Today I saw my child's inner turmoil break through to the surface. We were at the doctor's office (which is always a stressful experience for this particular child), and the toy he was playing with fell apart. It was a little thing, easily fixable, but his eyes welled up with tears and it was all he could do not to cry. Quickly trying to recover, he resorted to his fallback defense when vulnerable - becoming prickly, uncommunicative, and uncooperative.
You see, we are right smack in the middle of the big, horrible, capital T: TRANSITION.
We are literally counting down to when we leave Papua New Guinea for furlough. Someone on the street sees me carrying empty boxes home from the store and asks how long we have left, and I can immediately answer her with "Four weeks and four days." Even though on one hand, life here continues as normal, with school and laundry and making dinner, furlough is constantly in our minds and in our conversation. I have a to-do list for myself this week that is kinda' stressing me out, and I can tell that I'm not the only one in my family dealing with stress.
Now imagine you are two, four or six years old. Mom and Dad keep talking about going "home" to America... except America isn't home to the kids. America is kind of like some surreal place where we sometimes go for weird extended vacations before getting back to normal life. Depending on which one of my three children you are trying to be right now, you either remember America fondly as a place where you get to do novel things and visit grandparents you like, or it may be a place you kind of remember, but not that well, and have mixed feelings about, or it could come as a complete surprise to you, since you were two months old the last time you were there.
OK, so mom and dad have bought plane tickets, and this America thing seems to be inevitable. But now mom is telling you that she has to start getting rid of collected art projects and toys that you've out-grown. And she's only going to let you take a very small number of toys with you... like only your top two stuffed animals! And the toys and books she doesn't sell or give away are going to be packed away in boxes and you won't see them again for a "long time." In fact, all of the personal belongings that make your house home are disappearing one by one into the attic storage room. Mom and Dad tell you that another family is going to live in your house and look after your pets. Another kid might sleep in your bed. And then a few friends from school leave on furlough or "finish" and are suddenly gone from your life, and you realize that soon you are going to be that person who is in class one day and gone the next.
So, Transition has started already, and it's a long process. It takes months on either side of a big change to fully adjust. In fact, right about the time we start feeling at home in the U.S. is when we're going to enter transition again and start preparing to come back to Papua New Guinea!
As parents, we know that our kids handle transition differently. Our oldest embraces change and swims along with the current just fine - at least most of the time. In Kindergarten one of his best friends left on furlough, and we knew that we would leave before that family returned. Our son just shrugged and said, "See you in third grade!" He didn't see a need for tears. I've seen him pick up friendships right were they left off when a friend returns after being gone for a season.
Our second is the complete opposite. His personality is much more introspective, and he keeps his true feelings closely guarded and puts on a tough outer shell. His default in a situation that makes him uncomfortable is to put on a scowl. After our easy experience with the oldest child, it came as a complete shock to us when we took our second son on furlough the first time, and saw him completely shut down when confronted with a busy first-world city. It took him weeks to get back to normal and to smile again. At least this time we know what we are going into, and the stress is already showing with increased moodiness and anxiety (like in the doctor's office this morning.)
And our third is a wild card - we have no idea to expect. At two years old it's going to be hard to decide if she's "just being two," or if it's the stress showing.
So, to come back to the title of my post, this is the reason why I may not care as much as you think I should if my kids act out. I'm not saying I don't care at all. In fact, it's because I care so much that I may not react they way you expect. This is an incredibly tough time to parent through. We are walking a fine line between wanting to show compassion and understanding to our kids, and yet at the same time wanting to stick to our normal parenting principles and expectations. How do you decide what each situation merits? When do you cut them some slack, and when do you lay down the law? Add to that the stress of knowing that we are going to inevitably be in lots of situations where we really hope our kids will make a good impression - situations that are going to be stressful for them. When we are invited to speak at a church, or to have dinner in the home of a friend or financial supporter, inside we will desperately be hoping that this won't be the time that our kids decide to fall apart. Brian and I will be dealing with transition stress too, which, funnily enough, doesn't translate into limitless patience and wisdom in every situation!!
I know that most of you reading this blog are people who are invested in our family and in the ministry that we do. You care about us, and so that's why I'm being honest. Maybe you are wondering how you can help. Here are a few suggestions:
1.) Don't expect our kids to love everything about America. It really isn't home to them in the way that it is home to Brian and I. Instead of asking them "Are you happy to be home?" ask them things like "What do you like about America?" and "What do you miss about Papua New Guinea?"
2.) Don't expect them to know or do the same things that "normal" American kids do. Last furlough eating out was very stressful for us because our kids would not eat any of the foods typically served on the kid's menu. They didn't like hot dogs or pizza or chicken nuggets! They also were completely clueless on how to act in large crowds. On the other hand, don't expect them to be weird. They have grown up in a very different environment, but at the same time they are still just regular kids in most ways.
3.) Be gracious when they make mistakes. They will make mistakes.
4.) Realize that there may be more behind their emotions than meets the eye.
5.) Try not to judge our parenting too harshly. There will be times when we choose not to force our kids to do something when we know they are struggling - like attending yet another new Sunday School class in a church full of people they have never met before. We will encourage our children to respond politely to strangers who talk to them, but we aren't going to reprimand them if they don't have a response or force them to hug someone they don't know.
6.) Get to know them! We will only be in the U.S. for ten months, but MKs are really good at making relationships quickly. Don't be afraid to become friends with them even if you know that they will soon be leaving again. Perhaps it will give them another reason to look forward to furlough the next time it rolls around.
We really are looking forward to spending some time in the States. We have some fun experiences to look forward to, and we (at least those of us old enough to remember you) are looking forward to seeing you all again. Just be forewarned that it may not all be smooth sailing. It's important to us that our kids learn how to deal with grief and loss in a healthy way, and that means we will let them express what they are feeling, and we will try to help them learn how to deal with those feelings appropriately. But please forgive us if it gets messy sometimes!