near married yet! Does that mean I need to think about serving? Would I have more seriously considered serving at this point in my life if I didn’t have the ability for another six months? I don’t know. For now, I feel pretty great about desperately clinging onto the side walls of BYU’s degree conveyor belt, trying to fit as many interesting classes in before they give me the boot, but, you know, we all choose our own battles.
I don’t mean to diminish the work of a sister missionary – they’re valuable resources in the church, and I have seen so many young women return from missions with new outlooks on life, confident and ready to take on the world in a way she couldn’t have even imagined before. Plenty of female RM’s finish school, and get married, and have jobs. That’s great, and I’m happy for them.
But the rest of us? Those who married young, still hold out hope to marry young (ha), or just didn’t feel like it was the right time for a mission? We’re pretty great, too.