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How parenthood changed my thoughts on family

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We spent the holidays with my family in Utah and had ourselves a jolly-good time, but then three days after Christmas my grandfather died in a car crash on his way to the volunteer job he’d been doing several times a week for thirty years (THIRTY YEARS) and, well, it wasn’t a very happy New Year after all. (My mom took that tack of greeting family members with a cheer of “Crappy New Year, huh?” and everyone nodded in solemn agreement.)

My little family of three (and one-third) were originally supposed to fly back to California on the day after the accident, but we ended up extending our stay by five days (for a total of thirteen) so we could be there for the funeral. It wasn’t the greatest of trips–in addition to the grief and the harried logistics of funeral planning, we weren’t prepared for that much time away, and I spent most of those extra five days working–but it wasn’t all bad, and if I may take a break from talking about work here, I’d like to share a few things I learned about parenthood, parents, and grandparents.

Being back home for so long, and seeing family I haven’t seen in years, and thinking about what it was like to grow up five miles away from my grandparents instead of an hour-plus plane ride made me think a lot about what kind of experience and memories of family I want my kids to have growing up. As new parents, still trying to figure things out, we’ve put plenty of thought into what kind of community environment we want for them (diverse, safe), what kind of schools (challenging, nurturing), and what kind of home life (loving, peaceful), but until recently I hadn’t given too much thought to extended family beyond the occasional wish for free last-minute babysitting so my husband and I can go to a concert.

Currently our nearest family member (my MIL) lives 400 miles away, and one contingent–my husband’s only sibling and her family–live on the other side of the world, in England. When my son was a baby, I regretted them not being here to watch him grow up, but now that he’s old enough to miss them, I feel guilty about him not knowing them as much as them not knowing him. Also, I miss them too.

Our life is here, and our life is ours, but the more our family grows and changes–our kids are getting older, but so are our parents–I think about the life we have now versus the variety of lives we could have elsewhere, closer to family, and I watch priorities jostle for position: careers, friends, schools, cousins, grandmas and grandpas and the two great-grandparents my son has left.

Are week-long visits back home every six months enough? And if they are, for how long will that be true? I grew up having sleepovers with my cousins on my grandparents’ back porch, each of us using the special sleepover toothbrush with our name painted on the handle in my grandma’s nail polish. I’m starting to want family around not just for Christmases and the occasional Fourth of July parade but piano recitals and impromptu park picnics and just-stopped-by-because-I-was-in-the-neighborhood drop-ins.

We’ll soon be a couple with two kids and no family support in the area, and the bottom line is that we feel at a disadvantage. My eternally rational self chalks it up the change of heart to practical matters like money and convenience (free babysitting!), but to be honest, behind all that is a purely emotional longing to give my kids what I had growing up: family. Lots of it.

I never thought I’d leave the San Francisco Bay Area voluntarily, and I never (ever, ever) thought I’d set up a home back in Salt Lake City. And yet here/there we are.



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10 comments so far...

  • I am so sorry for your loss, Leah.

    My kids are growing up far away from grandparents and extended family, too, just as I did. But many of my nieces and nephews are right around the corner from my parents, and are always having sleepovers and whatnot. Skype is great and all, but our last visit did leave me wondering what my kids might be missing out on…

    Lylah  |  January 11th, 2012 at 12:33 pm

  • i am having the same battle. as i build a business and friends and a ‘community’ around myself in a giant city… all i want REALLY is to be closer to family and my nieces and nephews and have that very same thing. i never had that growing up, almost all interactions were holiday visits, summers, etc. but still we had a closeness to family - sorta. my kids and my sisters kids are so close in age (our oldests are 10 days apart!) and could be siblings and best friends. i waffle - whats better, a great life here? with all sorts of opportunities including pressure of competition for ‘the best’ of everything, or a little smaller city with more laid back attitude, more affordable ’stuff’ to do (not to mention more space/affordable living)… it seems so cut and dry and yet it totally isn’t.
    i’m still struggling, glad to know i am not alone :) so at the end of this… are you saying you relocated??

    kate  |  January 11th, 2012 at 12:33 pm

  • Oh, I understand this feeling so well. Unfortunately we’re not in total control of where we live right now, since my husband is in the Navy and has a few more years to go before he can retire. But I’ve definitely felt more of a pull towards moving close to family since we had our older daughter, and it’s only gotten stronger in the last couple of years with my niece being born and us having a second child, and my parents getting older every year. We try to go home at least 3-4 times a year now, because I want my girls and my niece to know each other and be friends. It’s expensive and inconvenient (sometimes I dream about going on a family vacation somewhere other than Nebraska, sigh) but worth it for now.

    bethany actually  |  January 11th, 2012 at 1:13 pm

  • This post? Why I live in Texas. Not just the free babysitting, but nearly nothing means as much to me as giving Kyle a relationship with both sets of grandparents that I simply never had, living in a cool city.

    Jennie  |  January 11th, 2012 at 1:16 pm

  • You will make the right choice for your family & yourself. And be at peace with it. My husband spent 9 yrs in Detriot getting his masters of engineering & designing cars. After all that he counted out the times left in his parents lives that he would see them(2-3 times a year for x years) and couldn’t live with it. We now live minutes from them and see them several times a week. They are a part of his life daily & he could not imagine it a different way. He also has 2 sisters & their families here. Cousins for our kids!! We are holiday central for all of my family who live a half day travel away & they all come often. What a wonderful life for our children!

    Tanya @muddero7  |  January 11th, 2012 at 1:23 pm

  • First I’m so sorry for your loss. At least you got to be around your family during that difficult time for support. The rest of this post hits very close to home. I grew up with a very large extended family within a 30 mile radius. Babysitters and best friends were cousins. Holidays and sleepovers at grandma’s are treasured memories. Somehow my sisters both ended up settling in Colorado and I have some fairly deep roots in Chicago. Now I’m bringing our first little one to the mix, and oh it would be so nice to have my sisters and parents around to spoil s/he rotten. I hope it is more than twice a year.

    Sara  |  January 11th, 2012 at 2:19 pm

  • My sympathies to yoru family.

    We’re lucky-my parents moved to our city right around the birth of our first daughter. I LOVE It. I love watching them interact and my girls ADORE their grandparents. We don’t have all the free babysitting I want. But, we have dinners and activities and lunches and special events, and yes, sleepovers. And, my parents are there for all the ballet recitals, birthday parties, Kindergarten graduations, etc. I didn’t grow up with that and am determined that my children will. (It’s even more important that my parents be involved since my husband’s family is not at all involved in our lives).

    There’s no one right answer, of course. You have to do what you think is best at the time. You make the best of whatever you’ve got.

    elz  |  January 13th, 2012 at 12:46 pm

  • I’m very sorry for your loss. My grampa has been gone for 3 years - and although I didn’t see him often, I still think of him and miss him.

    I grew up a 2 hour drive from my family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc.) - and hubby and I are raising our children (aged 6 and almost 10) - 5 hours from my immediate family and from hubby’s immediate family.

    I too suffer from “family jealousy” from my friends, colleagues and acquaintances that have the luxury of having family close by - and I do see it as a “luxury” nowadays - it truly isn’t always practical for people to stay in the place where they grew up - like you, I never intended to move 5 hours away from my family.. and I know my parents never intended to move 2 hours away from their family.. it’s just how things have worked out! I also worry about the kind of relationship my children have with their grandparents (my parents are their only grandparents, as hubby has lost both his parents) - and it doesn’t help when my mother is trying to decide what to get them for birthday/Christmas etc and wails “But I don’t really KNOW them!!!” (mind you.. as I like to say.. last time I checked, the road goes east AND west!!!). The kids have started spending a week every summer with my parents and the kids look forward to it! I used to spend the odd weekend with my grandparents, and I used to camp with them occasionally, so I know how much I too looked forward to that time with them - and how many memories I have! In fact - my Dad is really concerned with “making memories” and actually goes out of his way to “schedule” a project that he and my 10 year old son can work on together - last year, my son got to help “Grampy” replace boards on the deck and paint it - and Grampy always takes his grandson to his barber for a hair cut (we let his hair get good and long so Grampy just has to take him! :)

    Oh - and as far as spending time with cousins.. I used to have sleepovers with my cousin at my grandparents house! Unfortunately, my kids won’t get that ‘cousin’ time - as my hubby is the youngest in his family - and his niece and nephews are 12+ years older than our children - and I only have 1 sister who is unable to have children… but whenever we visit, the “boys” (22 and 24) wrestle with our son and just basically “rough” him up - and then little sister gets into the act (until she cries!) - so they have different cousin memories.

    I think it’s normal to feel guilty, jealous etc. when you don’t have family nearby… but realistically, there is often not a lot you can do about - jobs aren’t usually a “dime a dozen” - and I know I couldn’t do what I do now if I were to “move home”! I think also maybe, especially in your case - you are remembering your good times and feeling bad that your kids won’t have THOSE good times… but - they will have their own good times and their own memories - and those to them, will be “normal”! I was used to only seeing my grandparents a few times a year… and not having them “babysit” us or coming to concerts etc… BUT, when we DID see them or they DID come to a baseball game or some other ‘event’ (my college graduation springs to mind) - well, that was BIG and it really meant something - and I see that in my kids - my parents have made it to swimming lessons and the odd birthday party - and the kids just think it’s the best thing since sliced bread to be able to show Gramma and Grampy what they can do and introduce them to their friends.

    I guess what I’m trying to say, is don’t worry that your children won’t have the same experiences or memories that you did - they will create their own.

    Darlene  |  January 16th, 2012 at 10:51 am

  • First, sorry about your grandfather.

    I’m a San Diego native and back in 2003 we moved (husband and two kids) to Texas (N.Dallas) because of my husbands job. We lived there 6 years. I hated being away from my parents and San Diego. Although we had bought our first home in TX we weren’t happy. Other than my mom visiting every Christmas we didn’t have any family visiting us. So, to us extended family was/is more important than having a nice house in a very nice community. So when the opportunity came to move closer to home (AZ) my husband posted for it and got hired. So we moved, closer to home … but it’s still not home. At least it’s 7 hours away instead of a day and a half drive. We now have a 13 month old, my two other children are a bit older but I want my kids to be close to my parents and sisters and brother. I want them to have a relationship with them. So our goal is to move back to the San Diego area in the near future. To me extended family is very important to have around.

    Grace  |  January 19th, 2012 at 8:36 pm

  • So I grew up in Houston, TX where I quickly became used to the city life. My parents moved me to rural WV so they could help take care of their aging parents. My grandparents and I had virtually no relationship. I saw them twice a year for the past ten years, twenty visits between 6 and 16 does not make a good relationship. My husband had a similar situation, didn’t get to see his grandparents much.

    We decided early on that we would stay close to both sets of parents because we wanted our children to have what we didn’t. We can supplement a substandard education and expose them to culture, but we can’t give them a replacement for a relationship with a wise older adult. (AS for safety… I leave my keys in my van at home and never lock the front door)

    So yes, extended family is very important to us. My MIL and FIL live about 50 feet away and my SIL (with her four kids) live 70 feet away. It kills me to think what I could be making in a bigger city, but I would be spending that extra cash on day care, baby sitters, and a higher cost of living. My two older sisters don’t agree with my philosophy so they live 5 and 8 hours away, I miss them, but I’ve also grown much closer to my SIL and MIL than I ever thought possible.

    Kara  |  January 20th, 2012 at 8:40 am

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