Hannah interviews our director, John, and his wife, Mary, about how they became parents while living in Iraq and what it was like raising their family there. Living in Iraq has unique challenges for parents. (While Colleen watched the kids!)


Want to join us? We’re always looking for more adventurous families to join our teams in Iraq, Greece, and Nashville!


Transcript: Parenting Internationally

Hannah: Hey, Colleen.

Colleen: Hey, Hannah.

Hannah: So this is “Between Iraq and a Hard Place,” although it kind of looks like a storage closet.

Colleen: But seriously, we’re here to talk about life in Iraq.

Hannah: Right. So this week you’re stuck with just me. Well not just me. I have two guests. This is our first time ever having two guests actually. Congratulations. I have John and Mary Nelson say hello

John: Hello.

Mary: Hello.

Hannah: And we brought them on because, well, they’re married and neither Colleen and I were ever married in Iraq or now.

John: I was going to ask that.

Hannah: Or before! And so we wanted to talk to you guys about life in Iraq as a married couple. And then you also were in Iraq with young kids. So why don’t we start with how you ended up in Iraq. I know for a lot of us it’s like my whole life!

John: Briefly, I guess the answer would be at that time of our lives. This was 2010, August of 2010, for the first time we had been forming some deep relationships, deep friendships with some international students in Erie, Pennsylvania where we were living at the time. These were really the first folks we had ever known from overseas, certainly from the Middle East and Central Asia area. And it was just great. We got to know them. They lived with us for a season. It was just a really impactful time of relationship, cross-cultural relationship. I think we wanted more of that and we didn’t have any kids yet. We had been married two or three years at that point. So I think I think we just wanted to kind of take another step and see what it would be like to live overseas and be in another culture.

Hannah: Do you feel like when you initially talked to your families about this, were they like. “That’s not a good idea.” Or were they like, “hey you’re married. Do what you want.”

Mary: My family did not like the idea at all. They grew more accustomed to it after we started fundraising and everything. But initially they weren’t very happy.

John: The whole Iraq factor tends to make people nervous. We were, were we nervous? I don’t remember really being nervous.

Mary: I think it was a little more nervous than you were.

John: Yeah.

Hannah: With good reason!

John: All that we read about the Kurdistan region in particular really reassured us very different place I think than southern Iraq at least.

Mary: And also meeting people from SGI who knew what it was like to live there really helped. And when we were able to convey a lot of that back to our families, my family in particular, they felt better about it.

Hannah: When you got to Iraq what were some of your first like initial thoughts. Was there something that was like, “This is really different than I thought that it would be.”

Mary: Well, we got there in August and it was hot. That’s the first thing I noticed.

John: It was like stepping into a blast furnace. We walked off the airplane at that time there was no jet bridge or anything you just go down to the tarmac and opening that plane door was it was 120 degrees outside and you couldn’t even open your eyes because the sunlight was so bright. It really took our breaths away. And I grew up in West Texas so I’m used to some some hot heat but nothing like that.

Hannah: And so your first year you were on a team with another married couple who they just had one kid at the time.

John: They did. Zander was, I think, a year and a half?

Mary: A year, just a little over a year.

Hannah: How do you feel like your team dynamics changed because the next year did you have single girls on your team?

Mary: No. We started with Stacey. Stacey was already there. She was kind of well established. The next year, Dan and Julie were there.

Hannah: Okay so three married couples.

John: That’s right.

Hannah: And then Helen.

Mary: Yeah I guess we came back with Henry. Yes she was there when we came back.

Hannah: So do you feel like the dynamic ever change team changed because of that or do you feel like she just kind of blended right in.

Mary: I think she blended right in. She’s very used to being around people with kids and she fit in really well at the school.

John: Yeah I think for us as a couple we when we got there we didn’t have kids. And so obviously you’re a little more footloose and fancy free. You can you can stay up late you can be more flexible and in the other family had Zander so they were they were a little more structured trying to to work with his nap schedule and all that. And we just we had no clue yet about stuff like that. But we were very soon to learn. We got into that world with Henry our second year. When did we take Henry over?

Mary: He was a seven weeks old, I think?

John: Yeah. So that would have been the second semester.

Mary: Yes. Early on January. Yeah.

Hannah: Let’s talk about how that kind of changed changed your life bringing your basically new newborn firstborn son. I’m sure your families were thrilled about that

Mary: At that point, They knew what we were there for. We had been there already a year and they were well prepared. From the beginning that pregnancy. You know we were definitely going to be taking him back and they weren’t. I don’t think they were upset about it.

John: I think the bigger the bigger obstacle or the bigger thing that made everyone nervous was the initial going and making that decision. I don’t think having the kids there was was quite the same shock to everyone

Mary: And even us, I mean we didn’t because we had lived there we knew what it was like. We didn’t feel any any anxiety about taking him with us. I think the only anxiety we really felt was taking the baby on a 12 hour plane ride!

John: And actually, he tricked us. The very first long plane ride he was

Mary: He slept whole time!

John: Hhhe slept the whole time. We were li, “ke What do people complain abo! Tt this is so eas” y. They had the little bassinet that hooked onto the wall right in front of you and he just lay there and slep We watched movies and talked and it was easy. Well that was the only time it was ever like that.

Mary: Of course he was a newborn when we went home after that year he was seven months old and that was definitely not an easy flight right.

John: I would say it was awful. We were the screaming, the screaming baby for the whole eleven hour flight. It was hard.

Hannah: So in in Iraq how did because you guys were both teaching at the schools even after you came back with Henry. So how did that change kind of your daily schedule as it were.

Mary: I taught first. I went in the morning and taught a class and then I came home. John stayed at home with Henry while I was at the school. And then when I came home he went to the school so made me feel a little bit more apart from the school for sure because I wasn’t there for any of the breaks where you get to really sit and talk to kids and hang out.

John: Especially compared to the previous year before Henry. She taught full time I think four or five lessons a day.

Mary: I was there the whole day. So that was a change for me. Yeah to feel that difference. But it was still nice to be able to spend time at the school every day even though I had a baby to take care of.

John: Yeah it was really great how they were able to work out that schedule so that we could both keep teaching.

Hannah: Do you feel like it changed your relationships with teachers aside from just not seeing them as much. Like did you feel like people were more like oh you have a baby you’re more approachable less approachable?

Mary: I don’t know that I was more or less approachable. 

John: I think it just legitimizes you as a as a person or as an adult in a weird way that that maybe we don’t have in the States. It seems like there is this hierarchy in the east of OK if you’re a single unmarried person you’re still a kid in a lot of ways. And then you know to get to that next level of respectability you get married. But then I think the final step is once you start having kids people especially older adults start looking at you as, OK you’re you’re finally a real adult now you have a family you have these responsibilities.

Mary: But I think there were still some questions from a lot of the other teachers. I mean a lot of the other teachers that I knew there were also moms that were there the whole day. And I think there were some questions that maybe they didn’t ask and maybe they sometimes did ask why I wasn’t there the whole day and why I was different, why I had to be with my own baby instead of having someone else take care of it. They wondered why I was there at all if I wasn’t going to be there full time in some ways.

John: Yeah but the way it works so so often there is extended families pitch in to help each other. So when, you know, those moms may be at school all day but their child is with an aunt or a grandmother or something like that during the day and we just didn’t have that same support structure. So I guess that would be a huge difference is not having not have an extended family around. Definitely makes it challenging to have kids overseas.

Hannah: Did people think that it was weird, John, that YOU stayed home with the baby?Like, I feel like that’s very much not a Middle Eastern thing. Like no Middle Eastern man I know would do that.

John: I can’t think of a specific conversation or comment that anyone made, but…

Mary: I can! I think the women were probably more free with their opinion. Really? John is there?

John: He knows how to change diapers?

Mary: How will that work?

John: Is your child going to be alive when you get home?

Mary: I definitely got that impression from of the women, there.

John: But yeah it worked. I vividly remember being in Henry was was just a little guy two three months and we went to a wedding or a wedding reception and Henry’s diaper need to be changed and I I changed right there on the floor

Mary: I think you did it on the table.

John: I know I was on the floor, I promise. And I tried to be discreet about it but all eyes were on me. This American Dad is changing his son’s diaper, probably not in an appropriate place, but I think the bigger spectacle is just that it was me, instead of Mary. Yeah I don’t I don’t know what I was thinking, it was embarrassing. I don’t think I put the diaper on backwards.

Hannah: So you did it you did it right.

Mary: To the amazement of all watching.

Hannah: For sure. Yeah. I now had conversations with yes there that people and maybe it was it was more of the Bishops because the Bishop’s kids were a little bit older, about how other men would like, notice how you and Andy played with your kids and interacted with them in a positive way. Did you think about that like as you were parenting your kids that like everyone is watching us.

John: Sometimes. Yeah, I mean, I think that’s just a part of life, there, whether you have kids or not. As a foreigner, you’re definitely in a fishbowl. You kind of always know in the back of your mind that people are looking at the way you do things, the way that you interact with your spouse or your colleagues or your teammates. And that’s definitely a part of your testimony. For good or bad. Knowing that you’re being watched, I guess, extending that into parenthood or, in my case, fatherhood. Yeah, you know that that you’re doing things probably differently than than other people might and that that will get noticed but hopefully in a positive way. Mary’s laughing at something now…

Hannah: Mary, I feel like you have something to say.

Mary: I just remember all the women commenting on how I dressed my children. Whether, “It’s very cold. Why is his head not covered? Well you know what I mean when it’s 80 degrees and you don’t have a coat on your kid and everyone wants to tell you that it’s too cold for your child to be in shorts. Yeah, you definitely feel watched.

Hannah: Because you’ve had kids the same age here in the US too. Do you feel like you got more like parental advice in Kurdistan?

Mary: Yes. Yes, especially because we were there without extended family. I think a lot especially the older women in the community probably felt like they needed to say something to me about something. Maybe I was doing..

John: ..like in a motherly way.

Hannah: Yeah, to help you to be a better mom.

Mary: Because my mom wasn’t there to help, or John’s mom wasn’t there. I do think that there are a lot of comments from that from that type of community. I don’t think a younger woman would have judged me or thought too much about what I was doing. But definitely the older women in the community did.

Hannah: And in community like your neighbors or teachers at the school?

Mary: Yes.

Hannah: Random strangers?

Mary: Yes. All of the above.

Hannah: Really?!

Mary: Yes. I can’t even tell you how many women would come up to me and say “gelek soora”. It’s too cold.

John: And then in fairness to everyone, we didn’t know what we were doing really. I mean we’re making it up as we go. This is our first child. We would have, you know, we would have needed advice and and help anywhere in the States or or Kurdistan.

Mary: It’s, you know, when random strangers come up to you and tell you the temperature it opens avenues to talk to people you wouldn’t have talked to otherwise.

Hannah: For sure.

John: Well that’s for sure.

Colleen: I’m interrupting this podcast to let you know that we need your help editing the transcription of the podcast. So if you’d like to be a part of our podcasting team send us a message.

Hannah: Yeah, we’ll even give you credit. At the end of the podcast so, you know, your name in lights.

Colleen: Yes.

John: People love babies. I mean all over the world but certainly in Kurdistan.

Mary: They love blond blue-eyed babies.

Hannah: Which Henry was.

John: I mean it’s like a doll. They can’t not come up to you and hold your little doll and take pictures and sometimes take your child away that you’re like, “Wait where are you going, come back!” Because it’s just it’s just a big deal.

Hannah: Did that worry you as a parent. That like they’re running off with my child.

Mary: I mean when we were at the school with the kids and other teachers that we maybe didn’t know super well but at least knew they were part of the school. When they did it it wasn’t worrisome. But maybe there were a few times…

John: When the guy in the bazaar you know just comes up to you and does it

Mary: …and takes your kid is behind the curtain and you can’t see either of them…

John: …and you can’t communicate very well either. Because our Kurdish was poor. Yeah, but you just you just kind of follow them around and wait for them to hand the baby back.

Mary: And then you also get used to it because it really happened everywhere. I think the first few times we were probably more nervous than other times and it also happened a lot more with Henry than it did with Millie, our daughter. I think people felt more free to take the boy right. Mm hmm.

Hannah: So yeah let’s talk about Millie. You knew you were pregnant again, what was that like to be in the first stages of pregnancy in Kurdistan? Did you know with Henry as well in Kurdistan?

Mary: Yeah.

Hannah: All right. So tell me what that that was like. JOHN, No comment from you.

John: tYeah.

Mary: I would say probably the worst thing would be feeling sick in early pregnancy and it’s not necessarily appropriate to talk about the fact that you’re pregnant, so not be able to find excuses for when you’re going to be sick and you need to go do that. I think that was always a little bit awkward and not necessarily knowing if you could tell friends, good friends even, I think telling good friends that you’re pregnant is not necessarily appropriate. So learning that balance is interesting.

Hannah: Can you talk about like why that might be kind of a taboo thing to talk about being pregnant.

Mary: I think just in general you don’t talk about past personal things like if he needs the restroom even it’s not something it’s maybe we’re more free with, “oh I have to go to the bathroom” when you’re in the States and you wouldn’t say anything like that there. So similarly you wouldn’t talk about being pregnant. But then I think I don’t think I was ever noticeably pregnant with Millie but we were there at a time when I was definitely noticeably pregnant with Henry.

Hannah: Right.

Mary: And then people feel more free to talk to you about it even random strangers, not necessarily strangers, but people you don’t know very well. There were women that would come up to me and kiss my belly

John: Yeah, men would never do that, right.

Mary: Obviously not.

John: I’m not talking just about the kissing but they wouldn’t they wouldn’t bring up the fact of you’re pregnancy to you. Was very much of a woman to woman thing.

Hannah: Would they bring it up to you?

John: Maybe. Yeah, just like the polite. So congrats. Having another kid… something like that.

Hannah: So when you brought your babies back did anybody like I know I have been to baby showers in Kurdistan after babies are born do people like do something similar or like bring you gifts or anything like that? Or did they figure you were in America your family because you had Henry and Mary both in the US yet not in Iraq right.

Mary: And then we came back soon after. I think whenever we got their passports we queued up and they’re pretty typically about eight weeks or so we would travel back. I don’t think I mean I I got a few gifts from close friends. It wasn’t a normal thing for people to give us gifts for the kids. I think probably because they knew we had the babies in the States.

Hannah: And did you ever think about having them in Kurdistan or were you pretty much like, eeh no.

Mary: And we did consider having our first in Kurdistan. We knew the parent of one of our students could have delivered him. But talking to her…

Hannah: Because she was a doctor, right?

Mary: Yeah. Not just random lady. She’s a doctor. And she could have delivered him that when I went when we went to visit her in the office she said they just do things differently. So we talked about it. I asked her how we would know for sure that she would be there when I was in labor. And she said oh we’ll just induce you so that they can line up the schedule while I’m on schedule. And that didn’t sound very appealing to me. So I decided to have my kids in the states and be with family for that time. That was important to us. Yeah.

John: But you did receive a lot of prenatal care over there.

Mary: Some from the mom of our student. She was great. She’s very helpful.

John: And other expats that we knew there did choose to have have kids there with varying degrees of regret for or not. But I think a lot of Westerners choose to go back home and just do it in a familiar setting.

Hannah: I feel like I heard of some people who would just like go into Europe to have their babies to even Kurdish people Kurdish women going to Istanbul just because like if something happened there’s a better level of care there.

John: Right. And as it turned out, Henry was delivered by C-section. So we were thankful to just be at home and with family in a hospital setting that we were comfortable with.

Hannah: So how old were Henry and Millie when you guys moved back to the US?

Mary: Henry was two and a half and Millie was almost a year, not quite a year. So still pretty young.

Hannah: So pretty young. So do they remember Kurdistan?

Mary: Henry has one memory of Kurdistan and I think it’s more because we talk about it a fair amount. When John hit his head and had to go to the hospital.

John: So there was blood involved and screaming.

Hannah: That’s funny how trauma tends to stick with you. But you’ve been back to visit without your kids since then. What was it like to go back sans kids just for a visit?

Mary: Definitely more freeing in some ways.

John: I mean the travel was great. I just felt like yeah I mean it was really a vacation in a lot of ways. To be able to take a plane trip and hold hands and stroll you know without juggling the kids.

Mary: Except the one that I was pregnant with.

John: True.

Mary: But to have more flexibility to go out at night with the students and not be tied to a schedule.

John: To go on long hikes. We won’t talk about that. Seth, if you’re listening, you took us on an epic hike. We’ll give you that.

Hannah: It sounds like a story. Were people are like, why are you here without your kids?

Mary: There was a little bit of that, you know, “Why didn’t you? We wanted to see your kids!” That kind of thing.

Hannah: Right. Not like, “You’ve abandoned your children!”

Mary: More like, “You’re selfish that you didn’t bring them with you so that we could see them again.”

John: The people get that it’s expensive and difficult to cart your kids all over the world.

Hannah: Yeah definitely.

John: But there always is like this sense of they’d rather see the kids than us. I think in a joking way like grandparents maybe sure you know– where’s your kids? Why didn’t you bring them? Why did you come? Why did you even come without your kids? So things like that are just in good humor.

Hannah: I do that to my sister and I whenever I go home I greet all of her children first. I mean I’m like, “Oh hey, Leah,” I didn’t really come to see you, except I totally did. Do you have any advice for either young married couples or young families that are thinking about not necessarily Iraq, specifically, but living internationally.Are there things that you look back at and you’re like I wish we had like done this differently or been prepared for.

John: I guess I would just say don’t they’ll be scared of having your kids in a foreign context.

Mary: Not necessarily delivering them there but having them there with you.

John: That’s a separate question. But but having and raising your kids somewhere whether it’s a few years or longer. It’s definitely doable. But we know a lot of great families, expat families that we were friends with while we were there many of whom are still there. And God has called them to raise their kids there, probably for their kid’s entire childhood. And that’s that’s a huge undertaking. But it’s possible. And their kids are going to learn things and benefit from that experience in some amazing ways. So I guess. Yeah. Don’t let fear dissuade you from going overseas because you have kids. But also don’t be afraid of raising your kids in that context.

John: I think you learn you whether you have your kids in the states or Timbuktu. You’re still doing something that you’ve never done before you’re still learning as you go and making mistakes. And the setting may be different but you and your kid are the same any other place. It’s not all about you it’s up to the Lord and just learning day by day.

Hannah: Yes. Would you like to someday maybe when Henry and Millie and now Ned are older, would you like to take them back and be like Hey…

John: Definitely.

Hannah: You were here for some of your life, at least! All three of them were for some small part of their life.

Mary: We’ve talked about that.

John: Kurdistan’s has been and always will be a huge part of our lives and the kids have heard us talk about it incessantly for since we were there. So we definitely want to take them back someday and show them around and have them experience what has been such an important part of our lives.

Hannah: Cool! Well thanks. Thanks for coming. Thanks for having me. Hopefully Colleen has survived your kids.

John: Thanks Colleen!

Hannah: Yeah. And if you guys have questions for John and Mary, all our contact info will be in about 20 seconds. So send us an e-mail. We’ll pass it on to John and Mary, and get your questions answered, somehow.

Hannah: Thanks guys.

John: Thanks, Hannah.

Colleen: You can find us at Servant Group International on Facebook or Instagram or on our website at servantgroup.org.

Hannah: Yeah, and if you have a question that we haven’t answered yet, send us an email or Facebook message. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks for listening!

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