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Not All Moms Cry at University Drop-Offs

Last week I dropped my oldest child off at University.

Said goodbye.

The next day I sent my husband and my youngest child back to Djibouti.

Said goodbye.

Yesterday I drove my second firstborn (twins) to a different University.

Said goodbye.

Now it is just me, in my parent’s basement (so see, kids never really move out), for a few months as the twins transition to university life in this foreign country called the United States of America.

Now, I’m asking the questions all parents of recent university students ask:

What just happened to my life?

What just happened to my family?

How am I doing?

***

How am I doing?

I don’t even now how to begin answering.

Okay. Not okay. Emotions are layered, shifty things.

I thought for sure I would be one of the moms who cries as she walks out of the dorm room or who sits in the parking lot of the university waiting for the tears to clear enough so I could drive away, away, away.

But guess what?

I wasn’t that mom.

I didn’t end up crying in the car in the parking lot or the dorm stairwell. Not that there is anything wrong with doing that. I had a pocket full of Kleenex, totally expected that to be me.

Maybe my tears are used up. Maybe it hasn’t quite hit me yet. Maybe we are more used to the separation. Maybe my house doesn’t feel empty yet because I’m not yet in my house that no longer holds their memorabilia and stuffed animals. Maybe it will strike me most when they come to Djibouti but they will not be able to enter the country on our family work permit but will have to apply for a tourist visa.

I’m not going to feel guilty about the lack of tears. So many articles about moms sending kids to college include this flow of emotion and believe me, emotions have flowed. They just didn’t flow in that moment.

I’m okay with that.

I’m owning my excitement for my kids and their new adventure.

I’m prepared for the day when the ache strikes and I cry. Or not.

I’m expecting to cry on the plane in January when I go back to Africa. Or not.

So much of parenting comes with pressure to do certain things, make certain choices. We can be judgmental to the point of cruelty toward other parents.

The ones who cry? Weak, mushy, unprepared, overly emotional, too attached.

The ones who don’t cry? Cold, pushing the kid out, unloving, distant.

I call bull-oney on all that. I’m done with “supposed to” and “should”. I faced enough of that in our decision to send the kids to boarding school, or way back to when we moved to Somaliland in 2003. Faced enough of it when I gave birth in Djibouti, when I used disposable diapers, when I breastfed or pumped or bottle-fed, when I just wanted to get to the end of the day with everyone mostly fed and mostly clean.

What “should” parenting look like? What choices am I “supposed to” make for my family? What “should” I be feeling in this moment?

I have no clue.

I’m deciding what we decided.

I’m feeling what I’m feeling.

Cry on, moms who cry. Don’t cry at all, moms who don’t.

(I’m a pre-griever, more about that later)

Did you cry at drop-off? Do you think you will? Know you won’t?

 

15 Things I Want Tell My Graduating Third Culture Kid Seniors

Five years ago I wrote a post, 15 Things I Want to Tell My Third Culture Kids. I’ve been writing my kids letters and telling them things for years. When they return to school every three months, they return with packets of letters. One for each week, usually written on the back of a photograph of people and places they love. I’ve written them verses, prayers, quotes, poems (so much Mary Oliver), song lyrics, and rambling mom-junk. And we talk. So, they know this stuff. But, too bad for them, their mom is a writer and sends some of that mom-junk out to the wide, beautiful world.

I wrote this several weeks ago, a lifetime ago.

You can always come home. Home might not be this house but home is always this family. Come rejoicing, come weeping, come whole, come broken, come lonely, come with packs of friends, come in silence, come and spill it all. This table, meaning the table I’ve set in my heart for our family, always has room.

You can never go back. There is no rewind on life and no redoing spent years. You can’t go back, even if you come back. In You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe wrote, “Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up.” Keep going. Djibouti will keep going and changing, too. When you meet again, whether this country or the people you have known on the continent, know that you will have to reintroduce yourself and re-explore the other and rediscover who you can be together, or from a distance, now. You might want to go back, you might think things were better or easier or simpler back when…that’s nostalgia. That’s saudade. That’s okay. Those days were good and beautiful and hilarious and I can testify to that. They are part of you now, in your very being, the fabric of what makes you, you. But you can’t live them again. Hold them, honor them, and live into the now and the new.

Guard your heart, your mind, your soul, your body. Be wise, be discerning. Make good choices. Be patient, take your time. Stay in touch with old friends. Don’t sink into social media or the internet or porn or alcohol or consumerism.

But don’t lock it up. Don’t shut the door to keep out what might feel like overwhelming American culture. Don’t be afraid to be tender and loving. Don’t cling so fast to friends far away that you don’t have space for new friends. Be vulnerable, in the appropriate relationships.

Don’t treat Americans with contempt. Even, especially, when they have no clue what a ‘Djibouti’ is. Hear them out, learn their stories, ask inquisitive questions.

Don’t be afraid to be who you are. All that Djibouti awesomeness. All that Kenya awesomeness. All that you awesomeness. You can blend it up however you want, but don’t be ashamed or embarrassed or too proud. Be you.

Be honest about what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to ask for help. People might think it is strange that you don’t know something they think is normal American life, but most of the time, they will also enjoy helping you and you never know what friendship might come of it. Be humble.

Explore and be curious and savor. Think of your college campus or your new city as though you have just moved abroad, which for all practical purposes, you have. Think of American English as a new language, restaurants as exotic local fare, a trip downtown as an exciting cultural exploration. Try stuff. Try broomball. Try downhill skiing. Try snowball fights. (Don’t try licking the flagpole in January). Try saying “oofdah.”

Seek out a trusted advisor with whom you can be completely transparent and ask for cultural guidance. Here gender and race conversations look different. Here poverty, justice, corruption, wealth, privilege these things look different and are talked about in different ways. It will be hard and you might feel confused sometimes, but try to learn to contextualize your conversations and learn from the people around you. Conversations in America have changed since mom and dad lived there and we can’t be specifically helpful in this regard because we are often confused, too. In this same vein, seek out a counselor, a trained professional, who understands cross-cultural issues.

Find a strong, healthy, joyful, creative, supportive, purposeful spiritual body to be part of. Maybe a church, maybe a campus group, maybe a small group of friends. Explore who you are, spiritually, apart from mom and dad.

Root yourself. You might be tempted to flit around and there will be potentially appropriate times to leave – to transfer or to study abroad – but don’t move just for the sake of movement. Settle in, make a home, even a dorm home, connect with people, invest in your community.

Call home. Text. Facebook message. Send photos. When you do, be honest. Goods and bads. Talk us through it. We’re transitioning, too. We miss you like whale sharks would miss the sea.

I am eternally grateful that we have had the honor of sharing this life abroad with you. Djibouti hasn’t always been easy, but what is easy? No place is easy. The way you love this small, fascinating nation blows my mind. You have embraced it, the heat and the dust, French school and Djiboutian best friends, Papa Noel and Eid Mubarak, volcanoes and ocean, with exuberance. And it has embraced you back. This is a rare thing. Including you, I can count on two hands the number of non-Djiboutian American children who have spent their lives, from toddler-hood to graduation in this country, and you have loved each other well.

You are not alone. You can cross the sea, go to the highest mountain, the lowest volcanic lava tunnel, you are not alone. God is with you, cliché and true. But also, all the people who have loved you and taught you and coached you and prayed for you are with you. You don’t leave friends or family behind, not when they have invested in you. They have become part of who you are, part of your character and your stories. You know this, from the Open Houses that we had/will have. We need to have them on two continents, with letters from people in dozens of other countries, because love and support is coming at you from all corners of the globe.

Live here and now. They might be hard words to live in and I’m still learning how to do this well. Right here, this now. And then this one and then this one. Pay attention to your here and your now and feel it. This actually builds new pathways in your brain. Did you know that? How you choose to receive and embrace each moment matters. Make it good, even the hard ones. Learn from them. Savor the good moments. Laugh when you want to, cry when you want to. Get angry and feel wonder. Here. Now.

Okay and a couple bonus, obligatory things:

I love you. I’m proud of you. Always and forever, to the moon and around to Djibouti and back around again.

What do you want to say to your graduating senior, TCK or not?

Read suggestions on helping TCKs transition to university in Finding Home.

Find more wisdom for graduating TCKs here.

Third Culture Kids and the Book You Need

Parents of Third Culture Kids, grandparents, schools, friends, aunts and uncles, TCKs yourselves, supporting organizations…you need to read Third Culture Kids.

You need to.

The third edition came out last week, full of all the old goodness but also addresses fresh issues that TCKs face today: from interacting with technology to facing cultural complexity. There are resources for parents and educators and kids themselves.

I reread this book regularly.

Marilyn Gardner posted an essay, in response to the publication of this new edition and I highly recommend you read it here. She writes about the joys and griefs, celebrations and losses, advantages and unique challenges of life as a TCK and as a parent of TCKs.

I will also repost an oldie, by Ruth Van Reken herself, about who are Third Culture Kids but if you don’t have time to read so many essays, just go get the book: Third Culture Kids

And Marilyn’s books as well: Between Worlds and Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith

***

Ruth grew up in Nigeria as a USA citizen with an American dad who was born and raised in Persia (now Iran), she raised her own children in Liberia and her first grandchild was born in Ghana.

She says, “This topic is obviously important to me. However, because the term itself often seems to lead to confusion, I thought it might be good to set a clear foundation on who and what we are or are not talking about to hopefully expedite the important discussions that will follow.”

***

Who are third culture kids?

In the late 1950s, Ruth Hill Useem, originator of the third culture kid term, simply called them “children who accompany parents into another culture.” While she did not specifically say so, all those she originally studied were in another culture due to a parent’s career choice, not as immigrants or refugees. Dave Pollock later defined TCKs as those who have “spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture(s).” He then went on to describe them by adding “Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

This descriptive phrase seems to be part of where some confusion rests. It is absolutely true that any given TCK or by now adult TCK (ATCK) often personally incorporates various aspects of his or her life experiences into a personal world view, food preferences, or cultural expectations. That’s why many TCKs and ATCKs relate to the metaphor of “being green” that Whitni Thomas describes in her lovely poem “Colors.” There she writes how she feels both yellow and blue in her different worlds but wishes there was a place to “just be green.” Ironically, many TCKs do feel “green” when with others of like experience, as Pollock describes. This is where they don’t have to explain this desire to be both/and rather than being forced to choose an either/or identity.

Other TCKs easily understand because many feel the same way, no matter which country their passport says is “home” or which countries they have lived in. But putting various pieces of different cultures together is not the third culture itself, although it is a very common (and wrong) way many describe it.

What is the “third culture”?

If the third culture isn’t a mixing and matching of various cultural pieces, what is it? Another common misconception is that somehow it means something related to the “third world.” Or that it measures the number of countries or cultures someone has lived in. Many have said to me, “Well, I must be a third, fourth, or even fifth culture kid because I’ve lived in…” and they list the extraordinary number of places they have lived or the cultural complexities within their family structure.

Perhaps having a simple definition of the original concept of the third culture itself would be helpful. A starting point is remembering that culture is something shared, not an individualistic experience. So how does that relate? Easily! In the late 1950s, two social scientists from Michigan State University, Drs. John and Ruth Hill Useem, originally defined the third culture as a way of life shared by those who were internationally mobile because of their career such as international business, military, foreign service, or missionary work.

The Useems noted those we now call “expatriates” had left the country their passport declared as “home” (the first culture) and moved to host country (the second culture). They noted that this community formed a way of life that was common to them but was unlike either the way they would have lived in their home cultures or how the locals were living in this host land. They called this an ‘interstitial” or third culture. Those who lived in this community may not have shared nationalities or ultimately, the same host cultures but there is much they share.

Then, as now, all who live this globally mobile lifestyle for reasons related to career choices live in a world of truly cross-cultural interactions. Entire worlds and cultural mores and expectations can change overnight with one airplane ride. High mobility – personal and within the community – is the name of the game. There is some level of expected repatriation as compared to a true immigrant who plans to stay. Often there is a strong sense of identity with the sponsoring organization. In time, Dr. Ruth Hill Useem because particularly fascinated with studying the children who grew up in this particular cultural milieu and named them third culture kids or TCKs.

So why do these distinctions make a difference to anyone but a high powered academician? Because it helps us normalize the results of a globally mobile experience for all. In particular, if we understand the difference between the TCK and the third culture itself, we can see more clearly how and why the typical characteristics of the TCK profile emerge. They do not form in a vacuum.

For example, if TCKs are chronically negotiating various cultural worlds in their formative years, no wonder they often become cultural bridges in later life and careers. Interacting with others from various cultures and world views hopefully develops an understanding that there are reasons and values behind how others live and hopefully helps TCKs and ATCKs clarify the reasons they hold the values and practices they do.

On the other hand, if the normal process of identity development occurs in conjunction with how our community sees and defines us as well as our inner perceptions, we can understand why frequent changes of our cultural mirrors can complicate the process of defining “who am I, anyway?” If relationships and the normal attachments that come with them are chronically disrupted by high mobility, no wonder there are often issues of loss and grief to attend to. We can also understand the isolation some TCKs ultimately feel as it seems pointless to start one more relationship if it will only end in another separation.

Better yet, once we have understood the “why” of our common characteristics, we can figure out the “what” we need to do to help deal effectively with the challenges so the many gifts of this experience are being maximized. And then we have to see how we will do those things. That’s the stage we are at now. I call it TCK Phase 2.  All over the place, new books are coming out telling us how to do better school transition programs, how therapists can work more effectively with this population, how parents and educators can work well with adolescents TCKs. I’m sure you will be hearing from many of these emerging experts in the coming blogs.

Personally, however, the reason I feel so passionately about keeping our terms clear is so that as we understand the “why” of the TCK story, we can begin to apply some of these insights and lessons learned to others in our globalizing world who are also living and growing up cross-culturally and with high mobility for countless reasons now than simply a parent’s career choice. But I’ll save those thoughts for another blog when I can hopefully share how lessons learned in the TCK experience relate to other cross-cultural kid (CCK) childhoods as well.

***

Ruth’s desire, and mine, for this series, is “the normalizing of experiences and then the empowering of TCKs and ATCKs to live life to the fullest potential.” Follow Ruth on Facebook and keep up-to-date on her writing, speaking, and other offerings of wisdom on her blog Cross Cultural Kids.

Letters Never Sent, a global nomad’s journey from hurt to healing updated, 2012, by Summertime Publishing

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The Unknown Traveler, Unknown Mother

When I travel with kids, even teenage kids, I am a mother. All mom. People see us and they think, “Mother and children.” We sit on the ground and play Spot It. We split burgers at airport restaurants. We take turns watching the stuff so the others can pee. We fill out each other’s immigration papers. We fight over window seats and try to snatch the single half of a strawberry from each other’s plane food plates. We reminisce about our worst flights ever and we pester each other by constantly asking what time is it and what time is the next flight.

We are a unit and we interact the way we always do – playing, sharing, serving, arguing, invading, bothering.

No matter what my purpose might be for traveling or what my day job is or what I’m wearing/eating/doing, when I am seen in public with my children, I am a member of that group and a mother in the eyes of everyone around me.

What about when I travel alone? No kids, no games, but at the very basest: no familiar interactions. Maybe business travelers are used to this, maybe people who travel without kids a lot are comfortable in this space. To me, it feels dangerous.

Maybe that is why so many affairs take place on the road. Why we shouldn’t make life-altering decisions while traveling.

We are unknown. We can be anyone. Do anything. No one will know. No one will report back home. No one has expectations. There is more time for reflection, to be internal. There is no tradition. There is no safety net.

Who am I now? Who am I when no one is telling me who to be based on who I am in terms of them?

Being a traveling expat means have many experiences of being unknown. Not alone, unknown. Alone is not a word that belongs to travelers in airports but unknown is one of their words. Being unknown here makes me feel nervous at first. I don’t know what I’ll do. Will I be the rude, pushy traveler? Will I eat an entire chocolate fudge sundae? Will I stare at people and judge them? Will I barge into other people’s conversations, desperate for some kind of interaction to remind me of who I was so I will know who to be?

Is this what mothers feel when children graduate and move out of the house? Now who am I? I think might be. We have spent our lives responding to others, meeting their needs before our own, bending our wants, schedules, pocketbooks around their goals. We cook the food they prefer, watch the movies they stream. What would we eat if we had our choice and only our choice? What would we watch if no one else provided input? Do we even know anymore? How can we know? How can we recognize our own tastes and rekindle our own desires?

I think it is a bumpy road and I’m starting to lurch my way down it. We remember ourselves before children and now, as we emerge, like the unknown traveler spewed from an airplane out into a new city, into a world that bares little resemblance to the one we exited decades ago. Now what? Now who?

I don’t think I’m the type who dances on tables or who runs naked 5k races (yes, those are a thing). I am pretty sure I’m the type who smiles at babies, secretly thankful I’m not traveling with one anymore. But beyond these, and other, obvious traits, what else? Am I curious? Am I brave? Am I compassionate and interested and adventurous? Do I hunker down or do I engage? What do I order at restaurants? What time do I go to bed? Am I frugal or do I splurge?

I don’t travel alone very often but my kids are growing up. The older two will graduate in 9 months. Who will I be?

I guess we will see.

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4 Ways to Stay Content as an Expat Mom

I believe contentment has a lot more to do with our responses to circumstances than with those actual circumstances. I have seen families living without electricity or running water who ooze contentment and joy and I’ve seen families living in ostentatious wealth who seem paralyzed by a lack of gratitude and contentment.

And, I’ve seen in my own heart that I could go either way.

For thirteen years now, I’ve been raising my kids in the Horn of Africa. It hasn’t always been easy and there have been many days when all I wanted were five one-way airplane tickets out (and on the worst days? One ticket would have sufficed). But on far more days, I’ve experienced a deep and abiding contentment, a peace with our choice and life here.

4 Ways to Stay Content as an Expat Mom

Here are four things that help me make the choice to be content:

Don’t Focus on the Limitations

There is no English education (except it is coming – check out the International School of Djibouti!) There is no lush, green park. There is no playground (except for a few hours two nights a week). There are no grandparents. There are few extracurricular options. If I let myself sit in these realities, I quickly grow discouraged and feel like I’m failing my children.

But, when I focus on the opportunities, I realize what an incredible childhood they are having. Swimming with whale sharks, hiking inside active volcanoes, floating in the Salt Lake, the lowest point in Africa, speaking several languages. There is a tennis club, no it isn’t fancy, but it exists. There is a soccer team, yes my girls are often the only girls who play and they play on cement, but they are welcomed. No, there aren’t any relatives but there are local people who love my kids.

Don’t Put Fear in Charge

Health care here is pretty atrocious. There are armed guards at school, grocery stores, church, and on random corners throughout the city. There have been robberies, terror attacks, diseases, evacuations, sexual harassment.

Terrible things could happen anywhere, they do happen anywhere. There is also very little petty crime, people who stand up for us, a wonderful amount of freedom and space for kids to play and bike and walk to the corner store. There is diversity and community and exploration and discovery, there is a rich cross-cultural life.

Don’t Forget Their Roots

Living abroad, it could be easy to feel that my kids are disconnected, untethered to their history. But my kids come from somewhere, from someone. They have grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles. Their roots include farmers and medical professionals and business people, people of faith and character. Teaching the kids where they come from, even if they don’t live close to these people currently, gives us all a sense of being connected. And being connected, knowing that you belong somewhere can provide a strong sense of contentment and meaning no matter where you currently reside.

Don’t Refuse to Engage

Some days it is hard to engage with the local community and it can be easier to close the door, to speak English, to not be curious. It is exhausting to always be learning how to live, how to do things that come with instinct in my native Minnesota.

But engaging with the local community is what makes living abroad ultimately worthwhile. Taking the risk to make friends, to become part of that community even as outsiders, and watching my kids develop friendships and the ability to navigate cultures with ease, are some of the highlights of living here.

Contentment comes down to the choices we make, in response to the situations we face. Sometimes it is easier for me to focus on the garbage dump but the far better choice, when I think about raising my kids in the Horn of Africa, is to lift my eyes up the mountains.

How do you hold onto contentment?

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