The Long-Distance Family Phenomenon

Living far away from my family isn’t as bad anymore. It used to tear me apart inside each time I’d hear of this sibling’s latest concert and that niece’s recent cuteness, the dinner everyone had together for someone’s birthday, or the trip to Island Park for a weekend at the cabin. It still hurts, but it’s bearable. On the other hand, it’s nice to have that grand trip to look forward to, where my husband, children, and I are the guest stars for a week or so.

But something inside me feels that this isn’t right. I worry that I’m missing out—losing time that could be spent getting to know my mother better (and my sister for that matter). I know her well as “mother.” It’s only been recently that I’ve felt that perhaps I only know a small part of my mom. As I slowly grow into the role of mother, I began to realize here and there the ways I don’t yet know my mother.

Things that don’t help the matter: 1) I’m not a great phone person. I would rather be there, in person, and phone conversations sometimes frustrate me. Not always, but they are really not my thing. I know plenty of women who love a good chat on the phone, but I’m not one of them. 2) When we do make a trip to visit everyone, it’s just that. We are visiting everyone (parents, siblings, cousins and friends) at once. And there’s not much time to REALLY talk. And we are busy, doing this or that. We sometimes just don’t have the right set-up during those visits to bring up and delve into the life topics—to bring out our inner selves. 3) We are kind of a private family. My mother doesn’t talk a lot about herself (I heard most of the stories I know of her childhood from my aunt). But I don’t believe it’s because she doesn’t want me to know that part of her. 4) Maybe I’m shy about it too. It’s not only with my mother that I feel the impatient longing to know someone better but don’t know how to go about it without being completely awkward. I wonder, if my mother and I were forced into a situation where we had to talk about real stuff, what would eventually be said?

My mother did the long-distance relationship with her own mother. Growing up, I lived about 460 miles away from my maternal grandma. And, if I remember correctly, we might have visited her in Oregon once a year. I’m not even sure I know how my mom dealt with the distance? Did they write back and forth frequently? Or talk on the phone?

Do you live near your parents and/or siblings? If not, do you feel sad about it? And how do you keep close despite long-distances?

{Image of my mother in college.}


I am a children's librarian. I have 2 kids. I have a professor for a husband. I obsess about writing and about making things.

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  1. AMY S. says:

    three thoughts from my own life:

    my husband’s from a Sudanese refugee family and in contrast to his family’s experiences i’ve noted that folks in the US, who have far more of a choice on that matter, often live far from their families, while my husband and his siblings (scattered around the world by war and refugee status) would so LOVE LOVE LOVE to live near one another and would never do anything to choose to be as far apart as they’ve ended up, even as far apart as two or three states.

    also: i’ve left my snug Utah home a couple times, but i’ve become more aware, since my SIL’s recent cross-country move and struggles to adjust (more aware than i usually am) how tightly held i am here–in strong nets of family and friends. i’m very grateful my mom’s only 15 minutes away. i know my roots here are deep and well-nourished and i sometimes need to be reminded of this fact.

    finally, i don’t have too much anger about UT culture stuff, but I don’t think I’ll ever get over blaming the local culture (and, okay, church) for the fact that my two gay siblings will never move back here. i miss them like crazy and wish we could live near one another as adults. they are the best uncles and aunts i could ever want for my kids and i need them closer.

  2. Caroline says:

    I’ve always lived pretty close to my mom. Within a couple of hours.

    I’m a momma’s girl, so I’ve really enjoyed having her close. Not only does she help me out a lot with organizing the house and child care, but I think she also really likes having company and hanging out with people, since she lives by herself.

    It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve been able to contemplate moving to another state without her. I’ve come to realize that she’ll be fine without me since my brother is in the area.

    Even though my mom has been physically pretty close to me, there still are areas where we don’t go in our conversations. We don’t talk about religion or faith. We don’t talk about certain difficult years in her past. There is a wall of respect and privacy that neither of us feel comfortable bridging. There are aspects of my mother that I’m pretty sure I’ll never know. This makes me a little sad, but I accept it.

  3. Brooke says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Amy and Caroline. One thing I’ve come to learn through living away from my family is how to better build friendships with people that don’t share my bloodline. We all have needs for a local support system and if I had the pre-formed option of family, I know I would be less likely to reach out to others. What’s neat is that these friendship bonds are stronger and more meaningful than I imagined.

    Caroline, I guess there are parts of everyone we are close to that will always be private to them.

  4. tracy m says:

    My family is insanely close. My brothers, dad and mom (and previously, me) all live within one mile of each other. So, when I packed up with my 8 month old and my husband and moved 1200 miles away, they thought I had lost my mind. They placed bets on how long I would last.

    6 years later, I’m still here. And they are still mad at me.

    I go for visits, and I’ve added two kids- (neither of which had visitors for their births)but my visits are much like you describe- full of scheduling and visiting- not much time for just hanging out and getting reaquainted.

    All that said, I miss my family terribly sometimes. I loved being close to them, by proximity and emotionally. Now, most of our interaction is carried out over the phone. It’s not ideal, and emailing pictures and videos sometimes helps.

    I do wish things were different, but because of where they live (the Bay Area) us going back is not an option. And honestly, I’be grown closer to my husband that I think I ever would have if my mom has continued to be the dominant force in my life. I have grown to love where we are now, and would not chose to leave.

    This summer, I am hoping to schedule a block of time for a visit that is unplanned, lazy and open-ended. Maybe that way, we’ll have time to reconnect.

  5. madhousewife says:

    My husband and I are both far away from our families. When I grew up, my parents were far away from *their* families, so I always thought it was normal to not live near extended family and hardly ever see your grandparents. Now I’m very jealous of people who have family nearby. While there are definitely advantages to living away from family (they can’t get all up in your business that way), I don’t like being so far away that we can only visit them maybe once a year, if that. My husband’s mother and grandmother are probably going to be moving to our area in the next year or so, and I’m looking forward to it. If only for the free babysitting.

    I would also love to be closer to my siblings, who are scattered all over the country. It’s hard to stay close to people you don’t interact with regularly. None of us is good about making phone calls.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I grew up far from extended family, and have lived as an adult far from family. My parents recently moved 20 minutes away for part of every year (5-6 months).
    As long as you have the means to vist often and have others come visit you, living far away is wonderful.
    You really have to have one on one visits. Going to home to someplace that everyone else lives isn’t enough.
    Your family has to be willing to come visit you.
    I luckily have had many single siblings who have visited us often. Even married ones have gone ahead and made occasional trips. We’ve had Thanksgivings with partial family and one Xmas with all the family.
    I have made trips to visit my siblings one on one (since they all lived in different states). A weekend with my sister in Arizona. Four days with my sister in NYC. I drove with my kids to see my brother and his wife. Two siblings I haven’t actually gone to visit just them yet (single oldest brother and married youngest brother).
    If you and your siblings don’t do this, then it probably sucks to not live close. If your parents don’t make every effort to visit or connect, then it probably also sucks. My parents come to visit a lot.
    Living close doesn’t really appeal to me because you don’t appreciate them. You take things for granted. You don’t bother with certain things. They might look over your shoulder and start making comments about what they think you should be doing.

  7. Anonymous says:

    “We’ve had Thanksgivings with partial family and one Xmas with all the family.”
    I meant that they actually traveled to MY house for holidays.

  8. Anonymous says:

    This is a very timely post. Today is my mother’s birthday. Dad’s was a week ago. They’re both in heaven…way too far away but possibly closer than I’d believe. I was the youngest of 7 kids and I came later in life for my parents. I remember one time in my early
    20’s before marriage and kids, my mom lamented that she might be too old and tired to enjoy my children. Little did she know how prophetic that comment was. She and dad left on their mission 4 months before our first child was born. Then mom died of cancer shortly after the my third child was born 4 1/2 years later. Dad remarried and had a few good years but then his health and mental acuteness failed. He died ten years later shortly before my last two were born.(we have 7 kids now) Perhaps my parents are enjoying my children better from where they are than they could have on earth with aging bodies and ailing minds. They’d both be 91 now. But if they are enjoying my children, I can’t see it. That’s what I miss the most right now. They were wonderful grandparents with so much love to give and wisdom to share with this next generation. Frankly I feel gypped for myself and my children. But that separation is all in the Lord’s hands. Not much we can do about it.

    Then 10 yrs ago, my father-in-law passed away at age 59 from the exact same cancer my mom had. Less than 2 yrs later we moved 1300 miles away from Utah for a peach of a job, leaving behind my angry and aching mother-in-law, my aging father, and the bulk of our extended family. We were so desperate for a big change and we thought it would only be for a few years. It was fun and exciting at first…just what the doctor ordered. Some of our siblings came to visit with their children within the first few years. We also went back to Utah to visit every summer. I can attest to the craziness of those visits…fun, exhausting, depressing and exhilerating all at once. After several years and no more visits from siblings (they’d BTDT)and only once/year visits from my mother-in-law, we felt it would be a good idea to return to live in Utah. But now it’s almost impossible to get back with the rise in housing costs, and competition and low pay in my husband’s field. It’s very discouraging and sad to realize we might never be able to go back. To compound the problem, life is so much more complicated with teens and their busy schedules. We have to wedge a trip out to visit between camps and sports and work, driving 4 days, visiting maybe only 4-5, or flying all of us at great expense. We rarely get to take a family vacation because traveling to visit IS our vacation. Yet we hear about week-long wonderful magical trips to beaches and lakes our siblings take. ANd we wonder just how much they care if we make that 2600 mile round trip trek to visit or not. It means the world to us. I think the visits mean so much more to the ones who have moved away. We feel taken for granted and unappreciated when family doesn’t want to go to the bother to visit us out here and expect that we’ll pick up all the expense and hassle of maintaining family ties.

    One of the most frustrating things about living away is that our 4 youngest children barely know their cousins. That makes me sad. Our first three kids were very close to their cousins and grandparents. It makes me wonder what long term effect it will have on the younger children. Will they have any kind of appreciation for extended family? My children are probably closer to each other at this point which is a benefit of living away. But will they realize the importance of staying close to each other once they are grown and have families of their own? I hope it will still be a priority for them. Maybe it will make them more self reliant and successful in their careers and more able to make friends wherever they go. I hope that somehow it will all come out in the wash.

  9. makakona says:

    we spent our entire marriage at least 3000 miles away from our families for our whole marriage, up until two months ago. it was HARD to make the move back, especially financially. we would love to live somewhere cheaper than southern california, but the family makes it all worth it. i never knew my grandparents and i only had two older male cousins, so i LOVE that my kids are now around so many aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. i realize now how worth it our big move was.

  10. FoxyJ says:

    We’ve been going through this same thing lately. My husband and I grew up far away from extended family and both felt like it was “normal” to not know our cousins and grandparents well. Now that we have kids we want them to know their cousins, and we’re really close to many of our family members (my husband’s sisters especially). However, his family is suddenly all migrating to Utah County. Like others have said, the high cost of housing combined with the low wages (and poor job choices for my husband’s field) make it difficult for us to want to move. Plus we don’t like the weather or the culture there… Hard choices. We’ve considered Salt Lake and maybe some day we’ll go there. The rest of my husband’s family lives in Hawaii, and there are a lot of reasons why moving there would be hard for us too.

    I’m seeing this in my own family. There are five of us kids born within eight years, but we aren’t close. As someone mentioned, my siblings and parents don’t make a big effort to visit me (I try and visit them, but that’s kind of hard for us too). I moved 2000 miles away from home when my youngest brothers were 12 and 14 and feel like I hardly know them now that it’s been a little more than 10 years. I’m not a big phone person and I wish we were closer. I definitely believe in building networks of friends, but then I live with the guilt that I care more about my friends’ lives than those of my family members…

  11. Anonymous says:

    I’m only mentioning this because sometimes people don’t know, and I have read the word “gypped” on the bloggernacle several times this week and it is starting to get to me….
    The word is racially offensive because it comes from and people’s views about gypsies and things being stolen by them. I don’t mean to be the PC police, but I figured you’d rather know.
    Now, if I could only remember where else I saw the word so I could help those people too?

  12. Jessica says:

    The part of your post that struck me was about being forced into a situation where you had to talk about real stuff.
    My sister-in-law was fled New Orleans and hurricane Katrina. She later had to go back and collect their stuff while her husband started law school in another state. She took her father-in-law with her and they had 3 straight days to talk, and she said that improved their relationship immensely. (he’s not a big talker, and she’s not a native English speaker). Anyway, I just mention that because there are times when you are forced into those situations.
    (although the hurricane part was a little crazy.)
    Great post. I love living by my family. I don’t know that I could leave. But I like the point about being closer to your husband if you live further away.

  13. Anonymous says:

    We have spent the last 5 years living away from family. For a little while I was by my sister. It was great!!! Boy do I miss that. We live very far away now. It is not that easy for either of us to visit. But we are trying. We talk on the phone and email and send pictures and we made album pages for eachother for the kids to look at so they dont forget their cousins.

    It just gets lonely. I thought our ward would be close but it is not they are all to busy. I have some nice neighbors but it is still not the same.

    It does mean we spend a lot of time as a family together. There are lots of opportunities to see and do new things. I sure miss not having someone close to help or to do things with.

  14. Kiri Close says:

    I miss my family big-time. We are scattered all over the place.

    At the same time, I’m not sure if we would really grow on an individual level if we all lived too/very near each other.
    It also seems that our abstinence from each other has us growing fonder of one another.

    Sure, we have long distances between us. But boy, oh boy, when we get together, it is one big non-stop parTAY fest of sistah love and laughs and food and all night talk story about everything–sex, movies, trials, husbands, dreams, you name it!

    Sad when we bid farewell, but it just makes us fonder of each other the next time we chill together.

  1. May 19, 2009

    […] only other big move as an adult was from Utah to here. We were moving away from our families, but we had a couple of friends to look up. This time, I absolutely don’t know anyone out in […]

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