Distance families are families separated by geography. Is your family one of them? Do you have an adult child (or two), and perhaps some grandchildren living a flight or three away?
Wikipedia defines a diaspora as a scattered population whose origin lies in a separate geographic locale. New Zealand demographer Professor Paul Spoonley points out in The New New Zealand, the average diaspora size of OECD nations (native-born persons living abroad compared to the native population of the country) is 4.1% of the total population. New Zealand, however, sits at 14%, close to Portugal at 15.4% and Ireland at 17.4%. In contrast, the Australian diaspora is only 3% of its population. Distance families are therefore commonplace among the Portuguese, Irish and New Zealanders. The pandemic has highlighted their predicament.
How do you make your Distance Family feel comfortable and included when they’re living overseas?
First, are you accepting of their move? For you, it might be a ‘two steps forward, and one step back’ process, and that’s okay. Our adult children want to know we wish them well.
Second, do you know the strongest emotion most of them grapple with is the guilt of the left-behind family? It never leaves them and most don’t share those feelings. It pays to be mindful of this.
So, with the hard stuff out of the way, what can you do to help your scattered family?
- Be upfront about what communication routine works best for you. For example, is your family calling most days? Is this an obligation they could well do without? If you’re content, or at least accepting, of a decent once-a-week catch-up, suggest this as an alternative.
- Are they sending you gifts in the mail supported by expensive postage? Does this feel like an unnecessary extravagance? Thank them sincerely and indicate gift vouchers are fine, or a card means more than a present.
- Is there a special occasion happening at home? Think carefully before settling on the time. How could you make it feasible for your distance family to attend virtually? Rather than the normal dinner gathering, would a breakfast event make it easy for your distance family to attend? Your away family will feel more included when you’ve gone to this extra trouble.
- If you struggle to know what to chat with your grandchildren about, ask their parents what’s hot and what’s not at their end. What are they studying at school? Is there a project they’re working on you could support from afar?
- Are there inventive ways you could remotely babysit grandkids for five or ten minutes here and there? Enquire what books your grandchildren adore and borrow the same titles from the library if you can. Familiar books are a safe place to start. Once routines are in place, you can introduce other titles.
- When distance family visit home, few friends and family enquire about their global life. Most conversations focus on local topics. Be mindful of this. Perhaps you can steer the odd conversation so your family don’t feel they have left their worlds at the airport’s Arrival Hall.
- Many parents and grandparents wish their visiting family would spend all their time with them… and that’s understandable, as you’ve missed them. However, asking your family, “Who else do you want to catch up with?” is music to their ears. They are apprehensive about sharing these plans for fear of upsetting you. Your raising the topic will mean you’re informed about what’s going on each day, which is helpful.
The common theme of these ideas is working to understand ‘how it is’ for our distance family and showing empathy for each other’s challenges. All generations of distance families struggle at times with the realities of their globally separated lives, however, empathy goes a long way to keeping your distance family feeling comfortable and included when they’re living overseas?
Helen Ellis is a New Zealand researcher, author, anthropologist, veteran of Distance Parenting/Grandparenting, and the Founder of DistanceFamilies.com. Three of her four children and five of her six grandchildren live 16 to 30 flight hours away in America, England and Scotland. In her research, she asked the question: “How is distance familying for you?”
Helen’s Distance Families book series combines her personal experiences with her extensive global research. Her latest book is Being a Distance Son or Daughter – A Book for ALL Generations. Helen’s goal is to support each generation of Distance Families to understand ‘how it is’ for the other while passing on some ‘how to do it’ tips.
Reference: Spoonley, Paul (2020), The New New Zealand, Massey University Press: Auckland, N.Z.