I Never Signed Up For This

by Ann Bowman

For every missionary who takes up their cross and follows Christ to the ends of the earth, there are parents and family members whose lives are affected by the calling. This group never chooses to offer themselves, to share in the sacrifice, and yet they must. Will the pain result in bitterness or healing? This was a decision I was forced to make when my family heard the call.

When my oldest daughter left for a third world country with a six-month-old baby on her hip, I began a journey of sorrow that I didn’t choose. I thought I supported missions — until it was my own child leaving for full-time overseas work. It was then that missions became more than just the information booth in the church lobby, the glossy support letters in my mailbox, or the fascinating guest speaker at church. It became personal, and the hardships and dangers that missionaries experience now touched my life and my emotions daily.

I was always proud of my children’s interest in missions. During their teen years, they eagerly joined in summer service trips to exotic places, always with a bit of danger involved. I envisioned that they would continue their involvement as adults, possibly serving on the missions task force at church or leading short-term mission trips. I never expected any of them to take my grandchildren and plunge into full-time work in a poverty-stricken area of the world. I want to say I handled the challenge with grace and faith — but I didn’t.

Throughout the weeks leading up to departure, I thought I was adjusting and holding it together. My daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren moved into our house after divesting of most of their worldly goods and leaving their apartment. They bought one-way tickets and sold all that was left of their belongings — everything that didn’t fit into the three bags allowed per traveler. It stung that much of what they sold off had been gifts from my husband and myself.

The day of departure came, and the airport trip was brutal. I pasted a smile on my face and locked my tears up tight. I wanted my grandchildren to remember a joyful Nonna; I wanted my daughter and son-in-law to feel the support I was trying to fake. I waved until the little family I loved turned the corner in the security line and I could no longer see them.

My daughter had asked a friend to walk me to my car in the airport parking garage and make sure I was emotionally ready before starting the four-hour drive home. My false bravado lasted only a few miles down the highway, at which point I pulled over and wept. When I was finally alone in God’s presence, I was honest with Him. I was angry and hurt. This was not how I had planned my life.

The Psalmist proclaims, “Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5 HCSB). I have learned much in the past seven years about sowing in tears. I have leaned into God, bringing Him my grief and the deep shame I felt. Grief arose when my dreams of life with grandchildren and family living near me were shattered. I felt shame when I could not readily rejoice that my children were sacrificing so much for the gospel and doing what God called them to do — the holy mindset I was supposed to have.

In turning to the Lord in honesty, I was met with tenderness and compassion, not condemnation. He understands the mother’s heart He created in me that must balance the desire to protect with the command to release my children to do all that God calls them to do. My season of dying to my dreams was like being crushed in an olive press. It was painful, and some days felt like hand-to-hand combat with my emotions.

Being an artist, I poured myself into prayer-painting. The enemy was not silent during my time of wrestling with God. When I heard cruel whispers giving me dread and sorrow, I chose to create and lift every concern to God. I painted rural scenes from their beautiful adopted country. My heart shifted as I began to pray for the people my daughter’s family encountered and for increasing boldness as they shared the good news. Bitterness loosened its grip as I chose not to listen to fear and self-pity.

Hebrews promises us that, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11 ESV). In these years of separation, I live out the words of Hebrews. I did not reach a permanent peace-filled plateau. Because my daughter lives in a country with political upheaval, I often cycle through times when sudden dread will seize me after reading world news headlines and all contact with my daughter gets cut off. I choke out my prayers by sheer obedience. Peace returns when I once again focus on God’s purposes.

One of the greatest sources of discouragement for global workers is often from their own families back home, yet many of these relatives are committed church members. I don’t want to be part of that statistic. I never want to be the one to dissuade my children from obeying where the Holy Spirit is leading them.

Over the years, my daughter has sometimes called home discouraged. She shares wounds and disappointments. I pray for her and encourage her with scripture. She told me once that of all the team members in their area, her parents were the only parents who didn’t offer tickets home and encourage them to give up. I count that as God’s victory; I have been changed from grief-filled to poured out and finally to finding purpose as I support my missionary family’s work.

I have traveled to their country several times. I now see the wisdom of God and how well-suited my daughter and son-in-law are for their work. I’m amazed by the spiritual fruit from their ministry. They witness miracles rarely seen in the States. When I see my grandchildren share their faith with neighborhood children in their adopted tongue, I am humbled. How could I ever have wished them anywhere else? My grandchildren’s deep faith is worth far more to me than having them live nearby.

So, I visit with my grandchildren mostly by video chat. I do not participate in their lives the way most of the world enjoys their family. That is not my lot in this world and not mine to question. Nonna’s gifts are not cute clothes or countless stuffed animals, but instead, Kindle books, crocs for the rainy season, and jars of peanut butter. I choose to let go of anger and my own empty dreams to receive so much more: a deeper prayer life and a much closer relationship to my daughter’s family, although we live far apart.

Jim Elliot, slain missionary to Ecuador, once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” As I love and support my family from afar, I think about his words. The loss felt so great in the beginning, but I can truly say that what I’ve gained is of greater worth. And those gains are eternal — in the lives of my children and grandchildren and the people they serve. One day we will all be partying together in heaven, forever, no more separation and no more tears. That hope lives in me and gives me strength for the journey.


Ann Bowman (not her real name) is a mentor to young women serving overseas. Having two grown daughters in missions, she has walked with them through the joys of living abroad and the trials. Ann is an artist, writer, teacher, and Nonna to four grandchildren who live in Southeast Asia. She and her husband reside in Texas and spend as much time with their family on video chat as they can.

6 Reasons to Add a Nanny to Your Village

by Jenny Scheer

The notion that I would offer up parenting advice is laughable considering the way I struggled with the transition to motherhood when I had my firstborn in Uganda 20 months ago. I considered writing a blog post about how hard the first 3-4 months were. Not one of those posts about how it is hard but you endure and then you see God was with you all along, but one of those bewildered, exhausted posts when I only knew that the days were incredibly long and hadn’t yet experienced the months passing quickly.

Yet here I am with one piece of parenting advice that I say with conviction for anyone moving to a developing country: Hire a nanny. Not a bad nanny; that’s a terrible idea. Ask people for recommendations, interview several candidates, have a probationary period, and try again if needed. Look for someone who fits with your personality, who has experience working for expatriates, and is willing to accept and implement your expectations for care and discipline. The nanny may or may not become “like a member of your family” but definitely needs to be a trusted, caring member of your team.

Having a nanny has made a huge difference for me and here are six reasons why I think it could help you, too.


1. There are few alternatives.
In my passport country, I could find a daycare for my child for when I need to work, but here in Uganda the style and standard of care is so different that I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving my son at a nursery. There is no gym here where I can drop my kids off for an hour while I get in a workout and no MOPS group to attend. There’s no “Mom’s day out” organized by a local church like you might find in cities in the U.S. The best and really only option for regular care is a trusted, consistent nanny.


2. More caregivers = more care.
We all know that it really does take a village to raise a child, so why not build that village with a nanny? My favorite thing about having a nanny is that it means my sons gets an additional caregiver. Without grandparents or aunts and uncles around, our son would only receive intimate, regular attention from my husband and me. I love that he is able to be loved by someone else. It is clear that he really enjoys our nanny and that she really enjoys him.


3. Diversity enriches our children.
I firmly believe that my son is benefiting from having a third personality, and especially someone from a different culture, caring for him. At his age it means that his development is enriched by having someone who plays with him differently, speaks to him in two other languages, and has different expectations of him. While we foster American independence, she instills community expectations. When he is older, I hope this will establish in him an intuitive understanding for this culture and others like it that are less individualistic, more indirect, and more focused on saving face than our American culture.


4. It helps us maintain our margin.
One of the hardest things about living overseas is that even after being here three years I find that my emotional margin is thinner than at home. Our part-time nanny is with our son every weekday morning. Having this time to do what I need to or want to do helps me get my margin back. Often, I have work I need to do during this time. But I may be able to use the time to tackle logistics for a trip to the States or for visitors who are coming. Sometimes I go grocery shopping or fold laundry or prep dinner.

For me, a nanny is a requirement when I am formally employed, or when I am doing research in the field. But even when I am in between contracts, having a few free mornings gives me an opportunity to do worthwhile, meaningful things like meet a friend for coffee.


5. It helps keep family relationships in balance.
Having my margin back has made a huge difference in my marriage. The early months of baby-rearing when I was on my own were bleak. I felt so low. I had no margin at all and it affected my relationship with my beloved husband. Having a nanny means I get my margin back, have time to prep dinner so our evenings are more peaceful, and have a trusted person who is available to babysit for dates.


6. It’s extremely affordable.
This is a practical consideration: having a nanny in a developing country can usually fit in most missionary budgets. We pay our nanny above the norm for such a position without being outright ridiculous. She is able to send her kids to school, provide medical care for her family, take the more expensive form of public transit to work, and she even saved enough money to buy a plot of land.


With so many benefits of having a nanny, I hope you will consider adding a nanny to your village if you are living or moving overseas. It has made such a positive impact on our lives and work in Uganda, as well as in our nanny’s life.


Jenny Scheer lives in Kampala, Uganda where she works as an agricultural economist with organizations like USAID and UKAID and her husband works as a civil engineer with Engineering Ministries International. She absolutely adores her son and the gift of motherhood. She blogs recipes and meal ideas for Western cooking in East Africa at www.kampalakitchen.com.

Family Factors in Missionary Attrition

by Andrea Sears

Forging ahead with the results of our returned missionary survey

The first major section of the report has to do with factors related to family dynamics (nuclear and extended). We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be family-related factors:

  • I was single and I felt that I would find my spouse back in my home country.
  • I wanted to start a family and have children in my home country.
  • I experienced marital issues.
  • My kids were not adjusting well.
  • There was a lack of options for my child/children’s education.
  • I sent my kids to college.
  • I wanted to be close to my adult children.
  • I wanted to be close to my grandchildren.
  • I wanted to be close to my aging/ailing parents.
  • I felt that my extended family needed me.

For each of these statements, we asked them to choose one of the following 5 answers:

  • I did not experience this on the mission field.
  • I did experience this, but it had no effect on my decision to leave.
  • This had a slight effect on my decision to leave.
  • This had a moderate effect on my decision to leave.
  • This had a strong effect on my decision to leave.

Click here to see the full report with tables and charts and all sorts of cool data. I can’t include near that level of detail here.


Discussion of Quantitative Results

The first striking observation is the sheer number of missionaries that are experiencing these family stress factors. Six out of ten of the factors have higher than 50% incidence rates, indicating that the majority of missionary families will deal with them at some point.

Compared to people living in their passport countries, who may not have the additional marital, family, and educational challenges of the mission field (not to mention factors from the other sections of this study, including financial, cultural, etc.), missionaries are subject to a compounding effect as these stressors accumulate. The high percentages of missionaries experiencing each factor guarantees that each family is experiencing multiple family stressors, perhaps serially over time, or perhaps at the same time.

Marital issues, adjustment and education of the children, and wanting to be near family that need them in their passport country (college students, adult children, parents, or other extended family) are all important issues for missionaries to balance with their overseas ministry, since over 50% of participants who experienced those issues felt that they affected their return decision to some degree.

Educational options for the children and having aging/ailing parents that need care are the two strongest family factors in making a decision to return to the passport country, according to the weighting of responses given.

The full report gives a more detailed discussion of the results for each question and the possible reasons for those results.

We also wanted to compare the responses generationally to see if there are factor differences related to age. Do younger and older missionaries have a different experience or different values that impact their return decisions? To check for this, we selected the subset of survey respondents who were under 30 when they went to the mission field, on the field less than 10 years, and left the field less than 10 years ago. This subset accounted for 190 of the surveyed individuals.

When the subset of younger missionaries is compared with the overall sample on family factors, several differences can be seen. Younger missionaries were:

  • More likely to report the experience of singles feeling their spouse would be found in their passport country (89% versus 71% in the overall sample).
  • More likely to report that they wanted to start their family in their passport country (49% versus 27%).
  • Less likely to report marital problems (41% versus 54%).
  • Less likely to report kids’ adjustment problems (33% versus 58%).
  • Less likely to report concern about educational options for their children (38% versus 64%).
  • Less likely to report wanting to be near aging/ailing parents (35% versus 50%), but it was still the highest strength index in the family factor group (1.11).

This makes sense, as given the age of the missionaries while they were on the field, they were more likely to still be in the single or child-bearing years. If they had children, they were likely young enough to be more adaptable and easier to educate with available options. And this generation of missionaries didn’t experience issues like sending kids off to college or wanting to be closer to adult children or grandchildren at all.


Qualitative Data on Marital Issues

In addition to the quantitative scaled information, we collected open comments on the following question: “If you experienced marital issues and you feel comfortable sharing, please describe them.”

Hundreds of comments were provided and helped to delve into the reasons that missionaries struggle with marriage and family issues on the field.

These were the most common issues we heard about that produced marital stress:

  • extreme stress, coupled with the isolation, of living overseas
  • a lack of friends to talk to about problems
  • the all-consuming nature of the mission work and the pressures of working closely together in a shared career
  • not taking the necessary time out of the work context to nurture their marriage and spouse or to process things together
  • temptations to neglect those closest to them in order to perform well in the ministry
  • one spouse’s depression, burnout, or anxiety that affected their closest relationships negatively
  • anger at the way a spouse was (or was not perceived to be) coping with life overseas
  • disappointment (usually of the wife) with her lack of a fulfilling role in the ministry
  • the pain of the trailing spouse (again, more frequently the wife) who didn’t want to be on the mission field but had submitted to her husband’s call to life overseas

The full report contains more detail and quotes from comments given to illustrate these points if you want to delve in deeper.


Qualitative Data on Children’s Adjustment Issues 

We also collected open comments on the following question: “If your kids were not adjusting well and you feel comfortable sharing, describe specifically why.”

Again, hundreds of comments were provided. Here are some of the most common:

  • looking different, standing out, and receiving unwanted attention in the form of staring, touching, teasing, or even bullying
  • isolation and the lack of friends or a social group
  • grief as a result of leaving behind friends, family, or adult siblings in their passport country
  • resentment or anger toward parents over their decision to go to the mission field
  • having parents that are distracted by a million other things and find their ability to parent compromised in the chaos
  • depression and anxiety as they struggle to cope with the many transitions in their lives

Again, more details and stories on this in the full report.



While family factors have typically been considered non-preventable by other studies, some of them ARE preventable with the proper preparation, care, and treatment. The following areas should be revisited within mission agencies and sending churches, regarding how well they promote the health and welfare of marriages and families:

  • the selection process
  • preparation, training, and expectation-setting
  • missionary care
  • mission policy
  • work-life balance

(More detail and a discussion of each area in the full report.)

But in the end, no matter how phenomenal a job our mission agencies or sending churches do in safeguarding and caring for our families, it is every missionary’s responsibility to ask him/herself some hard questions:

  • Am I too proud to reach out for help when I need it and be real about struggles with my friends, family, supporters, sending church, or mission agency? Am I trying to perpetuate the missionary pedestal or save my funding by presenting only the best face?
  • Am I driving a wedge in my marriage by judging my spouse, or not offering the emotional support that they need?
  • Am I a workaholic? Am I willing to sacrifice the needs of my family to the ministry?
  • Am I allowing life overseas and my ministry to distract me from parenting and tending to my children’s needs (and griefs?

Our families have been granted to us by God and are our most important ministry and opportunity to serve. Our intimacy with our spouse or the well-being of our children should never be sacrificed to our ministry. Our ministry vision must be realigned to include ministry within our families (for both women AND men) if we want longevity and health on the mission field.


Andrea Sears is co-founder of the ministry giveDIGNITY, which works in the marginalized community of La Carpio in San Jose, Costa Rica. The ministry focuses on Christ-centered community development initiatives in education, vocation, and violence prevention. Her family has been in Costa Rica for 8 years, and served as the Missionaries in Residence at John Brown University during the 2017-2018 year while on furlough.

When We Hurt Those We Love Most


I lay prostrate on the hardwood floor of our Budapest flat. I was pounding my fist and screaming unintelligible things as I lost my struggle with hyper-mania (a symptom of bipolar disorder). My children had been taken to a friend’s house. But not before they heard me shouting at their father. My husband found himself slipping deeper and deeper into a vortex of uncertainty.

I was hurting those I love most and was unable to gain enough control to stop the hurting.

A couple of days after this I entered the hospital. My husband and kids experienced more days of instability and separation. There were a few moments,`when my husband came to see me, not knowing I had been moved to the ICU. As the doctor brought him into his office, he was petrified something had happened to me.

Then, one week after I left the hospital, we returned to the States.

Every one of the people I care most for in this world was profoundly impacted by me. They experienced hurts, wounds, things that broke my heart, and I was helpless to protect them. I couldn’t even protect myself.

I know I am not alone. We all hurt those we love, so often through circumstances and trials beyond our control. It all makes us feel afraid of how the damage will ultimately affect them. It makes us grieve the innocence the hurt has taken. It makes us unsure in these relationships. It makes us feel lost.

As we reflect on these tragic times in our lives, how can we learn from them? How do we live well on the other side? I want to share with you a few things God taught me through the hardest season in my life and how it hurt those I love:

  1. Release the guilt and shame: To move forward, beyond the hurt, we must let go. When those we love are wounded by us, whether inside or outside of our control, we feel helpless to move forward. The Enemy loves the guilt and shame which go along with this. He would love for us to steep in this until we sink down, far away from those we love. However, this is not the Great Healer’s desire. He wants to make us new from the deepest place. He asks us to give to Him those ruminating thoughts of all we could have, should have done to prevent what happened. He wants us whole so He can restore what was lost and give something even greater.
  2. God is the Author: As we begin to release we learn this great truth. It is God who authors every story, not us. His script is poignant and sure. He doesn’t waste a line with bad prose. The dark pages have corresponding light ones. It is all sealed with the unmistakable stuff of redemption. And it is only he who bears this hope deep within who will have the eyes to see such a story. So He calls us to find hope in the pain and press hard into our trust in Him. Indeed, we can surrender to Him those most dearest. He has already wrapped His arms solidly about every part of them, shaping their story with His loving hands.
  3. Lean into Community: As I walked those days leading to the hospital, in the hospital and the months of recovery after, I desperately needed others. In these times we all do. It is our pride and fear which makes us unable to receive help. But we all need friends and family who will love on our kids, make meals for our families, distract them from the obvious and so much more. We have to say ‘yes’ to them. And the truth is, even though we fear judgment, people just want our families and us to know we are loved. So we have to trust here too. When we remain unable to be what our loved ones need, others can help fill in the gap until we are strong enough. Yes, it is incredibly humbling, but it is also right and true. This is something we must carry with us on this long road home.
  4. There is always a New Day: No matter how hard the circumstance, or how deep the hurt, there is always the sun rising the next morning. It shines upon us and on those we love. There is the promise renewed, faithfulness which hovers and great compassion to sustain. Psalm 103 says the Lord remembers our frame, He knows we are dust. In His tenderness, He pledges to be all we cannot be. His grace leads us Home to His heart where all is being renewed. He carries intimately, tenderly all who He loves, and even more so as the need is greater. He is hope and hope does not disappoint. Moving forward this must be the melody which greets us.

I don’t know where this post finds you, but I do know you have hurt those you love. It happens every day in big and small ways. And in this, we need to find our way back. We need to press into truth and grace, all that Jesus is. And we need to face the hurt, others and ours. Sometimes it is all so obvious and other times it is subtle. Regardless, there is no task, no service, no ministry important enough to deny the pain. And if we deal with it, we will find the healing and redemption of God greater than we could have imagined.

How I Became the Poster Child for Swedish Families Living with HIV — And Why You Should Rethink Your Selfies

Someone recently pointed out that our picture pops up on a Google search for “blended family” (just a few spots behind the Brady Bunch).




That was a pretty cool moment.

I felt a little famous. Like the internet finally found out about the Joneses.


Then some more friends passed this little gem on to us.




Our picture had been consentlessly chosen to help people “reflect” on adoption and “how that decision might impact your life and the lives of those around you.”


I think “flattered” is probably the word that best described me at that point. Not only were we showing up on Google’s front page but someone, somewhere out there in Arkansas Cyberland went looking for photos to represent adoption and they chose us.

I love that.

I mean look at us. We scream adoption. Right?

It made up for at least half of the horrible, “picked last” moments from 5th grade gym class.


Then came this one.





Umm. Ok.

I suppose technically we’re not ACTUALLY “foreign-born step parents” and these are not ACTUALLY our “stepchildren” but hey . . . semantics, right?

That’s how it works in the modeling world . . . even though technically we weren’t ACTUALLY models and this is just our family photo that we received ZERO compensation for.



I was curious.

So I dragged our photo into the Google search bar (you can do that).

And this is what I found.


We were also the poster child for Marriage and Family Counseling.



AND “Cooperation during the holidays” (for “blended families” because it’s different for us than the “normal” families).


AND “Intensive In-Home Counseling”



And quotable quotes . . . about blended families.



And maybe my favorite . . . We represent the happiest, blended family in all of Sweden living with HIV.

I mean look at us.

We don’t even seem phased.



I sought the wise counsel of my friends and got a wide range of reactions.


“You can send them a take down notice.”

“You should get paid for that.”

“That is a violation of privacy.”

“That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”


I found myself swinging back and forth on the whole spectrum.


Flattered and violated.

Laughing and frustrated.

Ready to call a lawyer . . . or maybe just write a blog post.


And then TWO things happened.


ONE: I stumbled across this one.



Now we had become the “Not Safe for Work” representatives for in-vitro fertilization, sperm switching in which shocked, white mothers gave birth to the children of (and I quote) “random Negros.”


Before I vent I should mention — this webpage is a discussion forum. I’ve shown you the first bit and intentionally cut out the rest.


So you can see that they cropped my daughter out of the picture (because she didn’t fit the story).

But you can’t see the bit where they repeatedly use the “N-Word” about my son.

Or the part where they say “look how happy the whore is.”

Or the part where they say “Just f•••ing imagine having to resort to artificial insemination due to medical problems and your baby comes out as a f•••ing disgusting mongrel.”


Let me be clear — I don’t feel for a moment like this is about my family. These people don’t know us and the sickness in their hearts is not directed at us. They are idiots. Twisted, broken, sick, sick fools leaning on the misguided strength of perceived anonymity.


But DON’T EVER call my son a n**ger.

And DON’T EVER call my wife a whore.

And if you’re going to use my picture without my permission then DON’T crop it to fit your sick, selfish agenda.

That’s MY picture. NOT YOURS!!

I’m done venting now.


Curious about the second thing that happened? Here it is.


As I vented sarcastically via social media about our new found fame and violated personal space. Marilyn Gardener, the brilliantly, humble matriarch of alifeoverseas.com dropped this bomb (which ironically, I use here without permission).





I have to admit . . . In my self-centric rant, it hadn’t crossed my mind . . . but challenge accepted.


For a brief moment, I got a tiny taste of what it is like to be dehumanized. It was genuinely non-threatening and non-fearful but it in a small way I felt exploited.




My entitlement swelled.

My “How Dare You” was ticked.

My Westerness roared.


Because somewhere, someone treated me as less than human.

Not real.

Just stock.


“Sobering” is the right word and so I’ll offer this challenge (but I’ll do it without shaming).


Please. See people as people. Even the people in your pictures. 


Don’t make them a poster child for something you don’t know they believe in.

Don’t wrap them around your agenda without their consent.

Don’t force them to represent something they don’t.

Don’t tell the story first and then find the picture.

Don’t degrade, demean, dismiss or devalue.

Look at pictures . . . and see people.

Look at people . . . and fall in love.


Here’s the “non-shaming” part.


If you’re like me you’re scanning your brain for the times that you have done EXACTLY this.


Overseas selfie.

“Look at me — I’m helping poverty.”

Grab a photo from Google.


What if instead of feeling guilty.

Or getting defensive.

Or making excuses.


You just said, “yeah, we’re all kind of figuring this out as we go?”


“But something needs to change.”


And then you stopped and pondered what you might do differently.


That’s a big step.


No pressure — but the world would be better if you took it.


Here are some resources for the pondering.


Woman’s Instagram Post About Kenyan Child Ignites Fury

How to Get More Likes on Social Media

How to Communicate to the World

White Savior Barbie is Here to Save Africa, One Selfie at a Time

The Problem With Africa Selfies

Serving Overseas? 3 Kinds of Selfies You Should Never Take




Oops, I went home for Christmas — How to readjust to life abroad after a quick trip “home”

Ahh, busyness . . . sneaks up on you doesn’t it? Especially this time of year.

Caught me off guard and I’m a bit overrun by cookies, carols and Christmas cheer to pause and post something fresh.

So . . . please accept my apologies and this repost from The Culture Blend.

Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year to boot.

Oops, I went home for Christmas

This post is specifically for the masses who have been transitioning to a new life abroad and thought that a quick trip home for the holidays might be exactly what they needed to crush their culture shock and get rid of that pesky homesickness.

You know who you are.

Fetal position?

More homesick than ever?

Pricing airfare again?

I used to say don’t do it — EVER — don’t go home in the first year.  Give yourself a chance to work through the mess and the bumbling of learning how to be a foreigner before you run back to everything familiar.

I stopped saying that for two reasons:

ONE: No one listened.  A bit of advice (no matter how spot on) always loses miserably to Nana’s pumpkin pie.  Hands down.  I get it.

TWO: Some people do it really well.  They go.  They come back.  They re-engage and it’s good.  I won’t argue with that.

However, it is a harsh reality that a quick trip home in the middle of a cultural transition CAN be more painful than you expected.


Maybe you’ve seen something similar to the diagram below.

It’s the standard culture shock continuum that charts how we process things that are “DIFFERENT” (namely everything) when we move abroad.  It happens to most of us although it takes on a million different forms since . . . you know . . . we’re all different.

Point is . . . transition is a process.


So it makes sense right?  If you’re at the bottom of the curve and everything is stupid, you need a break.

A fast infusion of familiarity would do the trick.

A hug from mom.

A night out with old friends.

A Ribeye.  Medium Well.  With a loaded baked potato.

What were we talking about?

Oh yeah . . . a quick trip home.

That’ll fix it.

In our heads, it looks like this.


It will be a nice little taste of the well known in the middle of the dip so I can recharge and come back refreshed . . .  ready to move forward.

But home doesn’t live in the dip.

Going home (especially for the holidays) can be more of a super spike of hyper-charged emotions . . . on crack . . . and steroids . . . and Red Bull . . . and Nana’s pumpkin pie.

It actually looks more like this.


Think about it.

Detaching from all of the sources of your greatest frustration and plugging in to all of the sources of your greatest joy ONLY to reverse that moments after you get over jet lag is not a sustainable solution to the frustration.

Au contraire (pardon my French).


Here’s the thing — this scenario doesn’t apply to everyone but the principal probably does:

  • For some people going home IS the pain.
  • For other people the holidays are the pain.
  • Some people don’t go home but they go somewhere warmer, or nicer, or more exciting or just less frustrating.
  • Some people do this in May or September.
  • Some people don’t even leave but they still detach.

The point is that you can’t FIX transition by stepping away from it.  It’s a process.  You’ve got to go through it.

That said — don’t despair if you’ve already made that choice.  It doesn’t need to be a bad thing.


Here are some quick thoughts on moving forward:


ONE:  Don’t blame your host country for not being your home

That’s not fair and all of the facts aren’t in yet.  You knew it would be different when you came.  Now you know “how” it is different.  Keep learning.


TWO:  Don’t compare the end of THAT with the beginning of THIS

It took you years to build the great relationships that you are mourning as you adjust.  It makes sense if you don’t have deep roots yet.  Give it time.  Give it a chance.


THREE:  Focus on how far you’ve come

Especially if this is your first year abroad . . . think about it . . . the last time you took that flight you had NO IDEA what to expect.  You didn’t know the people, the places, the customs, anything.  You’ve actually come a long way in a short time.  Keep moving forward.


FOUR:  Compartmentalize

It’s ok for your trip home to be wonderful.  It’s supposed to be.  It’s also ok for your time abroad to be tough.  It’s supposed to be.  You don’t have to feel guilty for either one of those and they can actually exist perfectly in tandem.  Trust me, in time they can do a complete 180.


FIVE:  Engage even if you don’t feel like it

You can’t kick your roller coaster emotions out of the car . . . but you don’t have to let them drive.  Do something, eat something, learn something you don’t necessarily want to right now.


SIX:  You are not alone

Really.  You are not.  I’ve had this conversation at least 30 times this year.  You are not the only one who feels like this right now and there have been millions before you.  Myself included.


SEVEN:  Accept the truth and move ahead

If you went home for Christmas (or otherwise detached) it COULD do something like this to your transition.


Detaching momentarily doesn’t come without a price.  There is a good chance it’s going to take you a little longer to work through the transition process and feel at home in your new normal.


But you had a great Christmas.

You made some great memories.

If you’re in this for the long haul then accept the penalty and move on.


There is nothing like the experience of living abroad.  There are great things waiting of the other side of the dip.  In fact, there are probably some pretty great things all along the way.

Don’t miss them just because they’re not as good as Nana’s pumpkin pie.

Nothing is.


What’s your experience?  Have you left and come back?  Flying out this week?    Share your story below.  

The Fine Line Between Expat Chaos and Rhythm

People living a life overseas are a special breed.  We don’t so much make sense to the normal people do we?

My family is on the tail end of a whirlwind, six week “home” (finger quotes) visit and we’ve been reminded every moment of it what a ridiculous life we have chosen.

Seriously.  Who does this?

By the time this trip is over we will have changed our entire existence eleven times, each one strung to the next by a 4 to 12 hour road trip on the hottest days of the summer in a car with two children and lukewarm air conditioning.  We will have done countless heartfelt, emotionally charged, “we missed you so much” hellos only to turn right around for equally heartfelt, emotionally charged, “we’ll miss you so much” goodbyes.

We live out of suitcases which seem to be gaining weight as fast as we are.

Every few days we switch to another guest bed, couch,  futon, air mattress or (on very special occasions) hotel.

We’ve learned how to use other people’s washing machines and we leave at least one sock or one pair of underwear at every stop (you’re welcome).

We’ve sat perched like a dog at a dinner table waiting for someone to ask for a China story and we’ve fine-tuned our skills of pretending we’re not disappointed when they don’t.

We’ve successfully dodged knock-down, drag-out political battles over issues we probably don’t care about, full on relational melodramas with people we barely know and annoyingly offensive jokes about Chinese food and cats.

Hygiene still matters but I’m not even sure what day yesterday was . . . let alone whether I showered or not.

For weeks we have been “ON”.  Big smiles.  Happy faces.  Intentional eye contact from the moment we landed — and we had jet lag that day.

It’s exhausting being “home” — and to be honest the whole life overseas thing can feel equally chaotic at its most settled points.

BUT . . .

I’m learning that there is such a fine line between chaos and rhythm.

Trips “home” would feel like total mayhem to any normal person . . . but we covered that right?  We are so not normal.

I love that the longer we do this the more pages there are in our story are filled with 3 am, jetlag induced Daddy-Daughter milkshakes at any place open.

It has been rich beyond words to pick up right where we left off with dozens of “hello again” friends and we’ve got this whole switching from cousins in one place to old friends in another thing to an art form.

We are expert packers, flexible sleepers, versatile launderers and accomplished lip biters.

We know how to deflect awkwardness and my kids intuitively sense when family at one stop would be horribly offended by things that were fun at the last.

Even in constant ON mode we find moments of OFF.

We are good at this.  We have found our rhythm and in some confusing way a part of our stability IS the movement.

If that makes no sense at all . . . congratulations . . . you might be normal.

If it does . . . you’re probably living a life overseas.


Fight For Your Family

Humanitarian, governmental, and religious organizations sending people abroad don’t always have the best interest of their internationally-located staff in mind. They think they do. They hope they do. Even (I think) many of them try to. But they are organizations, based back in the United States. They are staffed by people who have no idea of on-the-ground realities or of the nuance of daily life in a specific location. They think about broad vision, finances, promoting their brand, infrastructure, leadership categories, bureaucracy. There are policies in place, sometimes for decades, and no one can remember why they exist but they continue to be followed without criticism.

This can lead to decisions being delivered down from on high, or from back ‘home’, or from some western place, that make little sense to the person working on the ground. Some questionable decision include things like:

*requiring a family to switch countries in the middle of the school year for no articulated reason or an articulated reason that does not bear up under scrutiny

*splitting up husbands and wives, and by extension, kids. Dad has to keep one job but mom is moved on to another.

*requiring a furlough or a training time right in the middle of a school year

*controlling, from thousands of miles away, what year a kid can start school or what school they can attend

*trying to regulate medical care and insurance problems by issuing broad decrees

*single people being forced into unhealthy roommate situations

*single people being viewed as more easily moved about from country to country or job to job

I do believe that organizations have the best interest of their staff in mind, in theory. And I know they are dealing with hundreds, if not thousands of staff, each with unique concerns and situations. Which is exactly why the point of this post is to say: you have to fight for your family.


That means for your kids and also for your marriage. Don’t take what an organization tells you at face value. Ask questions, present your opinion, make your actual situation known, don’t let a faceless office push and pull your family without some pushing back. You might not be able to change someone’s mind about a decision but at least your family will know you are fighting for them.

Don’t simply accept the response: “But children are resilient/They will bounce back from a ruined senior year of high school/If they are with you, that’s the only home they’ll ever need/God can heal every wound…”

While true, sometimes and sometimes through trauma that may have been avoided, these are lazy excuses if slapped over unwise decisions like band-aids.

Your kids (marriage, self) are also vulnerable, sensitive, and have unique needs (health, social, mental, spiritual, academic). Be aware of those and strive to be wise stewards of them.

This applies to singles as well. Fight for yourself, for your family relationships in your home country or the family you have formed in your host country.

Even when your organization does, truly, have your best interests at heart, you need to be the one to make and protect good decisions for yourself, your marriage, and your kids. If you want to stay abroad long term and want to maintain health and raise a healthy family, be proactive.

How have you prioritized your family as you live and work abroad?

Don’t Ask Me About My Christmas Traditions


My first Christmas on African soil was when I had just turned six years old.  We had arrived in Liberia only three weeks earlier, and my mom was in the throes of major culture shock.  My parents had shipped over a few presents, but nothing else for Christmas.  My mom managed to find a two-foot plastic tree at a store, and decorated it with tiny candy canes wrapped in cellophane.  After just a few days, the candy canes turned into puddles inside their wrappers.  My mom says it was the most depressing Christmas she’s ever had. 

Our first Liberian Christmas: My brother and I with our punching balloons, and my sad Mama.

I remember that Christmas, but the funny thing is, I thought it was great.  I remember being concerned how Santa would get into our house without a chimney, but my parents assured me they would leave the door unlocked.  We had a tree, we were together, and it was Christmas.  I was happy.

Fast forward 25 years to when I started raising my own TCKs in tropical Africa.  I was a young mother around the time when social media was really taking off, and I felt suffocated under the expectations of creating a magical Christmas for my children, complete with handmade crafts and meaningful traditions. Not only that, but I was quite literally suffocating in a southern hemisphere tropical climate.  There weren’t going to be any pine trees or snuggling up in pajamas while going out to see Christmas lights.  In fact, the only festivity to be found in our city was a five-foot high, mechanical, singing Santa in our grocery store that terrified my two-year-old and made her run away screaming.

We can tell ourselves that “Jesus is the reason for the season”—and even believe it—but we all know that we have expectations for Christmas to be more than that.  The traditions, the parties, the “magic,” even the cold weather, all are wrapped up in what we dream Christmas is “supposed” to be.

Which is why my first few Christmases as an adult in Tanzania were hard.  I missed my family.  And I missed the smell of wood fires in the air, wearing hats and scarves, and Christmas carols by candlelight.  I mourned over what my children were lacking.   But then I remembered that first Christmas in Liberia, and how I really didn’t care about the absence of icicle lights or pumpkin pie.  I remembered other childhood Christmases in Africa, like when our neighbors from Arizona taught us the Mexican tradition of luminarias—paper bag lanterns that lined the road on Christmas eve.  Or how our British friends introduced us to Christmas crackers, or the time a German guest stuck sparklers in the turkey.  I remembered being thrilled with the goofy, cheaply made presents found at the open-air market.  Or that year in Ethiopia when the Christmas tree was just a green-painted broomstick with branches stuck in it.

Just as TCKs dread the question, “Where are you from?” as a child I also dreaded the question, “What are your family’s Christmas traditions?”  Because growing up, we didn’t have traditions.  Every year was different because we absorbed the traditions of the people around us.  We had a tree, we had each other, and we had joy.  That was enough.

I’ve learned to relax about trying to create traditions or give my children a magical Christmas.  I’ve learned to be happy with our green, warm Christmases in Tanzania, even if it means I need to delete the “winter” songs out of my holiday playlist in order to be content.  My kids don’t need Hershey’s kisses, black-and-gold velvet dresses, or Toys R Us catalogs to be happy.  It’s often refreshing to be away from the commercialism and the psychotic busyness of the States at this time of year.  In fact, sometimes the untraditional, lonely, sparse aspects of an overseas Christmas help us to identify with the Incarnation just a little bit better.

And as for our traditions in Tanzania, they have sprung up naturally, with little effort on my part.  We close the windows and splurge on air conditioning in the living room for two weeks in December.  We have a water balloon fight.  I love to bake, so we make gingerbread houses from scratch.  But even these traditions I hold loosely, knowing that every year will vary by country or climate or what’s available at the grocery store. 

If you are one of those amazing moms who manages to build traditions that transcend country and climate, go for it.  Share your ideas with us.  But if you can’t, or won’t, or the mere thought of it stresses you out, then take a lesson from my childhood and don’t worry about it so much.  If you have a tree—even if it’s two feet tall or made from a broomstick–if you are together, and if you have joy, that’s all you really need.


Keeping in Touch Long Distance

Like pretty much all Life Overseas readers, my kids are growing up 12,290 miles from both sets of grandparents. Their aunts, uncles, and cousins are equally far away. Sometimes my youngest spends a month away from me in order to visit her grandparents. My oldest two attend boarding school. And yet, I think my kids have a pretty close relationship with their immediate and extended family. We’ve worked at it and with a lot of help from innovative and loving grandparents, have discovered creative ways to stay in touch beyond Skype and emails.

Photo Books

My mom and my mother-in-law are masters at designing gorgeous photo books and calendars that depict the times we do spend together. My kids spend hours pouring over these photo book and remembering. Those are the memories that stick, the ones they can continually revisit.

Daily Journals

When my youngest went to Minnesota for a month and I stayed in Djibouti, her grandmother had her keep a daily journal. Nothing fancy, but each night before going to bed, Lucy jotted down brief notes about what they did that day. Went to McDonald’s, caught three fish and threw them back, wrestled with Grandpa. When she came home, Lucy read through the entire journal with me so I wouldn’t miss a day.


Making Silly Bets

One grandpa sends out a group email to all the cousins and aunts and uncles and says, “What color shirt will Grandma wear on Friday? $2.00 to the person with the right answer.” Or, “Who will win the Vikings game and by how much? $3.00 for the closest guess.” “When will the Nerf dart finally fall off the window?” (answer: six years later) Emails flurry back and forth with bets, smack talk, and eventually, congratulations.

Intentional Visits

When we are in physical proximity, we make every attempt to see our family and to enjoy being together. My brother-in-law was recently in Nairobi and caught lunch with my son. In Minnesota, simple things like sleepovers and lazy afternoons at the lake. Fancier things like a marathon/half-marathon/5k race weekend together or paint ball battles. As possible, when significant life events occur like marriages and deaths and births, we make every attempt to be there or to send a family representative.

Interactive Experiences

One year my father instituted a Family Olympics, which was featured in Family Fun magazine. Each family had to walk a mile in their neighborhood and take note of everything they saw. We had watermelon seed spitting contests and timed how long we could collectively balance spoons on our noses. We emailed the larger group our results and kept score. Another year we had a Lego-building competition in which photos flew around the globe via email of creations using certain numbers of Legos. We spent months ahead of a scheduled in-person visit planning a talent show, videotaped it, and still watch our oh-so-talented family perform.

talent show

The most significant way our kids have kept in touch is experientially. All of the above suggestions move beyond talking over Skype into the realm of shared experience and that is where memories are built and treasured. That is where the family tie holds strong and, I hope, will continue to hold strong over the miles and the years.

How do you keep in touch with people far away? Especially kids?

Advice From an Expert: How to Save the World And Destroy Your Marriage

How to save world while destroying marriage

Kay and I moved to the Solomon Islands in 1993. We boarded a rusty ship and headed out to a remote island village with two small kids in tow, and I jumped head first into learning the Arosi language.  The sooner I learned the language, the sooner the Arosi people would have God’s Word in their language.  What could be more important than that!

Kay, meanwhile, had a 4 year old and a 3 year old to take care of. This was already a full-time job back in the States, but now she had to throw in a few extra simple chores like washing clothes by hand in a stream and cooking everything from scratch using a two-burner stove and a dorm fridge.  And in her spare time she was expected to learn a new language without the help of Rosetta Stone or a language school. As time went by and Kay felt more and more isolated, she would say, “Can we spend 10 minutes talking?”  My response: “About what?”

In my mind at the time, I thought our marriage was pretty good. I based that on the fact that we rarely had disagreements.  Isn’t a peaceful marriage a good marriage? Deep down, I knew that something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure what to do about it.

Looking back now I realize I was scared.  Scared of having a real relationship because it would mean having to express real thoughts and real emotions.  (And maybe having a real relationship would mean I would have to face the fact that my wife wasn’t thriving in this new environment which might require me to make a change.)  Spending time alone with Kay meant coming face to face with the fact that our marriage was only skin deep, so my best tactic was to avoid spending time alone with her.  Maybe in America we could have gotten away with a mediocre marriage because Kay would have had other avenues for support and connection, but now I was it.

In a recent Time magazine article, renowned marriage expert John Gottman described our situation to a T:

In really bad relationships, people are communicating, “Baby, when you’re in pain, when you’re unhappy, when you’re hurt, I’m not going to be there for you.  You deal with it on your own, find somebody else to talk to because I don’t like your negativity.  I’m busy, I’m really involved with the kids, I’m really involved with my job.  Whereas the [relationship] Masters have the model of, “When you’re unhappy, even if it’s with me, the world stops and I listen.”  (Link to full article) 

Unfortunately, it took a pornography addiction and near-failed marriage to get me on track.  There came a point where I had to make a hard decision. Was I going to sacrifice my marriage over the altar of pornography?  Or what if it hadn’t been pornography?  Would I have sacrificed my marriage over the altar of missions?

If I could go back in time this is what I would want my former self to know:

  • Your relationship can be so much more than you can even imagine. Don’t be afraid!
  • Spend time alone together, even if it’s hard. It will get easier. In his research, relationship expert Dr. Gottman has found what he calls “The five hours of magic”. You can read more here.   Hannah Trotter (age 6), daughter of ALOS contributors Jonathan & Elizabeth Trotter, recently wrote what she calls her “first blog”which she has graciously permitted me to use.  What great advice!  Although in my case I needed to substitute “FAMULY” with “WIFE”.

eat cake

  • Your ability to work long term overseas is going to depend a lot more on the strength of your marriage than on the strength of your language skills or the greatness of your ministry.

Mainly I would want my former self to know that our marriage didn’t have to be me vs. her. By the grace of God we’re now on the same team, and no matter where we live, it will always be about what the team needs.

 How does your life overseas suit you?

How does your life overseas suit your wife?

If your life overseas isn’t working for your wife, would you be willing to make a change?

What happens when you talk together about these things?

Are you able to talk about these things? If not, why not?

(Check the Resources page if you’re looking for counseling support or the Spiritual and Emotional Health section on the Recommended Reading page for some helpful books.)

Missions Field or Land of Opportunity?

One man’s mission field is another’s land of opportunity.

I realized this in a fresh way as I was interacting with some immigrants to South Africa from Malawi.

They were telling me about their home nation, Malawi. The common descriptions were of a lush, green, and beautiful nation which was peaceful.

They left their homeland for South Africa, also a beautiful land. But on the day I was having this conversation, we were bracing ourselves though near gale force winds blowing sand through every opening on buildings. You could hear their longing for home in their voices.

And, they remarked often how they had left safety for crime. These immigrants left home to live in shacks in an impoverished, crime ridden community.

A community which I consider to be a part of my mission field.

Why you ask?


“There are no jobs in Malawi”

These middle class Malawians left peace and safety to become impoverished foreigners in a land which often projects xenophobia (fear of the foreigners) onto those with different passports.

All this to have a chance to work.

  • They gave up peace and relinquished better houses.
  • They chose to move far from family, often leaving behind spouses and children.

South Africa is my mission field. But to these beautiful people from Malawi, it is a land of opportunity.

One man’s nation in need of “missions” is another’s land of opportunity.

As I got to know these natives of Malawi, I found myself wondering why they chose this life. What drives educated folk to choose a downgrade in lifestyle in hopes of climbing higher in the future?

In my years in South Africa, I’ve met Zimbabwean doctors and Rwandan lawyers cleaning houses and washing cars. Often they fled political turmoil or tyrannical dictators for a crime-ridden, but governmentally stable nation.

I get this. Sad as it is, I can make sense of it.

But leaving a family in a peaceful land is harder for me to grasp.

I came away struck by the power of hope. These people left home in search of a better life.

In my nation, we call that the “American dream.”

I found myself so drawn to the hope these saints carried in their hearts.

In this time of year, Christmas, we speak often of the power of hope. Here was a tangible example of that hope.

I have hope to see transformation in South Africa which motivates me to serve here.

My friends share a similar hope that South Africa will be a land which provides their families a brighter future.

This is a lesson I do not want to forget.

One man’s mission field is another’s land of opportunity.

May God bless South Africa as well as the immigrants and refugees seeking a better life within her borders.

Photo credit: liquidnight via photopin cc