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.

Keep the questions coming, ladies!! And please don't be shy to share your experiences and thoughts in the comments. You don't have to be an expert - just share what you've done and why it worked (or didn't work) for you!

Question:

How do you all pack for a 3-year stay overseas? Do you pack 3 years worth of stuff for your kids?? How do you even predict what sizes they will be, etc? I would just love to hear how others do this. Any tips at all are welcome...

My Experience:

I don't have a lot of experience in this area, as I've only done it once. But I do remember well the hours I spent agonizing over each packing decision. I was a brand new mom with a three-month-old baby. I didn't even know what kind of things my baby would need in the next few months, let alone how to pack for the three-year-old he would be before our return to the States! It was completely overwhelming to me.

I did not pack clothing for the whole three years. I packed clothes up to size 18month and figured I could get the rest somehow. :-) Luckily for me, my firstborn was a little guy and wore those clothes until he was almost 2, so I had lots of time to have more sent over from the States and also shop for clothes in our local markets. My second son (who was much easier because I already had all the clothes I needed!) was wearing 18mo by the time he was 10 months old, so that would have been a different story if he'd been the first! In our situation, we were able to get some things from the States at least once a year, and we also had used clothing available very cheaply locally, so it wasn't a problem at all that I didn't bring 3-years'-worth of clothing. I also received some hand-me-downs from other missionary moms, which was a huge blessing!

What I wish I had done differently is plan ahead for toys, books, and educational activities. For some reason in all the other practical worries, toys just weren't even a blip on my radar screen. I guess I thought my boys could grow up happily playing with nothing but sticks and dirt? :-) I wish now that I had thought ahead to how to entertain my little ones as they grew. Obviously a bunch of expensive, battery-operated stuff probably won't be practical for moving overseas! But I do wish I'd brought some practical toys that could grow with my children and teach coordination, imagination, etc. Plus some good children's books, and a few puzzles and games!

I haven't reached the homeschooling stage yet, but that is the next hurdle for me. How do I plan homeschool curriculum for three whole years in advance? But maybe that's a topic for another post!

Let's hear from our readers! How did you know what to pack? What do you wish you'd brought - or are glad you did bring? Please share tips and advice!!

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I need your help! I am writing a post on planning for childbirth overseas, in response to a reader question. However, my only experience is giving birth in my host country. I would like the input of a reader who has traveled back to her home country or to a different, more-developed country to give birth. If you are willing to let me interview you for the article please send me an email!

Well, I'm a survivor. But a little traumatized, I must say.

That 11-hour plane ride with my 14-month old just about did me in - it was more stressful than the 5 months we spent in an African village with no washing machine or fridge. On the plane, she either nursed or screamed the entire time. After about 5 hours I was ready to fall apart and we had another 6 hours to go. At that point, the memory kind of turns into a blur. Time seemed to drag beyond anything I'd ever experienced. Then, when the plane finally lands, that's not the end either. There's customs, and immigration, and long lines, and it just was altogether miserable.

Now that we're getting ready to move back - and now that we have another little one - I've been giving this trip a lot of thought. I can tell it's on my husband's mind too. We'll look at each other and say, hopefully: "Don't you think this new baby is more laid-back? Don't you think she'll do better on the plane?" or: "Don't you think that our oldest has outgrown that stage?" and we assure each other that yes, oh yes! this time it will be SO different. Wishful thinking, anyone? Haha. We're optimists.

I do have a couple notes-to-self made though... and I really hope these things will actually help.

1. Rest. We are going to TRY to keep the last week or two before our departure pretty low-key. Last time, we packed in outings, visits, and a yellow fever shot for good measure, all within the last 5 days or so. No wonder she was a mess. If my babies can be well-rested as much as possible before we leave, things should go a little better.

2. Pack. I am going to be very intentional about what I have in my hand luggage. There are going to be some new small toys (Playmobil has the cutest little sets... my 3-year-old is going to LOVE the little mother-and-stroller set! I've had my eye on it for months already), some snacks, some clean outfits, some books. I am going to make a picture book of all the relatives. Crayons, paper, stickers. A little bit of everything. Except maybe paint. :-)

3. Prepare. We are already talking to our 3-year-old about this plane trip. She's pretty pumped about it. We're going to pretend, and play, and do whatever we can so she gets the idea before we ever board that flight. The idea being - we're going to SLEEP on this plane. :-)

4. Suck during take-off and landing. Pacifier, nurse, sippy, lollipop - whatever it takes to get that pressure off those little ears.

5. Relax. Ugh, this one is so much easier said than done. When you're up there at 10,000 feet, and your baby is yelling, there's only so much you can do. After that, it's either pull out your hair and join in the screaming, or just roll with it. I believe that your fellow passengers can be quite understanding, especially when they see that you're trying your best. And if they aren't understanding? Well, chances are you'll never see them again, right? Babies are amazingly good at mirroring the stress they feel in their parents. If we can stay relaxed... things would go better. Just remember - this too shall pass. It will.

6. Pray. This is a really practical prayer request you can give to people... I believe God cares about little things, too!

I am going to give it my best shot, and at the end of the day, we will get there and we will survive... and with a little bit of luck, in our right minds too. ;)

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What are your secrets for surviving a long plane ride with children? Any stories to share? Please comment below!