29 November 2013

Guest Post: Mama Congo Mama

This week's guest post is by my mom, Barbra (spelled like Streisand) Humphrey.  In the context of this blog, she is a "Mama Congo Mama."  When Sarah wrote the first in her Moving Abroad series, my mom had what you might call a visceral reaction.  For good reason. Johan and I are BOTH only children (I know...crazy) and therefore, Eli and Loulou are the only grandchildren...and in 2011, we decided to move the whole lot to CONGO.  In literally one day, my parents went from living 1 mile to 7,000 miles away from our little family.  Gulp.  

My mom is apparently a remarkably forgiving person, as evidenced by this response - written after 2+ years as a parent/grandparent of expats:

I’m a Mama Congo Mama - Jill’s mom, and Eli and LouLou’s Omi. It was Sarah’s mom who first referred to us as the “Mama Congo Mamas.” We bonded as we talked about our children who lived so far away. In addition, there are, of course, also 2 Mama Congo Mama-in-laws. The four of us have had a lot in common for the past 2 ½ years: we all live in or near Harrisonburg, VA, USA and our children and (wonderful, beautiful) grandchildren live in Kinshasa, DR Congo, Africa. Who could have imagined this scenario?

Well, the truth is, I could have. Oh, I didn’t have the details clearly in mind, but by the time Jill was in high school I sensed that she would never be satisfied without adventure and travel. She met fellow students from other countries, had many friends who had been raised abroad, went to Europe with her school choir, and fell in love with someone who was more than willing to share in her adventures. And she kept traveling.


And so, when one of the Mama Congo posts was entitled “5 Tips for Moving Abroad”, I couldn’t help but think of it from my perspective: the Mama Congo Mama’s perspective. I wrote some thoughts in a comment, but here is my extended grandparent-version of 5 Tips When Your Kids Move Abroad:


1) Let go: they’re going whether you approve or not. It’s their life, not yours.  Share your fears and your sadness and then let go. Often easier said than done, and it takes time, but it is possible. And it’s ok to backslide: the ache of missing them envelopes you again, anger explodes, tears fall, words emerge that you wish you could take back. Just do your best, and your best will get better.

2) The hardest part is the leaving. It was difficult to wave goodbye to Jill and Johan when they moved to Seattle, WA but that was nothing compared to waving goodbye when they left for the Congo. Of course, this time grandchildren were involved. 

Considering the various options for distant and exotic locales.

The night before they left, I put the grandkids to bed (Jill and Johan were still frantically packing their many trunks).  As I walked around the room rocking LouLou to sleep (she was then just a little over a year old), tears ran down my face in the dark. And I knew then why it is called a “broken heart.” It hurt. Physically hurt. Terribly. It was almost a relief at the airport the next day when they disappeared into the elevator on their way to their plane and I didn’t have to anticipate that moment any longer.  Yes, thank goodness for Skype and email and Facebook! 

Skyping with another Mama Congo Mama: G-ma!

It helps, but it doesn’t ever completely fill the hole left in your heart and your life. No candy-coating anything here, wish I could. It is what it is, and it is hard.

3) No, really – we’ll keep your things until you return. My husband and I did it to our parents and now it’s our turn. The problem is, I’ve become attached to the extra couch in my living room, the funky dresser in my guestroom, and those gallon glass jars that now hold my flour. We’ll talk, Jill….

4) Expect to regret it. We have no one to blame but ourselves for the fact that our daughter now lives 7,000 miles away, at least that’s what my husband and I believe. Why did we take you abroad when you were young? Why did we tell you stories of our wonderful year spent living in Great Britain? Why did I rescue the book Girls Can Be Anything from the library so you could read it time and time again? ARGHHHH! We didn’t mean it – we take it all back!!! What were we thinking???

Yeah Mom, what were you THINKING giving me this trash to read as a small girl child?

5) You won’t regret it. Do you wish they were living next door? Of course! But are you so proud of them you can’t stand it, and maybe more than a bit envious of their travels? YES! The good news here is that you get to follow them around the globe, if not in person sometimes, at least by Skype! Would I ever have considered visiting the DR Congo if my daughter wasn’t living there? Certainly not! And I would not have spent many days in Seattle and Olympia, WA, (getting to re-connect with a dear friend during that time as a bonus), or have taken the opportunity to see penguins in South Africa. 

It's possible that my mother hates this picture (Mom, do you hate this picture?), but come on, it's adorable.
(And this moment was less "Titanic" and more "Holy crap, the wind on this scenic South African lookout is crazy intense.")

Most importantly, I wouldn’t have the chance to anticipate not only their leaving, but their returning: Elias’ beaming face coming through the customs doors at Dulles and that wonderfully exquisite first hug. 

Ahhhhhhh…. It doesn’t get any better. At least, it doesn’t for this Mama Congo Mama!

Thanks, Mom!


  1. that was lovely, it bought tears to my eyes. My daughter has left for "2-5 years" of travelling in UK/Europe and left this wistful Mama in Australia, my fear is that she will fall in love and make it permanent...

  2. I'm crying too. Love your sense of humour.

  3. Yes, me, too - all of that. And ALL THREE OF OUR KIDS ARE IN AFRICA! I try not to think about it too often. They are happy and I'm happy for them that they are having this wonderful adventure. But I recognize that I will never recapture my granddaughters' early years. That's life. Letting go is painful. And there are so many what-ifs! Every time we share the tearful good-byes I fear that "this could be IT!" But their lives are about them and only marginally about me. I just had a conversation with a friend at church whose daughter also teaches overseas and she admitted that at times she questions, "What did I do wrong that made my children want to leave me?" What we did "wrong" was to raise them to love new people and experiences, value other cultures and have a passion for wanting to make the world a better place - you know, all of those ideals we held so dear when our children were young and living securely in our loving, supportive families. Those ideals are more than a wee bit hard to embrace when the kids have launched to far-flung reaches of the world. (Big breath here.) Annika returns from Morocco, inshallah, next Monday (that's 9 1/2 days, not that I'm counting or anything) and Amanda comes for a 16-day Christmas visit just 9 days later. Annika stays and Amanda leaves. We will hope for some good Skype visits with Adam, Sarah, Charlotte and Ani (tears flowing now). It's not the way I want it. It's just the way it is. We are all being the best people we can be - here, there and everywhere.

  4. Sniff sniff! Beautifully written!

  5. I had that same book! Loved it!

  6. This post really got me! What an important perspective. I shared it with my mom hoping that she will feel some support from all you moms out there with your kids half way across the world!

  7. Feeling emotional too, on behalf of my own mama, who has to be so far from her own daughter and only grandchild. How wonderful that your mamas have each other to lean on! Sounds like we need a Mama Congo (and elsewhere) Mamas support group! http://mamamgeni.com

  8. Love this! What a great post and a synopsis of feelings with which I can certainly identify! I am mom of Sara Rich, who spent 3 years in Congo, both Goma and Kinshasa, and now lives in Brussels. Sara has no children for me to fuss over, but I have certainly had mixed emotions since she first announced to our family that she was moving to Kinshasa - ALONE (just out of college), knowing no one over there - and just when I thought we were getting her back again, she annouced she was moving to Goma - again ALONE - to work volunteer for a year! Proud on the one hand, yes, but I was one scared mama, but was given no choice in the matter so I did my best to support her endeavors and keep the lines of communication going - as often as possible! THANK GOODNESS for skype and email and blogs. I will continue to hope that I will someday have her closer to home, but I certainly won't hold my breath. I visit as often as possible so I can keep up with what wonderful things she is doing, and see amazing places (Congo, South Africa, Zambia, Belgium, France, Netherlands). Packing now for my third visit this year to Brussels - my first Christmas overseas!

  9. I think all of the Mama Congo Mamas should band together and form a support group. Seems there's a demand! There are loads of groups out there for expats - but what about the expat's extended families?

    It's great to hear everyone's thoughts and stories - thanks for reading and commenting!


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