Peering out of the airplane window at orange dirt, bright green fields and spirals of smoke rising up from the waking villages, I wiped away tears with my shirt sleeve. I was finally in Africa.
In my first weeks in Uganda, every sight and sound in its exotic newness was titillating and welcome. I was immediately captivated by the unusual food, danceable music, lyrical language, brightly colored clothing, funny store signs and friendly faces. My school-girl crush had become a reality and I was in love.
But within a few weeks into my six month stay I was crying less joyous tears on a daily basis. Alone, I felt misunderstood, annoyed, purposeless and overwhelmed by the amount of energy it took to try and adapt to a culture that was so different from my own. All that had once been quirky or fascinating was now aggravating. I was in culture shock.
Fast forward fifteen years and I now find myself adapting to another new culture: motherhood and staying home with teeny children. I was in a school setting as a student or teacher full-time for nearly thirty years, so quitting work after my first baby and not living in the vice of the education structure felt amazing–at first. Although I had a grueling labor with my first child (didn’t we all?), I was elated to have a son and felt like I was on a love drug in those hours and days after giving birth. The honeymoon stage of motherhood lasted a year or more for me.
It‘s been nearly four years since my last day of work as a teacher and the magic mommy tonic has worn off. What used to be quirky and darling—even funny—has now become frustrating. I find I am transported back to my Africa days of feeling misunderstood, annoyed, purposeless and overwhelmed. I am in the culture shock of motherhood. But perhaps some of the ways I learned to combat culture shock abroad can also apply to adapting to this culture of motherhood.
Be a Learner
The best advice I received before traveling abroad was to go into a new culture with the attitude of a learner. It’s easy as a mother to see our children as blank slates to be filled. We feel are all-knowing and our job is to teach our children how to be human beings.
Yesterday I sat in a lawn chair in the backyard watching my kids playing in the sprinkler for the first time this season. Slipping and laughing, they went through a range of emotions as they tried to fill toys with water only to be splashed by the moving water. As I watched, I envied their ability to play without a care or worry in the world. And I thought about how Jesus tells us to be like little children.
If we become students of our children, we will learn how to live the way Jesus wants us to live—loving, curious, emotional, dependent, silly, playful, trusting, excited about the little things, and without worry or shame. Children are much like the lilies of the field and the ravens of the air that Jesus spoke of in Luke 12—completely unaware of the cares of the world, but confident that their needs will be met. Instead of always looking for ways to change them, sometimes I need to become their student.
Sense of Humor
Another way to fight against culture shock is to maintain a sense of humor. I could cry about having to locate the two resident cockroaches in the outhouse I had to use everyday in Africa, or I could greet them by name before doing my business. Every day seemed to offer plenty of opportunities to either have a mental break down or break down laughing. Motherhood is much the same.
Last week I had one of those epic grocery store trips. The kids were in the shopping cart cars that I have a love-hate relationship with, “driving” along cutely until my almost two-year-old daughter bit my three-year old son. Screaming ensued, so I strapped my daughter in the front part of the cart so I could console my son. When I turned after putting him back in the toy car, cherry tomatoes were scattered all over the aisle and my daughter grinned with tomato seeds dripping down her chin. A sympathetic woman helped me pick them up and I hustled to the check-out to put an end to my misery, my daugher taking off her sandals and dropping them several times before getting there. I took my son out of the car part so the cashier could more easily get our groceries and he began howling again. I wanted to join him.
But then I caught the compassionate eye of a mom in the next aisle and instead I laughed. I feel like there is a level of disastrous events that eventually tips the scale to the ridiculous and truly the only thing to do is to acknowledge the hilarity and laugh.
Take a Break
Sometimes you just need to escape for a little while. I lived with a family in a village in Uganda, but I had several opportunities during my time there to get away with another American friend for the weekend. Getting out of the routine and just remembering who I was again was enough to help me get through to the next period of time. Similarly, as moms we don’t need to feel guilty about escaping for some time away. Whether it is a couple of hours at a coffee shop, a weekend away with girl friends or a day in a cabin for a personal retreat, we need time away from our children to center us and give us space to regroup and remember our identity apart from being a mom.
Being vs. doing
The last stages of culture shock involve finally adapting and gaining some semblance of independence in your new culture. In order to this, you need to develop relationships, learn the language and shed some aspects of your old culture in order to assimilate to your new culture. In motherhood, this can look like making new friends, really listening to our children, meeting their needs and accepting that sometimes “being” has more value than “doing” in this new culture.
In Uganda, my job in the slums was to file records and proofread documents. I felt useless, ignorant and angry that my qualifications were going unused. On rough days with my kids, it’s easy for me to focus on all the ways my skills and education are being wasted while I roll a hundred play dough snakes, read books, change diapers, sit through library story times and fold tiny clothes. I didn’t get my masters for this, I think.
But one of the greatest lessons I learned living abroad is the value of being over doing. I eventually developed strong friendships with Ugandans that made living there not only bearable, but meaningful. Most other cultures value relationships over tasks. In the culture of motherhood, presence trumps productivity. Sometimes my children need me to stop doing and just be with them.
I now look back on my time in Uganda with “yearbook eyes,” remembering the sights, sounds and friends that caused me to fall in love in the first place. I’m sure this period of time with little ones at home will be much the same. But in the meantime, I’m asking for Jesus to strengthen me and give me the ability to be a learner, laugh, know when to get away, and celebrate being over doing. If you’re a struggling mama, I pray the same for you today.
Can you relate? Please share in the comments! I’d love to hear your story.
Motherhood and the Big Picture
Linking up with Grace & Truth