Friday, March 1, 2019

What Have I Done to My Children?

My family's front porch in Liberia faced the ocean. A dirt road and a lagoon separated our house from where the sand began and the waves crashed, but it was enough of a beach house that the fridge rusted and my mom had to mop the salt off the floors every day.

Many hours would find me on the hammock on that front porch, one of the few places where my introverted tween awkwardness felt at home. It was a rough rope hammock, and I would sit sideways on it like a swing, my legs pushing against the cement railing on the porch. Liberian sunsets on that ocean, complete with silhouetted coconut palms, were as post-cardish as any honeymooner could ask for, but my clearest memories are of the rain.

Liberian rain was never some mamsy-pamsy sprinkling; it was a waterfall from the sky. The smell of that rain would engulf me, full of sea salt and warmth and growing things. And I would swing on my hammock, dreaming my young-girl dreams, and watch the lightning crack out of a dark sky and strike the expanse of my ocean.

We often miss the beauty of our childhoods while we are in the midst of it, much too focused on interpreting those best-friend-comments and science-project-scores to pay much attention, but the rain and the lightning and the swinging hammock was such a large, enveloping beauty that even in my twelve-year-old self-centeredness, I was able to feel something like awe.

Across that dirt road, in a house that was even closer to the ocean, lived friends. Their kids were around the same ages as my brother and I, and we spent many an afternoon canoeing on the swamp or trying to make a clubhouse in their attic, but it was so hot we could only each spend a few minutes in there at a time before we climbed down, gasping for breath. I practiced piano in their house every day, since they had a piano and we didn't, and one at a time, we borrowed all of their Asterix and Tin Tin comics. "Bock, Bock!" I would holler at their screen door, because that's what you said in Liberia when you came to someone's door. They would always let me in.

We made a teepee out of palm branches and their daughter and me created fantasy lands for our Barbie dolls in the sand and the swamp and the forest around our homes. They were from Arizona, so at Christmas they introduced us to the tradition of paper bag lanterns--luminarias--which filled the humid night air with magic.

My third-culture-kid childhood was filled with so much beauty--both in the land itself, and in so many people who loved me and became like family, because that's what happens when you find yourself thrust into a land with other foreigners who, like you, have no idea what they are doing.

I always wanted my own children to have a childhood like that.

Remarkably, they have. They already have more stamps in their passports than most people get in a lifetime. They've stood in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro and visited the Apartheid Museum in South Africa. They've fed giraffes in Kenya and watched baby sea turtles hatch and spent hundreds of hours in warm tropical oceans. And they have been deeply loved by Zimbabweans and Brits and Americans and Tanzanians who have enriched their lives with accents and cultures and family-bonds.

But as I dreamed that life for my kids, I failed to remember the grief.

It is easy to remember all the great stuff but naively think I would be able to protect my kids from all the hard stuff. Changing schools and relationships and countries and cultures several times in the course of a childhood--as extraordinary as it all sounds--is also excruciating.

Grace came home with a large drawing board in a plastic artist's folder last week.

"It's from my art teacher," she said proudly. "He's starting me on advanced art. He says that he's going to give me a head's start for IGCSE Art in 9th grade. I mean, if I'm here in 9th grade."

If I'm here. Because we don't know.

We had lunch with friends the other day, the ones who have felt like family for ten years. But they are leaving Tanzania this summer, and their daughter and Grace are an unbeatable duo--truly a sight to behold--on their basketball team. "You've got to come move near us and go to my school, and we can play basketball together!" she pleaded with Grace. Because it's unthinkable to imagine living apart.

That same day we got more news: Another family we know and love will be leaving even sooner. I told the kids in the car; I didn't want to look them in the eyes. Everyone was silent.

They are getting used to this.

And I wonder, What have I done to my children?

I remember how I wept when I found out that we wouldn't be able to return to Liberia; wept for the loss of my home, wept for the country that was being destroyed by war. That family who lived on the other side of the road--after two years of water balloon fights and piano practices and luminarias and sharing every part of life--we separated into different worlds and we never saw them again.

I look into my children's stony faces, steeling themselves against another loss; I hear the if I'm here in their voices and I remember my own childhood--the part I don't like to remember. "I wouldn't trade it for anything," I'll say without a moment's hesitation. But is it fair to impose on them the pain that goes with it? Do I have the right to say to them, "This is going to hurt a whole lot, but it will be worth it?"

I guess that's the thing about parenting--we make all these choices for these small people under our care, and they don't get any say in it. We choose where they will live, how they will be educated, how many siblings they will have, who they will be friends with. None of this seems like a big deal when they are little and an extension of us, but then they get bigger and smarter and they start to realize that some of the choices we made for them have difficult repercussions. Our enthusiastic, It will be worth it! starts to sound more hollow, to them and to us, because the truth is, we really don't know if it will be.

I'm realizing that as much as I want (and try) to write my kids' stories for them, I really only get to make the basic outline. I can create the setting and even write in a bunch of the characters, but they control the perspective, which is really what makes or breaks a story. And ultimately, I must trust that there's an Author who's a whole lot bigger than I am, and who loves them a whole lot more than I do, who is doing most of the writing behind the scenes.


  1. The thing that makes it all worth it though, is the purpose behind it. As you tell them, "It will all be worth it." My kids have had a similar experience but now there is no ultimate purpose, which makes it very painful to witness the damage done and thoughts of how they could have been so much better off like other normal kids.

  2. The true reality is that NONE of us can predict the future OR even make our plans and know that they will work out. Dad can lose his job (or want a better one) and the family will have to move to a different city. Grandparents who live just down the road can die unexpectantly. Children, who we think will outlive us, get terrible diseases and die. The church we think we will be part of the rest of our lives flounders or splits and we end up somewhere new. (And, I could make a long list of even more tragic--and unforeseen-- circumstances that can hit individuals and families!)

    The sooner that our children learn to trust the LORD for their future, the better off they will be (as will WE be better off as we learn to trust!)

    The TRUTH is God is far more concerned about us learning to trust Him than He is in fulfilling our dreams. That is a hard thing to learn, but an important aspect of our sanctification (growth in becoming more like Jesus) as believers...and an important part of holding forth truth to our children as we urge them to trust God for salvation...that He is WORTHY of our trust in Him---for EVERYthing!

  3. I enjoy your posts so much. You are so honest about the struggles and the joys of life and family. Sometimes these posts are so different from my homeschool world in Florida but sometimes exactly the same. Who are we, as parents, to think we can create the perfect situation for our children, not knowing what kind of adults they will be someday, what interests and gifts they'll display down the road? If we don't trust a Sovereign God who loves us and our children completely and is infinitely wise and loving, then we could easily become very discouraged about our parenting choices. He always provides purpose and offers hope and is always at work. And He works through those times of joy and of sorrow. Grace and peace.

  4. Wow! As a missionary kid, you've really captured something I haven't thought about much lately. Thanks for touching my heart and causing me dig deep.

  5. Oh I LOVE this line so much. "I can create the setting and even write in a bunch of the characters, but they control the perspective, which is really what makes or breaks a story." Thanks for writing this. I get it from both angles (from the TCK angle and the parent of two little TCK's now asking these questions)

  6. Eloquently written. My family went through a sudden departure from the mission field back to the States because of a corporate layoff. I don't know who had a harder time, my girls who got torn away from their childhood home, or me grieving their loss as well as dealing with my own pain of being uprooted and sent back into the homeland that we'd forsaken in order to serve the Lord.

    The girls had already been moved once from a third-world life where they were homeschooled and all of our co-workers were their "aunts" and "uncles", their surroundings absent the creature comforts of the USA. They'd just begun to thrive in a first-world nation, in their first traditional school with friends that they chose, with activities like sports and drama, in a nurturing Christian academic environment. Nearly overnight they were yanked away and thrust into a worldly American public school where friend cliques had no use for them. They were baffled at US culture and what seemed a pervasive spirit of entitlement.

    Anyway, platitudes don't go very far when you're trying to help your children make a painful transition to a home country that to them is the foreign land. It has been a struggle, but the Lord has shown us His grace in ways that we haven't been aware of until now. My girls understand God's grace much more clearly now that we're the ones in need of extending it toward the "natives" whose values and priorities seem completely strange and at times irrelevant to us.

  7. Hi Amy! I just read this post as a first time visitor to your blog - one of my dear friends who is also a missionary with children had posted it as a link on Facebook. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of CultureBound, but my best friend works for th as their director of children’s education and she works with children and families to train and resource them to try to make the TCK experience positive and transformative rather than crippling. She’s a TCK herself and has first hand knowledge of the grief and pain (and beauty and joy) that come with that lifestyle. Although I was not a TCK, doing life with her and reading some of her work has really blessed me and helped me, too, to sort through some of the grief and pain I experienced as my family moved A LOT during my childhood. Anyway, I’d be happy to connect you directly, or you can look up the CultureBound website where you can find her blog, contact details, and other info. I wish you and your family the best as you travel this hard-but-worth-it path.

  8. Thank you for writing so eloquently, Amy. This resonates with me in so many ways. Often I've had these questions and feelings and a few friends have encouraged me to write them down. I've written some in my head or in my diaries, but could never capture these feels as well as you have. Thank you for writing them down for the rest of us to think on. No question that we've been called to the ministry we're in, and that means our kids come with. No question that we made the wrong choice for us or for our kids, because God called us, but they are still real and painful and sometimes awful, and sometimes painful, yet always good. So thankful that our Sovereign God who loves our kids beyond any of our human imagination is not only sufficient but the only and complete they and we all need. Thank you!

    God's blessing as you write!


  9. I am not a TCK, but I am raising 5 of them. Thank you for this, a little glimpse into their world. It is beautiful, and painful.

  10. This is so good. I feel challenged and encouraged. The choice to homeschool has caused me to ask that question-What have I done to my kids? My answer so far is full of hope and 'It is worth it'. I was a missionary before starting a family, so I can relate to the coming and going of friends and the grief of leaving a country in crisis (Venezuela) but not to bringing children through all of that. God bless you guys!

  11. Thanks, everyone. Blogger won't let me respond to individual comments anymore, but I just wanted to thank you all for taking the time to comment. So glad this resonated with you!

  12. Thanks for sharing your blog on the SIM MK newsletter pages. I enjoyed it very much. In my case, we didn't move the kids so much, choosing to be more rooted, but I think it's very true that we can go wrong either way. I don't know if you have seen my memoirs about growing up in Ethiopia (Chameleon Days by Houghton Mifflin and Running to the Fire by U of Iowa Press), but I tackle some of the same tough questions. Best wishes!

  13. Glad you saw this on SIMRoots! And thanks for the book recommendations--they sound great.