This post first appeared on Assist News Service in April 2016.
Last month I wrote about the unique experience of third-culture kids, children who are raised in a culture other than the culture of their parents and who subsequently develop a third culture that is a blend of the two cultures. (You can read part 1 here for more details and specific examples drawn from our lives on the mission field.) This month I’d like to revisit this topic.
I ended last month’s column with the admission that we are expecting our fifth child, and sometimes I wonder if my husband and I are being wise or responsible to have so many children when the missionary lifestyle is so uncertain. Besides the fact that we are almost completely dependent on the generosity of others for our monthly income, we also currently live in a country that is in a de facto state of war. Granted, we have personally been spared all the difficulties and dangers that go along with that, but many thousands of people in other parts of Ukraine, including children and the elderly, have not. We know one missionary family who had to evacuate, and just this month a dear Ukrainian friend of ours who makes regular trips to the eastern part of Ukraine to take aid and bring the hope of the gospel to the people still living there posted an urgent request for prayer on Facebook because the city where she was ministering was being bombed! She made it through the night safely and continues to minister, but thousands of civilians have died in the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, and the death toll continues to rise.
However, despite these questions that sometimes arise in my mind, I realized long ago (and wrote about it here) that no matter where you live, safety is an illusion, and the best place to be is firmly in the center of God’s will. Even this does not ensure protection from all harm, but it guarantees a life of purpose and meaning and no regrets. And as far as the number of kids we will soon have goes, I am convinced that it is God who opens and closes the womb, sometimes withholding conception when there is no medical reason for infertility, and other times granting it miraculously to couples who should not be able to conceive. The real question is not how many kids we should have, but do I trust Him to give us the number He wants?
As I look around me, I realize that large families on the mission field are not uncommon. In the last three generations of my husband’s family alone, there have been seven missionary families with four or more children, with two more families soon to join their ranks. And outside of our extended family, I know a number of other large missionary families. In fact, in my personal experience, missionary families tend to be larger than non-missionary families. Part of this could be because the type of people who are likely to become missionaries are also the type of people who are more likely to trust God with their family planning, but I’ve only known three exceptionally large missionary families (with eight or more children), so I don’t think that fully explains the trend. What I mean is that most of the large missionary families I know have four or five kids, not eleven or so. To me this says that their family size is deliberate, not the result of a strict decision to trust God with their family planning, since couples who are committed to never using any form of contraception usually have more than four or five children. So why do I know so many large missionary families? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that missionary parents realize that having more kids is beneficial to the emotional wellbeing of their children.
Due to their unique experiences and multi-cultural point of view, missionary kids can find it difficult to connect deeply with their peers, unless they happen to be other missionary kids. On top of that, the missionary lifestyle often involves frequent moves, so missionary kids are constantly leaving behind the friendships they have formed and being forced to develop new ones. Take a moment and imagine having these experiences as an only child or as a child with just one or even two siblings.
Now imagine going through all the challenges of life as a missionary kid with a network of three or more of your closest friends in the world always beside you, experiencing everything along with you. This is the advantage of being a missionary kid in a large family. You always have plenty of playmates, and they actually understand your unusual way of expressing yourself in a mix of two or more languages. What if it’s your birthday in a new city, and you haven’t made any friends yet? Just add cake and presents to a family meal, and you’ve got an instant party! And being the new kid at school yet again is less intimidating when you know that all your brothers and sisters are somewhere in the same building, and you’ll all debrief together when the day is over.
My husband was a missionary kid, and he has eight brothers and sisters. When I first met his family, I was amazed by how close they all were, and that closeness has endured, despite the fact that they are now scattered across three continents of the globe. They share a deep connection, born partly of a parenting philosophy that taught them they were destined to become each other’s best friends, but also forged in the fires of shared experience as they moved from rural Indiana to the chaotic world that was post-Soviet Ukraine in 1992.
Life was hard for nearly everyone in Ukraine at that time, and that certainly included this American family who didn’t speak the language, had few contacts, and didn’t even have a place to stay when they arrived! But they had each other, and that made a huge difference. They also had a wonderful sense of adventure, instilled in them by their mother Pam who had grown up in Africa as the daughter of missionaries. Her parents had taught her that she and her three brothers were the luckiest children in the world because of all the amazing things they got to experience living in the bush, and they believed it. Years later when Pam was raising her own kids on the mission field, she tried to instill this belief in them too. Life in Ukraine might not have included leopards, giraffes, and hippos, but moving from the family farm in Indiana to Kyiv, a city of several million that even had its own subway system, was the adventure of a lifetime.
This sense of adventure is evident when my husband and any of his siblings get together and reminisce about the early days. They don’t focus on the hardships they endured. Sure, they might mention the eleven mice they caught in the run-down hotel they were forced to use for their first month in the country, but even that memory is shared in a spirit of amusement and incredulity, not negativity. And they are far more likely to recall how funny they must have looked trooping around the city en masse, sporting bright white sneakers and fanny packs in a country where both items were unknown. Or they might talk about exploring the city in pairs to discover new things and bring back a report to the rest of the family. All their memories include each other and a reassuring sense that someone always had your back.
The stories that predominate in these family trips down memory lane focus on how God was moving in the hearts and lives of young Ukrainians and the amazing privilege of getting to be a part of what He was doing. This experience was the greatest advantage of growing up on the mission field and had a profound impact on each child. All of them came to realize that a life lived in pursuit of their own dreams would ultimately be unfulfilling, unless they first allowed God to redesign those dreams to have eternal significance.* My husband, who planned to become an engineer prior to moving to Ukraine, earned his master’s degree with honors from Kyiv’s top university but decided to devote his life to church planting. One of his brothers, a talented athlete and musician, turned his back on a bright future in professional soccer and later the dream of becoming a concert pianist to serve God as a song writer, worship leader, and pastor. Another brother gave up what would have been a well-to-do life in the United States to move his family to northern Siberia to take the gospel to an unreached group of nomadic reindeer herders. And the stories go on, with each child ultimately making a decision to live for God’s glory among the nations rather than pursuing his or her own comfort or fulfillment. And you know what? Not one of them regrets the choice. They have learned that no pursuit in life is sweeter than following the dreams God has dreamed for us. I hope and pray that one day my own children discover this truth for themselves.
If you’re interested in learning more about how God has used the Markey family in Ukraine and beyond, read Distant Fields, the biography of my late father-in-law.
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*This was true at the time when this column was first published.