I was nine when my family moved overseas.
I still remember my last ice-skating lesson. I remember the moment my bedspread was sold at our garage sale to a lady with spiky hair. I still remember hugging my grandmother goodbye at the airport.
I also remember comments from friends and church members during that time. Everyone kept telling me how excited I must be, and how much we were honoring God by our commitment. A tension began to build in me, coupled with a growing sense of shame.
Was it silly to be sad about toys and bedspreads and ice-skating lessons when more important things (like gospel proclamation) were at stake?
Over the next ten years, the missionary call on my family’s life was often spiritually idolized by others. I felt responsible to be the uber-spiritual, always-perfect, super-mature version of myself that seemed to align with the perceptions of others. Like many MKs, I often wrestled with feeling responsible for the success of my parents’ ministry. Unbeknownst to me then, I was also grappling with another loss.
The loss of being nine.
You see, I was an MK, but I was still sad and scared and angry. I complained and cried and argued with my sister. I secretly dreaded going to local church and never really wanted to babysit our teammates’ kids. Why did it often feel like these two realities were directly opposed to each other? Slowly, as many MKs do, I began to master the art of pretending.
According to the dictionary, pretend is defined as “to speak and act so as to make it appear that something is the case when in fact it is not.”
MKs are professional pretenders.
I often felt like I was living in a glass house. I smiled to everyone looking at my life from the outside. I tried to live up to the expectations and personal assumptions of how MKs are supposed to act. I assured everyone that I was completely, totally, one hundred percent fine. I was not fine.
Ironically? Within my glass house, I rarely felt seen.
A variety of expectations can cause MKs to hide inside their own glass houses. Here are six outer and inner expectations that can contribute heavily to the pressure we feel to pretend.
Outer Expectation #1: Decades-Old Mission Theology
Heroes of the faith. Spiritual superheroes. Simply extraordinary people. Aren’t those the kind of people that God calls to the mission field? No. Missionaries are normal, everyday people.
Although mission theology around these perceptions has slowly changed over recent years, echoes of this thinking can still seep into the community of Christ. Aren’t missionary families supposed to be the super-spiritual, cream of the crop Christians? This theology can seem sensible, but we can forget that the nine-year-olds in the family are also the ones living it out.
Outer Expectation #2: Parents or Other Authority Figures
An adult MK recently told me that she still can hear the parental comment in her head, “If you hang out with those kids and get into trouble, we could lose our positions on the field and have to move back to the States.”
While this comment may have been true, its underlying meaning can cause MKs to feel terrified of messing up or making mistakes. Because isn’t my parents’ job at stake? The following beliefs can often be vocally or silently communicated to MKs:
“I am responsible to keep my parents on the field.”
“I can ruin my parents’ ministry.”
That’s a crushing amount of pressure.
Outer Expectation #3: The Complexity of Fundraising
Fundraising is a complex topic. First, missionaries need financial support. Second, the most logical means to accomplish this goal is for missionaries to visit churches on home assignment. And third, who would feel especially stirred to donate money to a family of rude, misbehaved children?
But the pressure of church visits and fundraising can often feel awkward and uncomfortable for MKs. The appropriate expectation to behave can often be skewed into acting a certain way or making a good impression because financial consequences are at stake. “People are watching what you do—behave accordingly” is what one MK I talked to was often told.
Inner Expectation #1: The Stress of Cross-Cultural Living
I remember perceiving a stark shift in my parents when my family first moved overseas. Stress levels remained sky-high as we attempted to transition to our new home and culture.
Kids are intuitive. I noticed the intense expectation that my parents felt to learn a new language and begin ministry right away. I resolved internally not to add to their stress. One adult MK similarly described, “I was just trying so hard to be brave and not be a problem for my parents. I didn’t want to stand in their way. I felt pressure to go with it and accept it as the way it had to be.”
Inner Expectation #2: A Skewed Understanding of What “Makes God Happy”
Being happy all the time is what it means to honor God.
If I’m happy, then God’s happy.
Cognitively, I know those phrases are not true. But for a significant part of my MK life, that was the theology I lived out. I believed that honoring God meant following all the rules, always doing right, and making sure I never failed Him. I mistakenly perceived my ability to “play my MK part” as my contribution to my parents’ call to ministry. I believed that showing up to play my role was my part in their service.
Inner Expectation #3: The Fear of Being “Found Out”
I recently talked with a group of college-aged MKs who told me that they had often been afraid of being “found out” during their childhoods. Do you know what they were afraid of being “found out” for?
“I often thought that MKs were expected to be spiritual enough not to struggle. When I was struggling with something, I often felt pressure to hide it,” one MK said. This deep-seated fear of being discovered is common among MKs, undergirded by an inner pressure of perfection that manifests in a variety of ways.
If I could go back and talk to little-girl Taylor, I’d encourage her to voice her hurts and concerns. I’d assure her that honesty was needed, that struggling was normal, and that it was okay to feel all of her emotions.
But more than anything, do you know what little-girl Taylor and many other MKs today need to hear?
More than praise, they need permission.
They need someone to lean in and gently tell them that it’s okay to be nine.
Taylor Murray is an MK and the author of two books on cross-cultural issues. Her upcoming book Stop Saying I’m Fine: Finding Stillness When Anxiety Screams will be releasing this fall. She is a familiar writer and speaker in the missions world and has served hundreds of young adults in the areas of soul care, pastoral counseling, and spiritual formation. Taylor is passionate about seeing her generation come awake to the love, presence, and action of God in their lives. Connect with her on Instagram here or visit her website at www.taylorjoyinwords.com.