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Long-Distance Families

by Rita Di Antonio

Expat life has great perks, but these often come with a price tag. Many expat families know the challenges of raising kids away from home, the grandparents and extended relatives, but some parents make an additional sacrifice—living apart from their children while abroad. We talked to some parents about living away from their kids or significant other, the reasons behind their choices and their coping mechanisms.

Deciding to live apart from your child is not an easy one. But as parents, we all want to do what is best for our children—for some families this means sending their child away to school or leaving their children with family back home while the parents work in another country.

Separated by school

When Nikki Bullock and her family moved to Qatar from New Zealand in 2009, “it was a very intrepid move to somewhere not many people had heard of, let alone could pronounce with any certainty,” she jokes. “Looking back at our earlier selves, we were seeking a new cultural paradigm, an immersive experience full of new sights, tastes, sounds and exciting differences—we could never have anticipated that we would be so entranced by the warmth and hospitality of Doha.”

Their son Sam was 12 when they moved to Qatar, and he spent his teenage years in Doha before going back to New Zealand to attend college at the end of 2015.

“Sam finished his education here in Doha via correspondence school, and spent his days studying, playing squash with a top Qatar coach, and being ferried to golf lessons by our driver,” says Nikki. “Where else could this have happened?”

Growing up in Qatar left a positive mark on Sam, who speaks fondly of Doha, and comes back to see his parents whenever possible. “He relays tales of his teenage Middle East adventures to his friends with a sense of pride,” says Nikki. “Doha—New Zealand, the bond is there: he will never forget! His dad and I miss him terribly now that he is back in New Zealand, but he has adapted just fine, and we are in regular contact.”

Raised by grandparents

The moment your child leaves the nest and, like Sam, takes off for college, can be bittersweet. It is exciting to see your child take his or her next step toward adulthood, but it can be melancholic to let them go. To build a good future for their children, however, some parents make this sacrifice before their kids are of college age.

Individual factors, personal circumstances and difficulties in obtaining family visas prompt many parents to find work in other countries while leaving their children at home with the grandparents.

Arlene Echevarria moved to Doha from the Philippines in 2014 to work as a hotel housekeeper. When she left Manila, her youngest son was four, her middle child seven, and her oldest 13.

As she and her husband earn their living and save money so they can one day buy their own family house in Manila, Arlene’s mother and sister are taking care of their children.

“I stayed with my boys as long as I could,” says Arlene. “I couldn’t face leaving them when they were babies and needed me with them. When Prince, my youngest, started school, I decided to join my husband, who had already been working in Doha for a year. I wanted to do my part for our family, provide for my children and help build a solid future for them.”

Arlene misses her boys to the point that she becomes teary every time she talks about them, but she stands by the reasons behind her sacrifice: “When I was young, I had to find a job to sustain myself financially, and I regret not having the opportunity to study. I want my children to have an education, professional careers. Studying is their only job, and mine is to make sure they succeed. I am happy to send them money so they can buy the latest technology gadgets, as long as their grades are good!”

She talks to her boys every day on the phone, and she spends at least a month a year with them in Manila. Messaging services like WhatsApp also help her keep in touch with them and see them grow up, albeit from a distance.

“My sister regularly sends me pictures and videos of my kids,” she explains. “I trust her and my mother completely, and I know the boys are in good hands. Yuki and Christian, my oldest and middle child, are old enough to understand why I cannot be with them all the time. My youngest struggles with that, but recently he asked me to buy him an iPad, and when I explained I wouldn’t be able to unless I stayed and worked in Doha, he was happy to concede.”

Finding the right balance

Each family has a way of finding its own balance, a routine that works and that would probably make no sense for anyone else. Even then, as time goes by and family dynamics evolve, adjustments are sometimes necessary—what works today may not meet a family’s needs in two years.

Gaia Bragadin and her husband lived apart for years before settling in Doha.

“Commuting was the right choice for us for a long time,” says Gaia. “My husband moved to Doha shortly after we got married and I decided to stay in Milan to look after my family’s business—my mother had invested so much in it that the thought of just leaving her to it felt reckless.”

With a little help from my friends

Doha Mums founder Roxanne Davis relocated to Houston a few years ago, but she still travels to Doha regularly. She and her husband don’t have any family members to rely on in Houston, and her husband both works crazy hours and travels, so whenever they are travelling and need help looking after their daughter, ten-year-old Lulu, Roxanne’s friend Bre takes over as Lulu’s second mum. “Lulu stays at Bre’s house like a member of her family, where Bre is allowed to assign chores to her—and yell at her if needed—just like I would.” Bre is even on the school list of family contacts for Lulu, and she’s allowed to make decisions whenever necessary.

Gaia’s husband commuted regularly between Doha and Milan, and he was able to spend a good amount of time in Italy with the family. At the time, his job allowed him the flexibility to take some work home and do it remotely. While in “commuting mode”, they had two boys. Long distance was working just fine for them as a family.

As the children started growing up, however, Gaia and her husband felt it was time for a change. Gaia began to have less and less time to focus on the business and found herself needing an extra hand at home. At the same time, her husband’s job had evolved, and he was no longer able to take long breaks away from Doha. Finally, they decided they were ready for a dramatic adjustment to their family’s balance and Gaia and the boys finally moved to Doha.

“We have now been here for two years, and we are not looking back,” she says. “When we told the children they would be able to see mum AND dad every day, they were absolutely ecstatic! They have now found their own routine here in Doha. They both go to school and are very happy—we are all very happy.”

Despite sometimes receiving puzzled looks when she explains their arrangement, Roxanne says things have worked out wonderfully for all of them. “It’s like having another family member who can step in and help. Being able to depend on and trust Bre has allowed our family to grow in an unconventional way.” Bre also happens to be the mum of Lulu’s best friend, Maddie, so Lulu has not only gained a ‘second mum’ but a sister too—and the girls fight and everything, just like sisters do.”

Building a strong relationship from afar

A physical distance doesn’t have to equal a disconnect between parent and child. According to London-based Counselling Psychologist Maritsa D’Almeida, “Distance alone will not affect the relationship between a parent and a child, as long as parents take an active role in their children’s life and remain open and honest with them.”

D’Almeida recognises that “children will want an explanation and therefore parents should never tire of explaining their motives for being away. It is important that communication continues throughout the time that parents are away. Parenting is hard work and maintaining a good connection can be challenging, especially when dealing with other pressures. Listening and talking is the key to a healthy relationship.”