For My Son on his 18th Birthday

The letter I won’t send…

Dear Son–
I woke you up for Church this morning differently than I normally do. It wasn’t, “Time to get up. Church starts in an hour.” It was, “If you’re going to church, you should get up. I hope you choose to go.”

As of this morning, you are eighteen. I’ve always told you that when you reached this age, the choice to attend or not to attend would be yours.

In our family, we’ve never shied away from the difficult issues of our religion and its past. But that sometimes complicated, convoluted past is not the essence of our faith. It’s a footnote at best. You hate the three-hour block, hate Sunday clothes, and you get totally bugged when my eyes tear as I talk about something dear to me in Sunday school. So I won’t be surprised if you take some time off. Your dad and I have not given you a testimony of the gospel, because it is not ours to give, only to offer. We can’t force you to love the core of the Mormon faith the way we love it. We can pass the sacrament tray to you, but partaking of bread and water has only the meaning you assign it in your own heart; the sacrament prayer means very little if you don’t reiterate your long-ago decision to take upon yourself the name of Christ as you listen to it. (And you were only eight when you made that decision, and didn’t really comprehend what your baptism would mean and require.)

I yearn for you to be a temple-endowed missionary, because I know what a good mission does. Granted, there are some lousy missionaries, but the good ones learn to love people they might have disregarded in another setting; to have eyes focused to situations which call them to compassion. Every missionary is a minister–even carrying a ministerial certificate. This is one of the great things in our religion–that you don’t need a degree to serve God as a designated representative. A woman who lectures about how to teach children charity said that a Mormon “mission trip” is quintessentially a long lesson on charity, and something she admires. I would love to have you become “Elder Young.” But that will be your choice, not mine. I don’t want you to go on a mission because you know I yearn for it. You should love the Lord if you are to become His servant. But love grows, so you can begin with something small and simply believe that service will magnify it.

As I walked to church alone this morning, I noticed our ward members headed the same direction as me. Such good will, so many good desires. And in every life and every family, challenges I can’t possibly calculate. But all of us are trying, summoned by our traditions and our faith to a church where we will sing first, “Because I have Been Given Much, I too Must Give.” We will follow that with “How Great the Wisdom and the Love…that sent the Savior from on High, to suffer, bleed and die” as the sacrament hymn, and then young men your age will bless the emblems.

It was testimony meeting today. This is what you missed:
Brother D–talked about repentance and how it felt to come back to Church after four years away. He said that he found himself filled with love rather than grumpiness, and kept asking himself why he had quit the Church. There had been an offense, and he had carried it–or it had carried him. He was ready to lay it at the altar of the Lord and let it go. He mentioned that the bishop had visited with him.

Sister T talked about a friend who had lost a four-year-old child this past week, and how her faith was bearing her up. The woman had gone to the temple to seek comfort, and she had found it.

A new ward member talked about how his testimony that God lives took on new dimensions in every stage of life–from his missionary farewell, to his homecoming, to his marriage, to the present moment.

Your dad bore his testimony too, about how much he loves the ward members, and that he was adjusting to his new calling as a bishop after 4 1/2 months. The ward members have no idea how much they are on his mind and in his heart. I get a glimpse.

I was glad you came to my Sunday school class. I gave you all the best stories I know about Nauvoo, but Nauvoo isn’t the core of our faith. There are some good stories there, but once again, they are footnotes.

The core of our religion was foreordained from before the foundations of the world, and happened on the Mount of Olives. The atonement is a miracle and a covenant which I don’t fully comprehend. Nonetheless, I seek to remember it at all times and in all places. I want to imagine myself there as my Savior approaches the olive press and prepares to fulfill his part of the Great Covenant.

Seconds before you were born, when I knew what the next, undrugged pains would entail, I told your dad, “I don’t want to do this.” He responded, “It’s too late.” And then you moved through me. I screamed, and you were born–a beautiful little boy, longer and leaner than your three siblings, hinting at the height you have now. You didn’t cry much, just looked around with a “What is all of this light?” expression on your little face. A few hours later, as your dad and I tried to sleep in another hospital room, I relived your delivery. I actually relived it. I felt you come through me, but there was no pain. My whole being was consumed with the words, “How beautiful! How beautiful!” That I had delivered YOU. That I had given you to the light. Giving birth is the most Christlike thing I have ever done. Giving birth to you in particular was an honor and a blessing.

I wanted to be a perfect mother, of course, and I did make you Halloween costumes and produce fun birthday parties–and don’t forget that I took you to an Eric Clapton concert. But the thing I most wanted to give, you must find on your own.

I did, however, give you hymns, and I believe they will guide you. They’re in your soul in ways you don’t realize. Of all the songs you’ve learned, you know the hymns the best. Sure, your dad and I embarrassed you terribly when we started singing “Come Thou Fount” in some lovely ruins of Antigua, Guatemala–and tourists and tour guides stopped to applaud. You, of course, left for awhile, not wanting to admit you belonged to the Singing Youngs.

Last week, at National Arches Monument, in a canyon called “The Windows,” I sat in a corner and started singing it again, quietly.

Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace
Streams of mercy never ceasing
Call for songs of loudest praise…

When I realized that there were only a couple of non-Youngs nearby, I got louder. This time, you didn’t resist. You didn’t sing, but at least you didn’t cover your ears and run away.

There we were, on Pioneer Day, your brother and sister, your parents, and you, traipsing through the iron-rich sandstone mountains, following subtle trails, sometimes together, sometimes apart. Sometimes you helped me up a ledge, and sometimes I helped you. And we both helped your dad. And suddenly, we were all singing in lovely harmony, from wherever we were:

Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.

If you leave this religion for awhile, I think the hymns (and that one in particular, though it is not specifically Mormon) will remind you of something sweet in your own religious history. Hearing our music, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, will bring back memories of sitting with me on a hard bench listening to someone say something about Jesus. You won’t remember the talk, but you will probably remember that I rubbed your back as we listened.

You’ll remember little acts of service you did–like taking the sacrament to shut-ins or hometeaching with your dad, visiting people in grief or meeting struggles you probably didn’t imagine at the time. (You will never know the kinds of burdens your dad carried as a bishop unless you become a bishop yourself.)

You’ll remember that on Saturday mornings, I went to the temple to help with the Spanish session, and that your dad went later in the day to do Initiatory. I long to have you understand just what we were doing there, and why we love the temple.

You will remember us in Guatemala, teaching Cakchiquel children or singing (to your utter embarrassment) in Antigua.

You will remember singing “I Am A Child of God” when we performed a play about Jane Manning James. All of us cast members–black and white–brought our children onstage for that.

You will remember our various paths and trails–those we literally followed, and those metaphorical journeys we took, making our way from tragedy to hope, and from anger to forgiveness. I believe each journey—even those still underway—ends in redemption. I believe each ends with a realization that all of it–even the most anguished moment–was unspeakably beautiful.

The hymns speak of such redemption, of times when we’ll greet those we’ve lost and together feel the joy and miracle of our deliverance. I find great comfort knowing I have given you hymns, and one in particular, which you will always remember, which will remind you of who we are as a family and how we fit into each other, and even into our faith—regardless of where we might be at the moment.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be.
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

Someday, I’ll print this for you. I think it will be a happy day.


  1. Christian Harrison says:


  2. Amen, indeed.

  3. You are a wonderful mother.

  4. Left Field says:

    Driving through Alabama yesterday, I heard a beautiful rendition of that hymn on A Prairie Home Companion. By chance this afternoon, I turned on my radio at home just in time to hear the hymn again on a rebroadcast. I enjoyed experiencing it now again a third time.

  5. Left Field–that’s called SYNCHRONICITY.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    A gorgeous letter.

    (I’m a little bit curious about why you’re not actually giving it to him. It seems like a wonderful letter to give to one’s son.)

  7. Kevin–it’s not time yet. I’ll just wait until I feel like it’s time.

  8. beautiful, Margaret.

  9. Thomas Parkin says:

    I have a similar letter to send to my 21 year old son, who is disaffected from the church. Biggest difference is that he has pretty much cut all ties to me. For him, I’m just the bastard who left his mother and left him alone to deal with who knows what. And then, when we were together, I felt such a strong need to get whatever parenting in that I could that I lectured and cajoled constantly – even though I was myself very far from the church. So, he thinks I’m a hypocrite, too. And all his feelings and views have a solid basis in the facts.

    But to me, he’s just that sweet little baby, so good natured, and that sweet little boy. My little Israelite in whom there was no guile. I remember the pain on his face before he was even in kindergarten.

    Sometimes it seems like there is so much pain in the world I wonder how anyone bears it. ~

  10. It’s not only mothers who bear the pain of having children.

  11. This touches me deeply today, because as of yesterday, I’m exactly four years away from a very similar letter to my son. You said so eloquently what so many parents feel–particularly how the one thing we want to give our children the most is the one thing they must find on their own.

  12. Margaret–

    One of the best post ever.

    #9 Thomas–

    Generally, when our sons get into their 20’s they begin to be less critical of their dads than when they were teens. I hope you can find a way to reignite the bond.

  13. children grow so very fast…beautiful letter.

    May he someday receive it.

  14. Your letter is very touching, thank you.

  15. AspieMom says:


  16. I love you Margaret. I really, really do.

  17. I am grateful that such a wonderful woman is a member of my faith and a parent to the next generation.

  18. Margaret, this is beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  19. Steve Evans says:

    I love you very much, Margaret. Thank you.

  20. Margaret, you are a very special woman and I am very grateful that you are willing to share so much of yourself with us.

    I couldn’t find the version Left Filed (#4) mentions on the npr website, but youtube has some nice recordings:

    * Tabbernacle choir
    * BYU choirs
    * Sufjan Stevens

    (My biggest regret in not going to BYU: BYU men’s choir.)

  21. This made me cry. I, too, took a break from church at about his age, and it was the music, and the testimony I found therein, that brought me back a few years later. I hope the same for your son (though perhaps a shorter time frame).

  22. Anon today says:

    Margaret, this was beautiful. I am often moved by your posts, not least because some of what you say reminds me of things my own (red-headed) mother says and has said.

    I do not know you or your son, but I do sympathize… with both of you. Though an endowed RM, I find myself (for complicated reasons) reevaluating my relationship with the church, with God, and––unavoidably––with my family. Sometimes the thought of remaining a Mormon, and all that will entail, is too painful to consider. Of course, not remaining LDS, and all that that would entail (particularly for my family) is no less painful. Were I to leave, I would like to maintain some belief in God, but that seems unlikely even on the best days (when my relationship with deity could be most accurately described as an uneasy cease-fire). In any case, it’s a mess. I really wish it were easier––for you, for me.

    I hope you and your son find peace somehow.

  23. Your son doesn’t read your blog?

  24. This is a wonderful model of parenting, Margaret. I really admire your ability to give your son his space – it’s so important. But you already know that.

    This was wonderful and I loved it. Thanks.

  25. StillConfused says:

    If you feel it, tell it to your son. No letter needed. Just say it.

  26. Beautiful, filled with love and testimony. Thank you for sharing it.

  27. BTW, that recording of various BYU choirs brings me to tears every time, and CTF is the entire reason I started taking piano lessons. I want to be able to play it well, in this life.

  28. Eljamaki says:

    We thought we were doing all the “right things” such as family scripture study, prayer, weekly FHE etc. when our son at age 14 decided he wanted nothing to do with church. Initially as a Mom I blamed myself thinking it must have been something I did or didn’t do to better parent him. He began a very destructive lifestyle that included hard drugs and alcohol. My prayers went from asking Heavenly Father to help me know how to get him back to church to “Please Father, keep him alive”. Church was no longer on the radar, I was grateful for alive. Over the years I came to understand the meaning of agency. My most important role as a mother to my son was to simply love my son and do my best to preserve our relationship. He knew our boundaries and even had to live away from home for a while. But we continued to love and accept our son as a vital member of our family regardless of his church attendance or other circumstances.
    He has told us that this unconditional love is what made it safe for him to come back. He knew we loved him just as much even when he wasn’t attending. He is now 25 years old, has been ordained an Elder and gave us the happy news that he will be baptizing his wife, our daughter-in-law, this Saturday.
    I can honestly say I was content with Heavenly Father answering my prayer to simply keep him alive. I never thought to ask for more. It was enough . That he has returned to the gospel as well, words cannot express my gratitude.

  29. Elijamaki–thank you so much for sharing that.
    Cynthia L–I listened to Sufjan Stevens while I was writing this letter. I have learned about him only recently (through one of the missionaries Bruce and I knew in the MTC). And every semester, I show the BYU choirs singing the song, then tie it into writing in ways I won’t detail here.
    But I must say, one of the best renditions was US in Antigua. We were in an underground area and the acoustics were phenomenal.

  30. John Scherer says:

    Your posts make me want to be a better person and Latter Day Saint, this one is no exception.

    Thank You

  31. Sometimes losing oneself and finding oneself looks they same. Don’t give up on time, don’t give up on love. Let him write his story now, you might be in for a surprize or two.

  32. Beautiful. It scares me to even think of the time that will come in a couple of years when my rebellious daughter will be allowed to choose whether to attend or not.

  33. Margaret,
    Beautiful sentiments and expresssion.
    This particularly struck me because my experience conflates several elements in your narration: like Bro D, an offence and caring priesthood leaders walking with me; children leaving the Church; finding solace in our hymns, especially the gently reassuring”#117, “Come Unto Jesus,
    Just wondering, is this the same son about which Rev. Chip Murray wrote his helpful letter?

  34. Manaen–No, this is my youngest son. His older brother is not active, but there has been tremendous healing in our relationship. At the birthday celebration yesterday, he (oldest son) wrote a note to his little brother encouraging him to go on a mission.
    Interesting, isn’t it.

  35. Very, very moving post. Thanks, Margaret

  36. My adult daughter just left the room [she wanted me to tell her how to cook a pot roast]. She is NOW my neighbor with five kids. She WAS my teenage daughter, a ‘Goth’, and spent two years locked up for being a ‘Cutter’ and totally uncontrollable in her behavior. I gave her a list of what she needed.

  37. So beautiful Margaret. Thank you for sharing.

  38. Beautiful and moving, Margaret. Thank you.

  39. Thanks Margaret,

    Your heart shines through these words to your son. I will sing Come Thou Fount with you and pray for God’s working in your son’s life. Perhaps, and forgive me if this is too bold, our humilty in the face of the choices of our children is common ground for Presbyterians and LDS.

  40. It’s nice that it’s a hymn all of us Christians sing, isn’t it. Craig, we share SO MUCH common ground. I always enjoy dancing on your turf, and you are always welcome on mine. I like the way we meet where the turfs join–even overlap–and the light of Christ illuminates us both. Your goodness and compassion are so beautiful.

  41. Margaret,
    You are an amazing mother. I am so glad I know someone who fills the world with such light. Thank you for sharing this.

  42. I hope to never have to write such a letter, but if I do, I will remember yours. Thank you.

  43. TaterTot says:

    Beautiful, just beautiful.

  44. Margaret, you are a treasure.

  45. Mom, that was absolutely perfect. He’ll come around. He’s a good kid. Some day you’ll look back and think “that wasn’t so bad” just like you’re doing with me and look how good I turned out.

  46. Holy Dream-come-true! You’re right, Margaret’s Daughter. And don’t think I haven’t blogged about you, btw.

    He is a good kid. And the chocolate chip cookies you sent via your in-laws arrived three hours ago. He ate them with true joy. It was a great birthday present. And your gift is now a part of published record.

    And you are so right. You have turned out magnificently–and you’re not even thirty. I’m very proud to be your mom.

  47. An important addendum to my beautiful daughter’s comment:
    When she was giving birth to her middle son, our family was in Beijing, China–at the airport, headed home. I was on the phone with her husband–who asked her during hard labor if she wanted to talk to me. (She didn’t.) I heard her groan and cry, “I can’t do this!”–and then the phone went dead. Our phone card had run out. So I had to fly to San Francisco with those anguished cries still ringing in my head. As soon as we arrived, we called the hospital, of course. She answered with utter calm, “Oh hi, Mom. Yeah, everything’s fine. He’s beautiful. How was your trip?”
    Oh, the resonance of it! Deliverance and joy!

  48. Thank you, Margaret.

  49. This was beautiful, thank you.

  50. I may or may not be crying a little bit at my desk in my office right now (door closed, blinds shut).

    Our due date for our first child is tomorrow, so this is a touching little preparatory note for my wife and me; especially the part about the delivery and your last comment.

  51. Margaret: You can’t imagine how many people, like me, read your blog and blogging comments all over the place and are simply astounded at the wonderful person you are. As I read the letter, I couldn’t help but think why the general church can’t come to understand the importance of teaching today’s youth all about the sordid history; today’s youth are ready and can understand and come through the whole thing, I think, with a strong testimony than the current approach by the church, which isn’t so current. The “current” approach is what I was raised on, all covered up, so that when I uncovered it, I have difficulty reconciling. You have taught all the “closet” things without guile, and I truly feel deeply that it is the best approach and will work out for your son. How can the church do better at teaching all that needs to be taught? What I wouldn’t do for you to teach my three teenage daughters!

  52. Margaret,

    When I read this, I couldn’t help but think about my own youngest son, who turned 21 this year, and should have been just returning from a mission. Your post and the comments were comforting to me, and my wife, who normally doesn’t frequent the bloggernacle, read this, and also felt much better. we’re striving to be patient, understanding, and calm, when everything in my nature just wants to scream out loud at this bright, creative, and otherwise kinda mixed up kid/adult that we love. I can’t ell you how many times I’ve read a post or a comment by you, and come away feeling that my burden has been lifted a bit, and that we are not alone in our trials.

    We pray for our son, and we’ll pray for yours as well.

  53. Anonymous says:

    A beautiful letter, Margaret.

    I can’t help but think of how my parents tried to work with my brother and to help guide him to the iron rod. While he did serve a mission, it does not seem to have had much an effect on his ability to live the gospel. He has all but destroyed the love in his family ( with his wife and children) through unwise and unrighteous decisions and actions.

    I hope and pray that every family can experience the return of their prodigal children.

    My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  54. Kyle M: Oh my! An August baby! Aren’t you lucky! I had two. A very pregnant woman carrying an August-due baby walks around with an oven in her womb at all times. I slept under the swamp cooler many nights. But your life will be deepened beyond your imagination when your child arrives. Please let us know. Or at least let me know.

    KevinR (#51)–I have to say, your comment really intimidates me. I never really think about how many people read BCC. As far as I can tell, just over fifty read this little piece. Thank you so much for your extremely kind words. I would love to have your daughters in my SS class. We need more women! Do they talk? The two young women in my class never talk.

    KevinF–I’ll never turn down a prayer.
    I have been tremendously blessed at this time in my life when, interestingly, I feel almost biologically programmed to have a missionary son in the field. I have many wonderful proxies, and hear from them with some frequency. And every time I mail off DVDs, I also send mail to my missionaries. That’s several times a week.

    Anonymous–I know you already know that the end of your brother’s story hasn’t been written yet. You may get a glorious surprise, or you may start seeing surprising glory in him even if he doesn’t do everything you’d choose.

  55. It’s been great…I finally get to run the AC units 24/7! I hope any future babies are also August babies. :-)

  56. Anne Gwynn says:

    I am so grateful to read the letter, and to read the responses of 55 people. I have a 17 year old daughter, and son who are 15 and 11. I am 55 years old, and all of this is more than I bargained for. It is like, they were babies, then todlers, and wow, what has happened now. I am surprised, and overwhelmed at the same time.

  57. It’s pretty touch, isn’t it Anne. But you’re not alone. It’s nice to know there are a bunch of us who are pretty overwhelmed. This is a conversation I just had with my husband, when he noticed that our son had turned off the computer after he (my husband) had left for a minute:
    Bruce: “Why does he turn off the computer when I’m in the middle of something?”
    Me: “He has this thing about saving electricity. It’s Al Gore’s fault.”
    Bruce: “I almost swore.”
    Me: “Our son was given to us so we could work on the Christlike attribute of patience.”
    Bruce: “I almost said, ‘To Hell with that virtue.'”
    Me: You did say it. You just said it.
    Bruce: “No, that was in quotes. ‘To Hell with that virtue’ was in quotes.”

  58. Should say TOUGH.

  59. Margaret: You asked do my 3 girls talk. I couldn’t help but laugh. Along with our female foreign exchange student all last year, I couldn’t bear all the talking in the household. And yes, they also talk out loud during classes anywhere, school included, but, I think, they are mostly respectful in addition to being somewhat brassy (or sassy?) in their commenting. My oldest at almost 17 was so very talkative when I gave her permission to NOT bear the burden of the unchaste thoughts/sins of the young men in the ward just because she is beautiful and shows off her nice legs and walks with a very feminine lilt, and wears high heels often. She had been taught (beyond what I would consider a good limit and balance, as I realize we all influence each other) that her clothes and modesty were entirely responsible for what the young men think. How awful, and so we talked alot about that.

  60. aloysiusmiller says:

    I have a different philosophy on who can disobey the house rules. Those who are financially dependent on me live the house rules. Those independent of me live their rules. I hope they take most of my rules with them.

    I also hope that they don’t take my sins with them.

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