We recently were blessed to celebrate Christmas with all my family, no small task when there are fifteen of us who live in three different countries. I have two siblings and my parents in Ukraine, one brother and sister-in-law and their three adorable kids in Finland, and a brother and his fiancé in America. It had been two years since we’d all been together. It was a wonderful, chaotic, noisy, happy gathering with five kids under 10 running around (not to mention the adults, who are just as crazy sometimes!). Half of the family met our 7-month old, Titus, for the first time. It overjoyed me to watch our daughter, Nora, become friends with her cousins, something I’ve always hoped for in my family. One of my favorite memories of the visit was overhearing Nora, 3 years old, and her cousin, Tim, also 3, trying to communicate with each other. You see, his primary language is Swedish, and Nora’s default is to try to speak Ukrainian with anyone not speaking English. The result was a squealing, jumbled mess of three languages and a bit of gibberish completely foreign to any of us adults!
This comical, tri-lingual conversation highlights just one of the typical experiences of being a missionary kid. As I mentioned before, I’ve been both a missionary kid myself and now a wife and mom on the field. One of the great joys and incredible challenges of life these days is the transition of those roles, watching my kids experience the excitement and sacrifices of being a kid on the mission field.
In our family (and in many others), being a missionary kid means that you regularly hear three different languages, that your home is bilingual, and that you have to stumble through communication on the playground as you try to pick up new words. It means having your first passport photo taken at a month old. It means living your first year of life without ever seeing American soil, but being in three other countries during that same time. It means that as a 3-year old, you play “border crossing” as one of your pretend games and when you “cook,” you make borscht instead of chicken noodle soup.
Being a missionary kid means you naturally develop a sense of respect for culture, languages, and countries and a deep curiosity about the way other people live. You learn to consider that a cultural habit may be different from yours, but, hey, maybe it’s even better than yours. You grow up seeing that reaching out to help others should just be part of your everyday life and that family ministers together. It means that you learn from the earliest age that God is passionate for people all over the world and that you are called to be part of carrying that passion to people.
Being a missionary kid means lots of goodbyes. When it comes time to say goodbyes, we never know for sure how long it will be till the next time. Over the years on the mission field, I’ve learned the hard way to cherish the times I have with people, especially family, and not dread the goodbyes or worry about how long till the next visit.
This year, at the close of our family Christmas visit, I experienced a new challenge as I watched our growing kids learning to respond to these difficult goodbyes. It was the first time I’ve seen any of them cry when they left. My niece, Emily, is eight, old enough now to understand that we won’t see one another again for awhile. It broke my heart to see her tears, partially because I love her to death and want her to be happy, and partly because I see my Nora in the future and the challenges that lay ahead of her as a missionary kid.
As they left, I was flooded with memories of my own childhood. My own goodbyes. My own tears. I was twelve when we moved to Ukraine. I’m not gonna lie – it was hard, and I actually hated life for the first nine months. But that move changed me forever – taught me to walk with God on my own, gave me a passion for Him and for people, and fostered in me a deep appreciation for this big wide world we live in, full of so many cultures, languages and people.
Now, I’m the mom, the adult, with all the memories of a missionary kid. Being a missionary mom means that I love hearing my 3-year old tell me new Ukrainian words she’s learned and talk about countries she has visited. It means introducing our children firsthand to foods, customs, art, history and culture of many different nations. It means we pray that they are learning the importance of loving people with God’s love and actively serving others.
But being a missionary mom also means worrying that my kid will get seriously sick and end up in the hospital…after all, I remember when my sister had her appendix removed, and there was one dirty toilet for the entire post-op floor. I remember my parents’ concern about doctors sterilizing and re-using needles in the hospital where my brother was admitted for dehydration. Being a missionary mom means my heart aches at the thought of the many goodbyes ahead for my kids, the tears they will have to cry because of the decision my husband and I prayerfully made to become missionaries.
Being a missionary mom, just like being a missionary kid, has its own set of joys and challenges, but there are also so many experiences and emotions that are common to any mom, any kid. Just like any other loving parent, we are praying continually that our kids will grow up healthy, strong, kind, and intelligent. We pray that they come to know Christ as their Savior at a young age and then are ready to serve others, motivated by God’s love. We pray for wisdom and guidance as we raise them, ask for forgiveness when we mess up, and beg God to work out the best for their lives, in His sovereign knowledge. We worry about their well-being, do all that we can (in God’s strength) to bring them up in a godly home, and we choose to trust that God, in His grace and power, will protect them, guide them, keep them in Him.
In recent years, I’ve talked with a number of new missionary moms, who are concerned about the impact this life will have on their young children. Isn’t that what all of us moms worry about, no matter what our lifestyle or where we live – that our decisions might have a negative impact on the lives of our kids? It’s been my privilege to tell these missionary women that, yes, it will probably be really hard, but I can honestly say that I can’t thank God or my parents enough for giving me the rich childhood I had as a missionary kid.
But I have to practice what I preach every day – have to choose to trust God and not give in to fear or worry about my kids. Just like any other parent reading this, I stand on the belief that God loves my kids much more than I do, and if He called us to this life, then He called each of them, too. He has a plan and a purpose beyond what I can imagine or hope for them. I’m so thankful to God for the childhood He gave me, and I pray that as time goes by, each of my kids will also recognize and experience the blessings of walking in God’s will for their lives, first as missionary kids and then…who knows?