4 April 2014

How to maintain family bonds 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.
It is important to help kids maintain relationships with family abroad
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.  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. 

Strong bonds mean visits become very special.
 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. 

Kids should be able to share their life with their wider family
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.

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  1. I commented earlier on another post at how similar we are and this just strengthens my argument...this could be me and my husband. I'm a serial expat from birth and my parents have always said "when can we visit?". Hubby is from the same place where all his family have always been and still are. One of his sisters wrote him a 4 page letter about how disappointed she was with him when we moved from Paris to Nice, meaning a 9 hour drive instead of a 3.5 hour drive away. This was a big promotion career-wise AND a move to the French Riviera (something pretty much all French dream of doing!) I was uttery gob-smacked at her attitude and still find it hard to get my head around. I better not get going about our differences or I'll never stop....but having said all that I make just as much effort for my kids to keep in touch with their French family as with mine and I believe all your points are good ones.

  2. How frustrating with your husband's family and what a very nasty attitude. It is miserable when family can't see beyond their own wants and desires to celebrate a loved ones' success. I agree those attitudes can be really hard. We had it with my grandparents to a great extent so luckily I am used to dealing with it as I saw my parents go through it.

    Who would not want to live on the French Riviera or have a gold plated excuse to visit!

  3. When I announced I was moving to the Netherlands my family wished me luck, told me to make the most of living somewhere new. Some of my Dutch in-laws got nervous when we found a place to live that meant they had to travel between 20 minutes and half an hour to get to us..... and I wish I was joking. They all still live in the place they were born and mindset is very different. So as it turns out my children have more contact with their family in England and the USA than with some of their Dutch family who live 30 minutes away. There is always a way to make it work if communication channels are open and there is the will to grow the family bond despite the distance.

    Thanks for linking up #ExpatLifeLinky

    1. Oh gosh the Dutch mindset can be very parochial sometimes, particularly amongst the older generations. Luckily our family got used to us being away and I just heard that my Dutch cousin is going to be moving to Seoul for university so hoping to be able to visit her and host her and my uncle in return. Distance is a state of mind, particularly these days!