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.
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.
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.
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.