Parent Self-Care: Moving Past the Buzzword to Prioritizing Well-being in the Midst of Life Abroad

by Elizabeth Vahey Smith

As much as self-care has become a popular term in recent years, the essence of it has devolved from its intended meaning – doing things, big or small, for our holistic well-being – to being primarily about bubble baths and charcuterie boards. Rest assured, as much as I love a bubble bath and a good charcuterie board, as much as I think a bubble bath and charcuterie board can be good ‘small things’ for our holistic well-being, as much as I wonder how many times I can get away with using bubble baths and charcuterie boards in a single paragraph, I’m not talking about bubble baths and charcuterie boards.

I’m talking about all the important aspects of self-care, from emotional processing, to healthy boundaries, to planting green zone moments. And I’m talking about this because, in our research at TCK Training, we’ve seen that mental illness (including depression and anxiety, as well as other mental illnesses) in TCK parents is high. And this impacts our well-being, our children’s well-being, and our ministry’s well-being.  

You may have gotten the memo. It’s a pretty commonly accepted fact: Life on the Field is Hard. And there are a lot of factors that make it harder, like popular theologies of suffering, expectations on what missionary life should be, and our own pride in how much we can endure. As if that’s not hard enough, life on the field makes good self-care harder to do with a lack of resources, overworked teams, and a shortage of amenities. But wait, there’s more! 

Because we also expect to be able to do it all, we rarely tally up how hard things are, and we often just shame ourselves for having a hard time at all. 

I believe that when you outline your core values, you can find the time and the means to make them happen. Usually when I’m talking to missionary families, they want to have a healthy family and a thriving ministry. I believe that’s possible. But only through following the example of Jesus. Jesus had a thriving ministry of healing the sick and casting out demons, but he had a core objective of preaching and teaching – just like we have a core objective of leading our families in the ways they should go.

In Mark 1:35, Jesus finished a great day of his thriving ministry, woke up, prioritized his own well-being (he went off to an isolated place to pray), and then set up boundaries around how much time he would spend on his thriving ministry (even though there were crowds of people expecting him to resume his work). Being imitators of Christ, let’s follow his example of taking time to prioritize his own well-being.  

Emotional Processing

Oftentimes when talking with TCK parents about the unique struggles their kids face, we hear a lot of surprise. “How is this a unique challenge for TCKs? We also went through these same experiences.” I won’t be addressing that particular question in this article, but I acknowledge that, yes, parents go through many of the same things their children do, which means that, yes, parents need to be emotionally processing their grief, too.

Here’s a unique struggle for TCK parents: while TCKs haven’t always learned how to hold together their big emotions in public spaces, TCK parents have. So you’re in these moments where you’d really love to sit down and have a good cry, but you can’t. Because you’re living in a fishbowl. Because you’re managing everyone else’s emotions. Because you know that it doesn’t fix anything. But there never seems to be a convenient time to have a good cry, so things don’t get processed.

We need to stop waiting for time to process the challenges we’ve faced in our expat life and start making time. Take some time to journal or talk through hard things that have happened and how that impacted you. Print out our free Processing Questions worksheet, and on the back write out the things you really ought to process. You can carve time out of your weekly schedule, or you can double up on tasks. Try laminating our processing questions printable and thinking through the questions while you’re washing dishes or taking a shower. We know that showers are the perfect place to solve the world’s problems. Let’s repurpose them to solve our own.  

Healthy Boundaries

Living on the field usually looks like immersion. You’re there 24 hours a day, with the people you’re trying to serve. There are calls at all hours, and demands for more than you can possibly give. So you die to yourself and pick up your cross and go on and on trying to meet all the needs. At some point you start to wonder how long you can do this because looking at the road ahead or behind you, 10, 20, or 30 years seems a lot longer of a journey than the road to Calvary. You thought you heard that the burden is easy and the yoke is light, but that must be for the people you’re serving. Not for you. So you set your jaw and hoist up the cross and carry on. 

Let me speak the gospel truth for you: Jesus beckons you to him, and his burden is easy and the yoke is light. Laying down your life and picking up the cross? You’re already doing that. There’s nothing you have to do, nothing you have to prove, because Jesus doesn’t measure his love for you in how much you do for him. He says, “Let me teach you . . . and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). Wearing yourself out is not what Jesus has in mind for you. 

Saying “no” is an important spiritual discipline. Think about your values, and and then look at your calendar, your choices, and your life, and decide where you need to put boundaries so you have time for the things you value. 

How many hours will you work? What hours will you not work? How much wiggle room do you put in for emergencies? What defines an emergency? At the end of the day, how do you want your family to perceive you, and what choices do you need to make to present that way?

Green Zone Moments

It’s time to talk about bubble baths and charcuterie boards again! In stressful moments – which happen a lot on the field – our bodies can get into the red zone. These are high stress levels with lots of cortisol (the stress chemical) and adrenaline. These chemicals cue your body to move into survival mode. Fight, flight, freeze, be really irritable with your family members — there are a number of ways that this can show up, but the symptoms reveal the chemical balance in our brains. For holistic well-being, we need to get relief from all those stress chemicals. One strategic way of doing this is through Green Zone moments. 

A Green Zone Moment is a moment that you know you’ll enjoy so much that it will bring you peace and lower your stress chemicals – at least for a bit. Even better, positive anticipation of Green Zone Moments can also help reduce cortisol levels! This means looking forward to a bubble bath or a delicious charcuterie board is good for your mental health. But it doesn’t have to be a bubble bath or charcuterie board. 

What activities bring you joy? It doesn’t have to be practical. Listen, Jesus could have gone into an inner room to pray, but instead Jesus regularly went on a hike alone into the wilderness. Not because it was a practical option, but because, I posit, it was delightful to him. 

It doesn’t even have to be big or different from what you already do. I went through a season where I had a list of 30 tiny luxuries, and I tried to get 10 everyday. From a cup of coffee to snuggling with my kids to taking the time to get music playing. I didn’t add more than a couple of minutes to my day, but I purposely valued the little things I can do or even already do for myself. 

The Why

I think this culture of downplaying our own needs and elevating the needs of others is problematic and leads to burnout more than it leads to healthy communities. I saved “the why” for last because I don’t want to have to say it at all. I don’t want to have to convince you that you’re worth caring for.  I don’t want to have to convince you that your losses deserve to be processed, that your time and energy deserves to have boundaries, that you deserve to have tiny frivolous moments of joy recklessly seasoning your life, that you deserve well-being. 

And I know this culture well. I know how suggestions for making life easier can be dismissed with “I’m fine.” I know how truths can be met with “That seems true for everyone but me.” I know how pervasive it is and how hard it is to combat this world view that our needs don’t matter. 

I think that you should do this for yourself. I think that when the Bible says “love your neighbor as yourself,” it starts with loving yourself. So you should do this for you. But if you can’t: research shows that your mental health has a huge impact on your children’s holistic health. 

The CDC-Kaiser survey of Americans shows 19% of people said they grew up in a home with an adult suffering from mental illness. In our survey, 39% of TCKs (and 39% of MKs) said the same. Additionally, the rate of TCKs reporting mental illness at home went up over time, from 1 in 3 TCKs born before 1960, to half of Gen Z. Mental illness of an adult is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs) because the research shows that it has a strong impact on a child’s lifelong well-being. In fact, TCKs who reported this ACE also reported significantly higher rates of abuse and neglect – including 64% reporting emotional abuse and 58% reporting emotional neglect. 

We as parents need to do what it takes to stay mentally well. 

The prescription is to process your grief, protect your time and energy, and plant delightful moments throughout your day, week, and life. When you do these three things, you’ll see the positive impact of these investments in all areas of your life.

Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash

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Elizabeth Vahey Smith is a TCK mom who spent 5 years in Papua New Guinea as a missionary. Now her family explores the globe full-time as worldschoolers. Elizabeth works remotely as the COO for TCK Training, traveling often for work and always for pleasure. She is the author of The Practice of Processing: Exploring Your Emotions to Chart an Intentional Course. Follow her travels on Instagram @elizabeth.vaheysmith and @neverendingfieldtrip. Learn more about research-based preventive care for TCKs @tcktraining.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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