Coping with Living Away from Loved Ones

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Building a family when yours is far away.

By Jennifer Torres Siders

Expert: Vicki Panaccione, PhD, child psychiatrist; Tina Tessina, PhD, psychotherapist

When my husband and I were a young couple striking out on our own for the first time, the distance from our hometowns seemed temporary—an adventure, an experiment, a story about our wayfaring youth we would tell someday when we had made it back home to where we belonged, amongst family members, close friends, and familiar faces.

But a few years later, still far from “home” and about to become parents, I was riddled with anxiety. I had grown up with grandparents who lived right around the corner. They were on hand when my parents needed extra help and were always a part of my childhood birthday parties, holidays, and other celebrations. How would we get by with our families so many miles apart?

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In a country of many movers—approximately 41.5 percent of Americans live in a state other than the one they were born in—many couples face parenthood without the reassurance of nearby extended family for support. The prospect may seem daunting at first, but with a little effort, family ties can span long distances and new bonds can be forged.

Count on Technology

Vicki Panaccione, PhD, child psychiatrist at the Florida-based Better Parenting Institute, encourages clients to make a habit of regular communication with faraway loved ones. Keeping in touch makes the distance seem shorter and gives your baby a strong foundation for a lasting relationship with grandma and grandpa.

Too often, Dr. Panaccione says, parents reserve phone calls and FaceTimes for significant milestones and events. Those occasions are important, but it’s sharing the smaller moments of everyday life that really helps us stay connected and avoid homesickness. “You want to teach your children as they grow up that communicating with your own family isn’t only about special occasions,” Dr. Panaccione notes. “It’s about keeping that person in your life on a regular basis.”

Before your little one arrives, make sure your parents are comfortable with some amount of modern technology, such as sending emails, sharing digital photos, and using the video call function on a computer or smartphone. Such tools can help your mom and dad take part in the day-to-day details of family life with an infant they might otherwise miss. Dr. Panaccione suggests letting your mother sing a lullaby to her grandchild during an evening phone or partake in a bathtime video chat.

Mila Becerra, mom of one in Stockton, California, depends on a computer and webcam to help daughter Paula build a relationship with grandparents in Lima, Peru. But Becerra also advocates a lower-tech approach. Since Paula was an infant, Becerra has been compiling an album filled with photos of Peruvian friends and relatives that she and her husband share with their daughter frequently, repeating names and telling favorite stories. “Now, when we go back to Peru, she recognizes her family,” Becerra says. “She knows their faces, and she’s happy to see them.”

These days there are build-your-own-book sites that make sharing family faces and special memories a daily activity at home, so even though there’s distance, your newbie will know your sister-in-law and nieces come summer vacation.

Keep Visits Easy and Practical

Visits with out-of-town grandparents come wrapped in excitement, especially if they don’t happen often. Along with that excitement, however, can also come a creeping sense of pressure to make the visit perfect, which can be difficult to do with a newborn.

Take it easy, suggests Tina Tessina, PhD, licensed psychotherapist in Southern California. First, avoid visit-wrecking stress by eliminating its sources. For example, if your relationship with your parents is somewhat strained, arrange for them to stay nearby instead of at your home when coming to see the baby.

Then, keep plans low-key. A visit can be memorable and meaningful even if you never leave the house. “Sometimes the very best moments are the ones where everyone’s just hanging around the dinner table or sitting outside together,” Dr. Tessina says. “Those moments are when you really get to focus on each other when you get that family feeling.”

Finally, she advises being prepared to let go a little. When it comes to baby care, your parents aren’t going to do everything your way. “Honor your parents’ knowledge and experience, and also be willing to gently educate them about new parenting techniques,” Dr. Tessina suggests. “You can share those things without getting too directive.”

Gramps and gram should be flexible too, says Dr. Panaccione. “Grandparents are going to want to rush right in and pick up that baby,” she warns. And who can blame them? But some infants need a more subdued approach. If you sense yours is becoming overwhelmed by the extra, albeit loving, attention, help your parents take things more slowly. Instead of handing the baby over for a diaper change, Dr. Panaccione suggests saying something like, “I need to take care of this dirty diaper, would you mind helping me out?” That way, your mom or dad can enjoy a hands-on role in caretaking, but at a pace you set to suit your child.

Establish New Relationships

My first day in a mommy-and-me class felt a little like the first day of school: full of nervous but eager excitement. I quickly realized that joining the class was one of the best steps I could have taken as a new mom without any family nearby. Besides giving my daughter and me a fun activity to share outside of the house, it provided opportunities to meet and chat with other mothers, many of whom were also raising families far from their hometowns.

Technology is great for keeping in touch, but it can’t replace the face-to-face support systems new parents depend on for their well-being. “The online community is really wonderful at 2 o’clock in the morning when your kid has a rash and you want to find out what it might be, but [it] can’t invite you over to Friday night dinner,” acknowledges Dr. Tessina.

Making new friends isn’t easy for everyone (especially in a new city embarking on a new life), but having a baby gives you good reason to try talking to strangers—especially other parents. After all, you already have something in common. “You can meet other women at the doctor’s office,” Dr. Tessina tells clients. “Look around and see which women look about as pregnant as you are; talk to them.” It will take time, but the friends you make eventually can become what Dr. Tessina calls “families of the heart.”

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