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To My Boarding School Birthday Girl

Dear Birthday Girl,

We did the whole cake, ice cream, candles, and gifts party before we left the United States. But it wasn’t really your birthday that day. On your real birthday, your sister will hand you a wrapped shoe box full of tiny gifts, each individually wrapped. Your dorm parents have a plan. The school has goofy birthday traditions. Dad and I will call you on the phone. We’ll sing the regular birthday song and our own song, the one that’s just for you.

I’m so thankful that you will be celebrated by people all over the world. I’ve seen how people at this school honor and celebrate kids when their parents are far away. I’ve seen moms Face-timing with moms on the other side of the continent during soccer games and banquets. I’ve delivered birthday packages and hugs on behalf of absent parents. You are loved by so many by being part of this particular community. It takes a tribe and you are in the best of tribes. Knowing this, reminding myself of it, is my gift to myself on your birthday.

Because, though thankful, I’m still sad. I’m learning to hold both grief and joy in the same hand, to feel both sadness and gratitude, to sit with loss and celebration.

On the real day, you will be far away from me and I won’t be able to hug you or measure your height against my own to see whether you’ve caught me yet. I won’t be able to tickle your side or run my fingers through your hair.

This is the first birthday any of you have been away from me. Your brother and sister’s birthday is in July and they are home that month. So we haven’t done this before, haven’t missed this day before, haven’t relied on other people to celebrate you.

I know you know how much I love you, how proud I am of you. You get tired of me saying it and demand specifics in ways that both flabbergast and thrill me. What, specifically, do I love about you? Why, specifically, in this moment, am I proud of you? The answers to those questions are for me and you, for another time. But I still need to say those words: love and proud, on this day.

You are our 9/11 baby, born a blessing on a day of mourning. We named you Light. We named you Gift. We named you Victory. We named you Ours. You continue to live out these names, filling them up and redefining them through the lens of your own character, talents, and personality.

You are the biggest risk I ever took, ever jumped into intentionally. I was afraid of so many things. Afraid of more than one baby again (though that was the other greatest adventure of my life). Afraid to be pregnant here. Afraid to give birth here. Afraid I wouldn’t be mom enough for all of you. Afraid of postpartum depression again. Afraid of sleepless nights and rage. Afraid of morning sickness and changes to my body. Afraid of how much love I already knew would hurricane through me as soon as we touched outside my body.

Now I think, what if we hadn’t taken that leap? What if I let fear dominate and closed myself off to all the possibilities that are you? I’m learning to acknowledge the fears and to walk through them. You’ve helped me do that.

I can’t let my fear of who I might be when I’m not with you restrict you.

All these years after that 9/11 when you were born, I’m celebrating who you are and I’m saying, go be you.

Be you, where you are. Be you, apart from me. Be you, without fear or anxiety or strings attached. Be you, with exuberance, abandon, power and delight.

Be you with your crazy laugh and your mismatched socks and your uncle’s college band t-shirt. Be you with your full body singing and no fear in sports. Be you with your love for sunrises and bird-watching and your dog-training skills. Be you with your love for creating and your loyalty and courage. Be you in all the ways I will treasure in my heart, just for me.

Happy birthday from far away. Live it wild.

***

Tips for parents celebrating birthdays from far away:

  1. Celebrate when you’re together. Early or late, doesn’t matter.
  2. Send a surprise package, either in the mail or with someone else to hand deliver.
  3. Have a distance-friendly tradition, like a goofy song to sing over the phone, or a photo tradition.
  4. Ask someone who lives nearby to bring a cake or gift or to deliver pizza to their entire dorm.
  5. Tell the people around you and around the birthday person, so they can celebrate with you and with the birthday person.
  6. Schedule a phone call ahead of time.
  7. If you have a traditional meal, ask someone to make it for them on your behalf.
  8. Be thankful for the global community who loves you and your birthday person.

***

Our 9/11 baby, other stories:

Back when I was a regular contributor at Babble, I wrote about my daughter’s birth on the anniversary of 9/11. I also wrote about it for the Modern Love column, read by Mireille Enos for the podcast last spring.

Podcast

Modern Love

Babble

 

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6 Reasons Boarding School Rocks

I get to see my kids in less than two days. I don’t think I need to say that I’m excited.

My teenage twins go to boarding school two countries away. Whenever I write that, I feel the need to defend our family’s decision but I won’t, not here. Also, whenever I write that, I feel like I could follow it up with a litany of reasons boarding school is hard, that I could instead title this post 6 Terrible Things about Boarding School. But I won’t do that here either.

One of the hardest things to do in all of life, and yet one of the most beneficial things to do, is to maintain a heart of thankfulness. In the spirit of that thankfulness (and because I get to see them so soon) here are 6 really great things about boarding school.

6 Reasons Boarding School Rocks1

Physical Affection. My teenagers still hug me. In front of their friends and at school. Even their friends hug me, big hulking senior boys I’ve known since they were in first grade and high school girls I’ve only recently met but who live with my daughter in the dorm. As precious as chubby toddler arms are around a parent’s neck, nothing compares to a 14-year old boy still willing to joyfully throw his arms around me and squeeze, to say, “I love you, mom.” And then run off to the field to roughhouse and play rugby with his friends, who have also just hugged their mothers.

Family time. Time together is infinitely precious, even to the teens. During term breaks I don’t have to argue with the family that we should take a day and go to the beach. We sit down together almost every single day of term break for lunch and dinner, which totals almost the same number of shared meals as the average American family. We have focused, intentional conversations and game nights. They play dress-up and laser-gun battles with their little sister and lavish attention on her. Very little time is wasted on silly arguments or nitpicking.

Cheers for Mom. My home-cooking never tasted so good. After weeks on end of cafeteria food, anything I put on the table at mealtime is greeted with grins and thanks and sometimes even cheers, double when dessert is involved.

Independence and Courage. The Washington Post had a recent article about helicopter parenting in which millennials brought their parents along to job interviews. My teenagers don’t even bring me along on international flights. They know how to handle themselves with airport security, customs control, at restaurants, in taxi cabs. They know how to ask for help when they need it and they are brave enough to do so, no matter what country they are in.

Confidence. My kids aren’t afraid of challenges or situations outside their comfort zone. They have traveled internationally and have been responsible for their passports, their visas, their money. They haven’t always been successful in these responsibilities and things have gotten lost, they’ve made mistakes. But they’ve also learned to take responsibility for those mistakes, that making a mistake isn’t the end of the world or a definitive aspect of who they are as a person.

Problem solving. I can’t step into every situation to resolve it for them. I can’t intervene, as much as I would like to, when they have a conflict with a roommate or a teacher. I can’t hover over their homework or do it for them or urge them to remember to put it into their backpack in the morning. This means they have to learn how to address their weaknesses of timeliness, relationships, study habits on their own. Of course we talk on the phone and Skype and offer suggestions and make plans together. But hovering is not an option.

The skills my teens are learning at boarding school involve more than academics or increased sports and musical opportunities. They are the skills they will need to function and thrive in college and employment, in social relationships, and in an increasingly global world.

Of course, some of these areas are things I long to be involved in – like homework problem solving or to experience travel together, it isn’t easy and we often reevaluate our choice of boarding school. But so far, both kids are thriving, I’m proud of them, and our family remains close. I’m practicing thankfulness every day.

What painful thing can you practice thankfulness for today?

Boarding School Term Breaks Make Me Cry

Quick link: What Is It Like When Boarding School Kids Come Home?

What goes on when our boarding school kids come home?

The plane is supposed to land at 2:15 p.m. Nairobi, via Addis Ababa, to Djibouti. My youngest daughter Lucy spends the morning creating welcome home signs. We have one sign glued to cardboard that she made three years ago and because it is sturdy, that is the one we bring to the airport. But she also makes a fresh one every three months. Origami swans and frogs pasted between ‘welcome home.’ Or snowflakes cut from colored paper so they look like fireworks. A sketch of herself with her big brother and big sister. These we tape to the front door.

I spend the morning baking and making sure we have enough food in the house. Brownies and fresh honey whole wheat bread and box after box of cereal on the shelf. My husband organizes the bedrooms. This year he had a carpenter build a new wardrobe for our son, and a bedframe. Fresh towels and sheets and plumped up pillows.

The kids are coming home!

home

Why do I cry every stinking time the kids come home from school? It makes sense that I would cry when they return to boarding school. But why when they come home? It isn’t a happy lump in the throat or tears of joy at the airport. So what is going on? I’ve learned to expect and accept it.

Click here to read What Is It Like When Boarding School Kids Come Home?

10 Thanksgivings of a Mother of Boarding School Kids

Its November, the month of Thanksgiving. I read 1,000 Gifts by Anne Voskamp. I see hashtags like #30DaysofThanks. And then there’s the Bible: give thanks, give thanks, give thanks. Over and over. I’m trying to step into thankfulness and I thought I’d take it gently, I thought I’d write about what I’m thankful in general, or what I’m thankful for about this season, or what I’m thankful for regarding Djibouti.

But…

I run marathons. I moved to Somalia. I settled in Djibouti. I carried a twin pregnancy to full-term, walked up 22 flights of stairs the day I delivered them, and delivered one naturally and one via c-section.

I tend toward doing things the hard way, as foolish and stubborn as that can be sometimes.

So I decided to look at the hardest, most painful thing about my life at this point. The thing that makes me cry on a weekly basis. The thing that keeps me lying awake at night and has me crossing days of my calendar (sometimes a few days extra, just to feel like the time is passing faster).

Boarding school.

boarding school thankfulness

I ask myself, can I be thankful for boarding school?

I can be. And here is what I am thankful for. 

  1. I’m thankful for the way the absence of my teenagers sends me to my knees in prayer when I can’t sleep at night. I picture their faces and conjure their voices and sometimes a darkness sweeps in carrying with it all of the terrible awful things that could happen to them. I shut down the scary images and force light to cover the darkness and I’m thankful for how God meets me there.
  2. I’m thankful for the adults who are investing in my children and who are teaching them football and rugby and volleyball and flute and drama. They listen and put an arm around the shoulder and cook up late night egg mcmuffins and pray together.
  3. I’m thankful that this semester I have received more email communications from both kids than I did all last year in total. And that their typing ability is improving so the emails are growing longer (by a sentence or two).
  4. I’m thankful for the confidence I can see in these kids who have now traveled internationally, navigating familiar airports and the uncertainty of arriving in the aftermath of a burned down airport, on their own. They pack their suitcases, carry passports, fill out immigration forms, find flights.
  5. I’m thankful for how this confidence is deeper than being able to travel well. It stems from the knowledge that they are part of meaningful communities in three countries, from an awareness of the larger world and their place in it, that they leave one place they are loved only to arrive in another place where they are loved.
  6. I’m thankful for their academics at school and their joy in it. We struggled. They were successful in the French system, but not being native speakers, not having parents who were fluent, not having bookshelves stacked with French novels, required them to work. Hard. For which I am also thankful, it was stretching and character-building. But I never thought these kids would be placed in the advanced math class, that they would receive high marks in other classes. I hoped, I prayed, that they would discover the joy of learning, that it would be more than drudgery and battles and scraping to not be at the bottom.boarding school siblings bonding
  7. I’m thankful for the beautiful campus. Green grass, lovely weather, long adventure hikes, gardens and flowers, clear of garbage. There are many beautiful things about Djibouti as well but we don’t spend much time outside here due to the heat and dust. At school the kids seem to live outside and I love the outdoors. I’m thankful I get to visit this campus, it is a place of freshness and life and breathing deep and balm for the eyes.
  8. I’m thankful for the peers, for the friendships my kids are forming. Oh those dreaded junior high years, right? They aren’t smooth, they aren’t always pretty, they aren’t always easy. But they are character-building and memory-forming and for better or worse, we all must pass through. And so of course their friendships aren’t bump-free but the kids at this school have seen the world, share things with my kids that few others do. They are creative and smart and spiritual and strong.
  9. I’m thankful for the way God is holding our family relationships together, something I feared would weaken during these years. The two at school spend time together (even willingly), when they come home there are games and laughing and wrestling matches and tea parties like you’ve never seen. The one at home said once, “They have changed. They like to play with me now.” They would say that they always did like to play with her, but that sometimes she got annoying. But now they know the precious fleeting-ness of the days together, there is no time for petty squabbles and slammed doors. The family jokes and memories pile on and we hold them close.
  10. I’m thankful that no matter what, no matter where, no matter how, these are my children. They’re the coolest. Whether they are at the school down the street or at the school across international borders or in the plane coming home, they are God’s gift to our family and they are our gift to the world. I can think of nothing better than the honor of carrying and bearing them, of training and sharing them, of teaching and learning from them, of delighting in and with them.

And I can think of nothing better than squeezing them tight, skin on skin, when I see them on Friday night. The day after Thanksgiving, sure, but still a day in which to remember:

even this, yes, even boarding school, is something I can find thanksgiving in.

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