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?


Dear Parents Launching Your Third Culture Kids

Hey you, yes you, the one who just relinquished your child’s passport into their own hands to carry for the rest of their life all by themselves.

Yes you, the one who wonders how your child will introduce herself on campus. Is she from Minnesota? Africa? Kenya (which as everyone in Minnesota knows is the same thing as Africa)? Djibouti (what’s a Djibouti?)?

Yes you, who calls this move to his passport country an international move to a new, exotic, and slightly scary country.

You who has to not only turn around and walk out of their dorm room but who has to step onto an airplane in the international terminal.

You who will not be nearby, not even continentally (yes, that’s a word, I just made it up) nearby, on Family Weekend or on Thanksgiving or over Christmas break.

You who watched other kids move in with boxes of winter boots and hats and gloves and big, puffy coats, while your kids don’t own any of those items yet because they aren’t for sale in July in Minnesota and the winter gear they last owned (age two) won’t fit anymore.

I see you. Stumbling back to the car, wishing eyes came with windshield wipers so you could drive safely through tears, crying in the bathroom at the gas station or the airport or the borrowed house. You who aren’t even ‘home’ yet to cry into your own bed, or who are is crying alone because your spouse wasn’t able to make the international flight with you, or who is left to numb your sorrow with, I’m so sorry, airplane food and jet lag.

This is hard.

This is really, really hard.

You feel alone. You look at the other parents, the ones who live in the same city or the same state or the same country and you are jealous or angry or feeling protective. You think no one understands all the questions and losses and griefs and fears racing through your mind and heart. You’re confused because no one told you raising TCKs would end up here, would end up with you on the other side of the ocean finally appreciating what you’ve put your own parents through all these years abroad. No one told you this would be harder than moving abroad in the first place.

Or maybe they did, but when you heard it, perhaps at an orientation meeting, your only thought was, “This kid? University? Don’t they have to be potty-trained for that?!” And so, in the stupor of breastfeeding and surprise positive pregnancy tests and figuring out schooling options for kindergarten and worrying through vaccination records in multiple languages and multiple countries’ schedules, you didn’t listen. I know I didn’t. And now, here I am.

Let’s talk about it.

It is so right and appropriate and you’ve raised them for this, to be competent, generous, brave, tender, loving, creative gifts to the world.

You’re excited for them and for this new adventure. So much of life as expatriates has been an adventure into the unknown or into places that have stretched us outside our comfort zone. But you’ve done that together, with this kid by your side. Now they have to navigate it alone and you have to navigate this new stage without this particular child, without their take on experiences, their sense of humor, their insight.

You have a lot of questions about how to parent adult children and how to parent from a long distance.

I don’t have any answers, I’m winging it now. I’ve been winging it since they were born, like all parents, with the added twins times two thing happening. But maybe we can help each other.

What questions do you face now or did face when you sent your kids to university and returned to living abroad?

What hurts the most in this season?

What makes you the most proud in this season?

What wisdom have you earned through experience and time and perspective?

What do you wish your parents had done differently when you went to university? What did they do well?

Painting Pictures: Transitioning Globally to University

painting pictures1Today’s Painting Pictures is brought to you by Janneke Jellema, one of my favorite twitter peeps. Come to think of it, we met on Twitter, I think(?). I read this and wanted to post it right away, found myself impatiently waiting for Tuesday when I could hit the ‘publish’ button and share it with you. She is full of wisdom, great links, and a supportive and encouraging spirit. This piece is filled with practical advice as well as the ups and downs of being a TCK. I know you will find it as helpful as I do.

Transitioning Globally to University

My life changed drastically when I took an aeroplane from Harare, Zimbabwe to Schiphol international airport, Amsterdam in the Netherlands. I left my parents, brothers and sister behind. All that was familiar: my friends, my bicycle, my youth in Africa and lots more. The destination was known. My whole life while I grew up as blond girl with blue eyes in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, being “different” was the name of the game. On my ID card in Zimbabwe it said “alien”. That’s really great when you are a teenager! We were taught that we were Dutch, it’s the language we spoke at home, the Netherlands was the country we went to on leave. I was proud of my clogs and I loved the Dutch tulips. So I thought I knew the country I was to go to university in. I thought I knew the country of destination.

I was totally unprepared for the (reverse) culture shock that I would have. Totally unprepared for the loneliness, feeling out of place, not knowing the rules and norms, and the depression that set in. Did my fellow students or my lecturers notice the above? Did they see the loneliness? No they did not. Many times they did not understand my stories about my African youth so I stopped telling these stories. I just did not talk about it anymore.

I silenced the “African” part of me. Even now when I talk to my Dutch friends who knew me at university they say we did not know that you were depressed and that you felt so lonely. Did I cover it up? Did I keep it a secret? I do not know. It was just a time of survival. Now “survival” was the name of the game. When I transitioned to university, there were actually serveral transitions all at once:

  • a different school system: Zimbabwean system changed into the Dutch school system
  • a transition from secondary school to university
  • culture change: moving from Zimbabwe to the Netherlands
  • language change: moving from predominately English speaking environment to a predominately Dutch speaking environment.
  • from living at home to living on my own. A major step in independence.


I am  glad  I survived all these transitions. It was very challenging and stressful at the time. My desire is that other teenagers making these international transitions have more knowledge, preparation and help than I did years ago. I had never even heard of the term third culture kid. It was only when I read the book Third Culture Kids Growing Up Among Worlds by D.Pollock and R.van Reken years later that I discovered it. What a relief that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was not wierd but that I had all these feelings because of my global childhood. I was not the only one with these feelings but there were more people with the same experiences. Amazing!
Recently I found an interesting article online: “Identity, mobility and marginality: counseling third culture kids in college” (2012) by Dana Leigh Downey, University of Texas at Austin. The article mentions that it is estimated that over 4 million Americans live abroad, with over 37,000 matriculating into U.S. universities each year. Our societies are becoming more and more global. Third culture kids “experience a collision of cultures and form hybrid identities in the course of their development”.
Gaw* (2007) says that re-entry is often more challenging and unsettling than initial culture shock, affecting academic, social and psychological functioning. As with other non majority groups TCKs are less likely to seek support services on campus. “The non-linear background of the TCK does not fit the mold of the average intake form.” There’s a good idea here: Downey suggests that counseling centres may consider adding questions to their surveys or intake forms: before the age of 18 I lived in more than one country/culture. A question like this would help identify third culture kids. It is only worth identifying TCKs if there are people who are equipped to help them. According to Downey, in order to assist third culture kids experiencing re-entry culture shock, counselors must extend:
  • support
  • validation
  • encouragement
  • along with cultural compentence
  • and intercultural understanding
That sounds too good to be true.

Soon colleges and universities will start their academic year and over 37,000 TCKs will return to America to further their education. An unknown number of TCKs will re-enter the Netherlands and many other countries. What will their experience be like? Will it be different to mine years ago? Will they be identified? Will they be helped by well-equipped counselors, and mental health practitioners that have experience working with third culture kids?

What was your experience when you went to college or university? Do you have advice?

*Gaw, K.F. (2007) Mobility, Multiculturalism and Marginality: Counseling Third Culture Students. Special Populations in College Counseling: A Handbook for Mental Health Practitioners(63-76).


My 10 Tips for transitioning well to university (for parents and TCKs):

  1. Choose a college or university that is internationally minded, with international programs or international students. The international character will help you feel more “at home”, you will fit in more easily.
  2. If possible visit the college or university before hand, to see what it is like and to be able to compare it to other colleges or universities.
  3. Parents: prepare your TCK before they leave. Talk about the practical stuff: where can they spend the weekend? Where will they spend Christmas? When will you see each other again? How often will you skype?
  4. Parents: teach your kids and teenagers about what a TCK is. Even if they are not interested in it at this moment, it will help them in the future.
  5. Read the posts on DenizenMag: A TCK’s Guide to College. There’s great advice there.
  6. Read and give your TCK a copy of Tina Quick’s book The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition. It is a very useful and practical book.
  7. Consider using the online mentoring services by Sea Change Mentoring, they help the teenagers handle the international transitions succesfully.
  8. If possible have the TCK do a re-enty course at the moment of transition, with a follow up a couple of months later.
  9. Stay in contact with other TCKs, they can support you during all the changes. You can join to meet other TCKs online. Or start a TCK group at your university.
  10. Ask for help, seek professional help or counselling if needed (preferably with a professional who has experience working with international students or TCKs).
Janneke Jellema is an adult TCK who grew up in Africa. She writes about “kids growing up in other cultures” on her DrieCulturen blog. You can follow her on twitter @DrieCulturen.
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