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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

How Living Cross-Culturally Made Me A Better Mom

I feel like it's important to be vulnerable - it allows us to grow, and hopefully help others in their growing process, too.  
So, here goes:

One of the hardest things about being a missionary is the itineration portion.  For us, that means going back to the States every few years, to travel to churches, telling them what we do, or what we have been doing, in the hopes that they will partner with us in prayer and financial support.

3 years ago when we were doing this, it was our first time "heading out".  Pastors didn't know us yet, we didn't have an established ministry in Slovenia we were going to - all we had was ourselves, and our testimony.
Every Sunday (and most Wednesdays) we met new people, told them about ourselves, and hoped they liked us.  That seems very basic, but it's true.  If people/churches/pastors like you, they are more likely to support you.  You have to be "on" the entire time.  You have to be chatty, engaging, and most importantly...
your children need to be well-behaved.

Can you imagine (totally hypothetically, of course), if a pastor took out two families with kids to lunch - the kids in one family are polite, talkative, cute and eat all their lunch.  The kids in the other family are tired, grumpy, shy and only want to eat goldfish.  Let's say this pastor now has to choose one family to financially support... you get the picture.

That is a LOT of pressure to put on small children - and their mom. Because it's usually mom who has to corral kids, encourage them to take one more bite, greet the pastor, and smile at all the strangers.  
And when it comes down to it, whether or not someone "connects" with you, makes or breaks your ability to get to the field - oof.

This causes stress.  HUGE amounts of stress.  You're constantly trying to make sure your poor little 2-year-old remembers to say thank you, doesn't hit the pastor's kid in the nursery, is polite and courteous, while also trying to protect them if they are feeling shy and timid.

When we got to Slovenia, it had been nearly 2 years of parenting in a fish bowl.  It left me tired, stressed and overwhelmed.
On top of that, we were dealing with a situation that was completely out of our control, that was causing great anxiety.  Added to all of that was a very angry 3-year-old, and potty training regression.  For the first couple months in Slovenia, Aidan was just very angry about all the change and newness.  He had always been very verbal, and was struggling with the fact that no one understood him.  I was on edge, worried about how we would be received, his inability to communicate, and his overall behavior.  He was doing okay at school, but his teachers said that every time he got upset, he would simply scream.  He wasn't being very nice to the kids at church, and I was frustrated on every level I could think of.  I was very impatient.  I was a mess.

There was an incident at church, where I came across as overly concerned with his behavior, to which someone said - "it's okay, they're just kids.  We all understand."  And that awakened a change in me.

Slovenes parent differently.  No parenting method is perfect, but I have adopted a few new habits that have been very healthy for our family, and I'd like to share them with you.

1. Kids are kids
No one that I've met here expects children to act any way, except how children behave - loud, goofy, energetic, etc.  No one is phased by crying in church, or a toddler having a "moment".  I've never seen a parent give another parent side-eye.  If two kids get into it, there is a general understanding that they will work it out.  There never seems to be ill-will between the parents.  It is understood that parents cannot control every little thing kids do. 

2. Let Them Do It For Themselves
We "got in trouble" with Aidan's preschool teachers, because we had been doing too many things for him.  I realized that it was my way of controlling a situation.  Making sure he always looked just so, or getting out of the house quickly.  Slovene parents are encouraged to take a step back, and let their children figure it out and be independent.  Oftentimes you'll see kids walking way out ahead of their parents.  Coming from the land of "hold my hand or else you never know what might happen", this was a huge shock - and a release.

3. "Village" Mentality
Everyone looks out for each other's kids.  

4. Some Things You Just Have To Let Go Of
I feel like Slovene parents in general are good at learning to choose their battles.  This was an important lesson for me.  I cannot get bogged down on every little thing - it is stealing my joy.

So.  I have slowly, over the past year come more to terms with the fact that some behavior isn't bad - it's just being a kid.  And that is okay.  We still address behavior that is disrespectful or dangerous of course, but try to be more understanding and lenient if it's just rowdy or noisy.  He adores his kindergarten! According to his teachers, he is now practically fluent in Slovene.  He has many friends, and hates missing a day.  He also loves church and his friends there.

I have been hearing and reading a lot about being a non-anxious presence.  Before, I was not that.  I was NOT teaching Aidan healthy coping skills by getting angry quickly, and then frustrated when he did the same.  I am SOOOO much more patient than I was!  It's a marked difference.  I am learning to let things go, not be such a perfectionist, and answer from a place of understanding and love.

Aidan can tell the difference, too.  When he makes a mess, knocks things over, or spills something, he looks at my face to see my reaction.  When he sees that I'm still calm, or hears me say, "that's okay, accidents happen", it immediately alleviates his stress too, and he's able to move forward. 

I am sorry for the times that that hasn't been my response.  I am thankful that he and I are in a much healthier place.  There is more joy in our home, tempers don't run high, and there is understanding.

With the birth of our daughter, thankfully this has only grown.  I'm not sure how, but somehow I've had more patience since she was born.  Maybe I'm learning that some things I thought were important weren't really that important after all.  I think I'm learning to let things go.

So, this is a very long post, with not much except a personal journey, but it's been an important one.
I am endlessly thankful for the reset button I found, and the child-friendly culture we live in.

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