Thursday, 5 July 2018

PHOTO POST: First lead yourself

So much of what it means to grow could be described as learning to lead yourself.
It's all very well to lead others, in whatever context, but until we learn good self-leadership, 
we run the risk of leading in ways that damage rather than serve people.
What does it mean to you to lead yourself well
in the area of your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual being?

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Help needed: language-learning ahead!

The past week I have felt all my extrovert tendencies come out to play. I am back in England, speaking my own language and in a culture I understand. Or mostly. At least, I don’t feel any need to make an apology when I don’t understand; I simply feel like I am owed an explanation, which is different. You'd think, having already had three experiences of language immersion, I would take it all in my stride. But as much as I truly love the Spanish language, it’s a relief to step away from all the hesitation, the uncertainty and the second-guessing that language-learning entails.

And since it is almost 3am and I am wide awake, on high alert for the noise of the taxi bringing my husband and daughter from the airport, here are 5 things I wish fluent speakers knew about language-learning - in any language - that would give a little extra help to those of us still getting to grips with vocabulary, verbs and idioms.

1. We need you to take the initiative.
It’s really hard when you are learning a language to be the one to strike up a conversation. There are a few rare individuals who, on meeting someone new, can launch into conversation with just their limited vocabulary, but most of us need some encouragement. In my own language, I will happily start chatting to anyone, whether at the checkout in the store, or waiting for drinks at the pub. But even though I have been learning Spanish for 5 years now, I still find that initial connection with people much harder to initiate. Language learners need carrying along in conversation a bit more, so fluent speakers - take the lead, assume we are keen to have a chat, and don’t leave us hanging!

2. We need you to go slow.
You know, when you’re speaking to someone who is just learning your language, it doesn’t help to speak the same way you would to a native speaker, only louder! Often we are watching you closely as you form words, desperately trying to separate out the sounds into coherent sentences. It helps us so much if you take your foot off the accelerator and speak clearly (you know, clearly, not so much so that it sounds like you’re speaking to your 95 year old grandmother who is completely deaf). Speaking slowly doesn’t mean that conversations can’t be interesting, or that the language-learner is an idiot. It just means that you’re making sure we’re tracking with you, and not still wondering what it was you said 5 minutes ago.

3. We need you to introduce us to people.
There is nothing more awkward as a language-learner than joining a group of people who all know one another. They allow you to sort of loiter on the edge of the group, but no one speaks to you because they have a lot of catching up to do, plus they’re not sure how to involve you in the conversation. One way to bridge a person into the group is to introduce them to everyone, using not just the person’s name but a little about them that might make the introduction stick. Maybe Carol is best friends with Michelle, or perhaps Elizabeth loves climbing mountains. Take your time and add some colour, remembering that it is much harder to be the single person trying to remember twenty people, even when you speak the language fluently.

4. We need you to open doors for us.
This is a little more than an introduction. Perhaps you could include us in your after-school coffee get-together, or maybe you could invite us to your gym, or your wine-tasting club. This doesn’t mean that you have to be our only friend, quite the opposite. It means that you are helping us to broaden our social network because we’re not even sure what opportunities are out there. And when you bring us into that group for the first time, be sure to add a comment that lets people know that we really want to learn about your language and culture, and that we’ll be sticking around for a while. You might not realise this, but lots of people fail to engage with us because they don’t realise how motivated we are to learn.

5. We need you to help us have fun.
This sounds silly, but when you’re learning a language there can be a lot of hard work and not as much fun as you’d think. Sure, it is funny to laugh at ourselves when we accidentally ask a guy if we can play with his balls, but it’s laughter with an edge of hysteria. Language-learning sort of strips you of your ability to express your personality for  a while, and especially of your ability to tell jokes and bring humour to a conversation (intentionally, that is). So you can help us both to laugh at our mistakes, and also to do fun things, to enjoy the lighter side of life. Smile at us a lot. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s ridiculously encouraging to think that someone sees us, sees through the stumbling and the struggle to make ourselves understood, and who likes us being there or our own sake.

The truth is, we want to learn your language and it’s a privilege to have that opportunity. And yet sometimes being a learner is a little scary, a little isolating, and a little discouraging. We want things to progress more quickly than they do. Your encouragement will help us a lot and, who knows, you might make a really good friend!

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Every day brave

My dear friend Rachel recently published a book whose themes are family, connection and courage. Knowing her as I do, I know that she writes from personal experience and about values to which she herself holds true. These are themes that are every bit as important to me too: what does it mean to show courage, not only in the extraordinary experiences of life, but also in the very ordinary moments?

(This is a fun photo from a wonderful holiday we shared with Rachel and her family in Morocco.)

Rachel and her crew recently relocated from Budapest to the United States, their passport nation. As anyone who has faced the challenge of 're-entry' knows, this sort of transition requires its own sort of bravery. Rachel kindly agreed to be a guest writer on the blog and here she shares her own experience of what it means to show up to your life with courage.

Today I am choosing to be every day brave. 

What is every day brave, you ask? In essence, it means standing courageously in the face of great challenge. Believing that on the other side of fear lies something better, something greater. It means living with grit and determination and a steadfast hope ... every single day. 

This past year has held tremendous changes for our family. With the addition of our daughter, we went from a family of three to four. We moved from Europe back to the US. I changed careers from a missionary to a novelist. 

In a funny way, my life up to this year looked far more courageous than it does now. While living for 7 years in Europe, I gained over 35 new stamps in my passport. I lost my first pregnancy on the mission field and then birthed 2 children there. I hopped trains and buses and planes every couple of weeks. I made Budapest my home. It was a wild, wonderful, stressful, grace-filled life. 

But this year has required a new level of bravery. This is the year God called us to move back to Seattle, to a city and country that felt more foreign to us than anywhere we had lived in Europe. We had grown comfortable with our expat lifestyle. The unknown felt more familiar than our own culture. 

A 2 book contract opened the door for me to pursue my dream career as a women’s fiction writer. My husband’s parents developed serious health issues. These changes cemented our move. We went home – to a place we barely recognized, to a new career path full of challenges and a steep learning curve, to doing the hard work of building a new community and life. We were obedient but it was so very tough. 

For the first month we held hands in the grocery store, overwhelmed by the choice of 20 kinds of tortillas, 12 varieties of apples stacked in gleaming pyramids. We didn’t know how to cope with the abundance, the excess. And I quickly found that I’d forgotten basic Seattle social cues, the cadence of conversation, what to share and what not to say. Too often I found myself sharing too much too soon only to be met with an uncomfortable smile and a stiff silence, even from good friends. I had to relearn the cultural rules of my home city, slowly, sometimes painfully. Every day required a choice. I gritted my teeth and smiled and chose perseverance and a steadfast hope over and over again. Some days I cried ... more than once. 

In this past year of transition I have experienced so many marvelous open doors, acts of grace, and sheer miracles as we integrate once more into our home culture. I’ve also had my fair share of significant disappointments, challenges, and grief. But God has been faithful, and He has given me the chance to be faithful too. 

With each challenge and disappointment, with each new day, I am given a choice. Will I buckle in the face of struggle and opposition and the tough stuff of life? Or will I do the good, hard work of being obedient, being courageous, being strong? As this life transition continues day by day, I choose to be every day brave. 

What challenges are you facing right now in life? What does being every day brave mean to you? 


You can find Rachel on Facebook. Do check out her most recent book, Becoming the Talbot Sisters, as well as her first novel, Ascension of Larks.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

What I'm learning about Adoption

Ten years ago today, on a wet and wintry day in Cape Town, we brought home a little fuzzy-haired bundle who was to bring us even more joy than we expected or hoped. In that slightly surreal and deeply spiritual moment of receiving our daughter, we stepped into an experience of adoption that has changed, enlarged and taught us so much.

As a family, we decided to name 12 June, Manu’s adoption day, as Sisters’ Day. It is the day our two girls became sisters, the day that beautiful little bundle became the answer to Keziah’s prayers to have a sister. It is the day our family morphed into the four we are today. It is the day we said ‘yes’ to a deepening born of surrender, a willingness to be enlarged into a new understanding of what adoption, inclusion and belonging might look like.

In all the months leading up to that day, I had a vague sense that this was about something special. But it was a sense that was just out of sight; like when you become aware, before you can see them, that someone you love has entered the room. All I knew was that it felt weighty, it felt full of promise, it felt pregnant with meaning and profoundly godly.

Since that time, already a decade ago, I have moments when I stop to wonder at this miracle we are part of. I am a little leery of people who say, too easily it seems, that adoption is a way of expressing God in the world. It makes it somewhat 2-dimensional for me, as though we are like God and Manu is like crumpled humanity, rescued and redeemed by our benevolence. I would never put it that way. Together with her and her sister, we have all stepped into an experience of something that is other-worldly. No, it’s not that we live an extra-ordinary life - free of tantrums, messy bedrooms and overdue homework - rather that we live out something supernatural in the middle of our very ordinary lives.

What’s it all about, then?

Adoption is about inclusion
You know, I think somewhere deep inside each one of us we have the idea that we are alone. It might just be me, but I’ve interacted with enough people to guess that it’s most likely universal! For some people this manifests as a negative thing, like rejection or isolation, and for some as an apparently positive thing, like self-reliance or independence. It seems to me that this is a fundamental ‘bent-ness’ at the core of who we are.

The Spirit of God - the Spirit of Adoption - meets us in our aloneness and invites us into a place of inclusion. United with God - Father, Son and Spirit - we find ourselves no longer alone but included in a place of relationship, mutuality and love. In this place we find who we were meant to be, not alone but intimately and radically connected into the relational being that is God.

As I watch our adopted child live her life from a place of absolute assurance of her inclusion, it never fails to invite me to enter more deeply into the inclusion that is mine - ours - within the Godhead. We never go out without including her, we never eat without including her, we never celebrate without including her, we never calculate our finances without including her. Everything we have is hers, and all that she is has become part of us - whether she is healthy or sick, well-behaved or disobedient, happy or sad. We are only we because she is part of us.

And when the day comes when she faces the inevitable sadness that is part of adoption, the sorrow of what came before she became part of us, will that change the truth of her inclusion? No. She may feel alone, she may feel rejected, she may feel different, separate, apart; all that is a normal part of grieving for what could have been. And always, no matter how she feels, the truth of her life - a truth she will come to experience more fully after grappling with it - is that she is included, she is part of us.

What does that say about our place in God?

Adoption is about belonging.
I’ll never forget the day we sat in the courthouse in Simon’s Town, in front of the vast desk and the equally vast paunch of the presiding judge, as he told us, “It is as if she had been born to you.” This phrase is written onto Manu’s birth certificate and tattooed on my heart. She belongs to us, not in the sense of ownership but in the sense that we are her place in the world, we are inseparable, her place of primary attachment is with us.

When a person knows where they belong, they can be at rest. Here we are, a British couple raising two third-culture kids, both of whom were born in Cape Town and one of whom is adopted. We live in Spain, they both speak Spanish, as well as English with a British accent. What gives them the confidence to navigate their world, to be themselves in different cultures, to keep a sense of who they are and where they come from? It is because they know where they belong. 

Manu, my beautiful South African with a British passport who speaks Spanish like a native. She belongs where we are - where there are homemade rusks to dunk in her morning tea, with the BBC news playing in the background; where the books are of African folklore and Spanish tales; where her favourite South African singer features in the CD collection and where her dad reads Lord of the Rings aloud. She is not defined by the colour of her skin, or by the colour of ours. She is more than any place she has lived and any language she has spoken; she belongs.

And all of us were made for a place that whispers belonging to us in those sleepless night hours. In those moments of silence, standing in the wind on top of a hill, or bending over a newborn to watch her breathe. We were made for a place of wholeness and celebration, a place of abundance and fulfilment. It is our adoption as children of God that guarantees a place of belonging for us, it reminds us that our primary attachment is there.

The truth spoken over each one of us is this, ‘It is as if you had been born to God.’

Adoption is about being made of the same stuff.
Manu makes me laugh when she talks about inherited traits. Her knowledge of genetics is blissfully limited at this stage, leaving her free to talk about the way she shares such-and-such a personality trait with me, or such-and-such physical attribute with her dad. She talks about the ways she is similar to this cousin or that, and the way she and her sister both sleep with their arms lifted up over their heads as though they were waving.

Of course, I get that Manu doesn’t share my genes. But in other very real ways we are made of the same stuff. There’s a facial expression she has when she’s been asked to smile for a photo and she doesn’t want to; I swear it’s like looking in a mirror when I see her do that. There’s a turn of phrase that sounds way too grown up for her age, and I could easily imagine I were talking to her dad. There are stories she tells of memories she shares with her sister, and they both start laughing at the exact same point in the story because they know what is coming next.

When I am driving Manu to school, I reach my hand back to where she is sitting behind me and she connects her fingers with mine for a minute. It’s our way of saying, ‘I love you, I hope you have a good day.’ When she’s with Tim the two of them have entire conversations I barely understand, citing characters from Harry Potter or scenes from the latest football match they followed. 

We are who we are because of one another. Our lives are impossible to disentangle, our shared experiences like a mesh woven between us and holding us together. We imitate one another, we tell stories for which we all already know the ending because we were there. In so many ways, we are made of the same stuff.

In the same way, we are shot through with the stuff of God. We are in His story, we are becoming His truth, we are filled with His Spirit. When you reach out to that hurting person and enfold him in your arms, you look just like your Father. When you tell that story and get passionate about that particular point, I hear Him somehow. We are one, together with Him, and we are who we are because we are inter-permeated with who He is. But here’s the kicker: what if our being who we are affects Him too? He is who He is in some unfathomable way because of humanity. Jesus took on flesh, lived life as a blood-and-bones human, is seated at the right hand of the Father in His resurrected body, and the Godhead is forever changed by this reality.

I have a feeling that we’re not the only ones celebrating Sisters’ Day. Can you hear the angels singing?

Thursday, 17 May 2018

A Day in the Life

This is just a regular Wednesday and I thought it would be fun to invite you into my day, with its routines and rhythms. Thanks to Camille at Holistic Pursuit for the idea! 


My alarm goes off most days at 6am. More accurately, I invariably wake up before the sound of the alarm and turn it off so I don’t wake Tim, who prefers an extra 30 minutes under the duvet. I tiptoe to the bathroom and then creep upstairs (our house is upside-down, with the bedrooms below the living areas) closing Manu’s door on the way to be sure she stays asleep.

I make Earl Grey tea - the real deal with leaves in a pot, ‘cause it’s a ritual of mine - grab a banana and my journal and head to the den. I love these early morning moments of silence and peace, reading scripture and jotting down any thoughts that seem important to capture before they slip away. This time grounds me, as I remind myself of the macro backdrop to my small life and orientate my life to its grand design.

Shortly, I hear Tim moving around above me, making his way to his favourite spot on the veranda (where he sits each morning, whatever the weather) and gather my things. I change into my workout gear and find today’s program on my laptop, ever grateful for a healthy body and determined to keep it strong. My workout, complete with pep talks by my favourite Beachbody trainer, lasts about an hour and by that time Tim has finished his devotional time, unloaded the dishwasher and made fresh tea for the girls.

I love our morning routines and especially the treat of homemade rusks with tea, our abiding connection with life in South Africa, where both the girls were born. I will never tire of seeing their sleep-infused faces when they first wake up, even though they would both prefer to stay in bed than get up on school days! Manu instinctively reaches for her glasses and grabs a book, eager to have a few minutes with her latest novel before putting on her school uniform. Keziah groans and pulls the duvet over her head, like many teenagers!

Tim has breakfasted and is out the door before me, to be on time for the morning staff meeting at the centre where we are part of running the Leadership Development Course. I hear him yell goodbye and then the sound of the moped starting up; it’s a 20 minute trip to the centre along winding countryside roads and at this time of year - hay-fever notwithstanding - it is a lovely drive.

By 9am I have checked Keziah is set up for her school day at home and dropped off Manu. Most days the Leadership Course starts with a time of worship or prayer, but today we get together in small peer groups for an hour. I am with two fellow staff members and our ‘assignment’ is to spend time affirming one another. There’s often far too little verbal affirmation in our relationships, don’t you find? So this is a great way to start the day. One of my friends affirms my ability to ‘release’ Tim to take crazy, somewhat dangerous trips - she’s heard a few of his stories - and Tim and I laugh about this later. It honestly never occurred to me that I was ‘releasing’ him and I have a few of my own crazy stories she might be shocked to hear!

This week the focus of the teaching is on self leadership and, having discussed taking care of our health earlier in the week, today we are talking about issues of integrity in the areas of money, sex and power. These are topics that we tend to shy away from in church settings and, perhaps because we don’t easily talk about them, these are the very things that can destroy a person’s credibility in leadership. In any case, we sure do have some lively classroom discussion today! Punctuated by a coffee break, when people gather around the poolside area with cups of coffee and snacks, class runs up to 1.30pm. During class, in a free moment, I check in with Keziah by WhatsApp and write comments in the journals of the two course delegates assigned to me as one-on-ones.

Over a salad lunch on the patio, I meet with one of these two women. The weather is already warm here in southern Spain, although there is a cool wind blowing. Rachel (not her real name) is attending the course with her husband, two kids and mom-in-law who is minding the kids during class-time. Rachel and her hubby lead a Youth With A Mission centre in the United States and, between bites of salad and chickpeas, we talk about marriage in ministry. As always, these are the moments I love; when through a person’s individual story I can see the way God has been and continues to work to bring them to a place of wholeness and joy in Him. It is always amazing! Rachel has to rush off to feed her infant son, so we close with a prayer and say goodbye just as Tim jumps into the pool and splashes those sitting too close! Swimming is his daily refresh and recharge strategy, and if he can splash/refresh a few others, then all the better!

By 3pm we are starting again, once again in small groups. This time, I am with a few other married women as we meet to follow up more personally with the discussion about sexuality. As our group is already laughing and chatting, I look out of the window at the group of guys below and briefly feel bad for them - guys have a much harder time talking about this stuff in a real, personal way than women do, yet there is so much security in being able to share our vulnerabilities with trusted friends. As I suspected, Tim later tells me that much of the discussion related to practices and policies in YWAM centres, while our group of women were talking about … well, pretty much everything!

I head off in time to be home for Manu’s arrival home from school. Normally Tim and I alternate who takes on the parenting responsibilities, but today I am happy to leave a little early because I still have a 2-hour Skype meeting ahead of me. I take a moment to breath thankfulness for our new car, still a novelty only a week after we purchased it. It’s just so wonderful not to be listening out for odd engine noises!

Back home, Manu comes in looking exhausted. She refuses a snack and, after a few minutes of piano practice, lies down on the sofa to watch a little Netflix. Turns out she’s not too well and I give her a dose of Calpol, hoping she doesn’t have the virus I’ve just recovered from. I munch on some carrots and humus while I listen to a WhatsApp message from my Mum. She fills me in on some of the family news, as well as several comments about the weather and the state of the garden! My communication with friends and family has been revolutionised since the advent of WhatApp audio.

By 6pm Tim is home and he leaves again to do some grocery shopping while I set up on Skype for my meeting.  Just then, I hear the doorbell and race upstairs before I miss whoever it is; living in a house with so many stairs has its disadvantages! On the doorstep is my lovely Spanish teacher with her husband; they’ve been visiting a friend and have popped by to pick up a book I had borrowed. After a long day spent speaking English, my tongue and my brain stumble over the Spanish words and I feel frustrated at my lack of fluency. But Luisa is always friendly and encouraging, and we chat a little before they head home.

Returning to my bedroom where I know I’ll be relatively undisturbed, I check that I am still on time for my meeting. This is a monthly supervision call with my spiritual director/mentor, along with two other trainees. This is our second year of training together and we are each working with three individuals as spiritual directors. We discuss things that have come up in those direction times, taking it in turns to describe what we are learning, or questions we have. These are always rich times but today I find myself fading with 30 minutes still to go. I guess I am not quite back to full strength after 10 days of fighting this flu virus; my palor is noticed by Ardath and she lets me go early. 

Keziah is back from her weekly babysitting gig and Tim has unpacked the groceries and put salmon in the oven, but I’m too tired to sit at the table. We eat on the sofa and he updates me on the news from one of the regional teams he’s working with. The news is quite a relief to him and I can see him visibly relax after the worries of the last couple of days. Manu calls from the bathroom that she’s finished her shower and is going to bed. It doesn’t take long before the dogs are fed, the dishwasher loaded and kitchen clean, Keziah is ensconced in her room with a book and I’m heading for bed myself.

Getting into bed is always such a treat at the end of the day! I relish those moments with a book - one of several I have on the go at the same time - or chatting with Tim. He’s already choosing to sleep with the overhead fan on because I have yet to willingly give up the feather duvet in exchange for the light summer one. We don’t bother lowering the exterior blinds since it will still be dark when we wake up. Then I make sure the alarm is set on my phone and am off to the land of nod!

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Five Things I Learned from Practising Sabbath

“You don’t understand!” was her first reaction. “I have so much work to do, I can’t simply decide not to work for an entire day!” I bit my tongue, controlling my urge to say, “This is exactly why we need to do this!” My teen’s response had confirmed that the decision we had made was much-needed if our family was to find its equilibrium.

This was back in the New Year, as we communicated with our kids that we had decided that practising Sabbath was no longer an optional extra for us. I’d been fighting it for a while, trying it out for a week here and a week there, although never really being consistent. But it was no use, all the signs were there that we needed this. And badly.

When I was a kid, Sundays had a character all their own. In the mornings we went to church, we often had people come home with us for the kind of lunch that was a lengthier affair than weekdays allowed. For one thing, there was always pudding! Later in the afternoon, we would head out for a long walk, shaking ourselves out of the sleepiness brought on by a heavy meal and constant conversation.

Sabbath-keeping seems like an old-fashioned idea now, perhaps. Why would we choose to shut off our devices, resist a trip to the store, slow down and enter into a different rhythm? What’s the point, when all around us the world continues turning at the same fast spin as any other day? In many places, the stores are open on Sunday as normal; my phone pings routinely with emails and WhatsApp messages that keep my mind whirling with tasks and responsibilities; and there are invariably tasks left to finish from an over-stuffed week. Sunday rarely feels like a day of rest anymore.

For me, it all came down to what kind of life I want for myself and my family. I want us to feel connected, to have quality time where we truly listen to one another, play and celebrate. I want us to learn how to give our attention to something without being pulled in a dozen different directions. I want us to have a memory bank of hours spent around a meal, talking, laughing and enjoying one another. I want us to share an awareness of the God who is with us, holding our hands through the seasons of life and teaching us how to be whole people. I want us to feel connected to a community that shares the same longing and desire for a life well-lived.

Spending the weekend at the mall, ferrying our kids from one activity to another, dropping in to church to make small talk, then catching up on work … it just wasn’t enough for me anymore.

To make this work for us, we decided to make our Sabbath run from Friday evening to Saturday evening. There is nothing Jewish about this, for us, it’s simply what works the best. We end the week a little thinned out and we all look forward to putting the busyness aside for Friday’s family night. It means Saturday evening is still available for un-Sabbathy things, if that’s necessary, and helps avoid that locked-in feeling of rules-based living. Mostly, it means that church-going isn’t part of our Sabbath (feel free to ask me about this!).

Here’s what I’ve learned during these few months of Sabbath-keeping:
  1. My soul is desperate for quiet and for rest; it drinks in great draughts of tranquility if I give it half a chance. Nurturing my soul in this way helps me to live the rest of the week from a deeper place.
  2. My false-self is absolutely duped into believing that I can do everything I set my mind to and, when I run into the wall of my own limitations, I drive myself to prove that this is true. Practising Sabbath reminds me on a regular basis that I was never meant to be self-sufficient; it reminds me that I need a Saviour and that He is glad to oblige. Sabbath is one way of writing this message into the hearts of my kids without preaching at them.
  3. Procreation does not a family make. Family is built through our day-in, day-out routines and rhythms; through the tidal swell of family traditions that move in and out; through conversation and connection and lots of cuddles. Sabbath has become a key connection point in the life of our family, an opportunity to make room for one another, to stop and notice important happenings between us, and to listen well.
  4. Celebration is far more important than we think. In a world that values things about people like their status or their salary, celebration around meals is more than an added extra. It becomes an opportunity to give value to the things that truly matter. Our Sabbath meals are a celebration of belonging, community, commitment and inclusion.
  5. We are anchored in our lives, not because of the place we live or the job title we have, but because of the truths we practice and through which we participate in a global family, past, present and future. Keeping Sabbath grounds us in this reality.

You know, people talk about spiritual practices as being channels of grace to us. I think this means that, even when we don’t fully understand the significance of doing a certain thing, when we practice it regularly it sort of does its work in us in a way that is larger than the practice itself. Sabbath-keeping has been like that for us, it has done more in us than I thought it would as just a ‘day off.’

Even our teenager has come to love it. And, as any parent would testify, there’s something truly miraculous about that!

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Third Culture Parents

I remember explaining how things would be, ahead of time. Setting her expectations and painting a picture of the church hall, the teacher, the other kids. We’d already picked out her little outfit that she was so excited to wear. And, even as I held her hand and led her into the dance class for the first time, introducing her to the svelte dance teacher with the smiling eyes, I imagined her skipping around to tunes I had danced to when I was her age.

I’m used to that role, you know? Preparing my little one for new environments and staying by her side as she navigates everything for the first time. It’s a little disconcerting when I don’t know what’s going on, I’m not sure where things are, and I have no way to prepare her for what is ahead.

It’s happened a lot since we’ve lived in Spain. Every situation in which I would know what to expect were I in either of my other ‘home countries’ is done differently here. And, just as in every place, there are unspoken rules and norms that everyone assumes were downloaded to me at the same time as we loaded our GPS with updated European maps.

Of course, there’s the normal stuff of where to be when. No biggie, right? You can pretty much figure that out in the first few weeks in a place. Then there’s what you do and don’t do at certain times. Like, don’t call on anybody between 3 and 6 in the afternoon during the summer. It seems so obvious now. And always serve bread with a meal, and only make deposits at the bank on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and you can park how you like but cyclists always have right of way, even if they are riding three abreast.

Well, we’ll have been here five years in August and we’re bimbling along. We can ask for directions and actually understand them when they’re offered, and we can follow maybe 25% of the 375 WhatsApp messages that hit our message groups every day, from school, or other parents, or the running club, or the language class. I still hate speaking on the phone but, when I do, I don’t break out in a sweat. All that’s progress, I can tell you.

Yet, sometimes, as I approach a new situation, I still feel like a little child on the inside; slightly nonplussed with a frisson of anxiety. 

Yesterday, our youngest attended the birthday party of a school friend. We’d organised ahead of time that another mum would take our girls to the party, and we would collect them. The venue was changed about 30 minutes before the party because of the likelihood of rain. Neither venue was a place I knew, so I didn’t think it made that much difference. I spoke to Manu before she left, explaining which adult she was to talk to if she needed anything, that she was to stay with her friends at all times, you know the spiel. “I’m not a baby, Mum!” she reacted. Well, no, but you’re my baby, I thought.

As she went off confidently with her friend, chatting fluently in Spanish, I realised how often our roles are reversed. She feels completely comfortable while I am the one who needs my hand holding. Fetching her later, already stressed by navigating the so-not-obvious highway system of on- and off-ramps, and the busy commercial complex with no clear signs indicating the place I wanted, I struggled to find her. Everything inside the amusement centre appeared chaotic to me, apparently the kids were at the Go Karts, and where in the hell was that? And is a Go Kart a Go Kart in Spanish? And who do I ask, in this sea of kids and families, where this particular party group is located? Standing close to the hotdog stand, surrounded by a wall of noise, trying to contact other parents who might be here, for help, suddenly I see Manu.

She’s with her friends, she knows exactly where she’s supposed to be and what’s happening, she’s had fun and is full of stories. She leads me over to the birthday girl’s mum so we can say goodbye. And then I wonder, will it always be like this here? This is more her world than mine, she knows how things work, and she is the one taking me by the hand to steer me through what seems strange and anxiety-producing to me.

Parenting has its different seasons, for sure. As our kids get older they need us less, and we have to get used to that. They have a heap of good ideas and helpful advice, and we learn from them just as they learn from us. Raising a third culture kid takes this up a notch or ten. We are raising kids in cultures and language contexts which are second nature to them, and which still feel a bit strange to us. As parents, we will always be a step behind our kids in language fluency and cultural ease. 

I think I can embrace this as a good thing, you know? While she’ll always need her mum, our relationship is already enjoying the benefits of knowing we are both learners in this world. But I’ll be honest with you, I sure would like her to stop correcting my accent in public!