Once upon a time, long, long ago, all of our children, my husband and I lived under the same, familiar roof. As we knew they must (and leaving me with conflicted feelings of sadness for myself and excitement for my children), they have begun to forge their own adult paths, one leaping off the branch enthusiastically, another requiring a bit of a nudge, and a third still in high school but clearly exerting ever-increasing degrees of autonomy.
While I recognize this progression toward independence was our eventuality, even our goal, it felt and still feels somehow unnatural to me; how can we as parents know the comings and goings of and daily events in the lives of our children, only to accept that this degree of involvement would be relatively abruptly replaced by an occasional text or phone call? How can our family, an indivisible unit, disperse, and yet (we hope) continue to be solid? How can we stay close as a family as our lives diverge?
I interviewed experts (AKA my children) while I was exploring our family attachments. When I asked, “What do you think is important for maintaining our family ties?” one daughter’s instantaneous response was “definitely a strong foundation.” This answer was eloquent in its simplicity, cutting right to the core of the issue; if the basic building blocks of a relationship are not present, it is unlikely to withstand the strains imposed by separation in time and distance.
My younger daughter’s response was equally elegant in its clarity. Her immediate reply was “ love – we just love each other.” Without the love, what is there to maintain? My daughters, it seems, are wise beyond their years. My son, however, just looked at me quizzically and shrugged – not the helpful response I was hoping to receive, but expected from a 19-year-old male.
I take great comfort, and a bit of pride in the fact that my family has persisted as a unified alliance in spite of dispersion by colleges and jobs. I am confident that this success is, at least in part, firmly based in a belief that my husband and I have regarding shared experiences; it is in the doing together that we grow closer, bond more firmly, and create memories that we take with us as we move on.
1. Group Travel
As a direct corollary, rather than providing a plethora of possessions for our children, we have opted for group travel at every opportunity. We as a family have had the great fortune of being together while on safari in South Africa, paragliding in Talloires, ice hiking the glaciers of Iceland, and rafting the tidal bore in the Bay of Fundy. Our children relish these excursions (which, to be equally effective, do not necessarily have to be quite so adventurous) and do all they can to be available while still fulfilling employment and academic responsibilities. It is during these times that family jokes are born and reinforced and sibling bonds are strengthened, away from the otherwise busy schedules and ever-present cell phones.
2. Text Thread
Technology is not, however, always divisive with regard to our family unit. Our texting “family thread” keeps us in communication with one another on a daily basis, even if only for a quick comment. Not a day goes by where one of us does not share an occurrence, a relevant (and usually amusing) news article (often along with sarcastic interpretation and followed by equally sarcastic retorts), or a brief question. The texts may be supportive or teasing, but either way, keep us in touch in an informal manner. Technology serves a means for us to easily make plans, muse over an event or just say goodnight.
The comfort of family traditions is a binding thread which also keeps my clan members within the same orbit. We have all learned to play pinochle and strive to all be present when a game is planned; we have our established teams, and ongoing friendly competition.
Another simple tradition occurs yearly during December; rather than the (older) adults buying abundant gifts, a “secret-Santa” gift exchange occurs in our home, always an eagerly anticipated event. The children, with only one person for whom to shop (usually) consider their purchase very thoughtfully, making the holiday more about other family members than about themselves.
In my opinion, one of our most pivotal traditions has been the family dinner; with rare exception and despite varied school and work schedules, the five of us sat down to dinner together nightly until my eldest left for college, and still continue to do so with whomever is home. There were certainly instances that eating as a group translated into a brief or very inconveniently timed meal (and far from haute cuisine), but catching up on the happenings of the day, sharing stories and keeping current with one another was invaluable in building the foundation for continued friendship. Many serious discussions, as well as countless inside jokes, which of course we never let fade, began during a shared meal.
4. Care Packages
Sending occasional packages to my children reminds them that they are thought of and missed, and diminishes the feeling of separation on both ends. For example, my younger daughter and I send her siblings a birthday party in a box each year, including such things as baked goods, candles, a birthday crown, party favors and streamers. Who does not love getting a package? My now college-graduate requested and continues to receive such themed boxes mailed to her apartment for her birthday, Halloween, Valentine’s day, etc. Through such acknowledgements, we remain linked, although divided by miles.
My children as burgeoning adults, now not only have strong relationships with my husband and me, but also have fellowship independent of us; they meet for lunch, call one another when needing support, and count each other as friends. When I hear them laughing together during a video chat, see them snuggling while watching their favorite television shows, or catch them walking along holding hands, I know that my husband and I have done well and that time and physical separation will not destroy what we have fostered.
How to stay close as a family as lives diverge? Oddly, my son’s noncommittal shrug serves as a reminder that there is no right answer; many variables exist, and what works in our household may not necessarily translate effectively in another. I am quite certain that the universal perfect solution does not exist.
My daughters, however, dove directly to the heart of the matter with their responses as they relate to our home; early on, we created a foundation of love, support and respect upon which to build. With that in place, continued communication was of the essence to maintain and strengthen what was already established. Time together, events shared, traditions upheld, all cultivated and nurtured our bonds. While there certainly have been and inevitably will be future “bumps in the road,” sincere affection and lasting friendship have been the eventual outcome in our family. I wish the same success for all.