Why Long-Distance Relationships (With Your Family) Suck

Each hello and each goodbye with my family is always the same. A potent cocktail of guilt, yearning, wistfulness, and even resentment swirls around each encounter.

Jul 23, 2012 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

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It’s 8 o’clock on a Friday night and my one-and-a-half year old son is laying across my lap. As he sucks on his pacifier and twirls his hair, I gaze at the clock and, for once, pray for him to stay awake. My parents’ flight has just landed in San Jose, and they’ll be back at my place in an hour. I know they’re eagerly anticipating seeing their grandson, but his bedtime has already come and gone. His eyelids are heavy, and though I try to keep him quietly entertained, his eyes begin to droop and his lashes close like a Venus flytrap.

When Mom and Dad walk in the door, they give me one of those meaningful hugs, but their eyes take in the dimmed lights, the glow of the barely audible TV and they know they are too late. They’ll have to wait one more day to give Lucas a goodnight kiss.

For any other grandparents visiting grandchildren who live nearby, missing out on a goodnight kiss is no big deal. But for my parents and me, it’s one more insult to injury, one less evening for Lucas to get to know his Mimi and his Grandpa. It may seem like a minor detail, but it’s in tiny moments like these that the emotional fuckery of a long-distance relationship with family takes its toll. No mention of my parents’ disappointment is made, but I read it all over their faces, and it translates roughly to “Why did you leave us?” 

I didn’t intend to leave them. I was an East Coast girl born and raised, and I imagined I’d always live a comfortable, but not daunting, distance: New York to their Massachusetts. It was that way for nine years until I randomly met my future husband in Las Vegas and fell crazy in love. After a few months of bi-coastal dating, I followed him to California, where he lived near his family, thinking it’d be a temporary move. (We both agreed to look for jobs back in Massachusetts. But after several months of soul-sucking job searches that yielded no results, I started applying in California and landed a job within a week.) 

Life and circumstances intervened, and here we are married, in steady jobs, homeowners, parents -- and still in California. Now, with the burden of adult responsibilities on our shoulders, a cross-country move (and for me, yet ANOTHER cross-country move) feels like a task too monumental to undertake. Like it or not, our roots have taken hold, and although it’s not what I had originally envisioned, I must admit that we have a very lovely life here. 

Yet my family back in Massachusetts has had a very hard time comprehending the permanence of our situation. They still cajole us to come back to the East Coast. They still poke and prod when I mention looking for a new house in a nearby California community. (“You know what kind of house you could buy here in Massachusetts with that money?!” Yes Dad, I do know. Sigh.) And, now that Lucas has come along, there’s a heightened sensitivity that wasn’t there before. Suddenly, going six months between visits feels like a lifetime -- because for a baby, it pretty much is.

Rewind to about a year ago: I’m in the car on the way to pick up my parents from the airport. Lucas is just six months old, but his little personality is already forming. He’s sensitive to strangers, but warms up for familiar faces, especially those of his Papa Cano and his Abuelita. He coos and giggles in the back seat while I attempt to prep him for my parents’ arrival.

“Your Mimi and Grandpa are at the airport! We’re going to pick them up now, are you excited?”

Bah bah bah bah bah!

“Yes, that’s right, Lucas! Mimi and Grandpa. You know Mimi and Grandpa. They love you very much. They can’t wait to see you."

As I pull up to the sidewalk, I see my folks, poised anxiously on their toes, big grins stretching across their tired faces. (It’s a long flight from East to West.) I open the door and pop Lucas out of the car seat, handing him over to my mom. He immediately begins to wail. I try to cover it up, explaining that he does this with everyone now, but the damage has been done. Tears spring to my mother’s eyes as she clears her throat and begins a list of her own excuses for Lucas’ behavior.

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Each hello and each goodbye with my family is always the same. A potent cocktail of guilt, yearning, wistfulness, and even resentment swirls around each encounter, but we bury it deep down because there’s nothing we can do about it. What my parents do, instead, is unleash it on me once they are back home, at a safe distance from the raw wounds re-opened every time we see one another. 

My mother likes to remind me how much free babysitting she would be offering if I was around. (I like to remind her right back that I wouldn’t need it, since I wouldn’t have a job.) She and my father often make snide remarks about us teaching Lucas Spanish, the language he speaks to his other grandparents. (“He won’t know how to communicate with us!” Right. Because he’ll never hear English anywhere else in the United States.) They pout when Lucas doesn’t recognize them on Skype. They wonder out loud whether I will regret not being there for them as they grow old. I never know what to say to them, because part of me understands how they feel, and the other part just wants to make the best of it.

The thing is, I can’t really blame my parents for feeling and behaving this way. My heart aches for them and for me. When I lived in New York, I could easily zip back home for a weekend visit. Now that our visits are limited to 3-4 times per year, it’s become clear to me what I’ve lost. As a mom, I can understand how my own parents might feel abandoned. And as much as I love Alex’s family, they will never be my own. 

The doorbell rings on a Wednesday evening and it’s my in-laws. They are in town running errands and decided to drop by to say hello. Lucas sees his Papa Cano and runs toward him, flashing a partially toothy grin. 

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“Hola, hermoso!” coos my mother-in-law, sweeping up her grandson and planting a kiss on his cheek. My father-in-law lifts up Lucas’ shirt and tickles his tummy, unleashing a gravely belly laugh from my son. I watch as he laps up the attention, and my heart warms.

But then a small part of me drifts away, the part that’s still just a kid missing her own parents. I wish Lucas could have this random Wednesday with my mom and dad. I wish I could, too. Instead, our visits will always be orchestrated, special. And while there is value in that, too, I miss the comfort of my own family, the idea that they will always be there.

When I decided to settle down in California, if I knew then what I know now, would I have so easily given up on pursuing a life in Massachusetts? Hard to say. I know my husband is not as easily adaptable as me. And he’s got family and friends here who are a wonderful support system. I wouldn’t want him to have to go through what I’m going through now.

Because a permanent long-distance relationship with your family has dire consequences. You mourn the loss of the Sunday dinners or the trips to Target or the other mundane, boring, familiar activities you know will no longer have the same (non)meaning. You cope and deflect when your parents sends hurtful comments your way (because you know that’s just their pain talking, too). But you’ll never be whole again.