Me in May 1998, on the Metro in Montreal. You can’t see my missionary tag because of the dark sweater, but I’m wearing it, I promise.
I wasn’t going to write about the landmark announcement made Saturday from my church’s General Conference that lowered the minimum age requirements for missionary service. But even ESPN picked up the story so if they can write about it, then maybe I should too.
Prior to Saturday, girls had to wait until 21 to leave for missions. Boys were getting home at 21. And many girls I knew at BYU had a one-track marriage mind from 18-20.5. If there were no dating prospects at 20.5 years old, some girls toyed with the idea of a mission–not always because of a desire to serve and work, but because at 20.5 years old, at least being on a mission was nobler than being single. Consequently, a stigma evolved about girls who served missions: they were not good enough to be married. If they were marriage-able, someone would have snatched them up prior to the application process.
I always thought that women who served missions were extra-cool. They bucked the cultural expectation of child-bridehood, worked alongside 19 year-old boys who often lacked maturity, and came home so far out of many mens’ leagues. (Though for me and some of my friends, this wasn’t always a good thing.)
I’ve spent all weekend wondering how my life would be different, if at my niece’s age (she’s 10) the culture had shifted. I could go on a mission at 19 if I wanted. If I’d grown up with that option, my life would quite possibly be entirely different. I always knew I’d go on a mission, so after graduating high school, I’d likely still have gone to BYU. But instead of playing boy-crazy date machine, maybe I’d have found an equalizing camaraderie with the boys who were also planning to leave at 19.
Two weeks before I turned 19, this happened. If my mind had been mission-focused rather than marriage-focused, perhaps I wouldn’t have responded the way I did, sparking a year of turmoil. If I had been raised with the “leave-at-19” mentality, maybe, as Joanna Brooks wrote so perfectly on her blog today, I would not have spent the better part of 20 years feeling this:
“[T]his game of waiting be found by someone who might love you and thinking that means purpose. It drives some of us crazy.”
(Take some time and read that Joanna Brooks post, because it is perfect. Absolutely perfect.)
But that wasn’t to be. So I left for the Missionary Training Center at 23.5 years old, because I spent 2 years wishing and hoping and thinking and praying, planning and dreaming that a boy I really really loved would come home from his mission ready to love me back. And up until the day I got on the plane, I wanted him to beg me not to go.
He didn’t, so I went to Montreal for 18 months and there I loved and served and grew and studied, and even though it was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life (except for maybe comps and a thesis…different kind of hard), I don’t regret it for a second. I was lucky–most of the 19 year-old boys on my mission didn’t judge me for serving–at least to my face. With only one exception, I don’t recall being stifled or viewed as “less than” because I was serving a mission.
But then I came home, and three weeks later turned 25. The boys who were my age had been married for 3 or 4 years. The boys who were just getting home from their missions wanted an 18 or 19 year old girl, not a near-senior-citizen 25 year-old. And now, 15 years later, I’m often told that not only my missionary service is intimidating to boys (haven’t met many men, to be honest), the fact that I didn’t wait around and earned not one, but two degrees has essentially sealed my fate for a spouse-less existence.
This change in age requirements is, I hope, a much-needed equalizer. Men and women of faith will eventually work side by side, no judgment about who “couldn’t” get married, and when they all return home, my dream and hope and wish is that rigid patriarchal values of the past will give way to a more equalized marriage and dating culture.
Baby steps, I know. But we just took a huge step on Saturday, so really, anything is possible.