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Travel lessons: FOMO, guilt and long-distance family relationships

Returning home, whether permanently or for a short visit, is always a joy for us. After being away for a year we were itching to catch up with friends and family, find out what had changed and visit some of our familiar haunts.

Every traveller knows that long-distance family relationships are not easy, and extended trips abroad can be laced with guilt and FOMO. Here are my reflections on our experiences while we were away, and what it was like to see everyone again.

I’ve also included some tips for travellers who are worried about keeping up with relationships at home.

Missing big life events: FOMO and guilt

Many travellers struggle with this while on extended periods away from home. The fear of missing out (FOMO) is inevitable, especially if you are away for a year like us, because you will probably miss a big life event for one of your friends or family.

This year, we missed my mum and dad’s 30th wedding anniversary, and we couldn’t be there when two of our favourite people got married. Not only do you feel like you’re missing out – you feel like you’re letting people down because you’re not there to celebrate with them.

We did get to have a family Christmas while we were away. My parents came out to see us in Sydney over the festive period. The BBQ in 30+ degree heat was different to our usual celebrations, but it was a great time, and we loved spending it with them.

As well as celebrations, there are worries, especially when it comes to older members of the family. Alex’s granny is 98 years young, a fantastic woman who he visits regularly when we’re at home. Over the last couple of years we’ve had a scare or two, but she’s always pulled through.

Before we left we talked with the family about what we would do if the worst were to happen, and as we travelled the world it remained in the back of our minds. While we were in Australia we got the dreaded phone call that Granny had taken a turn for the worse. After a couple of worrisome days we were relieved to hear that she was on the mend. Alex went to visit her as soon as we got back to tell her all about our travels.  

I’m sure these worries exist for other travellers, too. But we believe that you can’t stop living your life the way you want to ‘just in case’. Granny doesn’t want us to.

Long-distance family: my parents gave us a family Christmas by coming out to see us in Sydney
My parents gave us a family Christmas by coming out to see us in Sydney

Reunited with family after travel: a birthday party

Just after we arrived back home, Alex’s dad turned 70, and the family threw a big garden party. It was an amazing occasion, and also the perfect opportunity to see people we had missed. We were relieved that this wasn’t one of the big life events we missed because of being abroad.

So, on a sunny June afternoon, we packed our overnight bags into the car and started on a roadtrip to Bexhill-on-sea, on the south coast of England. We checked into our B&B, got changed into our blues-music-inspired outfits and walked up to the party.

The garden looked like a trendy festival was about to take place – there were hay bales to sit on, fire pits ready to light and a stage with a marquee at the back. When Alex’s dad was younger he was friends with Chris Jagger (yes, you know who his brother is), who turned up with his five-piece band to play for the occasion.

The string lights looked fab in the dusk as we enjoyed another glass of wine from the free bar. We caught up with aunties and uncles, cousins, new additions to the family, and all the step-family. We had a dance, we had a drink, we had a laugh. It was a lovely evening and we were so glad not to have missed it. Andy (Alex’s dad) had the best time, and we were so happy to see everyone again.

Long distance-family: Andy's 70th birthday party
Reunited after long-distance family relationships: Alex’s dad’s 70th birthday party was an amazing occasion

Post-travel reunions: making time for conversations

Attending the 70th birthday party meant that we got a lot of time to speak to friends and family all in one place, many who we hadn’t seen for a long time. What we soon learned is that people were more interested to ask us about our travels than tell us about the year they’d had.

We got a bit self-conscious about this, because we didn’t want to be those people who come home and just talk about themselves and their travels. What we found out is that it’s very hard to avoid. We ended up repeating ourselves a lot, from one conversation to the next. I am sure that anyone who has returned from a long trip will know the feeling!

One piece of advice I would give to travellers anxious about returning home for a big family event is to be prepared to answer lots of questions like “What’s your favourite place?” or “Where did you get the best food?”. On the flight back we looked through old photos and thought about what we might say. The answers usually change depending on what we feel like, but it’s nice to talk about it, and it’s absolutely brilliant that your family are interested. You might feel like you’re being repetitive and constantly talking about yourself, but remember that each person you speak to is hearing it for the first time.

This conversation does happen every time you first catch up with someone, even if you’ve been back a month. Don’t let yourself get tired of answering the same questions. Embrace the opportunity to talk, tell stories and relive your best memories with your loved ones.

If this doesn’t sound like something you can do, and like us you yearn for meaningful time with the people you love, then it’s a good idea to arrange individual catch-ups before these big events. That’s why we went to see Alex’s dad and stepmother a week before the party. It’s also why, when you’re travelling, you shouldn’t feel bad about missing those big events. It’s the individual catch-ups that you treasure more – and they can happen anywhere at any time.

Remember, relationships aren’t built on big events

It might feel awkward, but it actually doesn’t matter if you do miss these big life events because of travel, whether they are happy or sad. While you feel you need to be there to celebrate someone’s special birthday, anniversary or pay respects at a funeral, it’s more important that you maintain your relationship no matter where you are in the world.

First of all you need to understand your relationships. You probably know a lot of people. It would be almost impossible to keep in touch with all of them, all the time. I admittedly struggled when we first started travelling. I expected certain people to stay in touch who didn’t, and I expected more people to stay in touch. Over time I learned that I have two different types of friends; conditional and unconditional.

Conditional friends are still friends, but there are specific things that influence your relationship. For example, this could be a location and you only hang out when them when you’re there. It might be work friends, neighbours and even school friends or uni pals. Or there could be one particular interest that you share – Game of Thrones, football etc – and you only really talk when that thing is happening. It’s great to have these kind of friends because it gives your life variety and those relationships are mutually beneficial. They will still be there when you get back, and you’ll enjoy seeing them again, but don’t expect any correspondence while you’re away.

Unconditional friends are basically family. They are the people who will call you even when you don’t want to speak to anyone, just to tell you off for something. These are the people you prioritise time for when you’re away. You might not even realise exactly who they are before you leave; travelling definitely shines a light on the types of relationship you have with people.

Post-travel reunions long-distance family
Post-family reunions: our friends surprised us with a BBQ party after we returned to the UK

Long-distance family relationships: tips for staying in touch

Make time for phone calls. Not just ten minutes, but enough time to have an actual conversation.  When I was away, my friends called me every time there was a big get-together and I would speak to them all individually. This happened when I missed my university reunion, and it reminded me that I’m still a part of it, even if I’m not there in person.

Put effort in when replying to emails. Don’t just email on the fly – make an effort to explain everything you’ve been doing and to ask questions about what is happening at home. This might be the only form of contact you have for a while and, if it’s with parents, they will want to know as much as possible.

Keep your social media updated. If you use social media, make sure you let close friends and family know when you’re likely to be away from it for a while. They might not always interact with your posts but, since I’ve been back, I’ve learned that they definitely still follow them, and they get worried when you don’t post for a while. Also, my parents loved following our journey through my Facebook posts, so it was worth the effort just for that.

Finally, when you get back you will be full of emotions and will want to see all of your friends, both the conditional and the unconditional. You will need to allow time and budget for these quality catch-ups, rather than just rushing straight into work. This can often be overlooked.

Those lunch dates, post-work drinks and weekends with friends and family. They’re the special times. The times where you can really get to know people and have meaningful conversations. And sure, big family gatherings are brilliant fun, but their intended purpose is to celebrate something, so they might not be the perfect space for those close and quality interactions post-travel.

As long as you’re happy that you dedicate enough time to communicating with your people when you are away, and seeing them when you happen to be back, you’ll see that relationships aren’t just about the big events.

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Every traveller knows that long-distance family relationships are not easy, and extended trips abroad can be laced with guilt and FOMO. Here are my reflections on our experiences while we were away, and what it was like to see everyone again.

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23 comments

  1. These are so spot on. It’s been really hard for me growing up on the other side of the world from my nephews. I try to FaceTime with them once a fortnight. We use this time to read stories, sing songs, and learn about what country auntie is in. It always warms my heart.

  2. I used to have FOMO, but it was a different kind of FOMO. It was not the fear of missing something big that happened at home, it was the fear of missing something amazing anywhere but home. When I am at ‘home’ (I was raised in the UK, and my family live there – so that is what I think of as ‘home – even though I really rarely go back there), I’m always thinking about what is happening in other places. Thinking about new places to explore and new things happening, new people to meet etc. I really get itchy feet syndrome when I stay in one place for too long.

  3. I really identify with most of the feelings of long term travel that you have written here. You are right that you also get to truly know who your friends are. I have experienced two types in my friends – one who is super excited for you and asks you lot of questions and the other who doesn’t even acknowledge your trip and doesn’t ask even how your trip was!

  4. Great post! We just sold our house and travel full time now, we miss EVERYTHING back home but its one of the sacrifices we made to live the life we always wanted. We have been gone for a year before and this time around is reaching that point soon!

  5. FOMO is a big deal for me, coming from a huge extended close-knit family – I’m always missing out on a wedding or niece or nephew’s graduation or birthday party. You get the story of events from family members but it still sucks not being there – and it’s especially hard when there’s a funeral..This post really hit home!

  6. I can remember living far away from my family and missing out on so many things. Now that i have my own kids, I never want them to move. Sadly, I know they will. Great tips on staying in touch

  7. I’m Indonesian, and I think it’s difficult to get that FOMO feeling when really for every occasion, people don’t seem to be able to mind their own business. Like, I was away from home for quite some time and I honestly missed some of my relatives’ wedding and I wasn’t even sorry. Now that I’m back home, wedding or birthday, or any other occasion at all, bumps me out because people would start asking why I’m still single or when I’m getting married. 🙁

  8. I totally agree with this, I always worry about missing out! Usually, my close friends and family understand if I am away for a long period of time, but our family is super duper close so I will usually try to combat it by facetiming the family at the event at some point, even if the time difference makes it 4am my time!

  9. This is such an awesome and relevant article for any traveler, especially for me! I feel as if my family gets irritated that I’m not there for some big family occasions, but as you said, attending or not attending these events don’t “make or break” a relationship you have with someone. I also love all of your tips to stay in contact! Isn’t the internet a fascinating thing? Great post!

  10. I absolutely agree about the guilt you feel missing out on big life events. One of my best friends got married last weekend and we missed it due to our round the world trip. It’s tough sometimes but I still wouldn’t change my decision!

  11. I related to this post so much! When I studied abroad in Switzerland for a year, it was the first time I missed my brother’s birthday and New Year’s with my family. I feel like it’s something that comes with the lifestyle.

  12. Lovely post. One of the best part of traveling for me is to come back to my city and see it with new eyes and perspective and realize how much we under appreciate the place we live in..

  13. So relate with your post. Visiting home after long periods is pleasant and still, short to catch with and on everything. I always find that my city changes and I lose my way at least three time! Haha There are also memories of missed weddings and absence for the mourning for the lost loved ones. This post is a trip down the memory lane 🙂 Thanks.

  14. This is so very true! I travel for a weekend and feel this way of things happening back at home can’t imagien for a year!

  15. This post is so on point. I used to miss inportant family functions while traveling. It’s not really easy to catch up with relatives even after traveling. There is a little guilt but I never regret.

  16. I am a lucky one, who lives in another country, but only few hours away from my hometown. Returning is always easy and fun 🙂

  17. i can somehow relate to your story. we also left our house and moved to another town. once in a while, we visit our old house and it gives us sentimental feeling knowing that we grew up there.

  18. I often suffer with FOMO. I miss out on so many special family events staying so far away. Your post made me help feel good. Great tips.

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