Raise your hand if you’re a mother who is sending her child off to school, college, a career or some other unknown in the next few weeks. It’s that time of year when the school calendar reminds mommas that their kiddos are getting older and growing up faster than they would like.
Leslie Grass is no stranger to the mix of emotions that come from sending a child off to face the next great life challenge. Almost a year ago, Leslie said goodbye to her oldest son, Conner who was 18 at the time. She sent Conner off to serve a two-year stint as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The Grass family are Mormons and live in Salt Lake City, Utah where Leslie and her husband Mike grew up and have lived ever since.
Young men who are members of the Mormon faith are encouraged to serve a two-year mission where they spend their time sharing their faith and serving the community they are in. They can start their mission as early as 18 years of age.
As part of their commitment to their work, missionaries are not allowed many of the comforts other 18-year-olds have. Social media interaction is not allowed, movies and television are suspended, video game play is not allowed and communication with family is done on a limited basis — mostly through weekly emails.
“As a mom, I like all my little ducklings in my little bubble — within reach to pull them in when there is danger, be there to give them Tylenol at all hours of the night, and be nearby to throw them in their room when they make dumb choices,” Leslie says. “I was struggling with the letting go part. This is my oldest, my first born, my sweet baby boy.”
Wanting the best for her son, Leslie knew Conner’s mission would give him some much needed real-world skills and experience, but that didn’t lessen the emotions she knew she’d experience once Conner left home for two years.
“I certainly wanted Conner to be a valued member of society, to be able to take care of himself without me always at his beck and call,” explains Leslie. “I kept asking myself, is there any other way that he could get this same life-changing experience and not have it be for two long years? Anywhere I could send him where I could still be a successful helicopter parent and answer all his questions, text messages and pleas for help?”
There were other options, ones that would include Conner being available anytime via the internet or cellphone, neither of which is offered to a Mormon missionary while on his mission.
“We knew we wanted him to have an experience where he would have to rely on himself, rely on God, find his own faith in God and in himself,” says Leslie about how her and he husband felt. “We wanted him to learn that he can do hard things, and we knew it was the right thing to do. It ultimately was his decision, and he accepted the call to serve in the Ohio, Cincinnati mission.”
Once Conner made his choice, preparations began for him to spend ten, 14-hour days learning how to share the gospel message at the Missionary Training Center in Utah. Leslie soon realized there were several things Conner would need to learn that only could be taught at home.
“I’m one of those moms that believes it’s just easier most of the time to do things myself rather than hear the complaining and whining of getting my kids involved,” she explains. “After Conner received his mission call, I quickly learned what a mistake this type of parenting had been. My kid was going out into the world with no clue how to do his own laundry or make his own food. I had just recently taught him how to put gas in his car and got him his first debit card. It was time to get to work.”
Lesley gave crash courses on laundry, grilled cheese sandwich making, bathroom cleaning, grocery shopping and budgeting.
“Of course he was not open to all this domestic education,” Leslie recalls. “This 18-year-old boy would have rather spent time with his girlfriend or getting maximum use of his Xbox Live account. He was leaving for two long years! Lesson learned for this mom: choosing to take care of all the household needs is not being the best mom ever. Maybe it was part of being a good mom, but it was not teaching my family the skills they needed once they leave my nest.”
Part of transitioning from life as a boyfriend/video-game junkie to Mormon missionary meantgetting a haircut, abiding by a curfew and schedule, and taking on the name “Elder,” as in Elder Grass.
“It was quite a change for him to go from staying out until all hours of the night, sleeping until noon, spending his days going from one electronic device to the next,” Leslie says.
As time moved rapidly toward his departure date, Leslie started feeling worried about what Conner might experience. The uncertainty weighed heavily on her mother’s heart.
“What was he getting himself into? Leaving his family, friends, a car, free time, and his iPhone for two years was a lot of stress. There was a lot of questioning and second guessing his decision,” Leslie remembers. “We told him from the beginning that we would support whatever decision he made, to go or not to go. He knew it would be a good thing for him. We knew it would be a great thing for him. We all knew it would be one of the hardest things he ever did, and we knew that progress could not happen in his comfort zone. He needed to step outside himself to grow.”
So Conner went. “We all dreaded that moment of letting go. It was met with many tears. Not only from an emotionally drained mom, but a loving dad who was losing his playmate for two years and Conner’s siblings who think their older brother is pretty cool,” says Leslie.
Just as moms often do, Leslie had encouraging words for her son in that moment.
“I hugged my boy and told him ‘You got this.’”
Conner was taken to Ohio to start his mission. Leslie and her family waited with “baited breath” for the first email saying he was still alive, eating and thriving.
“He was alive, not enjoying it, but he was still there. Eventually the letters became more positive,” says Leslie.
One of the general authorities of our church once commented about missionaries. He said, “You take a common, teenage young man; you call him on a mission; you give him another teenager as a companion; you send him out someplace away from home with $100 a month provided by himself. You give him a simple list of instructions: no dating, rigid mission rules — spend all your time preaching and prophesying, and so on. And somehow it works. These missionaries are obedient and are a mouthpiece for God.”
Elder Grass has been on his mission approximately 11 months, and Leslie says the time has made missing him a bit easier. For the missionaries, Mondays are spent preparing for the week and it is also the time they are allowed to send and receive emails.
“Getting Conner’s letters, positive or those where he is struggling, is always a highlight of my week. We are able to be online at the same time and chat back and forth over email for about an hour. It’s awesome,” says Leslie. “There are many times that something happens and I just want to send him a text with a little picture, but that is not allowed.”
Missionaries are not allowed to have contact with family other than email or mailing letters, except for Mother’s Day and Christmas. On these holidays, moms and families around the world can Skype with their missionary for typically one hour.
“Our first Skype was Christmas, four months after Conner left,” says Leslie. “We loved it, but it seemed to start the wave of missing him all over again. I wouldn’t trade it for anything but it did set us both back a week or so. Mother’s Day was much better. We felt like he was right there in the room with us and we didn’t miss a beat.”
Leslie finds support and comfort from other friends who are in similar situations. A Facebook group exists for mothers of missionaries, which Leslie says has been a help to her.
However, her biggest source of help and strength has been her faith.
“...Lots of lots of faith,” she says. “If I didn’t believe 100 percent in what my son was doing, there is no way I would have let him go, but I do believe. I have faith in the process and in the purpose of serving a mission. I have faith that spending two years forgetting about yourself, focusing on others and seeing the bigger picture gives perspective. I’ve learned to hand over my helicopter parenting skills to a loving Heavenly Father who wants the best for my son and has more control and insight than I will ever have. I’ve seen the divine interventions that haven’t just happened. I know there is a higher power watching over him and his loving family back home.”
Even though they are separated by hundreds of miles, Leslie has witnessed some surprising changes in her son.
“When Iget those letters from my child who I miss dearly and he tells me he’s gained ‘so much confidence, has no problem approaching total strangers and initiating a conversation about God and a higher being and a plan of happiness’ … that is the reward,” she says. “This is a kid that was all about him just months ago and now he is greeting as many people as he can, teaching Bible study classes, talking intelligently about doctrine and making people think about religion, God, a bigger purpose, and a greater plan. He is waking up at 6:30a.m. and going to bed at 10:30 p.m., spending all day studying, teaching, walking, having doors slammed in his face, and learning how to live with companions who meet as strangers and end up being lifelong friends.”
“He’s making a difference. He’s changing lives, giving up two years of his life with his family so people can have their families for eternity. And he’s thriving … and doing it without his mom cooking his top ramen or doing his laundry or telling him to wash his face. He’s figured it out. And that’s what makes it worth it to this very proud mom.”
Elder Grass will finish his mission in approximately 13 months. Leslie says she is still counting every month that her son has been gone and every month that remains until he returns home. But she also has some words of advice for those of us who might encounter a Mormon missionary.
“If you see one of these cute boys walking or riding around town in their white shirts and dark pants, their name badge proudly displaying their name as ‘Elder,’ and sweating in the hot summer heat, give them a little wave. Remember, there’s a mom back home praying for kind people to show those boys some sweet, momma-type love. I'm so proud of Conner, and I now know he can do hard things. I’m learning that I can do hard things, too.”
Learn more about the Mormon mission and the church’s faith at www.lds.org.