I sat in an uncomfortably cold seat with puffy eyes from crying and a heavy heart from all the goodbyes that tore open into my soul. We were now headed 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 at 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 faces 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. My mind was racing with worst-case scenarios.
What if we don’t like it? How am I supposed to cope if my boys get malaria? What if there’s a coup or if they get kidnapped? Suddenly the weight of the world was dumped on me.
We literally just said goodbye 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 to $2 on what I called 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. We stood at the automatic doors of the airport with all 6 of our bags, a baby and a toddler which represented everything we owned.
My husband looked over at me and asked, ” Are you ready?”
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!”
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. I had never been a long-term missionary, I had never visited this part of the country nor did I knew anything about Quito until last year. The truth is you’re never ever ready for the unknown.
The countless hours of training we received would not prepare us for the disappointment, exhaustion, loneliness and warring battle the enemy had for us.
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.
The toll that your mind, body and spirit experiences as you constantly have to think through everything you just knew how to do, say was immense. 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 typical “ex-pat honeymoon” period. 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 before me.
No matter how much those who have gone before us had warned me, I could never prepare for what lie ahead. They warned us about the dark experience of loneliness even when surrounded by wonderful people.
It happens when you least expect it. You settle into our new home and even met a few people so you think it’s all good. You’ve learned to ride public transportation, so you pat yourself on the back. Your kids make their first friend at school, 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. That’s what you call the “honeymoon ex-pat” stage.
But then it happens. You’re just getting back from a gathering where you laughed and met new people with the 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.
Before we left we discussed how our marriage and our children are a priority, before our jobs.
He knew that this was the way to get me to start questioning. Questioning, I did.
In the U.S. our 12 month baby, soon to be toddler, was speaking in sentences. We were flabbergasted at how quickly he picked up this new skill. Note, I said was.
In the U.S. our preschooler who was 4 years old was a social butterfly wanting to get to know everyone who crossed his path.
But now I worried over my preschooler who 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 regressed in potty training.
Now I held my toddler perplexed because he stopped talking. He went from short sentences to only using four words – mama, dada, ball and Paul (a student in my husband’s class).
Every day that went by, my prayers were filled with concern and weeping. Some days I couldn’t keep it together enough so I wept outloud. The tears rushed out widly like a dam that broke loose in the privacy of my cold tiled bathrrom floor.
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 it felt like we were being watched 24/7. 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 basement.
I get it, everyone wants to know if you’re the real deal or are you going to be the missionary who only makes it through a few short months. I was definitely not ready to head back.
But I still questioned if we had made a good choice for our family. Questioned my motherhood.
What kind of mom uproots their kids from what they know and love?
Was I a bad mom because now my toddler wasn’t speaking?
What kind of parents create a physical chasm between beloved friends and family?
Was I a bad mom for this or that? The questions filled my mind endlessly, haunting me as I watched my oldest suffer in the transition. As I watched my sweet boy come home every day with a red mark in his notebook for bad behavior.
I was ridden with guilt.
I now carried the weight that all mothers bear concerning their children and when I set foot on foreign soil I managed to dump a butt load of guilt to that heavy burden.
All alone I wrestled with this regret I couldn’t say it out loud to my husband for fear that he might agree.
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 they didn’t quite understand. I knew I had their prayers but they just couldn’t wrap their minds around 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 if it was so hard.
In the boxing ring, it was just me and God.
I wore the boxing gloves while he wore his robe of mercy, grace, and lovingkindness, ready to embrace me in it.
I usually cried, wailed and talked to God on the cold tiled bathroom floor–this had become my new private place. But just as this darkness slowly crept into my heart, so did the peace of the Lord. He was fighting for me when I couldn’t muster up the strength to do so.
One day as the hot water fell over my head permeating every inch of cold in my body, so did the peace of the Lord seep into the cold dark places of my heart.
That day in the shower the Lord sang over me with songs of hope and joy. He reminded me that He had not left me and 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.
You might be thinking that I should already know that stuff as a missionary but we also 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 and minds could handle.
This experience we were giving our children to experience another country, language, poverty, food and Him at work–would only make them more compassionate and accepting. (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.
His sparkle was a star in the darkness. So with confidence and tears I responded, “This is home. Buddy, this is home. We are home!”
Notes: 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 to remind you that “God is with us” in our pain and confusion. 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 whatever is happening at the moment. My kids did have moments of grieving and missed the familiar and had challenges with the language but that is all normal and to be expected. But they had forged sweet friendships with the nationals and with our missionary community within the first month of our arrival.
(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 have now left this country after living there 9 years in a little community that was not absent of challenges but we loved it dearly. To this day we still feel an emptiness in our hearts that’s in the shape of Ecuador.)