Traveler, Writer, or Mother?

Traveler, Writer, or Mother?

 

Silhouette of passenger in an airport lounge waiting for flight aircraft

By Rachel Pieh Jones

This is so weird. I’m at the airport and I have my purse and my carry-on. I don’t have a stroller. I’m holding one passport and one ticket. I don’t have a diaper bag or breast milk stains on my shirt. I don’t have to make multiple trips to the bathroom with a different little person in town each time and when I do go, I am the only person in the stall. I don’t get to board early. I’m going to Italy and I’m going alone.

I actually haven’t carried a stroller, diaper bag, or stained shirt through an airport in years. My kids are sixteen, sixteen, and ten. But I did it often enough, as an expatriate, that the memories of toddlers throwing jet-lagged temper tantrums in the Chicago O’Hare airport remain vivid. I remember holding wailing babies in my arms while planes landed and we were prohibited from moving about the cabin and I could feel eye daggers piercing my back as all the other passengers wished they had packed earplugs. I remember trying to squeeze twins, carry-ons, two tiny backpacks, and pregnant me into a bathroom stall.

I remember flying alone with all three kids and seeing that our seat assignment left the 5-year old twins in one row with my baby and I behind them. The third person to sit in my row was an elderly Somali man with a beard hennaed orange, which meant he had been on the Hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca, which meant he was relatively devout. I remember feeling nervous that, this being Ramadan, he wouldn’t want to sit close to a non-Muslim woman or suffer through the baby’s racket on this thirteen-hour flight, less than half of our total journey. I remember how he and the baby bonded immediately. He fed her his food, since he was fasting. He held her and played with her, tickled her and read to her, and I fell asleep, hazily convinced he was an angel.

I remember the time we landed over Minneapolis in the summer and the baby was asleep in my lap and the twins were coming later, with my husband. There was no crying and there was no onslaught of questions about whether or not Grandma and Grandpa would meet us, with balloons or candy or stuffed bears. There was the baby breathing warm into my stomach. There was the exhaustion of thirty-plus hours of travel. There was the green, the miraculous, never-ending green of a Minnesota summer, broken only by lakes and golden farmland. The colors and the peace overwhelmed me and I started to cry. I hadn’t been here for two years by that point. Our life, home, work was in Africa but so much of my love was in Minnesota. And now, with so few distractions, I felt what I had stuffed behind crying babies and arguing toddlers all those other arrival times.

It was a kind of loss, but also a gain. I had given up this beautiful place filled with memories and family and a contented familiarity. I gained a desert world of constant challenge and a barrage of experiences I barely understood. I gave up safe and comfortable. I gained courage and faith, the kind that has been stripped bare of all support structures and that continues, sometimes to my surprise, to refuse to break.

I’d felt this before, but the shock of modern air travel and the quickness with which we are forced to shed one life and enter another, wildly different one, hits with predictable timing upon landing. I just hadn’t been able to process the feeling or give into the emotion when kids clamored for attention, or for the window seat.

I prefer to travel with my whole family. We enjoy traveling together and it is hard to imagine seeing Italy without my teens, tween, and husband to share it. But I’m not here as a tourist or a returnee, I’m here to work. To conduct some interviews, do research, experience a certain region with my own nose, eyes, toes, and ears. My project requires deep reflection, moments of solitude. I can’t get that with my family.

This part of me, this writer part, feels separate from the mother part. Like I said, this is so weird. Also? It’s fun. I feel guilty. What are my husband and kids doing right now? I’m sure they are fine but they aren’t on their way to Italy. They are in Djibouti where it is 118 degrees and the dust blows with stinging ferocity until it catches between teeth and turns eyelids into sandpaper.

I don’t quite know what to do with all my time, all my thoughts. I haven’t trained myself to be focused for long periods, I’ve trained myself to have quick bursts of writing or thinking in between meal times and homework sessions and family soccer games. I am about to board the plane for Italy, via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I feel afraid. Less than a week ago, suicide bombers killed over 40 people and injured nearly 200 at the airport in Istanbul, Turkey. I have been to that airport. But I’m not afraid of terrorism, well okay a little bit, but that isn’t what I’m mostly conscious of in this moment.

I used to dread the exhaustion of international travel with little children and the jet lag and the worry over documents and timing and catching flights and staying hydrated and questions like: what currency do we use in this airport?

This time, I’m afraid of being alone with my mind. I don’t know what lies in there. I don’t know what will surface, like the surprise of tears upon landing in Minnesota all those years ago. Who am I without being attached to three children and a husband?

It is terrifying. What if I fail? What if I have left my family for two weeks and all I end up with is a roll of belly fat from gelato, pizza, and wine? What if no one will answer my questions?

This has never happened before, going all in for this dream of capturing words and lives and stories on paper. I shake off the guilt and the fear. My family wants this for me, too. They made the choice for me to leave, too. While I am fully a writer in this moment, I am also fully a member of my family. They are with me, championing me, cheering for me. I don’t have to choose between mother or writer. The work, strength, and creativity required for one informs the other.

The call to board the plane comes and I stand, sling my grownup purse, with no diapers in sight, over my shoulder. I grab my one passport. I’m a mom and I’m traveling. Alone.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children. 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.

Save

Save

Save

Get a Real Job

Get a Real Job

Art Get a Real Job

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Minnesota winters are brutal on stay-at-home mothers with young children. It is so hard to get outside. Slippery sidewalks, slushy roads, kids who take twenty minutes to get bundled up and only then announce, “I have to pee!”

The winter my twins were infants, I felt nearly suffocated by the early darkness, the cold, the isolation. I needed to exercise and to get out of the house. I started taking the twins to the Mall of America. It was a thirty minute drive on a non-snowy day and the mall had four floors, each an entire mile in circumference.

I never shopped, we couldn’t afford anything but diapers and the basic groceries that supplemented our WIC coupons. I walked. The mall was free, warm, and not my house. It had that white noise background that can (sometimes) soothe anxious babies. In the middle of the day it was filled with two kinds of people: other stay at home moms who were empathetic and equally desperate, and elderly people also out for a non-slippery walk. The elderly were my favorite because they loved seeing infant twins. Their comments and smiles would remind me, in the haze of those sleepless months, that my children were precious and cute and treasures.

So we walked. My double stroller that was so hard to manoeuver and my massive diaper bag that knocked into other walkers and my weary spirit, thankful for a few hours out of the house, pretending we were real people with money to spend and friends to meet and not just a mom and two babies hoping to make it through another day.

One of the best things about the Mall of America was the nursing mother’s room at Nordstrom’s. I could time my walk to end up there just at feeding time and we would wander through the beautiful clothes to the bathroom.

Inside this bathroom were several beige couches, big clean mirrors, flowers, calming music piped in, a changing table, and privacy and quiet where my babies could eat in peace. I could rest one in my lap and prop one up on the couch pillows, much easier than trying to accomplish feeding both on a mall bench or fast food restaurant plastic chair.

One day, while in the nursing room, a woman came in. She looked to be in her upper sixties. She wore a raggedy faux-fur coat, a pearl necklace, and hot pink lipstick that had smeared outside the lines and snagged on dried skin on her lips. Her hair was ashy blond with streaks of gray, dry and cracking at the ends. She walked briskly past us, into the bathroom part of the room.

There was a phone on the table next to me and when she came back out, she picked up the phone. There wasn’t a dial tone and she slammed it down.

My babies jerked their bodies at the sound but continued eating.

She picked up the phone again, yelled into it, and slammed it down again. She turned and glared at me. I offered a half-smile, hoping it came across as neutral or sympathetic. She started at the babies, my stroller, the diaper bag, back at my face.

“Get a real job,” she shouted, and then she ran out the door.

Her words echoed in the nursing mother’s room. Get a real job. Get a real job.

I’d had a real job, before these babies were born. I had a university degree, albeit a fairly useless one for earning a decent salary. I was twenty-two years old. I had ambition, albeit on hold for now. Was strolling through the Mall of America on a crisp winter day not enough?

I looked at my babies. They were done now and needed to be burped, needed their diapers changed.

Day care for infant twins cost almost more than I could earn at all the real jobs I’d had or applied for and qualified for. Already, I struggled to get through the day and to keep my family clean, clothed, and fed – both financially and physically. Maybe a real job would be in my future, maybe when I slept more than two hours straight at night, I could be useful in a real job. Maybe I was wasting my skills or time and they would be better spent at a real job. Maybe…

I stopped myself. Real job?

What could be more real than keeping two human beings healthy and loved? No one paid me for it but that didn’t make it less of a job. I would have different jobs in the future, I know that now, fifteen years later, but they haven’t felt any more real than those early parenting years. The opposite of real would be fake or imagined and I certainly wasn’t faking. The stretch marks, c-section scar, sleepless nights, breast milk stained shirts, Bob the Builder lyrics running through my head ad nauseum, endless rounds of patty-cake, I imagined none of it.

When both babies started crying at the same time and I still had to clean up burp rags and dirty diapers and settle them into the stroller, I knew. This was as real as jobs get and I didn’t want a different one.

 

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She 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.

Save

Save

So Sentimental

So Sentimental

Art Dollhouse

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Throwing away the little-girl toys doesn’t make me sad this time around.

My oldest daughter is fifteen and my youngest daughter is ten. We recently moved and I’m not a very sentimental mother. I would rather have space on shelves than boxes crammed full of old memorabilia. I would rather make room for sports equipment or downsize than keep buckets of old toys and disintegrating dress-up clothes that don’t fit any of us anymore.

Still, I thought that when the time came to finally get rid of the old stuffed animals and the old dollies and the old wooden dollhouse furniture, that I would feel sad and wind up storing all of it for that one-day-grandchild to enjoy.

There are so many ways I mourn the passing of time as my kids have aged. I miss the pudgy hands grabbing my cheeks and turning my face to force me to look them in the eye. I miss the giggles so easily brought out by a few tickles on the feet. I miss the goofy songs, the post bath slippery toddler streak shows. But I’ve also delighted in each new stage. My sister says, “Rachel says every age is her favorite.” And she’s right. When my kids were two, I loved two. When they were ten, I loved ten. When they were fifteen, I loved fifteen.

Moving is always complicated and living in east Africa doesn’t make it any easier. Few houses have built in closets or storage spaces so unless we want boxes stacked like Legos in our living room, we have to make choices. With each move, we have to consider, what is worth keeping? What would we regret tossing? What would we pay to actually ship to the US some day in the unknown future? So I downsize every time. And in typical American style, within no time at all, we manage to accumulate so much that I need to downsize again.

Our most recent moved required first storing everything in a shipping container for six months while we housesat for another family. This meant we really didn’t have space for extemporaneous items saved merely for nostalgia’s sake. So I started purging. My youngest, at ten, didn’t need the miniature musical instruments or the play clothes that didn’t fit her anymore. She didn’t need the CDs of toddler songs or of kids teaching French through nursery rhymes, she had become fluent in French at school. She didn’t need the board books.

We did keep some toys, for when families with little ones come over to visit and some to bring back to the US at whatever point we return. And we will always keep Legos and American Girl Doll treasures. But, my husband and I fought over the wooden dollhouse we bought in France when I was pregnant with our youngest. It is big and awkward to store, I said. It is precious and unique, he said. He won and it balances on top of our two boxes of stored holiday items.

I like to think that the ease with which I purge has to do with the positive character traits of simplicity and practicality. But, as I thought about it while rummaging through the toy bins and buckets of stuffed animals, I realized I was wrong. I had too high of an opinion of my emotional state and stability.

The reason it was easy to throw or give away these particular toys was because my daughter had never really played with them. I don’t have memories of her holding a My Little Pony or zooming the Matchbox cars around because she didn’t do that.

She is a builder, a creator, a performer, and a people person. Legions of homemade items were scattered everywhere in her room, cardboard boxes turned into American Girl Doll Jeeps, broken pieces of tile from the swimming pool turned into a bathtub, paintings labeled with the names of her school friends. My phone is full of videos of songs she wrote and performed, my computer has a file folder exclusively for the stories she types. Her walls are barely visible through the barrage of photos she has taped up, of all the friends she has loved in America, in Kenya, in Djibouti. These crafted things were much harder to throw away and some of them found their way into boxes and folders to keep.

I look at the dollhouse my husband and I fought over and have another realization. He is just like me. Our kids painted the walls of the dollhouse. They rearranged the interior, they marked it with their personalities.

Turns out I am sentimental, only not for the items purchased as the consumer I am. I’m sentimental for the items designed by the individual, creative child I’m raising.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She 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.

Save

Dear Teachers

Dear Teachers

Beautiful smiling girl on a black background. School concept

By Rachel Pieh Jones

We are an American family living in Djibouti and my kids attend a French school. Their first days of preschool were the first days they spent entirely and only surrounded by the French language.

I am not a teacher. I think I might explode, or implode, if I were a teacher. I don’t have all the skills I want my kids to inherit, few parents do. That’s why we need teachers and these are just a few of the skills our teachers have given, alongside an academic education:

Preschool: Communication

At my first parent-teacher meeting, the teacher told all the parents that our children had to ask permission, in polite French, before using the toilet. Then she looked at me.

“Except Lucy,” she said. Lucy was allowed to grab herself, bite her lip, and do a little dance. “Until she learns the words.”

I loved the teacher immediately.

Kindergarten: Empathy

Lucy’s class was going to march in a school costume parade. She had volunteered to dress up as a wolf, they were representing Little Red Riding Hood, La Petite Chaperone Rouge. She had been so excited about her costume until she got to school and saw some of her friends dressed in cute red dresses, carrying baskets of flowers. She had a fuzzy brown mask and a dull orange costume. She started to cry.

Her teacher understood the problem right away and within minutes, she designed a red cape, skirt, and handkerchief for Lucy’s head. She manufactured a basket and pulled flowers from a bougainvillea bush outside the classroom. Voila, the wolf transformed into a smiling, damp-cheeked Little Red Riding Hood.

First Grade: Pride

We spent this year in the United States. Lucy went to a French-immersion school in the Minnesota public school system. She didn’t know how to ride the bus or how to work things out in the school cafeteria or how to play the American games at recess. But she was now a rock star in the classroom, her French far beyond the levels of the other students.

The teacher helped Lucy navigate the culture of the American classroom while celebrating her Djiboutian experiences. Lucy sobbed on the last day of school, primarily because she loved her teacher so much.

Second Grade: Compassion

Back to Djibouti and this year, my older two children started attending a boarding school. Lucy has now gone through several huge transitions. An international move and learning to be the only child left at home, missing her older siblings.

One day at school, Lucy had a total meltdown. She was sobbing and couldn’t stop. The more she cried, the more embarrassed she became and the angrier she became and the more she cried. She didn’t remember later what she was crying about. The teacher asked her to step outside until she calmed down. The next day, Lucy apologized. The teacher was not upset and didn’t make her feel embarrassed, but welcome. He let her be who she was, intense emotions and all.

Third Grade: Empowerment

This year we maintained the status quo. Tried to keep things steady – no big moves, no major changes in our family situation. And this year, Lucy got to be the rock star again. There were two new girls who only spoke English. They needed someone to help them navigate the school culture and to translate what was going on in class. The teacher put Lucy on the case and this year, Lucy learned how to be both servant and leader. And she made two new best friends.

Fourth Grade: Creativity

Oh, fourth grade! We adored this teacher. She initiated after school craft days (we don’t have many extra curricular activities) during which the kids learned calligraphy, dance, and origami.

The students learned how to put together a five-minute presentation. Lucy did hers on K’naan, the Somali-Canadian singer whose song, “Wavin’ Flag” was the official song of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Lucy (with my help) tweeted K’naan that an American girl in Djibouti was doing a presentation on his music. She asked what his favorite song was. He tweeted back that they were all his favorite and best of luck on the presentation. Lucy was so excited to share her presentation that when her turn came, she leaped up and down in the classroom.

At the end of the school year performance, her class performed a wavin’ flag dance to that song and the teacher personally made each child’s costume.

Fifth Grade: Courage

This year Lucy has the same teacher she had in second grade. He consistently encourages her to be creative, to work hard, and to enjoy and explore Djibouti. He is one of the rare expatriates who love this country and he passes that affection on to the students.

***

It isn’t easy to be a foreign family, to move across the globe, to say hello and goodbye to friends, family, teachers, and schools. And it certainly isn’t easy to be a teacher in these kinds of cross-cultural, melting pot locations.

Dear teachers, my kids have thrived around the world because of you. Between the three of them, they have attended school in five different countries on three continents and each time, you helped this new place become a home. It can’t be easy, to have a non-native speaker in your classroom and to have their bumbling parents sending notes filled with grammatical errors or who don’t quite understand how to do the homework. But you have never made us feel like a burden. You have taken delight in our kids and encouraged them to love learning. We are forever grateful.

Merci Beaucoup.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She 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.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Can Kids Make Us Happy?

Can Kids Make Us Happy?

Smile Freedom and happiness woman on beach. She is enjoying serene ocean nature during travel holidays vacation outdoors. asian beauty

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Some parents I talk to seem rather disillusioned. They thought having kids would make them happy. They thought having kids would satisfy a longing or fill a hole or bring a sense of hope and purpose to their lives. Turns out though, for a lot of us, having kids reveals our selfish natures, impatience, inner rage, and makes us really, really tired.

What if our expectations are upside down? What if the reason people had kids was not to make themselves happy but to make themselves better people? Not to fulfill our own needs but to learn about service, not to satisfy our own longings but to help another person achieve their longings. There is fairly clear evidence anyway that children don’t make parents more happy, though it can be reasonably argued that ‘happiness’ itself is a difficult emotion to quantify.

Personal evidence: I don’t know about other parents, but I didn’t consider myself an angry person or a worried person or a controlling person. And then I had kids. Hello, impatience, rage, anxiety, and obsession.

Researched evidence: “Daniel Hamermesh and his colleagues published a study…finding that mothers reported a sharp rise in stress after the birth of a child…Another study published this year (2015)…found that the average hit to happiness exacted by the arrival of an infant is greater than a divorce, unemployment or the death of a spouse.”

I’m happy I have kids, don’t get me wrong. But it is a different kind of happiness than is implied by the simplistic, ‘kids will make me happy’ idea.

In All Joy, No Fun, Jennifer Senior writes that:

“Having worked so hard to have children, parents may feel it’s only natural to expect happiness from the experience. And they’ll find happiness of course, but not necessarily continuously, and not always in the forms they might expect.”

I’m not angry or mean all the time. I’m just surprised by how often and how angry. I’ve also been surprised by the joy, love, gratitude, and awe I experience as the mother of my three kids. The intensity of these emotions is what has shaken me, both the good and the bad.

The point people like Jennifer Senior are trying to make, or at least one point, is that happiness is not a guarantee when it comes to parenting and that people who think having a child will fill them with endless rivers of continual delight have another thing coming. Parents-to-be could be greatly served by coming to terms with this before the shocker of that first middle-of-the-night who will get up with the baby fight.

Expecting a baby, toddler, middle-grade kid, or teenager to make us happy is an awful lot of pressure to put on another human being, especially one that will go through ridiculous rages of hormones, will demand to use our bodies and physically transform our bodies, will absorb our sleep, time, and money, and who will eventually leave us, off to conquer the world while we stand weeping on the front stoop. We know all this, it is inevitable, and yet, we continue to get pregnant and adopt and then feel shocked and surprised when we aren’t happy and when we are, in fact, less happy than before we had children, in general.

One danger in holding these expectations is that when our children fail to give us joy, when we feel the rising impatience or frustration, we will retreat. This was supposed to be fun. This was supposed to make me happy. So when it doesn’t, we disappear or distract ourselves.

I read in the book Sacred Parenting–“If we have only a selfish motivation, we will run from parenting’s greatest challenges… not by retreating to our bedrooms or backyards, but to our offices, boardrooms, workout clubs, Starbucks or even churches.” 

But what if the expectation was not that having kids would make us happy but would make us better? What if people had babies and expected, sure a little joy, but also a whole lot of challenge and the need for creativity and the desperation for community support, the humility to ask for help, the relinquishing of whatever life plan they had previously mapped out? What if at least one of the motivating factors for having a child were self-improvement? This seems fairly radical and almost selfish. But then again, the idea that a kid should make me happy is also pretty selfish.

This idea that kids can refine their parents takes the pressure off the kids to please us and to succeed and excel and obey and be talented, pleasant, intelligent, good-looking, and to fit into our categories of what we consider successful and pleasing. Instead, the pressure is put back on ourselves as parents. The kids become useful tools in our lives, even as we are training them to become productive adults in the world.

When a child whines for candy at the grocery store, I might lose my patience and then feel miserable – both for losing my temper and for failing to raise a child who doesn’t whine – this also comes with a huge dose of guilt. Now neither one of us is happy and in my mind, it is all the kid’s fault – for being a whiner. Or my fault – for raising a whiner. Either way, we both lose.

Instead, I can recognize my impatience, apologize for losing my temper, and see it as an opportunity to grow in character. My kid still probably won’t get the candy but instead of wallowing in self-pity (her) or guilt (me), we can both experience progress toward becoming better people, one tiny step toward being more patient or toward more self-control. It’s a small example but like so much with parenting, small things illuminate larger ones.

If we parents used the challenges inherent in parenting: sleepless nights, financial strain, marital disagreements, and decided to see them as an opportunity for growth rather than a failure of our children to reinforce our happiness, we might actually become…happier.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She 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.

Revenge and Privilege

Revenge and Privilege

Art Revenge and Priviledge

By Rachel Pieh Jones

My Somali language lesson one day ended with my tutor telling me a story about her twelve-year old daughter, Kadra, at school.

The previous week another student stole Kadra’s red pen and wouldn’t give it back. Kadra got angry about it and after class they got into a yelling match. The yelling quickly devolved into physical fighting and the other student scratched Kadra’s face until it bled and bit her ear, hard. Kadra got revenge for the ear – she bit the other girl’s breast during their tussle. But at home that evening, my tutor told Kadra to go back the next day and scratch the girl’s face

Biting the breast had been a good idea but Kadra needed to get revenge for the scratches, hers were just now scabbing over, as well.

Kadra followed her mother’s advice the following morning and scratched the girl with all five fingernails. That afternoon the girl and her mother came to Kadra’s house to apologize for stealing the pen and purchased her a new one.

I was shocked. How could my friend encourage her daughter to get into such vicious fights? What about forgiveness? What about escalating a problem? What about a more creative solution like involving the teacher? How could the girl have refused to apologize or even admit to the theft until there had been this eye for an eye retaliation? What kind of parenting was this?

My tutor was shocked at my shock. She had dozens of reasons for why my suggestions would fail and I started to learn about how much context matters, about how deeply privilege and circumstances affect parenting choices. My tutor was a good mother, with the best interest of her daughter at the heart of her values and she was raising a child in the same country as I was but in a very different reality.

The family lived in a slum region of Djibouti. My tutor worked several jobs and her husband was unemployed and often sick. The neighborhood community raised money for their family to have a roof on their house and eventually electricity in one of their two rooms. They had five children and a sixth on the way.

The teacher at Kadra’s school had over fifty students in class, came late and left early, and sometimes didn’t show up at all. Some months the teacher didn’t receive a salary and parents were asked to come in and manage the classroom or there could be no school. One teacher in this kind of environment didn’t have the capacity to deal with petty theft or fights between students.

Tattling would make Kadra a target for more violence and theft the rest of the school year and probably for the rest of her academic career. Not standing up for herself would mark her as an easy victim and she would never be able to hold on to her own pens or notebooks or snack money or water bottle.

Sure, she could forgive the other girl but only after making it clear that Kadra was no wimpy push-over. There was no expectation that the other girl would admit her crime, that would only put herself in the position of weakling. She had no motivation to respond until Kadra asserted herself. Kadra’s position in the classroom needed to be firmly established.

A Fresh Air podcast with Ta-nahisi Coates helped me understand why my tutor encouraged her daughter to respond to violence with violence. About the need to physically assert oneself, he said:

“…one of the first things I learned … in middle school … is that any sort of physically violent threat made to you has to be responded to with force. You can’t tolerate anybody attempting to threaten or intimidate your body. You must respond with force.”

Coates grew up over seven thousand miles away from Kadra. But they shared the reality of growing up in an environment where, like Coates said, they had to respond with force.

I was seeing Kadra’s dilemma from a position of someone who sends her children to a school with resources I completely took for granted. Things like paid and physically present teachers. Or other parents who, though working, were not working multiple jobs and so were able to invest in the PTA and social events among the kids.

I know about my privilege as a white mother from an upper-middle class background with a university degree and decent health insurance. I’ve also lived for thirteen years in the Horn of Africa and two of my family’s highest values about life as foreigners here has been: learn from the local people and seek to understand life here from their point of view.

My shock was evidence of how blinded I still am, after all these years, evidence of how far apart my reality is from my tutor’s. I’m ashamed of how little I understand her life even though we consider each other good friends and have spent significant amounts of time in each other’s homes. We are still worlds apart.

It is easy to judge parenting choices and children’s behavior, so simple to say, “If I were you, this is what I would do…” But we are rarely able (or willing) to fully step outside, or even recognize, the experiences that have formed our perspectives.

I’m thankful my tutor was willing to help me understand the circumstances at school for her daughter. Now, when a woman I respect and know to be a good mother, makes a statement I don’t understand or makes a choice for her children that I might not make, I am much more likely to trust her instincts. I might ask questions but these come from an attitude of wanting to learn. Rather than make assumptions about her parenting or her relationship with her children, I’ll seek to understand their actual context.

Next time I hear a friend praise her daughter for biting a fellow student’s breast, I won’t be shocked. But I’ll definitely still be curious.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She 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.

Things No One Told Me About Grief

Things No One Told Me About Grief

By Rachel Pieh Jones

grief3

C.S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.”

 

No one ever told me grief was so physical. I feel it in my bones, they ache. I feel it in my muscles, they are sore, as though I’ve run a marathon. The few times I have tried to run, I struggle to see the ground through my tears and my legs feel weak, my pace slow but my body screaming that I’m trying as hard as I can. I’m dehydrated from crying, from forgetting to drink enough water. I’m hungry but can’t eat, nothing looks appetizing. I haven’t slept all the way through the night since the day my daughter’s friend fell.

What is it for anyway? Who cares if I’m in shape or strong or feel the wind in my face? The child of my friend is gone, my daughter’s friend is gone. My 5k pace is irrelevant, sleep a luxury repeatedly interrupted by damp cheeks and a runny nose. Grief forms in a lump in my throat and lodges there, moving in uninvited. It fades and comes back and it is hard to swallow food, to force sustenance past the sorrow.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.” No one ever told me that, either. Fear of how to respond, fear of how things will change, fear of fragility, fear of how to respond to my daughter’s grief while facing my own.

No one ever told me grief was something you owned (or does it own you?), something that settles in and takes up residence like the lump in my throat and the dampness around my eyes.

No one purposefully neglected to tell me these things about grief. Loss, pain, sorrow, heartbreak, they are all simply topics that aren’t discussed in depth and that are experienced in both unique and universal ways. To say: this is how you will experience grief robs it of the unique, yet to say: this is how we mortals experience grief is to give the gift of not being alone. How do we talk about things for which there are no words, in any language that can capture the whole of it? The pain of tragedy burns so deeply and transformatively that we pander around in art, movies, poetry, flowers, songs, essays, trying to grasp the unfathomable. That’s what tears are for, they are the words of the utterly crushed.

But now I have to talk with my children about grief, about endings, about things that cannot be changed. There are so many difficulties in life but the only thing that cannot, ever, be changed is death. For those with faith, there is hope of life after death but this is not the hope of a miraculous physical resurrection in the days before the funeral, before the burial. Death is final, the last word before eternity.

How do I talk with my daughter about her friend? She hasn’t wanted to talk about what happened or what she is feeling and thinking. She resorts to action in place of words and so I’ve been letting her light candles and stare at them, her eyes full of wonder, confusion, and sadness. She taped photos to her bedroom walls and filled the first pages of her Christmas journal with cutouts from the memorial service bulletin and notes on what their friendship meant to her. She found a small bag of gifts her friend had given her and buried it deep in her dresser drawer. She showed me some selfies they took together.

I’ve told her about how my body is reacting to this sadness, she knows. She sees me crying while I do the dishes or yawning in the middle of the afternoon after a sleepless night. She hears me talk about the messages passed between the adults involved. We share memories of her friend, pictures, words that feel both full and far too empty. I don’t know if, as my daughter grows and faces more loss, she will remember these discussions or her current sadness, she is only ten. She struggles to articulate what she is feeling. Later, she might feel like no one ever told her grief would be so physical, so close to fear, so inconvenient, so exhausting.

Though I don’t know exactly how to talk with her about grief and loss, we still talk. I tell her about the accident, I answer her questions. How is a body transported internationally? What happens at a funeral? What does her friend look like now? I don’t know how to answer all her questions but that’s what I say. “I don’t know.” This is one thing I want my daughter to know. When she experiences sorrow, now and in the future, it is okay to not know everything. It is okay to be surprised by what sadness feels like, or doesn’t feel like.

The friend who died lived in a different country and one day my daughter said, “I don’t miss her today because I didn’t see her every day. But when I go there to visit and she is gone, I think I will feel sad again.” The words had a question mark in them. I think she was asking, “Is that okay? To not feel sad now but to feel sad in a couple of weeks?”

This is another thing no one told me about grief but it is something we all know. There is no timeline, no proper moment to start or end the mourning. It becomes part of our days, woven into the sunrise and the dirty dishes and the photos on our computer screensavers.

C.S. Lewis also said, “To love is to be vulnerable.”

It is scary to raise my daughter to love, hoping she will stay tender and vulnerable, in other words able to be wounded. But this wounding love is also what makes us strong. In love we build friendships and communities and when grief takes our breath away, these connections step in and become our strength. We are so easily broken but when there is no strength to stand, the communities that love us move closer, tenderly gather the shattered pieces, and hold us.

No one ever told me that explicitly, either, but I think I’ve known it all along. That love both breaks and heals. Walking through loss with my daughter and sharing our grief is strengthening our relationship. Even though it won’t miraculously heal scars or close up black holes of loss, shared grief is what love looks like.

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.

How to Wake Up a Teenager on Vacation, in 16 Easy Steps

How to Wake Up a Teenager on Vacation, in 16 Easy Steps

By Rachel Pieh Jones

art-mom-and-teen-on-water

When the twins were young, I thought they would never sleep. Or never at the same time and never at the time I also wanted to sleep. Now our trouble is the exact opposite. My twin teenagers go to school for three months and then have a month break. By the time that break comes, they are exhausted and all they seem to want to do is sleep and eat.

So, to ensure the teens participate in our family activities even while on vacation or to get them to their jobs on time or to simply see them during daylight hours, I’ve had to take drastic measures. I have employed a variety of methods and they always end with me laughing, the kid groaning, and Mom emerging as victorious.

Here, I pass these suggestions on to other parents, also desperate to see their teens open-eyed before noon:

Preamble: In between each step, wait five to ten minutes. Always knock before entering the room. Even though they are probably still sleeping, you just never know and should respect their privacy. Remember, their brain chemistry is undergoing some serious hormonal onslaughts and they do need inordinate amounts of sleep. Remember also that they are working hard at school, enduring the stress of the teenage social world. It might help to have breakfast (or lunch, depending on the hour) already on the table so they can just stumble from bed to chair. This list builds upon itself, so each additional step is performed on top of the preceding steps.

After step 3, you will begin entering the room but you have performed the required knock several times by now, so feel free.

It is vital to remember that each step must be enacted with love, affection, and the teens ultimate best interest in mind.

I skipped some earlier steps which seemed self-evident and which I also employ before launching the following onslaught. These could include things like setting alarm clocks (my son sets five and misses them all), simply knocking on the door and saying, “Time to get up,” gently rubbing their back or leg or arm and reminding them of the day’s obligations, and sending younger siblings in to do the job for us. When/if these fail…

1. Pound on the door. I mean pound, full-fisted, make it rattle.

2. Shout, “Time to wake up. Time to wake up. Time to wake up.” 

3. Add the loudest rooster crow you can muster.

4. (You are now in the room) Shake their shoulder and say, “Good morning.”

5. Yank the pillow out from under their head and say, less gently, “Good morning.”

6. With great gusto, whip away their sheet or blanket.

7. Start hitting them (gently) with the pillow and with each tap say, “Up. Up. Up.”

8. Flick their ears repeatedly. Alternating ears is helpful but not required.

9. Flick other parts of their body: head, back, chest. Or tapping, tapping can also prove effective.

10. Pull arm hair. Pull leg hair. Stay clear of the armpit air.

11. Plug their nose so they are forced to breathe out of their mouth but back up quickly or turn your head away when that mouth exhales.

12. Crow like a rooster (yes, again), while performing karate on their back or chest (you know I mean to do this gently but firmly, right?)

13. Pull them by one arm out of bed. This will only leave them asleep on the floor but they are now a few feet closer to the shower, consider that time saved later.

14. Threaten to record this whole ordeal (which has taken over an hour and can replace your aerobics routine for the day) and offer to post it on YouTube and Instagram.

15. Say all kinds of wonderful things about yourself, like what a great mother you are, how good-looking and smart and creative you are, something about your awesome sense of humor and ability to relate to younger generations. Move their heads up and down in agreement. Record this as well and threaten to post it.

16. And last but not least, ice cubes. They never fail.

In my experience, the only method that produces my desired result is #16 but I just can’t bring myself to start there. The result probably won’t be what you are really aiming at—an alert, up and about, teenager but it does result in opened eyes and verbal acknowledgment of what an annoying mother you are. I consider that: mission accomplished.

Though, on second thought, I have yet to follow-through with the YouTube threat. That might be a pretty effective method if I did it just once. The dread of such shame could be enough to get those sleepy teens out of bed.

Now if these methods would only be so effective in getting them to do their homework…

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.

Purchase Brain Teen: The Magazine for Thinking Parents

Illustration: gettyimages.com

Save

Editors’ Picks: Some of Our Favorite Blog Posts from 2015

part-timemotherPart-Time Mother

By Lauren Apfel

It’s not enough anymore to fill my days only with theirs. I am half of one thing and half of another.

 

 

 

teenage-boy2What is a Teenage Boy

By Rachel Pieh Jones

A teenage boy is an almost-man’s body with an almost-but-not-quite man’s voice.

 

 

 

Life_Choose-1024x768Making Peace With The Life I Didn’t Choose

By Jennifer Berney

Every day I remind myself that this is the life I’ve chosen, a life of two children, both of them rowdy and loving.

 

 

 

photo-1428992858642-0908d119bd3e-1024x768Perfectly Imperfect

By Elizabeth Richardson Rau

Best friends often don’t come in the prettiest packages. The true friends I have made are like me, willing to show dents, battle wounds and flaws.

 

 

 

Unknown-1My Daughter’s Death Changed Me, But It Did Not Make Me Superhuman

By Mandy Hitchcock

Being broken-hearted also makes me more open-hearted and prone to approach every situation from a place of kindness, because l understand better than many that life is short and it is precious.  

 

 

 

ibelievedthelie-1024x684I Believed the Lie

By Jenna Hatfield

In that moment, in the dark of that darkest night, I agreed. My children would be better off without my presence.

 

 

 

 

unnamed1My Girls Will Be Fine

By Francie Arenson Dickman

When it comes to mothering, getting to do it is the only thing that matters.

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRender-1024x568Dear Teenaged Girl In the Crop Top

By Karen Dempsey

Here is what I’d like to say: It’s not the crop top.

 

 

 

 

Dear Kindergarten TeacherTeacher-1024x1024

By Jennifer Berney

Let me begin with a confession. When I signed up to visit your classroom on Fridays, it wasn’t because I wanted to help. I volunteered because I was curious.

 

 

 

cwvDm9asA_Lw9YsGTQNy8vWzhk4-1024x682The Things We Keep

By Sharon Holbrook

I remember the children being small, but my love for them today is so present and busy and large that it swallows the shrinking past into itself. 

 

 

 

fa19555e-1024x686Intolerable

By Adrienne Jones

There is a suffering worse than one’s own, and that is to see one’s child suffer and be unable to help.

 

 

 

 

unnamed-3-1024x1024Light Sabers and Tears in Aisle 8

By Allison Slater Tate

I am missing the little boys who believed in reindeer food on the front lawn.

 

 

 

 

cq5dam.web_.1280.1280The Trouble With Pronouns

By Maureen Kelleher

As Bobby grew older, he became more insistent. “No, Mom, I’m a girl.”

Post-Thanksgiving Reflections of an Expatriate Mother

Post-Thanksgiving Reflections of an Expatriate Mother

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Post Thanksgiving

Celebrations of holidays sting because the celebration ends, the families go home, we can’t hold onto it forever. We can’t keep our children in our arms and under our roofs forever.

 

I’m planning Thanksgiving dinner. It’s just me. Some people are bringing things to share, but I bare the bulk the day’s work. My family is far away. Even two of my children, 15-year old twins, are two countries away at boarding school and won’t come home until the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

So the house will fill with the smell of roasting turkey and my husband, my youngest daughter, and I will be the only family members to enjoy it and I will feel sad.

But that won’t happen until Thursday morning. There won’t be any parades to watch on television, no snow will fall. It will probably be 95 degrees.

Today, I’m writing out the menu and I’m stumped.

This year I did manage to scrounge up a turkey. Sometimes they are for sale at the nicest grocery store in town. They tend to cost about $30.00 a kilo. And they’re small. But they’re turkey.

What I’m stumped on is the stuffing.

Problem 1 is that we are inviting local friends, Muslims, and so I can’t have any pork products in the stuffing. My favorite recipe calls for sausage.

Problem 2 is that most recipes call for items I don’t have and can’t find. Mushrooms, cranberries, apricots, Granny Smith apples, celery, fresh sage leaves, sourdough bread.

How many things can I substitute in a recipe and still call it stuffing?

There won’t be any cranberries or sauce, which is fine. I don’t like either.

There won’t be a traditional bean casserole. There will be beans but they won’t be fresh and there won’t be cream of mushroom soup and there won’t be crunchy bread topping and there won’t be fried onions. Oh wait – there will be. They will just all be made from scratch (except the beans, they will come from a can or a freezer bag if the grocery store has them in stock).

Everything will be made from scratch, from pie crusts to the bread that will eventually go in the stuffing to the buns I will shape into moon-like crescents drenched in butter. I brought canned pumpkin from the US so we will have pumpkin cheesecake. Someone gave me a spare can she had brought from the US and so we will also have pumpkin chocolate chip muffins.

I will be making most of this. I may or may not cry while I make it.

I’m thankful my children are at this school two countries away. I’m thankful my husband and I have the privilege of living and working here. I’m thankful we have a turkey and all this incredible food. I’m thankful we have local friends and other American friends to celebrate the day with.

But I’m also sad. So, incredibly sad. I miss my family. I miss snow. I miss my in-laws and watching my nieces and nephews dive into Thanksgiving feasts together and cleaning up afterwards with sisters and sisters-in-law and listening to people talk about hunting season or sledding misadventures.

This Thanksgiving, the one with the pork-free, halal stuffing and the jury-rigged dishes and the sweat dripping down my back, isn’t the one I grew up with. It feels forced, faked. But if we didn’t celebrate it, I would be even more sad because I would have missed it. And therein lies my choice. Sad, or more sad? I choose sad but I don’t like the choice.

Holidays abroad are lonely. So we fill the day with lots of people and multiple pots on the stove and a constant flow of dishes to wash and we use the busyness to mask the sorrow. We use the frenzied effort to create something from nothing to hide the questions. Have we made the right choice? Is this really what I wanted when we moved away? Is this really what I still want for my family, after thirteen years abroad?

  *   *   *

Now it is Thanksgiving Day and people start to arrive. Americans who have lived in Djibouti for a year, Djiboutians who have always lived here. They come carrying mashed potatoes and bottles of Coke. The Djiboutians don’t know the word for turkey but they devour it. We’ll talk about the tradition of Thanksgiving, the convoluted history of it. We’ll ask each other what we are thankful for and my answer will be: This.

I’m thankful for this table, filled to overflowing with people who have welcomed us and who laugh with us and who don’t laugh at me when I cry while carving the turkey because my grandpa is supposed to carve the turkey but my grandpa has been gone for years now. I’m thankful that we can be thankful here, far from home, and that we are making this a home. I’m even thankful that I am sad because the sadness means I love people and it means I have people who love me, who miss me, who are thankful for me and thinking of me even when I’m not there.

The sadness that comes with celebrating holidays abroad really isn’t that different from the sadness that comes with any kind of celebrating. The reason love terrifies us is because it is so intimately intertwined with pain. The reason gratitude makes us cry is because it hurts. It hurts to be thankful for people who aren’t present. It hurts to be thankful that when I’m lonely, my local friends love me well. Celebrations of holidays sting because the celebration ends, the families go home, we can’t hold onto it forever. We can’t keep our children in our arms and under our roofs forever.

Holidays keep coming and our families age. Grandpa isn’t here anymore to carve the turkey, grandma isn’t here anymore to make Bohemian Kolaches. We have been bumped up on the generational scale. We have long ago graduated from the Kids Table at holiday dinners to the Adults Table, though we secretly believe we still belong at the Kids Table. But even our kids are barely at the Kids Table anymore. Even if my family still lived in Minnesota my kids wouldn’t watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade because they are teenagers and they sleep in too late. If we raced in a Turkey Trot 5k, they would beat me now.

No matter. Let the years roll on, we will keep holding to some traditions, like the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special and reading The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and they are hilarious and no one watching from the outside understands why we are laughing so hard. We have performed these traditions for so long that the only reason we love them is because we love them together. We will still invite our local friends to our celebrations and feel awed by the waves of tender thanks that roll over us throughout the day.

And now we are in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. There will be so many more meaningful and ridiculous traditions, more laughter and tears, more loneliness, more local friends filling in the empty spaces of our lives and hearts, more signs of time passing. And we will be thankful.

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.

 

 

When Your Son is Stronger, Taller and Faster Than You

When Your Son is Stronger, Taller and Faster Than You

By Rachel Pieh Jones

boys1

Short men make better husbands, and make up in wisdom what they lack in stature, says self-confessed small man, Adam Gopnik.

My son is fifteen years old. He is still shorter than me but for the first time since birth he has passed his twin sister and I suspect I will be next. He has always been thin and wiry and a scrapper and now he is stretching out long and lean.

I spent the first roughly thirteen years of my son’s life being bigger, faster, and stronger than him. And then one day, I wasn’t. Well, still bigger, but barely. I remember the moment it struck me clearly. We were swimming at my parent’s lake and he wanted to dunk me. I had a meeting soon and didn’t want to get my hair wet but I could do nothing to stop the onslaught of octopus-like arms and legs and teenage laughter. Before I knew it, I was under the water and he was victorious.

The other day I told him I have a goal of being able to complete three full pull-ups. He laughed at me. Laughed at me! And then went and did fifteen without even breathing hard.

Now I stare at him in awe. I made that, I think. Obviously not all by myself but I played a major role in bringing this human into the world and now I can no longer physically control him or even catch him.

Now he is the one who carries my heavy suitcase in airports, he is the one who hauls 20-litre water jugs, he is the one who unscrews glass jam jars for me. It is totally awesome.

He is also teaching me new things, like how to throw a rugby ball, and he offers me tips on improving my soccer game. I need a lot of tips.

When women are pregnant and we picture our unborn children, we imagine them as infants. Maybe as toddlers. But we rarely picture them as full grown men. We spend the early years of our parenting shaping them into the men we want them to be but then one day we turn around and they are that man.

A voice comes from the living room and we wonder when a man stopped by to visit, except that is our son and there is hair on his face.

An arm scoops up a bag of groceries and we wonder when biceps grew on toddlers because aren’t our sons still toddlers? Won’t they always be toddlers?

A rugby ball comes hurtling at our heads and we wonder when the infant we breastfed developed such aim and power.

When did this happen? How did he get stronger than me? Faster than me? Bigger than me?

I suppose the past fifteen years is when this happened. I didn’t miss it, I marked every inch on the wall. But somehow I never comprehended what it would feel like to become physically smaller than my son.

It makes me feel dizzy, old, and powerful. It makes me hopeful and humble and inspired about his generation. It helps me appreciate roots and history and it feels like a weighty responsibility – to give a young man this strong to the world in a few short years.

It also makes me wonder, how does he see this development? Will he lose respect for me? I know he wants to be taller than my husband and me, he is aiming at several inches taller, as though by sheer force of will he will pass us.

My husband and I are the same height, 5’6″. We don’t have high height expectations for our children, though I suppose subconsciously we expect at least our son to pass us by. And we would both be happy for him to do just that. Height, especially for men, is fraught with social baggage.

According to this article in the National Geographic, physical height is associated with power, a sense of vulnerability or paranoia (if lacking in height), leadership ability, even financial situations:

“Taller men are perceived as having higher status, stronger leadership skills, and as being more occupationally successful than average or shorter males,” Jackson wrote in an email interview. Men of average or shorter height also suffer in the realm of social attractiveness, which includes personal adjustment, athletic orientation, and masculinity. Her caveat: “What NONE of these studies establish is that it is HEIGHT per se that is responsible for these benefits or characteristics associated with height (strong leadership skills, self-confidence, professional development).”

While it is true that height has been proven in exactly zero studies to actually correlate with these positive characteristics, the fact remains that this is the culture we live in. A culture that values height, that associates height with strength and positive leadership qualities and physical prowess.

While my son continues to hope that one day he will look down on his parents, we are more focused on preparing him for the cultural context into which we will launch him one day. That means developing leadership skills, building confidence, encouraging his academic pursuits. Oh, and we tie buckets of cement to his ankles and drape them over the end of his mattress at night to encourage the bones to stretch. Okay, maybe not. But I do feed him well, if that counts for anything.

And for me, for this mom who is watching my son pass me by? I’m not worried. I’m not worried about him losing respect for me or his dad as he grows. I’m not worried about the physical strength he could exert over me. I’m not worried about him never growing taller than 5’6″.

He is strong and gentle, intelligent and creative and no matter what height he reaches, when he offers to carry my suitcase, I’ll admit: It feels pretty awesome.

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. She is a contributing blogger at Brain, Child. Her work has also 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.

5 Ways Living Abroad Changed My Parenting

5 Ways Living Abroad Changed My Parenting

By Rachel Pieh Jones

parenting1

I realize that ‘home’ for us essentially means family, and anywhere that we are all together.

 

I moved abroad with 2 ½ year old twins and gave birth to our third child in Africa. They are now 15, 15, and 10. This means I’ve spent most of my parenting years not in my home country. So I don’t really know what kind of mother I would be in Minnesota. But I can make some assumptions about ways that living abroad has changed the way I parent and here are some of them.

Community. When the twins were born I somehow had the idea that I needed to be everything for them. I was the mom and so I should be able to do it all: twins, 22-years old, c-section and natural delivery, and all. Turns out I couldn’t do it all alone but it took some dark days in the mire of postpartum depression to acknowledge it. But in Djibouti I quickly figured out that few of the women around me parented alone. They had house helpers and nannies and multiple live-in relatives. And all these people invested in, loved, and trained their children. Pride had kept me from asking for help when I most needed it but as I watched these communities of women raise children, I saw that I could let go of that pride and it would be better for my kids. Because, guess what? I’m not perfect and I don’t have all the resources or character traits my kids need. I don’t have all the creativity or skills that could benefit them. A variety of input is invaluable for kids. And, I discovered that when I am willing to ask for help and am able to graciously receive it, there is a huge bonus – more people to love my kids.

Friendship over fear. There aren’t fewer things to be afraid of in Djibouti and in some ways there are more things to fear because we lack a decent hospital and we are surrounded by countries like Yemen, Eritrea, and Somalia, but the people around me don’t live in fear of day-to-day activities. Like sending a child across the street by himself or letting a kid use a sharp knife to slice watermelon. Fear is contagious and the parents I relate with in Djibouti don’t seem to be afraid of letting their children explore and experiment. My own kids have flown internationally alone before they were teenagers. Kids use knives and light fires and explore volcanic crevasses and they are learning to navigate life with courage, adventure, and confidence. Of course, I’m still afraid of choking, car accidents, playground injuries, bullies…parents are probably never entirely free of fear. But fear won’t rule my parenting. As one friend said, after the Westgate Mall terrorist attack in Nairobi, Kenya when her daughter was invited to a different mall, “We will chose friendship over fear.”

Conversation topics. I can’t avoid challenging discussion topics: race, poverty, religion. We are the white, Christian, middle class family in a black, Muslim, developing-world community and I have to help my kids navigate and understand their world. I have to give them words to use as they wrestle with how to respond to the beggar who is the same age but a foot shorter from malnutrition, is illiterate, and has never set foot inside an air conditioned building. Refugees, diplomats, people of other religions, a variety of skin colors and language and values, these are the realities that braid themselves through our every day, mundane activities. When we talk about these topics, it isn’t in theory or because of a news story. It is because my fourth grader’s friend moved back to Paris and lived across the street from the Charlie Hebdo offices. It is because our next door neighbors are a Yemeni refugee family. It is because people want to know what arm hair feels like or what blond hair feels like. I’m giving the kids words for framing their experience and helping them process.

Experiences and people above stuff. We can’t always get the fancy gifts or even the practical tennis shoes that we’d like to give our children for Christmas or birthdays. But we can hike down into an active volcano or kayak around Turtle Island where sea turtles swarm and flying fish jump into the kayaks. We’ve learned that while grandparents do send fabulous packages, they are not about gifts and things but about the way they meet us at the airport with signs and hugs, the way they play and listen and feel to our grandparent-starved hands. We see family and close friends once a year, sometimes once every two years. Those times are about flesh and blood and hugs and time together is precious.

Gratitude. We have had to make painful choices while living abroad – about education, housing, finances. And we’ve endured things that are difficult to be thankful for from emergency evacuations to the preventable deaths of friends. We could complain (and sometimes we do) but we’ve also learned that there is always something to be thankful for and this has become inseparable from my parenting. I think (hope) the kids are picking up on it. Once on the most epic-fail airplane journey we’ve ever experienced (endless airplane delays meant it took us five days to get back to Africa), my son said, upon arrival, “That was exhausting and awful. But we made some really great memories and I’m thankful we are finally home.”

When I realize that ‘home’ for us essentially means family, and anywhere that we are all together, I also realized that his words pretty much sum up my attitude about parenting.

Let’s make some good memories. Let’s be thankful to be home.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Introducing My Kids to Music from the 1980s

Introducing My Kids to Music from the 1980s

165742594

We don’t want them to copy us in our teenage fashion trends or hairstyles or our 80s and 90s eating habits. We want them to surpass us and move beyond us. Except when it comes to music.

 

My twins turned fifteen recently and I decided it was time for them to listen to some good music. By good music of course, I meant music that I liked and music that was not from this century.

When I was a kid, in the 1980s, the music options available to my generation were what was on the radio or what was available in music stores, mostly whatever was currently popular. We didn’t have the entire spectrum easily accessible. Now because of iTunes and Pandora and Spotify, people can design their own listening experiences, access music from any decade, and ignore what they don’t like.

For my twins’ fifteenth birthday, I decided it was time to broaden their musical horizons, to introduce them to whole new genres and bands. I asked on Facebook: What older songs and artists are important for teenagers to know? I searched online and through my memory. I stirred up hours of nostalgia and musty memories of high school dances and sweaty palms and raucous bus rides and of my mom singing in the kitchen.

Some music should die, this is good and right. But some music should live on and be re-enjoyed by fresh generations. That’s the music I was looking for, along with a Bonnie Tyler song my husband sang at our wedding even though it, too, probably should have died.

I was pretty sure my kids wouldn’t like all the songs I picked but my hope was that by introducing them to some new artists and sounds and possibilities, they would choose a few highlights.

Because we live in east Africa and are far from the world where streaming songs is a regular activity, I purchased the songs on iTunes, loaded up their iPods while they slept, and gave them a printout of my chosen music. I titled the playlist, “Mom’s Music.”

The kids laughed when they opened their gift and saw a list of songs they didn’t recognize, artists they’d never heard of. One of them may or may not have rolled their eyes. I told them I stole the idea from Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy but not to worry, there were no intergalactic travelers in our family and I wasn’t planning to die any time soon. I wasn’t sure I would ever hear them play the songs.

There was the song that led to a vicious argument between my husband and I about whether or not current musicians could ever be as mind-blowingly awesome as musicians from the 1980’s.

There was the one that no one really understood but everyone screamed the words to at school dances.

There was the one that makes me cry every time I listen to it and the one that makes me laugh.

There was the one that meant I will love you forever and the one that meant I know we have lived in several countries but you can always call me and our family ‘home.’

In many ways parenting is about launching children into the big, wide world to experience fascinating and wonderful new things. We don’t want them to copy us in our teenage fashion trends or hairstyles or our 80s and 90s eating habits. We want them to surpass us and move beyond us.

Except when it comes to music.

I would dare to venture that most parents are pretty convinced that music was better before. The specific years of the present and the before aren’t exactly relevant, only the fact that music was better before.

So while we don’t want them to roll their pants like we did or use as much hairspray as we did, we do want them to sing like we did. Or at the very least we want them to know who we are channeling when we respond in certain ways.

Like: when they say, “Mom, can we leave (this boring party) yet?” And we respond with, “Should we stay or should we go now?” Or they say, “I’m going to soccer practice at 7:00 on the bike tomorrow.” And we say, “Wake me up before you go go.” Or when they are moving into their freshman dorm and we say, “Don’t you forget about me.”

I admittedly know very little about music but here are 20 songs from the 1980s that I listened to on the school bus or on mixed cassette tapes from friends or in the basement while wearing legwarmers and making up dances. These are songs that creep into conversation every now and then and they are songs that parents, if they are at all like me, raised in the 80s want their kids to know.

(In all honesty, my list included songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s so this isn’t the exact list I gave my kids. I marked ones I included.)

  1. Eye of the Tiger, by Survivor, 1986*
  2. Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey, 1981*
  3. Total Eclipse of the Heart, Bonnie Tyler 1983*
  4. Every Breath You Take, The Police, 1983
  5. Should I Stay or Should I Go, The Clash, 1982*
  6. Livin’ On a Prayer, Bon Jovi, 1986*
  7. Billie Jean, Michael Jackson, 1982
  8. Straight Up Now, Paula Abdul, 1988
  9. Walk like an Egyptian, The Bangles, 1985
  10. Material Girl, Madonna, 1984
  11. Don’t Worry, Be Happy, Bobby McFerrin, 1988
  12. Now I’ve Had the Time of My Life, Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, 1987
  13. You Got It (The Right Stuff), New Kids on the Block, 1988
  14. Free Fallin’, Tom Petty, 1989*
  15. It’s the End of the World As We Know It, R.E.M., 1987*
  16. What’s Love Got To Do With It, Tina Turner, 1984
  17. I Think We’re Alone Now, Tiffany, 1987
  18. She Works Hard For the Money, Donna Summer, 1983
  19. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Cyndi Lauper, 1983*
  20. Don’t You Forget About Me, Simple Minds, 1987*

 

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.

Photo: gettyimages.com

A Day in the Life of a Mother of Teenagers

A Day in the Life of a Mother of Teenagers

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Teens2

Who puts empty ice cube trays back in the freezer? Empty bags of frozen fruit back in the freezer? Teenagers.

 

My summer day starts at 5:20 a.m. when I push open our squeaky metal gate and go for a run just as the sun begins to emerge. A rose-colored ball slithers through pockets of the gray clouds that still hover over the Gulf of Tadjourah, tinting them pink. Normally I listen to Longform podcasts—interviews with journalists—while I run but this morning I couldn’t find my iPod. I set it out last night, in the armband and with the earphones, all set to go. This morning it was gone. I could probably find it near the pillow of one of my teenagers. I also planned to eat a banana before leaving the house but those were gone, too. I could probably find a banana peel curled around the iPod.

Djibouti is hot, this morning the temperature already registers as 42 degrees Celsius, that’s 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It is so humid my moisture-wicking shirt shows a line of sweat before I even walk outside the house and by the time I get home, sweat flying from every pore of my body (did you know eyelids sweat?), the only comprehensible thought in my mind is of the banana-orange-mango juice popsicles in the freezer.

Except…they’re gone. The popsicle box (still in the freezer) is empty. The countertop is littered with yellow and red plastic popsicle sticks with enough residual juice left on them to attract dozens of huge black ants. I would make a smoothie with frozen strawberries and ice cubes but the ice cube trays are empty, the bag of strawberries, though still in the freezer, is also empty. Who puts empty ice cube trays back in the freezer? Empty bags of frozen fruit back in the freezer? Teenagers.

Fine. I’ll have coffee. They haven’t inhaled that yet.

It is now seven a.m. and I have until noon to get my work and errands done before they wake up.

My first clue that the teens are awake is that my Internet suddenly slows down. They’ve moved from horizontal on their beds to horizontal on the couch, still in pajamas, and are watching YouTube videos. The second clue comes when I’m in the kitchen preparing lunch and I hear the ping of a metal spoon against a glass bowl. My son is eating corn flakes for breakfast. He uses the biggest spoon we own, more like a shovel. Lunch will be ready in thirty minutes but no problem, he will be hungry again by then.

Lunch is the main meal of the day in Djibouti and the whole family sits around the table together, sharing stories from the morning. The teens have nothing to share since they slept most of the morning away but their mouths are too full of lasagna to talk anyway. After lunch we plan the afternoon which, unfortunately for the teens, doesn’t include naptime. A trip to the grocery store, sports practice, visiting friends, work meetings, and for them, the never-ending hunt for more food.

So far, they haven’t spoken very many audible or intelligible words all day, but that starts to change around dusk. With the setting sun, at the end of my day but in the middle of theirs, conversation begins to flow. I try to be careful to not say something so eye-rollingly mom-ish that they shut down but inevitably I do. After a few minutes of stern silence, they launch into a new topic, sufficiently convinced that I’ve learned my lesson. I have, at least for a while, and bite my tongue. Sometimes literally, so that I wind up with canker sores, but it is worth it. As we talk a question pricks at the back of my mind but I don’t voice it: Does sarcasm come along with their hormones, the way a sense of invincibility does?

By the time night comes and the dinner dishes are put away and my youngest, not yet a teenager, has gone to bed, the teens are back, horizontal, on the couch. Or they are absent, at a friend’s house, and will catch a ride home. When I am ready for bed, they are finally fully woken up. We talk some more and they start flipping through television channels. When I can keep my eyes open no longer, I slip away to bed and they turn on a movie.

All day I have been almost irrelevant, invisible. I made the food, drove the car, managed the schedule. But they could have gone on just fine without me. I hover and when an opening appears, a conversation topic, I pounce. Sometimes this feeling of being unnecessary feels heavy, but it is also a lie. Babies and toddlers needed me to keep them alive, my care for them had a sense of urgency and vital importance. That same keeping-them-alive interaction is absent from my relationship with my teens but that in no way means I am unnecessary.

They can, driving issues and adrenaline-induced risks aside, keep themselves alive now. But they are in the middle of learning how to navigate life, relationships, work, studies. They are exploring values and morals and interests. And since I want much more for my kids than simply to remain alive, the kinds of things I can offer them now, or steer them into, or help them understand, are of vital, urgent importance. So I’m not irrelevant, even if they think so or pretend to ignore me.

A day in the life of a mother of teenagers stuns me with its wide-ranging diversity. Physically demanding (cooking, finding, and cleaning food), conversationally rigorous (how to not sound mom-ish except when sounding mom-ish is the right thing, when to butt in, and when to shut up), emotionally draining (are they making good choices? Have I failed them in some way?), and identity-challenging (that whole am-I-still-relevant thing).

This is the last thought in my mind as I drift off to sleep, that I’m not irrelevant, that they do still need me. It is comforting even as I recognize that I will have to fight to believe it again in the morning while sifting through the empty cereal boxes on the shelf to find one with food still inside.

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.

Where Did the Joy Go?

Where Did the Joy Go?

By Rachel Pieh Jones

joy1

My nine-year old came into the dining room this morning singing a nonsense song. She poured herself a bowl of generic corn flakes and then said, “Who doesn’t just love life? It is so wonderful. I love my life.”

“What’s so great about it?” I asked.

“I love the food, the way things are made (she patted the IKEA chair she was sitting on and then stared at her hand for a moment), the people I know. I love how hot it is.” It was 98 degrees already and my steaming cup of morning coffee made me sweat through my t-shirt. I kissed her on the cheek and squeezed her hard and wished I could bottle up that joie-de-vivre.

She went outside and discovered that the watermelon seed she planted beneath the air conditioner (where the water sprinkles out the back) had sprouted. She leaped into the air with her arms high over her head and her feet tucked up behind her (a move that in my adult world of aerobics is known as a tuck jump but to her is just childhood exuberance) and shouted, “It’s growing!” Then she knelt down beside the little green sprout and spoke in a hushed voice, her nose almost touching the plant, “It is just so beautiful.”

When did everything get so complicated and hard? When did I stop taking delight in a simple bowl of corn flakes or in the way the heat wraps around me like a blanket, like a hug? I hardly ever take the time to stare at the back of my hand anymore. I’m too busy working or packing school snacks or doing laundry. But I remember the thrill of staring at my bluish-purple veins, the long narrow bones, the creases and scars that mark my hand as mine. I remember feeling awe at the way my knuckles curled and straightened, at the feel of something fuzzy under my fingertips and the way the feeling registered as ‘dog’ in my brain.

I hardly ever let myself be flooded by love for the people in my life. Not just my family members but my friends and coworkers, the store cashiers and taxi drivers, school teachers and coaches. People who make me laugh, train my children, keep me safe. I don’t flip through images of their faces and breathe a silent, “thank you, I’m so glad you’re in my life.” And I certainly don’t shout to my daughter at breakfast that I am filled with happy contentment because of her.

But I should.

Oh, I know very well where all that joyful abandonment went. It went down the tubes of becoming a grown-up, of starting to notice what people thought of me (or didn’t think of me). It got sucked away by to-do lists and never-done lists. It swirled down the toilet of not enough sleep and broken relationships, unmet desires, and frustrated goals.

I want it back.

I can’t get rid of all the monotony of daily tasks or stress or pain in my life but I still have a hand with unique fingerprints and blood pumping through and a white gold wedding band that symbolizes something more, deeper, and better every year. I have food that nourishes me and that tastes good and maybe it isn’t all ‘foodie’ but it is enough and I can be thankful for that. I know people who are creative, hilarious, gentle, courageous and maybe they don’t all live nearby but I have the privilege of being known by them and I can be thankful for that.

The watermelon plant will most likely never produce an actual melon because it is pressing through earth that is more rock and clay than nourishing soil and even if it does, we are moving soon to a new house and won’t be here to see it. But it is growing now. Tomorrow it will have a tender new leaf and the next day another seed will sprout beside it and the leaf and new sprout will be beautiful.

And, I have a daughter who reminds me, with tickling bunny kisses, that the best way to live is to live with joy. With childhood exuberance instead of tuck jumps, with paying attention instead of being too busy. The best way to be joyful is to be thankful and the best way to be thankful is to take notice. To look and see, to enjoy and to say thank you.

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.

The 4 Gender Stages of Co-ed Twin Birthday Parties

The 4 Gender Stages of Co-ed Twin Birthday Parties

By Rachel Pieh Jones

twin parties2

 I love twin birthday parties. Two-for-one.

 

I love celebrating my kids. I don’t love throwing birthday parties. I am not into complicated decorations, cute themes, or goodie bags. I like baking and eating cake. I like playing games and staging competitions. So, I love twin birthday parties. Two-for-one.

I have boy-girl twins. Once in a while I considered throwing two separate parties on consecutive days but that simply seemed too daunting and in the early years my twins shared friends. I prefer the utter chaos of one fantabulous afternoon to the never-ending exhaustion of back-to-back sugar highs. Two cakes but only one day of raucous fun. Two easily definable teams for game time. You know how people tell mothers of twins when we are pregnant with them that this is such a great deal? Well, when it comes to birthday parties, this finally pays off. My twins have had a total of twenty-eight birthdays but only half that number of parties. Score!

I have now quit throwing birthday parties for my twins. They can have sleepovers or can hang out with friends and we’ll have a family celebration on our own but no more big parties, they’re too old. However, in the earlier years even as we lumped all the kids together no matter their gender, I had a thing or two to learn about parties, kids, and especially twin kids and twin parties. One of the main discoveries was the four gender stages of coed twin birthday parties.

Stage 1: Gender Neutral, ages 0-7

These are the easiest years. Kids just didn’t care who is a boy and who is a girl. My kids shared all their friends and wanted to invite essentially the same kids. My son invited girls and my daughter invited boys. No difference. At the party, the whole group hangs out together. They play the same games, ooh and aah over the same gifts, take home the same prizes, cry about the same birthday sugar-induced concerns.

Stage 2: Gender Wars ages 8-9

Around age 8 my twins became hyper alert to who was a boy and who was a girl. Though they had always known, ever since that fateful bath when they both (as toddlers) discovered my son had something my daughter lacked, they hadn’t cared. Now? They cared big time. Boys have cooties, girls have cooties. Now, they play the same games but the teams are girls against the boys and the winning team is proof of that gender’s superiority. This is a great age for water balloon battles at the birthday party. There are separate invitations, separate goodie bags, separate cakes. Each gender is still interested in the gifts for both the boy and the girl, primarily so they can scoff at the others’ foolish gifts.

Stage 3: Gender Ignoring ages 10-12

By this age the cooties are gone. Calling out about cooties implies paying attention to the opposite gender and that is no longer cool. Now, there is such a thing as cool and cool includes the mandate to simply pretend ‘the other’ doesn’t exist. At this stage, the girls play games inside while the boys play games outside, and then they trade places. They no longer sing Happy Birthday to both twins and they no longer care about the gifts the other receives.

Stage 4: Gender Spicy ages 13+

Gone are the years of warring and ignoring. Enter, the years of attraction. A coed birthday party is the perfect place to check out the girls, or the boys. Now there are battles over who to invite or not to invite. “He likes her but she doesn’t like him so he can’t come,” my daughter might say. To which my son might respond, “Not his fault. Don’t invite her.” As the mom who prefers one massive party to two parties, I insist they work it out or don’t have any party. The invitations are negotiated and then the party begins and the eyes slide across the room, the flirting begins and mom decides no more co-ed birthday parties.

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.

Phantoms

Phantoms

By Rachel Pieh Jones

phantoms

It’s like the cries of our offspring have been perfectly designed to ping with a Doppler effect unique to the frequency only our ears can pick up.

 

I hear phantom voices. I’m in the bedroom and I hear “Mom” from outside and it sounds exactly like my daughter. I hear babies crying and it sounds like my babies. Except my daughter is in Kenya and I’m two countries away and the babies crying aren’t babies, they are kittens and my babies are fourteen years old now.

As soon as my twins were born I developed a powerful sense of hearing. My husband did not develop this, which makes me think it may have been in the medication I received post-surgery. At first it felt like a super power, my sense of hearing was so strong I could identify which twin was crying before my husband was even aware they were making noise. But this quickly deteriorated into the realization that, as with Spider Man, so with motherhood: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Sure, my new hearing capabilities were powerful but they meant I woke up in the middle of the night. Over and over and over. A baby cried, whimpered, coughed, rolled over, sniffled, snorted, shifted, breathed unusually heavily. I heard it from way down the hall. Since there were two babies making all these nighttime noises, I heard a lot. I didn’t sleep a lot.

During the daytime the super sensory hearing powers continued. At the playground a child would skin his knee and at the first screech I would know that I didn’t need to race toward him. Not my child. Some other mother with super hearing would already be making her way between slides and swings to comfort him. At a play group with dozens of kids and half a dozen moms, a kid would call out, “Mom!” and I would immediately respond. Not only was that now my name, but it entered my ears with the exact pitch and tone of one of my own. I was the mom being summoned to meet an urgent graham cracker, sippy cup, or bathroom need.

Moms can sit in large groups and a single, faint cry wafts in through the window. One mom will stand up and say, “That’s mine.” And almost every single time, she’s right. It’s like the cries of our offspring have been perfectly designed to ping with a Doppler effect unique to the frequency only our ears can pick up.

This is excellent for rushing to the skinned knee and for speedy graham cracker delivery. It is decent for middle of the night needs (effective, which is a good thing, but too effective, leaving my husband sleeping while I instantly wake, which is not a good thing when it happens night after night after night). It is not so excellent or decent once kids are in school.

See, the trouble is that the kids move on but our hearing doesn’t change. They are now in kindergarten and then junior high and then off to college but our ears are still designed to hear every little squeak and cry and ‘Mom.’

Now that it is not our babies or toddlers or middles calling out for Mom to please, ‘look at me just one more time,’ our hearts start to mess with our hearing.

I could be at a high school soccer game and my daughter is on the field, in front of my eyes, but I hear a little voice call, ‘Mom!’ from the parking lot and now I turn to look and I remember my daughter toddling across a gravel parking lot, lips stained red from a popsicle. Or I might be in the library, enjoying some time alone to read and write, and a baby squeaks and I turn to look and am flooded with a memory of scouring through board books with pictures of dinosaurs for my son.

These voices don’t belong to my children. They aren’t calling to me, not anymore. But I pay attention and respond with nostalgia, the feeling like when a lawn mower revs up on a quiet Saturday afternoon in June and someone else mows their grass while I lean back in a chair and sip lemonade. I pause to listen to the little voices, to wonder about the mom they are calling. It feels happy-sad, those beautiful, hard, exhausting days are mostly gone now, though not entirely. Never entirely. And it feels proud, look how far we’ve come. It feels full, brimming up and over. It feels comfortable and familiar, like home.

The kid calling for his ‘mom!’ isn’t mine, that’s true, and the swelling memories that come with it are misty phantoms rising from the past. But the word is mine and I do still hear it, just not for skinned knees and dirty diapers.

‘Mom!’

Now the call is for me to watch them learn to drive, call a girl, choose a dress, study for an exam. The voices are deeper, the call harder to discern. But my super power hearing is still there and I’ll respond because one day soon these calls, too, may turn into phantoms.

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.

Telling Them Their Story

Telling Them Their Story

By Rachel Pieh Jones

P6260178

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.

Expatriate at the Parent Teacher Association Meeting

Expatriate at the Parent Teacher Association Meeting

By Rachel Pieh Jones

schoolmtg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I used to be a national school inspector.”

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

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

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

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Dad is More Fun

Dad is More Fun

By Rachel Pieh Jones

dad is more fun

I get it. I’m not that fun. Though part of me wants to be jealous of my husband’s carefree, fun-loving, able to play like a toddler even though he is thirty-nine, attitude.

 

“Dad is more fun.”

“Mom takes cares of us.”

These are direct quotes from my kids at lunch one day. And there it was, clear as the zit on a teenager’s forehead. Dad is awesome. Mom is boring. I know that isn’t what the kids said but that is absolutely what I heard. And this conversation around the lunch table wasn’t the first time these types of things slipped out of the mouths of my three kids and sliced through my self-perception. And my ego.

Of course, Dad thought this was fantastic and laughed so hard he sprayed iced tea across the table, which the kids thought was oh-so-hilarious. This time I managed to refrain from asking that he wipe it up. Didn’t want to appear too boring or unable to join the fun.

But as the family continued laughing and snorting, the iced tea splatters stayed right where they were on the table. They slowly turned into sticky puddles that would be harder to scrub off later than if someone had simply swiped a napkin over them now. While laughing, fine, but also while the liquid was still liquidy. But later? Ants would pile into the puddle and get stuck, I might have to scrape at stubborn patches with my fingernail. So, yeah, maybe Dad is more fun. But at least the family doesn’t live in sticky-iced-tea-ant-pile-goopiness. Who would be laughing then, huh?

I didn’t say this out loud. I don’t think I need to explain why not. And anyway the answer to that question is: my family would still be laughing. That’s what we do and more often than not, I join in.

Instead, I tried to think of a time I had been really fun. We had a dance party the other day, a Wii dance party. We played Settlers of Catan every Wednesday night. About a week ago I made that one joke about that one kid who had eaten that thing. Everyone laughed. Okay, they laughed at me for getting the story all tangled up in the retelling of it but still, I made ’em laugh.

Fine. I get it. I’m not that fun. Though part of me wants to be jealous of my husband’s carefree, fun-loving, able to play like a toddler even though he is thirty-nine, attitude, I don’t really want to be jealous of it. I want to enjoy it. I love it. It is a huge part of why I fell in love with him in the first place and why I keep falling in love with him year after year.

I once sat with my Somali landlady outside our shared duplex and watched my husband play on the slackline with our kids and with her grandchildren.

“You have four kids,” she said and pointed at my husband.

“That’s why I married him,” I said.

I think I totally lucked out in having such a fun husband and that my kids totally lucked out in having such a fun dad.

One study found that playful people are more innovative, another found playful people did better academically, another found playful people either experienced less stress or handled stress better, and yet another found that playful people were more attractive to the opposite gender.

In comparison to my husband, I’m not very playful. But I’m learning to appreciate his play and to make space for it in our family and in my attitude, especially as our kids get older. The sound of teenagers laughing at something I said (it has been known to happen on occasion) or Nerf gun battles and roars of laughter during wrestling matches and mud-ball soccer games with dad is pure gold. I’m learning to laugh at myself and to not care about the iced tea on the table. I’m even learning to let go of my schedule and routine and shoot off a Nerf dart or two of my own.

Dad might always be more fun while mom takes care of the family but the least this mom can do is take care that the fun times roll on and on and on.

 

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.

Let the Children Play

Let the Children Play

By Rachel Pieh Jones

let the children play2

“If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less.” Peter Gray

Behind my childhood home was an open field. My dad cut a hole in our fence so all the neighborhood kids could climb through and go exploring. There was a creek way, way in the back, so remote it was on the other side of the world. Maybe half a mile away. I couldn’t see my house from beside the trickle of water. Even better, I couldn’t be seen by anyone at my house. There was also a massive hole that we called ‘The Hole.’ So big I could fit inside it with my two sisters and a couple of friends. So big we could cover it with cardboard and snow in the winter and sit up inside, scrunched down, sipping hot chocolate or chicken noodle soup from thermoses. So big an adult wouldn’t dare climb down inside. There was an old wagon wheel abandoned alongside a trail, surely left behind by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s contemporaries or settlers headed west. There were fuzzy green plants that made perfect diapers for Cabbage Patch dolls and that sometimes made our fingers itch.

I’m sure my memories of this field are all wrong. Now it is a bland corporate office and parking lot. But when it was wild, it was where I learned about nature and conflict resolution and patience and courage and how to tell a story. My younger sister might still believe the one about the settlers.

I’m also sure my parents accompanied us into the field at least a few times but I have zero actual memories of being behind the cut up fence with an adult. The kids in my neighborhood played kickball or bike racing in the street, we fought and quit and apologized and made up. We negotiated teams and when we got bored or when one team won, we headed to the field.

In short, we played. Outside. Even in winter. In Minnesota.

*   *   *

My kids tell me some of their favorite memories are of events of which I have no recollection because I wasn’t there. My son climbed over the wall around our house in Djibouti with his Congolese friend and they explored the house that was under construction next door. My daughter collected discarded French military bullets on chaperone-less hikes up a steep hill at the beach. My youngest daughter kneels on top of our wall, nestled into a sea of bougainvillea blossoms and bottles of her personally mixed ‘magic potions’, and spies on the Ethiopian guards who sit in the shade at our front gate. She doesn’t know what they are talking about but enjoys being higher than someone and the unique perspective her position grants of our street.

My kids have time to climb and explore and gather and observe because school ends at 12:45 and there are few extracurricular activities to engage in. I used to bemoan this lack of activities in Djibouti. If I wanted my kids to learn a skill, I had to teach it to them. My husband started the soccer club and coached it. I taught the kids piano, even though I don’t play piano. (This also taught them about minor miracles.) I taught them English, since their education has been in French. I ran the Sunday School program. My husband taught them how to sew and paint and build shelves and swim.

Locally available activities over the years? Intermittently: judo and tennis and dance. So, my kids participated in judo and tennis and dance when they could. But when school ends at noon and there is (maybe) an organized activity for one hour, they are still left with vast swaths of unscheduled free time.

What is a kid to do? They play. Unobserved and unguided.

I initially looked at the limited options available for my kids and saw a detriment, thought I had to teach them everything, thought that if an adult didn’t guide and instruct, my kids wouldn’t learn. But what if, in order to learn, they didn’t need to be taught? What if they simply needed to play?

Peter Gray says, “…playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.”

Kids need to build Lego mansions and create labyrinths out of pillows. They need to dress up, stage Nerf gun battles, and design soccer games that can be played even in miniature yards. They need to imagine they are kings and queens and serfs and astronauts. They need to solve problems, make rules, lead and follow and compromise. My kids chase butterflies, discover newborn kittens in the cranny under our kayak, learn how to use a magnifying glass to burn a hole in a leaf and how to fry an egg on the street in August.

Sometimes they will get bored if I don’t structure every minute of their day and I’ve decided that’s good for them. It is certainly not suffering for a kid to be bored. It’s essential to their development and I’m glad mine have time to get bored and to create their way out of it.

I can’t cut a hole in the solid cement block wall around our house in Djibouti like my dad did in our fence but I can cut a hole in my parenting and let the kids climb through, climb out. I can let them play.

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 A Teenage Boy?

What Is A Teenage Boy?

By Rachel Pieh Jones

teenage boy2

A teenage boy is a mystery hiding behind a shag of unkempt (he wants it that way) hair. To solve the mystery, or to at least gather a few hints on the way to solving it, sneak into his room while he sleeps and gently swipe that hair to the side. Surprise! He is still your baby.

A teenage boy is a ravenous beast capable of devouring an entire chocolate pudding pie in one sitting. And then he will ask for ‘seconds.’ Mothers of these hungry creatures might spend an inordinate amount of time at the grocery store or in the kitchen cooking and teaching him how to cook. The sustaining delight is that to this young man, Mom’s food is always the best food. Own it, Mom, even when he finishes that chocolate pudding pie before you’ve had a bite.

A teenage boy is a bearer of that peculiar and distinctive boy-smell that every locker room, dorm room, and bedroom share across the world. Stale and moldy food, dirty socks, sweat, deodorant. There are scary things in these boy spaces. Just like you wouldn’t stick your bare hand into an elementary school boy’s backpack on the last day of a long school year, I recommend entering a boy’s living space with caution. Or gloves and a gas mask.

A teenage boy is the sweetest-thing-ever when he plays punching bag with his younger sister and lets her knock him down and tickles her until she squeals. And at night when he constructs complicated railroad loops with Thomas the Tank Engine tracks and pretends he’s doing it for the younger kids but can’t quite conceal his pleasure. He is still a playful kid at heart and the best men, in my opinion, remain that way throughout their lives. Let him play hard and play hard with him.

A teenage boy is a zombie when forced out of bed before eleven a.m. This zombie is best greeted with cereal or a big glass of milk or a banana or some other edible item. Don’t try to engage in meaningful conversation for a while. Good luck to all his pre-lunch period teachers.

A teenage boy is a teller of actually funny jokes. All those years of laughing at nonsensical knock-knock jokes have ended, welcome to the really funny stage when you will wonder where that fantastic sense of humor came from.

A teenage boy is a bundle of contradictions. He has muscles now, real ones and not the ones you pinched and praised when he flexed in front of the bathroom mirror at age five. He is faster than you, stronger than you, maybe taller than you or will be soon. He can use that speed and strength to avoid his annoying mother and he can use it to serve you—carrying groceries or airplane luggage, mowing the lawn, fixing the car.

A teenage boy is an almost-man’s body with an almost-but-not-quite man’s voice. This is precious because in that voice Moms hear our toddlers begging for Cheerios or snuggling in before naptime. And in it we also hear the future, our own dreams and his. And we hear hope, we’re giving this young man ourselves and we’re giving him to the world in a few short years.

A teenage boy is the terrifying and beautiful next generation, filled with potential and balanced on the razor-edge of disaster. Capable of rocking our world to the core and capable of changing it for the better.

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.

Motherhood in an Age of Terrorism

Motherhood in an Age of Terrorism

By Rachel Pieh Jones

peace 1Three days after terrorists killed seventeen people in Paris my daughter said at lunch, “Muslims can kill anyone they want, right?”

Terrorism and religious extremism is not hypothetical for my family. A week after suicide bombers blew up a restaurant in Djibouti my daughter asked how we could be sure the Somalia-based terror group al-Shabaab wouldn’t blow up our airplane. My kids go to school behind barbed wire, the walls guarded by armed soldiers and policemen. Sometimes a tank shows up to guard the entrance. We’ve received death threats and people have made throat-cutting motions at us. A man on a bus once shouted that I would be the first person he would kill.

This child asking about al-Shabaab and Muslims killing people? She was born on September 11. Not the September 11. Four years later but we will never be able to mention her birthday without thinking of 2001. She was born in a Muslim country and a Somali midwife delivered her. She is our light on a dark day.

“Can your teacher kill you?” I said to my daughter in response. Her teacher is a Djiboutian Muslim. “Can Safa?” Her friend. “Can Sagal?” My friend.

“No way,” she said. Those were people, friends, coworkers. They played marbles together and came to birthday parties, gave spelling exams.

I don’t know where she picked up the idea that Muslims can kill anyone they want and she didn’t know where she had heard it either. But at nine years old she was already absorbing the climate of hate and fear that permeates our world. It was my job as a mom to counter that, to provide a new climate.

I thought I had been doing exactly that. We are immersed in Islam, surrounded by Muslims. The call to prayer governs our working and sleeping hours. Our weekend is Thursday and Friday because Friday is the Islamic holy day. We have a Quran nestled onto a wooden cradle at the highest point of our living room, next to the Bible. Our coworkers and fellow students and running partners are Muslim. Shopkeepers, taxi drivers, airline employees, teachers, policemen and women, politicians. We celebrate weddings with Muslims and grieve at funerals with Muslims, we pray with Muslims and fast with them and spin dizzy on the merry-go-round with them.

I assumed that this lifestyle was enough. If I showed empathy for Muslims and developed authentic relationships with them, I thought that would communicate a certain worldview to my children. A worldview that said Muslims are not ‘others,’ they are not people to be afraid of or judgmental toward, they are not different from us. We have different faith convictions but we have a shared humanity.

But my daughter didn’t draw a connecting line between Safa and al-Qaeda or between her teacher and al-Shabaab so when she said Muslims could kill anyone they wanted, she didn’t realize her words lumped them into the same category. That wasn’t her intention and I realized she needed more than an example lived out in front of her. She needed me to talk about the relationship between Islam and our faith, Christianity, about the call to prayer and our protestant church service. She needed to hear from me about terror attacks and how to respond to them. She needed me to give her words and language that could specifically counteract the words she heard from the broader culture.

An article in Newsweek, Even Babies Discriminate (focused on race) debunks the idea that raising kids in a diverse environment naturally helps them embrace diversity. I expected the ‘environment to become the message.’ It didn’t. I needed to address the diversity around us directly, openly, and verbally.

So what do I communicate with her and my older kids when violence strikes close to home? When terrorists, claiming to be Muslims, attack in France (where we attended language school) and slaughter seventeen people? Or when the Somali terror group al-Shabaab, claiming to be Muslims, attacks a shopping mall in Kenya (where we used to live) and kills almost seventy people? Or when this same terror group detonates a bomb in a restaurant down the block from our favorite ice cream place?

First, I tell them what happened, they are old enough to know. I use the real names of the real terror groups involved. They are going to hear about it at school anyway, I want first dibs on how things are presented.

In the telling, I emphasize certain things. A Somali Muslim man rescued dozens of people from the mall in Kenya, he went back and back and back, risking his own life to get others out. Djiboutian taxi drivers, also Muslims, were the first responders at the site of the suicide bomb, they rushed the injured to hospitals. The rector of the Great Mosque of Paris denounced the attack in France, a Muslim policeman was killed trying to protect people.

I don’t promise these things will never happen here and I don’t promise I will keep them safe. I do promise that we will remember those who are grieving, we will not be swayed in our conviction that ‘muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ are not synonymous, we will pray for peace and pursue peace.

What does that mean practically for parents: pursue peace? It starts with these kinds of conversations with our kids but it can’t end there. I don’t know what it will take for the violence to end but as I think about my own need to improve my mothering in this area, four action points come to mind.

Uprooting the Darkness

The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda is an extremist militant Christian group, they belong on the same religious spectrum as me. They rape, maim, kidnap, use child soldiers, and destroy villages in the name of establishing a Uganda based on the rule of the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament.

I would like to put as much distance between myself and the LRA as the east is from the west. The moment I recognize this darkness in my religious system it becomes easier to recognize that the majority of Muslims would like that same amount of distance between themselves and ISIS or al-Qaeda. Yes, there is a violent strain of Islam. And yes, there is a violent strain of Christianity. It isn’t helpful to say, “they aren’t real Christians” or “they aren’t real Muslims.” This excuses us from wrestling with this violence in our religious systems and from dealing with our own darkness. But it is in us, too. At least in me.

Some Djiboutians have treated me poorly. Stoned me, spit on me, insulted me, robbed me. In my angry humiliation I respond poorly. I take that anger and direct it, indiscriminately, at everyone. I start to see everyone in the light of the one who wronged me, like personal religious and racial profiling. I need to uproot this. Occasionally I see it rise up in my children and I need to address it in them, too.

Refusing Ignorance

Ignorance leads to fear. What we don’t know and don’t understand, we fear. Fear drives us toward isolation. But the time for living like an ostrich with our head buried in the sand while all the world crumbles around us is long past. It is too late to run for a cabin in the woods.

“Are you afraid?” is one of the most common questions people ask about my family living in Djibouti. They look different, dress different, eat different, talk different, worship different. They live over there. We should be afraid.

But we aren’t because they don’t live over there, they live right here and we have spent more than a decade learning about Islam and local culture and figuring out how to teach our kids about the faith of their peers. To my kids Muslims aren’t anonymous people in turbans and face veils waving machine guns. They are Safa and fourth grade teachers and we aren’t afraid of them. We stand next to them at interfaith prayer gatherings where priests and pastors and imams plead with God for peace. We hold their hands. They hold ours.

There is no excuse for ignorance, for not knowing the ‘other,’ the Muslim or the Christian. Most people today live, work, shop, or travel within meters of this other person. As parents we can slip our family out of the world, become isolated, disappear into homogenous enclaves of people who live, look, and believe like us. We can believe the lie that this will keep our children safe. Or, we can engage. We can insert ourselves into situations that require courage, humility, and intention.

Messy Relationships

Peace rallies and solidarity marches and protest tweets are good. I’ve been to them. I’ve tweeted #bringbackourgirls and #jesuischarlie. But they aren’t enough. Not even with forty world leaders linking arms. During the rally people feel less alone, less afraid, united across divisions. Afterward they go home. And then what?

Then we need to get into relationships. Messy, disagreeing, mutually-improving relationships. I rarely see eye to eye on religious matters with my Muslim friends. That’s okay, this isn’t about agreeing or forcing someone over to our side of a debate. It is about developing empathy and compassion. Brené Brown says, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

As parents forge compassionate relationships across religious and other boundaries, our kids will follow in our footsteps. They’ll have play dates with Muslims or Christians, Americans or Djiboutians or French. They won’t know the ‘other,’ they will know their friends and will call them by name.

Casting a Vision

We are raising a fresh generation and this is what gives me great hope. Motherhood in an age of terrorism is an incredible opportunity to cast a vision for our kids of another way to live. Differences in religion and politics and race and gender and economics all have the potential to explode into unending violence. Are we going to raise our kids with fear, cowardice, and isolationism? Or are we going to grab hold of this broken world with one hand and our children with the other and commit to being part of healing it?

 

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

What Is It Like When Boarding School Kids Come Home?

What Is It Like When Boarding School Kids Come Home?

Boarding Kids Come Home

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

 

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

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

The kids are coming home!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The house finally feels full.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Santa’s Goats and Christmas Legends

Santa’s Goats and Christmas Legends

By Rachel Pieh Jones

santa's goats1

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Elementary School Love Notes

Elementary School Love Notes

By Rachel Pieh Jones

canstockphoto21972458

A mother poses the question: how should elementary kids respond to love notes?

 

In second grade a boy gave my daughter an iridescent plastic orange ring. In the last three weeks of third grade she scored three loves notes from boys and a gift of a plastic egg with two rare marbles inside. This year, fourth grade, she has already received multiple love notes including ones surreptitiously passed in the middle of class and one accompanied by the longest loom band necklace she has ever seen.

She gleefully jumps into the car for the drive home and says, “You won’t believe what happened to me today,” and then dissolves into giggles and hands me the notes or shows me the gifts.

The notes are written in French, in the over-sized scrawl of third or fourth grade boys. They say things like:

Je t’aime. I love you.

Tu est jolie. You are pretty.

Je suis le garcon avec les lunettes rouges. I am the boy with the red glasses.

Je suis amoreux de toi. I am in love with you.

Apparently French really is the language of love, as a friend on Twitter reminded me.

The notes have instructions for where to meet during recess and pencil-sketched drawings of stick figure boys wearing red glasses or of lopsided hearts.

“Oh la la,” I say. “What do you think about these letters?”

Lucy laughs. “I don’t care,” she says. “I don’t love the boys, I don’t even know them. But I like the marbles.” She said she was ‘totally keeping the loom band necklace.’

How exactly should an elementary school kid handle receiving these kinds of love notes?

Lucy says there are two options.

  1. You say: “Oh, thank you,” in a dull voice that drops in pitch at the end. You walk away.
  2. You say: “Oh, thanks,” in a sing-song voice while swaying and shifting your weight from one foot to the other. You don’t walk away.

She performs the walk away option, which is what I want her to do for quite a few more years.

According to her older sister, now fourteen, there is a third option for how to deal with love notes from boys in elementary school.

  1. You rip them up and scatter the pieces on the ground, maybe stomp on the scraps and laugh.

This would be the more heartless option but it also sends a clear message to other would-be authors of love notes and is how she handled it when, in elementary school, an especially persistent boy peppered her with love notes.

Lucy’s brother, also fourteen, says he has no fourth option to offer as advice. He never got a love letter, never sent a love letter, and plans to keep it that way indefinitely. No time for girls, good riddance.

And I’m stuck. What do I encourage Lucy to do? Should she return the gifts? Accept them? Stomp on the letters? Ignore the boys? Our family doesn’t go for early relationships, even of the elementary school I-ignore-you-because-I-like-you variety.

The boys aren’t harassing her, she isn’t bothered by the attention. She ignores them, mostly too concentrated on winning a rare marble or running as fast as she can while paying touche-touche (tag). If a boy thinks she is pretty or smart or athletic or funny or kind or creative and wants to draw her a picture of himself with a heart over his head, she’ll take it and keep right on running or shooting her marble.

In the end, I say more power to her. I tell her: Say thank you for the compliment but there is no reciprocal obligation. Press on with doing what you love and with being who you are. No matter what the world says, no matter if boys write you love notes or don’t write you love notes, mom is here. There is a heart sketched in the sky over my head and I’m here, loving you.

This image of mom with an imaginary heart over her head might be like the worst thing ever for my older kids, but for a fourth-grader? Knowing that she is loved by mom is even better than a loom necklace a yard long. Knowing mom loves her above every other fourth grader is even better than a fancy French love note. I’d like to keep it that way for years to come. So Lucy, here’s the most important love note of all your elementary school years:

Lucy,

I am the American mom with the curly blond hair. Meet me at the yellow pole after school for your ride home. Je t’aime forever and no matter what,

Maman

 

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 Love You the Same. But Different.

I Love You the Same. But Different.

By Rachel Pieh Jones

love you the same1

I love all my children the same. But I don’t love all my children the same. I love them all the same amount. Endlessly, to the moon and back, from Djibouti to Minnesota and back, forever and no matter what. But I don’t love them all in the same way. I don’t know why this realization surprised me. I mean, of course I don’t love them all in the same way. They are unique individuals and I have a unique, individual relationship with each one. But I was still surprised when that sentence came out through my fingers.

In particular, I’ve noticed singular aspects of my love for my son. I don’t understand why specifically, but have some theories.

Theory #1: Gender

He’s a boy. Sometimes I just stop there and think, woah dude, that’s a boy. He stuns me and confuses me and intrigues me. Though I am married to one, birthed one, and have lived around many for my entire life, males remain an enigma. I enjoy watching a sports event or two and am decent with a ball, I can even catch a Frisbee behind my back or between my legs. But I have no soccer team to which I am devoted and my favorite sports games to watch are the ones my children are playing in.

There are other things I don’t understand about the men in my life. The inability to find something when it is sitting on the countertop directly in front of them. The need to tackle people, throw things, or generally jump around the house in order to fall asleep at night. The stink and the aversion to removing the stink whether through showering or deodorizing. The way men make friends, maintain friendships, and communicate with those friends.

I suspect this general confusion about the other gender adds a factor of mystery to my love for him. I’m intrigued by this world of men that as a mother I’m both pulled into and kept out of. I’m drawn in, want to understand, to discover if this mystery of my delightful son is solvable even while I know that there is nothing to solve, just a bundle of energy to love.

Theory #2: The Unexpected

Often the things my son loves to do are things I never would have considered. When he was little we played dinosaur and everyone had to lumber around the room like a Diplodocus or a Tyrannosaurus Rex and he could tell if our movements weren’t accurate or wholehearted. On hikes, I walk and enjoy the scenery. He engages the scenery, scrambles up trees and boulders. Or he hunts frogs, which he then cooks on top of knife blades over open campfires and offers to me, still warm on the knife blade, to eat.

I suspect his ability to come up with surprising, resourceful, and creative activities adds a factor of fascination to my love for him. He brings unique experiences and ways of seeing the world into my vicinity and I have the privilege of expanding myself as we interact.

Theory #3: Physicality

Both my husband and my son are physical people. They are wrestlers, affectionate, and playful. I used to be able to catch my son, beat him in a race at the playground, pin him to the floor, dunk him under water, and generally crush him when it came time to roughhouse. I can’t do that anymore. This past summer, my dad offered my son one dollar to dunk me in the lake (I was trying to keep my hair dry). He took the challenge and swarmed like an octopus on steroids. I held my ground for a few minutes but soon enough, he had me under and proudly collected his dollar.

He can also be tender and gentle at times but the force of his growing power stuns me. I no longer walk through airports lugging all of our carry-ons, he does that willingly and capably. He even retrieves roller bags from their overhead compartments. He heaves stones out of my path. I love his strength.

I suspect his physical strength adds a factor of awe to my love for him.

If I thought more about it, I could come up with more theories. I also know I could come up with categories in which my love for each of my daughters is singular. They are all mysteries to me, strange and beautiful people who came out of my body. Came out of my body but are now infinitely individual, yet related somehow. I have empathy for all of them when I see my weaknesses reflected but I also have awe for all of them, when I see them overcome those weaknesses in fascinating ways I might not ever have thought of. They aren’t me, they aren’t even, ultimately, a reflection of me. They are fully themselves and I love them all the same. But different.

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.

When Breastfeeding Was Gross

When Breastfeeding Was Gross

By Rachel Pieh Jones

breastfeeding1

Whatever the reason, I thought breastfeeding was disgusting.

 

When I gave birth the first time I was barely twenty-two years old and my braces had been removed just a few months earlier. My husband and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a downtown, low-income high rise with primarily east African neighbors. I didn’t know how to change a diaper and wasn’t sure I liked babies all that much but here came twins, ready or not, one boy and one girl.

They terrified me.

After they were born, I knew I was strong. I had given birth both vaginally and by c-section inside of a single hour, an experience I now call a vagi-section and one I don’t recommend. But I doubted I was strong enough for this: two tiny, perfect, utterly dependent human beings, now my responsibility.

Did I mention that they terrified me? They cried. They peed. They slept (sometimes and not at the same times). They needed me in ways I had never been needed before. They even needed my actual body and attached quite voraciously to my breasts.

I thought this was gross.

It might have been the sheer overwhelming nature of twins at such a young age. It might have been that I had never enjoyed baby-sitting, that few of my friends had babies yet, that my body and life had undergone this unplanned and radical transition in the first fourteen months of marriage. It might have been simply that I was young and immature.

Whatever the reason, I thought breastfeeding was disgusting.

These had previously been for visual effect, tactile pleasure. They were not faucets and they were not functional. But suddenly they were and they were out of my control. Spraying like fire hoses, swelling like elephantitis, releasing with the unexpectedness of a volcano. They leaked, sprayed, cracked, swelled, dribbled, bled, bloated, got infected, burned, itched. They left me with soggy bras and stained t-shirts. They puffed up so much they barely fit into those bras and t-shirts and I cried while trying to button a blouse for church.

Now, as I look back and remember those sleepless nights and sleepless days, I can’t believe we tried to go to church at all. That I tried to wear clothes at all. I’m amazed that I didn’t creep around the apartment in a bathrobe or buck-naked and shun all adult contact. I’m shocked that I thought I could make this twin thing work and make it look easy.

I had assumed being a mother was something I was physically designed to be and surely this would make it an activity I could easily master. I had ovaries, a uterus, breasts. This body was made to, among other things, reproduce. So why was keeping two little people alive and happy so hellishly difficult?

Now, that logic looks ridiculous. Most women do have ovaries, a uterus, and breasts. And yet, many women have a hellishly difficult time getting pregnant, going through childbirth, breastfeeding. It isn’t supposed to be easy and it isn’t supposed to be something I can control, kind of like spurting milk. Bringing people into the world is hard and when it happens, I can only call it a miracle. It stands to reason that keeping people in the world would be equally hard, keeping them happy and healthy infinitely harder. All of it always and forever a miracle.

My third child was born five years later, a singleton and a v-bac (vaginal birth after cesaerean) or, to use my word, a v-bavs (vaginal birth after vagi-section). She was born in Djibouti and after her birth, my husband rolled me in a wheelchair to our room. We were two parents with a little more experience on our side than the first time around, and one baby. One baby! I started to nurse her and she latched on and then there was nothing else to do. No other baby to hold. My husband started playing cards. I stared at this baby. She knew exactly what to do and over the next few days as my milk came in, I grew more and more stunned by the beauty of it, by my body producing what her body needed. It made me dizzy and humble.

Now I was older, now I had done this once-gross thing before. Now I was in awe. Breastfeeding was no longer disgusting. Not easy, mess-free, or pain-free this time either, but miraculous. Like everything from conception to delivery to survival outside the womb, like fertility treatments, like adoption paperwork and bringing the kids home, like the wild endeavor of raising human beings. All of it always and forever miraculous.

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.

Daunted Yet Determined

Daunted Yet Determined

By Rachel Pieh Jones

stairs

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.

Teenagers’ Advice to Parents of Teenagers

Teenagers’ Advice to Parents of Teenagers

By Rachel Pieh Jones

teenagers1-2

I recently reclined in a hammock with my fourteen-year old son and daughter. They were in a goofy, talkative mood and I asked them what advice they would like to give to their parents about raising teenagers. First my son said, “Give us $1,000 a day, every day of the year,” to which I responded, “As soon as you find a job that pays $30,000 a month and you give me your entire salary, that’s not gonna happen.” Then they decided to offer more serious suggestions. Their answers intrigued me and I realized that, on this early end of raising teenagers, I have a lot to learn. So I asked other teenagers.

What advice do teenagers have for their parents?

Here are a few insightful highlights from the responses to my highly unscientific non-rigorous, inquiry.

1. Don’t pester us with annoying questions like, “What are you thinking?” or “What’s wrong?” I’ll tell you if and when I want to.

2. Don’t forget to have ‘the’ talk, especially with the youngest. Sure, sure, we’ll probably learn things from friends and television but still, talk about it.

3. Stay up late. We want to start important conversations after you want to be in bed. After midnight you might be able to ask those annoying questions and actually receive an answer.

4. Don’t think you can read my mind. This might seem in contrast to the ‘don’t ask annoying questions’ suggestions. But still, you can’t read it. Try to think of a creative way to find out what, if anything, is going on in there.

5. Don’t think you can read my facial expressions. Sometimes you are way off in interpreting my mood. Don’t name it if you don’t know it. I might look discouraged or crabby but I’m really just trying to ignore the unicorn horn sized zit on my forehead and am feeling pretty darn good otherwise.

6. Give us more freedom and let us take more risks. We need to learn how to fail and how to come back from it. We need to learn our own boundaries and we need to learn new things, new skills, challenge our fears.

7. Don’t come running when things go wrong, at least not immediately. Let us learn from our mistakes.

8. Don’t force us into the career you want. Let us follow our own dreams.

9. Limit our screen time. I worry about our generation, that we won’t be capable of healthy social interactions with actual people. We’ll probably fight you, but do it anyway.

I know there are thousands of other things teenagers would love to tell their parents, some suggestions more worth adopting than others. Some as trivial as ‘please buy new jeans because the ones you love give you mom-butt and that is so embarassing’ or as ludicrous as ‘give us $1,000 a day,’ but I found it especially telling that ‘give us more freedom’ came up most often. I pressed the kids who said this, trying to understand it better. They meant more freedom to make choices and to experience the consequences, for better and for worse. They were willing to face those consequences and they were even willing to seek out their parents’ advice in facing those consequences, at least hypothetically.

This is hard to hear and even harder to do. As the teens shared suggestions, sometimes their parents were in the vicinity. As soon as the parents started to push back on the advice, to question it, to say things like, “We’ve been there, we learned some things, and we know best,” the teens shut down. Their shoulders drooped, their eyes dulled, they disengaged from what had been a fascinating conversation. Some physically backed away or left the room.

My primary take-away from this informal survey is the need to listen with sincere interest, to take my teenagers and their ideas seriously. My aim as a parent of teenagers isn’t to merely survive the raging hormones or to make it out the other end still talking to each other. It is to develop engaged, curious, brave, competent, contributing members of society. I’ve never raised teenagers before, they’ve never been teenagers before. We’re in this together. To do the best I possibly can just might require taking them up on some of their suggestions.

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.

The Mouth of My Grave is Open

The Mouth of My Grave is Open

By Rachel Pieh Jones

non-muslim cemetary in djibouti1

A Djiboutian custom during pregnancy, and for forty days following childbirth for restoration, protection and health.

 

“The mouth of my grave is open.” This is what Djiboutian women say during pregnancy and the forty days following childbirth. “Qabrigayga afka ayaa furan yahay.” They mean that they could die, or the baby could die, at any time and they’re right. The infant and maternal mortality rates in Djibouti are among the highest in the world and aren’t helped by rampant female genital mutilation and limited access to quality healthcare.

I learned the phrase when I was pregnant with our youngest, Lucy Deeqsan, who was born in Djibouti. My friend Awo taught it to me and explained it as a request for prayers for protection and health.

Djiboutians had other ways of procuring protection during these vulnerable days like observing a mandatory rest period of forty days following childbirth during which mother and infant remained indoors. This sounded like paradise. Forty days to rest, bond, and recover.

“If you need to go outside before the forty days are over,” Awo said, “put a nail behind your ear. Or a knife like the one people put under their pillows at night. That way you can fight off the jinn who might attack.” Jinn are mischievous devils, or genies who wreak havoc on humans.

“Also, don’t look at the baby when you nurse her,” Awo said. “The jinn will know how much you love her and will make her sick or take her away.”

Seven days after Lucy’s birth our neighbors planned to sacrifice a goat and have a feast to protect her and guarantee a long, healthy life.

“The blood of goats can’t protect her,” my husband said. He explained that our faith relied on the one-time, all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus. “But we’d love to have a party.”

The men came to an agreement that since we believed God had a plan for Lucy’s life or death and since our neighbor believed a sacrifice would help, he would sacrifice a baby goat instead of an adult. There would be less blood, my family could enjoy the meat without believing in its saving power and the neighbors could enjoy the meat and feel relieved that they were contributing to Lucy’s well-being. Plus, there could still be a party.

Friday morning a halal butcher slaughtered a tiny goat in our front yard. During the feast I remained indoors and ate blue, yellow, and pink rice with hot sauce and broiled goat from aluminum platters the neighbors carried into our living room. At the end of my forty days of rest there would be a party for women but this feast was primarily for men and for Lucy.

Outside, neighbors and friends lounged on pillows and sipped Coke, smoked, and dug into the feast with their right hands. My husband read prayers from the Bible and the Quran. The men took turns holding Lucy, taking pictures with her, and whispering blessings over her.

Lucy and I (mostly) stayed indoors during the forty days postpartum. We ate the goat meat. I never placed a nail behind my ear and I stared at Lucy while she nursed, devouring her with my eyes. We prayed for health. After forty days the mouths of my grave and Lucy’s grave quietly closed. We had survived.

Nine years later, our graves are still closed. I still pray for health. Sometimes I am half-tempted to slip a nail behind my ear, if that would guarantee a long and healthy life for my daughter. Anything, to guarantee I will never lose her. But I don’t believe in guarantees. I don’t believe in magic-like phrases or nails or goat’s blood.

Sometimes I wonder if it might be easier if I did, at least I would feel more in control. But this would only be an illusion, I don’t believe in control either. How can I? I don’t know who will carry a gun into the elementary school or who is wearing a bomb underneath their business suit in the restaurant. I can’t see malaria or ebola or cancer cells. I can’t decide who is too drunk to drive every time I enter the freeway or how long prison sentences should be for pedophiles.

Djiboutians know this too, that’s why they say the mouths of their graves are open. That’s why they sacrifice goats and put nails behind their ears. We all attempt to wrangle whatever sense of authority over our lives we can muster. Maybe that is why I find it natural to have faith in something I can’t see or touch. I have no confidence in my own authority. Some trust in nails, some trust in the blood of goats, some trust in their own competencies, I trust in an unseen God. I’m weak, I might and probably will, make bad choices. I can’t save my family from the train barreling down on us. I choose faith.

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.

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.

I Don’t Promise to Keep My Kids Safe

I Don’t Promise to Keep My Kids Safe

By Rachel Pieh Jones

can'tkeepsafe

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

Subscribe to Brain, Child

 

 

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

Motherhood is Gross

Motherhood is Gross

What is Motherhood? is a Brain, Child blog series, with original posts from our writers, and reposts from some of our most favorite websites and blogs, all answering the universal question—what does motherhood mean to you?

By Rachel Pieh Jones

stinky diaper 1Motherhood is gross and it starts in the bathroom when you pee all over your fingers even though you are aiming at a little white stick. Next comes the projectile vomit, your own, that some call morning sickness but is actually preparation for having a baby, who will vomit on you. Before pregnancy we barfed in private, now we are barfing in Laundromat garbage cans, potted plants lining suburban streets, and the parking lot outside Babies R Us. Breasts bloat and leak mysterious cloudy discharge and the baby has not even arrived yet.

We mothers used to be fairly modest, meaning we didn’t drop our pants for just anyone. Now, in the doctor’s office, we will pee into cups and spread our legs for whoever asks, hoping they will give us good news. If you are pregnant in France, you will also take off your shirt and bra so the doctor can check your pinched vaginal nerve. This only happened to me once and yes, motherhood means we now say things like ‘pinched vaginal nerve.’

Giving birth is excessively gross. My daughter asked if she came out my belly button. When I told her she came out my vagina, she said, “I came out your bagina? Eeeewww!”

Eeew is right. We sweat and swear and turn blisteringly red and lose things called mucus plugs but not from our noses and poop on our babies’ faces (tell that to your teenager). We cry from pain, exhaustion, overwhelming love and adoration (the poop has long since been washed off and the baby really is adorable now). There is blood and discharge and excess IV fluid. There is now yellow discharge from our breasts that seeps, then we wake one morning and find the seeping has miraculously turned to a shower of purplish white milk. And there is a human attached to our nipple, sucking on it.

The grossness of motherhood strips all pretense of fashion and style. We wear breast milk stained shirts and jeans with booger streaks at toddler nose level, right around the knee. We lug suitcase-sized totes with garish safari animals or cartoon characters. We pretend spit-up blends in with the pattern on our shirt. Drool coats every surface from our car keys to our hairbrush.

Mothers pick noses. With our bare fingers. And we feel accomplished when we successfully remove that offensive green slime. We swoop up small people and smell their butts. Depending on the result of these smell tests, we will wipe poop from those butts. We wipe poop from backs, even from shoulders when things have gotten out of hand. We wipe poop from car seats and strollers and highchairs. We scoop turds from bathtubs, the ones that won’t fit down the drain. In Somalia we wipe diarrhea with our hands. (That also only happened to me once.) We catch vomit with our bare hands to spare the child or the upholstery.

We pick up dropped pacifiers and lick them off. We use our teeth to clip baby fingernails. We admire goopy boogers and accept them onto our own fingertips so they don’t end up crusted to the car door. We tell our kids the dead frog they found on the street is cool and later we pull it out of their jeans pocket while doing laundry. We unroll crunchy socks. We comb for lice.

Motherhood is also gross when it reveals deep-rooted selfishness like when the kids think they are fighting over the last can of root beer this side of the Atlantic Ocean but you already hid it in the back of the cupboard for later, when they are sleeping or choking down vegetables. Or when you slide the hands of the clock forward ever so slightly each night so that bedtime is still 7:30 but it is really 7:10. Motherhood reveals the gross habit of grudge-keeping when we say, ‘I told you seventeen times to keep the Legos off the stairs.’ It reveals pride and envy when we compare our children and our habits to other mothers and their children.

Motherhood is gross because it sends us blubbering into Kleenexes when we stop to truly feel the soft, pudgy cheeks pressed against our own and we hear peals of laughter and snorty giggles that drift in through screen windows on balmy summer evenings. Eyeliner turns to black streaks and our noses start to drip during melodramatic television commercials.

Motherhood is gross, and courageous women dive into this murky world of fluid and smell and creatures and mysteries with antibacterial wipes in our back pockets and the unspoken hope that today will finally be the day no one asks us to admire the size of the log they left in the toilet.

The grossness of motherhood reminds us every day that our kids are not always kind, peaceful, or wise. And neither are we. In this disgusting world of motherhood, our weaknesses sneak up like poop on shoulders and our colossal capacity for love capsizes all façade of propriety. Bring on the gross.

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.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Subscribe to Brain, Child

The Happy Middle Years

The Happy Middle Years

By Rachel Pieh Jones

the happy middle1For my children, the ages 6-12 have been the ages of ‘no longer’ and ‘not yet.’ No longer in diapers, not yet smoking pot. No longer waking up all night, not yet staying out all night. No longer fed from the breast, not yet developing breasts or obsessed with breasts, depending. No longer sitting backwards in a hard plastic seat beneath layers of car seat buckles, not yet behind the wheel.

No longer fighting with me over the biggest brownie (I totally won that battle), not yet fighting to wear the smallest swimsuit. No longer needing me to read homework instructions, not yet needing me to remind them that these grades count toward something more than five extra minutes at recess.

I know the middle years aren’t like this for every family or every kid, but so far, for my youngest, Lucy and I, these feel like our golden years. She is witty and strong, creative and self-entertaining. She is helpful and curious and generally a joy to spend time with.

This feels peaceful. And, this feels dangerous, slippery.

Now that Lucy is eight years old I feel like I am free. After years of focusing primarily on family, I can develop more outside interests, focus on my writing, help coach a running team. I have the mental capacity for conversations about politics and social issues instead of sleep schedules, to read books about genocide instead of about potty training.

I sense the dangerous possibility of letting these years slip past and of letting my happy middle-aged daughter slide from between my arms while I am finishing an essay and she is practicing piano on her own or making brownies on her own (having kicked me out of the kitchen and demanding I not intervene no matter what).

If we begin to go our separate ways now, if I sidestep out of her orbit because I am no longer required for basic survival and functioning or bottom-wiping, if she slides away as I become addicted to hours of quiet writing, and if I neglect to be intentional because she isn’t rocking my world with the wrong friends, bad grades, dangerous driving, or inappropriate clothing, what will happen during the next season?

What a silly fear, as though I feel required to be anxious about something. Since Lucy is thriving and I can’t be anxious about the present, why not project fear into the future?

I don’t want to live in this happy middle season with this unnecessary anxiety, dreading a dire future of my own creation and afraid to enjoy a satisfying time of life. I also want to take advantage of the relative ease now to invest in this almost-tween, to build on the foundation of the early years and to create scaffolding to guide her into the tumultuous teen years.

I Googled, “books parenting ages 0-5” and got 11,400,00 results. I Googled “books parenting ages 13-18” and got 5,750,00 results. I Googled “books parenting ages 6-12” and got 1,300,00 results. Loads of advice on getting started parenting and on finishing up before launching our kids into the scary beautiful world. Not nearly as much about what to do in between.

Once our children know how to tie their own shoes, read chapter books, fix their own breakfast, and self-soothe to sleep, the parenting section of Barnes and Noble or Amazon would have parents think our job is done. At least for the next six years, we can go into coasting mode.

We are still cool, we are still in control. We are still bigger and stronger and presumably wiser but we are on the verge of losing all these advantages. This is precisely why I cannot settle into coasting mode. These might be the happy middle years for (some) kids but they are also foundational and the habits, relationships, and attitudes cultivated now are what they will carry with them into and beyond the teenage years, even if those values appear to remain dormant or to disappear entirely for a season.

These are prime years to instill in Lucy a love of literature, a global worldview, a secure spiritual foundation. We talk about bodies and healthy attitudes toward food and exercise, respect for the opposite gender. We laugh really hard and ask questions we don’t know the answers to, then search out those answers. We take risks and practice courage.

I will not worry about the future, this now is when she is eight and this here is where we will learn and love and create. Instead of living afraid that the peace is precarious, I’m learning to embrace these happy middle years with intention.

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.

Purchase This is Childhood, a book and journal about ages 1 -10 of childhood.

When All the Other Moms Still Have Babies

When All the Other Moms Still Have Babies

By Rachel Pieh Jones
babies2
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.

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.