Why I’m Proud to Be The Mom of The Mean Girl: A Cultural Essay

Why I’m Proud to Be The Mom of The Mean Girl: A Cultural Essay

By Chantal Panozzo


As an American woman who has always struggled with passivity and has also observed other American women with similar issues, especially in the workplace, I like the way my daughter confidently stands up for herself and I don’t want her to be sorry for it.


“Look at my house, Mommy!”

My three-year-old daughter grinned and cast her arms wide in front of a pile of big foam blocks. Then two four-year-old boys from the local day camp ran into the park district gym and knocked down her masterpiece.

“Don’t do that!” my daughter said, putting her hands on her hips. “That’s my house!” But the boys continued their destruction despite her protests.

The park district camp counselor walked over to me. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s ok. Don’t apologize. Or do anything. They’re kids. They’ll work it out,” I replied.

Two minutes later, the two boys and my daughter were rebuilding the house together. Then the three of them played for the next hour, riding Bobby Cars to and from the house, as if they had always been the best of friends.

My daughter and her new friends had just remodeled their home for a third time when another child entered the gym and began the next episode in home destruction.

“Don’t knock down our house!” my daughter said. She wagged her finger at the newcomer. The two boys repeated her words and antics.

“She’s mean,” the newcomer said to her grandmother.

The grandmother stepped into what had been my daughter’s house.

“You need to be nice!” she told my daughter. “Say you’re sorry!”

Observing, I shook my head at the grandmother’s interference. Despite advice to love your kids, keep them safe, but get out of their way from parenting experts like Kathy Masarie, MD Parent and Life Coach, this helicopter parenting (or grand-parenting) happens a few times a week when we’re out and about in our Chicago suburb: my daughter stands up for herself only to be “corrected” for her assertiveness by other caretakers. Since we’ve moved back to the United States from Switzerland in October, my daughter has been called “mean” and been told to “be nice” more times than I care to count.

But as I observe her, at least through the eyes of an American mother versed in European parenting styles, I see nothing mean (can a three-year-old even be mean?) about my daughter. Is it mean to defend a house you’ve spent an eternity building—since for a toddler, ten minutes is an eternity? And should you have to say you’re sorry for being upset in front of the very person who knocked your house down?

As an American woman who has always struggled with passivity and has also observed other American women with similar issues, especially in the workplace, I like the way my daughter confidently stands up for herself and I don’t want her to be sorry for it.

In Switzerland, where my daughter was born, and where we lived until she was three, I learned to parent as she learned to play. Swiss children are taught to work things out for themselves and parents don’t interfere with play unless there is danger of someone getting hurt. Since moving “home” I’ve considered the hovering and interfering American parenting approach, but I just can’t do it.

Instead, as the other American caretakers correct and hover and instruct, I sit back with a beverage and wonder: Why can’t we let our children work things out amongst themselves? And why are we teaching our children to be sorry for their assertiveness by making them apologize to others for defending something they built and believed in—even if it’s something as simple as a foam block house?

Because here’s the thing: If we don’t allow our daughters to defend their foam block houses, then how will they learn to stand up for themselves later in life when it comes to salary increases, fair pay, and equal treatment? If we don’t allow our children to work things out for themselves as toddlers, how will they learn to work out disagreements as adults?

Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed, writes, “When children learn to resolve their own conflicts, without Mom or Dad swooping in to the rescue, they build grit, self-confidence, and the creative problem-solving skills that lead to higher achievement.”

Luckily, my daughter has no problem standing up for herself—even in front of other adults. She isn’t “nice” in the way that the grandmother wants her to be. She doesn’t apologize and for that I am grateful.

Then the camp counselor tells the boys that it’s time to go.

The grandmother looks relieved, but my daughter looks like someone knocked her house down again. She runs to the boys and hugs the bigger one.

“You’re so nice,” says the boy.

Nice? I want to hug that boy too, but since he is being escorted away I hang on to his words instead. Then I embrace my daughter, because she is everything I could want in a daughter, and also because she is crying. Her home destructors-turned-friends are now gone, but hopefully her assertive spirit never will be.

Chicago-based writer Chantal Panozzo has written about parenting, expat life, and Switzerland for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. She is the author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known. Follow her on Twitter @WriterAbroad.

Photo: dreamstime.com

Telling Them Their Story

Telling Them Their Story

By Rachel Pieh Jones


The twins were three years old when I got the phone call that changed our lives. My husband was at work, out of cell phone range. I don’t remember what the twins were doing. Maybe playing Duplos, maybe gathering limes from the tree out front, maybe chasing the neighbor’s sheep around the yard.

The result of the phone call: we fled the country. My husband rushed home from work, I threw a few items into a small bag, and we sped away from life as we had known it in Somaliland.

In the thirty minutes I had to pack, I walked the twins through the house. They chose their absolute necessities: a yellow fleece blankie and a pink fleece blankie. They chose a couple of books and a toy or two. They said goodbye to the rest: the dollhouse dad had built, their pink and blue mosquito nets, the pictures they had painted with home-made finger paint.

As we drove out of the village in northern Somaliland, I guided the kids through more goodbyes, this time to people: Goodbye Hala, goodbye Deeqa, goodbye Halimo, goodbye Geedi.

The kids had no idea what was going on and thought it was funny to say goodbye to toys and clothes and to people they couldn’t see. They thought it was a game, like ‘see who can pick up the most train tracks the quickest.’ See who can pack a suitcase the quickest. See who can drive over unpaved roads in a mad dash for the airport the quickest. It never crossed their minds to be afraid and that is one of the many things I’m thankful for.

They didn’t ask why we were doing these things, not until later.

Three days later I sat in the bathroom with my daughter. She was crying.

“I want to go home,” she said. “I want to play with Hala. When can I see her again?”

I started crying, too. “We can’t go home, honey,” I said. “And I don’t know if you will ever see Hala again.”*

I held her for a while, on the floor in a guesthouse in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. We didn’t belong in Ethiopia but we couldn’t go back to Somaliland and we weren’t ready to return to the US yet.

“Mommy,” she said, “what happened?”

What happened? How do you tell a three-year old what happened?

“Bad guys did bad things and so we had to leave,” I said. That became our answer. We told her brother the same thing. They heard it, mostly understood it, and forgot about it. I thought.

A few months later in the US I put the kids in the church nursery. When I went to pick them up, the teacher called me aside. She looked uncomfortable.

“Um, your kids told a story during class today,” she said. “They told us they used to live in Somalia but bad guys did bad things and so you had to leave.”

Her voice held the assumption that they were lying but also a question. What kind of 3-year-old comes up with a story like that?

“That’s the truth,” I said.

And that was the end of it. We moved on, physically and emotionally. We have now lived in neighboring Djibouti for over ten years.

About two months ago at lunch my husband and I were talking about a person who had been killed in Somaliland, one of the murders that sparked our sudden flight, and one of the twins said, “Who?”

With that one word, I realized that they had never heard more than ‘bad guys did bad things.’ They still didn’t know what happened. They didn’t know their own story.

I started to tell them about those weeks, back in 2003 in Somaliland. Lunch stretched into an hour, then longer. We talked about the people who had been shot and killed just weeks before we arrived, about how the start of the Iraq war affected our safety, about the woman who had been killed in our village. I told them about hiding out in a hospital for seven days, trying to keep toddlers entertained with no toys, clean with no change of clothes, and fed with no cooking supplies. I told them about the couple shot through the windows of their house, teachers like my husband, like Daddy. That last phone call, the scramble to pack, the goodbyes they thought were a game, crying in the bathroom in Ethiopia. I told them all the names, all the horrible things, all the things we still don’t know, like who shot the woman in our village and why.

I told them the things they didn’t remember or never fully knew. I put words and images to the blurriness of their memories. They asked questions and we followed each random trail to the fullest conclusion we could.

They were fascinated and I was fascinated by their fascination. It was a story of adventure and danger, of survival, of grief and loss, of starting fresh, of creating, losing, then rebuilding a sense of home, of old friends lost and new friends made. It was the story of their past, of what had brought them to this moment in Djibouti. But it was also the story of their present and of all those years in between.

Telling them the story that they couldn’t remember but which belonged to them was like cracking open a space in their self-identity and pouring in the backstory. This is where you came from, this is what brought you to this here and to this now. This is what we once feared and grieved and how we moved forward. This is your story, this is who we are.

*in the intervening years, through a photo I posted alongside an article about Somaliland, we have come into contact again with my daughter’s friend. Yet another thing I am so thankful for.

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


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.

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.

Daunted Yet Determined

Daunted Yet Determined

By Rachel Pieh Jones


Can climbing twenty-two flights of stairs lead to quick deliveries?


The day I gave birth to twins I walked down twenty-two flights of stairs. I was twenty-two years old. We lived on the twenty-second floor of an apartment building in downtown Minneapolis. The building had two elevators that were often broken and on July 26, 2000 both were broken. I was thirty-eight weeks pregnant and roughly the size of a beluga whale. Stretch marks crisscrossed my stomach in between faded temporary tattoos of stars and planets, and blue ink marks where my husband had drawn a map of the world, boundaries of continents loosely guided by the stretch marks.

If these babies didn’t come out soon my stomach might explode. My belly button had long ago spread flat and had been turned into an imaginary mid-Atlantic island on the map. I ate meals with my plate balanced on top of my belly. I wore a dress my mom sewed for me. I called it a dress because it had flowers but it was a tent with holes cut out for my head and arms.

The apartment was ready, as ready as it could be for one bedroom and four people. My husband and I turned the bedroom into the baby room—two cribs, a double stroller, a rocking chair. No room for a changing table. The dresser was in the closet. We placed our two bookshelves side by side in the living room to form a makeshift wall between the two-person table and our bed. We had a two-seater couch rescued from the garbage dump, a television, and a bicycle.

It would be cramped but it would be home. Kind of like my belly had been for the past nine months for these two little people.

I had a doctor’s appointment, to strip my membranes a second time, on the morning of July 26. The morning the elevators were broken. With my husband’s hand on my back and my belly looming before us like a hot air balloon, I teetered and tottered down those twenty-two flights of stairs.

The apartment building primarily housed east African refugees. Ethiopian, Eritrean, Somali. The stairwell reeked of fried onions, cumin, and sweet smoky incense. During the first months of my pregnancy, I would be crammed into the back of the elevator behind people going to work and these smells that I otherwise would have enjoyed, triggered violent morning sickness. I would lurch from the elevator toward the laundry room wastebasket to vomit before going to work. I don’t remember the smell from this particular day. All I remember thinking is, “I hope I don’t fall down. I hope I don’t give birth in the stairwell.”

I had exercised on snowy winter days on these stairs. I ran down them to the ninth floor to watch the Olympics with friends. My husband and I used to race on the way to work, one of us taking the elevator and one of us taking these stairs. Who would get to the parking garage first?

I walked up these stairs the day I thought we were loosing the baby, before I knew there were two babies. We went to the hospital, the baby/babies was/were fine. We came home, the elevator was broken. My husband half carried me up the stairs and I stopped on every other landing to rest on the stained gray tile floor, to breathe, and to try not to vomit.

I don’t know if it was the twenty-two flight descent that morning or the stripping of my membranes. I don’t know if it was simply the day the babies were ready to come or if it was the threat of being induced. All I know is that same afternoon back at home while my husband watched after-school cartoons, I started having contractions.

This time, we rode the fixed elevator down.

Five years later in Djibouti when my water broke with our third child but contractions failed to ramp up, the Somali midwife sent me home. It was September 11, 2005 and approximately 115 degrees with high humidity. My feet had bloated to the size of water-logged mangoes and I had gained more weight with this one girl than I had with the twins. I wanted this baby out. Out!

We lived on the upper floor of a duplex. The staircase was made of mismatched brown tiles and chipped cement and had an aluminum banister that was disconnected from the wall on one end and clattered each time I gripped it. I stood at the bottom of the staircase and looked up. How badly did I want this baby out? Sweat dripped down my back, sweat dripped down my front, streaming over my rounded belly like a waterfall. I took a lumbering step. I took another.

I climbed up and down those stairs twenty-two times, a practice I don’t recommend to anyone. I might have lost track of the number, it might have been twenty-seven times. I was twenty-seven years old and I like when numbers match.

And, I gave birth a few hours later after an intense labor experience that lasted exactly twenty-seven minutes.

Twenty-two? Twenty-seven? What I know for certain now is that climbing up and down staircases while nine months pregnant is incredibly difficult. I stood at the bottom, or top, of those staircases daunted yet determined. I also know now that daunted yet determined is ultimately the only way to enter this parenting gig. Grab that rickety banister, slip your arm around your partner, one step in front of the other. And start to climb.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

I Don’t Promise to Keep My Kids Safe

I Don’t Promise to Keep My Kids Safe

By Rachel Pieh Jones


The line in movies, books, and television shows that drives me most crazy is when a parent says to a child, “I won’t let anything happen to you.” There are variations on this theme:

“Everything will be fine.”

“You aren’t going to die.” (or daddy or mommy isn’t going to die)

“You will be safe.”

“I promise, nothing will go wrong.”

“Liar, liar, pants on fire,” is what I want to say in response.

I hope real life parents are wiser and more forthright than fictional parents but I can’t be certain. Real life parents might not verbalize these kinds of promises, but many do everything they possibly can to provide the illusion that nothing harmful will ever happen to themselves or their children. I think this is dangerous.

The world is not a safe place. Whether a child is on the slide at the playground in suburban Minneapolis or a child is at the grocery store in a country like Somalia, there can be no guarantees. Pretending like there are, pretending like a child will never get splinter (and the parents will sue the city park and recreation board if he does!) or that a child will never experience illness, violence, grief, pain, or loss is dangerous and deceitful.

May 24th there was a suicide attack at a restaurant in Djibouti, where I live. This was the first terrorist attack ever to occur in Djibouti. Ever. School was cancelled the next day and police checks popped up all over the city. People were on edge, nervous, scared. When school did reopen, there were armed guards, concrete barriers, searches at the door, restrictions on parents entering, limited parking.

I did not tell my 8-year old daughter everything was going to be fine. I didn’t promise her that I would always keep her safe. I didn’t pretend like nothing happened, like nothing had changed. I didn’t simplify the horror (though I didn’t show her the gruesome photos online). I named the name of the terror group who had taken responsibility. I named the name of the restaurant, which was on a street she knows well. I told her what they did and who died.

I didn’t promise to keep her safe because I can’t guarantee that and God forbid, if something should happen, I don’t want her to think that Mommy and Daddy failed or lied or simply didn’t try hard enough. I don’t want her to believe that I am in control, that I’m a god-like mother. I don’t want her courage and her choices and her reactions to be built on the faulty foundation of an illusion of security or invincibility.

I want her courage, choices, and reactions to be built on the confidence that no matter what happens, we love her. No matter what happens we will do everything possible to keep our family safe, protected, healed. But I am not in control of drunk drivers, cancer cells, terrorists, bullies. And, we are people of faith. I believe that no matter what happens, there is a plan in place and it is a plan that has our ultimate good in mind. If our efforts at keeping safe, protected, and healed don’t work, my children need to be able to fall back on something unshakeable, not a foolish promise I could never possibly keep.

The world is scary and anything horrible could happen at any moment but we will not live in fear. If I promised nothing bad would ever happen to my children, and if I wanted to not be a liar, I and my children would be forced into a world cut off from relationships, travel, nature, sports, aging, service, work, all the things that make life beautiful and true and connected.

Some people might look at the choices we have made as a family and conclude that we don’t care about safety, that we take foolish risks, that we not only don’t promise safety but that we lead our children directly into danger. We live in the Horn of Africa and travel to Somalia. Two of our children are at boarding school in Kenya.

I care about safety. I pray every day, sometimes through tears, for the protection of my family and I battle fear, nightmares of what-if tragedies, and anxiety. But safety is not my highest aim for my children. If it were, I would lock them behind a white picket fence and throw away the key.

I want my children to be brave, engaged, compassionate, aware of the world, open to diversity and challenge. I want them to know that a life working for justice, serving the oppressed or downtrodden, fighting to create beauty requires faith and courage and that these practical goals and these character traits trump the need for personal safety.

I want my family to be safe but I will not promise it. My promise to my kids is that their father and I will do our best to make wise decisions, that we will pray for protection, that we will work toward a safer and more peaceful world, and that no matter what happens, we will walk through the valley of darkness, when it inevitably comes, together.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

A Baby at an American Military Camp

A Baby at an American Military Camp

scouts at camp lemonier1

When my youngest was born one of the highlights of our weeks was going to Camp Lemonier, the American military base in Djibouti. Officially, we went for chapel—English sermon, semi-familiar songs. But honestly? We went for the two hours of free, frigid air conditioning and the possibility of a quick stop at the store for American snack foods and maybe a recent issue of Runner’s World magazine.

In those days there weren’t many non-Djiboutian American kids in Djibouti, three of them were my own. Children and women in civilian attire were rarely seen at Camp Lemonier and we drew quite a bit of attention on those Sunday evenings.

For our kids, this was fantastic as it meant they left the base with pockets stuffed full with candy bars or jellybeans or Halloween candy or cans of root beer. Once as an American family was leaving, a couple of armed soldiers shouted, “wait, wait!” and shone searchlights on them. The family wondered what they had done wrong, security is tight, and waited. The soldiers ran to them and handed the kids fistfuls of candy. “We just wanted to say have a nice night,” they said.

I’ve never felt quite at ease at Camp Lemonier. Military life isn’t something I thought much about until we lived here. I don’t like guns or violence and I’m ambivalent about war. Yet the longer I live abroad, the more grateful I am for the freedoms I have in America, even while I recognize that so many other nations enjoy similar freedoms. There are a lot of bad guys out there and I don’t think they should be allowed to roam free kidnapping schoolgirls or taking Saturday afternoon mall shoppers hostage. Al-Shabaab in our region, Boko Haram further west in Nigeria, al-Qaeda to the north in Yemen.

I know military and force is sometimes necessary. But watching my children receive Butterfingers from men holding automatic rifles and dressed in full fatigues is something I don’t think I will get used to.

Sometimes I feel like we are suffering as civilians in Djibouti and that the military personnel have it easy. What a life! Air conditioning, American food, movies in an actual movie theater, Subway sandwiches, strawberries and ice cream. But what a fool I am to think that. These are trivial perks that bring momentary relief. These men and women are working far from their families and loved ones and they don’t have the time, off-base freedoms, or opportunities to engage in the local culture very often.

The things I struggle with as an expat—loneliness, culture shock, language frustration … are balanced by the deeply satisfying relationships I form, by the moments of cultural success, by the broadening of my worldview as it is stretched in relating to people so different from my background. Plus, and significantly, I have my family with me. No amount of air conditioning or ice cream could improve on these perks of the civilian expatriate life.

When Lucy was seven months old we attended an Easter service at Camp Lemonier. The chapel was filled, almost to overflowing. Lucy cried. She cried and cried. It was past bedtime, she wanted to nurse, she didn’t like that free, frigid air conditioning. I bounced and cajoled her and eventually took her outside to the chapel porch, frustrated because I wanted to be in the service and I didn’t want to have sweat pooling in my lower back while I held the only crying baby at the camp.

After the service, people poured out through the narrow doorway. One man, a particularly large soldier in full gear, approached. He had tears in his eyes and rested a broad palm against Lucy’s back.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for letting her cry during the service.” He got choked up and swallowed hard. “My wife just gave birth and I haven’t met our daughter yet. A baby crying is music.”

That Easter was eight years ago and I have never forgotten that man or his words. I think of him every time we go to the base, which has been less often in recent years. In a way, his few but heartfelt words have influenced my parenting.

First, he reminded me that children are a gift, that the ability to squeeze my daughter close, to be with her whether she was cooing or crying, was a treasure. His words remind me of the beauty and I hold in my memory the picture of this tough, brave soldier crying for love of his baby, thankful for the crying of my baby.

Second, he exemplified a love that crosses miles, a love that is sustained despite painful choices and the career options, or anything else, that separate families. Sometimes when people hear my children are at boarding school they say, “I love my children too much to do that.” I have an assortment of snarky responses to this but in the deep waters of my soul I know that some people understand. There is a love that knows no distance. It is heartbreaking and reduces the strongest among us to tears, but it is true and unshakeable.

Lucy and I went back to Camp Lemonier in May this year. She participated in a Girl Scouts bridging ceremony at one of the only bridges in the city—a short wooden porch outside the coffee shop, we pretended it was a bridge. Then she handed out miniature American flags, this girl who was born in Djibouti and calls herself American African.  This girl who cried at an Easter service and brought a serviceman to tears. This girl who is a gift and who has crossed miles, who is learning about love over distances—siblings at boarding school in Kenya, grandparents in Minnesota, a dad currently doing PhD research in Somalia.

I still don’t feel quite comfortable at Camp Lemonier. All that barbed wire and the ‘Deadly Force Authorized’ signs and the weaponry. But at the same time, I feel an affinity for the soldiers, especially the parents. And somehow, though we don’t know each other, it is comforts me to know that just a few miles from my home in Djibouti there are other parents who feel what I feel when reduced to Skype calls with children and the occasional visit home. Parents who live with that stabbing love that knows no distance.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

Photo by: Lyn Englin

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The Magic of Kissing Boo-Boos

The Magic of Kissing Boo-Boos

By Kim Siegal

0My 3-year-old son Caleb came storming in the front door, screaming, mouth contorted into a square shape—the corners pulled down in agony—eyes closed in pain. Of course he was not being chased into the house by mutant zombies sadists, as his display would have you believe. He was reacting like a typical child to a minor knee scrape.

What’s a parent to do in the face of such heart-wrenching but exaggerated hysterics? Well, if you’re an American, you generally (after assessing there’s no real damage), express some loving maternal sympathy and apply a therapeutic kiss. We’ve done it for generations. Kiss the boo-boo and make it better.

“Mwah! All better sweetie.”

After a few gasps of air to settle down, Caleb turned on his heels and ran out the door, eager to rejoin his playmates outside.

Sitting back on my living room sofa, I turned to face my Swahili teacher who had just witnessed this exchange. His jaw was on the floor. “That works?” he asked incredulously.

I could see it now through his eyes—that magic of that kiss transformation.

We’d been living in Kenya for three years and these subtle cultural parenting differences never ceased to surprise me. I suppose I assumed parents kissed boo-boos the world over. They don’t.

But here’s the thing: most cultures have something like this in their parenting arsenal. For my Swahili tutor, it just wasn’t a kiss. Kenyans generally, in the face of a boo-boo induced tantrum, do the following: they forcefully smack the offending thing—the door he bumped his head on, the stick he tripped over or the flat ground he stumbled over—and admonish it saying, “Mbaya!” (Bad!). Maybe they are restoring some kind of justice in the world by yelling at the inanimate object that hurt their little one, or maybe they are just focusing the crying child’s attention somewhere else.

When I first saw this I thought it was silly. It’s not the table’s fault that junior walked into it, so why are we punishing the table? How is this helpful? And why am I defending an inanimate object?

I suppose my Swahili tutor might have thought my kiss was silly as well. Why would you want to put your mouth on that? And how could that possibly make him feel any better?

But you know what? Smacking and admonishing the table works too. And it’s probably the result of a similar principle as the therapeutic kiss. When a little one falls, or somehow gets hurt (as they do half a dozen times a day) the crying is as much about the fear as the pain.  Perhaps they are thinking, “Holy cheese on a cracker! Is this how the world actually works? I can be toddling along, minding my own business, and the corner of a table leaps up and bonks me on the head?!? Why? What did I do to deserve this? Oh, the humanity!” The pain is fleeting, but the anxiety could probably sustain a good cry.

So, they likely just need something. Something to restore their faith that the world is safe and good. Maybe it’s a loving kiss or maybe it’s a reprimand to the offending inanimate hurt-maker. Either approach works equally well to comfort and calm.

My second son was born in Kenya, and his first intelligible word was “mbaya!” He’s internalized the whole thing. Even at one and a half, when he trips over something, he walks back to the site of the tripping, bends his little body over and slaps the ground, exclaiming a satisfying (and adorable) “Mbaya!” And then he toddles on, the justice of the world briefly restored.

Kim Siegal lives in Kisumu, Kenya with her husband and 2 sons. She chronicals her experiences living and raising children in Africa in www.mamamzungu.com.  She has written for the Huffington Post, Inculture Parent and is an editor and contributor at www.worldmomsblog.com.