I’m lucky: My parents are still here to answer the phone when I call. But there are days when the distance between us (4,193 kilometres and five provinces, to be exact) feels infinite. And I want nothing more than to teleport them into the school gym so they can see how sweet my daughter is singing in her holiday pageant. Or make dinner for us so I don’t have to. Or simply give me a hug.
I moved from Toronto to Vancouver for university, and I stayed there for 13 years before a new job and some serious homesickness drew me back to Ontario, with a boyfriend who would become my husband and where our two little girls would be born. My mom and dad were able to hold each of my children hours after their births. The photos we have of those moments show a family beaming with love and pride. Which is why it was so hard to leave again when our careers called us back west and we relocated to Kelowna, BC. While we’re all getting used to the distance—connecting through FaceTime and celebrating holidays without them-—it hasn’t become easier. It’s hard to raise kids without my parents’ support. And we miss them.
This hit me especially hard last fall, when my social media feeds were flooded with links to a study out of the University of Oxford that touted the scientific benefits of raising children near their grandparents.
The study, conducted by the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, found that a “high level of grandparental involvement increases the well-being of children,” thanks to an added sense of support and security. The weight of the distance suddenly felt even heavier.
I always thought my kids (who are now six and three) would look back on their own childhoods and think of lazy summer afternoons spent swinging under the old maple trees in my parents’ yard or riding the tractor with my dad as grasshoppers darted out of the way. I can’t help but feel like I took that away from them—from all of them, and I don’t quite know how to fix it.
Most of the time, as we’re going through our busy days of work and school, life feels manageable, and we don’t really notice their absence. But some nights, after a couple of hard days of kid meltdowns and overtime at work, my husband and I will lament the fact that we’ve “orphaned” ourselves miles away from grandparents who would help us in a heartbeat—if only they could. My husband’s mother passed away before our kids were born, and his father, who lives in BC, is still too far away. We envy friends who treat themselves to overnight getaways because grandparents are nearby. And while it’s one thing to hire a babysitter so we can go to a movie, it’s another to have a parent who can help when my husband and I both come down with strep throat.
Our annual get-togethers—when my parents fly to us or we fly to them—are great. But they are short and busy, and don’t make up for the day-to-day events we miss with one another. There are the big moments they aren’t around for, like the loss of a first tooth. But more often, it’s the little things that hit me the hardest. Like when our Brownie leader handed me a crate of cookies, winked and said, “Just sell them all to Grandpa.” Or when my eldest daughter asked to FaceTime Grandma so she could read her a bedtime story.
Moving back to Toronto is something we have discussed, but ultimately, we are happy here. My husband’s career has taken off, our cost of living is lower, and we have fallen in love with Kelowna— and our lifestyle. It’s perfect in every way, except that we don’t have family across town anymore. Our hearts really are in two places, and there’s no right way to fix that.
I’m painfully aware of what my kids are missing out on, because I grew up with my own grandparents next door, and I count their daily presence as a reason my upbringing was so wonderful. I grew up hearing about my father’s and my grandparents’ childhoods, and I always had a strong sense of identity thanks to this understanding of my family’s history.
In fact, a study by doctors Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush from Emory University found that the sense of “intergenerational identity” children have when raised near grandparents creates “higher levels of emotional well-being, and identity achievement.” I can relate to this now.
To maintain some connection, we try to make the most out of technology, using FaceTime for news big and small—sharing things like when my eldest learned to ride a bike or what we had for dinner—in the hope that my parents remain familiar and comforting. The reality, though, is that my kids do sometimes play shy when we spend real time together. I remember during one visit, my then four-year-old pushed my mother out of her bedroom because she wanted me to put her to bed instead. My mom came downstairs heartbroken and holding back tears.
Last week, my mother surprised us with a last-minute visit, in response to a text I’d sent complaining about how exhausted we all were. She was here the very next day, with recipe cards to cook dinners and an itinerary of things to do with the kids so my husband and I could catch our breath. She did laundry, walked the dog and bought groceries, and even paid for my husband and I to go out for dinner. It’s not something she will be able to do frequently, but it was wonderful nevertheless.
In the absence of our parents, we have made a village out of the amazing people we call friends.
Earlier this year, my husband went on a business trip during a jam-packed week of work, half-days at school and one kid sick at home. Our incredible circle of friends swept in and took over carpooling, hosted dinners and checked in throughout the day. We are learning to count on these wonderful people as family, but of course, it’s not the same. It will never be quite the same.
The one good thing about having our parents living far away is that we don’t take them for granted. If anything, the distance between us has made us appreciate them more. And despite not being as close as I would like, my children are lucky to have them in their lives, in whatever form that takes. We’ll keep plugging along, using FaceTime to share our lives with them from afar. It’s not easy, but it’s all we can do.