A few days ago, my toddler and I were riding the crowded subway home from the pediatrician’s office. What made this unique was not having to enlist the help of one of my babysitters or ask one of the other moms at school to pick up my older child. In the course of the last 18 months, both my mother and my mother-in-law relocated to Canada, the country my husband and I moved to nine years ago, which makes spontaneous visits to the doctor’s office that much less of a headache. But it wasn’t always that way for me.
The lady in the adjoining seat started chatting with us. Pretty soon some biographical parallels emerged. She was married and wanted to have children, she told me, but wasn’t sure: Doing so seemed impossible without any family in Canada.
The concern voiced by my fellow commuter was a valid one. Seven years ago, I was living the scenario she so dreaded and feeling sorry for myself. I had just become a parent for the first time and this life change was occurring in a new country without the safety net of family by my side. I was very close to my mother, especially as an only child of divorced parents, and being away from her at a time like that seemed completely unnatural. I would gawk at the incidental multigenerational gathering with the longing of Carrie Bradshaw window-shopping for new girlfriends in Paris.
I now realize that I was suffering from self-pity-induced shortsightedness. Despite being surrounded by Torontonian implants who were in my shoes, all I saw was what set me apart from others and made my life more difficult. But eventually, I began to see the beauty in my situation.
A crash course in mother’s intuition
After we had children, the hidden advantages of our (not-so-unique, as it turns out) situation became more apparent with every visit from our family. When you’re a new parent, you constantly question yourself. The motherly intuition apparatus is there, but it takes practice to tune into it. However, in those early days, we are more susceptible to the opinions of others and we may view them as more valid, even if they are based on medical practices dating back to the 1970s.
For example, I remember the incredulous looks I got from my mother as she learned about the “insanity” of mother and baby bonding via skin-to-skin contact. I suppose that stripping all garments off and leaving your baby’s precious skin exposed goes against something in a Jewish grandma’s belief system. But when you’re away from outside noise, the sound of your own intuition becomes clearer and more easily discernible.
The state of being away means isolation from continuity, history and tradition. Nostalgia is often linked to geography and culture, as well as to people — those specific individuals who made up our childhood vignettes.
Relocation eliminates all of these factors and deprives us of the ability to take our kids to the same playgrounds that we played on as children. What we tend to forget is that while a nostalgic nest feels warmer and cozier to us, our kids will be just as happy with newly created “instant traditions.”
For instance, we started celebrating our holidays by serving the holiday meal at 4 p.m. instead of with the rise of the first star in the evening, as is typical back home. We find that our children are far less cranky this way, making it a more pleasant experience for everyone.
Nostalgia and tradition, if not used carefully, can rob us of our freedom of choice. Isolation from a familiar physical and mental space can be liberating and drive us to reexamine family axioms. We made our own decisions and fumbled through our own chaos until some independent patterns, new traditions and new rituals emerged.
Forming a “logical” family in addition to a biological family
Any type of relocation entails a clean-slate scenario, which can be terrifying, but also carries tremendous growth potential. As an introvert, I didn’t have to go out of my way to initiate new friendships in my home country, but when I arrived in Canada, I found myself charting unexplored territory. We ended up being our friends’ only witnesses when they eloped, which was one of the most rewarding experiences generated by our move. The isolation from immediate family also granted us the liberty to create relationships from scratch. We were solely in charge of defining what it meant to be this family.
I told my fellow commuter about some of the overlooked advantages of raising a child away from your family. Given a choice, I would still prefer having grandparents present. However, due to our experiences, I view this help as a gift, rather than a given. I would tell future parents that they needn’t worry about not receiving constant help from the grandparents — help is great, but its absence can be substituted with self-reliance. It’s the grandparents’ emotional presence that we should be striving for instead, and that can be created and cultivated in so many different ways, only one of which is physical.