It’s a Process

Naomi Watkins is the cofounder of Aspiring Mormon Women, a non-profit organization that supports and encourages Latter-Day Saint women’s professional and educational pursuits. Currently, she works as an instructional coach in a Title I high school in the Salt Lake City area, charged with improving teachers’ literacy instruction and students’ literacy skills. She earned her B.A. in English Education from Brigham Young University, a M.Ed. in Language and Literacy from Arizona State University, and a Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning with a literacy emphasis from the University of Utah.

Since my teens, I had wanted to serve a mission, and knowing that a mission was a worthy path, I submitted my mission papers a few months before my 21st birthday. I didn’t bother asking the Lord if a mission was for me. Serving a mission was a righteous desire, so why would He say no?

One week after submitting my mission papers, and with some prodding from my parents, I decided to finally ask the Lord if a mission was indeed my next step, and I received a pretty strong “No” as an answer. I felt that this answer had to be wrong, and so I asked Him again, and I received the same no answer. How could the Lord tell me no? I knew that I would be a stellar missionary, and I was more than willing and able to serve. I had sincere intentions; I wanted to serve a mission—and not because I had nothing better to do or wasn’t yet married. I was confused and hurt and angry. How could the Lord not want my service and sacrifice? How could He refuse me?

I consulted with my Bishop and he told me, “I can’t tell you to go, and I can’t tell you not to go.” And so with a sad, but hopeful heart, believing that in a few short weeks I’d receive that “yes” answer, I pulled my mission papers.

That next year was a rough one. Not only did God put a kibosh on my mission dreams, but I also came out 0-2 in my dating relationships. As each new relationship began, I thought, “So he is the reason I wasn’t supposed to go on a mission.” Looking back, I can see how I put so much faith and purpose into each relationship, really wanting and working for this relationship to be the reason God had said no. As each relationship ended, I grew angrier and angrier with God. How dare He ruin all of my hopes and dreams? From my youthful perspective, how could there be other worthwhile pursuits outside of a mission or marriage at age 21?

In September, Aspiring Mormon Women, a non-profit organization that I cofounded that supports LDS women’s educational and professional pursuits, launched the #embraceyourAND social media campaign. This social media campaign initially began as a way to illustrate that women, even LDS women, pursue their educations and careers and also value their families—a response to the dismal college graduate rates for women in Utah and the dichotomous thinking that some young women engage in concerning their life paths. At 21, I saw my two choices as either a mission or marriage, and yet, God sent me down a completely different path.

I never did resubmit my mission papers (I found out by accident that I was called to serve in Russia). In the midst of those two failed relationships, I immersed myself in my studies. I continued and completed my undergraduate degree at BYU. I accepted a job teaching middle school English in Arizona (something I swore I would never do). I made plans to attend the temple, and I received my endowment. I studied my scriptures more intensely than ever before. I dated some more, and I enrolled myself in graduate school. And slowly, I crawled out of my depressed state. My anger towards God faded as time marched on and as different life options unfolded in my life.

Usually it is quite a lengthy and difficult process for me to accept and embrace the details of my path and especially the timing of these details. The Lord’s way for me is generally not one I’ve wanted or envisioned for myself. When I feel His promptings, especially when I have not sought them out, my initial reaction is usually, “Yeah, no thanks. That’s not something I want to do.” What He asks is frequently out of my comfort zone. He knows that it will require faith and vulnerability from me—and it’s usually more than I want and see myself able to give and become.

You want me to get a PhD, Lord? How about later when it’s more convenient, like when I’m older? Oh, you want me to start a non-profit for women? But I’m busy, God, and there are already plenty of women’s groups. I need to end this relationship, too? But there aren’t many other options, and he seems like a good guy. Ah, I need to move again. Really? But it’s such a pain to move. Can’t I just stay here? It’s a nice enough place.

On the other hand, there are paths, like a mission, that I try pushing onto the Lord, trying to force certain specifics to happen, cleaving onto a path in desperation rather than embracing His way in acceptance. Thankfully the Lord is patient and persistent. He continues to lovingly prod me, using others to do His prodding or His Spirit to figuratively poke and uplift.

Eventually I announce to Him, “Fine. If that’s what you want, I’ll try it your way for a bit.” It’s a mixture of resigned acceptance and stubbornness. And yet, with each little bit that I give Him—even when done begrudgingly—it expands into a whole lot more. God is generous like that. So why, oh why, do I fight Him every time?  When I am doing well, when the path isn’t quite so rocky or scary, it is easy for me to remember that even though His path isn’t the one I envisioned, His path for me has turned out really well, and in many ways, it is so much better.

And that is worth embracing.

Comments

  1. My wife is one of those women who were being pressured by family and leadership to go on a mission (shortly thereafter there was a General Conference thing saying to stop doing so). She went with her own inspiration that she should not go, even though she also wanted to. I know it was a hard decision for her.

    We all have a path that would be best for us. I hope we can all listen to the individual instructions we get, even when the road would be unpopular or personally difficult.

  2. Since my life has taken a decidedly opposite turn than the one I was taught to envision growing up, I also have learned that God rarely gives me what I want but he always gives me what I need (like if Santa only gave you socks and underwear for Christmas: immediate disappointment until you try to imagine life wo socks and underwear).

    A few years ago when I was primary chorister I taught them “I will Follow God’s Plan For Me.” Growing up it was the merrie miss theme song and is accompanied by a mother and daughter looking down at a new baby. While teaching my senior primary, though, I explained to the kids that God has an individual plan for each of their lives; and some of the kids in that room were going to grow up and end up single or not able to have a baby or having serious health issues. I taught that learning to embrace God’s plan for you (even when it’s one you don’t want) is most of the definition of enduring to the end.

    Wish I had been taught that at age 11.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    It can be hard for us to accept that going on a mission might not be the right path for a given person. We stress it so strongly, how can such a thing be? But as you see inhindsight the path actually taken, I hope you can see that maybe God knew a thing or two about your life and what would be the best way for you to serve others. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Naomi. You’re right that often the path we would have chosen isn’t as good as the one God would choose for us, and it’s important to listen to that. But one thing that felt missing from all the examples you list where something you wanted was denied and you went a different way is an example of (to use the name of your organization) *aspiring* for something. A short blog post has to focus on one theme and not contain your whole life story :-), but maybe in the comments can you give an example from your life of having an ambition, asking for permission or confirmation from God that it’s ok, and then going for it? Is it ok to want things, to have ambitions, not apologize for them, and then go for it and throw some elbows on the way?

    I hope Mormon women don’t need to be dragged kicking and screaming by the Lord, over-riding the plans they had for themselves, in order to have any achievements in life outside the home!

  5. “As each new relationship began, I thought, “So he is the reason I wasn’t supposed to go on a mission.”” This statement struck me as particularly Mormon. We are so eager to find the reasons for things. I suppose that’s a human trait, trying to construct a narrative.

  6. Clark Goble says:

    While I’m a bit skeptical that God has laid out for us an unique plan, I do think there are answers for what we should do at any particular time. While its unfortunate many Mormon women in the Utah region don’t finish college I’m not sure it’s a big problem statistically. It appears Mormon women are about average in that regard.

    I think it unfortunate there there are so many attitudes in Utah toward women who are in the workforce such that it’s harder to get good jobs. (There’s this expectation that teacher or secretary is fine – but those typically aren’t jobs where it’s easy to support a family) Although again I’m not sure it’s as bad as sometimes portrayed. (Which isn’t to justify bad views in Utah)

    I tend to think that the world in general devalues spending the time with children they need. However I also think it important to enable people to have equal rights in terms of job opportunity. Further I think that sometimes it might be appropriate to be a house-husband. I can think of cases like that from my own ward. I wish that culturally that sort of sacrifice for children was praised more in Utah culture.

    All that said we do OK in college statistics. Prior to the 90’s Mormon women graduated from college at higher rates than national average. That’s not true anymore but we’re not that far behind. It’s 28% of Utahn women have a college degree while 29% nationally. Utah men are 33% vs. 29%. Pew has the statistic as 61% for Mormons total but don’t break it out by sex that I could see. (That also seems high to me – but I’ve expressed problems with Pew data in the past) ARIS has the rate for women being equal to national statistics for 2008. The statistics that Mormons with college degrees believe more than those without are well known, so it seems like something we should push.

  7. A bishop once told a story about how he had discouraged a reticent young man from praying about whether to go on a mission. ”What do you think he’s going to tell you?! ” It’s sticky business honestly seeking personal revelation.

  8. Cynthia, Really great question. I can think of two instances from around the time period that I discuss in the OP when I had ambitions, didn’t apologize for them, and then went for it — both have to do with my schooling. I very much operate under the premise that I’m going to go and do until it’s either done or until my plans fall apart, switch direction, hit a roadblock, or something/someone causes me to pause and ask. In the OP, I definitely focus more on the latter.

    1) As a high school junior, I had no desire to attend BYU, so I applied to many non-church school universities, and I was especially interested in continuing to swim competitively at the collegiate level (something that I had done since age 9). I went on several college campus visits, and I distinctly remember on one particular visit that I felt an overwhelming confirmation that I needed to attend that particular school–a small, private, liberal arts university. And so I did and I had a great 3 semesters there before I transferred to BYU (which is a story by itself).

    2) I’ve learned that in many instances I’m not seeking out the Lord’s confirmation about every ambition that I have. There are times when I simply move forward, putting plans into action, and those plans fall into place and feel good and so I continue. Pursuing my master’s degree was one of those instances. I had always wanted to earn an advanced degree. I found a program that interested me, I felt good about it, I applied, and I completed the degree. I don’t think that I actually ever asked the Lord, “Is it okay if I get a master’s degree?” or at least I don’t remember doing so. I just went and did it. And perhaps it’s life experiences like this one that make it more difficult for me to accept “no” as an answer. That’s something I need to think about.

  9. This resonates pretty strongly, although for me it’s in a different domain. Our lives (my wife and I) have taken a very different path than we anticipated when we got married. Collectively, it’s probably much better in some ways, but individually, it’s been quite painful for me.

  10. For the young women who choose an aspiring path for anything other than full time mothering – at least when your children are very young – be prepared to stand up for yourselves and tune out the naysayers and critics who are trying to actively undermine your agency and the choices you make. It’s a perilous road to go down as a young LDS woman, and sometimes the benefits of making your own choices despite the cultural expectations are very hard to see.

  11. Thanks, Naomi. I’ve definitely found that there are many decisions where you just need to decide yourself based on your best available information. I had a very strong experience where I was deeply and urgently prompted off a path I planned on taking, and some scary things happened involved with that experience. However, in the end, I came out of it with a lot of confidence that the Lord would again warn me off other things in the future. It was very comforting to know that he worked that way in my life, even though the experience of learning that was very difficult. Knowing that a warning would be there if necessary, I felt I could go off and march along with my decisions, and that he does expect that kind of independence from me most of the time.

  12. This is such a nice piece. I feel like I’ve been in that place so often, particularly in the past few years. I’ve pursued some projects, ideas and jobs without any inkling of a yes or no, and it seems that even those things the Lord has been so kind and generous. It seems like hard and honest work is most often the predecessor to the path that will be most natural for us. So glad for all the good, hard work you are doing!

  13. Anon2, And that’s partly why Aspiring Mormon Women exists. Our aim is to provide a space free from that cultural pressure where women don’t have to justify or apologize for their ambitions and aspirations. It’s also a space where many women work through that cultural pressure and baggage and (re)claim their ambitions.

  14. Wow – your website is really good. If I had the role models of the women who contribute to your website it would have made church activity a lot easier. As it was, I couldn’t find the support for my life choices in the church so I left. Being a working professional mother is hard enough without grappling with LDS cultural expectations about the right way to be a mother. I know there are women out there who make it work (like those on your blog) but unfortunately it didn’t work for me. You are doing great work – thanks for sharing!

  15. Lol. We cross posted. Thanks for your reply and good luck with this project!

  16. To summarize all my thoughts, I want more women to feel like this:

  17. (trying again)
    http://gph.is/XJzhZF

  18. Cynthia: I could totally see a version of that gif featuring you.

  19. Love that gif, Cynthia. And I second what Jason K. said.