The concept of “home” has always been a big issue in our house. The children grew up among American, German, Egyptian and Kuwaiti cultures, making them what is known as “third-culture kids” or TCKs. This special breed of people, having spent significant parts of their developmental years in a culture other than their parents’ cultures, develop a sense of relationship to all of the cultures while not having full ownership in any. Our kids grew up as international travelers and cultural chameleons. They were bilingual, adaptable, mature, with an international orientation and cross-cultural skills. But every coin has two sides, and I discovered, eventually, that my kids often felt rootless, insecure, off-balance and unsure of where “home” was.
One of the most difficult questions TCKs are asked is, “Where are you from?” Most people automatically and confidently answer this benign question, but for a TCK, it is a conundrum. So we would joke at home about how to answer the question: just pick one culture that most closely resembles the one who asked; say I’m from everywhere and nowhere; say I’m from planet earth; ask so how much time do you have? We would laugh and let off steam but, eventually, the conversation turned serious. We had to come to terms with the question that would trouble us our entire lives.
To put their experience in context, I told them that many prophets had trans-cultural experiences, including Abraham, Lot, Moses, Joseph, Jesus and Muhammad. Prophets Abraham, Lot and Muhammad left their corrupt and polytheistic homelands to establish residence where they could worship the Creator undisturbed. Moses, a true TCK, toggled between Egyptian and Israeli cultures until he finally left Egyptian civilization for life in the wilderness with the Israelites. Joseph, an Arab boy sold into slavery in Egypt, undoubtedly experienced homesickness and a feeling of isolation in new surroundings. And Jesus, who fled his birthplace with his mother and Joseph to escape discovery and possible slaughter by King Herod, was, essentially, homeless for some time. The experiences of these great prophets, we surmised, most certainly gave them qualities of patience, tolerance and self-reliance, as well as mindsets that were inclusive, compassionate and charitable.
We discussed Muhammad’s advice to “be as a traveler” since this life is like “resting under the shade of a tree.” And we agreed that Paradise is our real home – God willing – in the sense that the Garden of Eden was the original residence of Adam and Eve before they were sent to earth, “a place of settlement and provision for a time” (2:36). The Quran reminded us that, “this worldly life is only (temporary) enjoyment and, indeed, the Hereafter – that is the (permanent) settlement” (40:39). The discussion around the prophets and the transient nature of life on earth was helpful, but it didn’t solve the need we all had to be able to identify home – not our dwelling place or location, but a place of identity and belonging.
I made a list of what home meant to me: the place where I belong, where I’m known, where I am welcome, where I’m comfortable to be me. It is a place where I’m not afraid to speak up, where I am accepted for who I am, where I can cry uncontrollably and laugh with all my heart. It is a place of forgiveness. Home is a familiar place where I share history and I am involved in shaping a common destiny. It’s where I experience togetherness and solidarity. It is where I invest myself, feel empowered to reach a potential, and am valuable to someone, at least. As I realized what home meant to me, I understood what it must mean to my own children too, and hoped that they would always find home in my presence.
Since TCKs are known to find belonging in relationships rather than locations, I knew that my role as a mother was important. I had to dig deeper into my conception of home to the idea of mother, perhaps the central and most significant presence in the home. To mother is to affirm someone by letting him know it’s OK to be him, as he is, that it’s OK to have needs, and to take love and care from others. To mother is to care for someone enough to give him what is good for him, not just what feels good to him. It is to care about his well-being and to let him know he can depend on you no matter what. A mother is something solid to lean on and something soft to fall on. To mother is to say, in words and deeds, that you are special the way nobody else can be, and that you are loved, no matter what is or was, or will be or will not be.
Would I ever live up to this concept of mother? Would I be able to provide that sacred place called home?
My children have grown and moved away to build families of their own – another generation of TCKs in a world that thrives on interconnectedness and cross-border movement. Like typical adult TCKs, they adapt quickly to new environments and are comfortable as outsiders. I hope they feel at home everywhere, because home is essentially a place of self-acceptance and self-worth, a place of shared values and aspirations. I hope that they are surrounded with motherly love that communicates acceptance, affirmation, and delight in the uniqueness of who they are and who they are becoming. And I hope that they extend to all they meet the prophets’ gifts of compassion and inclusion. If so, I’ll know that, wherever they are, they’ll be home.
 According to Matthew 2:13-23