Moved Around, Ripped Out, Messed Up: Has This International Life Damaged My Children?

This year it hit me broadside.

Standing in my entryway, eagerly opening up holiday greeting cards from around the world, I held a family Christmas collage from a friend in my hands. There they were: the crowds of folks gathered for one child’s wedding; a smiling circle cheering another child’s academic achievement; lines of friends there for another child’s community concert. I skimmed the lines about neighbors and friends who rushed in when there was a crisis, and wiped my forehead, now pumping hot blood, astonished by my gut reaction.

Pain. Pain for my children.


I knew my friend was only sharing her normal, everyday life.  What I read wasn’t shimmering with the exceptional, not in her mind, I’m sure.  It was an obviously normal life to her, probably, a life spent in one spot with lifelong connections, familial solidarity and children held sturdy by that kind of  ballast.  Skimming, though, I saw strong, bold lines that plumb through layers and layers of years and years of rock solid support and shared common experience.

Then, as if someone pulled the plug on the parquet floor beneath me, that sensation hit. And I sank.


It’s there, in that sunken place, that I developed a T.I.C.K.

Or at least I developed the concept of one and made up the acronym for it.

T.I.C.K.? You’ve probably never heard of it, although maybe you’ve heard of a TCK, or a Third Culture Kid. That’s a child who’s spent the dominant portion of her upbringing in a culture/language/geography other than that of her parents.

TICK is something else, and may be a little more complicated than a TCK. A TICK is a Transient International Composite Kid.

That, ladies and gentlemen, would be my bundle.

Of joy.


Not only are my kids TCKs, (they’ve spent virtually all  their developmental years in a culture/language/geography other than their parents’ native one), but they’re TICKs, too, having spent their entire lives moving and moving. And moving again. And not merely from one side of a city to another. Nor from one side of a state nor side of one country to another.  They’ve moved from one side of the cultural spectrum to another: Hong Kong, Norway, two different locations in France, America, Germany, Singapore, and now Switzerland.

What does that kind of perpetual and far-flung transience mean for a child? For a teenager? For a young adult? It means multilingual proficiency (about which I’ve just written.)  It means adaptability, flexibility, courage, ability to make friends with your corner lamp post. It means resilience. It means, as many TICKs will tell you, an unusually tight bond as a family. (You’ve gone through quite a lot together). It can mean various positives like increased tolerance, motivation, independence. It can mean you know many things firsthand that others know only virtually.

Unquestionably, there’s a lot gained from traipsing through so much diversity and upheaval. But lately. . . I am tallying the costs. And they are painful to me.

What might those costs be?

Let me give you an idea by showcasing just one of our four, Dalton Haakon Bradford.


Dalton is now seventeen, a “Year 12” in his international bilingual school here on outskirts of Geneva, or, according to the US system, a high school junior.  In these 17 years, he’s attended a Norwegian preschool…


A French bilingual preschool…


An American international kindergarten, an American public 1st grade, a French bilingual primary school…

073A German international school…

088a Singapore-based American international school, and now the Swiss bilingual school from which he will graduate a year from now.

I’m no mathematician, but I’m adding up 8 different approaches to academic instruction, and 4 distinct classroom languages. What you can’t see in that tally are all the friends made and lost. All the homes adapted to and emptied. All the programs begun yet suddenly dropped. All the teachers who had to get to know this kid from ground up, who didn’t know his strength or quirks or particular needs. All the opportunities to audition or compete or enter, lost because, whooops, we can’t promise we’ll be here for that. All the essential secrets held under the coat like a vat of churning lava, because there is no gathered context out of which strangers can interpret him.

June 2007, last vacation where the kids were all together in Provence

June 2007, last vacation where the kids were all together in Provence

Those kinds of costs. Let’s let our TICK speak about them for himself.

So, Dalton Bradford: What, in your opinion, have been the costs of this nomadic, international life? 

1) I’ve forfeited familiarity and comfort. More times than I can count, I’ve been the only new kid (or one of the few) in my class, and that has sometimes meant the only one not quite yet speaking the language of instruction. Seems I’m always in the figuring-out phase, just getting my mind organized in a new culture, not to mention a whole new school system and student body. This means my ramp-up time to becoming efficient in a new school costs me academic and social ease.

Versailles, France.

Versailles, France.

2) I’ve had to say goodbye to dozens of friends. Over a dozen times.  This is just hard. It’s gotten easier to keep in touch via FB and Skype, but still virtual’s not the same.  They just aren’t here with me. This repeated separation makes it harder to invest in relationships. I always know either I or they will eventually be leaving. OR, I feel I have to invest in relationships super quickly, because I never know how much time I’ll have. In my current school where there’s only a 7% turnover in the student body from year to year, I’m one of the few who hasn’t been here for most of my education, even all 12 years. That’s danged hard to penetrate.

Croissy-sur Seine, France

Croissy-sur-Seine, France

3) It’s so hard to get academic traction. When you’re not certain how long you’re going to stay in a country, it’s hard to plan on your academic curriculum.  When you can’t plan, you can’t count on completing courses or taking them through their end with certain teachers, then you also can’t commit to being around the next year for certain activities. This was so hard when we moved from Singapore, because I’d just made real strides in the theater department, had a fabulous French instructor, was cruising in Mandarin, and then we suddenly left. I’d banked on being  heavily involved in theater, French and Mandarin the next year. There’s hardly a theater department where I am now. And now I’m the one who helps tutor Mandarin.

Cosima Schwimmbad, München, Deutschland

Cosima Schwimmbad, München, Deutschland

4) Sometimes others hold back from investing in a friendship with you because they know you’ll be leaving anyway. I’ve heard this in church and school, that others who are locals expect we’ll leave soon anyway, and so why get close? Because of this, they sometimes keep their distance.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, Slovenia

5) Sometimes I question my identity. Am I American? European? International?  Who am I? I don’t know the first  thing about American TV, football, baseball, even a lot of the daily slang. But I carry a US passport and English is my mother tongue.  Where do I fit in, and where can I count on being understood? Where will my life experiences be valued and not criticized or pigeonholed? Some people who’ve never lived internationally assume all sorts of things about this “luxurious”, “pampered”, “exotic” lifestyle, and they also question your patriotism. (Once, I had to explain to a kid that an expatriate was not an ex-patriot. Yeah, like that was cool.)

Berchtesgaden, Deutschland

Berchtesgaden, Deutschland

6) Unlike kids who grow up their whole lives in one place, I struggle to advance and establish myself in extra curricular activities. For example, coaches or instructors or music teachers need to have known you from the year before in order to put you on a team or cast you in the play or in the orchestra.  I’ve been the new kid so much, I get passed up and can’t compete with the ones who’ve established themselves with coaches and mentors over years.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

7) Depending on where you go to University, you might get slammed with major culture shock. I remember how disoriented Claire [my older sister] was her first year at university.  She had a great time eventually, but she talked about always feeling she was looking at the experience from the outside-in. There were attitudes and even language usage she did not “get” at all.  After a year, thanks to a great roommate and some key professors, she had a positive experience. I wonder what the adjustment will be like for me.

Nesøya, Norge

Nesøya, Norge

8) You miss on certain maturation experiences growing up like this. Because I don’t live in one place, I can’t apply for summer jobs in the place in the US where I usually vacation only three weeks per year, so I don’t learn about that kind of responsibility like punching a time card, taking orders, reporting to a boss, earning and saving money. I won’t have  a driver’s license until way after the normal US kid has his, so sometimes when I visit the US I feel less mature than all those kids who’ve been driving and holding down jobs since they were 16. Some even get cars when they’re 16! That’s completely unthinkable in my world. (Getting a license in Europe takes private schooling, loads of money, and buying a car is many times more expensive that doing so in the US.)

Maasai village, Tanzania (Dalton's 16th birthday)

Maasai village, Tanzania (Dalton’s 16th birthday)

Dancing through the night of his Sweet Sixteen, with the Maasai

Dancing with the Maasai through the night of his Sweet Sixteen

9) My life experiences – learning languages, working through serial major changes, gaining cultural fluency, whatever– don’t necessarily translate into high college entrance exam scores. And my schools grade much much harder than most public US schools do. The classes are literally like college classes, and getting an “A” is rare, even for top students. What I’ve spent a lot of energy managing has at times been a distraction from the basics of schooling. It takes a lot of work just figuring out your life again after moving to a new country – finding the right teachers, getting the right group of friends, I’ve done math in three different academic styles with their different approaches to graphing stuff, even – and when you slap on top of that the fact that you’re being schooled in a whole new language, it’s…Well it’s just so much more complicated and demanding.  But you can’t explain all that on the SAT.

Making friends, Maasai village, Tanzania

Making friends, Maasai village, Tanzania


Translator at juvenile detention center. Arusha, Tanzania

Translator at juvenile detention center. Arusha, Tanzania

10)My major loss is a secret to nearly everyone I know now.  When I was 11 years old I lost my oldest brother, Parker. I was there in the ICU when he took his last breath.  This huge part of who I am was unknown to the kids at the German school I walked into 2 weeks after my brother’s funeral. Ever since then, I’ve carried this loss with me, always among strangers. That is one of the hardest things in my life, and it hurts me every day in some way, even today, almost six years later.

Parker 9, Dalton 2, Claire 7

Parker 9, Dalton 2, Claire 7

Parker 15, Dalton 8, Luc 4, Claire 13

Parker 15, Dalton 8, Luc 4, Claire 13

It’s just so hard when the people all around you don’t know your story. I think sometimes about other kids who’ve lived in one place and who’ve lost favorite siblings, and what it must be like to just know that people around you know. They understand things about you that are the very core of who you are.  I’m so jealous of that. This thing that’s enormous for me is hidden from everyone in my surroundings. I hate that. An example: This year (another new school, right?), my English teacher announced a surprise writing assignment that had to do with death.  I totally choked. I froze and couldn’t even think straight.  I felt fuzzy and nauseated.  Normally, I’m a really strong writer – it’s my gift, many teachers say – but I went totally blank and cold.  I had to leave the room. Who can blame my teacher, though?

Brønnøya, Norge, June 2006

Brønnøya, Norge, June 2006

Like who can blame the biology teacher that first month Claire [my older sister] arrived at our new school in Germany? He held this big class-long debate on the ethical implications of sustaining life on a ventilator when a patient is in a deep coma. The debate went on and on, with students (who didn’t know Claire or her story) really getting into it. Didn’t Claire have to run out of the class, Mom, and throw up in the closest bathroom?

Yeah. Right. She did. You can say there are hard aspects.


Our two children still at home.

Our two children still at home.

It was February when I finally stored away my holiday greeting cards this year. I’d read through them a couple of times, mesmerized by the tokens of those distant, stable lifestyles my children will never know.  I took a breath. I put them away.  And just when that parquet entry floor began feeling a little sturdier beneath my feet, I discovered that what I’d thought were normal adolescent blips, were actually signs that my boys were having significant (read: what have we done moving our kids here?!) adjustment issues. These concerns shook our world so much, my entry parquet floor practically sprouted grooves.

I think I’ll have to write a sequel to Global Mom: A Memoir.

TICK Mom: A Confession


What else could you add to this list of costs of a TICK lifestyle?

What suggestions would you make to a TICK like Dalton?

What suggestions would you make to the parent of a TICK?

Do any of these costs surprise you? What do they reveal about what we know or don’t know about another’s life?

42 thoughts on “Moved Around, Ripped Out, Messed Up: Has This International Life Damaged My Children?

  1. Dear Melissa,
    Reading you in “Global Mom” has always been pleasant in the sense you write wonderfully well! When you spoke about Parker’s death in an older post, tears surge from my eyes and I could feel your spirituality and your faith pouring from your text. As I have read this post, I wasn’t shocked at what you were saying. No, I already knew it was one of the “down” of moving around (even if I never exeprienced it). I just wanted to be there and hold you while your world was spinning around you. Each life is different and sometimes we wonder: “if this had been different…” “If we have stayed there…” Dalton is a smart (and handsome) young men. He had struggled with all the moving around as he explained. But he will never be remorseful for these years of travels, new opportunities and life-changing moments. It had shaped who he is now and what he’s going to become will only be great. You have put so much love in raising your children, nurturing them with your personnality and your spirituality. I’m eager to read your next post about the TICK Mom and don’t be too harsh with yourself. Perfection is not for this lifetime.Only learnings and experiences. Wish you the best for this Summer.
    Kind regards, Eolia Disler

    • Eolia, Et je te remercie, mon amie, du fond du coeur. You are insightful, and I appreciate your loving encouragement. Life is complicated no matter where we live it, and expecting perfection is that worst thing we can do in the face of complicated realities, right? I do see the wisdom in focusing on all that is good and wonderful and promising in our children, and on the possibilities for growth and service wherever we are in the world. I’m going to refer often to your sweet message here, and i’ll refer my boys to it, too. It’s such a valuable thing for you to have given me.

  2. I have had an emotional “episode” at least once a week for the last ten years because of this very topic. Before my children were even born I decided that they will have a sense of community, that we will settle somewhere and stay. Earlier this year I was crippled by my rootlessness, when I needed community and had to borrow someone elses’ I decided that I wanted to finally pick a spot and stay so that when something like our trauma this year happens again I will be where I belong and not feel so vulnerable. Instead, here I am in the middle of another big move that will definitely be another temporary “home” and one of my children two years away from leaving the nest. She has no roots and will go off to university or on a mission and not know where “home” is going to be when she wants to return. I have often wondered if the trade off is worth it. My struggles with our nomadic life removed from family also come from the fact that I feel unsuited for this life. I am not brave and adventurous. I like quiet, I love cosy and I have spent the last eighteen years re-creating quiet and cosy over and over again so that my children (and me) could have a calm stability. But every time we move I have to do it all over again and it always takes me at least a year.

    That said, when many years ago we lived in New York City, Desmond and I realized that in some odd way things have been spoilt for us. You can’t live in such a place (and after that Paris) and then be content just settling somewhere homogenous. You can’t come face to face with so much culture and so much personality in the people around you and then just turn around blind to all else. It is an insatiable desire to experience it all and for me it is a strong desire that my children will know and love this planet and all the people in it, or at least have a real respect for other cultures and people. Can you give this to a child by staying put and just educating? Perhaps, but then you yourself must already have this awareness and love. I know that I needed this life we are living to become aware. I could not have given it to my children any other way, perhaps my children who are already aware or in the process of becoming so, could give it to their children without pulling up roots all the time, if they can learn to stay put.

    • Janina,

      This struck me forcefully:

      “Earlier this year I was crippled by my rootlessness, when I needed community and had to borrow someone elses’ I decided that I wanted to finally pick a spot and stay so that when something like our trauma this year happens again I will be where I belong and not feel so vulnerable.”

      I, too, know something of what trauma feels like without the enormous advantage of going through it with a known community. One has to ask herself what this measure of vulnerability gifts us. I hope that it helps one to feel reduced to embers so that a new kind of flame burns. I hope that.

      And then this drew a sigh:

      “But every time we move I have to do it all over again and it always takes me at least a year.”

      At least. Throw in a new language, and you’re lucky if you’re functional in a year. (How many times have I had to explain the workings of non-workings of my computer/car/dishwasher/child’s bowels, for instance, to a native specialist, and in a new tongue?) It has to be lived to be appreciated, I think 🙂

  3. Melissa, thank you and thank you, Dalton, for sharing the truth about TICK. My children are in similar situation and I worry a bit. But only a bit. I grew up in a completely monocultural environment and can’t confirm that it was a 100% healthy situation either. For 21 years I lived in the same apartment and all I dreamed about was breaking free through the “iron curtain”, and flying far far away, and never coming back. How sad is that?!
    The best way to learn about yourself is at a good distance away from all things familiar. What a growing experience. A rough and a painful one. But nothing feels better than accomplishing something despite all odds. Being uncomfortable is an essential element of progress. Your kids have got that stamina which will only help them catch a bigger wave in life.
    Something tells me that you don’t need any reassurance on this topic, you know the answer to this and I can’t wait to read it here. Thanks a lot for your blog! Much love and admiration! –Ulyana.

    • Ulyana, Love that you pipe in here. (And I am enjoying your Russian Mom blog. Such beauty and candor.)

      I hope you’re compiling a Ulyana Says It book. I’d include this:
      The best way to learn about yourself is at a good distance away from all things familiar.

      Solid Russian wisdom.

      And yes, my forthcoming post will describe how and why, even with these insecurities, I keep up with this nomadic and international lifestyle. More honesty ahead. . .


      thank you.

  4. Pingback: Moved Around, Ripped Out, Messed Up: Has This International Life Damaged My Children? | nsaymariameque

  5. We found many of the same things with our daughter from our moving around. It was hard trying to get her into programs because she wasn’t there when teams were picked and the kids picked had been there the year before and for years before that. Friends, other parents and teachers didn’t understand where she was or what had happened in her past.

    When we moved to Iowa, she lost her drivers license because their rules were so much stricter than Ohio. She was livid. Her teacher was an elderly man who had dealt with years of teenagers and their poor attitudes. He fast tracked her into the drivers ed program and gave her some leeway to work her anger out of her system. She turned her attitude around pretty quickly after she vented for a few weeks and went on to do well. I was so thankful that he worked with her to make her feel welcome and to make up the loss of her beloved drivers license. BTW – I was glad she went through drivers ed again. Her driving skills were much better for the program in Iowa.


    • Nancy-

      You’ve shown how moving geographically, even within one general culture, can pose challenges to children. I imagine your daughter is not only a great person now, but a fine driver, thanks to her moves.

      thanks for your comment–

  6. I don’t want to discount your experiences, but you’re not convincing me with your beautiful, intelligent, charismatic son charming us through photos and his extraordinary prose. You are most definitely a gifted writer, Dalton, and my poor 16 yo niece is suffering from hear palpitations after getting to know you through this post.

    Yes, I see your points. Most especially about Parker. But the “planted in one place” life is not as cozy as you might think. I have a post titled “lonely” in my blog drafts about the many, many kids I know who are surrounded by peers but feel desperately alone. One year I had nineteen Laurels in my class and all but two felt like they had no friends. My Stefan was always invited to parties and dances but didn’t make any true friends he could have a good conversation with until college. And the perfect grades and ACT scores? Fun, but I can also attest they don’t open all the doors you might think. In fact, many universities are probably more impressed by Dalton’s experiences rather than my kids’ very much white bread, suburbanite education. Now I’m afraid I sound whiny. Maybe I should just erase this paragraph? But just as the international life isn’t always glamorous, the domestic one isn’t always tranquil. Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding– your kids are AWESOME; you haven’t damaged them one bit.

    • Michelle,

      You’ve sealed it, dear friend! I’ll have you write Dalton’s college admissions recommendation letter. He, like all my children – like everyone’s children – are promising, resplendent human beings. An honor and privilege to accompany through this life. I owe my children my life, not the inverse.

      That said. . . charm, social fluidity and cultural acuity – and even a facility with a language or two – doesn’t garner institutional traction that can be measured and scored. And there is a profound loneliness that is haunting in so many lives of TICKs and their TICK parents.

      So although the following is encouraging, I’m not sure it holds true in today’s world:

      “In fact, many universities are probably more impressed by Dalton’s experiences rather than my kids’ very much white bread, suburbanite education.”

      Aside from quantifiables,though, there is the underlying rootlessness that manifests itself in ways that can even be clinically identified. From a good book: (

      “Rebecca Grappo, an educational consultant who specializes in the placement of these children, says there are three basic things all children need: belonging, recognition and connection. For TCKs, these basic needs are ripped away with each move. Powerless in the decision to relocate, their many losses are often not acknowledged even by their own parents, and the main problem is unspoken, unrecognized, shunted aside.

      It looks like depression, but it’s not. This is the face of TCK grief. ”

      The author continues:

      “The issue is that transition always involves loss, no matter how good the next phase will be. Loss always engenders grief and the greater you have loved a situation or place or people, the greater the grief.

      The layers of loss run deep: Friends, community, pets. Family, toys, language. Weather, food, culture. Loss of identity. Loss of a place of comfort, stability, a safe and predictable world. Home.

      These children are losing the worlds they love, over and over. . .Some mental health professionals call it trauma.”

      I did a long interview with Jane, (posting it soon on my Global Mom FB page),who is a friend here near Geneva. She has moved her family of six 14 times ( 7 US states in 7 years, then 7 widely different international locations after that), and Jane speaks about the deep pain of not being able to express these negative sides of her (and my) kind of life. Why? Because onlookers grow impatient, even critical. (Not what you are doing, Michelle, not at all, just so I am clear. I just want to preach a moment…Eh-hemm 🙂 As a result, the TICK (or TCK) grows silent about the costs. As you put so well, Michelle, (and I smiled when I read it), who wants to be labeled “whiny”?

      C’mon. A château down the street and this gal’s complaining?

      Hmm. What, ultimately, is of greater value, especially when there are real troubles? An old building across the wall, or an old friend across town?

      Love, as always-


  7. I really enjoyed reading your post and your pictures are great. I have to move my kids intentionally a lot because my husband is in the military. I tend to feel guilty each time we have to uproot and move away again. Each time I feel that guilt hit my stomach I think about how much they have seen and witnessed all over the world. My kids, like yours, are so cultured. They knew multiple languages at least enough to hold a conversation and have a lifestyle that consists of never-ending learning. And most of all, we are a family full of love that has so many opportunities and we;re so lucky. Not to mention I am a PRO at moving. I hire International shipping companies and label and organize like none other. I wouldn’t trade my life for the world, and I think my kids feel the same way.

    • Jess, And my children would say the same thing! (I’ve asked them, in fact, and they all agree.) They would have it no other way. This global nomadism has blessed them (as you say to well) in ways that are immeasurable and life-altering in positive ways, too. And boy, if I have to pack a house, I can do it with my eyes closed and in a weekend, if needed. (As I write in my book, my Life Review in heaven will be one still shot: a vast landcape of moving boxes.)

      All that said, the perpetual upheaval has come at a cost, we’re feeling it acutely in the form of academic instability, instability,teachers who might not have a deep investment in my child who’s again in transition, a pervasive loneliness.

      That word “lonely” emerges a lot in expatriate circles. I wonder if it does in the military, too..? I’d love your feedback.

      Thanks for stopping by-

  8. Your “major loss” Dalton is shared with you by those who matter most. Those who love, support, & encourage you. Those who know and appreciate you. Your family. Nomadic or otherwise-in this case your FB or virtual family. Above all by God and His Son who never leave you.

  9. two things: 1. ‘betty’ and i feel pretty much disconnected living in the same place for what seems a “long time” — and yet, i could (and have, probably never will publish) comment and collate and reminesce upon all the good friends, tight, close, like family, who’ve dropped off, gone on … and i’d venture that you have “more of a community” than MOST. 2. if only more kids, people, were TICKS. really, seriously, that is the sort of thing we, collectively need, to slow down the chaotic spiral to nowhere it seems that humankind, the planet, is headed.
    i suspect your progeny would have it no other way.

    • Betunada- You might every well be right. There is a community forming, including here, and my children have never lacked for friends. It’s continuity that lacks, meaning the long-view into who others in a place are and who we are to them. And I am nodding as I read your words: we need to slow down….

      And off I go, running…


  10. Hi, Melissa. I’m a friend of Michelle Lehnardt’s and found your blog and book through her praises (all well-deserved). My husband played basketball in France for 8 seasons on 5 different teams and our first two children were born there. We had both served missions in France and so we loved living and serving there. Between France and the places we’ve lived in the States, the total comes to 13 in our 15 years of marriage. I grew up in Texas and now we are “settled” in Utah. I feel like there are little pieces of my heart walking around all over the world. Maybe that’s one of the costs you are talking about. It’s hard to feel whole when you’ve left so much of yourself everywhere you’ve been. But like you, your children and all those who have commented here, I would never trade those seeming ‘breaks’ in my heart. Because my capacity to love and appreciate and understand has only grown each time. Kind of like the miracle of having more children. The love you have for the first is not divided when you have the second, third, fourth or fifth. It multiplies.

    The other point I would bring up is the host of benefits associated with the cost of no one knowing your story each time. Reading the tragic experiences your children had at new schools following Parker’s death brought me to tears. My husband’s 15 yr old brother was killed in a car accident on our wedding day. We went through 8 years of infertility before welcoming 5 miracle babies to our family in 6 years. In every new city/ward, we would face situations where knowledge of our past trials would have kept people from saying things that hurt us so badly. Kevin, my husband, has told me of so many times he felt like Dalton and Claire. If only people had known how many nights and days and months and years we had fasted, prayed, pleaded, and undergone so many invasive and horrible treatments for a baby, they would never have judged us to be materialistic globe-trotters who didn’t want to be tied down. The benefits always come in what we become through the costs. I became more open about my pain and trials and discovered how much I could help and lift others who were hurting. We had more missionary experiences than we could count as we explained our loss and our hope and knowledge of the Atonement to new friends and teammates in each town. I became slower to judge others, knowing they, too, must surely have had painful trials to bear. I looked more to God for my sense of belonging and self-worth than ever before. And at the same time, I became more proactive in creating and building the environment and relationships I so desperately need, wherever I am.

    Thank you so much for the great life you are living and sharing with so many. (Your post about going to camp avec les jeunes filles made me so homesick for France I could cry. In every branch and ward that was at least one of my callings :)). I’m sure you, and each one of your children, will continue to see great blessings at every turn.

    With love from a new fan :),
    Ps. Was the Gaston family in Paris when you were there?

    • Kit, Your experiences, ability to analyze them, and your facility to express it all in detail make this comment rich and helpful. Thank you for piping up with such intimate history.

      So you and your husband had been LDS missionaries, then got to return as civilians to France? Marvelous. That’s a rare and potentially welding opportunity, as I’ve experienced it in Austria and Germany, where my husband and I served and where we lived later. And living for so many years in France, as you express so well, also welded us to that place, that people. The Gastons are dear friends. Serge in particular has shared life-directing experiences with us, which emanate from Parker’s death. To use a word I’ve used above, we feel welded to him, too.

      I’ve come to learn so much through our family’s loss, I might never have enough years left in me to write it all to my satisfaction. One things’s central: there’s a trembling fragility at the heart of humankind, and such shuddering vulnerability should inspire greater mercy and awe in each of us. Would that it might do so in me.

      Love to you, and thanks for coming here, Kit!


  11. Dalton is a highly evolved young man. As a gifted writer he has the potential to shift belief systems and alter hearts and minds. I share several similarities with your son’s life. It has taken me two or three decades to heal from several traumatic life-altering experiences — but, here I am in my late forties, and happier and more fulfilled than I’ve ever been. This may be difficult to achieve at such a young age, but, Dalton, please take the long view… If you can figure out how to transmute your painful experiences, you can reach the top of whatever profession you choose to pursue. If you have faith in yourself and God… you’ll make it through and look back on these times as your greatest teacher. God bless you all. Michele

    • Michele: If you don’t mind, I’m going to pass this loving and insightful comment right on to my Dalton. He’s entering that last, crucial high school year, and is sometimes frozen with self-doubt. We do have a resolute faith in God and in his power to add upon our strengths, and we trust that every phase of life is, at best, a fleeting snap shot. We shouldn’t judge or condemn in the moment — particularly ourselves, right? We’re evolving, all of us, and with the “long view” you write of, fear, anxiety, and self-limiting labels are dissolved.

      Long view, then. Loooooooong view!

      And God’s blessings to you, too, Michele.

  12. Pingback: Moved Around, Ripped Out, Messed Up: Has This International Life Damaged My Children? « Human Chess

  13. I once applied for a government job that required listing all my addresses since age 18. I listed 25,ignoring a couple that were just a month or two! Before I was 18 we lived in ten other houses, plus I was in three while boarding at a mission base for high school.
    I was lucky, however, in that I had six years at the same MK school for 3rd-9th grades and three years of high school at the mission base, all US-based curriculum. My life was much more stable than your son’s, and my own children’s has been more stable than mine was,even though they lived four years in Costa Rica.
    My worst culture shock experience was the mission base. I was comfortable and competent in the city, but the base had different values (I had never ridden or repaired a motorcycle or hunted alligators), and the base missionaries were so much more American than the city ones. College was actually less stressful because I could be as anonymous as I liked and keep my ignorance to myself.
    The things that made my childhood great had to do with my family. We had the same mealtime rituals no matter where we lived (holding hands for prayer, waiting for everyone to be served and Mom to take the first bite, etc.); birthdays and Christmas were a big deal; Dad took us on frequent weekend drives up the mountains; our books moved from house to house with us. We loved Colombia, spoke good Spanish, enjoyed Colombian food, and had friends among the other missionaries and locals.
    The most helpful things in adjustment to the US were finding places to connect with people: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, church, international students, other TCKs. I took occasional vacations in Dallas where several of my high school classmates had settled near their mission’s training center, and flew back home to Colombia every year and a half. I also took courses that used my strengths: Latin American Studies, Spanish, English, anthropology, linguistics, intercultural communication.

    • Dear Roadkill Spatula:

      First: your name. I love it.

      Second: your life. I love it more.

      Third: your comment. I love it, too.

      There are elements of your account that are simply off-the-cuff yet they are so evocative. “The base had different values. . .I have never hunted alligators,” and “I could be as anonymous as I like and keep my ignorance to myself,” and your description of family mealtime rituals like holding hands in prayer and letting Mom take the first bite.

      And of course, your books “moved from house to house” with you. I hope your personal journals were among those books.

      I foresee all of my living children pursuing, much like you have, academic and professional trajectories growing out of this peripatetic, multicultural life. Claire is studying Humanities with an English emphasis, with a double minor in African Studies and French (which, after her current missionary service in Italy might dove tail with Italian), and Dalton talks earnestly about entering the foreign service. Luc is still figuring out life, as we all were at 13.

      Thank you for your input here. Depth and texture is what you’ve added.


  14. Uuuuugggghhhhhhh!!!!!! I am at a loss for words. I will think more about the travails of being a global Mom and try and sympathize a little. Sounds like a ptty cushy life to me. When I travel I always envy the expats a little. Jennifer Barton

    • Hi, Jennifer-

      Thanks for trying to be sympathetic. 🙂 Yes, I’m well aware of what the expatriate life sounds like for those who have never attempted it. Maybe the origins of the misleading narrative (and why this kind of life gets a bad rap) began with the expat communities that flooded Paris in the 20’s, and some lived opulently and hedonistically. (F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, etc.) Others, however (Langston Hughes comes to mind), lived in shared garrets and chopped onions in shabby restaurants to survive 🙂 I fear that people assume expat experiences (and so-called “expat packages”) are all pretty similar. In truth, they are as varied as one can imagine.

      We forget the community of expats living in places like Burkina Faso, Suriname, Uzbekistan, etc., and the majority that lives with no company (or government) sponsorship whatsoever, and do so their entire lives. Is that a glamorous life? It comes with super high personal costs, starting with the mental and financial.

      Most people, if they leave their native soil, manage to be tourists in foreign cultures, or live abroad for a few months at the most. I grew up doing this several times, and it’s a great adventure with its own demands. But such foreign experiences are utterly different from planting roots, entering local school systems, establishing a professional identity in that new language (again and again), integrating on a deep level and helping every family member to do so, and of course never knowing from one year to the next with any certainty where one will be.

      I think that what most people would appreciate is being at least partially understood. . .:-)

      • So true! Our first expat experience was in Sweden where my husband attended grad school. We had a small salary, lived in a teensy apartment, and lived very frugally. We had to move ourselves to and from Sweden. We integrated very well into the community, I learned Swedish and we lived as the Swedes do. I biked everywhere with all my kids. I had a very tight budget that I had to manage. But it was still absolutely lovely.

        Our stay in Israel was also pretty similar as we paid for most of it ourselves. We had to budget carefully, which meant that we weren’t able to sightsee as much as I wished. We were also living among the locals. I didn’t have time to learn the language, but still didn’t feel apart from the culture or people.

        Living in Saudi Arabia was completely different. It is already an extremely difficult society to enter as a western outsider. I decided at the outset that because time was definitely an issue, we’d enjoy what it had to offer, but not worry too much about integration. (I know that sounds bad. . . ) We did have an extremely generous expat package where we were paid very well, our housing, car, school, and insurance were all provided. We used the time to save like crazy, which has been a great blessing. I didn’t learn the language, but I did do as many cultural activities as possible, as well as tried to meet locals to the best of my ability.

      • Tiffany: yup, yup, yup. I’ve done the student on a shoestring budget expat life. And then the first corporate job expat life (in one of the most expensive cities on the planet, Oslo), where, in the course of five years, we ate in a restaurant, hmm, tops 6 times total and went to maybe 3 movies, and scrimped and saved. And we have also experienced other settings, including those unusual two years of the softer, service-oriented Asian expatriate life. So different from what we were used to.

        I have studied in depth the many factors weighing in on “desirable” and “less desirable” expatriate posting (for military, foreign service and corporate families), and am not surprised to hear that Saudi was tough. Financially there might be benefits, but my research says that weather (so much time spent indoors with electronics) and a lack of a sense of community (as you say, integrations is doubly tough) lead to particularly complicated challenges with children.

        Og jeg er så glad å høre at du har laert deg Svenska! Det er jo jetta bra!

  15. Great post; thanks so much for sharing your and your son’s perspectives. I’m also an American expat living in Geneva (howdy neighbor!). Regarding kids, I’m deeply interested in experiences like yours because my husband and I have “international” careers and we’re in the stage of planning when and where to have kids, and what kind of upbringing we’d want for them. We like the idea of enabling them to experience different cultures, but the challenges you mentioned REALLY touched on the apprehensions I have about that. I’ve also had a painful loss — that of my father when I was 14 — so I relate to the discomfort of others being unaware and me having to inform / remind them when it comes up. I long for roots, and the loneliness of being far away and disconnected from family and older friends can be tough. It’s a trade-off we have to be conscious of in order to appreciate each option’s benefits and challenges. Anyway, good on you for having this honest discussion. I’m checking out your book on Amazon now!

    • Veggie! Smiling to find a new neighbor. And Howdy backatcha! My experience tells me that the costs of such a lifestyle you’re describing – moving not once, but serially, and internationally – are high, but in the end well worth it. If you possess the skill set (flexibility, deeply anchored marriage, fiery curiosity, and a willingness to be stripped of your mother tongue to learn languages), then you are well on your way. When we started this trajectory 20+ yrs ago, we did so without as much as email or long distance phone calls. Now, with FB, Skype, Vonage, and who knows, soon there might be teleporting, the “displacement” doesn’t feel so acute from friends and family left several time zones away. What remains, however, and I feel it every day, is the sense of not having roots, not being enveloped in one community that knows me and is invested in my and my children’s welfare. My church community helps enormously in that respect, but I realize not everyone has that advantage.

      I hope you enjoy my book. It takes you through much of this kind of lifestyle! (Although I know I have to write several more books to do this whole topic justice.)


  16. Dear Melissa,
    I actually do sympathize with the difficulties of constantly relocating, especially when you have children. I think it can be very hard. It seems that you have done a great job making it work for your family. Also, it is true that many who have the “global mom” lifestyle live in what are called “hardship posts”. My cousin and her family are in Rwanda for a while and it’s definitely a challenge. While those who live this way have to adapt to the difficulties you speak of, it is also true that many multinational companies, and also government agencies like the World Bank, CIA and the Foreign Service do much to compensate, by paying for the rent, transportation, education of children in excellent schools and vacations of their employees. I am sure there are varying degrees of compensation. In some places this can lead to isolation from the culture instead of integration. On a recent trip to Shanghai I was surprised to discover that many of the expats there live in European/American style houses in the outskirts of Beijing. They also send their children to American foreign schools, never ride on the public transportation or learn the native language. Your family has admirably done just the opposite of that in places you have lived such as France, Norway, Switzerland and Germany. Your life as a global mom certainly has its challenges, but it also very exciting and definitely glamorous viewed from the outside!

    • Jennifer-
      All valid points. I appreciate your sharing them. Scary, still, to know that the overriding take on expatriates (and I’ve had to rebuff them my whole adult life) is that expatriatism is unilaterally, 1) affluent and glamorous, 2) culturally cushy because they don’t integrate but live, work and educate in enclaves, 3) and staffed with a flotilla of locals. Believe me, I’ve seen the spectrum, from super soft to sharply rough. There’s enormous variation under the title “expatriate.” We’ve tried, but have not always been successful at integrating as deeply as we can wherever we’ve lived. Gets harder as the kids get older, and risks (like finishing school) have greater costs.

      Thanks again for intelligent and provocative input!


  17. This really struck home for me. My son said to me a year or so ago, “Mom, do you realize I have never lived in one house longer than 18 months?” I was shocked to say the least and then began counting the times we have moved, coupled with our big international moves and realized he was right. My kids are starting a new school on Monday and I’m having this dialogue with a principal about placement for my son. They are trying to understand where he is coming from and I am trying to make sure that he is comfortable and secure with his grade placement. It is so very tricky.

    This morning, I sat in the doctor’s office with my daughter and talked to her about her new school. It hurts that my kids have to experience this frequent fear and nervousness as they approach yet another school. This goes beyond the ordinary school nerves for a new year. The fears are myriad: how to find your way around, meeting new people, making friends, getting settled, and also the fear that our lives will be uprooted again.

    My kids are remarkable and have enjoyed our experiences abroad. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is so much they have to cope with when they don’t have stability of place. I’m trying to make sure my kids feel safe to express those insecurities and grieve over their losses. After reading the book, “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Between Worlds”, I realized that it is important to express the loss we feel in this lifestyle. Expressing that loss doesn’t diminish the extraordinary lives we lead, just allows us to process better and be at peace with it.

    • Tiffany- You have a sympathetic ear here. Bless your dear children’s hearts. They are resilient, but they are also tender.

      And oddly, I was reading David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken’s book on TCKs (again) this afternoon in preparation for a workshop I’m giving next month, and this entire issue was so fresh in my throat, I could could hardly swallow. Here is the link to an interesting article about the peculiarities of unresolved grief common among global nomads, and the intersection of the blessings and the costs of such a life, if readers are interested:

      Thank you so much, Tiffany, for being here!

      • I revisited this post tonight after a conversation with my ninth grader. He shared the sad news that a good friend is moving away. I expressed my sadness and asked him how he felt about it. He responded that he is used to it because usually he is the one moving. As I thought about his response I realized that he is measuring his response to minimize the pain-because he is schooled in the difficult practice of constant farewells. I am at a loss myself because I don’t want him to lose that ability to feel and mourn. I understand why he guards his feelings because sometimes when you add up the losses you are afraid once you allow yourself to really feel an grieve you might never stop crying.

  18. When my own children were very young we moved across this remarkable country of ours. Most shocking to me was that even within our own country we became outsiders in a new land and our new ‘home’ did not truly feel like home for fully ten years hence. The assimilation was awkward, even in the context of our accustomed English language there were significant differences that took time and endless patience to understand, to embrace. As I read your son’s accounting here it all seems so much less significant, so much less a hardship that what your family has lived and endured. I have relatives who embarked on a transcontinental relocation…the significance to one of their two children in particular was, well, traumatic and she eventually moved back to Canada, to her homeland, estranged from her own family. The impact had been so great for that young teenage girl that she attempted to take her own life several times over. The tears and outpouring of love from her family and the support network of professional therapists did not resolve her issues. Years later she has now reunited with family but at what price?

    Your family’s story is remarkable Melissa. They endured through the transition of loss and change, in large part I surmise, through the strength of their parents and their family as a whole. Once again…the tears well.

  19. Thanks for your post, it resonated with me a lot. And am truly sorry to hear of the death of your son (and brother) – it sounds very traumatising…I am one of those TICKS you talk of, and at the ripe old age of 43 it still affects me. I have lived in 5 countries and moved house over 45 times, around half of these while I was still at home with my parents. I went to 5 high schools (and amazingly got ok grades considering the amount of times I started new curriculums and languages etc). I have a great struggle in the fact that I am doing the same to my kids – my 10 year old has been to 6 schools and moved country 3 times, and my 8 year old is not far from that. I am determined to keep them in one place for secondary school (12yrs old), so that they can hopefully establish stronger friendships and maintain a solid education base throughout. I think reflecting back as a TICK, there are definitely benefits – I can adapt to pretty much any situation and I have learnt to read people well and quickly. However on the less positive side, I struggle to stay in one place for too long (itchy feet, get bored in one place for too long). I struggle to make good friendships as I have a real issue with commitment. And of course I have suffered multiple losses that will probably take a lifetime to fully recover from. So once you are a TICK, I would say (I am telling myself too :-)) to try and find a way of staying put in one place if you have itchy feet. Redecorate often, do things that help establish yourself and make a commitment to stay – I think we need to learn to stay rather than go (going can become easier than dealing with staying, particularly if there are issues where you live or work). Try and commit to good connected friendships. Learn to be vulnerable. Work through your losses (whether through ritual or doing something to honour the things or people that were left behind). Try to go on holiday rather than always doing a tour of duty to see all the people round the world that you left behind… or at least combine the two. If you are a family, try and remain close to the family members and create an environment where you can talk things through and feel that someone is always there to listen and care. And if you are not a close family, make sure your children have access to a counsellor or someone trusting that they can open up to. And lastly, avoid moving with teenagers at all costs – unless it seems to them too to be a great idea, or alternatively, you have absolutely no choice in the matter. Anyway, I know that all kids deal with this in different ways, certain personalities cope better – its supposedly better if you are an extrovert (as an introvert I wouldn’t know :-))

    • Dee, Thank you for this rich response. I’m so honored you’d devote such time and effort to teaching us, teaching me. I’m speaking at an international conference in a month, and I really would like to quote your candid remarks. May I? (I understand you’re an introvert…so maybe you are reticent about being pulled up (in a manner of speaking) in front of a couple of hundred very nice folks. 🙂 Your practical pointers are useful. I’m coming to them late in life. What I see, as you do, are the many, many benefits from limited nomadism. I’m just wondering at this point if after decades of perpetual uprootedness the benefits outweigh the costs. It’s tough to be the constant outsider, and can even become an identity in an of itself. We’re finally trying to decide (this year?) Which landmass to eventually retire on. Europe? UK? USA? This means getting a home. Of our own. Strange concept. Might need to ease into that one! Thanks again, Dee.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s