In the first couple of months after our move, as we were settling into our new apartment and neighborhood and schedules, I experienced a good bit of “morning” sickness. The nausea was often further irritated specifically by the fact that we were living in St. Petersburg.
Our apartment, for example, while very large and well-located, was also fairly old. No repairs or renovations had been done there in many years. I think partly for this reason, the kitchen of our apartment had an unusual smell to it when we moved in that I was never able to identify. After the first month or so the smell just kind of went away, but until then I dreaded every time I had to walk into the kitchen. I especially dreaded having to cook in the kitchen. There were several times while I was fixing a bowl of cereal for Isabel or standing over the stove that I had to rush out of the kitchen (often to the toilet) due to the nausea that came from that smell.
Another issue was the difference in the food we ate. For example, as a result of the pasteurization method used in Russia, the milk smelled a bit sour, all of the time. We tried several different brands and always, it smelled sour as soon as you opened it! This was not a problem for Isabel, who loves milk. But the smell of the milk would greatly aggravate my morning sickness. We kept asking around and trying different types of milk, and finally Charlie brought home a brand that we could only find in a couple of stores, and which was, of course, considerably more expensive than the others. But it had no smell! I remember how grateful I felt that day pouring a glass of milk for myself for the first time in about 2 months.
The Lord provided for my and Jasper’s dietary needs throughout the pregnancy.
Another example was when my mother filled my prescription of prenatal vitamins in Georgia, and mailed them to a friend of ours who was planning a trip to St. Petersburg that month. Our friend put the package my mother had sent her into her luggage for the trip, but by the time she arrived in St. Petersburg, it had been confiscated somewhere along the way, which should have left me without prenatal vitamins for a short time had it not been for the Lord’s provision.
A team from a supporting church had just left St. Petersburg at that time. One of the members of that team was a lady who knew of our pregnancy, and who was the wife of a physician. Therefore, she had access to samples of prenatal vitamins and had decided to bring me several in case I needed them. She carried enough of the vitamins to last me until I was able to get another refill of my prescription (a side miracle – the insurance company agreed to refill it after the pharmacist explained to them that the first bottle had been confiscated!). Because of the Lord’s blessing us through these people, I did not have to go a single day without taking a prenatal vitamin.
Further, the prescription that had been confiscated was later returned to my friend in the mail! Since she had left it in the package my mom originally used with her address on it, the airport authorities knew where to send it and sent it back to her. So not only did I have vitamins available to me during the pregnancy, but I also ended up with vitamins to take during the months after Jasper’s birth while nursing – a true miracle and example of the provision of almighty God!
BATTLING CULTURE SHOCK
In the months before our move, our family spent several weeks in training with other missionaries preparing to go onto the field. The type and source of these training sessions varied, but in each session there was one significant, recurring theme regarding a missionary’s first year on the field – culture shock. During this time we heard many stories of other missionaries who’d had to leave the field and go home after just a year or two because they’d become almost paralyzed with fear, paranoia, and isolation due to culture shock.
We were taught that one of the worst things a person experiencing culture shock can do is isolate themselves. We knew that we were going to have to get out every day if possible, in order to learn the new culture and language and in order to help minimize the effects of culture shock on our family during our first year in Russia.
So I began making plans. I had big plans of getting out with Isabel every day – getting around other kids her age at the playground and in the stores. We were going to go to the beach and to see all of the palaces and to ride the boat at the lake and to the theater and on and on my plans went.
As the pregnancy progressed, however, so did muscle and joint pain. Most mornings I felt so much pain after waking up that I would spend the first hour of the day limping around the apartment. I can’t explain why the pain seemed so much greater with this pregnancy than the first. Looking back on it now it seems like a blurry dream, most of which involved my lying in bed, looking up at the high ceiling of our bedroom, feeling sometimes that the walls were closing in on me.
So many days Isabel would come into the bedroom where I was laying and ask, “Mom, can we go outside today?” Sometimes, the grief and shame I felt because of my inability to help her more during our first year in Russia overwhelmed me. In the mornings especially, when the pain seemed the worst, I would often just lay in the bed while Charlie would get up with her to get her breakfast. When I was finally able to get out of bed, I would sometimes try to sneak out of our bedroom into the shower without either of them seeing me. I found myself not wanting to face them. Having Isabel run up to me, hug me, and say, “Oh Mommy, you’re up!” after I’d let her sit inside all morning just made me feel more ashamed.
But some days I woke up feeling pretty good. One of the major benefits of our apartment was its location about a block from a very large park, with a huge lake and 2 large playgrounds. On good days we’d go there with Isabel and she’d beg us to take her to the “big” playground, because she knew that it would be full of other children at almost any time of the day.
Of course, on this playground, all of the children spoke Russian. It’s hard to know exactly how long it took for Isabel to begin to grasp exactly why she couldn’t understand the children on the playground, and why they couldn’t understand her. On more than one occasion I would have to hide my face from her while we were there because I didn’t want her to see the tears that had formed as I watched my usually gregarious, very chatty 2 year old become silent and confused when the other girls on the playground didn’t say “hey” back to her. Or when she didn’t know how to ask if she could have a turn on the slide, and so she’d just stand back, holding her hands together with a nervous smile on her face until all the other kids were finished. Or when another child began to be mean to her because they thought she was dumb because she couldn’t speak Russian.
I would watch the other mothers on the playground talk about their kids or their husbands or their work, and would long to be able to just understand one story they were sharing. A couple of times other mothers tried to talk with me. At first it was totally hopeless. Even as the months and my Russian progressed, I was still rarely able to tell them much more than the fact that I was from America, and that I was living in St.Petersburg with my husband and my daughter, and that I was due to have a little boy around New Year’s.
Additionally challenging were simple trips to the grocery store, or to the doctor’s office for a check up. As we didn’t have a car, and as we didn’t know the bus routes very well, these types of trips during those first few months were exhausting. Not knowing each day how well I would feel, on those days when I did feel well enough to go to the store, for example, meant that we were going to need to shop for several days. However, we also had to keep in mind that whatever we purchased would be carried home in bags on our shoulders.
The closest grocery store was almost 2 miles away. Even using the metro meant that I was going to be carrying our groceries (whatever Charlie couldn’t carry) almost a mile home. Given the effect the pregnancy was having on me physically, typically the whole family knew that the day after a trip to the grocery store or to the doctor I would likely need to spend in bed.
On one occasion, when the three of us were coming home on the metro, a young man wearing a “Russian pride” shirt got on our car who’d obviously had a lot to drink. He asked Charlie a question, I think asking for directions. When Charlie answered that he didn’t understand Russian very well, and the young man realized we were foreigners (American foreigners at that), he became obviously irritated. He started becoming angry and loud and asking Charlie questions about why we were here, while moving closer to him and looking at me (about 6 months pregnant) and Isabel. I became afraid that once we got off of that train, he would follow us and that he might try to hurt us.
Then like an angel from God, at the station right before ours another young man got on the train who was wearing the same “Russian pride” shirt, who appeared to be completely sober and very friendly, and who obviously knew the first young man very well. I guess they may have been going to the same place, but at the moment he stepped on to our car, the man who had become so agitated with us completely calmed down. By the time we reached our station, he was talking and laughing with his friend so that he didn’t even notice that we got off of the train.
I wish I could say that despite the challenges of these first several months in Russia, we were all able to maintain our positive attitudes and healthy relationships with each other, or even with God. But in reality, the circumstances of the culture shock we were experiencing along with the somewhat crippling effect the pregnancy was having on me really began to take its toll on all of us.
Isabel has never been a good sleeper, but shortly after we arrived in Russia, she began regularly having “night terrors” during which she would begin screaming at the top of her lungs about nonsense, almost always while she was still asleep. Charlie and I would try anything we could to calm her down, but many nights it could take almost an hour before she was calm enough to go back to sleep.
These fits would escalate during the timing of special events, such as holidays or her birthday. I could see her confusion turn into anger and then sadness over the course of a few days as she began to realize that she was not going to see her family in Georgia on her birthday, or that she would not be going trick-or-treating with her cousins on Halloween. But the worst for all of us was Christmas that first year.
In Russia, Christmas is celebrated in January. The major holiday of that time for Russians is actually New Year’s. So on December 25, Isabel had school. We knew we would not have time before school to do the traditional Christmas morning gift opening, so we told her Santa was going to come while she was in school that day, and we set out cookies and milk for him before we left. We also explained to her that her family in Georgia was sleeping at that time, so we’d have to call and talk to them after school as well.
That day was the last day for her school before the Christmas holidays began in Russia, so her teachers had planned a special Christmas program for the parents. Of course, Isabel could not participate because it was in Russian and she wasn’t able to learn any of the lines. But she sat up front with the kids and Charlie and I sat in the back watching her classmates put on the show. About 5 minutes into it, looking at the back of my daughter’s head as she sat silently among the group of kids while the rest of them chatted and laughed, and remembering how the previous year we’d spent Christmas morning in my mom’s living room opening gifts and talking and laughing, I finally broke down. Charlie put his arm around me and we both cried silently throughout most of the show.
Earlier that year, Isabel and I had been given the opportunity to fly to Georgia for a couple of weeks. It was a wonderful trip, even if a bit exhausting. My family and friends threw me a surprise baby shower, we saw all of our family, and we ate American foods we’d been craving.
I noticed over the course of the trip that Isabel’s behavior changed somewhat dramatically. In the first few days we were there, she behaved like a perfect child. Too good, as a matter of fact. I told Charlie that I was actually a little concerned that she wasn’t expressing any more discontent given we were back in Georgia after so many months.
Then towards the end of our first week, her night terrors started again and her behavior began to get worse. By the time we left, she was having melt downs and night terrors every night, sometimes 2 or 3 times a night.
This behavior continued after she and I returned to St. Petersburg. We could not understand what had happened while we were in Georgia to cause such a reaction in her. Then one day Charlie and she were talking about the trip to Georgia, and she gave an indication that she thought she was going to have to stay there. Charlie was confused, and he said, “Did you think Mommy was going to leave you with your Grandmother?” She hesitated, and then nodded her head. For some reason it seemed that Isabel thought that Jasper’s coming meant she was going to have to leave our home in Russia and that she and I had gone to Georgia so that she could live with her Grandmother.
The week following our return from Georgia, all of us left again for a trip to Turkey for a retreat with other missionary families serving throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. By the time we arrived in Turkey, Isabel was still waking up every night with night terrors, and we were all becoming more and more exhausted.
Then in Turkey, there was another break through. Isabel met and played with other kids her age, all of whom were Americans, and all of whom were growing up in the field away from their families – just like her.
In Turkey she didn’t receive any special attention because she was a missionary kid. I think for one of the first times in her life, Isabel felt like a normal child around other kids who understood everything she had been feeling. She loved it in Turkey and she loved playing with the kids there more than I had ever seen anywhere else.
Further, I had the opportunity to talk with other mothers who’d raised their children on the field about the episodes Isabel was experiencing. One dear friend made the following simple suggestion: “Miki, why don’t you ask her if you and she can pray to Jesus before going to sleep that she won’t wake up scared and angry, and that if she does she can just come and get you or Daddy?”
So that night, that’s what we did. I asked her if I could pray for her before she went to sleep and she said yes. That was the first night in 2 weeks that she slept throughout the night completely undisturbed. She continued to have minor episodes after that, but by the time we returned to St. Petersburg, she was having normal sleep almost every night.
It seems that the effects of culture shock can be even greater on adults than on children. During those first months, Charlie and I learned a lot about ourselves and each other. For example, despite the fact that Charlie spent so many years on stage as a musician during school, he had a strong tendency to seek out places where he could be alone. We also began to see that since he and I had been married 9 years prior, I had generally been the one who sought out social scenes, and who’d always kept him from becoming to immersed in the isolation that drew him.
However, now that we were in Russia without a common circle of friends, unable to speak the language, and unfamiliar with the happenings in the city (or a babysitter), we found ourselves both struggling to get out of the apartment as we should have. Further adding to this problem, of course, was the fact that I so often felt so poorly due to the pregnancy.
Over the course of weeks and months, more and more bouts of depression, fear, or even feelings of panic about our living in Russia would set in on either one of us or both of us. We didn’t feel close enough with anyone in Russia to go to them, and we felt that if we went to anyone in the states, they’d have probably not understood, and might have tried to convince us to come home. So that left both of us feeling that we had no outlet for what we were feeling except each other.
I admit that there were several occasions that I did want to give up and go home. My tendency towards self-deprecation and guilt often left me vulnerable for the enemy to begin to tell me that our coming to Russia was endangering our children, or my marriage. I would lie in bed and cry and cry feeling convinced that I had taken on more than I could handle -that I was not a strong enough mother or wife, that my relationship with God was not ready for such a step as we had taken.
Additionally, the challenges of this period brought out Charlie’s tendency to seek out isolation during difficult times. Given these circumstances, what we began seeing was a significant increase in my need for Charlie’s attention and validation, while Charlie was feeling a greater and greater desire to be absolutely alone.
Literally, some days I would follow him around the apartment trying to talk to him and get him to talk to me, and he would begin to feel smothered and to shut himself off more and more. What often resulted were blow ups – emotional breakdowns from me and fits of rage from him. Usually these would take place in the middle of the night when Isabel was sleeping, and almost always would leave us feeling totally broken and hurt.
Following are a couple of excerpts from my journal written during this time:
July 2, 2009 (one month after arrival in St. Petersburg)
Funny after reading the prior entries how I feel as I sit here now. Since arriving in Russia, I have been sick – in the bed a lot. Currently I’m sitting in our IKEA bed, it is after 11pm at night and the sun is still out (white nights), I am feeling sick but don’t want to tell that to Charlie again, my right hip is hurting from laying on it so much. Charlie and I have hardly spoken for 2 days. The family and friends with whom I was struggling so just a few weeks ago seem like a dream to me. I’d give almost anything to be home with them. I’m blown away by how hard this is.
All of our training said that we were supposed to go through some sort of “honeymoon phase”. I’m scared to death that we’re in it, and that this is only going to get worse. I’m blown away by how hard this is.
I’m so lonely. I have no friends here. Charlie is sick of me. Isabel is even sick of me. She has become very rude to me in recent days. I can’t believe how hard this is. I can’t believe that we gave so much, I can’t believe that we did this. I can’t believe I’ve given so much of my LIFE to this for so long. I can’t believe this. I’m in total shock and am completely ashamed and embarrassed.
Charlie loves this place, I believe because no one can reach him here. He loves solitude. Solitude makes me crazy. The thing is that if I were say any of this to ANYONE I know, I know that they would secretly be amused, some even pleased, to hear how hard this is for me. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so alone in my life.
Then there is the shame for all of this that I’m feeling. We know so many who are orphans, who don’t know their family at all. What they would give to have someone to miss.
And there is the deepened realization of just how lost the people are here. Oh my gosh, the people here do not know love the way I do. They do not understand freedom the way I do. Missionaries who’ve served here for years are weighted down by the battles they have fought and are fighting against the enemy. I can’t believe how strong his grip is here. Some feel like God has deserted them. They read the truth in the scriptures that the enemy will flee from them, but they say the enemy doesn’t flee when they resist. They feel totally abandoned to him here. What’s going on? Why has God abandoned them here? Is He going to abandon us as well? I feel like I’ve brought my daughter into a pit. I want to take her out of it. I want to take her back to the bubble of the U.S. so at least she can know her family like I do.
I can see that prayer is the only way here – serious prayer. Not this “let’s take a minute to bless our meal and pat ourselves on the back for it” prayer. Healing prayer. Prayer of deliverance. Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Things that I wish I’d prepared more for before coming here. Ironic that we spent so much time raising support, and I didn’t feel like we had time to study healing prayer, and now I feel like a sitting duck. I feel like my family is a sitting duck.
Not to mention this child growing in my womb. I’m barely showing. If I didn’t have a positive pregnancy test, I would just think I was gaining weight and really sick at the same time. When I was pregnant with Isabel, there was so much joy! I’m feeling so ashamed that this child may feel the grief and depression I’m experiencing while he/she is in my womb. I’m so sorry that I can’t get out from under this. I’m so sorry for everything. I’m so sorry that I’ve hung so much on this. I hope that God is stripping me right now, and that this is not just because He’s gone. I’m not going to make it if He’s not in control of this. I feel totally at His mercy alone, because if He does not hang with me right now, I fully believe that I and my family will be broken by this. If we’re here in 2 years, if somehow we find in our hearts a home of love and peace and joy in this place, there is no doubt that it will be only because He did not desert us. For now, however, I just have to hope and wait.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
So it’s September, and we’re still here. Looking back on old posts, I don’t think I have anything new to add. Charlie and I are going through another period of barely speaking – when we do speak it is only in disagreement. I have become nervous about the delivery. It is more and more clear to me that no family will be coming, and I’m pretty sad about that. Isabel wants to see her grandmother so much, but her grandmother is not going to come here. I’m mad at how the people at home have not made any plans to visit us here at all. Abbie and her husband are the only 2 who really seem to want to support us in this. Everyone else just seems to want us to fail – to come home.
The sun sets now, so we have night time. That is a big help. I’m also sleeping in a different bed, which seems to be helping the pain. I’m ashamed that this time has become so much about survival, and so little about doing anything to help anyone here. There have been times that God’s efforts to keep us separated from certain people has been obvious. Charlie and I are not handling this isolation together well, and the shame I feel for the way it seems to be effecting Isabel is a bit overwhelming. The grace of God is really being put to the test here – I’m struggling with the feeling that our time here is only going to leave a detrimental mark on this family that would not have been there had we just stayed home.
During those first months, I felt strongly pulled into the book of Isaiah. I’d read and reread the same verses over and over again, for days at a time sometimes. One particular verse strongly stuck with me from Isaiah chapter 25:
“He will bring down your high fortified walls and lay them low; he will bring them down to the ground, to the very dust.” Isaiah 25:12
This verse resonated within my spirit, as I could almost literally feel the pain of the stripping that the Lord was doing in my life. As I meditated on this verse and others like it over the weeks and months, I repented to the Lord for the idolatry that was so evident in my life as I lay in bed mourning over foods I missed like Diary Queen blizzards, Frosted Mini Wheats, or milk that didn’t smell. Or as I cried longing for the back porch of our old house in Georgia, or for our van that used to sit parked so conveniently in our garage, or for the ability to get in my car and be at my mother’s house in 20 minutes, or at my father’s house in 5 hours. As I cried because I couldn’t walk into Publix grocery store with Isabel and buy us a pint of chocolate milk and a Krispy Kreme donut whenever we wanted. As I cried because I couldn’t just drive to the warm Georgia coast or even to the running track at the local park in our hometown in Georgia. As I longed to be able to meet up for dinner with my girlfriends and have a glass of wine and talk about things other than survival in St. Petersburg, Russia – things like going to see a band coming to town, or a new awesome restaurant, or where we were all planning to spend our summer vacation.
The Lord also shared His word with me through a few dear friends at various times during that first year. One friend wrote us the following words in an email:
Date: Friday, June 12, 2009, 11:44 AM
Dear Charlie, Miki and Isabel,
I prayed for all of you this morning. I prayed, among other things, Ephesians 3:14-21 over you all. I could not help noticing once again how our God is the immeasurable One- “I pray that from His glorious, unlimited resources he will give you mighty inner strength through his Holy Spirit.” Again in verse 20 it speaks of His mighty power that is able to accomplish “infinitely more.” Every characteristic and attribute about Him is unlimited! In reading through the Psalms each month now for several months, I have discovered that two character traits that surface over and over and over are His “unfailing love and faithfulness.” It is hard for us to imagine someone that never fails- never. And this is the One who lives in us, who loves us, who promised that He would never forsake us!! May we constantly keep our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish (Hebrews 12:2).
Then another friend wrote to say she felt the Lord had wanted her to remind us of His word in the 2nd half of Romans 8: For example, vs 18-21 “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” or vs. 23-24 “..we ourselves…groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.” or vs. 28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
In those months God’s Word was truly a source of life for us time and time again.