The Teary Expat Mom, Shopping

by Rachel Pieh Jones on September 4, 2015

A confession…

I am that woman who balances twenty boxes of shoes at the register in Payless. Four pairs of shoes per person. The same shoe in incrementally larger sizes for the kids. Buy one, get one half off.

I am that woman who, in late August, needs two carts at Target.

The Teary Expat Mom, Shopping

I am that woman who needs to drop off her purchases at the car mid-shopping trip because she can’t carry them all.

I am that woman who cries and makes unreasonable demands of her husband in the middle of Kohl’s. Demands like, “Tell me exactly how tall our teenage son will be in two years.” And, “I need to know right now what you plan to want for your birthday next November.” And, “How much peanut butter does one family eat in a year if they are using homemade bread and spreading it real thin and no, I don’t care that Kohl’s doesn’t carry peanut butter because I’m mentally weighing everything while we shop and need to know how much room we have for socks and underwear.”

I am an American expatriate, wife to one and mother to three, returning to a developing country in east Africa and I am a wreck in stores.

I am a little unstable because I am that woman who will not go shopping for another 12-24 months and I need to plan ahead.

The problem is that I don’t know whether it will be 12 or 24 months. If I knew it was going to be 24 months, I would maybe have had more shoes at Payless, another cart at Target, and fewer tears in Kohl’s. Because knowing is half the battle.

But I don’t know.

I don’t know how big Henry’s feet will be in December. I don’t know how fast Lucy will wear through the seat of her swimsuit. I don’t know whether Maggie will be a shorts girl or a skirt girl next spring.

Thankfully, I do know some things, now that I’ve done this all before.


I know that whites will turn gray in the first wash. I know that certain fabrics will get funny fades and stains by the second month. I know what kind of shirts are best for 115 degree weather. I can guess at the wear and tear on sandals and swimsuits.

And I know that even if our luggage doesn’t arrive, we won’t go naked or hungry.

Last Wednesday I did the first of many returning-to-Africa shopping trips because we had a great coupon for Kohl’s. We filled two carts and marched to the changing rooms where my family filled each room. One by one they tried something on and stepped out. I looked to see how much growing room they had, how much it cost, and checked our list. Then I vetoed or okayed.

Then I asked my husband whether we would be back next summer or not. Whether he would be back this winter to fulfill some work requirements or not. He couldn’t answer and I started to get a headache. I pulled string cheese and fruit snacks from my purse (tip to expat mom shoppers – bring snacks) for the kids and tried not to cry. I also tried not to think about the money. This was for five people for one (or maybe two) years.

I’ve had cashiers at Kohl’s or Old Navy look at our heaps of clothes and laugh and then I say, “We’re going back to Djibouti in a few weeks,” and then, because in Minneapolis they are often Somali employees, we have fantastic conversations while they scan our clothes. They’ll say, “Oh, this will be so wonderful in the heat.” And, “I hope this swimsuit lasts a long time in the ocean.” By the end of the shopping trip we’ve exchanged email or blog addresses and my tears disappear.

And it really isn’t all that bad, we make tough, frugal choices and like I said, none of us have yet gone naked.

What would you make sure to bring on an overseas move?

*image via Flickr

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Oh I would definitely cry if I were in your clothes situation (storing all those clothes, shopping for all those clothes, guessing kid future sizes), although I totally just moved with 18 bottles of peanut butter among other foods, haha. And that alone made me pull hairs.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      18! Wow, that is totally awesome.

      • Jennifer

        i don’t know anything about Djibouti but every country i’ve lived in in Africa so far has had groundnuts as a native crop and the locals could easily make a natural peanut butter by grinding peanuts thru their grinders. It was always much more delicious, healthy and cheaper than western alternatives and now i’m back in the West for a couple of years i’m really missing it! (I’m the teary-eyed Mum stuck in the West missing her African things:-)) i’m hoping you can find something like this near you to save you some packing grief!!

        • Serenity Ward

          I live in South Asia, and we grind peanuts to make peanut butter! Never going back to Skippy or Jif. It’s amazing and SO good for you! And even the PB that we can find here is that is national is SUPER expensive, so saves us money on this end as well as weight in our suitcases!

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          I need to explore this.

  • Denise in Kenya 2

    Nestle chocolate chips, taco seasoning and Clinique products. 😉

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Hey, hey, me too! All three.

  • Thanks for this! We are preparing our first move to S Sudan (with 2 kids, 5 mo and 3 y)– and feeling a bit guilty about all that has to be spent– as well as overwhelmed by the details.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      It helps me to remember that it won’t be spent for the next two years, but all that buying in a short amount of time is most definitely stressful.

    • Heidi Jessurun

      Don’t regret it. It seems like so much on this side of the Atlantic but over there when you unpack, you wonder, “Is this all I brought?” Don’t forget to bring Christmas cheer with you in your boxes.

      • Ah! Yes! Thank you! Working on my list and packing things away– we have hand-knitted stockings from my Mom-Mom that I really wanted to bring!

  • Cathy Lockett Sanborn

    Shopping this week for a friend’s 3 kids in Ukraine that I haven’t seen in a year. Not sure about sizes and current favorite fashions. Like you, jeans or skirts for the 7 yr. old girl? Huge jars of crunchy peanut butter from Sams, check. Birthday presents for all, check. Hitting Old Navy next.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thankfully our kids have become, or just naturally are (I’m not sure which), laid back about clothing. I’m so glad!

  • Micah Shank Hayden

    We leave for Scotland in 3 weeks. And though we have lived in England, we’ve never lived so far north or in a big city. We know that our budget will be very tight, so we’ve tried to pack with the idea that we won’t be buying anything (clothing, books, toys, shoes, etc) for the next year. And I’ve about pulled my hair out along with my husband’s. Packing authentic Mexican chili powder and canned pumpkin for Thanksgiving as I know I won’t be getting either. Also taking as many sweaters as we can fit in our bags.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Canned pumpkin. Yup!

    • Lyndsay

      Scotland isn’t so bad, I promise! Although you will news to bring Cannes pumpkin as I have never seen any on our shelves. Other things I know we don’t have is freezer paper (and no alternative that I can figure? So I’d you use it for sewing or its proper use, you may want to bring some.
      Clothes here can be pretty inexpensive and easy to get hold of (unless you are in a really remote part of Scotland).
      Good luck and enjoy our beautiful country!

  • karph63

    Wow, I have been there, done that, have the t-shirt. Or the 5 packages of 8 bonus pack t-shirts because they are on a back to school sale at Wally World. 🙂 It was always so hard to shop for growing children when it was hard to know how much they will grow. We always bought winter boots and coats on the field, but underwear, swimsuits and sneakers are definitely purchased while in the US. And one time I recall buying bras for a soon to be preteen who wasn’t even developed yet!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Totally, me too – about the bra. You just don’t know. Of course, they sell them here, but in the market dangling from wooden beams and they are sold by men and I didn’t want to put my girls through that!

      • Patty

        only things missionary mamas can understand!

      • Jennifer

        In Nigeria its siimilar tho you can buy bras on market stalls from ladies too – we (a bunch of single girls) always found it fun to buy a while bunch of very varied colours and shapes, at rockbottom prices, and the ones we didn’t end up using always found their way into the hands of our Nigerian friends in various villages who LOVED getting bras!!

  • Beth Meyerdirk

    Returning to our host country next week and I can totally relate. Packing, shifting, weighing. Do I NEED this? Can I find a substitute? Am I bringing the right gifts for our national friends (ones that don’t weigh too much)? Is it OK to pray that the airline officials won’t charge me for suitcases that are only a kilo or less overweight? I laughed when I read this and read part of it to my sister-in-law who is helping me pack, shift, and weigh!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      AaaaLLLLL the same questions run through my head. We’ve never checked overweight but it has been close and there have been merciful airline officials.

  • ts

    I love the second last paragraph. Glad you are able to make some sweet connections through (or maybe, after?!) the stressful situations.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks, I was grateful too. Grace.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    And you didn’t even begin to discuss women’s feminine products which was so restrained of you. We wouldn’t want to cause embarrassment to a fine site like ALOS, but let’s get real. When you buy 24 boxes of tampons at a pop, people think you’re crazy!!! LOVE this piece. It brings back so many memories, especially the Payless shoes!

    • Heidi Jessurun

      Oh yeah! Those products! Once we had a very inquisitive customs official open the box on the other side of the ocean and examine the unknown product!

      • Jessi

        I went was entering a museum in Mexico once, and the guards check your purse to make sure you aren’t bringing in food or anything dangerous. A young male guard pulled a tampon out of my purse and said “sorry, you can’t bring this in.” I was going to comment that he didn’t want to know what would happen if I DIDNT bring it in, but instead told him it was a feminine hygiene product, his face went red, and he put it back in my purse.
        We HAVE tampons here though, you ladies are rock stars living with extremely limited hygiene options, my respects!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Aha – I have found the solution to this dilemma! Because with daughters…Hello Diva Cup. At least for me. It is the best thing for travel and saving space ever. Love it.

  • Amanda Moore

    I can so relate and I don’t even have kids yet! At least in Ghana I’m grateful we have a few decent stores now, and even a Payless just opened if you can imagine… but it’s insanely overpriced compared to what you’d pay in the US. Hope you have a smooth journey back with all your shoes!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Woah – Payless?! Fantastic.

  • I left Mozambique a year ago. I’m still kicking myself for not bringing a suitcase of coffee and tea. I came to Japan thinking I could find a suitable replacement. Not so. Looking at my next home visit to the US and figuring in a visit to South Africa, at least!

    I’m single. I always wanted to raise my kids on the mission field, but God had other plans. I travel light, generally a carry on suitcase and a personal bag. I did bring a large suitcase to Japan, but half of it was a sound system I should have left in Africa. In Mozambique I shipped in the market and still wear my capulanas!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Yup – there are things we bring back from this direction too, like medicines that we can just buy at the pharmacy and coffee and some clothing items…

  • Heidi Jessurun

    This post really was balm for my soul as a fellow missionary heading back to Africa. I could relate to virtually everything you wrote and it comforted me immensely, knowing I’m not alone in my insanity of the final days of shopping, packing and decision making.

    This time is easier physically because we are going back as empty nesters and don’t have the Payless runs and underwear dilemmas, but the emotional trauma is about killing me! I’d much rather have the double cart problem rather than the grief of emptying a house and wondering how many memories are reasonable to store.

    Thanks, Rachel, and know that a harder day is coming for you as you keep it all in perspective and find His Grace ever sufficient as promised!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      You’re right Heidi – I’m thankful for these days of packing and planning WITH and FOR my kids. Wise words about the emotional impact of leaving, too. Amen for the sufficiency of His grace.

    • My heart goes out to you. I didn’t leave for the mission field until I was an empty nester. While it does make the physical travel lighter, even when you know your kids/grandkids are fine, the emotional load takes a different courage to unpack. Praying for you.

  • I’m afraid this makes glad that we don’t live in Africa. Over a decade ago, I used to shop and stock up on some stuff (peanut butter, deodorant, um, feminine products, etc), but these days either it’s available here, or we don’t use it anymore. My family doesn’t even eat much peanut butter.

    As long as we have Kindles, we’re happy!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I am so thankful for my Kindle, it seriously made living in the Horn of Africa so much easier.

  • ak

    Suitcases are so telling about what we value! Those precious 50 pounds…

    I’m a fellow Minnesotan, and I teach in Nigeria. I don’t have any kids…except my 24 students. It’s always a battle with luggage weight, vying between things that help my kids and things that help my sanity over here. Hmmm, would the kids benefit more from a fraction workbook or from a teacher caffeinated by Caribou coffee? What about nice erasers that actually work vs. a second pair of dress shoes for teacher? Hmmm….

    Oh the mind-numbing choices of the States!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Caribou! :O)

  • Kimberly

    We also have 3 kids and work in East Africa, in the past for 4 years at a time. I remember randomly selecting piles of shoes in every odd size, never knowing when or how we might need them. I always take heavy duty ziplocs, chocolate chips, almond flour, vitamins & supplements, underwear, socks, fuel for hobbies (like fabrics or stitchery) or other craft supplies, 100% cotton American sheets, future gifts for holidays and copies of important photos and docs, folded up wrapping paper in ziplocs, yogurt or kefir cultures, seasonal hand towels, sturdy dog toys like Kong, etc. It’s much easier when you’re not moving and starting from scratch! We’re on home assignment this year and the greatest rest seeping into my Mommy brain is NOT needing to buy 2 yrs in advance (or plead for friends to bring things) or to buy 6 at a time and trusting the store will still have them! Hope your transition goes smoothly!

    • Kimberly

      And one mentor believes large safety pins are a travel essential because they can fix anything! 🙂

      • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

        This made me laugh because I didn’t bring safety pins, unpacked last week, and my daughter asked for safety pins. I went to three stores now in town, no safety pins. I’m sure they are somewhere in the market, but I’m wishing I would have brought a few.

  • Sarah

    Thank you so much for this article and for all the comments! As I’m trying to get in all those last times with good friends in the States I forget how much I need the mission community to remind me that everything I’m going through is “normal” for my life. We are also getting ready to head back to the field at the end of September for our third term. This really brought peace to my ever calculating mind too as spending all this money all at once with so many decisions gives me a headache and it’s OK to cry! I have six kids, home school and am so worried that I’m going to forget a book or that special toy or something! How do you figure out what you’ll need for the next four years as half of your kids will become teenagers?!?! Thankfully we do have a lot of guests come down but still….the mental exhaustion of so many decisions. Thanks for reminding me to breathe!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Okay to cry. ABSOLUTELY! And necessary to breathe, too. :O)

  • YES!!!!! We leave in 3 days (for Zambia) with 4 young kids. And, because I am frugal, I don’t want to pay for extra luggage. No one outside the expat community, and an even smaller circle of those going to developing countries, can relate. (And *love* the Diva Cup; it’s the one item that made me feel like I was prepared to be a missionary ?!)

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Yay for Diva Cups! I even blogged about them, I am so happy about it.

  • Lou Ann Keiser

    Underwear! Let’s just leave it at that, with no explanations. Loved your post!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Seriously. Underthings get sosososo nasty here so fast. Yup.

  • Serenity Ward

    It is so hard to know when the next trip back will be and trying to buy ahead. But yes! Snacks! 🙂 I also bring a friend along with me for different things that need to get bought. Different friends, different outlooks. SO helpful especially when my momma, the queen at buying and packing, is overseas too!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      We use yogurt instead of sour cream too, kids are none the wiser!

  • Titiangirl

    Funny what your blogger down below posted.. I bring Playtex tampons back and in abundance! I usually hit Sam’s for that.. Also curly hair products and always hit Nordstrom for my make up needs. Shoes for the kids, jeans, undies.. It’s so nice to know there are those out there that can relate. Great article!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      yes to the curly hair products!

    • And the best part of bringing all the tampons… we’ve found if we sprinkle them throughout the luggage, our bags are less likely to get “picked over” by the customs guys. LOL.

      • Titiangirl

        LOL! I just got a good belly laugh from that! That is the funniest thing I’ve heard in a while! I think I know what I’m going to do the next time I’m flying back from the US.. hahaha x

  • Richelle Wright

    Bras… when we lived in Africa – last time I shopped like that – there were 5 of us wearing them. Then, just recently, I tried to do back to school shopping at a Walmart in the States vs a Walmart in Quebec (less tax, good exchange rate… saving money) except for the stuff that I couldn`t get at Walmart in the States (i.e. cahiers de Canada). I don`t miss that nightmare, but interestingly enough, it still gives us great opportunities to chat with the folks at the checkout counter. 🙂

  • BHawley

    Rachel, I love this post. It brings back a cherished time I spent with Mom as a 10-year old, staying up all night to pack 55-gallon drums under the porch light.
    After days of shopping for a family of 7 for 4 years in the tropics, Mom had a meltdown (really rare–this was a woman who endured incredible stuff, but now I understand what brought it on! Plus shipment was on a deadline.)
    I was allowed to help, standing on a stool to fill the barrels. I remember tucking individual tampons into every teensy cranny, while we talked about ‘grown-up’ stuff. It’s one of my sweetest memories.
    PS, Mom always hit the Vanity Fair outlet, convinced their undergarments outlasted other brands.

  • Kristi Lonheim

    Amen! The balance of want vs. need. Can I get it vs. what would I have to pay for it? And yes, sizes for a year out. Thankfully we live where the seasons don’t change so only need clothes for one temperature. Taco seasoning, sodium free chicken bullion cubes, corn meal, decaf English Breakfast tea, green chilies, old fashioned oats, and chocolate chips are all on the list when possible.

  • Jessi

    BRAS!!! In Mexico it is next to impossible to find a bra that not 32,34, or 36 A or B. I still haven’t figured out what full-size women here do for bras…

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