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.

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.

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.

What Not to Say to the Parents of Boarding School Kids

What Not to Say to the Parents of Boarding School Kids

By Rachel Pieh Jones

jones familiy2

Things to never say to the parents of boarding school kids and the responses that go through parents’ minds when they hear them.


There are few responses to our decision to send our 12-year old children to boarding school that are harder to hear than, “I could never do that.” Especially when that response comes from people I care too much about to offend by saying out loud what runs through my mind in the moments following this declaration.

I could never raise my kids in a country that sells five-pound gummy bears. I could never raise my kids in a culturally isolated, world-view restricted, familiar but uninspiring location.

It is a good thing I don’t respond like this because not only are these responses cruel and snarky, they are lies.

They are lies because I could raise my kids in America, I even daydream about it sometimes. I have good friends who are excellent parents raising kids in America. There are kids with healthy palates, culturally diverse worlds, wide-open world-views, living creative and inspired lives in the American suburbs.

The reason these answers are what initially rise to the surface when someone says I could never do boarding school is because those words imply a refusal to step into my world for even a second, an inability to see anything beyond the four walls of their own choices so I knee-jerk back with the same attitude. They also subtly (and not so subtly sometimes) communicate a, “You don’t love your kids as much as I do,” kind of attitude that is equally false and I want to belittle the speaker just because I can be mean like that at times.

I compiled a list of things to never say to the parents of boarding school kids as well as the responses that go through that parent’s mind when we hear them. I have personally heard each of these, and more:

“I’ve never known boarding school kids who do well as adults.”

You must not know many boarding school kids. I know plenty who have done incredibly well in life. And I know plenty of non-boarding school kids who have not done well. There is no guarantee and I won’t pretend that any single decision of mine will ensure the outcomes I would love to see for my kids.

“I could never do that.”

You could never make a decision that is good for your kids, that is something they want, even if it causes you pain? That seems kind of selfish.

“Don’t you worry about them?”

Of course I worry about them. Don’t you worry about your kids? But worrying never changed or fixed anything so let’s encourage each other instead of judging each other.

“Now you don’t have to worry about teenagers, yours are away.”

Didn’t you just ask if I worry about them? And, I still do have teenagers. I didn’t sign over my parenting responsibilities. I still see them, talk to them, love them, nurture them, discipline them, argue with them, play with them.

“It will get easier.”

It does not get easier. It gets harder, and better, even as we develop new normal and routines.

“I love my kids too much to do that.”

I would like to slap you.

“So you are letting someone else do your job.”

No. This is me doing my job. I have not abdicated, I have just made a different choice than you and I am very much still their parent.

“Couldn’t you just move back to the United States?”

Moving back to the United States would possibly be the worst decision we could make for our children. They don’t want to. Their parents have no jobs there. This is home to them, here, believe it or not. The kids want this. And I hate to break it to you but American high schools aren’t exactly utopias, either.

“I can’t imagine doing that.”

Maybe your imagination is underdeveloped. What you are really saying is that you could never imagine doing the best thing for your child, if that best thing made you uncomfortable or caused pain. I’m sorry to hear this. You are also saying that you refuse to enter into my world for a single moment, to try and understand any reality other than your own, to join me in my joys and pains of parenting, even though you are comfortable judging them.

 Isn’t it, um, expensive?

Yes, it is (though not as much as you probably think). And aren’t, um, private music lessons expensive? Hockey lessons, gymnastics classes, summer camps? Extra curricular actitivies are included for us. Plus, we’re away from shopping malls, Amazon prime, movie theaters, restaurants, and all the other venues urging kids to consume, consume, consume. I’d rather invest in education than in fashion labels.

“It is probably easier for you than it would be for me.”

Excuse me? Because I’m a worse mom? Love my kids less? Feel pain less acutely? Am some kind of superwoman?

“I’m too attached to my kids.”

Too attached to your kids to do what is in their best interest? That is a dangerous position to be in.

“Well, that is not our idea of family.”

While you are allowed your own opinion and conviction about family, don’t impose them on me.

I would never send my kid to boarding school.

How can I explain how painful your words are? They are more like weapons that cut through my heart and divide us. The truth is you don’t know what you would do in my situation and it wouldn’t hurt to be a teensy bit more sensitive.

The underlying message behind words like these is that if we really loved our kids, we wouldn’t make this choice. The way I see it is that because I love my kids so crazy-much, I’m willing to make this choice.

Every family is unique in personality, purpose, and choices. This is how the Joneses roll, at least for this season and in the circumstances in which we currently find ourselves. I am happy to talk about boarding school and love when people are genuine and sincere and curious.

It is a gift when someone comes alongside and is able to see this perspective and bless our decision, to hear about the joys and griefs in it, just as there are in every parent’s life. I am exuberantly thankful for the way most of the people around our family honor our choice.

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.

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.


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.

Raising Brits

Raising Brits


I was born a Southern belle, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and spent virtually the whole of my childhood a Yankee in Great Neck, New York. Today I live in Glasgow, Scotland of all places, an honorary Brit, and a large ocean away from where I once called home. I first moved to the UK for graduate school, because I was an anglophile. I loved the sarcasm, the scones, the double decker buses, the very idea of Britishness; I wanted to wrap myself in it, like a fine Burberry scarf, for as long as I possibly could. Though I clutched a one-way ticket in my hand as I boarded that Virgin Atlantic plane almost fifteen years ago, in my heart of hearts I didn’t know I would end up settling here. And I certainly wasn’t thinking about what it would be like to raise children in a country different from the one in which I was raised myself.

Now I think about it often. Many of my closest friends live in America and many of them have children. To what extent, I wonder, are our varying experiences of motherhood shaped by the fact that my kids say “biscuit” while theirs say “cookie”? These are the four ways in which it is most obvious to me that my children are growing up British:

They have accents

Accents are only accents if they sound different from the way you speak yourself. And let me tell you: my kids don’t sound a thing like me. It was strange in the beginning, very strange, especially with my first child. I did what the experts say and I talked to him, incessantly. Enunciating as I pointed out the “lorries” (trucks) in his first-word books, unleashing a steady stream of chatter as I changed his “nappy” (diaper) or pushed him in the “pram” (stroller). But when he started talking back, I didn’t hear in his sweet baby voice traces of my own dulcet Long Island tones. No, what I heard instead was the Queen.

My son, it turned out, spoke with a perfect English accent. “Do you want a bath, Oliver?” I would ask (where bath was pronounced with a short “a” as in “apple”). “Yes, Mummy, I’m ready for my baaahth,” he would reply (where bath was pronounced with a soft, yawning “a” as in “father”). His accent was clipped and slightly nasal and a good deal posher than his dad’s. Once he was at school, however, and peer pressure began to work its magic, he came to sound increasingly Scottish, as does my second son. My youngest children, who have revelled since birth in a nanny with a lilting brogue like Merida from Brave, sound as Scottish as Scottish can be. The wee lassie and laddie can even roll their “r”s.

They have other points of cultural reference

America has made a big impression on the popular culture here, no doubt about it, but Britishness itself is still as strong and distinct as a well-steeped cup of Earl Grey. The “telly,” the food, the sport. Where I was plonked down in front of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, my kids have been immersed from the time they were tiny in the wonders of the BBC, with its psychedelic In the Night Garden and its possibly more psychedelic Doctor Who. At the table, their palates have been molded by fish and chips and bangers and mash, by shepherd’s pie and sticky toffee pudding. It is rather amazing to me that, at eight and six years old, my sons have yet to experience the taste sensation of a Snow Cone or a Twinkie or Jell-O pudding for that matter.

And then there’s football. It’s hard to overstate the extent to which football (soccer) is the UK’s national pastime, the significance it holds both socially and culturally. The season runs from August to May, so for the majority of the year my boys are cheering their teams on, to the exclusion of all other sports. The newest Arsenal “kit” or Rangers “strip” (uniform) is the birthday present par excellence. Even the little ones are kicking a ball around as soon as their bandy toddler legs can sustain them upright. There are no basketball games for these kids, no baseball games or Little League. No peanuts and cracker jacks and root, root, root for the home team. If they were to play anything with a bat, it would be cricket, a game the rules of which I still don’t fully understand.

Their elementary school experience is different

It’s called primary school, first of all, not elementary school. And, in Scotland, “grades” are known as “years” and numbered like this: P1, P2, P3, etc. The children have uniforms, even at the public schools (which we call  “state” schools or “comprehensives”) so there is very little agonizing over what to wear. I used to be skeptical about school uniforms, the mundanity of them, the lack of individuality; as a mother, I couldn’t embrace them more. What are you wearing today, kid? The same grey slacks and polo shirt I wore yesterday! School feels quite contained here from the parent’s point of view. There is no cascade of events for which to take time off from work, no birthday cupcakes to bake, perfectly or imperfectly, and share with the whole class.

When my kids started to read, they called letters by their sounds (“mmm”) and not their names (“em”), a system the Brits refer to buoyantly as “Jolly Phonics.” When they learned to spell, I watched them insert “u” s into innocent words like “colour” and swap “s”s for “z”s in unsuspecting verbs like “realise.” And when they study history, the history of America, insofar as it will be touched upon at all, will be treated as a foreign subject. They won’t suffer through state capital tests, like I did, or recite the Gettysburg Address. Rather we will sit together at the kitchen table, constructing mnemonic devices by which to remember the names and order of the British monarchs.

Rain is a way of life for them

At our latitude it gets dark during the winter at about 4pm, the sun only having risen seven or eight hours earlier. Scotland doesn’t see much snow, the temperature rarely dips below freezing, but we make up for it with rain. “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day.” It is a favorite ditty in the nursery schools: if there is one thing you can count on in this country it is that the rain will always come again. As a parent, you find ways to cope. You buy heavy waterproof jackets for the cold months and lighter waterproof jackets for the handful of other months. Hoods are a necessity, because you can’t push a pram and balance an umbrella at the same time. And even if you could, the wind, your endlessly whistling companion, would blow it inside out like a buttercup.

You take the babies out for walks, even when it’s wet, the pram sheathed in plastic. You learn to read the sky, its nuances of grey, and to predict when the first drops will give way to mist and when to downpour. You shuttle the toddlers weekly to indoor playgrounds or “soft plays,” of which necessity has made you spoiled for choice. The chronically puddled ground means wellie boots are a year-round staple of the wardrobe. And when the long winter ends and whatever approximation of spring or summer takes its place, your children treat the sun, which has the audacity to herald morning before 5am, as the villain of the piece. “It’s too bright, Mum, it’s too hot.” For of course nobody here has air conditioning.

Worst Parent Chaperone

Worst Parent Chaperone

By Rachel Pieh Jones

expatriate parent chaperone1

Lucy pulls a note from her backpack and hands it to me.

“Crap.” I crumple the note and throw it in the garbage. Then I pull it out and sign my name on the parent chaperone line.

“You don’t have to be a parent chaperone,” my husband says.

Right. I work from home, I’m available. Moms know it, teachers know it, our kids know it. I could stay home and stay sane and our kids will talk it out with therapists in the future. My mom moved me to Africa and then wouldn’t even go to the animal refuge with my class.

Or I can spend the day refusing to compare booger sizes, picking crumbs out of my hair, passing around squares of toilet paper because the bathrooms at the school in Djibouti are rarely well-stocked, and remembering why I am a writer not a teacher.

“You’re a writer? You work from home? Great, when we need a parent chaperone, we’ll send you a note.”

As a parent chaperone of elementary school events I do solemnly promise that I will find a kid if he gets lost, I will poke the eyes out of any would-be kidnappers, and I will do my best to keep the kids from dying. Beyond this, I can’t promise much.

I can promise that I will show up wearing the wrong clothes. No one told me that sports day means the kids come in shorts, t-shirts, and tennis shoes but that the French moms come in short skirts, heeled sandals, and jewelry. The Djiboutian moms come in silk dresses, flowing scarves, and jewelry. I come in running pants, a University of Minnesota t-shirt, tennis shoes, and a sloppy ponytail.

I can promise I won’t understand the instructions. Madame Barbara described my station and I couldn’t imagine how first graders were going to accomplish the high jump with hula hoops and bouncing balls.

“High toss,” she said slowly in French and then demonstrated, throwing a ball in the general direction of an elevated hula hoop.

I can promise the kids who come through my station will score well because I will make up for their failure to understand my instructions by giving them all top points. While other kids are following intricate mazes on balance beams and tossing beanbags at a specified number of tin cans, my kids throw the ball high. I set the hoops aside and they just throw the darn ball high. I will clap (none of the other mothers clap) and chase after the balls myself because I don’t know how to say ‘go get it’ in French and when I try, the kids stare at me with blank faces, some with their fingers in their noses.

I can promise that I will gag when they pull their fingers out of their noses and shove their goopy treasure into their mouths. I will cringe while helping kids turn their backward pants around. I like kids well enough but struggle to deal with the boogers and backward pants of strangers’ children, of children who don’t understand me when I suggest they get a Kleenex, that maybe they need a belt.

I can promise that I don’t know the French sing-a-long bus songs and that I will stare out the window while the other moms lead rousing musical sessions. I might join in with my lips pointing in all the wrong directions as I attempt to form French vowels while simultaneously mimicking hand gestures. If you are my unfortunate seatmate, the last kid to board the bus and who gets stuck with the foreigner, duck and cover your head for safety lest you get a finger in the ear.

I can promise that when we go to the animal refuge your child will be disappointed if she finds herself in my group. Monsieur Suleiman’s group will find all the animals in their guidebooks, discarded shed snake skins, rare birds, and rocks with crystals embedded inside. My group will find the deer-like animals and will spend half our time figuring out which word corresponds to this animal. The kids can’t all read yet and I don’t know the word for deer (cerf). Monsieur Suleiman’s kids will bring home the crystal-embedded rocks as souvenirs. Mine bring home mosquito bites and ants in their socks.

I can promise that I would be such a fun parent chaperone in my native Minnesota. This is any easy thing to promise because I am not in Minnesota.

I can promise that at the end of sports day I will find Lucy in tears because her running skirt is on backwards. Where is this child’s mother?

And I can promise that upon reaching home I will collapse on the couch, mumble a brief prayer of thanks for elementary school teachers, and sleep all afternoon.

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.

Subscribe to Brain, Child

When All the Other Moms Still Have Babies

When All the Other Moms Still Have Babies

By Rachel Pieh Jones
A young American mom in Djibouti said her husband recently asked what she wanted and she looked at him, all crazy.

“What do I want? I don’t know what I want. I only know what the baby wants. Do I have wants? Do I get to have wants?”

Maybe not now, I thought. But one day, you will.

I didn’t say it out loud, though. The words, the sentiment, the experiential knowledge would age me, make me appear condescending and unsympathetic to this mom’s current loss of autonomy.

I wanted to talk about how when that day came she still wouldn’t know what she wanted and that it would take her months of floundering through guilt, feeling selfish, and being daunted by the sheer number of options to settle into what she wanted, who she might be, when she no longer had a baby or toddler.

That conversation didn’t belong in this conversation because I was talking with three women who still had babies and would most likely have more babies in the future. That was a conversation they weren’t going to have for another decade, give or take. By that point, I would be ready to talk about colleges and careers.

Next the conversation turned to stories of post-delivery mishaps (bladder control issues and emotional roller coasters, anyone?), questions of learning to navigate Djibouti Town with babies in tow, mutually-exchanged offers of hosting play dates, and about how taking photos on a monthly basis of children holding numbers or stuffed animals seemed far too overwhelming at this stage in life, how they were lucky to get their teeth brushed by the end of the day.

My own birth stories have dust on them, the photos (print, not digital) from the day I delivered the twins are practically yellowed and curling around the edges. Pulling them out from thirteen and eight years ago in an attempt to relate felt like dredging through history books. Thirteen years ago? That was before digital cameras were in every home, or phone. Eight years ago when my youngest (and last) was born was before Pinterest.

I am no longer woken by crying babies at ungodly hours. Instead I do it to myself, setting the alarm for 5:45 so I can squeeze in a six-mile run before my third-grader rolls out of bed to fix herself breakfast. I leave the house without diapers, snacks, or rattling toys. I no longer lock the bathroom door for five seconds of privacy.

I didn’t have much to offer these moms and listened with the fully alert brain and stain-free shirt of a woman no longer claiming Goodnight Moon is literature, no longer leaking fluid at nipple level. Their stories were delightful and hilarious, their loneliness and love for their families palatable.

I wasn’t that much older than these moms, two years older than the other mother of twins. I simply started having babies young. So young that when my youngest graduates from high school I could, in theory, still get pregnant.

On the other side of the room in which this conversation took place were more parents, of the gray-haired variety. They weren’t talking about kids or parenting, they were watching a recent home video someone brought back from Mogadishu, the streets calm and peaceful as life flowed back into the Somali capital after decades of violence.

I could cross the room to join the conversation surrounding the video but somehow crossing the room felt too monumental. It would communicate that I was moving over, away from the babies and nap schedules and Fisher Price toys, stepping aside to let a new generation of moms fill in that space with their exhaustion and the exhilarating first steps that marked their days.

But these moms were my age peers, or as close as peers come in the small expatriate circle in Djibouti. These are the women who know how to use Twitter (though they lack the time) and who would listen to Mumford and Sons if the toddlers weren’t blasting The Wiggles. Or whatever toddlers listen to now.

Among parents the age-gap is often more related to the ages of our children than to our own biological age so if I want to be with women my own age and not sound like an old, boring been-there, done-that, know-it-all, I need to embrace the newness of their stories and not drag my ancient ones down from the attic.

If my husband asked me in that moment what I wanted, I would have said, “This. I want to listen to a new generation of moms.”

I know what I want now and it is to have brushed teeth, a clean shirt, and adult conversation while guarding the treasure these moms will learn. The baby stage was hard and beautiful. The elementary school stage is hard and beautiful. I’m assuming the teenage stage will be hard and beautiful.

I would have said, “What I want is to be the adult human face a mom looks at and doesn’t need to wipe and to be the empathetic ears a mom speaks to without using a sing-song voice.”

I earned my dusty stories, years ago. And I told them. Now is my turn to listen.

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.

Am I a Bad Mother or Did Africa Run Out of Shoes?

Am I a Bad Mother or Did Africa Run Out of Shoes?

By Rachel Pieh Jones

shoes1I saw a scruffy boy at the Nairobi airport and wondered, where is that kid’s mother? His hair stuck up in all directions, uncombed and unwashed. He wore blue jeans with holes in the knees so wide the bottom half and the top half of the jeans were barely still connected. His red sweatshirt had a hole in the neck, both armpits, and the cuffs were shredded to strings. His shoes. I think they used to be shoes. Now, they were merely a see-through blue upper attached by shoelaces at the ankle to a rubber bottom that was filled with holes. His dirty socks poked through the holes and the soles flipped around his feet like flip-flops that flopped in the front instead of in back.

He’s not really motherless but he sure looked like it. His name is Henry and he’s my son.

He loves those shoes and jeans, that sweatshirt. He refused for months to get rid of them and refused to duct tape them (duct tape fixes run in the family).

But we were now in Minnesota and it was a below-zero-almost-every-day kind of December. Henry could not wear those shoes or jeans anymore. Grandma had already purchased new jeans; it was up to me to buy him new shoes.

We went to the mall, every expatriate’s favorite first place to go upon re-entry (oh wait, it isn’t?), and marched to the shoe store. I pulled a pair off the shelf. While Henry tried them on the store employee came to help us.

“How do they fit?” I asked.

“They’re a little tight,” Henry said.

“Anything is going to be tight after those.” I pointed at the old pair and the employee noticed, for the first time, the pile of rags and recognized them as used-to-be-shoes.

“Holy crap!” he said. “Are those your old shoes?” He started laughing so hard he drew the attention of the other staff. He picked up the shoes (a brave move if ever there was one, maybe he hadn’t seen Henry’s socks yet) and held them aloft.

“Guys, check this out.” The soles hung loose, his fingers slid ‘in and out of the upper part of the shoe. “Dude.” That was in a whisper. “Do you think Adidas has ever seen a pair of their shoes like this? Dude.”

Then he looked at me and I could see in his eyes admiration for Henry and (I’m sure I totally imagined this) condemnation of me. What kind of mother lets her son run around in such horrid clothing? Not only run around in these rags but wear them on airplanes and to the mall? Obviously, his eyes said (or rather my heart saw), a bad kind of mother.

“Why have you waited so long to buy new shoes?” he asked.

“We live in Africa,” I said.

I hate that I said it like that, like it was an excuse, like shoeless children are to be expected if they live in Africa, so I tried to fix it.

“Not that Africa doesn’t have shoes.” Now I was defending a continent.

“They have plenty of shoes.” Now I was lumping an entire continent into a word ‘they.’

“Its just that Henry goes to boarding school.” Now I’m an extra bad mother and ‘Africa’ is so bad I have to send Henry elsewhere.

“I mean, we live in Djibouti.” Now I’m talking about booties.

The employee had most likely made no judgment on my parenting and probably hadn’t caught my ridiculous: ‘we live in Africa so I can’t buy my son new shoes’ comment and I was now inundating him with meaningless information. He just wanted to laugh about shoes, not get a lecture on shoes in Africa, where is Djibouti, or why we chose boarding school.

But he was politely looking at me, nodding. I had a choice and how I communicated with this young man would either confirm the general idea that Africa has no shoes or would condemn me as a terrible, lazy mother. Who was going to take the fall here? Me? Or Africa?

I could easily have played into what so many Americans think about Africa. It is a single monolith, it is entirely poor, people don’t have shoes or clothes or food or jobs or creativity or … basically a continent filled with lack.

I could have said something foolish like, “Africa doesn’t have good shoes.” Then Africa would bear the blame for not being of sufficient quality, not me. I would be the brave mother who dared raise a son in such trying circumstances. I would be a hero. I could even suggest we donate this pair of trash shoes to ‘Africa.’ Maybe they need them. If they aren’t good enough for my son, maybe they are good enough for an African’s son.

Or. I could tell the truth.

I could say that I had made the cheap, lazy mothering choice. I just didn’t buy him shoes. That is exactly what I said.

Then I dragged this poor salesman into a monologue about how I shouldn’t have oversimplified my answer and how Africa is a continent made up of a multitude of diverse nations, each with lots of shoes, and yes there are some people on the massive continent who don’t have shoes (personally, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t own shoes. I know plenty who don’t own beautiful shoes or quality shoes or multiple pairs of shoes) but that isn’t because Africa doesn’t have shoes, and how I feel sad about my kids being at boarding school, but not guilty, and how parents of teenagers face the unique challenge of clothing them well, made even more unique in our case by distance.

We bought the first pair of shoes Henry tried on and he wore them out of the store, the old ones in the box (to be burned later).

I don’t want to go into that long and awkward of a conversation often and learned my lesson that day. I need to be careful how I represent this continent and this nation, even in off-the-cuff remarks. I have had the unique opportunity to learn some things and have a responsibility to honor that knowledge. I don’t need to lecture, lectures won’t make much difference, I’m sure the salesman tuned me out back at “Holy crap!”

But may I never make the conceited choice of masking my parenting weaknesses behind living in the developing world, may I never make the selfish choice of blaming my failure to do something for my family on my expatriate status. May I never choose to say ‘Africa has run out of shoes’ so that I will look like a better mother. And maybe, if I learn to speak more wisely and accurately, I can help begin a small trickle of change. Maybe people will begin to see Africa not as a continent of lack but of beauty and strength and power and growth.

I think the salesman was glad to see us go.

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.

Candy From Strangers

Candy From Strangers

By Kristen Drybread

CristoI figured my three-year old daughter would develop new habits and passions when we moved to Brazil, but I never imagined that her first love would become window-shopping. Back in New York City, Gabriella loved to spend Thursday afternoons at the library, Saturday mornings at the Museum of Natural History, Monday evenings at kiddie yoga. Almost as soon as we arrived in São Paulo, her favorite hangout became the local shopping mall.  Her preference for roaming the halls of a shopping complex filled with upscale retailers catering to twenty-somethings with a passion for hot pants was disturbing enough.  What made it almost intolerable to me was the fact that every time we came home from the mall Gabriella suffered a tummy ache, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Then, one evening I noticed her take a handful of gummy bears from a jar on a bookstore counter and pop them into her mouth. Suddenly, everything became clear. My daughter had been doing the unthinkable: taking candy from strangers.

At our local mall, music and booksellers dole out fruity taffies to intrepid children completing the journey to cash register at the back of the store. Jewelry shops generally keep a bowl of sugarcoated gumdrops somewhere near the front door.  And lingerie boutiques seem keen on issuing foil-wrapped chocolates to children holding tightly onto Mommy’s hand—hence, the steady stream of prepubescent boys begging their mothers to try on a new bra.  Yet, a parent need not set foot inside a single store in order for her child to collect enough candy to fill several piñatas. Sales associates frequently leave their stores to hand lollipops to youthful passersby.

To Brazilian retailers, distributing sweets to children is not a clever ploy intended to cajole thrifty parents into loosening their purse strings.  In fact, moms and dads are intentionally left out of the exchange. We’d been strolling the halls of Shopping Eldorado regularly for more than a month before I realized that Gabriella wasn’t really interested in looking at Pucca clocks or Hello Kitty socks. She was there to trick-or-treat.

I tried to put a stop to Gabriella’s candy grabbing by telling her the bookstore had likely set the bowl of gummy bears out for special event. “Honey, I don’t think that candy is there for just anyone to take,” I said. “You need to ask first.”

“She can eat,” and employee struggling to speak English cut in. “Children need candy. It helps them to grow sweet.”

No. It helps them develop cavities and to grow obese—I wanted to say. Instead, I told him, in Portuguese, “She’s already sweet.”

“Then she’s Brazilian,” he said. “Children from abroad rarely are.”

What did he mean?

I immediately remembered my daughter’s last trip to a New York City playground. A thin, tow-headed boy sat on a bench clutching an extra-large package of Oreos.  He kicked a girl who directly asked for a cookie and stuck his tongue out at a boy who implored for a bite with his large sad eyes. “They’re mine,” he screamed when his mother suggested he had more than enough to share.  A kid like that wouldn’t be content with a handful of gummy bears. But what about his peers? The only kid in Manhattan I knew who wouldn’t snatch as many candies from a jar as she could possibly hold was a former classmate of my daughter’s who had been born in France; she was the only child I’d ever seen divide a piece of candy with Gabriella rather than insist that my daughter find an adult who could give her a chocolate bar of her own.

True: I could take my daughter to any children’s play emporium in the United States and she wouldn’t, against my wishes, be plied with peanut brittle and bonbons. Most American parents ask a mother’s permission before handing her child a treat—even if it’s a quartered organic grape. Before moving to São Paulo, I mostly saw this as a sign of respectful parenting: surely our collective hesitance to share snacks indexed an appreciation for the dietary preferences of our fellow parents and the desire to protect unknown children from potential allergens.  But now I wonder if our reluctance to even offer treats to the children of others is responsible for the fact that children in the United States rarely seem to know how to share. I don’t remember seeing a four-year-old Manhattanite spontaneously doling out animal crackers—or even lending out her pink bouncy ball—without the express insistence of a guardian.

Brazilians, pint-sized ones included, don’t think twice about giving unknown children gifts—especially sweets. No matter how vigilant I am about policing Gabriella’s sugar intake, in São Paulo she will have, at minimum, two or three treats a day. If I pause to pay my bus fair, the old lady sitting behind us will have shoved a few M&Ms into Gabriella’s palm. If I reach for my cell phone, the man at the newsstand we’re walking past will have unwrapped a lollipop for her. If I look both ways before crossing the street, the kid in the stroller on our right will have given Gabriella a handful of Skittles.

Everyone here knows that candy, caramel corn, and cotton candy are to be shared. Sweets aren’t really for eating; they’re for creating community and teaching children the importance of generosity.  Why else would a package contain twenty cookies instead of two?

Now that Gabriella has learned from her Brazilian peers that the candy she’s given at the mall is not to be gobbled up at once or hoarded for a midnight snack, our shopping trips are free of bellyaches and sugar-induced nightmares.  What’s more, Gabriella actually ends up eating very little candy at all. It seems she’d rather enjoy one red gum drop and divide the remainder of the package with other tiny shoppers than stockpile candies while sitting in her stroller, alone.

Though I haven’t fully lost my impulse to say, “No thank you,” when a stranger asks if she can give Gabriella a cookie, I must admit that learning to share candy with strangers has made my daughter a whole lot sweeter.

 Kristen Drybread is a cultural anthropologist and freelance writer who lives in São Paulo with her two magical daughters.   

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

The Things Teenagers Leave Behind

The Things Teenagers Leave Behind

By Rachel Pieh Jones

WO Teens Leave Behind ArtMy teenagers don’t live at home anymore and every time they go back to boarding school, every time they check-in under the Kenya Airways sign at the airport, I think, “How can something that is so good for them hurt me so deeply I can’t breathe?”

A silver brush filled with tangled long blondish-brown hairs rests on the IKEA shelf in my bathroom. The hairs are not mine, I have curly hair and never use a brush. There are more shoes at the front door than the three people in the house could ever wear. Candy wrappers are stuck to car seats and there is a load of salty, sandy laundry in the bathroom from our beach campout two days ago.

I walk around the house the day after my twin teenagers return to boarding school and pick up the things they have left behind, like brushes and towels and off season clothes. I fold bed sheets and tip mattresses against the wall so rats or cockroaches don’t take up residence over the next three months. I scrub toothpaste dribbles from the sink and scoop up still-damp bath towels. I rearrange books and replace game pieces from Settlers of Catan.

I pull open the refrigerator door to take inventory. They devoured fruits and vegetables, my fresh baked breads, cereal, cheese. They left dirty dishes in the sink from the quadruple batch of brownies we made yesterday, wrapped in aluminum foil, and packed into plastic buckets for the trek back to school.

Henry likes to drink out of the glassware, so there is a clear glass balanced on the edge of the kitchen counter. Maggie likes to use the teacups she puffy-painted with friends years ago, even though the puffy paint has mostly peeled off. She left one on the table and a damp ring is forming around the base.

They left behind sandals that no longer fit rapidly growing feet, t-shirts so beloved they are torn nearly to shreds, swim suits that they won’t wear in Kenya, far from the ocean that we drive by every day here in Djibouti.

Here in Djibouti, here at home. They still call Djibouti home but since seventh grade they have spent more of their time at the school in Kenya, the vast expanse of Ethiopia stretching between our borders. Every time they leave, at the start of each term after a month or six weeks home, I walk through the house and put back the pieces.

The last time they returned, after summer break, the flight left at 3:00 a.m. My husband drove them and they left behind their little sister, sleeping upstairs. I stood at the front gate and waved until the car turned the corner even though no one could see me in the dark. Then I leaned against the door frame and cried for a while, went upstairs to kiss Lucy on the cheek, and tried to forget that in the morning there would be only one cereal bowl stuck with dried milk to the table, not three.

The days following Henry and Maggie’s departures are foggy, slower, thick. The family members left at home start to shift; we rearrange our relationships with each other. There is less cooking, less laundry, less cleanup. I can return to writing projects that languished, friendships I’ve ignored, and organizational projects I’d only dabbled in during their vacation.

Lucy straightens her bedroom, she likes it more organized than Maggie does and Lucy carefully refolds her clothes and returns Littlest Pet Shop toys to their proper storage boxes. She stuffs the play clothes back into the basket and I am filled with gratitude that Maggie, though thirteen, still plays dress-up and tea party and giggles with her sister, their time together now precious not annoying.

Lucy moves squashed ping pong balls out of her path and rides Henry’s RipStick around the tiled porch. He, too, knows the time with his younger sister is special and he left behind the echoes of hours spent wrestling and hitting one another with padded sticks.

My husband, Tom, doesn’t change his schedule as much as I do while the kids are home, as a university professor, PhD student, and director of our organization in Djibouti, he doesn’t have that flexibility. But now there are fewer arms and legs flying around the living room during wrestling matches, fewer arguments over Wii remotes, fewer heated debates over Arsenal football versus Liverpool.

As I clean up the things left behind and as we transition our routines from life with two teenagers in the house to life without them, I recognize that they have left behind something much deeper and foundational, much harder to pick up and put back together.

They left behind a mother who feels like a failure, like an almost-empty-nester at thirty-five years old which is far too young, in my opinion. No matter that this is what Henry and Maggie want, no matter that they are thriving and excelling at this school more than they ever did at the French schools in Djibouti. No matter that this expatriate life has given them the gift of being loved, of having a home, and of belonging in at least three countries.

No matter that they are smiling, that the ‘I’ll miss you mom’ and the ‘I love you’ are sincere but the eyes are already turned toward school and friends. No matter that I knew from the moment I gave birth via vaginal delivery and c-section on the same day that wise motherhood choices are rarely the easy ones. Thirteen years later that scar is still sensitive, these twins left their mark.

The feeling that I have somehow failed them, or failed as a mother, flow from the lie that choosing boarding school means I have stepped out of the parenting role. But what I know, deeply, is that choosing boarding school is made everyday from that exact parenting role. And while the tears flow out of the feelings, the conviction and the strength to step into the next three months apart flow out of the knowing.

Because these teenaged twins also left behind a mother who knows she is a good mother. This choice isn’t me failing at parenthood, it isn’t me handing off the responsibility and gift of my children to someone else, it isn’t separate from my role as a mother. This choice of sending our children to boarding school is part of our parenting, it is what being responsible for the gift of these teenagers in our context and in our family and according to our needs and values looks like. It is me being the best possible mother I know how to be. And because it breaks my heart and leaves me crying against doorframes and into pillows and at stop signs, it feels like failure.

But just because something hurts doesn’t mean it is bad, wrong, or failed. This is, perhaps, one of the biggest things my teenagers leave behind. And I hope it is something they also take with. The realization that life won’t be easy, comfortable, or pain-free and the confidence that this is okay.

I am the kind of mother who used to look at a skinned knee and say, “Look at your beautiful blood. Let’s clean it out and get back on that bike as soon as possible.” I never imagined I could shelter them from pain and struggle, from what the world will bring to bear with force and grief and aggression. But I can create a shelter, a place for them to spread Legos out wide and to wrestle their little sister and wear clown wigs, a place for them to bring their messes and their gut-busting laughs, a place out of which they can gather courage and experience grace.

Now, with my heart in shreds and knowing that yes something that hurts this bad can be a good thing, I watch my husband drive the kids to the airport. Or, I watch them push their suitcases through security and I hold my hands over my grief and say, “Look at my beautiful teenagers. I want them to stay with me forever. Go with courage, go with grace.”

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.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Where Expatriates Belong

Where Expatriates Belong

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Next, in our What is Family? blog series. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.

rachel jones family2My kids are the ones who bring the weird snack to school. The other kids have pain au chocolate (if they are French) or half a baguette with Smiling Cow cheese spread in the middle (if they are Djiboutian). Mine are the ones with homemade granola or banana bread. Nothing wrong with homemade granola or banana bread, but that’s not what the other kids are eating. The food sets them apart. As does their underwear. In swimming class other kids leave thick, single-colored cotton underpants in a heap on the floor. Mine leave Thomas the Tank Engine or Dora the Explorer thin cotton panties in a heap. The smells of home we carry on our clothes and my accent when communicating with the teacher or other parents mark my family. Other. Different. Foreign. Alien, even. We are the ones who don’t quite fit in. We are an expatriate family.

I thought this awkwardness would disappear when we spent one year in Minnesota, the land of our passports and tax-payments and home-ownership. But in Minnesota my family was the one wishing Somali cashiers at Target, “Eid Mubarak.” At school my kids were the Americans who didn’t know what to do in the cafeteria at lunchtime, the kids who thought people played baseball on Thanksgiving, the kids who wobbled on skates and tumbled on skis and who complained of the cold weather when it was 75 degrees. Here, I had the right accent and provided the right school snacks but I didn’t understand the grading system and spent hours and hours and hours perusing the shelves at the grocery store, searching for those snacks, half in awe and half in shock. After a decade abroad, we didn’t quite fit in here either.

When we don’t fit, we forge our own path. My kids didn’t know how to navigate the cafeteria but our twin teenagers have traveled internationally through three countries on their own. We might have strange accents but we can retreat into private family conversations in French or in Somali or English, depending on where we are. We might eat strange food but have learned to be comfortable no matter the strangeness of our underwear.

We don’t exactly fit in Somalia, Kenya, or Djibouti, though we have spent many years in these places and they are now the holders of our memories, the shapers of our present, and the backdrop against which we will always judge our futures. We don’t exactly fit in Minnesota, though four of the five of us were born there, we (loosely) cheer for the Vikings, and we care more about cheese and fresh water lakes than most expats.

Sometimes I sense a disconnect between my husband and I and our children. Tom and I know how to ice skate, enjoy wool socks, know just how long to let marshmallows smolder in hot chocolate. We know how to rake leaves and roll snowballs and what oofdah means. Because Minnesota raised us and our memories are woven through with the smells and seasons of the Midwest, fresh mown grass and wormy streets after a spring rain. My children’s childhoods sound like bicycle horns announcing the morning’s arrival of fresh baguettes. It smells like salty sea air. Their memories will be forever shaped by this place that is home to them in a way it will never be home to their parents. Sometimes I grieve this. I feel a loss, a loneliness, a separation. Other times I see the wild, extravagant gift of it, this widening of world views, the open-handed reception with which our children respond.

And so we make the conscious choice to receive this expat life as a gift. Like baguettes, my husband and I receive the gift as a current reality but my children receive it as the warm crusty bread they will forever love best because it is the bread they loved as children and it will remind them of learning to ride bikes and green wooden bread carts and dodging goats and football (soccer) in the street.

We are each unique and my children are shaping their own spaces, designing their own memories. In the details these memories look almost nothing like my own of growing up in suburban Minneapolis. But in grand, foundational ways, the ways of curiosity, love, creativity, faith, I am giving them what I received. A family to belong to, a family to come out from.

Everyone in our family eats funny food and wears funny underwear and speaks with funny accents. These funny things that separate us from the world bridge the gap and drive us toward each other, where we do fit. We are an expat family and we belong in the in-between spaces we each carve out, the five of us nestled against one another.

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.

To read all of the essays in this series click here.