Outside In: The Rhythms of Life

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Day follows night follows day. After winter comes the spring. These are the rhythms of life. Of these things we can be certain. In these things we find comfort.

I’m a big one for routines. I know that they’re not for everyone, and I know that there is much to be said for ‘going with the flow’. But I like routines. To me routines are like the rhythm of life, and I find reassurance in their certainty. Our kids like routine too – after all, we are the ones that conditioned them. There are some things that they know will always happen – whatever else may be going on, wherever we are, whoever is visiting us, a few certainties will pretty much always happen.

Routine brings them so much reassurance that when our eldest was little and we left her and her brother for a couple of days with her grandparents, she was worried that they wouldn’t know what to do when. We solved the problem by creating a simple timetable in pictures that both she and the grandparents would understand. She even adopted her own routines. Each night before we left the room, she would have us say a special sentence that would tell her that we were done: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, bye bye, love you, see you later, stop when I shut the door.” This became a useful tool for us but a bind for any babysitter, as they had to recite the sentence as well – especially at the point we started doing it in Arabic!

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Somewhat belatedly (it seemed the whole world read this shortly after it was published), I’m reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, a ‘murder mystery’ told by Christopher, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger Syndrome. Routine is something that is vital for him. Unable to fully comprehend the nuances of life, routine and habits mean that he can understand what is expected of him at any given time. But as soon as anything deviates from the normal pattern of life, he is unable to cope and he panics.

And this is the downside of routines. If you stick too rigidly to them, you are left unable to function outside of that framework. But sometimes, having a routine in place can give you a different kind of freedom. When our kids were little, people looked at the structure of our lives and considered it to be restrictive – but actually this rhythm gave some tangible freedoms, perhaps unseen. We could guarantee a few aspects of their behaviour meaning that we weren’t always governed by unpredictable variables. For example, we knew that they’d sleep if we put them to bed at the same times; we knew they wouldn’t need to snack if they knew that their mealtimes were guaranteed to happen. Going back to the novel, when Christopher’s world is turned upside down he is able to draw on some of his old routines and patterns to help him cope with new things that were happening around him.

This freedom within routine is what I think about with the rhythms of life. We need not fear the dark of night because we know that the sun will always rise in the morning. We need not despair about the bleakest of winters because spring will follow.

It seems to me that life in Cairo is very rhythmic. September brings with it newbies, arriving in the country for the first time. It is a time of new beginnings, new relationships, fresh starts. Autumn brings the promise of cool air after the oppression of summer heat, winter brings camels at the Christmas pageant! Spring brings beauty as flowers explode in the trees of Ma’adi, and the start of summer brings goodbyes and tears. This predictability helps us know where we are, helps us ground ourselves, and helps us have hope. Hellos follow goodbyes. Fresh air follows heat. The rhythms of life need not be strict schedules that tie us down and depress us, but something to rejoice in and feel liberated by.

Published Sept 2017 in the Maadi Messenger

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How to Care for your TCK

This was publised in the Maadi Messenger Sept 2017. It gives a little bit of an insight to what our kids experience growing up overseas and the ways that we’re trying to understand and support them.

Are you thinking what’s a TCK? Are you wondering if have one? If you’re a parent and you’re living overseas – you have at least one! And TCKs require some special care…

What is a TCK?

The term Third Culture Kid was first used in the 1950s to describe children who spend a significant period of their formative years outside of their parents’ culture. Ruth Useem and fellow researchers noticed that children raised under these conditions had distinct characteristics when it came to relationships, lifestyles, perspectives, and communication. Ruth E. Van Reken, whose ground-breaking book Third Culture KidsThe Experience of Growing Up Overseas written with Dave Pollock, says that a TCK:

builds a relationship to all the cultures [he or she participates in], while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid’s life experience…

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Some typical characteristics of a TCK

Mobile – used to having to move around

Flexible/adaptable – adjust to change quickly

Culture/language – bi/multi-lingual and sensitive to other cultures

Quick to relate – connect well with people of all ages, and especially with other TCKs

Broad world view – ‘global citizens’, tend to be quite observant

Rootlessness – where am I from?

Appearance and behaviour

A huge challenge for the TCK is how people perceive them. Think about your kids when they return home for the summer. They look just like their fellow patriates – but then they start running across flower beds, or riding bikes in the house, eating with their fingers, or using a second language. They have a liking for molokhia rather than beans on toast (it’s a British thing). They struggle to comprehend why their peers are in awe of the fact that they can see the pyramids from their bedroom window. The problem is the reverse overseas. They may have much in common with their local friends, acting, speaking, behaving in the same way – but they are always going to look like an outsider. My daughter is constantly frustrated by the fact that her school mates call her beautiful, tweak her cheeks, and say she’s cute. The difficulty for the TCK is that no matter where they are – they never fully fit in.

A different perspective

It is easy to think that we understand our TCKs because we are experiencing life overseas the same as they are. But because life overseas impacts the most influential years of their lives, they are not experiencing it in the same way as us.

Connection – they feel connected to their country of residence much more than we do. We always feel like visitors to the country, whereas they feel like residents. They are more likely to feel like visitors in their passport country – after all, they often only go there in the holidays. They are hidden immigrants – they look like others, but feel different.

Identity – our children’s identities are shaped by life overseas, whereas our identity is merely influenced by it. Because they are still developing, because they are still being moulded, their entire identity is impacted by their experiences. Their worldview is still being formed – and life overseas broadens that world view.

Choice – we chose to be here – our kids did not. On the other hand, no kids don’t choose much when they are still dependents. The key thing for TCK parents to remember is that when their children get older they will make choices different from the ones that we made when we were young. We have opened their eyes to the breadth of the world, and we can’t be surprise when they don’t choose to live a ‘normal’ life when they leave home.

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TCKs are made up of different cultures – a bit like a platypus. A platypus has fur like a mammal, but a bill like a duck. It lays eggs and is venomous, like a reptile, but uses electroreception like a fish.

Fears of a TCK

‘Where are you from?’ TCKs typically fear being asked this question because they don’t know how to answer it simply or comprehensively (especially if they have lived in several different countries). Some work out coping mechanisms for answering briefly, or avoiding the question all together. The downside of these responses is that it can result in a feeling of not being true to oneself.

Feeling alone – Because TCKs often feel alienated from their passport culture and don’t fully belong in their country of residence, they can feel isolated and alone. One of the benefits of research into TCKs is that they no longer need to feel that they are the ‘only one’ in this situation. There is plenty of literature now to help parents, families, schools, and peers understand them better. Indeed to help them understand themselves better. One of the hardest things for older generations of TCKS is that they hit their 30s and 40s and felt at a loss because they struggled with issues of identity, belonging, and commitment without being able to identify the cause.

Dealing with difficult questions – it is often hard for the TCK to deal with ridiculous questions from people who don’t understand. Do you ride a camel to school? Are you pleased to be ‘home’? Is it dangerous where you live? Even the question of “what is life like in…” is challenging, because most people aren’t interested in hearing anything longer than a couple of minutes-worth of an answer.

Supporting your TCK

Try to understand but know that you never will – for most parents of TCKs, we don’t know what it is to be one. We can read books, attend seminars and webinars, and read blogs, but we will never fully understand life from their perspective.

Acknowledge that it is hard – give credibility to their struggles by acknowledging that it isn’t easy. Don’t let them feel alone if they are struggling with some of the issues that we’ve mentioned

Communication and preparation – so much can be achieved by listening and explaining and preparing. Prepare well for periods in your passport country, plan ahead for adjustments back to your country of residence, make sure you grieve well during the ‘goodbyes’, and address the difficulties that come with periods of transition.

Inspire confidence – TCKs may feel self-conscious about their skin colour, the things that make them stand out, the strange experiences they’ve had in their childhood. We need to make them feel proud of these things, to remind them that they are beautiful, unique, and special.

Connect them with other TCKs – TCKs do not completely fit with the culture of their parents, or with the culture of their resident country – but they do fit with the culture of other TCKs. The opportunity to connect with other TCKs, both during their time overseas and when they return to their passport country is vitally important. TCKs bond quickly, understand each another, and can help one another establish a sense of belonging and identity.

Love them – are you familiar with the phrase ‘I love you to the moon’? Well we need to love our kids to Egypt, to America, to Thailand, to Kenya, to England…and back again.

You know you’re a TCK when…

You don’t have your driver’s licence at 18, but you’re on your 3rd passport.

You take your shoes off at the door whenever you go inside.

You can travel around the world and never need to stay in a hotel.

Your parents tell you off in a foreign language.

You slip in foreign words to your mother tongue without realising it.

You flew before you could walk.

You sort your friends by continent.

Your accent changes depending on who you talk to.

You have said too many goodbyes but it never gets easier.

You know that home isn’t a place – it’s people.

 

Some famous TCKs

Barak Obama

Freddie Mercury (from Queen)

Colin Firth

Richard Dawkins

Kim Jong Um

Cliff Richard

Uma Thurman

 

Helpful resources

Tanya Cross, Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Oversees in the 21st Century. Summertime Publishing, 2016.

Marilyn Gardner, Between Worlds – Essays on Culture and Belonging. Kindle Edition, 2015.

Marion Knell, Families on the Move. Monarch, 2001.

David C. Pollock, Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture KidsThe Experience of Growing Up Overseas. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2010.

https://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com

http://www.figt.org

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Outside In: Under Pressure

I’ve recently returned from a weekend away in the UK. This is not something that I do frequently, but it was a special occasion – my sister-in-law’s hen party. For those of you with no idea what I’m talking about, Americans call it a bachelorette party. Not only was the weekend an escape from my children and the label of ‘mother’, it was also an opportunity to spend time with women who were considerably younger than me. It is always eye-opening to have discussions with people who are coming at life from a different perspective than you.

Several discussions over the weekend ended up touching on the idea of needing to achieve and the concept of contentment. The general opinion was that today’s society does not encourage contentment, it continuously asks you ‘what next?’. One of the girls I was with is about to graduate from university. This is a key time in life when people pester you with the ‘what next?’ question. Her response is that she needs some time to reflect. She would like to continue with her studies, but she would like a year out to earn some money and to take stock. Her answer is often not received well and she feels the pressure to ‘get on in life’, to embark on her career, to ‘make something’ of herself. One of the other ladies has been in a teaching job for the last six years. She is happy in her job, likes her school, and clearly does a wonderful job of inspiring her students. But she too said that she felt the pressure from society to move on, to achieve more, to do something else.

Both of them cited the role of social media in this pressure.  The constant flow of pictures from those who are travelling, or doing something adventurous, or bearing children. Posts about people’s career developments, LinkedIn updates about people’s advancements in the workplace. All too easily this leaves us with a sense of inadequacy, a pressure to perform, and a need to make continual updates to our own online resumes.

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In our discussions, I assumed the role of wise sage, commiserating with them at this new world in which they were having to survive, reflecting on the fact that our grandparents were perfectly happy to remain in a job for life and dwell in a state of contentment. But for all my moralising I have returned home to my children and have already begun to give ear to the persistent voice of society asking me ‘what are you doing with your life?’ All too easily I’m happy to fall for the lie that I should be doing something more, that there should be more excitement, more adventure. Society seems to demand that we make an impact, that we achieve something noteworthy in our lifetime, that we do something for which we should be remembered.

One of the truths that I try to remember when I err towards devaluing my role, is that headstones rarely quote a person’s successes in life. People are usually commemorated on headstones in terms of their relationships – wife of…daughter of…mother of…

Bronnie Ware1, an Australian nurse working in palliative care began to take note of people’s regrets and noticed that many regretted the same things – and it wasn’t that they hadn’t made a difference in life, or wished they’d had more adventures. The top five responses were:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

The challenge, as ever, with these things is putting the theory into practise. I felt I knew how to encourage the two younger women on my weekend away, to inspire them to ignore the expectations of others and pursue a life of contentment. But when I try to apply that principle to my own life, I realise I am a hypocrite. I must continue to work hard on enjoying this season, enjoying being the mother of little ones, valuing each day that I spend in this fascinating country, counting my thousands of blessings, and resting in a sense of fulfilment and contentment. I need to resist the temptations to compare my life with that of others, to believe the snapshots on Instagram and Facebook, and rejoice in the uniqueness of my life, in this place, with my friends, and my family.

  1. The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware, Hay House, 2012.

Published July 2017 in the Maadi Messenger

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Blogging etiquette fail

It seems that I breached all blogging etiquette. Having grown a faithful following of people who were interested in our adventures, I went quiet. I hadn’t realised that people wanted to know the continuing story. I thought the fascination was all in the project…but it seems that many thought otherwise.

Our summer continued to be a great success. The van was everything that we’d hoped it to be – and more. It gave us the freedom to be flexible, it gave us a sense of identity and ‘home’, it became a place into which to escape (when the socialising got too much!), it released us from the endless packing and unpacking, and it gave my head a rest (mums, have you ever realised just how many brain cells you use up every time you leave the house packing everything you need for each child? When you carry everything you own everywhere you go, you are mercifully released from this task).

It was a place to enjoy food and drink:

(We particularly loved the fact that we could have our own brew at service stations – saving time and money. One could make the tea while the other did toilet trips with the kids.)

It was a place for fun:

It was a place to collapse with a good book:

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It was a place to enjoy the atmosphere:

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(We went to Sidmouth Folk Festival and I enjoyed cooking dinner in the van whilst the kids ran around on the grass and I listened to live music through the window – “Danny Boy” never sounded so sweet, or so fitting for our gypsy lifestyle!)

And it was AWESOME fun to drive!

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All in all, it was just awesome fun and solved many of the challenges that we’ve experienced in summers past.

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On the Wild Side

Last week we left the comfort of driveways for some proper campervan living. After staying with my best friend’s family and parents up North, we stayed on our first campsite outside Otley. It was so lovely to see the kids experiencing things that I enjoyed as a kid – to watch them running around the campsite with other kids, doing the washing up, buying fresh eggs in the morning. 


We then spent a few nights on a site that wasn’t quite so nice while we visited family in County Durham, and dealt with wind and rain and cold!


Today we met up with good friends in Tynemouth and had a great evening messing around on the beach and enjoying fish and chips. As it was getting late we decided to stay over here and found a car park that seemed happy for vans to stay. We have the company of a couple more. Though it seems that the local ‘cruising’ yoof could be joining us for a few hours! The thud of bass music could be lulling us to sleep!

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Practicing Hospitality 

We came back to Hitchin last week for my sister-in-law’s wedding. The kids had special roles to play: 


One of the wedding verses that we had at our wedding was Romans 12, which includes the instruction to practice hospitality. You’d think it wouldn’t be possible to host people in a campervan that’s crowded with 5, but we managed it. 

Last week Nana met us in Street and joined us for lunch. This weekend, on the morning after the wedding Grandma came knocking and was invited in for breakfast. Then half an hour later, Ben’s cousin and her daughter came over. We made tea for the visitors (though they had to bring their own cups) and the kids played in their bed pods for a good half hour, colouring and making cards. 

It was so lovely showing friends and relatives round the van and having people over. It was a reminder that the van is serving the purpose that we intended for it – it’s our home and the kids are loving the space and having people to share it with them. 

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Living the Dream

OK, so maybe 5 people in a van isn’t quite the dream…but we’re having fun. We’ve enjoyed the flexibility of mealtimes – we’ve had breakfast in Tesco’s car park, having just bought it, and lunch in the car park at Street. We’ve decided to stay over at friends’ houses having visited them that evening (we’re very thankful for hospitable and flexible friends), and we always have everything that we need with us – which, given the nature of British weather, is very useful. 

Bedtimes are becoming a bit of a challenge as Miriam wants to talk to the other kids rather than sleep, but the big kids have been opting to spend naptime in their pods. 


The pace has got a bit too much for Miriam at times, so we’re having a few chill days with Nana.

Asher and Ben are keeping a check on the engine.


Yesterday Ben got the water pump working and the gas connected. There’s still other bits and bobs to add and tinker with, but so far we’re enjoying the freedom, flexibility and familiarity of the van. 

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