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Yes, the Kids Know


Do the kids know? What do they think? That seems to be everyone's first question when they hear we are relocating to America.  

Yes, they know. We talked about it with them hypothetically for a long time, and they were the first people Gil and I told when we made the decision. 

Michele Phoenix, who has written extensively on the impact of transition on missionary kids, wrote: "Those who repatriate to their “home” country aren’t just moving from one state or province to another. They aren’t just losing a measurable number of people, places and 'sacred objects.' It’s the intangibles that exacerbate their grief and intensify their response to it. Missionaries’ Kids who are enduring transition have lost the languages, sounds, aromas, events, values, security, familiarity and belonging that have been their life—an integral part of who they are and how they view the world. When they leave their heart-home, it feels as if they’re surrendering their identity too.

Moving back is more than a transition for many MKs—it’s a foundational dislocation and reinvention that can take years to define and process."

I read this and nod, Yes. I experienced all of this myself, when I moved back to America at age 14, after spending much of my childhood in Africa. It was hard. I grieved a lot. I struggled with belonging and identity. Yet for me, my passport matches with my country of birth. I left a house in San Jose, went and experienced life in Africa for six years, and then returned to that house in San Jose. I had a sense of place in America. My children do not.

America is, quite literally, a foreign country to them. Though they are the children of missionaries, they won't be returning "home," they will be immigrants moving to a new land. They will be leaving their home--possibly forever.

We told the kids the news in June, just a few weeks before we went to the States for the summer. That trip was a good gift. It helped them to process the idea of leaving while they were visiting America, yet knowing that they still would be able to return to Tanzania for another year.

A lot of big emotions came out this summer. On a walk through my parents' neighborhood one evening, one child (who doesn't often get angry) expressed a mountain of anger about what is ahead. You are taking me away from my country! Anger at us. At circumstances. Let it out, I said. It's okay to be angry

Another night, I heard a different child's muffled sobs late in the night. I sat on the floor next to the sleeping bag and just listened. I don't want to leave my friends! I'm not going to know anybody in America! I'm not going to have any friends! I could relate to that, so I cried too. I don't want to leave my friends either, I said.

My biggest girl spent all summer doodling, I am a TCK on every piece of paper her pencil met.

In the past, they've always been excited to visit the States. McDonald's, Disneyland, Target: The Promised Land of Shopping and High Fructose Corn Syrup makes everybody giddy. But when we told them we would be moving there? No excitement. At all. Just tears. And a resigned acceptance. I recently asked Grace if there is anything she is looking forward to in America. Well, my family is there, she said dully. I'll be happy to be closer to them. That was all.

Since we returned to Tanzania in August, life returned to normal. Our days are full and we want to live fully without the weight of leaving over our heads. Besides, though a year is short for me, it is long for a child. There will be time for grief later. But I know it's coming. 

I struggle to find a category to put my children into. They are not typical missionary kids, since they belong to Tanzania more than Gil and I do. We didn't bring them here; they already were here. Moving them to America is probably similar to adopting older children internationally, except not quite. Traditionally adopted kids are leaving an orphanage--something sad--and joining a new family--something redemptive. But my kids won't be a leaving a sad situation. Grace is middle school president this year, and got bumped up to the high school varsity soccer team--as an 8th grader. Josiah is the fastest kid in his class. They'll be leaving a life that they love--a perfect life in many ways--surrounded by kids just like them, kids they've known since they were babies.

One of my kids asked, Can I go to a non-bullying school in America? I can't promise them that. I can't tell them everything will be okay. I can't tell them it won't hurt. I can't guarantee to myself that this will all turn out right in the end, that this is the right choice, that I won't have any regrets. So I worry, What have I done to my children?

The hardest year in my childhood was the year I turned 14. Liberia was torn away from me, my family was relocated to Niger, but before we could get there, we were relocated to Ethiopia. I found myself in a new country with no friends, no familiarity. I was grieving Liberia deeply. There was no high school for me, so I sat day after day in the elementary school library, by myself, trying to teach myself French and Physics through correspondence classes. By December, I was begging to go to boarding school, so in January, I relocated to another country again, transitioned again, grieved again--this time I had friends, but not family. And then at the end of that school year, my family was evacuated from Ethiopia and we began life in the States....again.

My parents' plans had been for me to spend all my high school years in Liberia, in stability and sameness. Transitioning through three countries and two schooling systems in the course of one year was not part of that plan, and all of us shed a lot of tears and endured a lot of stress. But you know what? I look back on that year as crucially important in helping me become who I am now. I grew up that year. My faith in Jesus became my own. The people I met and the things I experienced, even though it was a short time, indelibly impacted my "becoming."

I cling to this memory as I look towards taking my children through the biggest transition of their lives. I can't make it easy on them, and that crushes this mama's heart. But easy isn't always best.

Just last night I read this quote from one of the wisest women I know--Elisabeth Elliot:
And we parents, I'm sure, suffer sometimes a hundred times more than our children suffer. Although we think that the situation is worse than it is, what we can never visualize is the way the grace of God goes to work in the person who needs it. 


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