The “away child”

The "away child": I was 13 and living with my grandparents for a year when this picture was taken.

The “away child”: I was 13 and living with my grandparents for a year when this picture was taken.

How thrilling it must be for parents to raise children to become independent adults who go off and do their own thing. They might travel, study, work, marry, even immigrate somewhere else.

But how bittersweet that must be: on the one hand, being proud of that child’s achievements, and on the other, not being able to see them regularly, perhaps not for years at a stretch.

I call this the “away child” phenomenon.

By “away child”, I mean a person who lives in a different city or country to their parents, and this applies to a person at any age. If you’re 80 and your mother is 100, but you live in different cities, you are still an “away child”. As my mother says, she will always be my mother—age is irrelevant.

Mum and Dad always encouraged us to be independent, to aim high and to travel the world. We started travelling internationally as a family when I was 5.

I was an “away child” first at the age of 12. My parents and brother went back to Los Angeles to live for another year, and I stayed behind in Auckland, New Zealand, with my grandparents.

When they came back the next year, it was exciting to meet them at the airport: I got the day off school and Mum wrote a letter to say they had decided to keep me home that day. I think it was a Tuesday.

Just a few years later, I was leaving home “for good” to take up my first journalism job at 17 in another region. Mum and Dad said I shouldn’t leave home so young, but I insisted, and my grandparents drove me to my new town—actually a place my father had lived in 40 years before and my grandmother had lived on her family’s farm. Some locals even remembered them.

It was in Waipukurau, in Central Hawke’s Bay, about five hours’ drive from home (not that I had a car). In those pre-internet days, we couldn’t be part of each other’s daily lives. Communication was by letter and the occasional expensive phone call, and I travelled home for a weekend every six weeks or so. I didn’t go home for Christmas that first year I was working.

It was such an exciting adventure for one so young that I didn’t think much about how my parents would feel. My mother revealed to me only recently that it was sad for them and that she felt almost as if I’d died: the empty room, what to do with the old toys, whether to repurpose my bedroom or leave it as it was. (Three years later when my first brother actually did die, I moved home for a year to be close to them; then they had a new baby, a second brother for me, and I visited as often as I could before moving to Australia. They followed, not long after, and then I moved to Thailand! But that’s another story).

Social media has made the phenomenon of the away child much easier to bear, I guess. My international students tell me this helps them deal with homesickness, the thought that they can actually see and hear their families daily (even if they don’t).

Now my mother and I actually live in the same city, and last year I moved suburbs so I am only 18km from her, not 72km. But my much younger brother lives in the US, and although that is great—a happy marriage, an amazing city to be young in, a career, a dog—it’s hard to get used to seeing this “away child” only every couple of years.

On the other hand, I have quite a few friends who live in the same town they were born in, just down the road from their parents. Some have been “away children” for long periods, but others have been happy just to stay.

I wonder what that’s like.

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14 thoughts on “The “away child”

  1. I’m definitely the away child in my family. I moved out as soon as I could and I haven’t lived in the same time zone with any of my family (except my sister) since I was 18.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this a great deal, and trying to encourage my kids to go to uni overseas. Excellent for them. Terrifying for me. My parents moved overseas when I turned 18… they left home!

    • Hah! That’s an interesting twist. And so many “kids” now are home until they’re 25, 30, even older. It would be great to go overseas to uni—but yes, terrifying for the parents. Although Mum says you worry much more about kids when they’re under your own roof than when they’re away.

  3. My son and grandsons live in Norway. They visited recently for a month and my son went out with his mates one night. Funny, I couldn’t fall asleep until I heard him come home. Just like the old days. I guess we never stop being parents and kids.

  4. What a fascinating post, Caron! I know both kinds of child, actually, and I think it can work either way. It depends on the dynamic that there is. For instance, my daughter is not an ‘away’ child, so in that sense, I don’t have to deal with that feeling of never seeing your child for months or more at a stretch. On the other hand, she has a busy life, so we don’t get to see each other as often as you’d think. I suppose every family has to work out that relationship as best they can.

    • Thank you, Margot. Yes, it’s really interesting the way it works. Our busy lives make it difficult to juggle all the things we have to do, don’t they? I know family members who live in the same town only minutes away from each other, yet they meet up only once a month or so. This is not because they don’t like each other, but because everyone is so flat out. Same with friends. I have a very close long-time friend who lives about 30 minutes’ drive from me, yet we see each other only about 3 times a year!

  5. I guess I’m an away child – mum in New Plymouth, sister in Sydney. But here’s a thing – when I was very young, the difference between those cities in terms of travel and perceptions would’ve be immense. Now they’re effectively the same with cheap airfares and so on. In fact, I see my mum a whole lot more often than my sis.

    Here’s another thing – doing my food blog with Bennie keeps us all closer as my mum gets a pretty much daily update on just what we’re up to!

    • How true. Cheap airfares and digital media have enabled us to keep much closer to our friends and family. I wasn’t in touch with cousins in NZ, various areas of Australia, and the US for years at a time, but now we pretty much all know what each other is doing. Same with friends interstate and overseas.

  6. I think I was 19 when I left home. First I went away for a year and saw my family maybe five times during that period. Then I returned home for one or two months before moving out again, this time for university and for good. My parents come visit once or twice per year, same for me most years. Sometimes I don’t see two of my siblings for one year or longer, as only the youngest still lives at home and travels with my parents.

      • By car it’s about 4 hours, so they usually come over for Saturday lunch and coffee, then go back in the evening. I’m home for Christmas every second year (alternating with my husband’s family), most other holidays I either spend just with my husband where we live, or we go to his family – they live closer to us, so the train ride there is much shorter and way more affordable. My Birthday and New Year’s Eve I either don’t celebrate at all or I hang out with a few friends.

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