Expat guilt: being far from family

I’ve written before about homesickness and the price we pay to be expats. Anyone who has lived overseas for an extended period knows there’s not one price tag – there’s many. One of the biggest ones, and a contributor to expat homesickness, is being far away from family.

I’ve spent countless hours and dollars visiting family. And while I’m very fortunate to have family who have made the trip to see me more than once (something not all my long term expat friends have experienced) I’ve definitely spent more time and money visiting them. But that’s how it goes, because I was the one who left them.

And yet – I miss out on so much.

My choice to live overseas means I missed my grandpa’s funeral. I missed two cousins’ weddings. I wasn’t there when each of my parents went through cancer diagnoses, treatments, and all-clears. I have cousins I’ve never met. I have two nephews I haven’t met yet – one is 9 months old, the other is 3 weeks old! (I’ll see them in 11 and 12 weeks – not that I’m counting!) And let’s not even get started on the list of friends’ milestones missed.

Spending three years in Australia recently gave me the opportunity to spend more time with family. I could go on outings with my aunt, getting to know her as an adult. I could drive to visit my grandparents for the weekend. For the first time I could be an adult child who visited my parents easily, readily. Go home for my Mum’s cooking, or have lunch with her when she was driving through my city. I could call them up and say “so, I need to come run an errand this weekend, I’ll see you in five hours”. Seeing my grandparents was very important. During my three years in Australia their health declined markedly and it was such a relief to be nearby, to be able to help, to pitch in, especially with me living a few hours closer to them than my Mum. It was a blessing to have time with them before, and even while, things became more difficult for them.

While my sisters lived on the other side of the country, I still had more opportunities to see them than I would have otherwise. Plus there were so many events to celebrate with them! One sister got engaged, then married, then pregnant. Somewhere in the middle of that my other sister gave birth to my first niece. I was more connected to them and all these huge life milestones than I would have been were I further away.

But now I’m far away, again.

Somehow, that makes it harder.

Video chats are amazing but they don’t take the place of cuddling a niece or nephew, of interacting with them in person. I am so thankful for sisters who work to make sure I’m a part of their children’s lives, but I still miss being able to see them in Real Life. I know what it’s like to see my grandparents in person, and how very not the same it is to be far away – especially when they don’t use the internet at all, and now struggle to keep up with even a phone call.

And then comes the guilt.

Knowing that I can only blame myself. That I’m the one who decided to go. That I could be closer but chose not to be. Knowing I valued something more highly than being near the family members I love so dearly. That’s a hard truth to face – and yet also a hard one to escape! In a recent recommended reading post I linked to a really good post about the guilt of distance. It’s something a lot of expats (if not all of us) feel, at least sometimes.

To be honest, I wonder if I would have so readily made the decision to leave Australia again this time if I hadn’t become engaged to a man who was not Australian and did not live in Australia. To be even more honest, part of me thinks “Phew! Glad that stopped me getting trapped in one place!” And it does give me a pretty solid and good and guilt-free (or at least reduced guilt) reason to be far away. And yet…

I think the guilt can be like homesickness – coming in waves, rather than constant, sometimes taking you by surprise.

I was recently reminded of my grandparents by a simple scene – a decorative planter box outside a burrito place we often go to, in which was growing the unusual combination of begonia flowers and fresh mint. My grandfather grew lots of begonias (among tonnes of other flowers!) and he taught me to grow them from cuttings. We would select them, wrap them in wet newspaper, and after the 6 hour drive home I would plant them and tend them until they bust into vibrant patches of colour. My grandmother had big tubs of fresh mint outside the house (I suppose she still does?) which would go on boiled baby potatoes, in sauce for roast lamb, and into ice water with lemon. So many memories wrapped up in those two plants!

This happened shortly after I read several messages about the ongoing situation with my grandparents, their health and capacity, and wanting to work out what’s best for them. And while nothing had changed, there was also a comfort in those plants. I carry them with me. I carry all the people I love with me. They are a part of me, no matter where in the world I am.

begonia-mint.jpg

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