5 Ways Living Abroad Changed My Parenting
By Rachel Pieh Jones
I realize that ‘home’ for us essentially means family, and anywhere that we are all together.
I moved abroad with 2 ½ year old twins and gave birth to our third child in Africa. They are now 15, 15, and 10. This means I’ve spent most of my parenting years not in my home country. So I don’t really know what kind of mother I would be in Minnesota. But I can make some assumptions about ways that living abroad has changed the way I parent and here are some of them.
Community. When the twins were born I somehow had the idea that I needed to be everything for them. I was the mom and so I should be able to do it all: twins, 22-years old, c-section and natural delivery, and all. Turns out I couldn’t do it all alone but it took some dark days in the mire of postpartum depression to acknowledge it. But in Djibouti I quickly figured out that few of the women around me parented alone. They had house helpers and nannies and multiple live-in relatives. And all these people invested in, loved, and trained their children. Pride had kept me from asking for help when I most needed it but as I watched these communities of women raise children, I saw that I could let go of that pride and it would be better for my kids. Because, guess what? I’m not perfect and I don’t have all the resources or character traits my kids need. I don’t have all the creativity or skills that could benefit them. A variety of input is invaluable for kids. And, I discovered that when I am willing to ask for help and am able to graciously receive it, there is a huge bonus – more people to love my kids.
Friendship over fear. There aren’t fewer things to be afraid of in Djibouti and in some ways there are more things to fear because we lack a decent hospital and we are surrounded by countries like Yemen, Eritrea, and Somalia, but the people around me don’t live in fear of day-to-day activities. Like sending a child across the street by himself or letting a kid use a sharp knife to slice watermelon. Fear is contagious and the parents I relate with in Djibouti don’t seem to be afraid of letting their children explore and experiment. My own kids have flown internationally alone before they were teenagers. Kids use knives and light fires and explore volcanic crevasses and they are learning to navigate life with courage, adventure, and confidence. Of course, I’m still afraid of choking, car accidents, playground injuries, bullies…parents are probably never entirely free of fear. But fear won’t rule my parenting. As one friend said, after the Westgate Mall terrorist attack in Nairobi, Kenya when her daughter was invited to a different mall, “We will chose friendship over fear.”
Conversation topics. I can’t avoid challenging discussion topics: race, poverty, religion. We are the white, Christian, middle class family in a black, Muslim, developing-world community and I have to help my kids navigate and understand their world. I have to give them words to use as they wrestle with how to respond to the beggar who is the same age but a foot shorter from malnutrition, is illiterate, and has never set foot inside an air conditioned building. Refugees, diplomats, people of other religions, a variety of skin colors and language and values, these are the realities that braid themselves through our every day, mundane activities. When we talk about these topics, it isn’t in theory or because of a news story. It is because my fourth grader’s friend moved back to Paris and lived across the street from the Charlie Hebdo offices. It is because our next door neighbors are a Yemeni refugee family. It is because people want to know what arm hair feels like or what blond hair feels like. I’m giving the kids words for framing their experience and helping them process.
Experiences and people above stuff. We can’t always get the fancy gifts or even the practical tennis shoes that we’d like to give our children for Christmas or birthdays. But we can hike down into an active volcano or kayak around Turtle Island where sea turtles swarm and flying fish jump into the kayaks. We’ve learned that while grandparents do send fabulous packages, they are not about gifts and things but about the way they meet us at the airport with signs and hugs, the way they play and listen and feel to our grandparent-starved hands. We see family and close friends once a year, sometimes once every two years. Those times are about flesh and blood and hugs and time together is precious.
Gratitude. We have had to make painful choices while living abroad – about education, housing, finances. And we’ve endured things that are difficult to be thankful for from emergency evacuations to the preventable deaths of friends. We could complain (and sometimes we do) but we’ve also learned that there is always something to be thankful for and this has become inseparable from my parenting. I think (hope) the kids are picking up on it. Once on the most epic-fail airplane journey we’ve ever experienced (endless airplane delays meant it took us five days to get back to Africa), my son said, upon arrival, “That was exhausting and awful. But we made some really great memories and I’m thankful we are finally home.”
When I realize that ‘home’ for us essentially means family, and anywhere that we are all together, I also realized that his words pretty much sum up my attitude about parenting.
Let’s make some good memories. Let’s be thankful to be home.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.