I should have said no to that calling. That much is obvious in retrospect, but at the time, saying no didn’t seem like an option.
How could it have? Every year since birth, I’ve heard someone from the pulpit give THAT talk. You know the one—where the guilt is laid thick if you happen to not totally, completely and superlatively (what’s the word now? Let’s say it all together) MAGNIFY your calling. Actually turning down an opportunity to serve the Lord is presented as abhorrent an act as robbing an orphan.
So when the Second Counselor extended to me the calling of CTR6 teacher, I accepted it, with serious reservations. I even jokingly questioned from which source the Bishop had received his inspiration. It was the third time in seven years that I would serve in Junior Primary, during which time I had also worked as a preschool teacher. I had three kids of my own at home to boot, including a special needs child and an active toddler. I was burned out.
I was also hiding a shameful little secret—well, shameful for a Striving-to-Be-Valiant Sister in Zion, anyway. I was coming to understand that I didn’t really like other people’s children. It was a slow and hard realization, but there it was.
But, I figured, the Lord wanted me in this calling at this time. There was something I could learn, or someone I could help by fulfilling it to the best of my ability. And fulfill it I did. I worked diligently on my lessons, created fun activities that invited the Spirit, and made cookies and a little card for each child’s birthday. I prayed that I would learn to love the kids and to enjoy teaching them. I even fasted toward that end a couple of times.
I know it sounds ridiculous. They were just kids! For a mere two hours on Sunday! They were all cute and sweet, with the average amount of wiggles and giggles. Yes, one of them had Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) just like my son. But I should know how to handle that, right? Right??? (Hint: although it would seem like a natural fit, do not call parents who are dealing with a special needs child to be in charge of another child with those same needs. We are exhausted, and need the break.) In truth, my class overwhelmed me, and in spite of the prayers, every new Sunday would fill me with increasing dread.
And then one Sunday, it happened. I was in the library, requesting copies for my lesson. The white-haired librarian asked me how many I wanted, and I froze up. I could not answer. The librarian appeared a little alarmed. I began to hyperventilate, and then my husband walked in. He put an arm around my shoulder, and I began to sob.
It was before the second bell, so the library was full, as were the halls. People were staring. I was beyond mortified. Here I was, trying so hard to make this calling work, yet having a mental breakdown in front of my fellow ward members. To appear as anything less than competent, cheerful, and willing to serve is not the Mormon way.
The Primary President approached me. We had a long talk and she asked if I would like to be released from my calling. I said yes, but not without a lot of guilt. I could not figure out why the Lord would call me to something that would end in what felt like abject failure and humiliation.
I began to ponder if the calling had been inspired at all. Something the Primary President said didn’t sit well with me: I had been called because I had known experience with kids and with PDD. It had been an intellectual decision, not a spiritual one. The Lord had had nothing to do with it. And with that realization, came another one: I could have said no.
Saying “no” in the Mormon culture is extremely difficult. Lessons, talks, special firesides all point to the wonderful blessings we’ll receive if we do ALL that the Lord requires of us. Hell, the whole temple experience is a lesson in never saying no. We covenant with God (with angels as witnesses!) to give all of ourselves, even our very lives, to the building up of the Kingdom. Now that I’m out of that culture, it seems so bizarre—so obviously cult-like and disturbing. But when you’re in it, the pressure is very real. It’s no wonder that “no” is a word that’s rarely heard.
But the reality is sometimes “no” is the best answer. We are never, ever taught that. It’s particularly hard for Mormon women, who have been conditioned to believe their work is “the errand of angels.” I’ve pinpointed three responses we Sisters make when the answer should be “no.”
1) We say “yes.” Then we take on the calling, stress out, fast and pray for strength, but end up exhausted and even sick. (See above story…)
2) We say “yes.” Then we grumble and complain at the audacity of so-and-so to even ask that of us—because, you know, once asked we can’t possibly refuse. That would be un-Christ like.
3) We actually say “no.” Wait, that’s not true. We say, “I’m so, so sorry, but I just can’t.” Then we launch into a fifteen minute explanation of how we’ll be in flight to Timbuktu at the time to help our mother deliver her 14th baby, or at the hospital donating our kidneys; but if no one else can step in, then yes, please call us and we’ll email the exquisitely cute RS birthday invitations from the airport, or create the origami representation of each temple from our hospital bed.
There are many problems with this inability to draw proper boundaries and learn to take care of ourselves. One problem is undue judgment of those who actually *gasp* say no. Another problem is undue judgment of those who say yes, but really and truly should have said no. I’ve been privy to the conversations: the criticisms that are heaped on women who appear to be performing less than their best can be frightful and cutting. I think this was another reason for my panic attack in the library, AND my subsequent shame.
Another problem, and this is widespread, is that if we are taught to never say no and to constantly give, give, give of ourselves, this bleeds over into other aspects of our lives.
On my mission, I had a district leader who was wild and rebellious. But he was charming and funny, too. I wanted him to approve of me, regardless of how much he flouted the rules and confused me by his utter lack of conviction. We became friends, and I never reprimanded or guilt-tripped him, something he came to confuse with acceptance of his behavior.
One day, he approached me about going to the beach with him—a topless beach. He would arrange a split for me so that I’d be companions for the day with a known rebellious sister missionary. I’m not sure this is what the Church has in mind when it asks us to follow our leaders.
I look back on the occasion and shake my head at my former prudish self, but at the time I was horrified. But I didn’t say no. I rarely said no. That was not my M.O. I said yes, even when I was deeply uncomfortable with the proposition, and then internally panicked.
As it so happened, the mission president found out about the plan and put the kibosh on it. I considered it a blessing from God, but what it represented was a lost opportunity for me to learn to stand my ground.
I still have difficulty with that, but I’m learning. I’m learning to respect other people’s boundaries as well, another thing rarely taught in our weekly lessons. And by rarely I mean never, which brings up an interesting observation: something that only struck me as obvious recently. When you get a group of ex-Mormons together, with many experimenting with newfound freedoms and most raised neither to say no nor to take no for an answer, it becomes a tinderbox waiting to catch fire. So fellow ex-Mormons, go easy on each other. Respect delineated boundaries! And remember: It’s okay to say no!