This article was recently published on the online website NYCityWoman.com. The site is temporarily down, but should be up fairly soon.
A recent study found that most adult Americans live within 25 miles of their mothers. Surprising to me, since I know practically no one who fits this description, mother or child! My friends’ children more often live in other cities, other states, or other countries.
Of course, as researchers tend to do, the two economists who wrote the report, Robert A. Pollak, PhD, an economics professor at Washington University, and Janice Compton, PhD, a professor at the University of Manitoba, tempered their findings by saying that this figure does not hold up when the children have college degrees. For these, about 50 percent live more than 30 miles from their mothers and, for married couples, only 18 percent live within 30 miles of both mothers. Most – but not all -- of the children in the families I have talked to do indeed have college, and sometimes graduate, degrees.
“If you go to college, you’re more likely to work away from the place you grew up,” said Dr. Compton. “Plus, you’re more likely to marry someone who’s not from your home town or even from your state.” (Or even from your country.)
When my daughter Jenny told me over twenty years ago that she and her German husband were moving from the United States to live in the little town where he had grown up, I felt bereft. She was pregnant when they moved, and I missed being able to be with – or at least near -- her at her baby’s birth and later, being unable to help her with the care of her three children. I was grateful that her in-laws lived close and could be of great help, but at the same time I envied her mother-in-law, who saw her grandchildren every day, while I could see them only two or three times a year.
But this was not the era of “Fiddler on the Roof,” when Tevye’s daughters left their shtetl and they all knew they would never see each other again. Nor was it like the 1950s when my brother Ben moved to Italy from Philadelphia with his pregnant wife and toddler son to further his art career, and didn’t see his parents for three years. Middle-class working people like my parents rarely traveled to Europe then, nor did they chat across expensive transatlantic phone wires.
I can map changes in family geography from my own history. My parents lived two doors away from my mother’s mother until she died. Then they moved to a different Philadelphia neighborhood, within a few blocks of my mother’s brothers and my father’s mother and sister. But my brothers and I redrew the family map: I moved to Cleveland, while Ben came back from Italy to live in Florida, and Carl went to California.
My youngest daughter lives right here in Manhattan, my eldest lives about fifty miles away, and then there’s Jenny. Fortunately, my husband and I were able to visit Jenny and her family at least yearly – and then, when her youngest turned two, she and the children began spending a month with us here. And then when email, Skype, and cheap phone plans arrived, letting us talk with Jenny and her children for only pennies a minute or even for free, they made a huge difference in the ability to stay in touch.
Like my own parents, no parents of faraway children who talked to me would have chosen this situation, but we have made our peace with it in one way or another. What else could we do?
When Betty Mosedale’s daughter Laura told her mother that she and her family were moving to London because her husband took a job there, Betty’s first reaction was sadness. Eighteen years later, she says, “The move, however, worked out wonderfully. They have a rich life, with opportunities for interesting work, travel, and cultural activities. We see each other several times a year, and in the summer we spend a month together in our island cabin in Minnesota.” Betty and her London grandchildren keep in touch by email and low-cost phone plans (see sidebar), and enjoy the visits going both ways “across the pond.”
Joan Riegel’s daughter met her husband-to be when both were in Buenos Aires on Fulbright grants. Joan knew her daughter had already been stricken with wanderlust, but when she told Joan that she and her husband would be moving to Germany to live, “My heart sank,” Joan told me, “even though I told myself, ‘this is not unexpected.’” Joan visits about four times a year, usually when her son-in-law is on a business trip so that she can be company for her daughter – and also let her go out while Joan stays with her granddaughter.
The reasons for many moves revolve around work. As did Claire Berman’s son’s. He had earned his master’s degree in international relations and had become an international foreign affairs specialist, so Claire was not surprised when he and his wife, a human rights specialist with a doctorate in political science, moved to Switzerland. “I respect the choices my kids have made and the lives they lead,” Claire said. “But even though we stay in close touch through email, telephone, and a few visits throughout the year, I wish that I could have been as involved with the grandchildren as I would have liked to be.”
But work isn’t all. “Rebecca” (not her real name), a Zionist, encouraged her six children to spend a year in Israel after high school to experience the country and study Hebrew texts. Three of the six settled there. She has gone to Israel soon after the births of all eleven of her grandchildren who were born there, staying there up to two months at a time. She has continued visiting three or four times a year for the last twelve years, and welcomes her children and their families here when they visit.
And Gerry Raker, whose daughter lives in France, told me, “Since I married I never lived near my own parents, and living far away in the same country is virtually the same as living overseas.” I have found this also: it took longer to visit Jenny when she lived in Oregon and I had to take two flights and drive two hours than it does now, with a nonstop flight to Frankfurt and a short drive from the airport. But somehow, living in another country feels farther away.
We have all found some plusses: when I visit Jenny I usually stay a couple of weeks, and we spend more concentrated time together than I do with my two other daughters, who live in New York and New Jersey. Since my U.S. daughters know we can see each other more often, we do, but rarely for the same kind of extended period. We tend to fit our time together into hours or days between everyone’s busy schedules and we don’t pack so much into each get-together. As “Rebecca” said, “When I’m in Israel, I have taken time off from work and so I’m more relaxed.”
Other parents found other advantages. One mom said, “You’re exposed to different parts of the world through your children and your grandchildren, and that’s a plus.” I have piggybacked vacations in France, Italy, and Holland onto visits to Jenny, so my flight to Europe does double duty.
Advice? I join the chorus: “Accept the situation with grace. Do all you can to stay close, plan your visits at their convenience, and welcome them when they visit you. Make an interesting life for yourself. Don’t depend on your children to give you a reason for living. Get together for major events when you can – and understand when this won’t work out.”
As Gerry says, “You raised your children to give them roots and wings -- so you can’t complain about the wings!”
TODAY’S WAYS TO COMMUNICATE INTERNATIONALLY
Each of the following is a little different, so go to the websites to find the one that works best for you.
Spaxtel: Through this phone service (www.spaxtel.com), which I use, you draw from an initial payment of $5, and then add amounts of either $5, $15 or more at a time, depending on your usage. My calls to Germany cost 2 cents per minute to a landline and 13 cents to a mobile phone. You can call from a landline or a smartphone.
Viber (www.Viber.com: free phone service on smartphone.
WhatsApp (www.whatsapp.com : I also use this smartphone app, which lets you phone, text, and share photos free.
Skype (www.skype.com : a godsend especially for grandparents of small children, letting you see each other on your computers, lets them get to know you, and lets you see them. Free between computers, inexpensive between phones.
FaceTime (www.apple.com/ios/facetime ): Like Skype, letting you see each other across the miles, which can be used on Macs, iPhones, iPad, and other products. Free between Apple devices.
PennyTalk (www.pennytalk.com calls to Europe cost 2 cents a minute, landline to landline, and 17 cents to or from a mobile phone.