Keeping Kids Connected with Long-Distance Relatives
CONTRIBUTED BY HEATHER GELORMINE
When my family and I moved to Okinawa last summer, our families had warned us ahead of time: We’re not going to be able to make it out there to visit you. It’s just too far. It’s too expensive. I took the warnings with a grain of salt; they were merely repeating the same sentiments they’d uttered when my husband and I received orders to our first duty station in Germany eight years ago. (And look what happened there – between my parents and sister, my in-her-80s grandmother, and my husband’s parents, we hardly went more than six months without a visitor from home camping out in our guest bedroom.)
The visits from family increased in frequency when our daughter was born a year and a half into that tour, and we even conceded and made a few trips back stateside to visit the family members that couldn’t fly the distance between the east coast and Europe. We’ve been fortunate that our loved ones have been so willing and able to make those trips; not all families have that luxury.
The eight months that we’ve been here have been the longest my daughter has gone without seeing at least one of her grandparents in her five+ years of life. It’s hard on her; despite the fact that we’ve never lived closer than a full day’s worth of air travel away from either set of our families, she’s close to them all. Including both sets of married grandparents, four still-living great-grandparents, an aunt and a uncle, and lots of ‘greats’ and extended cousins. Her little brother – who had just celebrated his first birthday when we made the 48 hour trek from the east coast of the states here to the island – doesn’t feel their absence as badly as she does. He’s still too young to understand what a grandparent is. But he’s not too young to know how to chat online with them.
Every weekend we sign onto our respective Skype accounts, fire up the webcams, and our children perform tricks for their grandparents in real time. My parents have watched our son learn to stand up on his own and take his first tentative steps; they’ve heard his talking progress from single part-words (“Mama”) to partial sentences (“No, Mommy, DOWN!”), and laughed at the variety of animal noises that he’s perfected. They watched my daughter open her gifts on her birthday and Christmas morning and were able to actually see the joy and expressions on her face as she thanked them for her gifts in person.
In turn, we’ve been able to watch as my sister-in-law’s belly has been growing over these past eight months. My daughter has gotten caught up in the pregnancy excitement: “I’m going to have a cousin!”, and seeing his aunt waddle in front of the camera has prompted my son to lift up my shirt, poke my belly and say, “Baby!” (To which I always respond, “Oh no, no, no. No baby in Mommy’s belly!”) We’ve been able to talk to and see the dog we left behind with my parents; we see his ears perk up at the sound of our voices and hear his tail thumping the floor when we tell him he’s a good boy.
My grandparents are in their eighties; they don’t have computer access. For older adults on a fixed income, making international calls isn’t necessarily something they can do. When we were in Germany, they relied on us to call them, and our communication was sporadic at best, limited mostly to holidays and birthdays. Before we moved here, however, my husband and I signed up for Vonage phone service; it’s a phone system that runs through your high-speed internet service. With that we were able to set up a stateside number that our families can use to call us, with only the cost of a long distance state-to-state charge (or no cost, if we’d arranged for a number in their state), rather than country-to-country. We, in turn, can call them as often as we’d like with no worries about how much each minute is costing us, or whether we’re going to use up our minutes of free long-distance from the local phone company. Our phone bill is the same each month, which makes planning our finances easier, and which also leaves us free to communicate in the best ways that we can.
Staying in touch with our families is not an option for us; it’s a part of our lives and it helps keep my kids connected to the people they know and love best. Knowing that her grandparents are just a phone call away has made this last move easier for my daughter to handle. Needing to only negotiate the time difference, but not the financial burden of staying in touch, has helped us to keep her grounded and from feeling so displaced. Which, in turn, makes our military family life that much more acceptable to her. My husband and I made the choice to travel so far from home; my children did not. So we feel it’s our responsibility to help them find their roots by any (feasible) means possible.
Other ways that we help keep the familial bonds strong are:
- Looking through photo albums often. We point out pictures of the grandparents with our kids, and remind them of the stories attached to those pictures. (Remember when we took that trip to the zoo together?)
- Playing the “Who loves you?” game with our 20-month-old. (Mommy, Daddy, Grammy, Grampy, Nanny, Grandpa, Auntie Becca, Uncle Bobby, Aunt Julie, G-Ma, Gigi, Nana, PePere…)
- Designating my daughter’s preschool artwork to be sent to family back home. (Grammy would love to put this on her refrigerator!)
- Writing thank you notes when our families send gifts. (This has the two-fold effect of teaching our daughter the importance of expressing gratitude, plus working on writing upper- and lowercase letters and words.)
- Picking out seashells and sea glass to send back to our families. (G-Ma loves seashells – this one would be perfect to send to her!)
- I write often and post pictures to my family blog, so that family and friends stateside can check to see what we’ve been up to and to watch how the kids change. My daughter often requests for me to write posts on specific topics, because she likes the feedback she gets from her grandparents.
- Right now, my daughter and I are planning the itineraries for the visit my sister’s making to see us next week. And for the trip that my dad and his mother have lined up for the
month after that. And for my mom’s visit next fall. Her first priority for each of them is, of course, to take them to the aquarium. My biggest priority is to get in that much-needed face time. And to point out that I knew they couldn’t hold out on seeing us, of course.
What about you? How do you stay in touch with your loved ones back home? Do you have any special rituals or traditions that you use to help your kids maintain their relationships with long-distance relatives? Any technological stuff that has proved itself invaluable in the effort to stay connected? What works for your family?