I sat in my uncomfortably cold seat with puffy eyes from crying and a heavy heart from all the goodbyes as I counted down the hours to our new home. With every passing hour and with every announcement that the pilot made about our arrival, the reality was sinking in.
We did it; we were headed to South America!
Oh crap, what did we just do?
What were we thinking? These were just some of the thoughts that ran through my mind.
And in the blink of an eye, we had arrived to what we would now call home.
We watched the automatic doors of the airport open and close, giving us brief glimpses of the beautiful brown, tan, and white faces that belonged to the people we would soon call our friends. Those people were the reason we were here. I intently watched those automatic doors open and shut. Open and shut. With each opening my curiosity invited me to step out, but I wasn’t ready to set foot on the other side.
I was eager to settle in and make a home for us, yet at that moment I was stricken with fear of the unknown. What if we don’t like it, if my boys get malaria, if there’s a coup, if they get kidnapped, what if we . . . ? Suddenly the weight of the world was dumped on me.
We literally just said good bye to all of our friends and family that morning and bawled our eyes out as the plane departed. It had only been a few days before we watched complete strangers walk out of our house with our precious trinkets. We heard them talk about our cherished items in dollar signs as they tried to haggle us down on the $2 tag of my treasures. We had sold everything we owned, well almost everything. We had 6 pieces of luggage filled with the things we considered essentials, but even that was slowly stripped away from us at the check-out counter of the airline because our luggage was over 50 pounds.
We were emotionally and physically exhausted and we had yet to set foot in the country the Lord had opened doors for us to work at. We stood at the automatic doors of the airport with all 6 of our bags that represented every thing we owned. My husband looked over at me and asked if I was ready. I know he meant it literally, not figuratively. But my mind went racing with all sorts of questions which have yet to be answered, 7 years into our ministry.
Like a marathon runner who is exhausted but gets their second wind I looked at him and then at my tired boys and with all the courage I could muster, I smiled and exclaimed, “Yes, we are!” And then we did it. With all the hope, courage and faith in the world, we walked across the threshold.
Little did I know how NOT ready I was. Little did I know that the countless hours of training we received would not prepare us for the disappointment, exhaustion, loneliness and waging battle that the enemy had prepared for His people doing His work.
Don’t get me wrong. In the midst of the waging war and loneliness, God surrounded us with blessings. Though I felt lonely, I was not alone. Though we were exhausted emotionally and physically–God still gave us strength to go out and explore this breathtaking new country. People brought us meals. Others offered to take us to the grocery store. We were surrounded with kindness. Though I spoke Spanish the struggles of a new language and culture were in my mind equally the same.
This was not my culture. This was not my language. This was not my food. But this was our new home and we embraced it with excitement, hope and love. In the midst of the daze and exhaustion we went through the normal “honeymoon” period a lot of expats experience. And it was lovely.
But then reality set in, just like the clouds do over the mountains on a cold winter night. Blinding me and leaving me unable to see the truth that was right in front of me.
No matter how much those who have gone before us had warned me, I was not prepared for this.
They warned us about the dark experience of loneliness even when surrounded by wonderful people. I now warn you, you’ll never be prepared for it and you can’t really explain it until it happens to you.
It will happen when you least expect it. You’ve settled into your new home and you still haven’t felt the loneliness, so you think it’s all good. You’ve learned to ride public transportation, so you pat yourself on the back. Your kids made their first friend this week, so you think it’s skipped over you. You’ve been invited to gatherings and you feel like a rock star because you’ve got this whole social thing down. You’ve even had a full conversation with a local and you walked away feeling like you understood everything. You’re definitely rocking this whole living in another country thing.
But then it happens. You’re just getting back from a gathering where you laughed and met new people with hope of friendships to be formed and then–WHAM, it hits you.
It hit me good. It hit me so good, it knocked me to my knees and all I could do was curl up like a baby and weep.
It will look different for everyone, but for me it came in the form of what the enemy knew would wound me to the core. What he knew would debilitate me in an instant. That very thing that only a few short years ago made my heart leap with joy as I first locked eyes with my precious little one – motherhood.
The enemy hit me in my motherhood. Heck, who knew it could hurt so much to get hit their.
He knew that before we left we discussed how our marriage and our children are priority, before our jobs.
He knew that this was the way to get me to start questioning, and so I did.
Before we crossed the threshold of those automatic doors at the airport, my baby, soon to be toddler, was speaking in long sentences. Note, I said was. My preschooler was a social butterfly wanting to get to know everyone with whom he crossed paths.
But now my preschooler had become less and less social as the days went by. He came home with shirts soaked in his saliva and shredded because he had chewed them to pieces around the collar. He started peeing in the bed (he was potty trained prior). He started pooping in his pants (definitely out of the ordinary). My toddler stopped talking. He only said four words – mama, dada, ball and Paul (a student in my husband’s class).
Every day that went by, my prayers were filled with weeping. Sometimes internally, but some days I couldn’t keep it together enough. And so they rushed out like a dam that broke loose. That’s the thing about being the “new” missionary, everyone is watching and observing you. So, you feel the need to have it all together or at least act like you do.
People back home are watching you.
People in your new host country are observing your every move.
At that time we lived on campus, so I definitely felt all the eyes on us. Though true or not, I never had the feeling that we had complete privacy until I crawled into bed and closed the doors of our room. Our bedroom was tucked away in a corner of the building and a big wall right behind it.
Everyone wants to know if you’re the real deal or are you going to be the missionary who only makes it through the first year and then heads back home. I was definitely not ready to head back, though I was questioning if we had made a good choice for our family. Questioning my motherhood.
Was I a bad mom for having uprooted our kids from what they knew and everything they were familiar with?
Was I a bad mom because now my toddler wasn’t speaking?
Was I a bad mom for creating a physical chasm between their friends and family–leaving everything behind?
Was I a bad mom for this . . . or that . . . or . . . the questions filled my mind endlessly, haunting me as I watched my oldest suffer in the transition. As I watched my good little boy come home with a red mark in his notebook for bad behavior.
I was ridden with guilt. I now not only carried the weight that all mothers bear concerning their children, but in a matter of seconds when I set food on Ecuadorian soil I managed to dump a butt load of guilt to that weight.
On my own I wrestled with this regret. It was just me and God and I wore the boxing gloves while he wore his robe of mercy, grace and lovingkindness, ready to embrace me in it when I was done fighting. I couldn’t really share any of this with our new friends here. I had not known them long enough to sit before them naked in my motherhood. I wanted to share this struggle with my friends and family in the U.S. but the first time I tried I knew they didn’t quite understand. I knew I had their prayers on my side, but they just didn’t understand the weight I carried. Since they were still grieving the loss of our presence, it was even harder for them to understand. In their minds we could just come back.
I usually cried, wailed and prayed in the bathroom–this had become my new private place. Just as this darkness slowly crept into my heart, so did the peace of the Lord. One day as the hot water fell over my head and dripped down to my feet permeating every inch of cold in my body, so did the peace of the Lord.
That cold rainy day in the shower the Lord sang over me with songs of hope and joy. He reminded me that I was a good mom. He opened my eyes to see what my preschooler was experiencing here could have happened to him in the U.S. just the same. Change is inevitable no matter where you live. And so my son would experience this with each passing grade, with each new teacher and when his friends would move to another church or school. I went to bed that night with the hope and promise that God was with me. I didn’t have to mother alone–He is with me. Yes, I’m a missionary but even we need reminders of His faithfulness.
With each passing day the Lord gently reminded me in the midst of my pain that my kids were only processing and adjusting in the way they knew how. Time would heal us. Prayer would support us. He would give us strength beyond what our weary bodies could handle.
The opportunity I was giving my children to experience another country, language, poverty, food and Him at work–would only make them richer little people. (Seven years into it, I can definitely attest to that.)
One night I was putting my preschooler to bed and it took everything within me not to burst into uncontrollable weeping. He quietly whimpered and asked, “When are we going back home?” I looked at him and noticed that even in his whimpering, in his confusion and anxiety-ridden little self, he still had that sparkle in his eye. That sparkle that has always been able to put a smile on my face.
That night his sparkle whispered reminders of hope to me. And with confidence and tears I responded, “This is home, Buddy, this is home.”
(A couple of things: First, I use “I” mostly because this is my experience and I don’t wish to speak for anyone in my family. Secondly, for those of you reading this and are getting ready to go to the mission field my hope is not to scare you, but to give you hope and remind you that He is real in our pain. What I share above are only wee little details of what it’s like to get hit in your motherhood when on the mission field. It’s the stuff that I would not have written in my newsletters. It’s the stuff that I needed time to process in the midst of the transition in a new country. The beauty and blessings that have surrounded us while on the mission field far outweigh the pain I’ve experienced as a result of being in it. Thirdly, my kids were not in pain. I was. Like any mother, it hurts us to see our children struggle and somehow we always manage to carry the guilt of that. My kids were enjoying themselves even though they missed the familiar and had challenges with the language. They had forged sweet friendships with the nationals and with our missionary community within the first month of our arrival. Lastly (update 2/2019 Looking back now and reading this article after raising my kids in a country that’s not their passport country I can wholeheartedly tell you I am so glad I didn’t let this guilt and lonely feelings be my deciding factor of whether we should stay. We left this country after living here 9 years, with our hearts full. To this day we still feel an emptiness in our hearts that’s the shape of the beautiful community God blessed us with in Ecuador.)