A letter from mommy to mommy: part I
Photo by Ava
I’m not yet a mom and I’m not yet a wife. I’m not yet even in a relationship, to be honest. So, what does this title have to do with me? Well, it doesn’t have anything to do with me presently. However, one day I hope to be a wife and a mother, and I think it is important to observe and learn from the older women around you. I have been looking at the missionary mommies on my team, observing the way they carry their titles of Christian, wife, mom and just a plain ‘ole’ human being. I see them fulfilling their role in ministry, checking up on team members and quickly taking charge and dismantling a potentially detrimental situation with their children, all with a high degree of poise and a wonderful smile. I observe them because I notice there is a unique grace needed to be a mom in a country that’s not your own. They work hard in the ‘seemingly’ background of mission life and are known as 'the wife of this leader’ to the wider public.
As I observed them, I wanted to know what it takes to be a missionary mom, a mom living cross-culturally or just a believing mother. I think it is important for single missionaries—and young ladies in general—to take note of what they have to say to help build a foundation for our future lives as missionary moms or moms who follow Jesus. To achieve this task, well, to some degree, I talked with three mothers, from three different countries, in three different stages in their lives.
Rachel – from South Korea, on the field for two years, married for eight years with children ages seven and five.
Beth – from Australia, on the field for eight years, married for 14 years with children ages 11, nine, six, four and two.
Carol – from the Netherlands, on the field for two years, married for four years with a 10-month-old.
How were you led to join missions?
Rachel: I was interested since I was 21 years old after taking a course on missions. At that moment I made the decision to serve among the unreached. When I got married, my husband also had a desire to work among the unreached and that’s how we ended up in South Asia.
Beth: Growing up I would read about missionaries and looking back I realise that in reading those there was a conviction in me that that work was the most important job you could do. Years later, and after marriage, my husband and I were working in ministry and through reading about past and present missionaries we started giving more to overseas missions. This passion for missions continued to grow and with one child and one on the way we ended up in South Asia two months after our plans to join the Doulos ship ended because the ship was no longer operating.
Carol: I grew up a missionary kid, so I knew what the needs on the mission field were. I was six years old when I started thinking about being a missionary one day. When we left the field, I was very angry with God and it was only when I was a teenager I had a very special experience with God and found hope again in Him. While doing some mission training I met my husband and five years later we got married. We both wanted to do missions among the unreached. I actually had this idea of being a single missionary doctor in the Congo and I ended up being married and a doctor in South Asia.
2. As a missionary mom, how do you see yourself living out the gospel in practical ways or contributing to the vision of missions?
Rachel: During everyday activities, I pray and look for opportunities to meet people and share God’s love whether they are Christians or not. At first, it was hard for me to be involved in ministry because I am very shy. Over time I saw ways I could help my husband in his ministry and God showed me how I can pray for our team’s ministry right at home. I started setting a time each week to specifically pray for the work God is doing around me. I don’t always stick to the schedule, but God is helping me along the way.
Beth: I guess firstly and soberly, how I love my husband and kids. How we are as a family in this context. How I respond to situations here like the water running out, electricity being off the whole day and how I love my neighbours or the beggars who come to us. I also try to be deliberate about speaking with salt and grace when doing my daily activities.
Carol: I think one way is that I die to self a lot more as a mom because life here is a lot more difficult and I think that glorifies God. Since having my baby, I can connect more with people here because they are family oriented. I have a different skin colour; I come from a different country and I speak a different language, so I hardly had any connection with the people here. Then I became a mom and it’s something they know. This makes it easy to start conversations. Also, right now I’m changing as a person on the inside so I hope in the future I can help change people through my changes. When my husband goes out for ministry, I support him at home and pray for him and the team a lot which is an important job. We also try having events for team members to help care for them. I’m a new mom now so it’s difficult to have team events at our home but we still try.
3. What’s a typical week in the life of a mom? Is there even such a thing as a typical week?
Rachel: A typical week for me is the usual tasks of washing clothes, cleaning the house, getting the kids ready for school, taking my youngest child to school and preparing all the meals.
Beth: I homeschool some of my kids, so I have more of a regular day than I used to. I have regular things to do every day but its more interesting to talk about what is not regular and the need to be flexible. Some irregular things that affect your typical week are like the food you want isn’t available, the electricity/internet/water is not working, suddenly there is no milk because the cow had a calf or was sold or there is a festival, so the road is blocked and you need to get out and walk 45 minutes extra to get home (glad we packed the stroller that time!).
Carol: I wish! I try to have a typical week. Since I have a toddler my life is actually way more disciplined because when he is sleeping it’s my time to do chores and have alone time. We used to go to bed later but now we go to bed early because we have to in order to function and work with my son’s schedule. We try to follow his lead and work around him. My husband does short-term ministry coordination and that interrupts our schedule because he sometimes works all day and leaves early in the morning or in the middle of the night to take people to the airport. We also swap responsibilities a lot depending on his schedule for that particular week.
4. What’s the biggest change you encountered from being a wife to being a wife and a mom?
Rachel: When I moved from being single to being a wife, my life honestly didn’t change a whole lot, except that I was now married. However, when I became a mom, that’s when everything changed totally. My husband’s and I’s focus changed so much and we needed to manage our life more around our children. Being a mom meant me having to share my 24 hours. It was really hard for me to share my time between my husband and my children. My time was no longer just my time.
Beth: I was a fairly inexperienced mum when I first came on the field. In my home country, it is easy to find out the general consensus of what should be done. Coming to the field the situations were different. If you shouldn’t get a drop of tap water in your mouth or you will be sick, then what do you bathe your baby in? If people stand in your path to stare at your babies, is it rude to go around them? Parenting doesn’t fall in the neat categories of that’s wrong or right, or even standard vs alternative. There is not only my strong natural inclination to my culture, the pressure from locals but also different opinions from my mixed nationality friends. I was also concerned about the health of my kids and had to learn to let go of some of the things I held onto. I still work hard to keep my kids healthy, but you have to work with what you have.
Carol: Before I was a mother I was still single in a sense because my husband I sometimes did things apart because we didn’t want to be the couple that was always glued together. Becoming a mom that’s now like my everything and I feel like I lost the ability to show the other things I can do because I am always busy taking care of my son. Being a wife you get more, but being a mother requires you to give more while getting. You feel restricted in some ways, like you want to talk to someone after a prayer meeting and encourage them, but you feel so tired and distracted. The biggest change right now is not getting enough sleep because the longest I’ve slept in the last 10 months was five hours straight. On the positive side though, before marriage, I had a feeling that I wanted to give myself, my life, to something. Now I can give all of myself to son in caring for him and feels really good. It’s special having this responsibility for another human being.
5. What’s your main struggle as a mom, especially being in a different country?
Rachel: Language is definitely my main struggle. Our team’s main language is English, and the local language is a different language, so I had to learn two languages in order to survive in the field. Many people told me I should learn English before going to the field because it’s the team’s language. I would always give two main excuses: that I was too old (38) and a mom, so I didn’t have the time. Now I see that I should have tried harder to learn and not given those excuses. Language was a big problem for me because there were many things—especially basic things—I couldn’t help my children with because I didn’t know the language well enough to solve the problem. Things like helping my kids make friends was hard because I didn’t know good English expressions to tell my child to say to someone if you want to be their friend. It sounds like a small thing, but for me, it was huge and frustrating that I couldn’t even do that. Being a mom makes learning a language a lot more difficult because you don’t have the time to focus solely on language.
Beth: What does it mean to live in, be part of and interact with a community where you are a foreigner? That was my biggest struggle. How do I interact in the local community wholeheartedly and still protect my family? How do I let my children experience life here while thinking about things like health, safety risks, set schedules etc. Personally, I struggle with making regular habitual quiet time with God. I felt guilty for a long time, but I realised that it doesn’t have to look the same and sometimes quiet is just not an adjective. How and when and how long changes with different seasons and that’s okay. I need to pursue time with God whether it’s group or individual worship or reading the scriptures with my kids. It all feeds my soul. There are always interruptions, changes, urgent or immediate things but I need this most important thing to be effective.
Carol: Loneliness is my biggest struggle because I don’t have another Dutch mom to talk to here and I’m always speaking in a second language. I didn’t have any experience with babies and then I had my son and came back to the field. I used to think every time he cried that he was dying. It was very stressful for me. You get advice on how to care for newborns but since I’m on an international team, the advice is all different and conflicting. In my country, they say: “never put a hat on a baby inside the house because it will get too hot.” I come here and it’s cold inside, but I always learnt to never put a hat on a baby inside. Then later you hear another mom on the team saying she always puts on a hat on her baby inside the house. Then the locals tell you to keep the hat on even though it’s hot. You never feel like you’re doing the right thing, so my solution was to go to “Google” which didn’t really help either. This makes you feel very lonely and anxious about everything.
6. Can you remember a very low point in your life as a mom? How did you overcome it?
Rachel: When I came to my host country, I thought I would be good at adjusting to a new environment, but I wasn’t, and I had to face many weaknesses inside myself. I was very frustrated with myself because I was slow in learning the language, felt like I didn’t have the ability to care for my kids as a mom and felt useless on the field because I was not involved in any of the main ministries. Through these frustrations, God showed me that I can sit with Him and He will breathe in me and give me grace. Those words really stopped me from being frustrated or stressed and to enjoy just being with God a lot. These low points were really good for me also because it showed me so many of my weaknesses and how being out of your comfort zone challenges you and makes you grow.
Beth: Actually the last three years have been pretty intense. Lots of friends and acquaintances leaving the country, a new baby, our family moved communities and my husband took on a greater leadership role. The hardest in this time was when we returned to the field and then later that year my son was born and I struggled with depression. It was an overwhelming, dark and scary time. The most intense time was for a number of months, but it really was for much longer than that and recovery took time. I remember feeling really horrible one evening and just crying out to Jesus. It was interesting because He didn’t take the feeling away immediately. Even though I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t feel I could trust my own thoughts and ideas, I clung to who Jesus is – His promises for the future and it felt like the only stable thing. Also, from the time I cried out it seemed I was able to better open up to others and start to receive the support and help I needed. That had been a struggle recognising and admitting my need while feeling the burden of other business.
Carol: While I was pregnant I was nauseated day and night for four months and stayed home all the time. At that time, I couldn’t do ministry and I had to stop language school and I felt completely useless. One day I was reading a book about people having picnics in the fresh air, while outside my door, people were burning plastic. I started wondering why I am here? I could have been living on a farm and felt so upset. Then I felt like God was telling me that I will be in a place like that one day because He is preparing the best house for me in heaven. This was a good lesson that I repeat to myself all the time because it gives hope that it’s all worth it. Another time was when my husband was away for ministry and my son was about four months old. My son wasn’t sleeping well because we had a mouse and other insects in our house that kept us awake and the dogs were constantly barking outside in the night. One night while I was preparing to put my son to bed I realised my neighbour had started an open sewer in the backyard and our whole house smelled like human waste. I couldn’t take it anymore, it was like the last straw for me. I took my son on my lap and while crying I started singing I have decided to follow Jesus and then I realised this is also the sacrifice we have to pay for following Jesus.
7. How do you manage the home when your husband is not around?
Rachel: My husband goes out to different districts for ministry and at first it was really hard for me. I was scared not having him around because I thought if something happens what will I do without him? I honestly didn’t know how to live without him on the field. Then I learnt over time that I can live without him and God strengthened me a lot. I also take the extra time I have when he is not at home to do some different nice things for me and the kids or spend more time with God. I learnt to enjoy my time alone even though I miss my husband.
Beth: As in how do I manage it differently? It depends on the season, like with kids ages or what else is going on and how long. Sometimes I have had to go into survival mode! Sometimes it is just hard, and you just have to keep on keeping on! But I usually find it helpful to plan in some fun things with the kids. Simple but special things like staying up with me, doing something special like buying a food we don’t usually eat or having a challenge of some sort (usually something to do with being kind and helpful). In our new area where we live, I have found it important to try and get out more as we are further away from conveniences and our support group. It can be quite an effort to get around here, (bad roads, pollution, vehicle trouble) but it helps our family atmosphere and my own mental health to do this.
Carol: I dread when he goes because I don’t get to catch up on sleep and I’m home alone. At first, I didn’t take care of myself and was very sloppy when he wasn’t home because I thought since I am alone I didn’t need to. Now I try to take care of myself more and follow a schedule I create for myself. We also try to text each other more when he is out, and I pray a lot because I feel more vulnerable. Another mom told me once that at these moments you find a new strength because it’s like you have an adrenaline rush that makes you do more with less sleep.
Come back next week for part two of this post!