Down With Birthday Gift Lists

Down With Birthday Gift Lists

By Rachel Pieh Jones

birthday gifts1-1

I want my own kids to know that not everything they desire will show up in a pretty package on their birthdays.

 

I recently read that some parents are encouraging their children to fill out birthday gift registries. Even elementary school graduation gift registries. I’ve been in Africa now for over a decade. We don’t have registries in Djibouti for anything. And we don’t have elementary school graduations. At my afartanbax, essentially a baby shower for my youngest child, guests brought: nothing, sandals for me, fluffy dresses for my baby, packaged cookies, a black sequined coin purse, and a baby blanket. It was fabulous. I was thankful for each person who came. As a foreigner here, every single guest felt like a gift, the handful of wrapped gifts were simply a bonus.

I think this is the biggest mistake in using birthday gift registries. The gifts become the focus instead of the guests.

When my daughter is invited to a birthday party we go to the store or the market and find something she would like to give her friend. I don’t call the parents to ask for birthday gift ideas.

One reason is that toys are exorbitantly overpriced in Djibouti and we probably can’t afford what some kids want. I am sorry, your daughter might be my daughter’s best friend, but I will not pay eighteen dollars for a single Littlest Pet Shop dog. Your son and my son may have been friends since they were three years old but I will not pay twenty dollars for a Happy Meal-sized set of Legos. We have been known to give ping pong paddles, foam pool noodles, picture frames, glass kittens, battery operated fans, and simply bags of candy as birthday gifts. Sometimes all we can find in the store under thirty dollars is a ping pong paddle.

Another reason I don’t ask for ideas is that I don’t believe kids need to get every single thing they want or that they need to have previously wanted every single thing they get. Birthday gifts should have an element of surprise and unpredictability.

Birthday gifts should not satisfy a desire in the way of an obligation. By that, I mean that for some kids (or parents even?), writing a gift idea list is tantamount to receiving those items. They fully expect to get what is on the list. But gift ideas aren’t like grocery shopping lists. With a grocery shopping list the aim is to cross off each item, to get what one expected to get. Birthday gifts shouldn’t be required to meet that same level of expectation.

Birthday gifts should also have an element of personalized creativity. I prefer my daughter go the store, think thoughtfully about her options in reference to this specific friend and the amount of money available for this purchase, and make her own decision. Two weeks ago this resulted in bubble swords, a gift no child in Djibouti would think to ask for but now every kid at that birthday party wants.

I want my own kids to know that not everything they desire will show up in a pretty package on their birthdays. Truth be told, I do ask my kids for ideas, though usually I already know, and I do send ideas to their grandparents who ask me for a list. Since we live overseas and have limited packing and shipping options, I think this is helpful and can relieve the stress of worrying over weight and sizing and shipping and no option for returns. Even for families not living abroad, there are times and relationships in which it is of course appropriate to ask for ideas. But I don’t want the list to give my kids the impression that by writing something down they will automatically receive it.

I get it, that people want to give someone a gift that they really want. But I also want my kids to be authentically grateful that someone simply came to their party. They might have a friend who can’t afford a gift. No problem, please come and have a nice party. They might get two of the exact same item and here there are no returns. No problem, they can give the extra away.

To me, it all comes down to gratitude. If a gift feels, to giver or receiver, like an obligation, how sincere is the ‘thank you’ and ‘your welcome’? Gratitude shrivels if a child is disappointed because they didn’t receive what they expected or because they couldn’t find or afford to give what their friend asked for.

Some parents who love the birthday gift registry idea say they need it because it saves them so much time in their hectic lifestyles. Dare I suggest that eliminating the stuff might also save them time? That it might de-clutter their lives that are so hectic they have time to go and make a list for themselves but no time to go on a hunt for a thoughtful gift for their friend? Maybe we should all just live like Tolkien’s hobbits and give everyone else gifts on our own birthdays.

Not every desire in life will be fulfilled, not every good or even reasonable expectation will be met. Maintaining a thankful heart in all things is an incredibly valuable skill.

Perhaps, it is even a gift.

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.

Expatriate at the Parent Teacher Association Meeting

Expatriate at the Parent Teacher Association Meeting

By Rachel Pieh Jones

schoolmtg

A warning to new expatriate parents: You will forever remain slightly confused. This became perfectly clear to me at a PTA meeting in Djibouti a few years ago. It wasn’t actually the PTA. But there were parents and there were teachers and they were associating. I conformed the meeting to my own cultural bias and called it the PTA.

French parents arrived ten minutes late. It took me four years of meetings to realize this and I was proud to be among the ten-minute-late-crowd. This was the last decision of the evening I made instinctively and accurately.

The room filled with French parents. Tight, pink, and short seemed to be the fashion in menswear that season. Mostly soldiers, the men were strong and stocky with quiet laughs, scant facial hair, and open stares at each other’s wives. The women were beautiful, appreciated the stares, and had come prepared for them. Cleavage-revealing tank tops, chunky jewelry, and white capris wedged up to, well, there. Tanned and toned arms, legs, and shoulders displayed tattoos of fire-breathing dragons, butterflies, flowers, and psychedelic patterns on both mommies and daddies.

Of course, I’m generalizing. There were also average looking women and men who weren’t admiring other’s wives. But this meeting was one of those expatriate moments in which I am one hundred percent aware of not belonging. My arm hair seems to vibrate with not-belongingness and I feel like my posture screams only American in the room! And so these are the moments in which I am hyper alert to who has more beautiful hair, looks sexier in jeans, exudes more confidence, is cheek-kissed by more people, and clearly has a more natural and classy eternal sense of style. In other words, this is when I, the expatriate mother, succumb to jealousy and judgment.

These other moms are expatriates too, the French ones. But they are expats in their own former kingdom. Djibouti used to be a French colony. The school is French. The language is French. The items on school supply lists are French. I think of Djiboutian women, French women, and myself as in three concentric circles. The inner circle is for those who truly belong. They are second or third generation expatriates or they are local, entirely Djiboutian. The second circle belongs to the rest of the French who come for two or three year stints. The third circle is for outside outsiders, like me. We are so far out from center that we can barely see it. We are sometimes the only one of our passport color in the vicinity. We come from Nigeria, Madagascar, Germany, the United States, Korea…

Cigarette smoke wafted into the room. I sat alone, choosing a seat which gave me a clear view of the presenter so I could watch his lips and improve my chances of understanding. The meeting started fifteen minutes later, now almost half an hour late. A man with a microphone read in a monotone voice word for word from a slide show presentation. We were there to elect the board of directors from among the parents of the elementary school and high school.

A disruption came from the back of the room as many of the Djiboutian parents arrived en masse. They chattered and greeted one another with kisses on the cheeks, re-draped loose scarves, and filled the room with perfume while the speaker droned on, introducing the candidates.

All of the French candidates were present, seated in the front and stood, silently, when their names were called. A few of the Djiboutian candidates were present, standing in the back of the room. When their names were called, they cut off their side conversations and shouted their credentials.

“I was Vice President last year at Dolto (the elementary school) and will be the best candidate this year for Kessel (the high school).”

“I used to work for the Minister of sports.”

“I have five children and am already a grandfather.”

“I used to be a national school inspector.”

I knew none of the French candidates and most of the Djiboutian ones. I was an outsider, the sole American at that particular meeting. I didn’t understand the selection process and didn’t understand the choices before me. Even when I understood the words, I didn’t know what choice to make because I didn’t understand the French educational system. I didn’t know the implications or the goals or the methods or the values. I didn’t know what to expect and I expect that I never (fully) will.

But I love my kids and want the best for them so I have continued attending these meetings over the years. They have become slightly less confusing, I know a few more people, and the number of other Americans has drastically increased. I’m still in that outer circle but I don’t mind anymore. I’ve stopped caring about beautiful hair, sexy jeans, ogling of wives, or the number of cheek kisses. I’ve made friends in all three circles now, after eleven years. Djiboutian women and French women and other expatriates from around the world. I might not fully belong in any of the groups but I can move almost seamlessly between them and I’m content. Mostly.

Now if only I could get a handle on what makes a ‘cool’ school snack at a French school or understand what happens during field trips and parent-teacher conferences…

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.

What Is It Like When Boarding School Kids Come Home?

What Is It Like When Boarding School Kids Come Home?

Boarding Kids Come Home

I missed so much over this 10-week term and I can never get it back.

 

The plane is supposed to land at 2:15 p.m. Nairobi, via Addis Ababa, to Djibouti. My youngest daughter Lucy spends the morning creating welcome home signs. We have one sign glued to cardboard that she made three years ago and because it is sturdy, that is the one we bring to the airport. But she also makes a fresh one every three months. Origami swans and frogs pasted between ‘welcome home.’ Or snowflakes cut from colored paper so they look like fireworks. A sketch of herself with her big brother and big sister. These we tape to the front door.

I spend the morning baking and making sure we have enough food in the house. Brownies and fresh honey whole wheat bread and box after box of cereal on the shelf. My husband organizes the bedrooms. This year he had a carpenter build a new wardrobe for our son, and a bedframe. Fresh towels and sheets and plumped up pillows.

The kids are coming home!

The day creeps by, like eighth period on Friday afternoon in high school.

At 2:00 we drive to the airport even though it is only a mile away and we know we will get there too early. We’re tired of waiting. The plane is late. When it finally lands, our kids are the last ones to come through immigration. They have the right paperwork, including photocopies of my husband’s work and residence permit but the immigration officer wants to see the original. My husband has to drive back home to get it and the kids are still inside, behind glass. So close but we can’t see them yet.

Lucy is tired of holding the cardboard sign and gives it to me to carry. She is bouncing up and down. Here they come.

Our teenagers. Fourteen years old. Stepping through customs control and now they are in our arms. Lucy leaps first onto her sister and then onto her brother. They know she is going to fling her full body weight onto them and have already dropped their luggage and planted their feet in a solid stance to take her nine-year old weight. She squeezes their necks until their faces turn red and they laugh and squeeze her back. Then I’m hugging them and Daddy is hugging them and we gather up all the bags and step away so other people can get out of the customs line.

They are home from boarding school. The next five weeks, until the New Year, we will be five Djibouti Joneses under one roof and I will spend more time at the grocery store and in the kitchen than any other time of year. I will stay up later but sleep better. I will feel that all is right in the world, even though it isn’t. All is right in my world, even though of course, it isn’t. But all five Joneses are in my house and that makes all the difference.

At home the kids run upstairs. Lucy and her sister spend the first hour playing Littlest Pet Shops or tea party. The next hour is spent by Lucy and her brother wrestling or beating each other with padded sticks or playing catch. I sneak photos and the kids pretend not to see me. I love these two hours. The noise, laughter, pounding, giggles. The teenagers and their little sister taking delight in each other and playing like they are all five years old.

The house finally feels full.

Then we sit down to dinner and start to hear stories from school. They are thriving there. Friends, sports, academics, faith, the beautiful outdoorsy campus, books, activities. They want to be there. I want them to be there. I also want them to be here. But here has little to offer them academically, socially, or in extra-curricular activities. Even their local peers, friends they played with since kindergarten, have left the country to go to school in Europe, Canada, the U.S. But here is still home, here is dad’s job, here is the house and the family. When I ask them where in the world they consider home, they all say, “Djibouti.”

We linger at the dinner table a long time after the food is gone, talking, listening, laughing. The kids are tired, they have been traveling since before sunrise so we turn on a movie. My husband, Lucy, the twins, they lounge on the couch and on the floor and I go upstairs. They think it is because I don’t like watching movies but it is because I need to cry.

I bury my head in a pillow and the tears flow. I do this every single time and I wish I didn’t but I can’t help it. I’m so happy, so peace-filled, so proud of them. And I’m so sad.

I missed it. I missed so much. I missed watching Henry grow two inches this term. I missed practicing his lines for the high school drama together. I missed nagging them about homework. I missed being the first to hear that Maggie made the JV soccer team. I missed noticing the fungus growing on her knee. I missed so much over this 10-week term and I can never get it back.

They don’t want to be anywhere else in the world than at this school and I want what is good and right for them, even when it pierces. So I just need to cry a little. I need to grieve the losses. I need to name the things I missed.

And then I need to wipe my eyes and go downstairs and watch the movie with them. They’re right, I don’t like watching movies but I like sitting close to them and I like hearing them laugh at Adam Sandler. I don’t want to miss anything else.

 

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.

Santa’s Goats and Christmas Legends

Santa’s Goats and Christmas Legends

By Rachel Pieh Jones

santa's goats1

Stories of Christmases past get told and retold every year, slowly becoming part of our family mythology.

 

Christmas in Djibouti came with swirling dust storms, mosquitoes, the Islamic call to prayer, and 90-degree temperatures. It felt almost cold after the 120-degrees of summer. It was 2004, our first Christmas in Djibouti, second in Africa. We had a one-foot high Christmas tree to share with another American family and a handful of miniature ornaments. Near the tree were small packages wrapped in birthday wrapping paper or colorful t-shirts, doubling as paper for the day. White athletic socks hung along the air conditioner like stockings over the fireplace.

Our kids, four-and-a-half years old, made popcorn strings and paper chains from computer paper that they colored with green and red crayons. My husband is a master snowflake cutter and paper snowflakes hung from the ceiling. We had one CD of Christmas music and one borrowed Christmas movie, Elf. We did not have fast enough Internet to watch something online or to listen to music or purchase new music from iTunes. We ordered Chinese food for lunch. That first year in Djibouti, the best Christmas item belonged to our American friends. A Santa Claus costume.

After lunch on Christmas day the other dad disappeared. None of the kids noticed, they were too busy playing with the snowflakes and paper chains. And then! A faint jingle, a deep laugh, a knock on the door.

The door opened and in walked Santa Claus, jingling as he walked. He carried a plastic bag from the Nougaprix grocery store filled with pastel-colored candy coated almonds and lollipops.

“Santa,” our friend’s daughter said, “why are you wearing my daddy’s shoes?”

“Ho-ho-ho,” Santa said. In future years, Santa visited Djibouti barefoot. He tried to pat her on the head and she screamed and ran to hide behind her mom.

Santa sat in the living room in a plastic chair and pulled out his grocery sack.

“Ho-ho-ho,” he said and passed out candy.

My husband Tom stood at the window and looked down into the neighbor’s backyard. Three goats had been slaughtered that morning and brown and white hides now stretched over the barbed wire fence, drying.

“Santa,” our friend’s daughter said, “you sound like my dad.” She started to cry, confused and frightened. Her infant brother was already wailing.

“Ho-ho-ho,” Santa said. Her mother suggested it was time for Santa to leave. As Santa stood to go, Tom tried to distract the kids and called them to the window.

“Look,” he said, “Reindeer.” He pointed to the goatskins.

“Santa’s reindeer got skinned!” my son shouted. Henry turned away from the window just as Santa opened the door. “Santa, wait,” he called. “Wait! Your reindeer! Someone killed them.”

Screams from the baby and the little girl echoed down the hallway and Santa couldn’t hear Henry. Henry shouted louder, desperate to let Santa know what had happened to his poor reindeer but Santa stepped outside and closed the door, oblivious.

“Oh no, Santa.” Henry started to cry. He ran to the window to get another look. “How is he going to get home?”

“You told them Santa’s reindeer got skinned?” I said to Tom.

He shrugged. “I wasn’t really thinking, I guess.” He grew up on a farm and no one in his family would have been upset over skinned reindeer.

Three of the four kids were still crying when the other dad slipped back into the house. “What happened?” he asked.

We told him the story of Santa and the Skinned Goats. By the time we finished, the kids had wandered off to play and the adults were almost in tears from laughter.

*   *   *

We slowly did what Americans do, accumulated stuff. We gathered more Christmas memorabilia. Stores in Djibouti began carrying Christmas candies, decorations, and wrapping paper. Our holiday celebration started to look ever-so-slightly like the ones I had grown up with in Minnesota, including strings of lights and candy canes and Christmas music and patterned Christmas stockings, which continue to be hung over the air conditioner with care. And stories, that part of Christmas that doesn’t need to be packed up and stored away, the part we actually want to accumulate. Stories of Christmases past that get told and retold every year, slowly becoming part of our family mythology.

I could forgo all the decorations, all the Christmas-themed foods and songs and movies. No snow, no holiday parades, no white elephant gift exchanges. They all fade away into the background of my pre-expatriate life. Even the decorations we do have, all the physical items we cherish, might one day be lost or stolen or destroyed or left behind. We’ve evacuated before and we know that when you have two hours to pack and are allowed a single suitcase, the Christmas tree isn’t a priority. But the stories are.

Holidays are story times, story-bearers. We sit around the holiday dinner table and tell stories about Christmases, Thanksgivings, Easters, July Fourths past. The year we went to the Salt Lake, the lowest point in Africa and one of the hottest on the planet, where the salt was so pure white we pretended it was snow and tried to feel cold. The year we were in Minnesota, once in a decade, and Henry went hunting for the first time in his life and brought down two geese with a single bullet and we ate one for Thanksgiving dinner. The Disney World family reunion Christmas when we sang our personalized version of the 12 Djibouti Days of Christmas. The whale sharks that we swim with every year the day after Christmas, when we camp at Arta Plage under the wide starry sky.

Each year we live a new story and we add it to the pile of stories we can tell about the holidays and these stories become the links in our chain. The chain tethers us to one another, across borders and time zones and nations, across history. This is our story. This is who we are. This is how the Jones family rolls. Because we share this past, we share a sense of belonging.

The story of Santa and the Skinned Goats is retold every Christmas and every Christmas we are freshly shocked that Dad let Henry think the goats were reindeer. Every year we laugh at Henry’s earnest and useless appeal to Santa to listen. Every year we laugh about the crying kids. And every year something new happens that we add to our repertoire of story links that tell us we belong right here, in this expatriate family. Merry Christmas, joyeux noel, eid wanaagsan.

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.

Free Range

Free Range

By Anne Korkeakivi

FreeRange_Main_artMonths before our trip to Tanzania two-and-a-half years ago, first on safari in the Selous Game Reserve and then to the beaches of Zanzibar, I began my campaign to keep our daughters, then aged thirteen and fifteen, from peril.

I made sure the girls had booster shots up to date and received jabs against yellow fever. One by one, I lined up bottles of 50+ sunscreen and 50% DEET bug repellent, pocket-sized dispensers of hand sanitizer, and LED flashlights, like ready soldiers, on a shelf in my closet. I purchased new sneakers, pairs of tube socks, and long-sleeved but lightweight blouses.

I ordered regulation-size duffels in impenetrable material, and then hovered over the girls’ efforts at filling them, although—having grown up mostly as expats because of my husband’s work as a human rights lawyer, and having traveled often—they were used to packing. Because our weight allowance was small for the prop-plane flights we’d be taking once in Tanzania, but also to limit the possibility of loss or theft, anything of monetary or personal value—other than cameras and my younger daughter’s totemic baby blanket—was deemed verboten.

For clothing, Internet forums advised against taking on safari: black (too hot), dark blue (attracts tsetse flies), bright (scares the animals), and white (too many problems to enumerate) clothing. Bare legs and shoulders would be no-nos on Zanzibar (about ninety-six percent Muslim). Oscillating between the girls’ bags, I nixed and naysayed.

“You do realize,” my older daughter finally said, “you aren’t leaving many options.”

I moved on to my husband. His employer, the United Nations, provides him with an emergency First Aid kit; I insisted he empty it onto our bed and explain each item. After, I raided our medicine cabinet and made a trip back to the pharmacy, scoring Norfloxacin and Azithromycin, Loperamide, paracetamol, a topical antihistamine, an oral antihistamine, water-purifying tablets, rehydration salts, an antiseptic gel, a thermometer, bandages, and a small mountain of Malarone, the pricy but side-effect-free anti-malarial prophylactic.

Had I thought of everything?

“Remember,” I told the girls, “these are wild animals.” I went through a litany of behaviors they mustn’t exhibit on safari, finishing with, “At all times, you do what the guide tells you.”

The night before our departure, we watched a biopic about Bethany Hamilton, the champion surfer girl who lost an arm to a shark attack at the age of thirteen. When my younger daughter, during the closing credits, asked, “Are there sharks around Zanzibar?” the better, saner parent inside me realized I might have freaked out the children.

“Honey,” I said with a laugh, “don’t you worry about it.”

Then I went into my office and googled “sharks” and “Zanzibar.” (To note: offshore, there are reef sharks, tiger sharks, lemon and white and whale sharks, and hammer-heads. Stingrays and barracuda are also known to Zanzibar’s deeper waters.)

As largely expat parents, my husband and I are set up for giving our daughters broad and varied experiences of the world, something I deeply want for them. I just don’t want any of those experiences to leave them hurt or unhappy.

I am not a tiger mother. I am a lion mother. I do not fight with my children, but—from the moment I insisted one be birthed by Caesarean, rather than forced to turn in my womb, and the other be nestled, against all local convention, in my French hospital room as a newborn—I’ve fought for them.

As my kids were growing up, there were times when some people told me I was being overprotective. Maybe there were times when I was.

We set off for East Africa.

Over five days in the Selous Reserve, we came eye to eye with lions, elephants, buffalos, warthogs, wildebeest, hyenas, zebras, giraffes, monkeys, baboons, crocodiles, hippos, and impalas. I was having the time of my life—except for that moment when a crocodile slithered directly beneath one of my daughter’s feet as we putt-putted along the silty Ruffiji River in our flat-bottomed boat. Or, when my other daughter absent-mindedly stood up in the back seat of our Jeep to get a better view of a group of seven young male lions—about six feet from us. (In fairness, this was the only time I saw our usually very calm guide lose his cool as well. “Get down,” he hissed) Slowly, I began to trust in the experience. In potentially hazardous situations, I saw my daughters learn fast and listen carefully. Like the heat, it sank in. By the last day of our stay in the game reserve, I had relaxed enough to leave the girls to their own devices while my husband and I joined an armed ranger on a walking safari, proscribed to kids sixteen or under. They had a good time. Amongst giraffes and whistling thorn trees, my husband and I did also.

We left the next day for Zanzibar exuberant and unscathed. I thought the most perilous part of our trip was finished.

Somewhere over the dusty red expanse between the Selous and Dar es Salaam, our flippety floppety twelve-seater prop plane hit turbulence. Miles above the wide earth, we were flung up and down like puppets. It hadn’t escaped my notice that of the two “pilots” on board, the one actually flying the plane was receiving instruction from the other.

“Look,” I said, pointing out the window, while gripping my seat. “There’s the Ruffiji!”

As I successfully diverted both the kids’ and my own attention from worrying about falling out of the sky to appreciating the beauty of the river snaking its limpid brown way through the acacia-dotted landscape beneath us, I thought: Maybe I’m finally becoming a cool mother.

At our hotel in northern Zanzibar, there was a problem with the reservation. Sleeping quarters were located in two small, whitewashed structures in an “L”-shaped configuration, separated by a thatched-roof reception area. Despite having booked adjoining rooms, my husband and I were put in one building; the girls in the other.

My mouth dropped. “No way.”

“We like our room,” the girls said.

“We don’t have anything else,” the reservationist said. “They’ll be fine,” my husband said, patting my shoulder.

By the time we were ready to move on to Kizimkazi in the south of Zanzibar, my family was laughing at my fussing, and I was laughing a little at myself also.

Our arrival in Kizimkazi was the stuff of dreams. Placid monkeys played around thatched-roof villas of the resort where we were staying, sheltered by huge gnarly baobab trees. Green-blue water glistened just steps from our villa’s patio. The feeling of peace was as soft and sultry as the weather.

When the girls asked to go surfing off a reef in open sea at sunrise, I personally zipped up their wet suits, and waved as their little boat disappeared towards the lightening horizon.

That’s when it happened.

Halfway through lunch, with my daughters back on land, the thirteen-year-old announced, “I think housekeeping took my blanket while I was out surfing.”

Since her birth, this daughter had slept entwined in a soft white cotton blanket with a turquoise trim, bestowed upon her by a doting aunt in America. That blanket had been everywhere; every move we made, every journey, every overnight visit. I’d turned whole houses upside down searching for it, a baby perched on my hipbone, small trusting hands clutching my shoulder. In a life with a lot of transiency, that blanket was a constant. There was no coincidence in it having been the only object of personal value either of the girls was allowed to bring on this holiday.

An investigation was launched. After discussing strategy with the hotel owner, I joined my thirteen-year-old by the pool, where she was sipping passion fruit juice over Jane Eyre, her blue-painted toenails dangling in the water.

“They’re going to look for it,” I said, keeping my voice level.

“Okay.” She smiled. She went back to her reading.

“Okay?” I searched her face, ready to offer comfort and assurance.

“Okay.”

A few hours later, the owner had news: Yes, housekeeping had taken the blanket. They would wash it and then leave it in my daughter’s room.

At dinner, my daughter said, “My blanket’s back.” She added, with a wry expression, “I think it was used for cleaning.”

Back at our villa, she showed me the once snowy-white blanket. It was now gray, threadbare in places to the point of being almost transparent. Swathes of the satin trim hung loose from the cotton. The housekeepers must have washed down the whole resort with it.

I gathered what was left of the blanket and gingerly tucked it into a plastic bag. “I’ll fix it up as soon as we get home,” I promised. “I’ll bleach it and patch it, and I’ll make it okay again.”

“Great,” my daughter said, serenely. “Thank you.”

All that night, I churned under my bed’s swirling mosquito netting. There was no one to blame—mistaking the blanket for a cleaning rag had been a careless but innocent error by housekeeping. But, I knew no matter how I sewed or patched, I would never be able to turn that blanket back into the pristine unbroken white square with continuous green-blue border it had been for the thirteen years previous.

The more I thought it over, the more upset I became. And the more upset I became, the more I began to wonder. Of all the things to go wrong—this was something I’d never even thought about. Was my daughter more upset than she was showing? Was she less upset because she trusted me to be able to make the blanket all right again?

As the eastern skyline turned from periwinkle to pink to bright blue, and quiet dhow fishing boats appeared on the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean, the truth dawned on me.

I was more upset than she was.

During the years I’d been busy trying to give my daughters the world at the same time as shielding them from it, a curious thing had happened. Even my baby daughter had grown older.

The blanket sits on a shelf in my office cupboard now. When we returned home to where we live in Switzerland, I bleached it white again but didn’t try to patch it. I decided, instead, to see what would happen. Sure enough, my daughter never asked for it.

I catch a glimpse of what’s left of the blanket sometimes, when I’m extracting a copy of my novel to mail or looking for a new ink cartridge. I know my daughter sees it too, because she keeps things in that cupboard. A little part of her surely misses her old blanket and would like to see it whole again, but not enough to ask me about it.

She’s dealt with the loss in her own way, just as I’m learning to deal with it in mine. Allowing your kids to grow up is a slow letting go that continues all through their teenage years. Next year, my older daughter will leave for college. Two years later, my husband and I will be empty nesting.

“Don’t worry,” my younger daughter remarked recently to me, as I was marveling over how she and her sister both tower over me. “We will always need you.”

And they will. And they won’t.

As I learned in an unexpected way, under the shade of baobabs and at the feet of lions.

Author’s Note: As a journalist, before becoming a novelist and before having kids, I travelled far and wide. I can only once remember feeling real fear. Becoming a mother may have increased my sense of peril, but it has also enlarged my appreciation of going out and about in the world. My daughters are great travel companions! Everywhere we go, they share not only laughs but also unique perspectives. Becoming a mother has enriched me as a writer too, bringing out the gentleness and vulnerability that allows me to ponder a trip to southern Africa in a way I would never before have expected.

Anne Korkeakivi is the author of the novel An Unexpected Guest. Her work has been published by The Atlantic, New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among others.