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What Being an Exchange Mom Taught Me About Relationship Building

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Eight years ago I was an AFS host parent to Marilia (Ma for short), an exchange student from Brazil, for a school year. Imagine having no children of your own, then being “mom” to a 17-year-old plopped into your life. Who barely speaks the language. Who comes from a completely different culture. Here’s what being an exchange mom taught me about relationship building:

1. Try harder in the beginning to establish a bond. Don’t take the connection for granted. Don’t think about “equal effort.” Give it everything you’ve got, without expecting a payoff. I was matched with a very independent teenager. Most families expected their exchange student to blend into their “regular lives.” With no pre-existing idea of what being a mom meant, I treated Ma more like a guest than a kid. Instead of telling her what to do and how to do it, I solicited her input and gave her choices.

2. Find ways to help people achieve their goals. Ma had already graduated from high school in her country by the time she arrived. But it was very important to her to study in English and get good grades in her senior year in America. It was important to me that she experience as much of life in the USA as I could share with her. Somehow we managed both: She got straight As each semester, and we traveled to 13 states.

3. Receive the lesson; don’t resist new learning. There is nothing more powerful than re-evaluating a “truth” by filtering it differently through someone else’s eyes. Surprise. You may not really know it all.

4. Keep the relationship alive by keeping in touch. With Marilia going back home 2 continents away, it would have been easy to lose contact with her. Instead, I decided to send her a postcard every time I went out of town. I was shocked in 2005 when I visited her in Porto Allegre when she showed me her postcard collection.

In a couple of weeks, Ma is coming for a long visit and I’m most excited about all the time we will have together to catch up on each other’s lives. We haven’t planned more than a short road trip, and we’re keeping the itinerary focused on us. Since she went back home, she’s gone to college, become the manager of one of her father’s businesses, fallen in love and become engaged.

Knowing Marilia has been one of the most fulfilling relationships of my life, one that’s really been about the journey, not the destination.

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