parenting Q&A: Maintain feelings of closeness even when children can't come home for Christmas
My grownup children live far away, so we don’t get to see each other very often. I think they should come home for the holidays, but they have all sorts of reasons they say they can’t. I’m worried that our family will drift apart and my grandchildren won’t have the close ties to me I had with my grandparents.
You are not alone in your dilemma and your concerns. So many people live far from family members that this is a familiar set of worries. It reflects conflicts experienced by both the grandparent generation and the grownup children generation, as everyone tries to work toward a transformed adult-to-adult way of relating.
Let’s start with the feelings you describe. It sounds like you really miss your kids and grandkids. That’s because you love them. I doubt if you really wish that they would have failed to make their way, find jobs, establish homes, start families — maybe failure would have kept them at “home.” Now they have made homes of their own elsewhere, which represents their success and the success of your parenting in equipping them with life skills. In an ideal world, those jobs and opportunities might have been closer to their childhood home, but our mobile society and the demands of the economy make that rare nowadays.
From the side of your kids, they probably have a big investment in their adult lives, feel pride in their achievements, and want to put down roots in their communities, developing their own family holiday traditions. At the same time, they love and miss you and hopefully have fond memories of holidays as they were growing up. The problem is if they end up feeling that they shouldn’t be enjoying their new family lives but feel pressured to maintain childhood patterns with you. That’s a recipe for resentment and avoidance, even if it’s not conscious and even when there are all sorts of genuine practical reasons for not getting together at Christmas.
What can you do and how can you help your children so that you all find a good resolution to this real dilemma? When you became a parent, you entered into an adult phase of development called “parenthood.” It’s not just kids who have phases — grownups do too! In the phase of parenthood, we all get used to putting our children first, nurturing something beyond ourselves. Once they are grown, the job isn’t over. But we do have to do it a different way. We shift the way we think about their needs and balancing them with our own.
The challenge is to find new ways to feel close and stay connected. Given the limitations of income and mobility that affect many older people, just getting on an airplane to visit often may not be possible. Luckily there are lots of pretty good substitutes, courtesy of the modern world. Phone calls and the wonder of video calls can bring grandparents and grandchildren together, even when they are tiny. You can read stories, sing songs, do fingerplays and see their latest preschool artwork, all over the computer. You can ask your children to send photos or even videos of the school play, and grandchildren can play something on their instrument for you.
Old-fashioned ways to connect are especially well-suited to children’s love of receiving something concrete and being able to carry it around and look at it again. Writing a short note or card to your grandchildren will create a deep sense that you always have them in mind and lay down precious memories for the future. Describing what is happening in your yard, or if it has snowed, create pictures of you and your surroundings in their minds. Your grownup children, too, might cherish a note from you in a different way from an email or phone call.
Nothing can completely replace touching your dear child’s face and knowing they are well, or hugging those little grandchildren as they greet you. But showing them that you have the emotional muscle to tolerate the missing feelings, because they represent the depth of your love, is a lesson in itself. It also is a gift of emotional freedom and an example of loving without strings, both strong foundations for a life-long good relationship among generations.
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst, affiliated with the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council. She is a founder of Allen Creek Preschool and author, with Jack Novick, of “Emotional Muscle,” available through buildemotionalmuscle.com or at amazon.com. You can reach her through www.allencreek.org with your comments and questions for future columns. The ideas and opinions in this column are Kerry Kelly Novick’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Allen Creek Preschool, MPI or MPC.