Searching for Home After a Global Upbringing

Editor’s Note: The following piece is an excerpt from Lisa McKay’s memoir, Love at the Speed of Email. She first shared it on A Life Overseas many years ago, back in March of 2013. But many of our readers weren’t around then, and I love this story so much that I asked her if we could bring it out of the archives and share it with everyone again. ~Elizabeth Trotter

Love At The Speed Of Email is a memoir – the story of how I met my husband while he was in Papua New Guinea working for a humanitarian organization and I was in Los Angeles working as a stress management trainer. It’s more than a love story, though. It’s a recounting of my struggle to find an answer to the question, “Where’s home?” after being raised in five different countries and then embracing a career that kept me perpetually on the move. I suspect that this struggle to define home is one that those of you who were raised as third culture kids (or who are raising global nomads yourselves) will be all too familiar with.

The section I’m sharing comes from a chapter called Airports and Bookstores. I was twenty-six years old, in Hawaii, and having the time of my life at the first creative writing workshop I’d ever attended when I realized for the first time that I might have a real problem when it came to this concept of home . . .

Borrowing inspiration from the tale of the prodigal son in the Bible, our instructors had told us to write a “coming home” story. We should, we were told, write the prodigal who was us as an adult, coming home to ourselves as a child.

“Pick the clearest recollection you have of home and use that,” they said.

Everyone else reached for a pen or a laptop. I just sat there.

I was still sitting there ten minutes later.

Eventually I went up to the front of the room, to the giant leather-bound book of synonyms that was sitting on a podium, looked up home and wrote down these words: Birthplace. Stability. Dwelling. Hearth. Hearthstone. Refuge. Shelter. Haven. Sanctum.

I went back to my seat and stared past the book of synonyms, past the palm trees standing still under a blanket of midday heat, and out into the hazy blue of an ocean that promised a horizon it never quite delivered.

The list didn’t seem to help much.

Birthplace conjured Vancouver, a city I’d visited only twice, briefly, since we’d left when I was one.

Stability then. Unlike my parents’, this was not a word that could be applied to my childhood. In stark contrast with their agrarian upbringing, I’d spent an awful lot of my time in airports.

Maybe that was it, I thought, wondering whether the sudden spark I felt at the word airport was a glimmer of inspiration or merely desperation.

There was no denying that as a child I’d thought there was a lot of fun to be had in and around airports. More than one home movie shows me and my sister, Michelle, arranging our stuffed animals and secondhand Barbies in symmetrical rows and lecturing them severely about seat belts and tray tables before offering to serve them drinks. When we were actually in airports, we spent many happy hours collecting luggage carts and returning them to the distribution stands in order to pocket the deposit. We were always very disappointed to find ourselves in those boring socialist airports with free trolleys.

In Hawaii, I was tempted to start writing my story about home but didn’t.

“Your clearest memories of home as a child cannot possibly be in an airport,” I scolded myself, still staring past my laptop and out to the white-laced toss and chop of cerulean. “Home is not a topic that deserves flippancy. Work harder. . . . What about dwellings and hearths?”

That year my parents were living in the Philippines. My brother was in Sydney. My sister was in Washington, D.C. The bed I could legitimately call mine resided in Indiana. I had lived none of these places except D.C. as a child, and they were such awkward, lonely years that the thought of going back, even in a story, made me squirm. We lived in Washington, D.C., for three and a half years before moving to Zimbabwe, and what I remember most clearly about that time is that I spent much of it reading.

I’ve been in love with reading since before I can remember. Our family photo albums are peppered with photos of me curled up with books – in huts in Bangladesh, on trains in Europe, in the backseat of our car in Zimbabwe.

I can’t remember my parents reading to us before bed, although they swear they often did – sweet tales about poky puppies and confused baby birds looking for their mothers.

“You were insatiable,” Mum said when I asked her about this once. “No matter how many times I read you a book, you always wanted more.”

“Awwww,” I said, envisioning long rainy afternoons curled up with my mother while she read to me. “You must have spent hours reading to me.”

“I did,” my mother said in a tone that let me know she fully expects me to return the favor one day. “But it was never enough. So I taped myself.”

“What?” I asked.

“I got a tape recorder,” she said. “I recorded myself reading a story – I even put these cute little chimes in there so you’d know when to turn the page. Then, sometimes, I sat you down with the tapes.”

“Nice,” I said in a way that let her know that I didn’t think this practice would get her nominated for the motherly hall of fame.

“You loved it,” she said, completely uncowed. “Plus, I needed a break every now and then. You were exhausting. You never stopped asking questions. You asked thirty-seven questions once during a half-hour episode of Lassie. I counted.”

I can’t remember any of this. My earliest memories of reading are solitary, sweaty ones. They are of lying on the cool marble floor of our house in Bangladesh, book in hand, an overhead fan gently stirring the dense heat while I chipped away at frozen applesauce in a small plastic container. But it’s when we moved from Bangladesh to the States when I was nine that my memories of books, just like childhood itself, become clearer.

Of all the moves I’ve made in my life, this was one of the most traumatic. Abruptly encountering the world of the very wealthy after two years of living cheek by jowl with the world of the very poor, I discovered that I didn’t fit readily into either world. My fourth grade classmates in Washington, D.C., had no framework for understanding where I had been for the last two years – what it was like to ride to church in a rickshaw pulled by a skinny man on a bicycle, to make a game out of pulling three-inch-long cockroaches out of the sink drain while brushing your teeth at night, or to gaze from the windows of your school bus at other children picking through the corner garbage dumps.

I, in turn, lacked the inclination to rapidly absorb and adopt the rules of this new world, a world where your grasp on preteen fashion, pop culture, and boys all mattered terribly. Possibly I could have compensated for my almost total lack of knowledge in these key areas with lashings of gregarious charm, but at nine I lacked that, too. I was not what you would call a sunny child.

So I read instead. I read desperately.

I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. One of the few good things I could see about living in the States was the ready availability of books. Some weekends Mum and Dad would take us to the local library’s used book sale. Books were a quarter each. I had a cardboard box and carte blanche. On those Saturday mornings I was in heaven.

Like many kids, I suspect, I was drawn to stories of outsiders or children persevering against all odds in the face of hardship. I devoured all of C.S. Lewis’ stories of Narnia and adored the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, especially the ones featuring little girls who were raised in India before being exiled to face great hardship in Britain. But I also strayed into more adult territory. I trolled our bookshelves and the bookshelves of family friends, and those bookshelves were gold mines for stories about everything from religious persecution to murder, rape, civil war, child brides, and honor killing.

In retrospect, even at eleven I wasn’t reading largely for pleasant diversion, for fun, for the literary equivalent of eating ice cream in the middle of the day. I was extreme-reading – pushing boundaries – looking to be shocked, scared, thrilled, and taught. I was reading to try to figure out how to make sense of pain.

It is entirely possible that had we remained in Australia throughout my childhood, I would still have spent the majority of these preteen years feeling isolated and misunderstood. After all, in the midst of our mobility I never doubted my parents’ love for me or for each other, but this did not forestall an essential loneliness that was very deeply felt. I suspect that I would still have grown into someone who feels compelled to explore the juxtaposition of shadow and light, someone who is drawn to discover what lies in the dark of life and of ourselves. But I also suspect that the shocking extremes presented by life in Bangladesh and America propelled me down this path earlier, and farther, than I may naturally have ventured.

It was largely books that were my early companions on this journey. They were stories of poverty and struggle, injustice and abuse, violence and debauchery, yes. But they were also threaded through with honor and courage, sacrifice and discipline, character and hope.

Many people seem to view “real life” as the gold standard by which to interpret stories, but I don’t think that does novels justice. For me, at least, the relationship between the real and fictional worlds was reciprocal. These books named emotions, pointed to virtue and vice, and led me into a deeper understanding of things I had already witnessed and experienced myself. They also let me try on, like a child playing dress-up, experiences and notions new to me. They acted as maps, mirrors, and magnifying glasses.

In those lonely childhood years, books also provided refuge. They were havens and sanctums.

Did that make them home?

When the writing exercise ended after half an hour and we were invited to share, I’d come up with only two ideas.

Set the scene in a bookstore. Or set it in an airport.

I hadn’t written a single word.


Do You Need A Year Of Awesome In 2018? (A holiday-season rerun)

For this last post of 2017 here on A Life Overseas I thought I’d take a look back over my almost 40 posts here in the last five years and see if there was one that I felt nudged to re-vamp or rerun.

Why a rerun?

Well, the kids and I have been sick here in Vanuatu for almost 10 days now—some sort of vicious flu bug that just. won’t. quit. And I have had zero energy or desire to write… well, anything.

But there can be a silver lining to being this sort of sick—the kind that forces you to lay down and let go of all your plans (“Oh, you were launching a new book this week and had a to-do list with 72 things on it? Sorry about that, hey.”)

I’ll be honest. I loathe having to let go of my to-do lists and accept a season of being more than doing. However, once I do surrender to it, I often find it opens up space to think about life and work and love from a different angle, to sift and sort my priorities, and to notice things that aren’t obvious during busier seasons.

So here I am, embracing the rerun and a season of reflection and hoping it can help you take a little time, too–time to reflect on where you’ve been this year, what you’ve been learning, how you are changing, and what you think about those changes.

As I started to comb through my posts looking for one worth re-running, I remembered a piece I wrote on how being sick overseas makes me miss the promise and illusion of safety. I enjoyed the walk down memory lane (gosh, I really miss that house in Laos and Lao food) but it wasn’t really the one I felt prompted to point you towards.

Then I thought it might be this post on my search to understand what “home” means—an issue I know remains a perennial “thorn in the heart” for many third culture kids long into adulthood.


It wasn’t this one, either—my most commented-upon-ever post, This I Used To Believe, on how living overseas has changed some of my core beliefs during this last decade.

Or this one, on when you second-guess your life.

Or even this one (which I think is probably be the best essay I’ve ever written): Good Will Come: How Living Overseas Has Changed My Views On Suffering. 

No. The post I felt drawn to point you back towards this month is this: Do You Need A Year Of Awesome?

I declared a “year of awesome” for our family a couple of years ago, after an extended season of  paddling hard just to keep our heads above water.

The concept was simple… I set us the challenge of finding something extraordinary to do each month for the entire year. Something fun. Something adventurous. Something delicious or out of the ordinary. Something magical.

Or, at least, something that had the potential to be magical. Points were awarded for trying.

Our family took this challenge on and it was good for us. It helped us play together, and relax, and enjoy each other. It helped us live into that which I long to believe–that the lovely, the fun, and the wondrous carry just as much power to shape our stories and our spirits as the hardships.

There are a lot of amazing resources on this site about the hardships that come with living overseas, managing stress, and understanding and coping with change. But, today, I want you to look towards 2018 feeling encouraged to stretch a little next year to experience some of the wonderful things where you are.

Because if you live overseas (particularly if you’re a missionary or an aid worker) you may almost feel like you shouldn’t do this sort of stuff. Or, at least, like you shouldn’t be seen to be doing too much of this sort of stuff. You know that the primary reason you’re in Vanuatu (or Egypt, or Mozambique, or wherever) is not to go camping with baby turtles and enjoy beautiful beaches. And if you do that and share the photos on facebook or your blog, you might feel a bit worried that people will get the wrong idea.

I don’t want to downplay that tension, but I do want to say this: Most people can handle nuance, particularly if you’re good at telling your stories. So practice trusting people. And practice telling your stories. All of your stories. Living overseas brings with it some unusual stressors. It also brings with it some unusual joys. So tell them about your work, and about the frustrations and other hard things that are happening. And tell them about the beautiful and the fun. Give them a chance to celebrate the good in life with you.

This will help them get to know you better. And it will help kill that destructive, still-pervasive, myth that being a missionary or an aid worker is all about sacrifice and struggle and pain, and if you’re not hurting on some level most of the time, you’re not doing it right.

So as we look towards 2018, do your part to kill that myth. And have a think about where you and your precious ones are at, and what you might need most next year.

Should you embrace a year of awesome with its mandate to find the extraordinary fun and adventure where you live? (Hello hot air balloon rides, zip-lining, and visiting a local bean to bar chocolate factory.)

Yes, this is my six year old, upside down, on a zipline. Some of our year of awesome activities have been… more terrifying than fun for my mama-heart.

Or should you aim for more Familiar-Family-Fun? If your family is already a bit overdosed on novelty and challenge, perhaps what you really need is less extraordinary fun than it is “ordinary fun”—“creative time” or “simple pleasures time” or family game and movie nights. What does your family enjoy doing together? What helps build strong bonds and positive memories?

Wherever you’re at, can I encourage you to plan to make something positive, fun, and enjoyable a part of your family life once a month next year? Because if you start thinking about it and planning for it now, it’s more likely to actually happen.

Thanks for sticking with me through this re-run. I hope wherever you’re at in the world you are feeling a deep sense of peace, joy, and gratitude. And that those feelings are spilling over in how you treat and talk to those closest to your heart and your days.

May it be a merry Christmas and a happy new year indeed,


Will Moving Overseas Make Or Break Your Relationship?

Relationship cliches about living abroad

There’s a well-worn line in expatriate circles that goes something like this: “Moving overseas will either strengthen your relationship, or break it.”

And here’s another one that gets rolled out regularly: “If your relationship was strong before you moved, it will become stronger. If there were already problems, moving overseas will exacerbate those.”

There is some truth in both of these sayings. Moving overseas is a hugely stressful undertaking. It puts enormous pressure on us—the sort of pressure that forces us out of our comfort zones and makes us change and adapt to meet the new challenges coming from every side.

No relationship can stay static when both parties in it are changing, and so our relationship with our spouse or partner will inevitably change, too.

How does moving overseas change relationships?

In a binary world, moving overseas will either strengthen or weaken our relationship. We will grow closer or more distant. We will make it or break it.

But guess what? Life and love and how we change as people and as a couple is rarely binary.

Sure, some couples will talk about how they moved abroad and it did nothing but good things for them. They are closer and stronger and more in sync than they’ve ever been before. They have a new lease on life and love. Yada, yada, yada.

[Forgive what may be cynicism here, but I would hazard a guess that many of the couples saying this don’t have children, haven’t weathered multiple medical emergencies or major natural disasters along the way, and/or have been together less than ten years.]

Other couples will move abroad and have the relationship fall apart. The move exacerbates tensions that were already there and creates new ones. Embers of frustration, resentment, anger, or pain that were already smoldering underneath the surface get stirred up and blaze to life. Couples increasingly struggle to connect and communicate well. The relationship disintegrates.

But there are many other, more complex, scenarios that can unfold when you move overseas. Here is just one…

Not either/or: One way moving overseas can change a relationship

The decision to move overseas was made together, and you’re both fully on board with this decision. You’re in a strong, stable relationship when you move. The intense experiences that come with moving initially draw you closer.

You grapple together with getting oriented in your new city and learning a new language and culture. Your strengths and differences complement each other in obvious ways. You have a real sense of being better equipped to “do this thing” together than either one of you would be alone. You (mostly) support each other well. You learn a lot about meeting challenges as a team. Trust, respect, gratitude and affection for each other grow stronger.

And then life settles into something akin to routine. The initial excitement wanes, and the extraordinary becomes more normal. More normal and mundane sorts of daily stressors (such as concerns about work, children, finances, life logistics) start to “layer over” these bigger stressors (which haven’t fully subsided) and become more dominant.

One or both of you starts to feel tired, worn out, and increasingly frustrated with certain aspects of your new life. You find yourself pulling inwards, or actively taking things out on your partner. You increasingly lack time and energy to talk about the little details of your day and what’s on your mind and heart. Sudden upswells of anger and resentment surprise you with their intensity. A growing sense of distance from your partner scares you, but you figure it’s just a phase and it will pass.

You’re both still committed to the relationship, but slowly moving into more separate inner orbits. There iss often a fine and fuzzy line between healthy distance in a marriage and unhealthy/scary disconnect, and you’re not exactly sure where that line is anymore—or whether it still lies in front of you, or behind you.

It brings both good and bad…

Whether our closest relationships grow stronger or weaker when we move overseas is not binary and it’s not static. For most of us, the pressure of moving and living overseas will make us closer and stronger as couple in some ways and at some times, and weaken us in other ways and at different times.

All this is a long (very long, sorry) preamble to why I wrote this post.

I’ve been thinking about the impact of moving overseas on relationships for many years now. My background as a psychologist and my own life experience (my husband and I met long distance and have moved internationally three times in the nine years we have been married) has made it highly relevant.

Some time ago, I realized that many of us could use a process designed to help us connect with our partner in new and deeper ways. A process designed to help us make each other a priority, talk about important topics, and learning more about each other. A process designed to strengthen and deepen our relationship.

So I’ve designed one.

And if you want it, I’m going to give it to you for free for the next month.

It’s brand new. I haven’t published it yet (I will do that before Christmas). But I want to give it away to you guys here on A Life Overseas before it even goes to press because you’re my tribe. You’re my people, scattered far and wide. You are people who are passionate about your work, your faith, and your relationship with your partner. You are people who are trying to do some amazing and wonderful things in this world—endeavors that can come at great personal and relational cost.

And if this series can help even a handful of you in some small way, that will make me happy.

So, here’s a bit more about the series and how you can get ahold of it.

Deeper Dates For Couples

Deeper Dates For Couples is a 12-week series of activities and questions that will guide you into important, interesting, and intimate conversations. Along the way, it gives you tools and uncovers insights that will strengthen and deepen your relationship.

Each week for 12 weeks we will focus on a different topic. I will give you some background information (strictly interesting stuff). Then I’ll tell you about your task for the week and share some questions you can use to kick off discussion during your weekly date.

You will:

  • Learn about each other’s strengths, sense of humor, communication style, and personality.
  • Discover brand-new insights about yourself and your partner (yes, no matter how long you’ve been together).
  • Do fun and fascinating positive psychology activities together that have been proven to make people happier and healthier.

How much time will this take? It will usually take you a total of about 45 – 60 minutes to read the chapter and do your task for the week. As for how long you want to spend talking during your weekly date…? Well, that one’s up to you.

And to help you get the most out of this series, I’ve designed a special companion journal to go with it. Your 32-page personal workbook for the Deeper Dates series will guide you through the reflection questions, discussion questions, and tasks for each week, and contains space for you to make notes and keep track of your answers and insights along the way.

If this sounds like something you’d like to have, jump on over to this page where you can enter your email and I’ll send you the book (I don’t want to put a direct link to the book file out in public space before it is officially published, so this is the safest way for me to give it away.)

If you grab a copy, I hope you find it helpful. And I’d love to hear from you about anything to do with the series, anytime.

Wherever you are in this world and in your own relationship journey, I’m cheering you on and wishing you all the best.


8 Tips For Keeping Kids Engaged During Phone Or Video Calls

If you have children and live overseas, you probably spend time with them on the phone or video call with far-away family.

How does that generally go for you?

Our children (aged 3 and 5) approach every video call with their grandparents with tremendous anticipation and evident delight. They sit still and pay close attention during the entire conversation. They answer every question when they’re asked, and they ask thoughtful and relevant questions themselves. Indeed, video calls with relatives are a family-fun highlight of the week. We all emerge from them feeling more bonded and relaxed.

OK, so that’s not really how it goes most of the time.

In fact, just this week out three-year-old came running up 4 minutes into a call with his grandparents, yelled out, “Bye bye! All done now!” and tried to shut the laptop on them.

Helping kids connect with far-away family and friends by phone or video call can be frustrating and exhausting. It’s always a bit “hit or miss” when it comes to kids and calls, but if you’ve been having more “misses” than “hits” on this front lately, you might want to try some of these tips.

  1. Schedule ahead

Consider making “kids included” calls a regular part of your routine (e.g., every second Saturday morning) and schedule these “all family” calls for times when your kids are not likely to be too tired or hungry.

  1. Keep calls to a reasonable length

Even if it’s been a while since you last talked, resist the temptation to make calls extra-long to make up for preceding weeks of no contact. You don’t want to turn these calls into infrequent extended chores that children learn to dread.

If you do want to have a longer chat, let the kids know they can run off and play at some point.

  1. Use a webcam when you can

Use a webcam whenever internet bandwidth and data plans allow. Even if your computer doesn’t have one build in, external webcams are cheap, easy to set up, and add enormously to the quality of the contact. If relatives don’t have webcams on their end, buy them one for Christmas and install it during a home visit.

One word of caution, however. Don’t push communication styles that step too far outside another person’s comfort zone. For example, if a grandparent is partially deaf, phone and video calls might be very taxing. They may prefer to send emails or instant message so that they can catch everything.

  1. Prepare a “show and tell” with kids beforehand

If your child struggles to connect well on Skype, encourage them to identify something they want to talk about or show family before the call (toys, books, something from school, bugs–whatever).  

You can also ask kids in advance if there’s anything they want to ask. Then you can help them remember their question during the call.

  1. Do something during the call

Don’t do all your calls sitting on the couch or at a table. Especially if you have very young children, try doing the call in the playroom while you’re sitting on the floor doing something together (like building a train set or a tower). Having an activity to do can help calm and focus children.

You can always try following kids around with your phone or the laptop, too. The person on the other end would probably love to see them riding the kids riding their bike, etc.

  1. Try a bath-time call

If you have young kids who sit and play in the bath, do a call during bath-time. That way the kids are a (relatively) captive audience. Keep your captive audience entertained with bubbles in the bath, bath crayons, or other bath toys.

  1. Ask kids good questions

If you’re the person on the other end of the line, it may help you to know that children often freeze up or struggle to talk via telephone or computer.

You can help them by asking a couple (not dozens) of open-ended questions that require the children to give more than a simple yes or no answer.

Click here to download a list of 30 questions you can ask kids during phone or video calls.

Once you’ve asked a question, give children time to come up with those answers. Don’t rush in too fast to fill pauses or silence—children may just be struggling to find some words.

And try not to take it personally if the child doesn’t seem interested in talking on a particular call. Kids are going to be kids at times, whether they’re on a special bi-monthly family call not.

  1. Read stories together

Have you ever tried doing a story-session via video call? Have the person on the other end read a story to the children. This tends to work best if you both have a copy of the book on hand, especially if kids are young.

Or, try Caribu. This app turns video calls into story time Both readers are visible on the screen while reading. Available on iPhone and iPad.

If children are a little older, you can try reading chapters from a book that holds their attention. Our five-year-old has just become engrossed in Enid Blyton’s classic, The Enchanted Wood. He will happily sit still and focus for at least 20 minutes listening to that story without needing to see the book, and the chapters are just the right length and cadence for “read-aloud.”

He has also (somewhat to my surprise, I must admit) responded well to my mother playing a reading game using flash-cards on Skype.

  1. Play a game together

There are lots of options for these, but here are just two games you can play via video call.

Show me: If children know and love your place, let them tell you what they want to see. Then take the phone or laptop and show it to them.

Find something that starts with: Give the child a letter of the alphabet and ask the child to go and find something in the house that starts with that letter. Then they have to show you on camera.

I know many of you have a lot of experience with kids and calls.
What tips and tricks would you share?
What games or activities do you do via video?

Living Overseas and Fear: Learning to Banish Love’s Twin

Last week, while my husband was away all week, our three-year-old came down with a high fever right around dinner time. I dosed him up with tylenol, prayed it wasn’t dengue fever (which is showing up here in Port Vila right now with alarming frequency) and put him to bed with me.

Six hours later he sat up in the dark and vomited everywhere. His fever was through the roof. I sat on the tiles that nightwith him in my arms. He was shaking and I was feeding him tiny sips of juice and listening to the tropical deluge pound down outside.

And, then, there was an earthquake.

In that moment I thought back to a essay called Banishing Love’s Twin that I wrote seven years ago now, right after I got married. I wrestled with these issues around love and fear then. I still struggle with them now, although I do dare to hope that I’ve made some progress.

Everyone alive wrestles with this dynamic duo of love and fear, I think. But I have found that living overseas compels me to confront these issues more than I may otherwise have to. So I thought you fellow #lifeoverseasers might get something out of this piece, too. 

(And for those of you who are wondering, Alex probably did not have dengue it turns out, “just” a 3-day stomach flu).

Last week, right after my boss had asked me whether I’d be willing to go to Pakistan this summer if need be and I’d said yes, the latest Humanitarian Policy Group report on providing aid in insecure environments crossed my desk.

It made for sobering reading.

The relative rates of attacks upon aid workers has increased more than 60 percent in the last three years, with a particular upswing in kidnapping, which has increased by more than 350 percent. The most dangerous location for aid workers remains the road, with vehicle-based attacks by far the most common context for violence. And the 2008 fatality rate for international aid workers exceeded that of U.N. peacekeepers.

On the bright side — if you can call it that — this massive spike in violence appears to be mostly driven by incidents in just a handful of countries. Namely Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Chad, Iraq and . . . Pakistan.

For me, this has brought forth yet again something that has been coming to mind much more frequently since meeting my fiancée and getting married in one delicious year-long whirlwind. Michael has brought much happiness into my life during the last 18 months. But right alongside love has come something else. Something I had not expected.


Not fear for myself. I am the director of training for a California-based nonprofit that provides psychological support to aid workers. You run certain risks when you travel to Kenya or to South Africa, not to mention to Santa Monica on the Los Angeles freeways. When people ask me about that aspect of my work I sometimes laugh and quote Nevil Shute: “To put your life in danger from time to time breeds a saneness in dealing with day-to-day trivialities.”

Still, I know it’s possible — likely even — that I only have the luxury of this flippancy because so far I have escaped without being on the wrong end of a carjacking, kidnapping or serious accident. At some deeper level I probably still believe that it won’t happen to me.

The problem with that (or one of them, anyway) is that I seem to be incapable of applying that same casual tolerance to risks Michael runs. When it comes to him, I have no comforting illusion of invulnerability. After my stints as a young forensic psychologist working in a prison and with the police, and what I’ve seen since of trauma and aid work, I know full well that it could happen to him. And when I really think about it, this terrifies me in a way I’ve never felt before.

Imaginary trails

I’ve never thought of myself as someone who’s particularly prone to catastrophizing — taking a passing fear and following it doggedly until it dead-ends in a worst-case scenario. But lately I’ve found myself wandering down those grim, imaginary rabbit trails more and more often. The other day I was stopped at a red light when a car coming the other way lost control, skidded across the intersection, jumped the curb and took the top off a fire hydrant. As water sheeted 20 feet into the air it took only two seconds for my brain to leapfrog from: “Is that woman okay?” to “What if someone had been standing on that corner?” to “What if that someone had been Mike?”

I don’t even need that sort of drama to push me down these mental paths. While Mike was away completing a humanitarian project evaluation in Papua New Guinea last month, I found myself at odd moments toying with the idea of him being mugged and knifed in Port Moresby. While driving to the airport to pick him up, I thought of plane crashes. It’s as if, without really wanting to, my mind is trying these thoughts on for size, pushing me to answer the questions that automatically follow.

What would you do then, huh? How would you cope?

Perhaps I keep circling in this direction because I just don’t know how I would come back from a blow like that.

Logically, I know people do. If one of these awful scenarios were to unfold, I know there’s a high likelihood I would eventually recover to be a walking, talking, functioning member of society. I would probably be able to smile and mean it. At some point, I would likely even be happy again. But when it comes to this topic and these musings, logic fails completely to breathe life into my imagination. While I can picture the possibility of pain all too well, I can’t really see how I’d get past it.

As I’ve started to track these depressing mental calisthenics during the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed something else too. A fragment of a single Bible verse is usually trailing quietly on the heels of the bleak visions, towing its own set of questions in its wake.

Perfect love casts out fear.

I’d never thought much about this verse before, except to wonder why it was fear that is driven out and not hatred or apathy. After all, I’ve heard it said that the true opposite of love isn’t the passionate intensity of hate at all but the emptiness of indifference. But lately I’ve been seeing it differently. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the more you value something the more acutely you realize what its loss could cost you — that as love grows so does fear. Perhaps the point of the verse has never been about banishing love’s antithesis, but love’s twin.

A growing love

Thinking through a co-dependent link between love and fear kept me occupied for a couple of weeks before I found myself confronted by the next issue raised by those five words: What does perfect love look like then? If love and fear truly are symbiotic, logic suggests that perfect love would simply breed perfect fear, not cast it out.

When I finally went to the source, I learned that the word behind the translation of “perfect” in this verse from 1 John is a form of telios, which doesn’t mean “flawless” but “fulfilling its purpose” or “becoming complete.” Telios, in turn, is derived from telos, which means, “to set out for a definite point or goal” or “the point aimed at as a limit.”

When I put this all together then, what I think John was aiming at with “perfect love” is a rooted and growing love. A love that is firmly anchored in some sort of external, defined and stable point, but ever-transforming into a greater and more expansive state of completeness at the same time.

All of which then begs the question — what is that external, defined, stable point or outer limit?

No one gets any prizes for guessing what John’s answer to that question is.

God. And in a circinate metaphor that is truly mind-boggling if you dwell on it for any length of time, John also asserts at least twice in that same chapter that God is love.

This doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with me, to be honest. Independent to a fault, I like sorting out my issues by myself and on my own terms. The last thorough personality profile I took bluntly informed me that I had “a defiant nature.” When, in the middle of our wedding ceremony, I stumbled on the vows Mike and I had memorized, I didn’t look to the one I was in the middle of promising to spend the rest of my life loving and wait to be prompted — I narrowed my eyes and said, “Don’t help me!” I don’t want to need a God the way a 5-year-old needs a light at night to soothe away fears of shadows in the closet, even if that God is the very embodiment of love.

Without God in my equation, however, love and fear seem locked in a cyclical struggle for dominance that my love, in its own strength, just can’t win. As long as I’m only looking at Mike, my love will always be shadowed by the knowledge of coming loss. That loss might not come this year, or next, or for 40 years. But it will come, that’s inevitable. In this chaotic and uncertain world it’s only in the context of a purpose other than just my own and a love that overshadows and outstrips mine that I stand a real chance of untangling the two and freeing the energy to nurture love without it also nourishing fear.

To savor the mystery

Many years ago John sketched out his take on this dynamic in 13 simple words — words that I hope, over time, will come to my mind as readily and vividly as the catastrophic possibilities I am so talented at conjuring.

And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

Because whenever I sit with the mystery those words represent, when I really savor them, I breathe a bit more deeply. And as my lungs fill with air, pushing against my ribs from the inside, I sense my love expanding, too — growing just a tiny bit more perfect, making room for peace, edging fear out just a little further.

Fear will never leave permanently, I’d guess. Casting it out will be something that happens in fits and starts. In steps forward and steps backward. In a rhythmic, intentional orientation and reorientation that I hope will over time get both easier and faster.

Mike gives me reason to believe that that’s the case, anyway. I’m perfectly confident that he loves me, so he’s either currently much more practiced than I am when it comes to waging war on fear or he hasn’t read the HPG Report yet, because when I told him I may be headed to Pakistan this summer all I got was, “Oh.”

There was a very long pause, and then bright hope.

“If that’s not the month I have to go to Sudan, can I come?”

[Originally published as “A Love That Scares Me” by Notre Dame Magazine.]

The Closer We Get To Moving “Home” The More I Want To Stay Here

A couple of months ago I had an exchange on facebook with a friend of mine from university days.

Sal and her husband have been living in the Middle East for the past three years. They moved there with their three young children so that they could immerse themselves deeply in the context and culture, learn to speak Arabic, and then return to Australia and work more effectively with refugees and other immigrants from the Middle East.

Last month, Sal put the following status up on her facebook profile:

It’s 2 months today until we fly from our home here in the Middle East to our home in Australia. As they say, I am feeling all the feels. I can hardly believe it’s been 3 years (almost).

Like the Grinch, my heart has grown three sizes (or more) since being here. The warmth and depth of hospitality and friendship – often in the midst of incredible hardships – I will cherish always.

I replied:

This is SUCH an up and down time. What an amazing journey you guys have been on. Thinking of you during this time of packing up and saying goodbye and tearing loose and replanting.

Then Sal asked me a question.

Do you find that the closer it gets to leaving, the more you want to stay? I have been looking at new apartments going up near the kids school and thought “It would be nice to live there.”

It was so interesting to see this from Sal. I know this last three years of mothering 3 little ones, building relationships, and learning a new language in a culture and context vastly different from her own have not been easy. And although I don’t know all the ins and outs of their story, I would guess that she has, at times, found herself counting down the days until their return to Australia.

But her question also makes total sense to me.

“Oh, yes. Yes. Totally,” I wrote. “There are so many reasons why this can be.”

I dashed off a jumbled paragraph to Sal about this that day (as we tend to do on facebook), but I found myself thinking about her question long after I’d pressed ENTER.

Since it’s been on my mind (and since I’m pretty sure Sal and I are not the only ones who have inhabited this tension) I want to expand on my answer here today.


Dear Sal,

Oh, yes. Yes. Totally.

There are so many reasons why this can be.

First, you are finally settled to a large extent. You know how to navigate the environment–how to get places, and where and what to buy at the markets. You can speak the language and actually have a conversation that extends beyond greetings, the weather, and if your baby slept well the night before. You know what to expect from your transplanted life.

And your life there is vibrant and alive and full of details that now feel both normal and yet still, somehow, novel. That daily duality of normal/novel that you are living continues to stretch your perspective and your heart and your emotions. You feel like a different person than you were when you left Australia, and you are. You have stretched in so many ways to grow into an entirely new reality.

But so many things about the future remain unknown. You might be going back to the same city you left, but you are returning a different person. You will likely be living in a different place, doing different things. And those new people and jobs and opportunities are likely impossible to visualize in detail. They are aspirations and possibilities that can pale in comparison to the vivid realities of daily life in your adopted home.


Right now you are simultaneously mourning all the wonderful things you are leaving, without being able to fully grasp all the wonderful things you are going to.

You know that the wonderful things you are leaving when you get on that plane “home,” you’re likely leaving forever. You might come back, but it will never be the same.

And then there are the people. You have cooked and laughed and cried and journeyed with so many people during the last three years. You have heard stories and witnessed realities that have taught you, humbled you, buoyed you, and broken your heart. You have felt privileged, helpless, guilty, grateful, and everything in between.

And you are leaving these people behind to face an uncertain future. You are leaving, when so many of those who will stay behind in your adopted home right now long for their chance to leave.

So it makes perfect sense to me that—on the precipice of leaving—you find yourself longing to stay, celebrating all that is and has been good about your adopted home.

This is a time for both grief and hope, mourning and excitement. And if right now there seems to be more grief than hope—more grief than you would ever have expected to feel during those long, hot early days there—remember that you are letting go of things and people you have come to love and respect.

And remember that all the things you have come to love about the Middle East and all that it has taught you will help align you with others who have loved and lost their homes there, too.

That is why you went in the first place. That is why you are now stepping out in faith again into a new reality and going “home.” To your “other” home.

Oh, Sal. Wishing you and your precious ones safe travels and many fresh joys in the weeks ahead. I’m looking forward to seeing you in this next chapter.


Have you ever experienced this tension?
Please leave a comment and share your experiences.

And, if you’d like to learn more about Sal’s journey in the Middle East, take a look at one of her passion projects during her time there: tea and thread: portraits of Arab women far from home.

Hope Chases Us

More than a decade ago now, my husband, Mike, spent almost two years working in Uganda. During that time, Mike was shadowed for a week by a National Geographic photographer as he went about his work.

When the issue came out, the online feature was titled Hope in Hell: The reach of humanitarian aid. One of the photos illustrating this article features Mike. In it, he is a six-foot-tall white beacon surrounded by dozens of children all reaching for him. He has his arm out, passing something into one of the waiting hands while scores of others clutch at him. The sea of cupped palms is very dark against the pristine blaze of his T-shirt, and Mike’s expression is difficult to read. His eyes are fixed on the one hand he’s grasping, but his forehead is lined, his eyebrows tipped up toward each other in a small, worried salute.

Representing hope in hell did not look like an easy gig.

I first saw this photo before Mike and I ever met–back when he was living in Papua New Guinea and I was living in Los Angeles, when we were taking the first, cautious step towards a long distance relationship by writing dozens of letters to each other.

“I’ve been circling back to this topic of hope a lot lately, but I haven’t even come close to figuring it out,” I wrote to Mike after reading his letter about the National Geographic article.

“What is hope?” I wrote. “Can hope exist independently of something to place that hope in, some larger external source, or framework? Joy seems simpler to me, and being joyful in life is something I feel I have a better handle on than being hopeful. But hope – it’s a puzzle.”

Then I sent Mike an essay I had written called Hope Chases Us, a piece about a benefit dinner I had recently attended in LA.

hope chases us

What do you wear when you’re going to spend the evening learning about sex slavery?

This was only one of the many important questions in life that I didn’t have a good answer for on Saturday. Two hours before I was due at a benefit dinner for International Justice Mission, I was staring into my closet at a loss.

A black dress and boots doesn’t work. I love these boots. They’re the most extravagant pair of shoes I’ve ever bought – knee-high, buttery, black leather with mini-stiletto heels. But leather-clad calves and dark draped curves feel too vamp to me. A suit and jacket seems too clinical. What I really want to wear, jeans, is too casual. In the end I go for international eclectic – a blue cotton shirt from India over black pants, embroidered platform shoes from Malaysia, and a silver Orthodox cross from Ethiopia…

It’s been two hundred years since the first abolition act was passed that made it unlawful for British subjects to capture and transport human beings, yet there are still about twenty five million people in the world today who are being held as slaves. That’s almost twice the number trafficked from Africa during the entire four hundred years of the transatlantic slave trade. The buying and selling of people is now the world’s second-most lucrative illegal profession, outranked only by the global trade in illegal arms.

Twenty five million is a number so large it defies comprehension. It’s more than the entire population of Australia. Who are they, and where?

They are Cambodian men trafficked to Thailand to work on construction projects. They are Yemeni children smuggled into Saudi Arabia to work as street beggars. They are children from Mali working on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast.

To bring this slightly closer to home, the Ivory Coast holds forty-three percent of the world’s market in cocoa, and the USA is the world’s largest chocolate consumer.

To bring it closer still, the U.S. government estimates that about fifty-thousand women and children are trafficked into the United States every year for sweatshop labor, domestic servitude, or the sex trade.

…I pull up behind a shiny Corvette at the Millennium Biltmore and hand my keys to the valet. I am ashamed that after several recent stints in airport parking lots my car is filthy, and then proud that I do not own a Corvette. I’m ashamed, again, at the self-righteousness I recognize shadowing this thought. Then I am proud of my own humility.

I am only distracted from these mental gymnastics by the grandeur of the hotel lobby – acres of marble, ornate columns, and gilded ceilings…

The program that I am handed as I enter the event informs me that, for this evening at least, I am a 17-year-old girl named Panida from a hill tribe in Thailand. When I was twelve, my family sent me off with a man who visited my village and promised that if I came to work in his cigarette factory my earnings would be enough to support the rest of the family. He lied. I ended up in a brothel, where I worked for three years before I was rescued.

…I sip an apple martini. It is cold and sweet against my glossed lips – the bite of spirits cloaked by gentle green. A maraschino promise glows red from the bottom of the glass. I wonder whether Panida likes martinis. Then I remember she’s still too young to drink…

The walls of the ballroom are lined by carved pillars. An enormous chandelier hangs like an inverted wedding cake from the ceiling, four tiers of crystal falling toward the floor like a ballet of raindrops. At our table there doesn’t seem to be enough space for all the cutlery and accoutrements: two wine glasses, bread, individual pats of butter, our own personal dessert platters, and salads of braised pears and honeyed pecans.

Staff members from International Justice Mission mount the stage. They speak of modern-day slavery with a facility honed by years of witnessing what generally happens when power operates for too long in an accountability vacuum. Laws are just words on paper, the speakers say, until they are made reality in the lives of the vulnerable. And the vulnerable are just statistics until there are faces and stories to put to the violations.

Grainy black-and-white footage of brothel raids taken from hidden surveillance cameras is projected onto a large screen behind the stage. We see dozens of Panidas in seedy rooms, awaiting customers. A ragged toy perched neatly on a bed is a heartbreaking symbol of one little girl’s attempt to preserve some tattered remnant of a stolen childhood.

…Dessert taunts me all through dinner and in the end I don’t know which to start with. The small round of raspberry cheesecake, the brandy-snap basket filled with cream and strawberries, or the chocolate truffle? My carefully chosen black pants feel too tight…

It is too easy to simply showcase the irony of dining on steak and chicken while these videos play. Too easy to only raise an eyebrow at the fact that a mere twenty-one percent of my expensive ticket for the event actually went to the charity. But I am reminded of a familiar biblical admonition to look first to the log in my own eye. I am the one who owns so many clothes that I can spend half an hour deciding what to wear. I am the one with enough disposable income to afford the ticket in the first place. And I’m now the one responsible for how I respond to the information that’s being served to me on a silver platter right alongside three types of dessert.

The statement that catches me most off guard during the night is spoken near the end of the evening. It isn’t the shocking statistic that the trafficking of women and children for sex brings in more money annually than the entire Microsoft empire. It’s just six brave words.

“Hope chases us in this work.”

During the last eight years of my life – in prisons, in orphanages for abused children, in villages gutted by war and studded with landmines – I’d been granted glimpses into lives where cruelty, desperation, and grief had become normal. If you look too deep into the heart of that reality for too long, it is profoundly overwhelming. Over time it’s easy for cynicism to become a habit, even a refuge. It is tempting to rest in the numb embrace of a fatalistic paralysis.

…That night I dream of Rwanda, a place I haven’t yet been. After the benefit dinner I was up until one reading a book with the unforgettable title of Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures. I know better than to read this sort of stuff late at night. The tale is as raw as the title – three former U.N. workers detailing the savaging of their humanitarian ideals by successive missions to conflict zones. Their increasingly desperate disenchantment as the story unfolds is mesmerizing and excruciating, and the dreams this story grants me are black and white and full of mass graves and machetes…

Hope chases us.

Sometimes it seems that hope could do with a lengthy course of steroids. Perhaps then it might stand a fighting chance in the footrace with despair.

But on a good day I can be anchored by remembering the story of the good Samaritan. In the instant the Samaritan walked past the wounded man lying in the ditch, he was not being called to hire and train a police force to escort travelers, hunt down the brigands and see them bought to trial (complete with defense attorneys) or single-handedly transform the entire Jericho road into a bastion of safety. He is lauded because he stopped to help the one.

My namesake for the evening, Panida, had lived within the borders of Thailand her entire life, but because she came from a hill-tribe minority group, she had never been recognized as a citizen. Two years after she was rescued from the brothel she finally received a Thai passport and, with it, some legally defensible rights. Her smile as she was pictured holding up her passport spilled joy and hope into a ballroom eight thousand miles from where she lived – hope that it is worth trying to make a difference one life at a time.

I’ve been in California this past week, not the brothels of Thailand or the hills of Rwanda. Stopping for one wasn’t climbing into the ditch to haul out the wounded, rescuing a Panida, or picking up a scalpel. It was meeting a friend for breakfast, returning a phone call, and writing a check.

Cynicism is the wide path of least resistance, and hope never seems to find me when I’m on that track. But when I’m most often surprised by hope’s companionship is also not when I’m trotting full speed down the road to Jericho. It’s when, by my all-too-human standards, I’m not really making much progress at all.

It’s when I pause to see others’ love in action, helping liberate people from slavery and its usual breeding ground, poverty.

When I’ve stopped for beauty – flowers, music, mountains, sunsets, great stories, amazing food, and the peaceful hush of a summer evening.

And when I’ve stopped for one.


“Hope chasing us,” Mike wrote to me the day after I sent him the letter.

“What a beautiful, precious image. Thanks for the reminder about guarding against cynicism. I really like how you didn’t cheapen it into the standard ‘I feel guilty because of all the ironies’ essay,” Mike replied.

“Do you feel chased by hope?” he continued. “I don’t most times. But I think that sometimes hope sneaks up on us when we’re wallowing in a dark, dark place and bursts into the room holding a giant candle and says, ‘Surprise! You forgot about me. But I haven’t forgotten you! I found the ending a bit abrupt, but I don’t know how I’d end it.”

“Frankly, I’m not sure about the ending.” I wrote back. “It’s interesting that you said it was abrupt. My main problem with it is that I’m not entirely sure I understand or mean what I’ve written in those last couple of lines. I know they’re beautiful and all. But do I really feel hope when I’ve stopped for one? Or am I more often feeling impatient because my schedule’s been thrown off, or helpless because I’m not sure how to help that one, or simply feeling … nothing … because I’m looking too far forward and haven’t stopped to notice the moment?”

“I love the image of hope chasing us, love it,” I finished. “But putting into words what that actually means for me – that’s different. I think I partially succeeded in that essay, but only partially…”

[excerpted from Love At The Speed Of Email]

I share this here today because, eight years later, this is still something I think about. And I suspect I am not the only one. A life overseas forces you to confront many ironies, injustices, deprivations, and desperations. It can clarify your hopes, and the source of those hopes. It can also cloud and confuse.

So I would love to hear from you on this.

Do you find it easy to feel and hang onto hope?
What gives you hope?


Do you need “A Year Of Awesome”?

Do you need a...A couple of years ago now, I read Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Following the great success of his memoir Blue Like Jazz, Miller slumped into something akin to a low-grade depression. When two producers proposed turning Jazz into a movie, Miller discovered that his life didn’t actually bear any resemblance to a great story. After he realized that he was just drifting through his days, he decided to figure out how to live a better and more inspiring life story.

So, track with me carefully here: Million Miles is Miller’s memoir about how the process of making his other memoir into a movie shaped his thoughts about the meaning of living a good story and ultimately changed his life.

It’s a testament to Miller’s nuanced self-analysis and his skill as a writer that this solipsistic little book is actually really good.

Earlier this year, I found myself remembering Miller’s thoughts on memorable moments. In Million Miles, he writes about a kayak trip to visit friends who live on an island. As he paddles away after his visit, the entire family jumps (fully clothed) into the lake to mark the farewell.

This made a big impression on Miller. Later in the book he argues that memorable moments—times when we do crazy things or work hard to make a day stand out—stamp our life narrative with extra force. They carry particular power to shape our memories and flavor our personal story.

I found myself thinking about this because, during the last four years, our little family has had a lot of moments that are very memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Our baby broke his femur while we were living in Northern Laos. I broke an ankle. My husband had two spinal surgeries for herniated discs, was diagnosed with cancer, and went through more surgery and chemotherapy. I’ve had five cellulitis infections (a serious complication of my chronic condition, lymphedema). We moved house three times and countries once. Last year, my husband started a new job as country director for the largest NGO in Vanuatu a mere two and a half weeks before Cyclone Pam (the strongest storm then-recorded in the Pacific) devastated most of the country.

Many wonderful things have happened during this time too, of course. However, when I look back on the last several years, these mega-dramas and other hardships stand out with unfortunate clarity.

So on our wedding anniversary this year—our seventh—I issued a decree. This year was going to become a “Year Of Awesome”.

I set us the challenge of finding something extraordinary to do each month for the entire year. Something fun. Something adventurous. Something delicious or out of the ordinary. Something magical.

Or, at least, something that had the potential to be magical. Points awarded for trying.

I declared a “year of awesome” because in some ways it felt like we were paddling hard just to keep our heads above water, and it had felt that way for a long time. Because, with everything on our plates and two kids under five who have been terrible sleepers for most of their lives, it was easy not to stretch to create moments and outings and days that are memorable for lovely reasons. And because I trust that the lovely, the fun, and the wondrous carry just as much power to shape our stories and our spirits as the hardships.  

We’re four months into the year of awesome now. We’ve been out on a glass-bottom-boat, journeyed out to islands, snorkeled over bright coral, celebrated our birthdays with champagne, and gone camping on the beach with baby turtles. So far, so good.

fam thumbs up

So, do you need some encouragement to stretch a little to experience some of the wonderful things where you are? Do you need permission to take some time to celebrate the lovely and the beautiful? Do you need a year of awesome?

If you live overseas (particularly if you’re a missionary or an aid worker) you may almost feel like you shouldn’t do this sort of stuff. Or, at least, like you shouldn’t be seen to be doing too much of this sort of stuff. You know that the primary reason you’re in Vanuatu (or Egypt, or Mozambique, or wherever) is not to go camping with baby turtles. And if you do that and share the photos on facebook or your blog, you might feel a bit worried that people will get the wrong idea.

I don’t want to downplay that tension, but I do want to say this: Most people can handle nuance, particularly if you’re good at telling your stories. So practice trusting people. And practice telling your stories. All of your stories. Living overseas brings with it some unusual stressors. It also brings with it some unusual joys. So tell them about your work, and about the frustrations and other hard things that are happening. And tell them about the beautiful and the fun. Give them a chance to celebrate the good in life with you.

This will help them get to know you better. And it will help kill that destructive, still-pervasive, myth that being a missionary or an aid worker is all about sacrifice and struggle and pain, and if you’re not hurting on some level most of the time, you’re not doing it right.

So there you have it. Now, my friends, go out and find something awesome to do where you live. And enjoy.

What is something awesome you’ve done in the last 12 months?

Help Make Your Relationships More Resilient: 10 Important Questions To Answer About How You Handle Stress

Help Make Your Relationships More Resilient_ 10 Important Questions To Answer About How You Handle Stress

Moving overseas is a massive and sudden change. Living overseas is the process of adapting to a million smaller changes, one day at a time. And, guess what? Change = stress.

Don’t get me wrong, stress is not necessarily bad for us. Without some pressure in our lives, we stagnate. We need external and internal challenges to help focus us, motivate us, and keep us stretching, learning, and growing in life.

However, too much stress can overwhelm us—at least temporarily. Most of us who have moved overseas have experienced days (weeks? months?) when we felt close to breaking or completely overwhelmed by the experience. And what do we tend to do when we’re feeling overwhelmed?

We tend to reach for things that bring us comfort (familiar foods, routines, languages, etc). And we tend to spend all our “coping energy” navigating the external ins and outs of our new lives, and then take out our fatigue and frustrations on those closest to us.

What does this mean for our most important relationships?

Well, many people communicate quite well with their loved ones when life’s skies are sunny and it is all smooth sailing. However, when clouds roll in and the wind picks up, it can be a different story.

When you are juggling pressures and demands related to work, family, travel, health, and finances, it’s easy to end up feeling tired and stressed. This is especially true when you are doing all of this in a new country, surrounded by new routines, landscape, and people. And when you are tired and stressed, misunderstandings and conflicts with loved ones can arise as quickly as summer storms.

You might find yourself getting annoyed more easily. Or arguing more frequently. Or speaking to your close friends or loved ones in a curt, impatient tone you’d never use on a work colleague.

On the other side of the coin, you can find yourselves confused and frustrated by your partner or friend’s moods, words, and actions. You can feel helpless to know how to approach them, or what to do or say.

Either way, the very relationship(s) that you count on to help sustain you can become another draining source of tension, right when you need them the most.

One of the best things you can do to make these times easier is to discuss these dynamics with your family and friends when you are not tired or stressed. The better you understand how each of you typically thinks or feels during times of stress and pressure, the better you will be able to encourage and support each other during those extra-stressful times.

10 important questions to answer

Here are 10 questions you can talk over with your partner, family, and close friends. Take your time with these and really delve into the details! Discussing these questions on good days (and definitely before a big move) will yield big dividends on bad days for years to come.

  1. What are the biggest sources of stress or pressure in your life right now?
  2. Where is the biggest mismatch in your life right now between what you believe and how you are acting?
  3. Do you feel “out of balance” in any area of life right now? What are those areas?
  4. When you feel stressed, how does that show up in how you interact with other people?
  5. When you are under pressure, what are some of your “early warning” signs of stress?
  6. When you become aware of your early warning signs, what do you do to help prevent your stress from growing?
  7. What are some of your typical self-care and coping strategies when you are stressed, tired, or anxious? (Make sure you think about coping strategies you use that are “good for you,” and those that “aren’t so good for you.”)
  8. What are one or two things that help you manage stress and pressure that you want to be able to do more often?
  9. When you are struggling, how can your partner best help you? What are good ways to approach you and good questions to ask you when you’re stressed?
  10. Since caring for yourself is foundational to being able to care well for your important relationships, how can your partner encourage you to take care of yourself?

These 10 questions are just scratching the surface, so add to the list. Leave a comment and let us know what has helped you buffer your important relationships against the pressures of living overseas. 

Good Will Come: How Life And Living Overseas Has Changed My Views On Suffering


Good Will Come Orchid

Almost four years ago, when my firstborn, Dominic, was five months old, my mother in law was carrying him down the stairs of our house in Northern Laos. She slipped and fell. Dominic’s knee hit the wood. His femur broke.

Luckily, the one X-ray machine in town was working that day. Luckily, the one X-ray technician was also working. Unluckily, by the time we held the film up against the sunlight and saw the sharp angles of that small bone in all the wrong places, the one flight to Bangkok that day had already left.

Even with good emergency medical insurance—which we had—the soonest we could get Dominic to the nearest decent hospital was more than thirty hours after the accident.

Even now, I find it very difficult to think about all of this. I can write down some of the details—how we splinted Dominic’s leg with cardboard and ace bandages, how we put him to sleep on the change-table mat to help keep him still, how I lay beside him on the floor, kneeling to breastfeed every time he cried out. I can write this down now, but I still shy away from thinking too deeply about how I felt during the long dark hours of that night, or while I sat alone in the hospital waiting room the next afternoon as the leg was being set and casted. My husband had to hold Dominic still through that particular anguish, because I couldn’t face it.

I tried to talk about all of this a couple of months ago during a speech I was giving to forty young mothers on post-natal anxiety. In retrospect, it was perhaps just a little unwise to wade publicly into this territory for the first time on a stage. In retrospect, it should not have surprised me that I could only get out a few sentences before I found myself faltering. Stopping. Stuck. Teetering on the brink of an incoherent, tear-soaked, free-fall.

But it did surprise me. I’m a psychologist. I’ve worked as a trainer for more than a decade. I’ve traveled around the world to speak with groups about stress, trauma, and resilience. My words had never deserted me before, not mid-presentation.

And Dominic’s accident was four years ago. After all, all’s well that ends well, time heals all wounds, and everything happens for a reason, right? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.


Years ago now—back when I was still the imagined star of this universal play called life—I believed these things. I believed that my trials were personally addressed and divinely hand-delivered. I believed the adversity I faced was specifically designed to refine me, purify me, and equip me. I basically believed that life was a nobler version of the Hunger Games. I was Katniss and God was the head gamemaker.

Then I started to train as a forensic psychologist and a crisis counselor. I began working in a maximum-security men’s prison. I served on a child death review team and worked on child sex-offender cases. I landed a job with a humanitarian organization and moved to the Balkans.

In the face of all this violence and suffering—feeling simultaneously helpless and responsible for having some answers—my neat little formula about adversity being a set of holy hurdles designed to strengthen us to run the good race in all triumph fell completely apart. And the superstructure of my faith sort of fell apart with it.

I was drowning in questions I couldn’t answer. Why was there so much suffering in this world? Why did humans have such a talent for violence? How could I reconcile the divine omnipotence I was taught to trust in as a child with lives torn apart by an earthquake, a famine, or other people? If God existed, if he were paying attention, why did he often seem so slow to act and so silent? How could he possibly choose to hold back and watch the bad unfurl alongside the good in the wilderness of freedom and choice? And why had I been given so much while others had so little?

Some changes in our lives and minds happen suddenly, born of formative moments. Others are long, slow pivots. With these, the gradual change in direction only becomes clear when you check your rearview mirror or raise your eyes to see a different vista stretching out in front of you. This is the sort of incremental existential shift that has unfolded in my life during the last dozen years.

I look back at my younger, anguished self now with the same odd hybrid of recognition and puzzled wonder that ambushes me whenever I see photographs of myself as a teenager. In those photos my face is unlined and softly rounded. I want to reach into those images hanging on the walls of my parent’s house and pinch my own cheeks.

I have to work to remember ever being that young.

I have to work to remember how unmoored I felt during that long season of relentless questioning.

And now? Now I find myself in a different place.

My very definition of faith has changed. My younger self counted faith as some combination of believing the right things, knowing the right answers, and keeping the right rules. Now, my ideas about faith inhabit far messier territory at the intersection of awareness, attitude, action, and intention.

My tolerance for sitting with mystery and living with paradox has increased, too. I still don’t have any answers to those questions about suffering that really satisfy me, but that somehow matters less. I no longer fear that my confusion completely undermines my belief in a God who loves us.

Finally, I’ve mostly stopped wrestling with these questions about suffering on that deepest of levels—not just because I’ve given up on nailing down satisfactory answers—but because continuing to churn over those questions didn’t help me. And during the last six years I haven’t had a lot of energy available for things that weren’t helping me.

In this first six years of our marriage, Mike and I have moved four times. During our five years in Laos we had two little boys and an unfortunate number of serious medical dramas. Dominic broke his leg. I broke an ankle and contracted two cases of cellulitis. Mike picked up a nasty case of staph and needed two different spinal surgeries for a herniated disc. We were beset by post-natal anxiety, depression, and chronic sleep deprivation (our wondrous boys, whatever else they might be, are not overly skilled sleepers). And, as the coup de grâce, four months after our second son’s birth, Mike was diagnosed with cancer. We had to leave Laos on 48 hours notice and decamp to Australia again for five months of tests, surgery, and three grueling rounds of chemo.

The one-year anniversary of Mike’s cancer diagnosis found us preparing to move from Laos to Vanuatu. Two and a half weeks after Mike took up his job as Country Director for a non-profit here, Vanuatu was devastated by the strongest cyclone ever recorded in the Pacific. Cyclone Pam impacted more than two thirds of the country’s population and caused damages estimated at half the country’s GDP. Seven months on, a severe El Nino has triggered a major drought. Most of the crops that were replanted after the decimation of the cyclone have died, the wells are running dry, and this drought is just beginning.

In some soul-deep sense, I haven’t really caught my breath since that terrible day of Dominic’s accident.

When I see these sorts of hands (and far worse) dealt to other people I’m still tempted to wonder why certain things have happened. But as this torrid season has been unfolding for us, those why questions have seemed largely irrelevant. It’s taken too much energy to keep trekking on through the valleys to leave much left over for wondering why we were in the valley in the first place. And hanging onto those questions felt fruitless, anyway. I couldn’t hold those questions close and still reach for many the lifelines we encountered along the way—lifelines that offered respite, levity, and light.

When Mike was diagnosed with cancer, a friend, herself a survivor, sent a card.

“Good,” she wrote, “will come from this.”

That is what I believe today.

Bad, terrible, tragic things happen. Because… life. And these bad things are not usually letter bombs that are specifically addressed to me. They do not happen to teach me a certain lesson, to force me to pray more, or to deliberately place me under the sort of pressure that turns coal into diamonds. They generally just happen. Sometimes these trials won’t kill me, but they will cost me, weaken me, or break me in important ways. Ways that matter. And sometimes they are absolutely more than I can handle, at least for a season.


This I also believe.

What is happening and how we respond to wicked tricky curve balls in life still matters, even if those curve balls aren’t being hurdled specifically at us by a holy pitcher.

And good can follow in spite of these things. Even, often, from them.

This good might not come quickly. It might not be anywhere near the “amount” or “type” of good that I would judge justifies the suffering. It may not be good that benefits me. I might never even learn of it.

But good will come.

Some of it will come easily. Sometimes sunshine will catch the clouds above me just so, temporarily cloaking the grey in a celestial riot of color. But sometimes the good feels far harder won and far less glorious. It is true that our deepest struggles can birth deep honesty, empathy, and compassion, but (just like actual birth, I might add) this process is neither easy nor fun. It takes effort and courage to choose gratitude sometimes. To be vulnerable. To take someone’s hand instead of pushing them away. To ask for, and accept, help. To stare down and name pain and loss. To chart a new path for yourself when the road you intended to walk gets washed away. To let go of regret and anger. To hang on when there’s not a single silver lining in sight. To search out and take hold of hope.

At this point, it would be narratively and psychologically convenient if I could point you towards all the good that’s emerged in the aftermath of our physical frailties, Mike’s cancer, the Cyclone, this drought, Dominic’s accident.

But with this last, in particular, I still struggle. The initial break has long healed, and all seems to be progressing well. But because the bone snapped just above the knee–in the growth plate area–we will not know for sure until Dominic is well into puberty whether that bone will continue to grow straight and true.

Some good has come out of that day. That crisis only deepened my respect and affection for my husband, for example. But I would still unplay these grace notes in a heartbeat. I would undo that fall if I could.

That choice, however, has never been mine to make. All I get to choose is where I focus and how I respond.

Four years on, that is still a work in progress. Clearly, there are memories and feelings that I still need to unpack, name, and sit with. There are probably still tears to be cried, words I need to write, and things I need to say.

And the time for that will come.

But it will not be today, not when I am still so sleep deprived. It will not be this week, not when I am mothering our two children alone while Mike is traveling again, trying to help other mamas access enough safe water to drink. It will probably not be this month while the temperatures rise and the drought drags on.

And that is alright.

Because, right now I can celebrate the fact that, finally, I am learning to acknowledge and appreciate the good that can emerge from hardship without feeling that this good needs to outweigh or negate the pain.

So, today I will pause and point to the scattering of wildflowers that that are peeking up from the dry and battered ground. I will draw a deep breath and mark their vibrant defiance.

I will sit awhile with the beautiful, and the good.


I wrote this last month post in response to Sarah Bessey’s syncroblog marking the launch of her latest book, Out Of Sorts: Making Peace With An Evolving Faith. Out Of Sorts is a tonic for anyone who is feeling conflicted about church and religion, or all tangled up about their own faith and what faith even means. It is an invitation to peace in the midst of a process that can be so acutely painful, so filled with doubt and fear and regret. If you’re in this liminal-faith space in your own life, check it out.

How have your views on suffering and struggle (or any other views) changed during the last decade?

Memories Of A Million Footsteps: How Our Secondary Homes Stick With Us

I am five months into our time in Port Vila now, and it’s been almost six months since Cyclone Pam devastated large parts of Vanuatu. All things considered, we’re settling in well. One thing that’s caught me by surprise during this move, however, is how much I think back to Laos. We spent five years there—three in Luang Prabang and two in Vientiane—and I didn’t realize just how deeply those five years had engraved Laos upon me until we were gone. Has that ever happened to you?

This month, in honor of the deeply important role that our secondary homes can have in shaping our lives, I want to share with you a piece I wrote almost a year ago now called Memories Of A Million Footsteps.


Last week we returned to Luang Prabang for the first time since we left here, more than a year ago. Those of you who have visited Luang Prabang will know what I mean when I say it’s a special place. Those of you who haven’t, imagine a small town nestled in between two rivers and cradled by jungle-covered mountains. Imagine grand and gilded temples alongside old-world French architecture. Imagine purple orchids and saffron-robed monks and sticky rice steaming in small bamboo baskets.

Boats on Mekong

We didn’t own a car during the three years we lived in Luang Prabang, so most evenings after Mike got home from work we would strike out on foot. Walking those streets for three years etched Luang Prabang into my internal map like no other place I have ever lived. It is maybe the only place in the world where you could drop me anywhere in town and I would know exactly where I was.

(Here, Mike would doubtless say that you would certainly hope so, given that the Old Town is entirely contained within three parallel roads, but that is beside the point.)

The point is that I know Luang Prabang. A million footsteps mapped it into me, and coming back was a sort of coming home.

Mike and I weathered some very difficult times during the years we lived in Luang Prabang – broken bones and medical emergencies, two spinal surgeries, depression, isolation, and post-natal anxiety. It was here that we both floundered in stormy internal seas during our first year as parents. It was here that we sometimes wondered whether those seas would swamp us completely.

But when I go back to Luang Prabang now I have to purposefully reach to pull those difficult times into view. As Mike and I walked around those familiar streets, it was all the good things about living there that flooded back – all the happy evenings and favorite restaurants and the lush, pervasive, and perfectly proportioned beauty of the place.

We timed this return visit to coincide with the annual Fire Lantern Festival that marks the end of Buddhist lent, so our first two nights here were lit by thousands of flickering candles that adorned the temples and the singular brilliance of hundreds of paper lanterns ascending from all over town into a still, dark sky.

We went back to our favorite waterfalls and we drank fresh lime juice by swimming pools. Waiters and market vendors remembered our names and did a double take to see red-headed baby number two in tow. We reconnected with old friends and we spent (too much?) money on beautiful silk scarves and wall hangings.

We remembered all over again that there have been many, many things that we have loved about our time here in Laos.  And that we were lucky to have lived in Luang Prabang for three of those years. And that even when times feel awfully thick and dark, future days can bring the hushed serenity of candlelight and the fierce brilliance of fire rising, rising, rising into the night.

LPB Lisa and Tash lighting lantern

What secondary homes have you lived in and then left?
How have they shaped you? What memories have stuck with you?

10 Ways Teachers Can Support Third Culture Kids

I was talking to the principal of an international school recently, and he had never heard the term “Third Culture Kid” (TCK).

This really surprised me. By now, after more than three decades of research dedicated to understanding the impact of growing up globally mobile, I had assumed that those working with TCKs would at least be familiar with the concept.

Since this conversation, I’ve been thinking about what I want my children’s teachers to understand about TCKs. What are the basics they should know? And how this knowledge could prove helpful to them as they guide these children in the classroom and on the playground?

Key Points About TCKs For Teachers


The late Dave Pollock provided a good definition of third culture kids:

“A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background”

The childhood lifestyle of TCKs (one high on cross-cultural experiences and mobility) impacts development patterns, fosters certain character traits, and influences the way these children typically interact with others and form relationships. These characteristics often become more pronounced in older TCKs and on into adulthood (a four-year-old TCK, for example, may seem anything but flexible, mature, and socially competent).

3 Typical Areas Of Strength For TCKs

There is now a significant body of research that identifies some of the typical strengths and areas of challenge associated with growing up in more than one culture. Here are some of the strengths/benefits that the third culture kids often develop over time:

  1. Flexibility/Adaptability

Over time, TCKs learn to blend effectively into new places and adapt to new settings and experiences. Many TCKs become so skilled at doing this that they are akin to chameleons—easily adjusting their dress, language, and style of relating to reflect their surroundings.

  1. Maturity/Perspective

TCKs often seem more mature than their peers–particularly in the ways they interact with adults and how they view the world. Their diversity of life experience tends to broaden their perspective and cure them of black and white thinking at an unusually young age. This, combined with the acute observational skills that help them adapt to new settings, tends to make TCKs skilled at picking up on nuance and seeing more than one side to situations.

  1. Advanced cross-cultural communication skills and general social skills

Third culture kids become practiced at communicating with those from other cultures and backgrounds. When it comes to making friends, they tend to have the ability to form unusually intense connections with others fairly quickly. In part, this tendency to form fast and deep relationships comes about because TCKs often jump straight to talking with others about universal life experiences such as passions, hobbies, family and relationships, rather than trying to connect around more culturally-bound topics such as TV shows and sporting teams.

3 Common Areas Of Challenge For TCKs

  1. Unresolved grief and loss

Dave Pollock once claimed that, “Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are 20 than mono-cultural individuals do in a lifetime.”

When TCKs move they often leave behind pretty much everything and everyone who has shaped their world—their house, school, friends, church community, relatives, and more. These sorts of massive life upheavals can be particularly tough on children. Children lack the life experiences and sense of time that help enable adults to put moving into perspective. And children often lack the self-awareness and emotional vocabulary to communicate about the impact of these drastic changes.

  1. Inner insecurity

Many TCKs become excellent at adapting and “blending in” where they find themselves—they become practiced at taking their cues on dress, speech, food, and do’s and don’ts from their surroundings. However, other TCKs tend to define their identity through difference—they despair of ever really fitting and choose instead to embrace being different and define an identity around that. Whether TCKs generally “adapt” or “define themselves through difference” this process tends to take effort and come at cost.

Some TCKs never feel completely comfortable, relaxed, or at home anywhere—they must always spend some extra energy monitoring their surrounds to feel like they know how they “should” act.

Some TCKs fail to develop an inner sense of stable values, preferences, and sense of right and wrong.

Some TCKs end up feeling a bit like cultural or social frauds. They know that on the surface they appear to fit in, but they don’t feel that their cultural or social knowledge extends “bone deep”—the way it seems to for true locals or some of their peers.

  1. Real or perceived arrogance

Particularly when they move back to their passport country or to the developed world, TCKs can be perceived as arrogant. Their ability to see things from multiple perspectives can make them impatient and judgmental with others who don’t seem to view the world as broadly. Because of their breadth of life experience, TCKs can also come to view themselves as more cosmopolitan, smarter, and globally aware than others.

However there is also another, more complicated, dimension to this issue of arrogance. Marilyn Gardner puts it like this: “Arrogance is often insecurity by another name. When the third culture kid feels ‘other’ they resort to coping mechanisms. This can come off as profound arrogance and result in exactly the opposite of what they really want – cause further alienation and feelings of being ‘other’ when what is longed for is connection and understanding. This can turn into a vicious cycle for the TCK and needs to be addressed for what it is – a deep insecurity with who they are within the context of their passport culture.”

10 Ways Teachers Can Support Third

10 Ways Teachers Can Support TCKs


We’ve just covered three typical strengths and three common areas of challenge for TCKs. There are many others, but since this is a blog post and not a book (for a good book on TCKs click here) let’s move forward and look at things teachers can do to support their TCK students.

I offer these suggestions with great humility. I am a psychologist who specializes in stress, trauma, and resilience. I grew up as a third culture kid. I am the mother of two young third culture kids. However, I am not a teacher. In fact, I often look at the teachers in my son’s preschool classroom with something akin to awe. I’m not quite sure how they manage to stay consistently positive, energetic, and calm in the midst of that chaos, much less implement a strategic teaching program.

Also, all TCKs are different. I don’t pretend that all TCKs would benefit from all of these suggestions. However, I do think that the cyclical uprooting and replanting experiences that shape TCKs (and the resulting personality and social characteristics you see in many TCKs as they mature) suggest that certain types of guidance in the classroom may be particularly helpful for many TCKs.

So, disclaimers aside, here are some specific ways that I think that teachers could help support the TCKs in their care.

  1. When a TCK first arrives in your classroom, pay particular attention to asking them about themselves

Where has the TCK come from? Where have they lived before? What are some things they miss about their old school or home? What are some things they are coming to like about their new school or home?

In the aftermath of an abrupt transition, a TCK can feel that they have lost a large chunk of their identity. Their old life feels like a dream, and their new life can feel exhausting and overwhelming. Some kids go on and on about where they’ve come from (and often alienate other children with these tales). However, particularly for the TCKs who have gone silent about their past, take some time to ask them some questions.

Just by asking and listening you are already supporting your student. Your TCK will feel better understood and cared for because of this interest. However, you can also go a step further and build on your TCKs experiences.

Consider involving your TCK student in teaching others about their passport country or places they’ve previously lived. Design some classroom activities around the customs, geography, or culture of the countries that your TCKs are familiar with and give them a chance to shine (or at least feel some ownership) in front of their peers.

  1. Give them extra time, attention, and help during the first couple of weeks.

New students have to learn the rules of a new school as well as a posse of new teachers and peers. That’s already a daunting task. Your new TCK is also trying to learn a new culture, a new city, and a new house. So pay extra attention to your new TCKs and try to ease the burden of all that extra processing where you can.

Make things explicit. Tell them about the classroom rules and routines. Talk to them about things that you do regularly that they may never have done before (for example, do you say a pledge at the start of the day? Do you sing hymns? Does your child have to join in with these activities or can they pass? What are the procedures about completing and turning in homework, and around discipline?). When you see TCK students looking lost or uncertain, help them understand what’s going on around them.

  1. Try to help them make friends

Having some friends is foundational to most children’s happiness and emotional health, so do what you can to facilitate those social connections for your students. This is particularly essential if your TCKs have come in mid-term or mid-year, after children in your class have already made friends with their peers. Many TCKs may be quite practiced at making friends by the time they are in late high school, but making friends may not come naturally at all for some TCKs, particularly the younger ones. These “socially struggling” TCKs may not join group activities, may prefer to play by themselves, and may come across as withdrawn, uncooperative, depressed, angry, or disruptive.

Help create opportunities for your TCKs to have fun, connect with, and learn about their peers in small-group or one-on-one settings. For older students you could use group or partner work, or get-to-know-you exercises or games to facilitate this. With younger students, consider taking a more active role in how you encourage them to connect with fellow students (and how you encourage fellow students to connect with your new TCK and “share” “co-operate” “practice kindness” and “play well together”).

  1. If your TCK can’t speak the language, do your best to have a translator available

If your TCK student can’t speak the language you teach in, do your best to have a translator close by to help during their early days. Things will be hard enough for your young TCK as they work to learn a new language. They should at least have someone they can ask where the toilets are.

  1. Teach about “identity” “differences” and the “TCK experience”

TCKs can really struggle to form a clear sense of identity. Some TCKs won’t even know which country they’re from or where they were born, much less have internalized these concepts. As an example, my three-year-old has already lived in five houses on three different continents. I’m still trying to persuade him to accept that he has a last name (he often insists that he is “just Dominic”). I have yet to get him to consistently and correctly tell me which country he currently lives in. We haven’t tried to explain the concept of Australian and American passports yet.

You can support your TCKs (particularly your young ones) by designing activities that explore identity—family tree, country and culture of origin, personal likes and dislikes, etc.

Also, if you teach a lot of TCKs then you have a group of students who have come from very diverse backgrounds. The way they see the world (even down to what’s right and wrong, how you handle conflict and anger, what’s honorable and what is shameful) will be different. Explore, acknowledge and celebrate social and cultural and other differences in your teaching. Also, teaching about the term “TCK” the common experiences of TCKs can help TCKs realize that they are not alone. That realization can be very powerful and healing.

  1. Help TCKs understand their host culture

Help orient your TCK by teaching about local traditions, foods, customs and other things related to the country you are in.

  1. Realize that the word “home” may be loaded and confusing

The concept of home is confusing for many TCKs well into adulthood. I spent three years writing my memoir, Love At The Speed Of Email, primarily to untangle that particular word. I know I’m not alone in my deeply felt struggles on this front. Many TCKs are deeply confused about where home is (and what “normal” is) and deeply unsettled by that confusion.

  1. Connect a TCK that is having difficulties with a qualified school counselor and/or extra academic support

Sometimes your struggling TCKs will be obvious—they are the kids who are “acting out”. Their frustration, insecurity, and anger can be very evident. Sometimes, however, a struggling TCK will stay silent, put their heads down, and do their best to disappear. Look out for your TCKs (and other students) who appear isolated from their peers or whose academic work is not on par with their apparent abilities.

Support your TCKs who are struggling academically by connecting them with tutoring resources that can help fill in any gaps in their education (this is often a particular problem in math and science subjects). If your TCK is also struggling emotionally and socially, seeing a school counselor (if there is one) for a season may really help a TCK student in their transition.

  1. Mark the end of the school year and the coming transition—into summer and into the next year.

TCKs go through many transitions, often without much time to process them. You can help your students by recognizing that goodbyes are particularly complicated for most TCKs. Help them with the transition to a new class and teacher at the end of the year by acknowledging this transition as the year concludes. Talk about goodbyes. Share with your students what you have really cherished about the year, allow kids to share what they have enjoyed (or not), and how they feel when they have to say goodbye and move on. Explain what they can expect next year.

  1. Do not waste time arguing with a three year old when they insist they’re in an entirely different country

This may only be applicable to anyone who teaches my eldest TCK, but … don’t waste time arguing with a child who insists they’re in Thailand when they’re actually in Vanuatu.

If such a child refuses to change their mind after two or three exchanges on this topic then they either (a) just need to be right, or (b) they really need to believe they actually are in Thailand during that moment. Either way, speaking from experience, it’s a battle not worth fighting. There will be others that are worth fighting. Trust me.

There is a lot more I could say on this topic, but I want to turn the floor over to you.

What tips do you have for your children’s teachers?

What do you want your kids teachers to know about TCKs?

What have you seen work well to support TCKs in the classroom?