I think we might be doing it wrong. In our haste to give our (foreign service/expat) kids the world, we sometimes miss out on some of the finer things that can be found stateside. Namely, frequent family time. Sure sure, we stay in touch much easier than before thanks to the advent of things like Skype, Facebook, and email, but … it’s not the same. Even though the world is indeed a small world after all, we can’t but help but miss out on the smaller things (weekend barbecues at Grandma’s house, or a random festival, town celebration, or a playground get-together) and the larger things (brother has a stroke, and we wait with bated breath for email updates; father has a heart attack and is in a coma; family friend has a car accident and we don’t know if they’ll make it). These are biggies. These are often also unscheduled and don't (read: can’t) always happen on our long planned R&R or Home Leave trips. These are the moments that we really wish we were there, waiting with our family and friends, grasping hands and hope, bolstering spirits with a hand on an arm, or a hug. It’s not regret that we are away that fills our hearts, but rather a wish to be closer than a plane ride away.
This is the time of year I thoroughly ponder these sorts of things. 10 years ago this week, I got the call: my sister died. I honestly thought it was a horrible cruel joke or a bad bad dream. Why would this person be saying this to me? Why would they know anything about this horrible accident? Why would I not wake up? There I was, I was a sleep-deprived mom of a newborn, literally on the other side of the planet from her, and it was all I could do to stop myself from throwing everything into a suitcase and rushing to her side. But … she wouldn’t know if I had done that. And, worse, I couldn’t go because I was med-evaced, and my new baby didn’t have a passport yet. Going through the steps of getting his passport and then visa for our home country – all done as though I walking through a fog -- didn’t take long, but it felt like an aeon. Every night, as I got up for midnight feedings, I made phone calls to get things into order and arranged; my midnight was midday where her accident had occurred so I could get a lot accomplished. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, what if I had been there? Would I have been able to help her? Would I have been able to make a difference so she could make wiser decisions? Taken better care of herself? Would I have been able to prevent this terrible, horrible no good day?
We expats, we live on the fringe of our extended families. I often feel like I am getting the ‘Facebook’ version of my stateside family; they don’t share the big stuff, just the good, see-how-great-my-life-is stuff. The Facebook stuff. I want to know the other stuff. I want to know about how they are having trouble finding kneesocks that stay up. I want to know about the amazing puddle they drove through. I want to know about the new kind of apple in the produce section. I want to know the non-Facebook stuff. Because that, let’s face it, that is REAL life. Sure, the Facebook stuff is pretty fascinating, and who doesn’t love a cute cat video, but real life is a great new coffee shop, the long traffic snarl thanks to road construction, and conversation about what happened at work. The medical updates with real details about the doctor’s annoying habit of not meeting one’s eyes, not just the glossy cover-up.
Want to know what sort are my favorite emails to receive? The run-on, rambling, mid-thought interjection in my inbox. The kind that requires my immediate attention because it is as though it is a continuation of a conversation., one I am anxious to keep going. I am stupidly busy with life + work + getting ready to move + kids + just everything and things like this? Keep me grounded. Remind me what is important. My mom will regularly send me words she can’t figure out with Scramble. I love that because that is exactly what we would be doing in person, because that is her every day thing. My sister used to do that, too. Just random things, popping into my inbox. ‘What did you think about xyz?’ ‘Ohmigosh, did you hear about (insert amazing thing here)?’ Just … connection.
I tell my kids often that I hold family and friends to be of utmost importance. Not just family and friends here in our same city, but our extended family and friends, too. Communication is key to maintaining relationships. Humans – mankind – evolved to the point of being able to establish and maintain relationships. Let’s let them flourish.
What can I do to help my kids develop richer relationships with their extended families and friends in other locations? Besides the obvious (Skype, email, Facetime, etc), other options include sharing photos (especially easy on the cloud or via various photo sites), scheduling time together during vacations or breaks, and also calendar reminders for the big dates of friends and family. When I see a calendar reminder for a friend’s birthday, I can’t help but smile and jot off a quick birthday wish. Communication doesn’t have to be long and drawn out; it can be brief, and I’m-thinking-of-you quick. Share a joke. Share a pic. Just share. Connect. It’s important.
It’s okay to admit to missing a friend. It’s okay to be sad that you’ve missed a big (or little) day. And, maybe more important, that’s a good reason to reach out. Little things, big things. It’s okay to overshare. I think your family and friends might appreciate knowing what is REALLY going on.