Mothers Who Work in International Education: A Conversation

Kelly Kirkwood and I met online and had a great time exploring how motherhood impacts our work as international educators and how our work influences our role as mothers. We agreed to have some sort of discussion about it online – its aim was “some sort of conversation between moms who blaze through the world of international education with grace, style, and ease.”  Ok, that’s not really what it looks like…but here is our chat about parenting little ones as we aim to raise them to be global citizens while still managing our inboxes and aiming for some “me” time, too.

Missy:  Kelly, we are both mompreneurs in international education.  That means we’re both moms who work on our own businesses, although you also amazingly have a full time job while running Study Abroad Careers. I work from home in my own small business, Melibee Global, and have the “luxury” of working in my pajamas part of the day, which feels like a time saver since I have a two year old (ha ha)!  While I get a lot less work “done” than I used to, I learn so much from him.  He’s taught me about perspective, priorities, creativity, laughter, coaching with love, patience. Did I mention patience? If people think working across cultures requires patience, try having a kid! 😉 How old is your child and what has she taught you that you use in your international education work?

Kelly in her lead role as mom, with her eldest daughter.

Kelly: My daughter is about to turn 5. I’ve learned so much from being her mom. It was hard at first. I went back to work when she was just 10 weeks old. I didn’t have any paid maternity leave and I knew my work was an important part of my identity. Back in the office, I quickly learned to multi-task and be more efficient with my office time. Staying late to catch up was no longer a viable option. And taking work home, as you know, means constant interruption. I feel like she taught me to honor my time and prioritize better.

Being a mother also helped me empathize with the parents I encounter in my work. I now understand what it’s like to have another human who makes you constantly worry! So I try to be patient with parents sending their students abroad and show them I care. Of course it also works in reverse…my job constantly reminds me I’m shaping a person to live (and travel) autonomously in the future. Please don’t let me wind up a helicopter parent!

I’m curious, Missy, in what ways do you feel Hudson benefits from having a mother who works in international education?

Missy: I completely agree – my son has taught me how incredibly productive you can be when you HAVE to be!  And I hear what you’re saying about relating to parents – there is nothing like motherhood to help you understand the love and care one feels for her child/ren.  With that said, I also find that if I thought I cared about the people I work with before, I really have amped it up to a new level (and I think it was pretty high before) because now I can’t help but see everyone out there as a young (or not so young) mind that needs support in shaping and framing a vision.  Finally, he’s taught me the most about forgiveness in that I used to beat myself up for not getting everything done in the exceptional time frame I used to adhere to.  Now, I know that I can forgive myself if something gets addressed a few hours later than I would like. Yes, forgiveness has been a biggie.

From the time he was little, he was enamored with the inflatable globe.

You’ve posed a good question and I’ve been pondering it for days.  My son is two and obviously can’t get certain concepts about our world at this stage, but I love that we are creating memories and setting a foundation for him to see our home and community as part of a bigger planet. He has an inflatable globe and we play a game where I spin it and he stops it – and we talk about when we will go visit that random place that his little chubby fingers fall on. Beautifully, he adores the word airplane already.  He says it with such enthusiasm every time he sees a real plane or a picture of one! He almost sings it… Air – PLANE! with the emphasis on the plane.  That apple didn’t fall from his mama’s tree, that’s for sure!  We read books about people from other places, we have bi-lingual books for him, we throw Spanish words around a lot (my husband is great at saying “basura”), and of course our “nephew” is staying with us this year from Brasil…and we hope that these little gestures make imprints on his mind about the beauty and diversity in our world. I hope that it creates a boy who is curious about the world, how values travel and immersion over technology and gadgetry of all types. We shall see!

Kelly: We see that in our daughter too. It just so happens that my husband works for a non-profit international center here in our community. Sometimes, due to time conflicts, she gets to come along to his community cultural events or flag setups. While we have not been brave enough to hop on a long haul flight with her yet, she has a far better understanding of the world than when I was her age. Through my travels and her father’s Sister City work, she already knows about India, Ireland, Australia, China, France, and Korea. She will make up fantastical stories about these places she has never been. It warms my heart to hear her asking questions like , “What language do they speak in China?” or to have pictures of her “playing” camogie in with the other normal baby book pics.

I will admit the travel part is more challenging as she ages and becomes aware of things. For example, I have a work trip to the UK that will have me away for about a week. I have been trying to come up with ideas for easing some of her anxiety about my trip. She has already told me she doesn’t want me to go. While I’ve traveled quite a bit since she was born, including a 3-week trip when she was not yet two, each time is different. Her developmental level and emotional needs change and so too does my reaction.

Missy being interrupted at work by her greatest creation/distraction!

Missy:  My son teaches me that it is my job to create his awareness of the world.  I have a world map as his placemat at the dining room table and he knows where Brasil is because our “nephew” returned home and we talked about where he would go when he got on the airplane and who would be in this place called Brasil.  He also says “Taj Mahal” because he has seen a picture of it in a kid’s yoga book that we read – I have told him that we would go there before he is 10 years old.  I’m acutely aware of how I talk about culture and diversity with him.  We live in a wonderful community (Asheville, NC) but it is not very diverse and that is a major issue for me. We therefore ensure that our friends and activities are not always with people who have had similar life experiences. Intention – that is very much what I’m learning from our little guy – how to be incredibly intentional with words I choose and how we interact with the world.  As a result, I am also acutely aware of how many people are not and how history has created patterns of beliefs that prevent us from living in a world that embraces the value of intercultural interaction and diversity.  For example, I recently met a man who grew up in a rural county north of where I live. We had a very honest discussion about how he was raised with people who were simply ignorant and who embraced “heritage” with the Confederate flag, not caring or recognizing how that symbol impacts others. He told me his family “owned” slaves and profited greatly from them – and how he has tapes of elders in his family talking about things that don’t make him proud in this day and age. (I’m encouraging him to share the tapes with the local university’s history department.)  These types of conversations remind me how critical it is to have my son meet and talk with people who are not like him so that he can understand the roots of beliefs/values of people different from himself so that as he grows up, he can make a stronger commitment to dialogue that is beneficial for whole communities, not just some people in a community.

On a pragmatic level, how do you as a parent feel you find any balance with international education work and home life?  Is there even such a thing?

Kelly – international educator by day!

Kelly: I wouldn’t call it balance. Instead I’d say that I try to honor the multiple hats I wear. I prefer compartmentalization. When I’m at work, I’m an international educator. When I’m home, I’m momma. At my kitchen counter during the few evening/weekend hours I squirrel away, I’m the founder of the Study Abroad Careers community. Of course they spill into one another from time to time. But I like to use physical space to delineate my roles. Because I commute an hour each way to the office, I use my car as my “thinking space”. This is where I listen to audiobooks, NPR, or just enjoy the silence as I think and strategize about work, parenthood, or special projects.

I find that physical activity creates the same sacred space. It has been a while, given that I just had a second baby, but running is my favorite way to clear my head from some of the work stress that leaks into home life. I’m not a fast runner. I’m not a long distance runner. But I love getting out there (kid-free) and enjoying the outdoor time. My best ideas come to me when I am running. Fun fact: When I’m not running to 90s hip hop on Pandora I actually run to podcasts.

What are your favorite ways to re-center?

Missy:  Compartmentalization is a great example of how to focus on each area well. I appreciate that. I also once had a long commute and found that silent time in the car a great way to unwind and simply think without interruption. I was inspired to invite more silence into my life by the book “The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction.” 

How do I re-center?  My go to activity as of late has been swimming laps at the YMCA!  This past month I challenged myself to a commitment of activity for 30 days straight.  I’ve spent most of the time in the pool and like running for you, it is how I have been clearing my head. I’ve also been doing a relaxation sequence and meditation several times a week which has been, by far, the tool that helps me to focus most effectively when I do return to the computer. I’m also very drawn to films and storytelling as a source of inspiration. I have a dear friend who is my “go to friend” at the fine arts theater in our city – and I often leave those films with a new perspective that has inspired many blog posts, and exercises across cultures in my work.

Despite the exhaustion of parenthood, it is usually my son who does the best job of making me laugh (the best medicine and rec-entering possible!) and who helps me see new perspectives on life. When a child doesn’t have the world pre-defined for them or the specific words to “explain” something, they come up with some gems that offer a new lens on something as simple as dribbling a basketball or how we label every day items (he calls his carpet in his room his “playground.”)

With a new school year quickly approaching, will you be approaching anything from a new perspective (besides exhaustion and the sense of freedom of getting in the car alone and not having to clean up kid food in your back seat in transit?) 😉

Kelly:  Most definitely. Living the “stay-at-home-mom life” while on maternity leave gave me the chance to take a step back and spend time with both my kids during crucial times in their lives. It was wonderful. But it also helped me to appreciate how lucky I am to have a career where I’m just as eager to return. Not every mom feels that way (and that’s okay).

Fall term will be my second time “on-ramping” after a leave and I plan to be more patient with myself this time. I’ve learned it is okay to give myself time before I feel fully back into the rapid-fire pace of fall semester. Just showing up and trying my best is okay. We will fall into a new schedule and a new normal. Also, being someone’s momma doesn’t mean my travel days are over. It just means I need more logistical planning and extra flexibility. Of course, that’s what being a good international traveler is all about!

This post took the better part of a year to finish – which gives you an indication of how motherhood forces you to prioritize – clearly it was not on this post as other duties called! Motherhood also took on a new meaning as Kelly welcomed her second child half way through this discussion! Congratulations, Kelly!  Our exchange student did return to Brasil, and now my nearly three year old talks about going on a plane to see him. We skype with him regularly so that he doesn’t forget their bond and feels a deep connection when we do visit Brasil as a family.  Apparently, we did plant some seeds there. 

Dr. Kelly Kirwood: Kelly is the Assistant Director of Study Abroad at Ball State University. She lives in Indiana with her husband, Peter, and two girls Helen and Millie. She founded Study Abroad Careers in 2013 as a way to support current and aspiring education abroad professionals as they navigate their careers.


ssy Gluckmann, MA: Missy is the founder of Melibee Global where she leads the C4 Cultural Career Coaching Circle and Cohort and books inspiring speakers at colleges, corporations, and conferences. She is also the founder of Better Abroad.  She spent many years in higher education administration at schools in the northeast in both study abroad and international student advising. Her greatest love of all is her little boy, Hudson, named after the river. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her husband and son – but can often be found back “home” in New York.