Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from Tori’s new book, The Missionary Mama’s Survival Guide: Compassionate Help for the Mothers of Cross-cultural Workers.
Many cross-cultural workers pursue their callings soon after they finish college (or at least in young adulthood) and within a few years of leaving home. Saying goodbye is always hard for mamas, but our tears may be caused by more than just loneliness.
This complicated season of sending often coincides with three other major changes in a woman’s life. If she doesn’t heed the layers of stress that these added adjustments are causing, she might feel like a crazy woman wandering in the wild.
Let’s start with the most taboo: MENOPAUSE. Notice I put that in all caps because I am shouting it:
MENOPAUSE, MENOPAUSE, MENOPAUSE! Maybe you are covering your ears now and looking around to make sure no one can see what you are reading. Maybe you are whispering, “Are we allowed to talk about that in a Christian book or blog?”
You bet we are, sister! Here we go!
Menopause messed with me. Even before it achieved its period-ending purpose (which is a great reward, by the way), it made me feel like a freak. Physically, I had few symptoms, but mentally, I felt like a hollow version of my former self. I didn’t realize why I felt like this until a few years had passed and my hormones had leveled out.
But with hindsight’s better view, I can see how the experience of menopause led me down a dead-end path. No one told me that hormonal shifts could make me anxious and weepy for months at a time, but now, looking back, much of what I blamed on grief over my Goer’s absence was probably amplified by menopause. Can you relate?
If so, here’s my advice to you: if after some adjustment, you seem sadder than you should be as you send your child abroad, consider the changes going on in your body. Menopause can be a megaphone that makes the hot spots of this new life VERY LOUD.
If you feel crazier than normal, meet up with your doctor and relay your feelings. There are many helpful natural (and not-so-natural) treatments to even out your moods. I didn’t know my extreme insecurity was most likely a byproduct of menopause, but I could have enjoyed the view a lot more if I had asked for help sooner.
Brace yourself, Mama. Most likely, you are at the halfway point of your life (and that’s being generous—do you really plan to live to a hundred?). When a woman is staring down the finish line rather than waiting for the gun to go off, her perspective changes.
Midlife has been somewhat of a conundrum for me. Physically, I feel great, and mentally, I have matured and become more emotionally sturdy. But I miss the life that once was mine, and memories of the past make this new season of maturity and freedom bittersweet.
I loved the season of kids at home with all its busyness, family meals, and a sense of being needed. I loved developing little lives and felt like I was in my “sweet spot” as a stay-at-home mom. I loved the feeling, especially as the kids got older, of being a coach to help them shape their worldview. I loved that life when I was in it. I couldn’t foresee the future being different. But let me tell you, it is.
So. very. different.
I have trouble with forward vision, so the empty nest came upon me just as I was gathering feathers of motherly insight and other useful items that would keep all my chicks cozy. Just when I got the sticks arranged exactly the way I wanted, all four of my birds flew away. I was left with an empty nest and a hollow space in my heart. Hollow hearts in midlife often produce confused minds. Confused minds make us question our identity. My confusion about my new season made me feel like an awkward stranger in this new and quieter existence.
I kept flitting around looking for myself in the now-empty rafters of my rationality, but I was gone, and someone else was living my life. I’m sure this midlife meandering to nowhere—layered on top of menopause—made my Goer’s absence seem all the more unbearable to me. Once I realized that I had put all my eggs of identity in the basket of motherhood, I was able to see the reverberations of this reality in my mental state and in my marriage.
The third tier of additional stress during the time of my Goer’s departure was produced by my view of my marriage. I now had a Dagwood sandwich of adjustment to deal with: my son’s absence combined with menopause and midlife and topped with marriage difficulties. All these ingredients piled atop one another made this period a time of deep sorrow for me.
Confusion about who you are can make you a bad marriage partner. Being a good partner requires us to deny ourselves often and choose to serve another. When I was in the throes of letting go of my full nest, my youth, and my identity, I longed to understand what was happening to me. Everything seemed extra hard, especially my relationship with my husband.
I was chronically unhappy and didn’t know why. Processing my grief seemed to be taking soooo long, and I wanted to feel better about me. Actually, I wanted my husband to help me feel better about me, and I was mad because he didn’t seem very helpful. He had greeted this new stage of freedom from family commitments with gladness; he chose to take trips and undertake projects in a way he couldn’t do in the past. He seemed to be living his best life, while I was drowning in self-pity.
I’m sure some of his newfound energy was a type of coping mechanism for him; he wasn’t oblivious to the empty nest, the midlife reminders, and this crazy woman living beside him. But somehow, he seemed to take it all in stride. I assumed he wasn’t struggling.
Now I know that he was confused by all the changes we were walking through together. He wasn’t sure how to process all the unfamiliar feelings, so he chose to compartmentalize his grief in a way I couldn’t. Because he is a thinker who tries to fit all of his musings into a logic-based grid in his mind, he was spending time quietly sorting while I was drowning in my tears. I resented him for his apparent balance and for his breezy approach to my complaints. During this time we fought. A lot.
I had to learn to look less to my now-grown children for love and belonging and more to my spouse for this emotional tank-filling. When I did this, our relationship began to re-blossom. This reacquainting with one another involved intentional effort and took the form of counseling with close friends, reading some marriage books together, and reinstituting a regular date night.
We had spent the last twenty-six years of our marriage raising our family and being parents; now was the time to rediscover one another. The rediscovery has not been without some missteps, but we are on a much healthier path now and have an increased appreciation for the parts we each play in our shared life.
I tell you all of this not so you will feel sorry for my miserable plight at that time, but so you can feel the freedom to continue journeying through yours. Be aware of The Big Three as you send your loved one abroad. Don’t pin all your problems on his or her absence. See all these variables as equal players. Just having an awareness of possible roadblocks in this Missionary Mama journey will help you to be a well-informed hiker, and a well-informed hiker is a more pleasant hiker, even if she wanders a bit (like me).
Send this article, along with the book link, to moms of missionaries in your life.
Tori R. Haverkamp is the mother of a missionary and the creator of the Parents of Goers Ministry, which seeks to educate and encourage parents of cross-cultural workers. Because of her disorienting experience with sending her son overseas, Tori desires to be an empathetic guide for those just beginning the Missionary Mama journey. With a Master’s degree in Theological Studies (Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) and over 30 years of experience in ministry, Tori speaks, writes, and teaches on motherhood, marriage, and missions. She and her husband, Brent, along with their four now-grown children, are avid backpackers. They have hiked all over the world and survived to tell great stories of their adventures.