It was time for our furlough. After a three year stint overseas, my husband and I were almost giddy with excitement as we dreamed and planned all the things we wanted to do in the States. We had made this trip across the ocean about a dozen times before, but this time we felt extra excited. We talked constantly to our boys, ages 4 and 6, trying to pass on our excitement. The airplane sounded pretty cool. The parks sounded intriguing. The relatives were faint memories to one and only pictures and skype memories to the younger. The food? It was hard to believe anything could really be that much better than fufu. But still, they were kids and had inherited the love of countries and travel from their parents (especially their dad), and were pretty excited about the adventure.

It was time to put stuff in suitcases. We were stopping in two different countries en-route to the USA, so we were trying to pack light. I was feeling pretty good about my accomplishments. I don’t naturally pack light. Then the stuff started getting shoved in my face. “Mom, can we take this?” “Please, mom, can I take this?” I looked at the little old matchbox cars. The broken truck. The tattered books. It almost took my breath away as it hit me hard. My boys were no longer babies who were ok wherever we went, as long as they could snuggle in my arms. They had deep feelings and sentiments about life. “Can I take my blanket and animals?” I looked into the pleading eyes of my son which were barely peaking out above his armload of stuffed animals and a grungy little blanket wadded up in his hand.

I looked at the suitcase which had neatly weighed in at 50 lb. I looked in my sons’ eyes again. I took a deep breath. It was time to stop and slow down. It was time to talk. It was time to try and feel life along with my 4 and 6 yr. old. It was time to make room in the suitcase for things that mattered.

When my boys were little we traveled a lot. From babyhood on, I looked for something that could be a little touch of familiarity to them no matter where they went to bed at night. Because I didn’t want it to be bulky, it ended up being one little blanket, a favorite little stuffed animal, and the same music track every night. They were real troopers and most times were ok to fall asleep in different places as long as those three things were in place.

But this was different. They sensed a bigger transition taking place and they were right. We talked a lot. I listened to their desires. In the end we settled for 10 of those favorite little match box cars and a promise that we would definitely find more in the States. The grungy blanket was absolutely going. Three each of their favorite stuffed animals certainly had a spot to live in the suitcase. The others were carefully placed in a spot to watch the house and await the boys’ return to Ghana. Not too many books went along because they listened to the fairy tale of a land that they were going to where you could go and get books to look at for free. You could go back again and again and there would always be different books to look at. But the bottle caps. This was the hard one. I really didn’t have room to lug two boxes of these old relics with us. Here in Ghana, soda comes in glass bottles with these metal lids that have to be popped off. Our boys had collected them for years. They played with them every day and came up with very creative bottle cap games. I was gonna miss them too. But no, they couldn’t go. “It’s only six months, guys. We are gonna come back. And I promise you that America has more toys than you could ever dream of.” They didn’t cry and seemed ok when the bottle caps were left on the shelf. “I think we got through that one,” I tried to comfort my heart. I had a twinge of doubt about whether I made the right decision.

I could never have dreamed how many conversations we would have about bottle caps in the next six months. To my youngest son, who sometimes found the busy, dazzling, hurried, socially-packed life on furlough a little overwhelming, those bottle caps waiting on the shelf in Ghana were a source of comfort. Almost daily he would come to me and say, “Mom. I miss Ghana. I can’t wait to go back to my bottle caps and Charcoal (the dog.)” I would hug him and assure him that those bottle caps couldn’t wait to see him either. My oldest son, however, thrived in all the social activities and seemed to totally fall in love with all the amazing adventures of the States. I started getting a little worried about whether he would be ok going back to our low-thrill- level, kinda mundane life overseas. But then I would tuck him to bed at night, and his sleepy voice would assure me of his priorities, “Mom, I can’t wait to go back to Ghana. To our bottle caps and ……”

Then furlough was over and packing started again. Whew! Big decisions. Long conversations, negotiating, and finally everyone happy about what was going and staying. Those blankets went back in the suitcase. The matchbox vehicles were deliberated over and carefully selected. It was good I let them choose. I would have chosen the new and shiny for them. They chose a number of beat up old faithfuls. They picked their favorite stuffed animals (most of the same ones that made the trip from Ghana with them) and the rest were put into hibernation after a fun story about how they were going to hibernate and wait for them to come back.

We had two keyed up guys bouncing off the walls those last couple days. Could you believe it?! We were actually on our way back to those bottle caps! And you couldn’t guess what they did first when we reached our home in Ghana?! Next year we make another big transition. I have a feeling packing and deciding what goes and stays isn’t going to get any easier. But I think if I take those bottle caps everything else can stay.

So moms, I would love your help. What are some tips for making transitions smoother for your kids (and mom!)? Here are just a couple of things that I feel like I have been learning and want to learn more about.

  • Never underestimate how deeply your child is feeling the change even when he (she) is very young. Kids are smarter than you think and figure out that things are happening. Don’t ignore them and their questions and requests. Don’t lightly brush them off and just try to quickly stop up their emotions and tears.
  • Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Again, little kids pick up more about life going on around them then you may think at times. They feel secure if you talk to them about what’s going on. Walk them through what is happening in your life as a family. Really. Even at one and two years of age when they can’t talk much, if you take time to speak to them in simple terms, they “get it” more then you might think. If nothing else, your voice is reassuring and you may have less falling apart and throwing fits when they find themselves in strange environments. Of course, you have to be wise. They should never be made to carry adult burdens, but they need to feel included in family changes and decisions.
  • Every individual has certain things that are sentimental to them to a greater or lesser degree. Respect each family member’s sentiments.
  • Make room in your suitcase for those things which mean a lot to your kids. Obviously, you can’t take everything, but make sure you have something that is just a touch of home and security wherever you go.
  • Relive your mobile life a lot by looking at pictures with your kids and talking about memories wherever you went. I found that printed pictures or albums worked a lot better for my kids then digital pictures (except hauling them around in suitcases). I didn’t do anything fancy, but they pull out the photo albums constantly. When we don’t happen to have the albums with us, we do digital, but they like the albums better. When living in Ghana, they pull out the furlough pictures a lot. In the States, they gravitated towards the pictures of their life overseas. It especially helps them to remember friends and family on either side of the ocean that they would likely forget otherwise. Laughing over memories of life while “at home”, while on furlough, while traveling, or whatever transition you went through as a family helps them to be thankful for the positive experiences they have as TCKs.

PS. Just to prove the point. My now 7 yr. old son found my open computer left on the dining room table when I had only half of this written, and was scanning what I had written. (Mom, it’s time to remember you have a young avid reader in your house! Be careful what you leave open on your laptop!) He came to the breakfast table with this one question. “Mom. When we move back to America, can we please take our bottle caps?"

Your turn, ladies! How have you helped your children through big transitions? What are the keys for security and a sense of the familiar in your family? Please share in the comments below! Also, if you missed Thursday's post, be sure to check in and join us for a practical discussion about packing clothes and toys for your children.

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