When You Second-Guess Your Life

Last night while we were getting ready for bed, my two year old started to tell me a story. He told me this story three times in a row, getting more excited and delighted every time.

Was this story about the herd of cows we’d seen blocking the road to our house that morning? Or how our gardener had let him cut the bushes all by himself with a huge pair of shears (gulp)? Or about how the seatbelt-less van we’d been riding in that day had braked suddenly and he had flipped right up and over onto the (thankfully, empty) seat in front of us? (It’s been quite a week, and don’t even get me started on how we all had to go to the clinic and get tested for TB last night.)

No, the story that Dominic was so excited to tell me was about making blueberry pancakes at his grandparents’ house three months ago.

He misses his grandparents terribly. So do I. And when I pause for too long and think about what we’re losing by living so far away from parents, sisters, brothers and cousins, it can really make me wonder whether this living overseas thing is worth it.

Question-MarkI know some of you who read this blog have a very clear sense that God wants you to live and work in a particular place for an extended period.

My husband, Mike, and I don’t have that.

Instead, Mike and I have the sense that God wants us to use our skills and talents for good wherever we are.

It so happens that many of our skills and passions equip us well for overseas living and development work. It so happens that opportunities for my husband to use his skills and work within the circle of his passions have opened up here in Laos. It so happens that we judged that taking up those opportunities was the best fit for the overall family system right now. And, so here we are.

Who knows where we’ll be this time next year. We don’t.

Today, I want to speak to those of you who don’t fit the typical missionary model. Those of you who don’t feel called to a particular place. Those of you who don’t intend to land somewhere and stay there – God willing – for a decade or more.

If you move overseas without a clear commitment to a place, an organization, or a time-frame, you should be prepared to second-guess yourself often. You will need to learn to build meaningful relationships within a constantly shifting social framework. You will need to grow in your ability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. You will ask yourself the question “is this worth it?” frequently. You will need to answer the question “what’s next” every couple of years.

Answering both of those questions requires re-visiting a complex equation involving any or all of the following shifting variables:

  • Your perception of God’s opinion on the issue
  • Each partner’s (if you’re married) skills, passions, wants, and needs
  • Existing professional commitments and logistical constraints
  • What seems best (emotionally, educationally, and/or medically) for any children you might have.
  • Health risks and constraints for every family member
  • The career, financial, and logistical implications of any change you might make.
  • The needs and wants of your extended family.

If you’re anything like me, trying to figure life out in relation to just one of the variables listed above is hard enough. Throw them all in the mix, and decision-making in the absence of a clear sense of “divine assignment” can quickly become seriously overwhelming and very taxing.

I’ve been doing the “professional expatriate” thing for more than a decade now –most of my life, really – and I don’t have any sure-fire solutions for you on how to deal with the dynamics of this lifestyle. What I can do is offer you some things that have helped me at various points.

Direction road signs

1. Get some clarity on the hierarchy of the variables in your list. Is this a season for prioritizing building a stable community over taking an exciting job in a new country? If you can get some idea of how the variables in your own personal universe are weighted in this season of your life, it’ll help guide your decision-making.

2. Once you’ve actually made a decision, try not to second-guess yourself. Not for a while, anyway. Protect some space to live in the now. If you know you probably need to move or switch jobs in July next year you might, for example, agree to not talk a great deal about next steps until March.

3. At risk of sounding like I’m contradicting myself… talk. Talk with your partner about the whole, complicated mess, without feeling you need to make any immediate decisions. Talk about the things you love about living overseas and those you loathe. Talk about what you miss about living back home. Talk about what you want, and what you fear, and what you feel like you should want, and what you actually want, and what makes you scared and mad and sad and happy and grateful about this crazy extreme adventure you’re living.

U-turn-permitted-cropped4. Keep a physical or mental list of all the wonderful things about your life overseas so that when your two-year-old waxes wistful and begs to “go home” it doesn’t spark a complete existential crises (not most of the time, anyway). Regularly, intentionally, celebrate these wonderful things about living where you are. Rehearse how living overseas allows you to live in your strengths, to grow, to help others, and to experience life.

5. Give yourself permission sometimes to seriously consider alternate realities. Finding yourself wondering often whether you’re in the right place? Consider whether you are in the right place. Spend some time thinking about what life might be like elsewhere, doing different things. Seriously map it out. Give yourself permission to change course.

6. Pay for your parents to come visit. Tell them to bring blueberries and pancake mix with them.

When you start second guessing your life, what helps you?

Book Giveaway: My Hands Came Away Red

This month, Moody Publishers has offered to give away three copies of my Christy-award-nominated first novel, My Hands Came Away Red. Below  is a little about how I came to write this novel and what I learned during the process. You can find out how to enter to win a copy of the book at the end of the post.

My_Hands_Came_Away_Red_med qual

 

Cori signs up to take a mission trip to Indonesia during the summer after her senior year of high school.  Inspired by happy visions of building churches and seeing beautiful beaches, she gladly escapes her complicated love life back home. 

Five weeks after their arrival, a sectarian and religious conflict that has been simmering for years flames to life with deadly results on the nearby island of Ambon.  Within days, the church building the team had constructed is in ashes, its pastor and fifty villagers are dead, and the six terrified teenagers are stranded in the mountainous jungle with only the pastor’s teenage son to guide them to safety.  Ultimately, Cori’s emotional quest to rediscover hope proves as arduous as the physical journey home.

 

 


The Story Behind My Hands Came Away Red

When I was eighteen years old, I went on a ten-week short-term mission trip to the remote island of Camotes in the Philippines.

My motivations for signing up were complicated. I was looking to “do some good”, sure. But I was also looking for a grand adventure. And I chose the backpack team mostly because I figured it would be less work than a construction team.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

I’d envisioned acting out gospel stories for eager kids, hiking along gorgeous beaches, and bonding with new friends around a campfire. To be fair, there was some of that. But right along with it came no shower, and no toilet. We washed clothes in buckets and slept in tents. We pumped our drinking water through hand-held filters. We hiked up to 15 miles a day. There was an absolute epidemic of blisters. And there was heatstroke.

I didn’t have the gracious fortitude to be thankful for it at the time, but all of this roughing it did come in handy later when I buckled down to a task I’d set myself before I even left on the trip…

Someone should really write an honest story about a mission team that collides with some of the worst this world offers, I’d thought after reading an article about piracy in south east Asia one morning, months before leaving on the trip.

Somehow, during the following weeks that thought slowly became a conviction.

I should do that.

Then it morphed into a promise.

I will do that. After all, how hard could it be?

I never dreamed at eighteen that it would take me eleven years to fulfill this promise, or that the story would be so profoundly influenced by my own life in the decade following my mission trip. I never dreamed that I would learn so much about writing and life along the way.

When I started writing the book I knew some of what would happen to my characters. What I didn’t really know was how they would react and cope when the world they thought they understood was rocked so violently. How they would begin to find hope again. How hope would have changed.

During the years it took me to write the book, the story wasn’t the only place I encountered these issues. In various jobs as a young psychologist I counseled murderers, debriefed police officers after traumatic incidents, reviewed hundreds of case files on children’s deaths, conducted risk assessments of child sex offenders, and ran workshops on stress and trauma for humanitarian workers on the front-lines of disaster and conflict all over the world. Among other things, my career has been a whirlwind tour of some of the worst experiences life has to offer.

People often say that you should write what you know, but I felt driven to write this novel more by what I didn’t know than by what I did. Writing my way into this story when I couldn’t see the way out was sometimes exhilarating, sometimes terrifying, and always difficult. I often wondered whether my personal sanity would have been better served by writing a romance novel instead of a book set in the middle of a civil conflict in Indonesia. But as I labored to write this novel while also working to try to help people profoundly challenged by their own witnessed and experienced traumas, several life lessons were being ingrained.

I learned, for example, that when I hear myself asking the question “how hard can it be?” the answer is almost always “much harder than you think is possible.”

On a more serious note…

I learned some about sitting with tough questions in life, staring them down honestly, and respecting the fact that there are no easy answers that satisfy, and sometimes no answers at all that satisfy completely.

I learned a lot about the temptation to let the magnitude of suffering and evil apparent in this world overwhelm, and ultimately paralyze.

And I learned a little about the responsibility we have to choose hope in the face of all that – even when it doesn’t seem to make any earthly sense.

OK, now that I’ve talked about some of what I learned through writing, I’d love to hear from you about reading.
To enter to win a paper or electronic copy of My Hands Came Away Red answer one or more of these questions by leaving a comment on the facebook page of A Life Overseas or here on the blog:

  1. What is a book you really loved, one that stuck with you long after you finished it?
  2. Has a book ever changed your life? How?
  3. What is one thing you’ve learned from reading?

Thanks for entering! I’ll randomly select the three winners on May the 16th and email you shortly after that.

8 ways to help toddlers and young children cope with change and moving overseas

If you have a toddler or young child and you’ve moved overseas, you might have learned (as I am learning) that the adage that kids are resilient doesn’t mean that change doesn’t cost them. Most children might be generally adaptable, but many are firmly attached to valued routines and known, safe spaces. Moving comes at an energy and emotional cost to young children, just as it does to adults.

It’s been a week today since I arrived back in Laos after spending six months in Australia delivering our second child within easy reach of good hospitals. The maternal mortality rate in Laos still hovers in the shocking range of 1/49 (around 1/30 for women out in the villages without even access to basic health centers). Not even Lao women have their babies in Laos if they can easily afford to go to Thailand.

In April I left from Luang Prabang almost six months pregnant with a non-verbal 20-month old toddler in tow. I’ve returned to a new house in a new city (Vientiane) with a child who talks almost constantly, and who calls his grandparents house in Australia “home”. After six months of living with his Nana and Papa while his “Dada” came and went a couple of times on the “pane”, Dominic is understandably confused at the total upending of his world. He keeps asking for his grandparents, the green lawnmower, and to “go home.”

The first time this happened we were five hours into our flight to Bangkok. My husband, Mike, and I reminded him that we were going to Laos.

“To our new home,” Mike said brightly.

“We have two homes,” I said, equally brightly, secretly wishing I could comply with his demand to turn the plane around. “One in Australia and one in Laos.”

“No. One home,” Dominic said, staring us both down.

“Oh my child,” I said. “You are about to get very, very confused when it comes to home, for which I am truly sorry. But don’t worry. If you’re anything like me, around the time you turn 30 you’ll spend three years writing a memoir about this problem of home and it’ll all make a bit more sense.”

All flippancy aside, it’s been really hard to see Dominic struggle to figure out what’s happening and how much he misses his grandparents (and that damn green lawnmower). I have decades of practice at adjusting to these sorts of transitions myself, but watching my child missing his “home” is forcing me to acknowledge how much I, too, miss that home.

It’s also making me realize that I need to refresh my own knowledge related to helping young children deal with change. So, today, I offer you some thoughts on helping toddlers and young kiddos cope better with a massive change like an overseas move.

Dom and green lawnmower Sept 2013

1. Start talking about the transition in advance: Give them some warning that change is coming. I talked to Dominic for at least two weeks about how Daddy had gone on the “pane” back to Laos after Alex was born, and he’d come back to get us and then we’d all go on the plane. Reading them books like The Berenstain Bears’ Moving Day can also help prepare them.

2. Create keepsakes: If you’re leaving people who’ve been really special in the lives of your child, create something special that’s linked to those people. Get them to give your child a keepsake (Dominic is now sleeping with the koala that his grandparents bought him in the airport). Create a small photo album, or do something else creative to help the child feel connected.

3. The phrase “new home” might help: Dominic was used to calling his grandparent’s house “home” so we started calling our place in Laos our “new home”. Now that we’re here, it’s seemed to help him to refer to “new home” “new highchair” “new bed” etc. Hopefully the “new” moniker will fade out of it’s own accord over time.

4. Expect your child to become more clingy and fearful: To a young child, the world is a big place filled with things that are hard to understand. They rely on things they recognize to make sense of everything else. After a move they may become clingy and fearful and act younger again. You might want to let them carry around their “love” objects more (e.g., if they love pacifiers but usually only have them in the crib, you might want to let them carry one around the house for a while). You should also …

5. Stick to familiar daily rituals (and create some if you don’t have many): Simple daily rituals like saying grace at mealtimes, reading stories before bed, picking out your clothes together, and watching familiar TV programs, can ground and calm your child and help them process change.

6. Give your child extra attention: I know this is challenging when you’ve just moved and there are 1001 things that need doing, but remind yourself to slow down and give your child lots of attention during the early days following a move. Put it on your to-do list (above sorting out boxes of clothes, etc.) if that helps.

7. Talk to those you’ve left behind on Skype and use photos strategically: We’ve found it helpful to have brief daily check ins via Skype with Nana and Papa during this initial week and showing him a familiar photo or two of him with his grandparents helped. We’ve also found it helpful to show him pictures of the green lawnmower on request. We haven’t found it helpful to flick through a lot of photos in quick succession from his time there. That only seems to upset him. Experiment and see what works.

8. If your child is going to be attending a new daycare or school, go and visit before the first day: Take your child to visit a new school at least once before their first day. Meet their teacher and let them see the classroom. Explain that they’ll be coming back to have fun there soon.

There’s more I could say but I’ll stop there for now. I’d love to hear from you on this. I know that many of you have done this before.

What have you found helpful or unhelpful when moving with toddlers or young children?

Dominic smiling October 2013

  Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

 

Helping your children stay in touch with family and friends when living abroad

Welcome back to Part III in our series on long distance relationships. If you missed them, here are links to Part I (Staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas) and Part II (Long distance relationships: Part and parcel of international living

If you are raising children in a country other than the one you grew up in, you’ve probably wrestled with this question of how to best help your children stay in touch with your family and friends back in your home country.

I know my own parents grappled with this as they country-hopped around the world for 21 years while my siblings and I were growing up. And now that I’m the parent of (soon to be two) “third culture kids” myself, it’s something my husband and I are increasingly puzzling over. In our case the picture gets even more complicated than it was for my own parents. Mike and I currently live in Laos, but because he is American and I am Australian our children are dual citizens and we have two sets of grandparents located on opposite sides of the world. Our children are still very young, but I’m already worried that they’ll struggle even more than I did to define where home is and what it means to them.

Much more so than adults who were raised in one place and then choose to move abroad later in life, children raised outside their passport culture tend to feel split between two worlds, or more. During adolescence and early adulthood (and sometimes later) these third culture kids can struggle mightily to figure out who they really are and where they belong.

If children raised abroad are going to struggle with identity issues at some point (and in my experience, most do) you will not be able to forestall that completely no matter what actions you take to help them stay connected with family and friends “back home”. However, helping children build these important relationships and stay connected to their home culture in other ways can help make such identity struggles less acute and prolonged. If you’re parenting children raised abroad, helping them stay connected to a passport country “home base” is an important thing to spend time and money doing.

I’m going to leave aside the broader issue of connecting with a home culture for now and just focus on some tips for helping children stay connected with important people back home. I’ll be talking mostly about grandparents and immediate family here, but this also applies to key friendship figures in your life and in the life of your children.

Again, I don’t present these tips as a “how to” manual. I also recognize that some of them could prove financially prohibitive for some families. Instead, I’m sharing a list of ideas that I hope will prove to be food for thought and will spark discussion in your own family. As you read through them, be thinking about which of these you’re already doing, what else might work for you, and what you could add to this list.

2b1.     Visit when you can: This goes both ways. It’s nearly as important for grandparents etc to visit the field as it is for grandchildren to visit relatives “at home”. This helps grandkids feel that their grandparents have seen and understand “their” world. It also allows you to spend time together while the children are relaxed and at home, rather than when they are out of their element and busy meeting the myriad demands that come with holidays or home leave. Of course, it’s important for children to visit their “home” country and everyone there as well. We visited Australia either annually or every two years while I was growing up, and that did a lot to help us feel connected to places and people there.

 2.     Help contribute to the cost of travel: My parents have a policy that’s still in effect that they’ll pay half of a return air-ticket to Australia for all of us (children, spouses, grandchildren) every year.  This has helped us travel to spend time in Australia at times when we would have decided against it for financial reasons. This could go the other way, too. If you have parents or relatives that would love to visit but can’t afford to, consider whether you could contribute to the cost of their travel. Encourage other friends and family members to help subsidize travel instead of buying other birthday or Christmas presents.

 2h3.     Blog: If you live far away from friends and family, think about keeping a family blog on which you post pictures of yourself and the children and share little stories about your lives. If you’re worried about privacy you can easily set it up so that only approved people can log in and view it. This allows grandparents and extended family to easily keep up with photos and the like.

 4.     Send paper copies of photographs in both directions: If you have grandchildren overseas, send their parents photographs of yourself (especially photos of you with your grandchild). Ask the parents to show these photos to the children, or even display them where children can see them. When your grandchildren visit (or you visit them) think about making a scrapbook or photo-book full of pictures of things you’ve done together during the visit. This will help the children remember all the fun you’ve had. If you’re the one raising children overseas send photos and videos home as you can, especially if you don’t blog. There are few things that mean more to grandparents and siblings than photos of their grandchildren or nieces/nephews.

 5.     Send letter, postcards, cards, or packages: Children love to get mail of their own – send your grandkids letters, cards, photos, or packages addressed to them by post occasionally. Packages are especially exciting, and several small items usually go over better than packages containing one big item. Also consider sending some of your favorite children’s books. If you have a copy of the same book on your end, you might even be able to read it to them via Skype at some point. You can also take a photo (of yourself or something they love) and have it made into a puzzle. Send them the puzzle to put together. Finally, if they’re old enough to have their own email account, you can email them as well. From the other side, if you’re the parent of children living overseas, help your kids draw pictures or write short letters or post-cards to send to their grandparents.

 6.     Involve children in some Skype calls: Make sure you involve your children in some (but not all) of your Skype or phone calls home. Schedule these “all family” calls for times when your kids are not likely to be too tired or hungry. Resist any temptation to make the 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). Use a webcam whenever internet bandwidth allows. 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 grandparents don’t have webcams on their end, buy them one for Christmas and install it during a home visit). Consider making these calls a regular part of your routine (e.g., every second Saturday morning).

2jFor those on the home front, recognize that children often freeze up or struggle to talk via telephone or computer. 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. Give children time to come up with those answers after you ask a question – 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 your grandchild doesn’t seem interested in talking to you on a particular call. Kids are going to be kids at times, whether they’re on a special bi-monthly call with you or not.

Again, I know we’re just scratching the surface of this topic. But, again, this post is already plenty long enough.

Help us out by leaving a comment and adding to this list.
We’d love to hear more ideas about what works for you and your family!

That’s the end of our series on long distance relationships (for now, anyway). Thanks for reading along! If you’re in a dating or marriage long distance relationship, don’t forget to hop on over to Modern Love Long Distance and check us out.

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red