“I’ve already been here nearly half of the year!” Annalisa commented last week. She moved in with me and my husband in July, and will be staying with us until next June. As a high school foreign exchange student, this is an experience of a lifetime! She’s only 17 years old yet living in a foreign country, speaking her third language (English) fluently, attending an American school, and participating in as many activities as possible, like swim team and youth group.
When we signed up to host a high school foreign exchange student, we knew we were in for a treat! No only to build a relationship with our “adopted” daughter, but also to enter into parenthood. I can’t fathom that our time is already reaching the halfway mark. We’ve done so much yet there is are so many things remaining on our list!
With the holidays fast approaching and the weather shifting towards Winter, it’s the perfect time to reflect over the past season. As I reminisce over the past few months of hosting a high school foreign exchange student and jumping into parenthood (with a teenager), here are 7 of my reflections:
Reflection #1: Routines.
I’m naturally driven by routines, schedules and methods. But I didn’t fully grasp how much my family could thrive with routine. When Annalisa first arrived, we stayed up late hanging out and invited her to do everything with us so we could get to know each other better. But once school began, we had to make some adjustments.
I’ve noticed that we each need a bedtime routine. We tidy us our spaces, pack our lunch for the next day, talk about tomorrow’s schedule, and always give hugs goodnight. The same is true in the mornings, except it looks a bit different for each of us. Our weekends are more flexible, but we always make family dinners a priority. (Learn our dinner routine here.)
Reflection #2: School.
I have been out of high school for ten years, and my husband for fifteen. We may or may not have forgotten what it’s like…including homework. Like most people when they become parents, your priorities and freedom take a welcome hit.
We had to forego our open nights to accommodate homework and school activities. Education is important, especially since that is one of the main reason Annalisa is here! So we choose to make homework, studying, projects, and school activities a family priority. We help with assignments, drive to and from swim practice, and support Annalisa by attending her school meetings and fun events.
It requires sacrifice. But my husband and I fondly remember our parents modeling this priority; it had a huge impact on us and that is also being shown to our “daughter.”
Reflection #3: Friendships.
New friendships take time to form, and friendships from back home require time to be maintained. Some weeks were lonely battles where we equipped and encouraged Annalisa to engage with her new peers. Other times we joyfully watched her have a blast going shopping, eating out, or watching movies with her new friends.
It ebbs and flows, but we make it a point to ask about her friends everyday at dinner. (Do you desire to have more thoughtful conversations with your kids? Here are the best questions to ask your kids after school).
Reflection #4: Health.
Perhaps we are more attuned to our health than most families. Exercise is a regular part of our family rhythms. We live an active lifestyle. I love cooking healthy meals with fresh ingredients.
We model habits such as drinking enough water and taking in fruits and veggies. I serve nutritious meals and help plan filling lunches. Thankfully our “daughter” is a great eater! But, like most teens, sweets and coffee and snacks always appealing. Moderation is key! I plan fun snacks and tasty desserts…but they are always balanced with hearty meals!
(See my expanded view on how we take our health seriously at the dinner table, and how we foster healthy eating with dinner discussions here!)
Reflection #5: School Holidays.
We live for school holidays. It’s like we’re the high schooler again, “No school this Friday! What will we do with our day off?” Because of the flexible nature of our jobs, we can adjust our work week to spend time together when she’s out of school.
For example, we ventured to Chattanooga, TN for Labor Day; we spent the week in Washington DC for her Fall Break; Thanksgiving will be the time to eat traditional American fixin’s and decorate the house for Christmas. We’ve already scheduled a fun activity for her next half day, and Christmas break includes two trips and extended time with family!
Reflection #6: Bucket List Activities.
Time is slipping away. We’re nearly halfway done! Although that makes me so sad, it also drives me toward intentionality. What can we do to take full advantage of our remaining months?
We listed all of the places and restaurants we want to visit during her time here. Now it’s time to start marking through each item. Baseball game, ice skating, our favorite local restaurant, visiting relatives across the Southeast, weekly Starbucks date, etc.
Reflection #7: Holiday Traditions.
I know, I’m getting ahead of myself. The holidays aren’t quite here, but they aren’t far off! We have restructured our days to be more simple, more relational, and in the full spirit of the season! This means we are saying no to certain things, not watching as much television, and not getting bogged down with the unnecessary things this season.
Once Advent rolls around, we take roughly 15 minutes per night as a family. The scene is set with Advent candles and the light of the Christmas tree. We read bible stories, open the next door of our Advent calendar, browse through Christmas cards, and sing a Christmas carol. Sometimes we eat Christmas treats or watch and Christmas special on TV, but most of the time we sit together and talk or play a game.
Reflections Push To Actions
I can’t wait for our first Christmas as parents! It’s been a season full of many firsts, and there are many more waiting for us before Annalisa returns to Italy! Stay tuned for further reflections after the holidays or at the end of her year abroad.
Missed my intro? Read my first article Why We Decided To Host An Exchange Student.