How to maintain family bonds across borders

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How to keep in touch across borders

I wrote some time ago about the difficulties of staying in touch with loved ones when you expatriate and how this has become easier over the years.

Recently, talking to my Mother in Law, I realised that I had, as a serial expat from birth, not really understood the concerns of people who grew up with all of their family in a single location. She has lived in the same city her entire life, her parents and grandparents and great grandparents all come from there and her daughter and three grandchildren live down the road from her. Although two of her children moved away it was only to another part of the UK and it was always relatively easy for her to call or visit family.

Family concerns

When we told her we were moving to Kazakhstan, a country formerly almost unknown to her, and that we would be taking her two youngest grandchildren away it hit her very badly. My family are so used to being abroad that when we told them we were going they just said ‘when can we visit?’. My mother in law worried that she would hardly see or hear from us again and that the children would forget her. It just never crossed my mind that someone would worry like this and I now feel bad for not taking more time to reassure her. Luckily the passage of time has done that.

I remember growing up in a different country to my grandparents, aunts and uncles but I love them no less for that, indeed their homes were the unchanging constant in my vagrant life. My parents took great care to ensure that we had many photos of the family around the house and spoke about them almost every day.

Keeping family close, at a distance

I do the same – Granny is as much part of our lives in Kazakhstan as she is in the UK. While the time difference (and the fact she does not have internet for Skype) can make calls difficult we do try to call her regularly, particularly if the children want to tell her all about an achievement at school or just for a chat. It is also easy to forget uncles, aunts and cousins and we make sure that we talk about them almost as much as we talk about grandparents.

We also have a rule that family are welcome to visit at any time and we do everything we can to facilitate a visit (on one occasion my husband flew to the UK and back on a very tiring instant turnaround to escort a nervous relative out here).  We always try to rent a flat with a spare bedroom to make sure that there is a place for them to stay and the children love the opportunity to show off ‘their city’.

My father came to visit a few months ago and the children took great delight in showing him the sites and lecturing him on the clothes he should wear (on no account leave the house without a hat, scarf and mittens) even teaching him what to say when ordering in restaurants.  My mother in law braved a Kazakh winter a few years ago and spent Christmas and New Year with us – the children were over the moon.

It is tempting to spend all our holidays exploring the interesting places close to our host country, knowing that it is the best ever opportunity  to see and experience them.  We do try, however, to get back to the UK for at least one week in the year to let the children spend some time with their relatives.  Some families I know return to their home country almost every chance they get and their children must see their families more often than we did when we lived in England!  When our children are a little older we will probably let them fly to visit relatives as unaccompanied minors for a half term break when we can’t get time off work.

I know of many families where the husband and wife split responsibility for contact – each maintaining contact only with their own families but this does not work for us.  Even if there are tensions with in laws children deserve a relationship with those who love them and my husband and I take equal responsibility for all contact from Skype calls to drawing birthday and thank you cards and emailing school reports on.  We work on the basis that in-laws are family too.

I have every expectation that, when they grow older, our children will live in a different part of the world to us.  I hope that they will remember that distance makes no different to real bonds of love and affection and work to make sure that we have a strong relationship with their children.

Top tips for keeping family bonds strong:

  1. Talk about distant family members often – every day if possible.  Granny loves potatoes, Oma used to cook this for me when I was a child etc etc.
  2. Have a lot of photographs around the house – particularly of children with absent relatives.
  3. Try and speak regularly.  Not just in a pre-arranged time slot but let children know that they can call a family member to tell them important news.  Let them send examples of award winning school work to family at home.
  4. Send lots of photographs back to the family in the home country (my family are on Facebook and we make my mother in law an album every year).  Things like school reports are also a good way to help people feel involved in a child’s life.
  5. Don’t limit the initiation of contact to ‘my family my job, your family your job’.  The children belong to both families.
  6. Make sure that family know they are welcome to visit and try to go home and visit them as often as you can.
  7. Don’t force children, particularly older ones, to talk to people every call but do expect them to say hello.
  8. Allow older children uncensored and private contact with grandparents, aunts, uncles etc.  If they are having a hard time at home they will value having this access in the same way they would if they lived in your home country.
  9. Consider allowing older children to travel to family alone for shorter, half term, holidays when you may not be able to get away.

Republished with kind permission via Ersatz Expat: How to maintain family bonds across borders.

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