A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Interviewed by: Bonnie Miller
Initial interview date: April 22, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: It is April 22, 2022, Earth Day. I’m Bonnie Miller, and I am interviewing Jennie Linton, mother of four and also a life coach and an EFM [Eligible Family Member] for the past decade and a half. Welcome, Jennie.
LINTON: Thanks for having me.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your background and your postings, how old your kids were when you were in each place, and how old they are now. Where you are living now, and where you are going?
LINTON: My husband joined the Foreign Service right after law school. We had one little daughter who was three years old, and I was actually eight and a half months pregnant when we arrived to start the A-100 course. On Flag Day, we found out we were going to Beijing, and we were really excited! I had our second baby the very first day my husband started Chinese. It was a crazy, stressful time. While we lived in Beijing, our third daughter was born. Then we moved to Mexico City for a couple of years. My mother passed away just before moving there. Then, we moved to Kailua, Hawaii, and my husband was the POL/MIL [Political/Military] advisor there for the PACOM. My fourth daughter was born in Hawaii. Then we moved to Taipei, Taiwan, and then Shanghai, China. During our tour in Shanghai, COVID broke out, and we were evacuated back to Washington, DC. We have been in DC for about a year, and we’re headed to Jakarta, Indonesia. Now my four daughters are age fifteen, twelve, ten, and six.
Q: So, you’re pretty much a Chinese expert. Did you learn Chinese when you were in your postings there?
LINTON: I learned what was called survival Chinese; I could definitely barter and shop and all those things. My husband is excellent at the language. My four daughters have all studied it for several years and are great little speakers.
Q: That’s really helpful for them. That’s terrific. So, when you were choosing your foreign posts, I know that your husband is a Chinese expert, but how did you keep the needs of your kids in mind? What kinds of criteria were you considering?
LINTON: I think it’s changed in different phases of our family life. But I think when my children were younger, some of the things that were really important were parks, the cost of pre-school, the type of housing, the availability of playgroups. In some places, preschool is very expensive, like $20,000 a year. I was a stay-at-home mom when my children were young, so having a community of other EFM young mothers was really important for me. As my kids have gotten older, our focus of concern for the kids is much more about the schools. What are the academics like? What is the diversity at school like? In some of the schools that we have been in, it is primarily 90% locals. That creates a very different dynamic for children in school than it does when you have an international community. Less diverse schools can lead to more bullying and exclusion. We also look at the expat community and the embassy community. Is it compound living? Are you in apartments or single-family homes? Will there be friends for our kids? What is the transportation like? When we were looking at Indonesia, one of our big concerns was for our teens–what about transportation? How will our kids get around? Is it safe for young girls? There’s a lot of violence and so looking at how are they are going to get to friends’ houses for social things is important. Other things we look at include health care, our church communities, and then also time zones and distance from the U.S.
Q: So, a lot of things to consider. How are you preparing your kids for your next move this summer when you’re going to Indonesia, at their ages, elementary, middle and high school?
LINTON: We’ve learned a lot over the years. This really is a family career. So first of all, we included them in the bidding process. We let them share their feelings and ideas as we looked at options and bid on jobs. Another thing we did was help them get excited about the assignment we get. When my husband got his most recent assignment to Indonesia, we had a party; we had Indonesian food and the flag, and we watched the video, which gets them excited. A lot of times what’s exciting to them is, “Oh, they have this food, or oh, there’s this fun place to travel that has orangutans.”
Throughout the year before we move, we have “World Wednesday” at dinner once a week. We learn things about the country, look at videos of the school, or housing, or fun places to travel. Sometimes my husband teaches us Indonesian words. That kind of thing really increases their excitement. We found that excitement often cancels out the anxiety for kids, or at least minimizes it. We try to include our kids in the process of packing and saying good-bye to a place. We make a bucket list of what they want to do before we leave. One of my kids’ bucket list items for DC is The Spy Museum.
Something that we’ve learned from the book, Third Culture Kids, is how important it is to resolve issues before moving. If there have been issues with a teacher or a friend or an adult, resolving those so they don’t hang over the child. We also try to give them as much control as possible; we allow them to choose what they bring with toys and in their backpacks. Sometimes what they choose is completely impractical and the opposite of what I would choose, but it gives them control.
The other thing is just asking a lot of questions like how are you feeling about moving? What are you looking forward to? What are you worried about? Then, just listening and holding space for that rather than trying to correct it immediately. Like, “Okay, you’re kind of worried about that. Yeah, that makes sense.”
Q: Lots of things to consider, but a lot of things that you can do to ease that transition. So, what about changing schools and activities at each post? What were your children’s successes or challenges in moving to a new place?
LINTON: I think some of it overlaps with the general culture shock cycle. It’s always really exciting at first; it’s a new place and there are new opportunities. But I think there is always a slump after a few months. They’ve met people but they don’t have close friends yet. Disappointment about the new place and longing for the past school often surface. They say things like: “I miss my friends. This is so hard here.” Then I find by about nine months to a year, they’ve kind of settled in. When my kids understand that culture shock cycle, it helps them deal with the difficult parts, because they know this isn’t the permanent situation for this post, and it’s going to get better.
One specific challenge that comes to mind was moving to Mexico City. We put our daughter in a bilingual school. It was supposed to be bilingual, but it was mostly Spanish. She was in kindergarten, and she has a very anxious temperament. Kindergarten was very stressful for her not having a parent nearby. After a few weeks, instead of her anxiety going down, her anxiety went way up, and it got so bad that she would chase after me when I would drop her off at kindergarten. As a mom, my heart was just breaking. She would say, “Mom, they don’t understand when I say I need to go to the bathroom in English.” You can see how stressful that would be for a young child to feel like they can’t communicate there and are just at the will of whatever person they can’t communicate with. There were a few really difficult months. It was really cool to see as we worked through that, that she was able to become quite fluent in Spanish by the end of our time there, and she was very proud of her language.
My littlest one was in preschool in Shanghai, and she had a hard time because everybody was Chinese, and even though it was an English preschool, she couldn’t communicate with anybody. So, it was hard to make friends, and she would come home and say, “I have no friends.” And so I think that language barrier and culture barrier can be challenging.
I think bullying has also been a big issue for my kids. Just being a minority in places where there are majority locals has made it difficult for my kids. We have learned a lot through the years about how to avoid victimizing our children. I think your mother heart wants to just be like, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. Do you want to me go in as a mother bear and fix it?” And I think we’ve learned a lot about the importance of empowering our kids and giving them confidence and problem solving with them but letting them solve it, unless it’s something very serious. I think they’ve gained a lot of confidence through that.
My oldest struggled with that because so many classmates were local Chinese; there was like a popular group of Chinese. And then there was a not so popular group of Chinese. And then there was a popular foreign group and a not so popular foreign group. And I think it’s hard to feel like there’s only one category of people that you can connect with. And so that made it a little more challenging, but it was cool to see her navigate that and make friends and all the different groups.
In terms of successes, my kids have learned languages. They have gained so much competence about making friends and doing hard things. They can just walk into any situation and feel comfortable. They’ve learned a lot about being compassionate to people who are not feeling comfortable. In several of her schools, my middle daughter has been so sweet about reaching out to children who don’t speak English, being thoughtful of them, and including them, or helping them at school, even though they can’t communicate. That’s been really nice to see.
Finally, I think one success has been exposure to a broader world. We’ve had a lot of experiences to travel and to study other cultures. My oldest is just fascinated by the news and loves the world and has done MUN [Model United Nations] and has so much broader of an experience of the world than I did at her age.
Q: So, they’ve really learned about the international life and have also gained coping skills and empathy. From your own experience, but also as a life coach, do you have any advice about helping children with special needs as they move from post to post?
LINTON: Sure, I don’t have kids with special learning needs, but I do have a couple of children with anxiety. And one thing that has been really useful for our family is to have a consistent medical care provider. Our first couple posts, we found people locally. But we found that having a consistent psychiatrist who can do telehealth anywhere in the world has been so helpful because they watch our children grow. They see our kids consistently, so they know what’s normal and what isn’t.
The RMOPs [Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrists] we’ve worked with have been amazing. We had to evacuate one of our kids for a neuro-educational evaluation, and MED was fantastic. We went to Mayo Clinic and were able to get some helpful testing done. In retrospect, I wish I had gone to the RMOP and the RMO [Regional Medical Officer] sooner.
I do work with clients who have children with special needs. Many families have found help through the Foreign Service Facebook Group for families of kids with special needs; it helps identify schools, transportation, household helpers and learn about other resources that would be important for supporting a child with special needs. Being in the Foreign Service and having a child with special needs has challenges and benefits. Finding posts that are friendly to special needs can be challenging—and sometimes families feel limited in their options.
One of the benefits of Foreign Service life can be the ability to hire helpers to either go into the school with the children (in applicable situations), or to have helpers at home to give parents a backup. So, while it’s harder in some ways, it’s easier in other ways because you have help.
Q: That’s an interesting benefit that people don’t think about overseas. So, in my interviews with Foreign Service parents for the ADST Partners in Diplomacy podcast series, it was suggested that it’s useful to try to bring kids back to the U.S. for vacation every summer to give them a sense of home and being American. Do you agree with that?
LINTON: I think an important question to ask when you answer a question like this is, “Why are you bringing your children back to the US?” Is it to see family? Is it to feel American? Is it to have a break from overseas life? Is it so they don’t feel different from their peers and have a difficult time readjusting to American life? Bringing kids back to the U.S. will be really useful for some of these motives. It will be less useful for others.
We’ve found it is useful for kids to come back to the U.S. to see family and maintain strong relationships with grandparents and extended family and friends. With regard to feeling American by coming back, our experience has been that they acquire a very skewed view of the United States when they come back. It’s vacation. It’s fun. We’re doing travel and activities. When we moved back to the U.S. to live, it’s not as exciting. We’re not going to Chick-Fil-A and Cafe Rio every day. We’re not doing exciting activities. We actually go to school, and we have the same challenges and problems as living anywhere else in the world.
An interesting aspect of our modern world is that borders are very blurred with our digital exposure. Whereas in the past there may have been limited American exposure living abroad, now with Netflix, Instagram, YouTube etc., we can have a lot of U.S. culture as part of our everyday lives no matter we live—if we want it.
I don’t believe that visiting the US each summer helps a child feel “American” or form a strong American identity. I think it may help, but I don’t think a child will feel American by coming back each year. I think what actually matters even more than an American identity is feeling a strong sense of personal and family identity. Many of us get our identity from the state that we live in or the job that we do. In the Foreign Service, we have to be a little more deliberate about where our identity comes from. One of the things I have mothers do is to create an identity wheel with their children. They ask their children: “What are the different pieces of your identity?” They might say, “I’m a TCK [Third Culture Kid]. I’m a sibling. I like soccer. I’m good at math. I’m religious. I’m a kind person.” When they come back to the US, they have many parts of themselves. It’s not JUST that you are American or that you are a TCK. You have many parts of you, and it makes it easier to make connections with others because you have many parts of you that you can use to connect.
Q: Okay, good advice. I know your kids aren’t yet college age, but in your counseling experience as a life coach, do you have any advice for kids who have been overseas their whole lives and then are making the transition to college in the U.S.? And the flip side of that, kids who’ve been in the U.S. and are going to college in the U.S., but their parents are moving overseas?
LINTON: Launching a child from abroad can be difficult. I have some clients who even had to launch their children during a pandemic, where they couldn’t even travel with their children to drop them off at college for the first time!
Common characteristics of kids who are successful transitioning to college in the U.S. include: confidence, a support system, independent living skills, creativity, and emotional health. Adjusting to life in the U.S. after living abroad is a big change, not to mention adjusting to living on your own is huge. Confidence is such an important indicator of success. When a student is secure in who they are and has the confidence that they can learn new things, it goes a long way.
Having a support system set up for them, whether that’s family members or whether that’s a local church community or whatever is a safety net, is important. Some types of schools even have TCK programs that help kids adjust. Some kids find that living in the international student dorms can be really helpful as their experience may be more similar to international students than other American students. One important thing that families can do from afar is support by having regular times to connect. Maybe with time zones it is every day at 6:00 pm or every Sunday at 4:00 pm. Knowing that the student will fly to be with the family at the holiday season can be like an island of relief amid the stress of adjusting. The key is having set times the child knows he/she can connect.
Many kids assume that it will be easy to adjust. It can be useful to talk to kids about expectations and the experience of repatriating, so they know what to expect.
Finally, as parents, we often want to fix our kids’ problems. But especially as kids launch, it’s most important to hold space for them—just allowing them to express their feelings and just acknowledging them. Our TCKs are smart and capable, but they need a safe place to process.
Q: Great advice. What are the important resources and sources of support in raising Third Culture Kids?
LINTON: I think there’s so many good ones, and there are a couple of top resources that come to mind. One is a book that came out recently by Lauren Wells called Raising Up a Healthy Generation of Third Culture Kids. This book builds on that classic Foreign Service TCK Bible by David Pollack; it gives really practical ways to support children in their mental and emotional health. I feel like emotional health is at the foundation of raising healthy TCKs. They have found in recent studies that 70% of TCKs will experience depression or anxiety later in their life due to living abroad if they don’t have protective factors in place. Wells also offers some classes and debriefing seminars for families.
I love a book by John Gottman called Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children. It goes through how to emotion coach your children. It’s not written for expats particularly, but I think is one of the most essential skills Foreign Service parents can have to raise healthy TCKs.
I host a podcast called The Expat Mom, where I talk about salient issues to expat mothers and share tools about how to raise healthy expat children. We cover everything from helping anxious kids abroad, to finding your purpose as a trailing spouse, to helping kids navigate repatriation and so much more.
I’m also part of a collective of EFM coaches called The Big Purple Blog. We host a weekly podcast and offer seminars to various posts on topics salient to the Foreign Service Community. In our podcast, we cover everything related to the Foreign Service Lifestyle: topics from keeping your marriage strong during TDY or as a tandem couple to medical evacuations and moving mindset.
Q: Those are great resources. If you could send me those, we can put them in as hyperlinks in your interview and that would be amazingly helpful to other people. So, from your own experience, or from talking with other parents, do you have any other advice to share with parents of Foreign Service kids?
LINTON: Sure. You had a great question about dealing with hardships or dangers at post. And I think that this is a really big one, especially having gone through COVID and having been in countries where there is governmental upset.
I think it’s so important to communicate with your kids about what’s happening because they’re hearing things, and often it creates anxiety for them. Approaching this with kids will vary based on age, but generally, it is important to number one share the facts. “Hey, there is a sickness that’s happening right now.” Second, give context to it. Explain where it’s happening or how it relates to you. We were in China when COVID broke out. We lived in Shanghai and COVID broke out in Wuhan—a city really far away, but my kids were panicked. I explained what was happening and where it was happening. I reassured them it wasn’t affecting children very frequently or very severely. I explained that we were safe. If there’s a problem, I assured them that the embassy will take care of us, and we’ll probably leave. And, in fact, we were evacuated from China during COVID. And we talked more about this as a family.
The other thing you asked a really great question about was challenges with domestic help. In a lot of my work with mothers and children, I’ve found it’s very easy for moms to almost disconnect and feel like they don’t have to be as present as a mom because someone else is there. This can be so damaging to children. They need your emotional presence. Household help is so useful in allowing moms to be healthy and not be as overwhelmed. Household help can bring in a wonderful nurturing presence and help us learn about the local culture. But it’s so important for parents to stay connected with their children.
Household help comes with cultural biases and cultural values that may be different from your family’s values. And in some ways that may be really wonderful; your children are getting a totally different set of values. But in other ways, their parenting is going to be very different. I have clients whose household help was totally fine leaving a child in a diaper all day long. And pajamas, or letting their child eat candy all day. I had a household helper, and I have a child who is very sensitive and needed to cry for a minute when I put her down to fall asleep. But the household helper didn’t agree that a child should ever cry, so she would go get the baby. And it was so frustrating, because I just wanted my daughter to sleep; she would get so tired. With household help, you can have intercultural parenting issues. It’s really important to make sure you have a clear vision of what is important to your family and then navigate that with household help.
Q: Good point. You said you were evacuated from Shanghai. Was that because of COVID? And how did that work? How did you prepare your kids and how was that unexpected transition?
LINTON: COVID broke out in Wuhan, China, and we were in Shanghai, China. As it spread through the country, China locked everything down. There was a lot of concern about isolation and that parents and children might be separated in quarantine. We weren’t sure if there was going to be enough food. The school had been shut down. We went from authorized departure to ordered departure in about two days. And it was hard for my children and for all of us.
Our life was completely halted. One of my daughters was planning to go to Germany on this amazing World War Two trip, and one was in a play, and one was in this big book competition. They had wonderful friends and plans. All of a sudden, it was just cut off immediately. We told them, “We’re going to have to go to the United States.” They were so disappointed about everything they would miss. They had so many questions: Are we going to get sick on the airplane? Are we going to be able to come back here? What’s going to happen with school? Where are we going? What housing are we going to live in?
I took a whiteboard and said, “Tell me all the things that are making you feel scared and sad.” And we just listed them on the board. And there were a lot of them. And we just recognized that there was a loss here. We were all disappointed. I took another whiteboard, and I said, “Okay, tell me all the things you’re looking forward to about this evacuation.” The kids listed things like spending time together as a family, feeling less stress, going to Chick-Fil-A and others.
And at the end, I said, “Let’s go back and look at some of these things that are hard for you.” And some of them were just hard, but with some of them, we were able to find ways that we could make them less difficult. Like they were going to miss their play, but maybe we could go see a play on Broadway, because we’re right by New York. We’re going to be inside, but hey, we can do some of these fun things as a family. Maybe we can have a bake-off.” We tried to find ways to make it palatable and exciting and give them control. We talked through some of their fears about COVID.
Finding housing at the last minute was very stressful. We went through a residence housing company and got a two-bedroom apartment for six people that was very tiny. Really it was very tight and quite crazy, but we made it work. We got bunk beds in there, and we made it work, and it was okay. My husband was working from home, and then we had four different kids in distance learning, and I was trying to work where I could. We found ways to do fun breaks and have opportunities as a family. We ended up having a really nice time together. My husband was asked to return after about four months, so we were separated for about three months—but we were finally able to return to China. I think our family learned a lot through the experience. And of course, COVID eventually broke out in the U.S., and everyone has their own COVID stories. It’s been a challenge for everyone.
Q: Oh, it sounds like everybody’s coping skills were enhanced then. And you can look back on it and say, “We did this really well. This was really a crisis, but we mastered this and now here we are, and now we’re about to embark on another adventure.” So, Jennie, is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you wanted to discuss?
LINTON: I think one of your questions was about unaccompanied postings. We actually haven’t done any postings, but my husband was in China for a part of the time that we were in the United States during the evacuation. I noticed a couple of things. One is it’s easy to get into patterns that are comfortable without your spouse, so when you get back together, family patterns can feel disrupted. We found that finding ways to keep the parent who is away involved consistently is important.
In our modern world, we have FaceTime, video chat, and all of that. We would have my husband call once a day, and he would ask the kids, “What’s your rose and thorn for the day?” It was almost like he was there at dinner with us. We’d have the kids play their piano pieces for him; we’d have him help the girls with Chinese homework; we would watch a movie on WatchParty together, or we would have family prayer together. We would have celebrations; we sent him with a big box of things that he could open on holidays, and we’d have holiday celebrations together.
He was in a place we were really worried about because it was during COVID. So, we used a lot of humor. My husband was in quarantine for the first few weeks, which is pretty intense in China, and so you cannot even put your head out of the hotel room without an alarm going off. The food was not really great. Even though we love Chinese food, this food was difficult for him, and so he would do things like make grilled cheese on an iron or make mac and cheese in a coffee pot. I think humor helped take the anxiety out of some of the danger.
Q: Yeah, so many ways that you found to keep him involved in their daily lives, which was so important. But it sounds like with FaceTime and with all of these tools, you found a way to have him really be a part of the family in every way except physically.
LINTON: Yes, exactly.
Q: Fantastic. Okay, thank you so much, Jennie. This was really informative, with so many ideas for helping kids in their transitions, helping kids feel a sense of control, and also enjoying all the positive things about this lifestyle of being an international Third Culture Kid. So, thank you so much.
LINTON: Thanks so much Bonnie.
End of interview
Download a copy of Jennifer Linton’s interview transcript below.