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Disappointed Mormon Parents

August 3, 2009

One of the worst things in the world is when your parents are disappointed in you. And amazingly, most teenagers and children I’ve talked to agree. If parents are mad at you, that’s one thing. If they dislike something that you did, that’s another thing. If they dislike you, ouch, but even that’s surmountable. But the clincher is always disappointment. Because that doesn’t shake free unless you somehow manage to stop caring about what your parents think (and how to do this?)

One thing that gets me is how many parents — especially Mormon parents — often get “disappointed” over a child’s disaffection from the church. I guess I understand: what are you supposed to feel when your kid leaves the church? Especially one you felt was “true” or one you found to be an environment for finding improvement, answers, and peace. What are you to do when you thought you were raising your child up in the way s/he should go, so that s/he would not depart from it? And then s/he does?

I have a nasty gut reaction that I must suppress whenever I hear the familiar tale of a parent lamenting a child’s disaffection or even mere inactivity. I want to feel that it’s silly and imprudent to care about the relationship with the church. I must restrain myself from saying something insensitive: “If you were a good parent, then it shouldn’t matter if your child stays in the churcht; s/he should be a good person.”

This is my gut reaction because I liken it to my (rather tame) situation. I feel that there should be no disappointment, because I’m not doing a bunch of crazy stuff, so it irks me for people to think that just because I don’t believe, I am somehow astray or wayward. The idea of “wayward children” or “children going astray,” when it is perfectly obvious to me “waywardness” has nothing to do with presence in the pews or confessions of God, makes me wonder if people are focusing on the right things.

But I realize my insensitivity, because I know that there are many other situations may not be alike. It’s one thing for me to say to my parents, “Though I don’t believe, I am not breaking your code of morality!” but then I see other parents who do have to deal with children who leave and then do break the “code” (whatever it may be: by doing drugs, having premarital sex, etc.,)

…then I wonder how much compassion I should be having here. The Mormon code of morality still comes off as arbitrary and legalistic. So while I have sympathies for the parent of a child who becomes pregnant out of wedlock, I don’t feel the same for the parent of a child who begins drinking coffee. And I ask what becomes the meaningful distinction between “coffee” and “alcohol,” and to what extent should I or any nonbeliever entertain such schemes of morality that we may not feel are sound? It was interesting to see the various outlooks on something like marijuana in this FMH post about “rebel teens.”

I must admit, I don’t know a lot about Margaret’s case outside of a few comments, so out of respect, I don’t post at her site. (in any case, the BCC comment police have me on indefinite stun).

Yet I can’t help but feel that she has all these hopes on something unnecessary. Ok, ok, I understand that true believers really believe in salvation, families being together, and all that stuff. So, I guess that will be the divide. Sometimes, I wonder if there might be something to Jack’s 3 questions. Regardless, in the end it seems like parents should be proud of the accomplishments and successes of their children. Staying in the church simply does not feel like an accomplishment to me. The focus on it or the focus on belief appears to me to be an obfuscation that prevents one from seeing the children’s actual virtues.

I wish parents would say, “I yearn for you to thrive at whatever you choose” (thriving vs. languishing seems like a good distinction) rather than, “I yearn for you to be a temple-endowed missionary,” but at the same time I have to recognize that Margaret’s yearnings are her own. She does not choose them, only chooses what to do in response to them. Who am I to ask her to choose to deny them?

This culture of Mormonism is such a prickly thing. It shapes the way we are raised or the way we grow up, and our values, desires, and hopes. Even for those of us who do not believe, we can never truly escape because it has already made its indelible mark upon us (though we try to scrape it away sometimes), and we are always anchored by family and friends for whom the indelible mark also is made.

If we have disappointed Mormon parents, this will be our cross to bear.

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  1. My mom is disappointed in me, and I’m not even a full-blown atheist. But to her credit, she’s proud of me at the same time, and she doesn’t let her disappointment come between us. It’s a sore spot, but we work around it most of the time.

  2. This is somewhere where I am with my parents (which is why I say I am a “tame” situation)…disappointment alongside of pride. And even though we too work around it most of the time, that makes it even more visible, strangely enough. Knowing that there are just some issues that you can’t talk about…or that everyone is purposely avoiding talking about highlights those things.

    I have quite a few of those things in my life though, with other people than my parents, so it’s something I get used to.

  3. I think it’s hard for some Mormons to measure the worth and goodness of people outside of “Mormon terms.” Even I still find myself having backthoughts about good people who aren’t doing what they’re *supposed* to do. I know plenty of great people, parents and families, upstanding members of society, who are living common-law. It’s like I subconsciously think, “They’re good people, but…” And I hate that. When it’s a family member, we tend to really knit-pick and expect impeccable behaviour, otherwise we feel betrayed. I’ve experienced this in my own family after one of my brothers went inactive and started drinking and my other younger TBM brother really took it hard — and personally, even. He felt betrayed by his older brother. Luckily my parents have had a much more subdued and respectful approach.

    I now try to judge people (OK, we’re not supposed to judge, but you know what I mean) based on how compassionate, charitable, open-minded and respectful of others they are, instead of whether or not they live the law of chastity, drink a little too much, or cuss a lot.

  4. I for one, don’t care as much as I used to about disappointing my parents. There was a lot of angst surrounding the time that I came out to them as a non-believer, but that has subsided. Now, I feel much more emancipated from their expectations. They will continue to have their frustrated expectations, and I will continue to live my life. We’re on good terms nonetheless.

    Perhaps this is somewhat of a function of age?

  5. or a function of those evil fruits of apostasy :D. hearts of the children should turn to their fathers!

  6. This post really spoke to me. Although my mother still does not yet know of my disaffection, she has always made it very clear to me that whatever I do in life, if I am not a strong member of the church, it will hold little value (in her eyes).

    I just spoke with my brother about it today (he knows I don’t believe). He basically said he’s glad he’s not in my shoes. Especially since our mother always compares us to other people’s kids, and comments on how much better her kids are because they served on a mission and or married in the temple, etc. etc. It will be rude awakening for my mother. I don’t know if our fragile relationship can bear it.

  7. I kind of have the opposite problem: a father who’s disappointed that I chose liberal arts instead of the military or becoming a doctor or lawyer and couldn’t care less about my religious fidelity. To his credit he has gotten better and doesn’t bring it up nearly as often as he used to.

    As far as religious disaffiliation between parents and children goes, I have a lot of sympathy for all of the parties involved. It seems pretty natural to me for parents who believe their faith is the one true way to heaven to be disappointed if their children decide otherwise—and not just disappointment with the children. I imagine there’s a lot of disappointment with themselves and wondering if they could have done something different which would have helped the children remain faithful.

    Raising a child in two faiths with the hope that she’ll eventually choose one or the other, I’m doing my best to prepare for the possibility that she’ll tell me she wants to attend the LDS church exclusively. I don’t think there’s any help for the fact that I will be disappointed, but my goal is to not put pressure on her to wait longer or keep checking out my church just because I want her to become evangelical. I also want to do my best to not let my disappointment effect my relationship with her. I will totally support her in her LDS endeavors if it comes to that.

    And if she chooses neither religion and does something else entirely, it’s the same story. She’s my daughter; nothing she does ought to change my love for her.

    Hypatia, I am very sorry to hear about your mother’s attitude. I hope she’s able to gracefully accept you for who you are someday.

  8. re Hypatia:

    In many ways, that’s almost worse, because your mother doesn’t know (and if you tell her or if she finds out, you can already predict the response). So, it’s something that has to be bottled up (or you have to just accept the consequences whenever you decide to “come out”)

    re Jack:

    I actually know what you mean on the position of study: my parents are also very picky on “acceptable” majors…so their list includes engineering, military, medicine, law, the (natural) sciences, accounting and finance. They would not be amused if my brothers, sister, or I did a social science (even though my dad thinks sociology is good to know for general education, he would worry about the career prospects), liberal arts, marketing or management. Fortunately, even I’m worried about jobs, so I’m sticking with a safe major for now (accounting) and plan later in life to go back to school for a career-research-scholar-social-sciency endeavor.

  9. Thanks for the support peeps. And yes, bottling it up has been a trial. I have had some recent rather painful conversations that I will blog about soon.

    And, Jack, I hope my mother can accept me for who I am. It’s funny you bring up your father’s attitudes towards you and how it’s sort of the opposite. Why can’t parents just be happy for their kids with whatever endeavors they choose to pursue?

  10. Is disappointment really worse than dislike, or indifference?

    I don’t know, but it sure stings. One of the central chapters of Exmormon (this one), is my portrait of how it feels.

    From my own perspective, I feel like I’ve lived up to a lot of my parents’ expectations and hopes for what I’d do as an adult. The problem arises when choosing among different (contradictory) values they taught me.It’s a difficult situation for all involved: when people are so close to one another, it’s difficult to stretch without inadvertently bumping or stepping on someone, so to speak.

  11. FireTag permalink

    When you spend 25 years or so of your life protecting someone according to your belief of what that protection involves, and then that person chooses a course that you find dangerous, you are disappointed in yourself. You often project that on to your child.

    The eternal dilemma of human parenthood is to accept your own children as adults and your moral equals. Even when they prove themselves to be superior to you (which, of course, is what you always hoped for anyway.)

  12. peixeazul permalink


    You make an important point here. Loving parents are by nature protectors and good protection is normally achieved by setting certain limits.

    As a parent, if your offspring perform well within the limits that you create for them, then you see yourself as a success in what you attempted to achieve. You feel a sense of personal failure if your child chooses another way. Thus, most parents never give up hope that you will return to what they taught you.

    When a parent can look past their own plans and see the good achieved by the child, regardless of whether it fit, that is when they know they have truly cut the apron strings.

  13. Guest Writer 800+ permalink

    I kind of have the opposite problem. While I think my parents may be disappointed in me for leaving the church, I find myself more focused on the fact that I can’t shake the feeling of disappointment I have in them.

    My study of church history lead me to information that I found not only uncomfortable, but appalling. Joseph Smith is not a person that I would have trusted alone with my 14 year old daughter, let alone to be a founder of a religion that I should follow. That may seem offensive to some, but that is how I feel. And, feeling that way, it is hard for me to not be disappointed in my parents for still believing.

  14. I guess that’s interesting. I don’t really have “disappointment” to my parents for still believing…rather, I feel certain senses of bewilderment.

    For example, when my dad and I have talked, I’ve found that he has some rather idiosyncratic beliefs. I mean, it’s not quite the standard of “new order mormon” (in that it appears that new order mormons are on a sliding scale of believing less)…but rather, it’s just weird stuff. Science fiction. Mysticism. Things like that. And throughout it all, he remarks sometimes that he sometimes has to grit his teeth at what people say during church, and sometimes, when he misses church, he enjoys the time spent off.

    So, I’m bewildered at how he stays when even he admits problems. I argue something like, “Why not be out and accept a few things I see are good?” Whereas he takes the opposite: “Why not stay in and then just drop some of the things that are bad?”

  15. Guest Writer 800+ permalink

    That’s a good point. I have a similar bewilderment for my mom. I guess my disappointment is more for my dad, since he is well versed in church history. The disappointment carries over to my mom in some of the things she would say to justify certain actions of the early leaders.

    “So, I’m bewildered at how he stays when even he admits problems. I argue something like, “Why not be out and accept a few things I see are good?” Whereas he takes the opposite: “Why not stay in and then just drop some of the things that are bad?””

    Yes, I think this may be somehow related to my coin analogy from another of your posts. Some people are looking at it from the opposite direction and I do not fully understand that viewpoint.

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