(above) I saw these flags at Navy Pier a few weeks ago and found myself surprised at the emotion they evoked in me. I must have looked like a crazy person, yelling at Ben, “look at the flags. THE FLAGS!!!” and then I proceeded to take like 10 pictures in a row. Although I have lived overseas most of my life, my passport country is a big part of who I am. Coming back with our five children to the U.S. who are going through major transition similar what I experienced as a child is helping me appreciate the heritage I have.
Transition is tough. Furlough can be a significant stress because physically we are fighting jet lag and going through all of the emotions of grieving and letting go at the same time. On top of that, we have to figure out how to get everything from storage and get oriented to our new surroundings while our kids are falling apart. We did what we could to prepare our kids for our furlough year by talking about new things they would experience, and the older kids helped educate the little ones so that helped a little. But that was just the ‘prep-work.’
First, my disclaimers: these are just a few thoughts that I’ve collected from the last few furloughs and now this one….my apologies that it ended up being so long. Also, other missionaries will have their own lists and ideas which could completely look different. And, I planned to write 1-2 paragraphs but apparently the thoughts just kept coming! Sorry for the extreme length of this post!
Boundaries with Speaking Events
We don’t plan to attend or speak at any events right away. On our first furlough, we attended a missionary get together the day after we arrived in Wheaton. I can remember a huge panic trying to find something decent to wear, and ended up taking our 18 month old daughter to the event because she was having a hard time with transition.
Expectations and Stability
We asked ourselves really hard questions before we left PNG: what do we want to do on furlough and what is going to be realistic for our family? The truth is, we’ve been gone for four years and haven’t been able to take family holidays very often, so we’d love to go coast to coast and visit every friend and historical site. The reality is, we came home with very little margin and we all (especially our kids) need stability. So we had to scale down our expectations and work on compromises.
We’ve tried to be really positive about things we love about America. Leaving the home they love (and their friends) is hard for our kids, and part of the grieving process is letting go of (not completely) what they love and embracing things they enjoy here. With the older kids, we’ve had to balance required events and giving them a choice. In recent days, when we’ve given the teenagers a choice on an event (even ones that might seem like ‘little kids events’) they have chosen to do it, and have enjoyed themselves. Also, having preschoolers and teens means that sometimes Ben will take the older kids and I take the little ones to age appropriate events.
We’ve been giving the kids something purposeful to do. The first couple of weeks after we returned, Ben and I were busy trying to get ourselves sorted, getting driver’s licenses renewed, changing the utilities to our name, buying homeschooling materials, registering our oldest for online home school, etc. We expected our kids would just entertain themselves as they do in PNG. However, they had no friends close by and being out of their normal environment meant that they didn’t know what to do with themselves (besides ask repeatedly to watch movies) We had planned to start homeschooling after a family trip in August but I could see that some of our kids were struggling with lack of purpose to their days, so I started school earlier and had them write out a list of (non-screen) things they could possibly do on their own. Also, Ellie initially hard time getting into reading, so I’ve offered a reward for 10 chapter books she reads: going out for breakfast with Ben. Likewise, Noah wanted to increase his cooking skills, so he has a similar list going for new recipes he tries.
To avoid being overwhelmed in stores: we research online for items we need. This week I googled “top toys for 2014” From there I had ideas of prices and what might work–my goal was one or two small presents for each of our twins birthday this week. It turns out we had a coupon for Learning Express close to our house, and their prices were really similar to Amazon.com. So we went there to see the items in person. We bought different things but I wasn’t overwhelmed at all because I already had an inkling of ‘what was out there.’
Another thing we discovered is that we have to be really intentional about taking time as a couple…Ben and I left the children in the care of his very capable parents (thank you mom and dad!) for 3 days while we went to Chicago. We took this photo at the free stained glass museum at Navy Pier, that was one of my favorite things we did! We don’t always plan time for ourselves with having five kids and others we want to spend time with, but this is something we are working on more intentionally.
Other People’s Expectations
I’ve tried to steer myself away from worrying about other people’s expectations for us on this furlough. Ben doesn’t struggle with this but as a ‘people pleaser’ I have really had to make a conscious effort to stop, ask myself the truth and then be completely honest. Sometimes that means disappointing people (or dealing with my own perceived expectations of their disappointment) but as my friend Kay Bruner says “do the right thing and learn to live with a little guilt.” I love that.
Kids in Transition
We’ve been really open about each kids specific reactions to transition to family members or friends we might be seeing. One furlough I wrote ahead to people we would visit about each child, thinking it would help them understand what each kid was going through. (From comments I heard at the time, our kids’ behavior looked odd or unreasonable to some people.) At the same time for us as parents, we’re still trying to figure it out and it can be really distressing to not be able to ‘fix’ our kids when they are distressed. Ben and I are learning, however, that overreacting to our kids makes things much worse! Mostly, they really need assurance and validation in the middle of transition.
Some examples from the last two furloughs and now the beginning of this one:
- screaming for a week every time we arrived at a new place.
- hiding or throwing a tantrum when it was time to go through leave taking…
- finding a quiet/private space for hours (like under a table) and read
- making strong statements about missing ‘home,’ like last week when one of our preschoolers said “I really miss my friends. I feel like they are dead.”
- having potty accidents at every big transition. At first we were bewildered until we realized transition triggered the accidents…
- daily crying and vomiting from stress
- more behavior issues from being tired and disoriented. It doesn’t mean we don’t discipline them, but we try to apply grace.
- acting ‘unsociable’ when people come to visit[I’m not saying that all of our kids do all of these things all the time, these are just examples of a few things we’ve experienced through the years.]
There is much more to be said on this topic but I thought I’d get the ball rolling at first. This furlough is unique for us because we decided to home school in order to give ourselves freedom to travel. It turns out it’s quite a challenge and we’re trying to figure it all out, especially because we’re supposed to be spending time recuperating and preparing to go back to PNG. I guess it all comes with giving grace to ourselves as well in the midst of all the chaos.
Yesterday I read this verse from the Apostle Paul, “don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.” (Philippians 4:6 NLT) I used to think about this verse primarily about our physical needs but what if it also applies to our emotional, spiritual and mental well being? Can I trust God to give Ben and me the grace and wisdom to parent our kids through this transition? Can I trust Him to bring healing to our marriage and emotional well being while we’re doing the hard work of home schooling and transitioning to life here?
p.s. I thought I’d add a couple of book recommendations to this topic:
“As Soon As I Fell” by Kay Bruner. A few weeks after I arrived, I had the chance to read Kay’s memoir. I would highly recommend it for anyone who wants a glimpse into a life of a missionary who struggled with a lot of things that those of us who serve overseas deal with. I loved the message of hope she gives!!
“The Way Of Transition” by William Bridges. I bought this book on my first furlough and have read and re-read this book. It has been helpful in framing my thoughts about transition, which you can see mirrored here often on my blog.
“Expectations and Burnout” by Robyn Bliss and Sue Eenigenburg. Ben bought me this book last year for my birthday. I loved it because it explained how we as missionaries come to the field with expectations that we don’t even know we have (often they are only revealed when they are unmet!) As a result of reading this, I ended up writing a document about our project for new members (still in draft) so that we can help them transition to our team.