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.