Sunday, October 9, 2016

the mission of motherhood… all you need is love?

Back before I had a life overseas, I attended a missions conference during which the speaker stood on the stage and told us to anticipate three profound keys to making a difference in a person’s life, a region, and the world. His three points were, (1) Relationship, (2) Relationship, and (3) Relationship. When I joined the Peace Corps, we were forbidden from doing any “work” for three full months with our one and only job being to build relationships. Recently, I had a conversation with a local counterpart about how to remedy a sticky situation and over the course of our thirty-minute discussion, I heard the word relationship at least seven times.

Relationship, it seems, is crucial, not just because it makes us feel warm and fuzzy but because relational connection is essential to effecting change. That sing-song phrase – people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care – it’s annoyingly overused because it’s true. In the realm of community development, progress comes hard, and often, not at all, unless whole people are engaged, hearts are connected and friendships are born.

We spend time regularly taking our relational temperature within our community. And spoiler alert, it has nothing to do with dollars spent. We understand that how much we do for people is altogether separate from how well we connect with them. For this reason, we routinely ask for feedback on how well we are loving people. Recently, a friend told us that some of our habits are culturally awkward. “Stop having people over for dinner,” he said. “It’s American and it’s weird. Just go sit with them in the afternoons. Watch football. Shoot the breeze. Love your neighbors the way they love each other.” It’s awkward to be awkward, but we learn. We adjust. If we want to make a difference, this love thing is a non-negotiable. Sometimes I walk around and hum to myself, (especially if I’m hitting a brick wall in a particular area)… All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.

I’m thankful for the lessons community development has taught me. My pre-kid life gave me lots of practice in the realm of behavior change and connecting across a divide, which are PHD level skills in mommyhood. After all, we are charged with transforming tantrum throwers with no frontal lobe who can’t even wipe their own bottoms into productive members of society. No small task. I’ve noticed how the relational compass we’ve adopted for the village has also done a good work in guiding our home. I often gaze down at my kiddos while they sleep – all still and for once not talking, and as I pray over their delicate selves, my most constant request is that they would know how much I love them.

There is a common fear amongst ex-pat and missionary parents – we are neurotic about not screwing our kids up. We know too many TCK’s and MK’s who have gone off the deep end, and it’s terrifying. I have googled all the articles, read all the blogs, searching for answers, wondering what I need to do to assure that my children turn out globally-awesome and not wholly-dysfunctional. I’ve made it my duty to ask this question of every parent I know who has raised their children overseas. The data for this topic in my head is fathoms deep and all the answers basically say the same thing: kids need to know that they are loved. Who would have guessed?

It makes sense that loving my kids would look different than loving the lady next door, and thankfully, many wise people have contributed to fleshing out what this special brand of third-culture-love looks like. There are many ways to do this well, but a common theme that arises over and over focuses on this: making sure our kiddos know that they are more important than the work. They need the security to know that they are not second to the mission. They are not extra luggage. They are loved more than all the other things. They are not missionary kids they are Colvin kids. Family comes first because these precious short people matter.

The other day I was playing “phone” with Bronwyn. It’s a good chance to work on her conversational skills, and for me to quiz her on details. What’s your name? (Bronwyn Colvin Bupe) How old are you? (4) Where do you live? (Center Zambia) What are your parents names? (Bashi Winnie Jeremy Colvin and Bana Winnie Bethany Colvin) Who are your siblings? (Beauty, Michael, Timo and Leonie.) (Beauty, Michael and Timo are not her siblings, but I let it go because it’s too cute to argue with.) I held my breath a little when she answered my last question – a stretch for her, I knew. What do your parents do for a living? I asked, and waited while she thought. Her answer went like this:

“Well, you cook my supper… and read me all the books… and walk me to preschool… and… do whatever I ask you!”

My first two thoughts were, (1) remind me to never make her the key-note speaker at a Choshen fundraiser, and, (2) good grief, I sound whipped.

But in the same heartbeat I registered, she thinks my job is to meet her needs… I love that. Maybe it’s my uncompromising, attachment-parent self that is amplifying my ex-pat mom anxieties… but that my daughter identifies that my job is to be responsive is the highest compliment.

Truth is, team Jeremy and Bethany works its collective tush off to be productive human beings, using our gifts and talents for the good of humanity while at the same time raising little people in the knowledge and security that they are more important than all the good things we could ever do. For Bronwyn, that means all the physical affection and book time on the couch that her little soul can handle. For Leonie, it means on-demand nursing and a strict “if she cries bring her to me” policy. It means limited use of the words “I’m busy,” and if I truly am busy, it means communicating how soon my attention will be freed up. It will surely mean different things as they grow older, but it will always imply, “you are the most important thing in my world.”

I can consider it a gold star to hear that my kids don’t know how much “work” I do – not because I don’t work hard but because my hard work is clearly not in competition with my demonstration of love for them.

All you need is love? 

I'm sold.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

on weaning one who is not my own

When Bana Mukobe and Bana Jasper walked up to my house, I knew it was time to face the music. I had taken a break from pumping milk for Jasper during our recent trip to Lusaka and despite the fact that we had been home for almost a week, I still hadn’t resumed pumping and in my heart, I knew I was done. Jasper was now definitely old enough to manage without breastmilk, and his satisfying chub and walking and talking, smart little self proved that it was ok for him to wean.

the story of all my days for a long time. it was the greatest and most exhausting thing ever
When the ladies sat and asked me what my thoughts were, and I said it was up to them and they said it was up to me, I dropped my head to my knees and began to cry. “I don’t want to disappoint you,” I said, "but I think I’m just worn out and I don’t think I can pump any more." Bana Jasper (Jasper's mama) began to cry as well. Perhaps she was crying just because I was, or maybe it was because she still remembers the painful time when she too decided to wean. “You’ve done so much for him, she said.” Having gone back to school eight months ago, she knew that she had cut off his milk too soon but had done so anyway for the sake of continuing her education. For the next several minutes Jasper's mother and grandmother shared all of the ways they knew that her child had thrived because of the milk he had received.

I blubbered some things back and forth with the family about how I was thankful for them and eventually Leonie waddled out and we watched the two babes toddle around enough other in their effortlessly cute way. Looking at those two together I saw it as the closest I may ever get to “tandem” nursing. Though the one only ever received my milk from a cup – I still reveled at watching Jasper and Leonie together, knowing how I had helped grow both of them.

My slow leak of tears continued through the evening, night and next morning until I sat down and thought things through a bit better. For the love, its just breast milk, so WHY WAS I CRYING??? It was just that day after day, every 2-4 hours, the constancy and the literal draining of all my reserves for months on end had worn me thin and I was exhausted... but that didn't mean I wanted it to end. So I decided to write a letter to Jasper’s mother, fleshing out my tears for my own sake, (and maybe a bit for hers.)

I wrote, “Bana Jasper…”

I want to thank you again for coming to my house last night. I’m sorry I fell apart crying like that. I didn’t think it would be so emotional for me to stop pumping for Jasper, but it clearly is. Jasper will always be your son, but this process of providing milk for him has made me love him like one of my own. For the last eight months, I have thought about him as much as I’ve thought about my own baby. I would wake up each morning and start the process of scheduling milk time for both babies. I would pump for Jasper and then feed Leonie, head to preschool and come home early to pump more milk for Jasper before Leonie would need me again. I would steal away from meetings and send Leonie off with kids and pray that she would sleep longer all so I could fit in a few more pumping sessions. I changed my diet to increase my milk supply, and I worried if I didn’t produce what I felt was enough. Truly, I gave of my own body, my heart of hearts, to see both of these babies grow and develop properly. When I see Jasper now, fat and happy, I’m just so blessed. I can say that being able to share my milk with your son has been one of the greatest privileges of motherhood for me so far. What an incredible gift that God gives us as mothers to feed and nourish another human. And you, Bana Jasper, gave me the chance to do that for your child and I will forever be grateful to you for allowing me into your lives in this special way.
It’s true that it has been a long, hard, eight months. Nursing one baby and pumping for another has taken a lot of mental and physical energy, and I can’t deny that I really do need this break now. My tears fell last night because I knew I needed to stop providing extra milk… but it still made me sad to do so, as if I were weaning my own child. Sometimes the hard and tiring things in life are at the same time our biggest blessings and this has been so true of my nursing/pumping relationship with you and Jasper.
I will always hold this season close to my heart, and all I can say is thank you, thank you again and again for having given me this honor.   

I sent Bana Jasper my letter and dried those remaining tears and said much of the same thing to God as I had to my young friend. “Thanks for the privilege of being a woman and a mother and a milk maker. What a sweet, sweet gift." 

I may be given this gift again – in fact, I pray for it often. But in the mean time, I’ll continue to treasure these fearfully and wonderfully made moments I still have as I anticipate a new season to come; after all, there’s more than one way to nourish another human…

Saturday, July 16, 2016

orphan professors: how five kids have shaped my view of orphan care

We’ve talked to many people who have a passion for orphan care – their hearts blaze afire when they see the statistics of orphan children and read those scriptures telling us to serve. But one thing we’ve noticed is that even amongst the passionate ones, many people think of orphans almost exclusively in the context of the orphanage institutions that house and feed them.

We might have too, once upon a time. But outside of that institutional “box” are real humans – and five of these beautiful people in particular have dramatically shaped our view of orphan care. It would be my pleasure to introduce them to you now.

1. Meet Mulenga

Mulenga is a single orphan, his mother having passed away seven years ago. His father has struggled off and on to take care of Mulenga and his two other siblings, but extended family has banded together to make ends meet. One day Mulenga came home and told his dad that an NGO representative had pulled him out of class to take his picture. The father followed up on the action and discovered that this NGO was pulling orphans out of class to take their pictures for marketing purposes. They needed some “authentic orphans” to spice up their fundraising campaigns. Mulenga’s dad was furious. His rampage, a mixture of Bemba and English, roughly translated to “don’t exploit my kid and don’t patronize me.” I would feel hypocritical including a picture of Mulenga in my own write-up, except that we are not the typical fly-by-night NGO workers. Mulenga is one of our favorite people. Ever. We have dozens of pictures of him, not because we’ve sought to exploit his orphan status, but because he’s in our house every day and we clearly love him so much!

Mulenga’s lesson for us: Orphans and their families are worthy of dignity and respect. 

2. Meet Maggie

Maggie’s mother died of when she was just one year old. After the maternal death, the village wondered whether Maggie would be abandoned, assuming no one would want anything to do with the “illegitimate” child of a known prostitute. Immediately however, a grandmother, two aunts and a cousin stepped in to claim Maggie as their own. They came to us for help as she had lost considerable weight when her supply of breast milk was taken away. The family made sacrifices to care for this child, worrying extensively about her healthy and wellbeing. Their involvement in Maggie’s life made us take note; the western concept of family makes us often assume that children would be unwanted by anyone other than the bio parents. “Not my kid, not my problem.” – is more of how Westerners would think about iis a western ethic. But the tribal concept of family gives greater grace. Extended families swallow up children with the same duty and conviction as if they had birthed them themselves.

Maggie’s lesson for us: Extended families are ready and willing to care for orphans to prevent them from being institutionalized.

3. Meet Mwewa

Mwewa is a unique case. Both of his parents are technically alive, but his mother is absent due to mental illness and his father struggles both with alcohol and mental health, landing Mwewa firmly on the community’s vulnerable child list. Despite his crazy rough family life, Mwewa is one of the most relaxed, well-adjusted, fun loving kids. It actually makes no sense, and we have wondered why he’s not in a corner rocking himself. Our answer? He is constantly surrounded by his friends and their families. Mwewa sleeps in his father’s home, but is otherwise almost always found in the company of his pals – eating all meals with them, goofing off with them, playing a hearty game of soccer with them. The adults of the community look out for his needs: school uniforms and shoes and toiletries. (And yes, we are a big part of that.) On paper, everything says this kid belongs in an orphanage where he would receive “proper care”, but we can see that this is exactly where he needs to be.

Mwewa’s lesson for us: Kids thrive in a place where they feel they belong.

4. Meet Asa

Asa’s mother died while birthing her. The clinic staff was afraid that the child would be abandoned and die if there was no one to nurse her. The sister to the deceased mother came forward and announced that she could take the baby, at least for a while. She was still nursing her then 14 month old and thought she could “spare some milk” for the helpless infant. We met with the mother and asked her what she felt she needed to help the newborn thrive. Nutrition, soap and some baby socks were the items on her list. For the next year we took the family extra food, talked to the aunt about milk supply and when to wean her older biological child, and helped her see that with a bit of support, she could care for this child and honor her sister. That baby is now almost four and she is fat and happy and an integrated member of the family that took her in. Her aunt no longer needs our help and she is more than proud of her “daughter.” Some food, soap and socks were all it took to give her aunt the confidence to raise her and keep her from being institutionalized.

Asa’s lesson for us: Sometimes just getting a family over a hump is all that is needed.

5. Meet Matobwe

I had known Matobwe for years before I found out that both of her parents had passed away. She has always called Ireen “mommy” and as far as I knew, she was just one of Ireen’s biological children. Come to find out, Matobwe is actually Ireen’s youngest sister. Ireen was already a married woman when Matobwe was born, and when their mother died, Ireen took her in as her own. Matobwe grew for years never knowing anything different, until she was mature enough to find out that “Mommy” was really “sister” – but after a decade and a half of care, that difference seemed trivial. Ireen stayed mommy and probably always will. Safe and secure, this child has parents who love her, even if they are technically her siblings.

Matobwe’s lesson for us: An orphaned child absorbed into extended family rarely feels orphaned at all.

Dignity. Respect. Family. Belonging. Thanks kiddos. You’ve taught me well.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

what your missionaries really need when they come home

I’ve wanted to write a post like this for a long time, but it always felt weird. I’ve always thought about it right before a trip to the states, but I never wanted to post it then, because that seemed… I don’t know, bossy or annoying or demanding. But I’m thinking about the topic this week in particular because our partners, the Suells, are about to fly out for their first trip to the states. So I’m just going to borrow some inspiration from our friends’ upcoming US visit to share what I’ve always wanted to share about what missionaries really need when we come “home.”  

For your information, entertainment and revelation, I give you THE NEEDS (in no particular order):

Acknowledgement that home is now ambiguous
            After a time, we started calling Zambia home, and yet America is home too, and that can be confusing and weird and put our stomach in knots as we are both glad to be home and miss home and don’t want to leave home and can’t wait to go home all at the same time. Be patient. This is hard.

emoting the hard

Cultural latitude to be weird
            In the mean while, we’ve gotten too used to the fun(ny) Zam hand shake and awkwardly giggling and dancing at (in)appropriate times. These habits are hard to shake and so if we invade your personal bubble or forget that time is important to some people or don’t know what’s going on with Game of Thrones, forgive us. We will be henceforth be weird and hope you will love us anyway.

Time reserved for immediate family
            No one – even our most beloved, faithful, supporters – misses us as much as our families. Or, at the very least, Grandma and Grandpa miss their babies and once they have us in their arms, they never ever want to let us go. The schedule of a church-visiting trip can be quite demanding and while we want to see everyone, we need to reserve time for the mom and dad who raised us to be the missionaries we are today and without whose support, work on the field would be so very hard.

the last time they were together, that "baby" was  10 weeks old

            Despite all of the dreaming we do about chocolate chip cookies and chicken casserole and mmmm… just… all the delicious things… if you eat “special” (ie, rich, delicious, spoil me and I don’t care about the consequences food) three meals a day for weeks on end, it actually starts to sit pretty heavy. Too much of a good thing is still too much and sometimes a nice full bowl of ruffage is exactly what the body needs. So thank you for the sixteenth bowl of ice cream this week… we’ll get to that right after this heap of spinach.

Early bed times
            Whether it be jet lag or travel fatigue or talking to people all day every day, trips home are crazy exhausting. And with kids? Multiply that cranky-tired by about a thousand. We clearly want to laugh and talk late into the night, but please kick us out at 8pm and tell us to go sleep. Somewhere in the world it is 2am and our bodies hate us and our children are on the verge of one massive come-apart lest we put them to bed at a decent hour. Please and thank you.

more tired than a college student is apparently a thing

Opportunities to talk about work
            Since these trips to the states are largely about connecting with those supporting the ministry, we want to share absolutely everything that God is doing in this place. We want to share in large groups and small groups and up front and out back. Setting up these meetings and audiences can be more work thank climbing Kilimanjaro for lack of a personal secretary and the need to coordinate approximately 60 other people’s schedules. Be merciful. Schedule early and schedule often.

To talk about something other than work
            While we never actually tire of talking about our work (because it’s clearly awesome), we do like to know what’s going on in other people’s lives! What’s new in your family? WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON IN AMERICA! Mama needs her girl-friends and Dad needs man-time and after 748 consecutive days of being the fish in the fish bowl, its important to just let your hair down and fit in and hang out for a while… which is easier to do when you are not the center of attention in a presentation context. Games, movies, feeding the ducks… these things feed souls.

geese are scary, but ducks are the best

            Consider stepping off of a plane into another country with only that which fits in a suitcase. You don’t have a car… or a hair dryer… or really anything useful. It is a gift straight from heaven for individuals to loan out these items.

Marriage Counseling
            Life on the mission field is hard on marriages. It just is. Not all people are qualified to be actual marriage counselors, but those who are older and closer to the couple, please ask the question, “How are YOU TWO as a couple doing.” The strength of the marriage is vital to longevity on the field.

we tend to display our best selves professionally. this is not always the truth. 

Alone Time
            Jeremy and I were apart from our daughter for the first time ever when she was TWO AND A HALF. Bless Grandma’s heart for watching her so we could have our first real date in literally forever. As much fun as it is schlepping kids around to different cities and different churches and different homes… its not. Sometimes we need to get rid of our offspring so we can talk about something other than how much we need to get rid of them. If you are good with littles, bless your soul.

Show extra love/grace/kindness to the kids
            While little kids are extremely resilient, going “home” can be very stressful. Bronwyn had no experience with church nurseries and she had no indoor voice and she was used to spitting things on the ground. I got enough side-eye’s from strangers that I wanted to cry. Bless the angels who loved on my girl and gave her a little extra attention and took pictures of her for us and told her she was just beautiful and loveable and fine. Bless.

the aunties that came out of no where while we were holding microphones were in fact angels

            The third goal of any home visit, after visiting family and communicating the mission, is to raise financial support. This probably goes without saying, but if you want to lift a burden off of your missionaries’ shoulders, you’ll write them checks and set up those recurring paypal and give verbal promise of more to come. All missionaries know that finances and hearts go together – and so when God’s people come forth with the financial support, we are encouraged, knowing we’re taking your love with us as well.

Words of Affirmation
            When all is said and done, “Well done, good and faithful,” is the ultimate affirmation we all long to hear. If that sounds too end times Jesus-like, equally encouraging sentiments are, 

“You guys are doing a good job.” 
“We are proud of you.” 
“It’s our honor to be a part of this work.” 
“Keep it up.”  
“Thank you for your faithfulness to your call.” “
Bless you both.” 
"We pray for you every day.”

            Verbal affirmation is a gift from the Lord. Get all sappy and don’t hold back. We’ll treasure those words for the next 836 days.

Missionaries who are well cared for at home are more effective while on the field,  and I just have to say thank you to everyone who has helped sustain us and advance us to where we are today.

Missionaries: anything I've forgotten?