Expat family ties

Expat family ties: far away but not distant

There is a saying that grandchildren are the reward for being a good parent. And many grandparents would certainly agree. But what if many miles separate your children and their grandparents? Does it mean the relationship will be distant too? Can you be an uncle if thousands of kilometres separate you from your nephews or nieces?

Fortunately, physical distance is not the deciding factor in any relationship. Look at the number of people that have become expats for love, moving to a strange country to be with a partner; those relationships invariably started as a long distance one. And those relationships required commitment and creative communication to keep them strong. The ties that bind an extended family are based on similar principles.

Growing up my grandparents were at best a few hours’ drive away, my paternal set living in the north of England and my maternal grandparents resident in the beautiful city of Bath in the west of England. Whilst we certainly didn’t see them every week, we did at least see them a few times a year with at least one annual extended visit.

Childhood memories

Boy posting a letterMy childhood memories of my grandparents are vivid, fun and fond: I remember helping out buttering bread for sandwiches to sell during the lunchtime rush in the café that my grandparents owned overlooking the tennis courts in Bath’s Victoria Park and selling ice cream under a bright orange parasol outside their café on the golf course at the other end of Victoria Park.

My father is one of twelve children and his parent’s house was always a hive of activity with people coming and going, bedrooms full of bunk beds and at full occupancy. I smirk at the memory of asking my Gran if I could sleep somewhere else because my aunts were bickering in their room where I was sleeping. She replied,

“Of course. Try the rabbit hutch!” I scurried back to bed with my tail between my legs.

I remember excitedly my Grandad coming to see us in the run up to Christmas, bringing homemade Christmas crackers. They were filled with a variety of chocolate bars for my brother and me. I can still hear the rustling of the red crepe paper as we pulled the cracker apart, the fairy lights of the Christmas tree twinkling in our living room.

Each visit we had with our grandparents was special. We made it count because it wasn’t an everyday occurrence.

Family bonds at home and away

And so fast-forward to today. I am a British mother to three little Dutch boys and the grandparent issue is a big deal in our house. It’s a pretty complicated picture when it comes to our children’s grandparents because both my parents and my husband’s parents are divorced and three of the four are remarried. You get the picture. But that, truth be told, is not the issue.

The lesson we have learned during our six years of parenthood is that geography is not the deciding factor as to whether or not family ties are strong. Quite simply, it comes down to wanting to be a grandparent, aunt or uncle.

My children have a great bond with their English Grandad and Nana, despite living hundreds of miles apart and only physically seeing each other every couple of months. My boys however have no relationship whatsoever with their Dutch Oma, who lives twenty short minutes away by car. My three little ones get very excited about their New York based uncle but wouldn’t know their local uncle if they fell over him in the street.

So, like my own childhood, distance does not hinder my children’s relationship with their extended family. What’s more is that today’s children have a host of tools that my generation didn’t have to stay in touch with distant relatives.

Like video calling. We use FaceTime so that the children have a visual of their grandparents whilst they are catching up. Telephone calls are the next best thing.

Now that my eldest has started writing he has begun typing text messages to his grandparents. My children draw pictures for their Grandad and love putting them in envelopes and being lifted up to put the post through the orange Dutch post box. We recorded my dad and stepmother reading stories onto a CD so they can be a part of the bedtime routine even when they are not present. We also bought my middle son a photo frame that records voices and filled it with photos of family and their voices.

Their cousin recently broke his finger and needed surgery. When I told my children they immediately fetched their colouring pencils to make a get well card for him. I took photos of the boys holding their cards and put them on Facebook for my brother to show my nephew. The photos raised a smile from his hospital bed. Thousands of miles apart yet still possible to send instant heartfelt get-well wishes.

Whilst it’s not ideal living hundreds or thousands of miles away from family, close family bonds cannot be broken by geography. A grandparent on the doorstep doesn’t guarantee a close family tie. An uncle that lives twenty kilometres away yet has no desire to be an uncle cannot compete with an uncle nearly six thousand miles away in New York who cherishes his nephews.

However you look at it relationships need work and must be two sided. Physical distance can be bridged if both parties want the relationship to work, make the relationship fun and derive pleasure from being in contact. Our family is living proof of that.

Top tips to help children stay in contact with family overseas

  • Make the most of technology: video calls, telephones, messaging, social media and email
  • Mark special occasions with drawings and cards made by the children
  • Record a CD with bedtime stories told by a family member
  • Look out for gifts for your children which include photos and voice recordings (like books or photo frames)
  • Encourage children to write notes, letters, and emails of text messages regularly to family to give them a short update of what they have been up to. Keep it short and sweet so it doesn’t become a chore.
  • Ask family members to tell your children about special holidays and notable events that they celebrate overseas so they can mark it too in some way
  • Make each visit together count!

By Amanda van Mulligen

Amanda is a Brit living in the Netherlands, raising three little boys with her Dutch husband. She lives in a cultural void between being British and Dutch and that makes parenting interesting. Expat Life with a Double Buggy is her tale of mothering abroad, the ups, the downs and all the bits in-between of parenting in a foreign country.

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  1. Absolutely spot on. I grew up as an expat child and my relationship with my grandparents and extended family never suffered. My parents were careful to ensure that we kept the bonds.

    Now our children are expats and they have a similarly close relationship to our parents and siblings. Geography is meaningless – love counts for much, much more.

    1. I was gratified to learn that we aren’t the only family who have distant ‘links’ with certain people! Far more important to us is loving those who actively wish to be part of our family. There is only so much one can do to encourage family bonds if the other parties do not wish to engage…

  2. Thank you for this article. I appreciated your points because, even though my parents are only a state away, it feels like another country when we can’t see each other very often. I think I will try some of your suggestions with my 4 boys and their grandparents.

    Best wishes
    Jen in Oz

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