I like to think that my experience hosting exchange students has made me somewhat of an expert on how to love something that isn’t mine. We’ve been hosting exchange students since 2012 and as each one has come and gone, I’ve become more aware of just how unique these relationships are as well as the feelings that accompany them.
While there are myriad reasons why we host, the main reason is because we have room in our hearts to love more children and we want to give kids who are already coming here a safe, loving family for the year. For me personally, in order to welcome a student into our family, I have to flip on the “mom” switch and love them from the second I see them as if they were my own. I love these kids like crazy. But I don’t expect them to love me.
That’s the funny thing about learning to love something that’s not yours. Our exchange students are usually about 15 or 16 years old. They arrive not having had any say about their host family, and having left behind the family they have known and loved their whole lives. It’s my job to be the one to love first without the expectation that I should be loved back.
It’s an interesting continuum to watch. At first, I show them love by demonstrating that I care about them and that they can count on me. In those early months, you will see me fretting over what type of food they like, cheerfully doing their laundry, buying them anything they want at Target, and constantly asking them if they need anything. If I discover they like yogurt, the fridge will be stocked with 25 yogurts. My current host son knows that my Hail Mary is tea if I’m out of ways to help him. He caught on quick that he should just say yes and let me feel like I’m taking care of him. Sick? Have some tea. Lots of homework? Have some tea. Bored? You got it…tea. I’m like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who fixes everything with Windex except I use tea. In those first few months, I excel at extending love without needing anything in return. I’m really good at loving something that’s not mine.
There comes a point, usually half way through the stay, when I start to wonder how they feel about us. I try to maintain no expectations, but as we settle into our year as a host family, I find myself hoping that they are starting to love us back. All the while, I have to keep in mind that they have their real families waiting and that no matter what I hope, they are allowed to feel as much or little affection for us as they want. The students miss their families, and at times it can be hard to keep doing their laundry, worrying about them, and taking care of them if you aren’t getting any immediate gratification. It can be difficult to love something that’s not yours.
This is where the art of demonstrating love towards someone really comes into play. Love is not meant to be directed between two people in equal amounts or grow at the same rate. Take my marriage, for example. I think at any given moment one of us loves the other person more. The idea of two people in a new relationship having to say I love you at the same time seems inaccurate. What’s more realistic is that one person feels it first, keeps it quiet, then with a sigh of relief, says it back when the other person gets there. For me, I know that I am someone who is quick to love and I’ll always get there first. Bringing exchange students into our home has been an incredible exercise in extending love unconditionally without expectation. More importantly, it’s been an important lesson for our whole family about how to approach life in general. There is no downside to leading with kindness and love in all we do. We don’t selectively choose the people we will be kind to or love based on what’s in it for us.
Saying goodbye to our students is hard. When you spend so much time loving and developing a relationship with someone, they end up moving into a permanent space in your heart. By the end, it’s no longer about loving something that’s not mine. I’ve come to understand that we shared a moment in our lives together – one that no one else experienced – and through that, we do uniquely belong to each other.
It’s a privilege to love something that’s not yours.