“Mommy, sometimes I wish you could cut me in half. Half of me could stay at Nana’s house, and half of me could go to El Salvador with you.”
These were my daughter’s words as we boarded the plane to fly back to our home in El Salvador. I knew just how she felt. One foot here, and one there. The wanting to go, and the wishing to stay. The good-byes, the leaving, the sense of loss that is always there. The feeling of missing a birthday, a wedding, or an important moment in the life of a family member.
Living overseas, and raising our children far from family and long-time friends is a challenge. How do we maintain a connection with cousins? What about grandparents? Friends that we knew before the move? How can we firmly anchor our children to their extended family across the years and across the miles?
I am the first to admit that I fall short in nurturing connections with family back in the U.S. Life rushes ahead, and soon weeks or months go by without touching base with grandparents and cousins. It requires effort and planning but providing children with a familiar “home base” and a sense of identity and history is well worth it.
Here are a few things that we have done, and that I want to commit to doing on a more regular basis. I hope that you can find something useful to help your family create valuable connections.
1. Face to Face Skype Calls. Anyone who is living overseas knows about Skype. We are so blessed to be raising kids abroad in the age of the internet. We can actually talk face to face in real time with friends and family half-way around the world. My biggest problem arises when I fail to be intentional about making these calls happen. With time differences and an overstuffed calendar, we must make a point in our family to schedule time for our kids (and us) to chat with family members.
2. E-Mail. I use email and Facebook to talk to friends and family back home but it wasn’t until recently that it dawned on me to start letting my kids use my email account to send messages. If they are feeling sad about missing a friend or family member, they can send an email. My daughter can type herself, and my son dictates to me what he wants to say. Grandparents have responded enthusiastically by sending everything from e-cards on the first day of school, to quick messages sharing something interesting that happened that day. For example, my daughter and her grandmother share a love of birds so they like to update each other with descriptions and pictures of birds that they have seen recently. It’s a small and convenient way to stay connected.
3. Snail Mail. The mail system in El Salvador is unpredictable, but for the most part we have had success mailing postcards of places we’ve visited and receiving small letters and stickers from the U.S. Sending a small letter under a pound is around $1 from the U.S. to El Salvador and that has been another simple way to keep in touch. This obviously depends on where your country is and the mail service, but nothing delights my kids more than receiving a letter in the mail!
4. Book Exchange. My daughter loves reading, and so does her cousin. One thing they like to do is a book exchange. They will each lend one of their favorite books to the other to read. This has worked for us because we try to connect with someone coming from the States to El Salvador and get the book into their hands. There is something special about knowing you are reading one of your cousin’s favorite books. Another idea is to read a book on the same topic at the same time as a loved one. My daughter and my father were both reading books about Benjamin Franklin at the same time and my daughter loved to talk about how Papa was reading about the same thing she was.
5. Get to Know Grandma Book. Along the lines of the book exchange, is to have a special book or journal to keep up with grandma or another relative. My daughter and my mother have a book that they work on together when we are visiting the States or my mother is visiting El Salvador. They can play games, write down notes, and share secrets between the two of them. Here is a link to a great book by American Girl that even features tear out sections that can be kept and shared between a girl and her grandmother.
6. Sharing Clothes. This is one I love because we get free clothes, and my kids can get a souvenir from their older cousins. My kids truly love wearing a favorite shirt or pair of jeans that was once worn by a big cousin.
7. Pictures and Scrapbooks. Keep pictures of family members displayed prominently around the home. Try to keep them current. I realized that I still had the same pictures we brought with us when we moved nearly three years ago…cousins change in that amount of time! Another idea is making a scrapbook of your furlough to keep for your kids to look at, or spend time creating one to be sent to a family member. Last year my kids helped to create a scrapbook of all the highlights from their year to be given as gifts to grandparents. They loved having the opportunity to share the things that were important to them. We created them online and had them shipped to the grandparents in time for Christmas. You can create these simple books online by visiting sites like Creative Memories, Snapfish, or Shutterfly.
8. Be Creative! Brainstorm with your kids about ways to help them remember friends and family when they are far from home. Sometimes something as simple as baking cookies with an aunt's recipe and talking about favorite memories can help a child to feel connected. Letting them make a special collage about their memories from a furlough or the visit of a relative can give them a sense of belonging to a family that they only see once every few years. The sky is the limit, so discover what works for your family.
It is difficult to stay close across the miles, but I encourage you to be intentional about making it a family priority to stay connected. What about your family? What ways have worked for you to stay close even when living across the country or overseas?