Showing posts with label Long distance relationships. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Long distance relationships. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Why Long Distance Relationships Don't Work

You might think this post is about long distance romantic relationships.  Though I have had to endure those, too, it's not.  It's about trying to maintain a relationship with family members who live far away.

My Mom and Dad were born, lived their lives and died, all in the same town.  My Dad was an only child, but my mother had five brothers and a sister and almost all of them also lived in that same town all of their lives.  That's the way most people lived in the mid-20th century.

However, the Baby Boomer generation felt differently and many of us wanted to experience the world outside of our small towns.  I grew up in Michigan and for some reason, everyone wanted to move to California so that's what I did. 

Right after college I moved to California and, except for some brief back and forth forays due to some unhappy situations in my life, that's where I stayed until a few years ago when I moved to Washington State.

I am sure my parents were not happy that I decided to make that move, especially my mother.  But another thing about parents of Baby Boomers - they all had pretty stiff upper lips.  If they were upset about it, they didn't really show it, though over the years my mother would say things like, "Well, if you didn't live so far away..."

I know it's difficult for young people to even grasp this concept, but back when I was in my 20's and 30's,  there were no cell phones with unlimited calling, no email, no Skype, no Facetime.  If you wanted to talk to your parents or they to you, you had to call long distance. 

Now for my younger readers, long distance was not just a description of how far away we lived from each other, but the term for calling someone who didn't live in your area code, and a long distance call cost quite a bit of money.  My mother would almost invariably say during what was already a short phone call, "Well I don't want to run up your phone bill," which was code that it was time to get off the phone.  It was also code for "Goodbye," because she would then abruptly hang up the phone!

Likewise, you could call collect, which I did quite often in my youth when I worked jobs that didn't pay much.  Calling collect meant you talked to a telephone operator first who placed the call.  When your Mother or Dad answered the phone, the operator would say, "Collect call from Rosy. Will you accept the charges?" and then the call would go onto their phone bill.  It was also not uncommon to try to get around the charge by arranging with your parents ahead of time that you would place a collect call when you arrived home so they would know you had arrived safely. When asked by the operator if they would accept the charges, they would say no but they knew you were home safely. A free long distance call.  Hey, we had to be tricky like that.

The other way we communicated was by writing letters. 

Yes, you heard me.  I am not talking about typing out an email, but actually putting pen to paper and writing a letter in longhand.  If I was on a roll, I would write my parents once a week to let them know how I was doing.  I still have some of those letters because my Mother kept them.  My Mother and my Dad would write long letters.  My mother's letters were full of details about her social life, potlucks she attended, what she ate, I mean right down to the ingredients in the food, who she saw and whether they looked older than she did and other stream of consciousness, whereas my Dad's letters were always philosophical and might have included his most recent "Letter to the Editor."  Both were comforting in their own ways.

I didn't get home much, especially after I had kids.  Airfare was more expensive in those days, and I didn't have much money.  My parents would come out for visits every year or so, mostly my mother by herself, especially to see her grandkids.

At the time, it didn't seem like such a big deal.  I knew my parents loved me and were out there in the world and that seemed to be enough.  I didn't give much thought to the fact that I hardly knew much about their lives and them as people because I interacted with them so rarely.  Now that they are gone, I think about that a lot and wish things had been different.

So since I left home, I shouldn't have been surprised that my kids would do the same, right?  Wrong.  It was just as much of a shock to me as it must have been to my mother.  I had this idea that our kids thought we were cool and we would all hang out together forever. I liked my kids and looked forward to having them nearby as adult friends.  It's a nice thought but these days our kids have to go where the jobs are and where their hearts take them.  As it was, our kids grew up in a small town that had more rich retired people and tourists than young people with careers, so off they went to college and they never lived with us again.

When my kids left home I tried to stay relevant.  Looking back, I can see that I just didn't have a clue about how to be a long distance Mom.  It hurt my feelings when they didn't answer their phones. They both had cell phones and I knew they knew it was me.  Or when they did answer, our conversations were often short and terse.  I took it personally.  So I decided to avoid feeling like that, they should call me when they had the time.  I figured that was better.  That way, they would call when they had the time to talk.  That worked a bit better, but they still didn't have much to say.  I guess I had forgotten how happy I was to get out on my own and how little I had in common with my own parents when I was 18 and knew everything.

These days it is the most natural thing in the world for our kids to move out of the house and have their own lives.  Some go to college, some join the military, some get transferred to other cities.  It is probably more unusual for people to live in one town all of their lives.  And we want our children to have their own lives, right?  And these days, it's not easy for our kids to get started.  It's expensive.  So I am proud and happy that both of my kids are launched, as they say, and are successful and have their own families.

But I'm not happy that I don't see them much. 

When your kids don't live close by, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain a close relationship.  When you think that for 18 years, people lived in your house, you saw them every day, you thought you had the same values because they obeyed the rules, right?  You ate together, you traveled together, you played games together, you had shared histories.  You thought you knew them, and then one day, they are gone and suddenly you discover they have their own values and ideas about how they want to live.  "When did you start eating tuna sandwiches?"  "Since when do you like jazz?"

Suddenly your kids are creating their own histories and it's not with you.  And that's what's wrong with long distance relationships.  Without a shared history, it is difficult to have a close relationship.  You just don't know them anymore.

A shared history is often the main thing that keeps couples together during difficult times and the same is true of your relationships with your family members.  You lose touch with who they really are because you no longer have the same experiences.  You are not creating memories together anymore.

I love my children and I know they love me, but now that they are adults with spouses and children (and I will get to grandchildren in a minute), their own families and lives are their primary focus, as they should be, but the added barriers of distance and time make it difficult for us all to share out lives.

Yes, we visit but I feel that visiting family is a strange thing.  When you don't see your family very often, when you do see them the push is on to make every minute count.  For example, if your adult children lived in the same town, you might get together once a week for Sunday dinner or to play golf or to watch your grandchildren play sports.  You would all go about your business most days, but get together when you wanted to.  But when you don't see your family members very often and then you do for a long weekend or a week's visit, the pressure is on to make the most of your time together, doing things together for entire days, 24/7, and likely disrupting normal schedules.  It's no wonder that family gatherings at Christmas and Thanksgiving have such a bad reputation for arguments and dread.  But why would we expect to just naturally have a wonderful time with people we rarely see?

We can maintain relationships with our family members by calling regularly, using Skype, even writing letters (gasp!), but in our crazy, busy lives, even those little niceties can fall by the wayside.

And then there is the whole issue of grandchildren who live far away.  Likewise, we grandparents want our grandchildren to know who we are and to love us, which is not easy when we only see them a few times a year.  Growing up, my grandparents lived across the street so I saw them all of the time.

But these days it is not unusual for grandparents to live far away. I actually wrote about that in a blog post called "Parenting and Grandparenting from a Distance."  Re-reading that one, I see that I gave some good advice, some of which I haven't followed myself!

So you can see how long distance relationships not only don't work very well, but can lead to isolation, regrets, loneliness and the feeling that you are no longer relevant in your children's lives.

So long distance parents and grandparents, what do we do about it?

Though I will always believe that long distance relationships don't really work very well, there are some things we can do to try to make ithem work.

  • Take the initiative to create memories. 
By that I don't mean whine to your kids about how lonely and isolated you feel.  I did that and believe me it doesn't work.  No, I mean, try to figure out how you can make some memories together and act on it.  My daughter and I have started a mother/daughter vacation that we hope will be a regular thing.  Last year we met up and toured Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque together, just the two of us, which, of course I wrote about ("How to Have a Successful Mother/Daughter Getaway..."). 

It included some of our favorite things: eating and shopping!


When you go on a trip together, away from each other's routines, it feels more like a fun vacation (which it is) than a forced visit.

  • Accept your adult children for who they are now.
I know it's difficult to think of that little tow-headed girl as a grown-up with her own beliefs that might not be yours, but you have to accept that she has grown up and respect her as she is now.  My mother was still telling me to stand up straight and smile more when I was in my 40's, which didn't do much for a happy adult relationship.  So when you do get to see your adult children, don't go into mother mode, nag them about their posture or try to change them, get to know the adults they are now.

  • Text and email ideas, stories and information you think might be of interest.
It is difficult to stay close to people when you are not sharing daily or weekly events.  Though you are far away, you can still keep your kids in your life by sharing your observations and ideas via text and email.  Don't necessarily expect a reply or get upset if you don't get one.  You are letting them know they are in your thoughts and they are learning some things about you too.

  • Be a supportive listener.
Your kids probably have busier lives than you do now, so when they do contact you, make it about them, not you, so you can be a part of the experiences they are having, even if just vicariously.

  • Keep in contact with your grandchildren. 

If they are little, send them cards and Skype or talk to them on the phone.  When they are older, maybe they will actually let you friend them on Facebook! Visit when you can.  Try to be there for the big events. It's easier for you to travel than for a family with little children.

  • Relish the memories and shared history that you do have with your children and grandchildren and continue to try to create new ones.

  • And then... plan to move in with them!

So my fellow long distance parents and grandparents, hang in there!  As my mother used to say, "It will get better."

How do you handle your long distance family relationships?


Thanks for reading!

See you Friday

for my review of

"Our Kind of Traitor"


The Week in Reviews
(What to See or Read and What to Avoid)


and the latest on

"My 1001 Movies I Must See Before
 I Die Project."

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