Experience has taught me that an inevitable part of being a missionary mother is the feeling of loneliness. Present in varying degrees at different times, loneliness can be a warning sign that I am isolating myself, but it can also simply indicate that I am living as a sojourner where there are divides and differences in culture that can never be crossed.
Isolation is dangerous and should be resisted, but the inescapable moments of loneliness that come with cross-cultural living are best dealt with through acceptance, knowing that they are part of the sacrifice that God asks of us when we answer His call, leave the familiar, and move beyond our comfort zones.
Our First Year
During our first year in Chavuma, Zambia with four boys five years old and under, most days I didn’t get past the clothes line, pegging out loads of diapers and laundry. Even without small children, life in developing countries where many missionary mothers serve is characterized by hard work.
Housework is exponentially greater than here in Canada as dirt and insects abound. Food is prepared from scratch and is sometimes hard to find. The climate taxes energy levels. Power is not always available twenty-four hours of the day. Water needs to be boiled and cooled before it is safe to drink. In those early days in Zambia, the “mom” part of my role left little energy for the “missionary” part, and it would have been easier to focus on tasks of daily life and become isolated from those around me.
I’m thankful for the small goals I set for myself when I was almost overwhelmed by the newness of my overseas experience.
I’m grateful for the Monday afternoons when I joined an older missionary lady to visit in nearby villages. Eventually, I started my own weekly Monday afternoon village trips when I would tie our baby on my back, tuck our toddler in front of me, and drive our four-wheeler to a nearby village, stopping to walk and greet women who were pounding cassava and preparing their evening meal. Wednesday afternoons with the help of a Zambian lady, we cooked a meal of mush and relish and showed hospitality to believers from the local church. Biweekly Sunday afternoons I attended a ladies English Bible study and was able to get to know hospital staff who attended.
If I hadn’t pushed myself to reach out to others from the beginning, it would have been much harder later on.
In those days I struggled with significant loneliness. I was often home on my own as my husband was constantly on-call at the mission hospital. Once our fourth son was born, I didn’t have the energy to progress in my language skills, and my ability to communicate adequately was limited. The Zambian peoples’ lives are vastly different from anything I had known, and they obviously had no concept of where I had come from. Still, I longed to connect on some level with people around me and live Christ before them despite obstacles.
A Pivotal Experience
One Sunday afternoon in Chavuma, I had a pivotal experience that shaped how I view loneliness.
It was the time of day near to the equator where the temperature cools almost imperceptibly and the sun starts its rapid descent to the western horizon. We had stepped out of an English gospel service onto the edge of the dirt roundabout that brings one to the mission hospital at the top of Chavuma Hill.
My gaze was caught by two women who were slowly walking toward the road descending the hill. The older woman came first, carrying something in her hands that looked like a cloth-covered dish. The younger woman came after. I assumed that they had been at the hospital, bringing food to an inpatient.
For some reason I walked across the road to speak to them, clapping my hands and greeting them in the customary Luvale manner. The older woman indicated the bundle she was carrying in her hands and simply stated, “The child has died.” I realized that it was not a dish of food she was carrying, it was a dead baby.
They were making their way slowly down to the foot of the hill to the burying place. There, a male family member would meet them, having prepared a hole in the dry, rocky soil. After they placed the small body in the hole and filled it in with dirt, they would heap stones on top to stop dogs from clawing through.
Thankfully, I had enough Luvale to appropriately express “this is a hard thing” and the ladies continued on their way.
Accepting Loneliness (and Trusting God to Carry it)
As I reflected on that experience, I realized that I will never fully understand what it is to be a mother and woman in a culture so different than my own - and that is alright. There are aspects of culture that cannot be crossed no matter the efforts I take to not isolate myself, no matter the endeavours I make to speak another’s heart language, no matter the lengths I go to to understand another’s history. I still must humbly learn, adapt, and demonstrate love and empathy.
I can display Christ to those He has sent me to serve despite inevitable cultural divides.
Two long-ago writers, Amy Carmichael and Hannah Hurnard, both wrote poems titled, “In Acceptance Lieth Peace”. I have found this description to be true when loneliness comes from never quite being understood or fully known. As I have lived cross-culturally as a missionary mother, I have experienced God’s peace when I have accepted my loneliness, offered it back to Him, and trusted Him to carry it for me.
Missionary mothers around the world need your faithful prayer support. Have you reached out to one of these mothers to let her know that you are committing to pray for her? Based on this article, what are some good, open-ended questions you can ask a missionary mother about how she has coped with the experiences of isolation and loneliness on the field?