How to Maintain Intentional Community with Family When You Live Away - Verily

For many of us, the conclusion of the holiday season means that it will be a while before we see our extended (or immediate) family again. Though it seems to be the case that Americans today live closer to home than previous generations, our historically mobile society has resulted in many adult children living away from their families, whether for a career or because of living preferences. Though there are advantages to this flexibility, sometimes we might miss the core community that family can provide.When I traveled to India, I came to appreciate more deeply the value of maintaining close connection with family. I saw there that family is often a person’s primary social network and safety net. In the communities I visited in India, many people lived in close proximity to or even in the same home as their family. This made it possible for family to provide not only emotional support, but often concrete, practical help.

Even if a move isn’t in the cards, intentional community with family is something we can actively cultivate, whether we live in the same state, across the country, or in another part of the world.

01. Meet in the middle. As someone who is currently living away from my family, I’ve lately come to appreciate the times when I can gather with my parents and sister outside of our current homes. For this past Mother’s Day, for example, my family met halfway between where I’m living and where they are located. Though it rained that whole weekend, the halfway point was a city with interesting things to do, and a place we’d never spent time before. We hiked, found cute coffee shops and breweries, and spent some quality time in the hotel watching TV with paper cups of tea, a makeshift take on a family tradition of evening tea and movies when we’re gathered at my parents’ house.

Though this method might be more difficult for some than others depending on distance and ability to travel, meeting in the middle at least annually allows my family to explore a new place without the trappings of home. There’s a camaraderie that can come from having to figure out a new place together. (It’s also just nice not to have to do dishes!)

02. Mark special occasions. Personally, one of the hardest adjustments of adult life has been missing the smaller occasions with family—the birthdays and traditions that were so much a part of the family rhythm as a child. Though I’m hardly ever at home for birthdays, and hardly ever equipped with cake to partake in the celebration, I am welcome into the celebration via Skype. These days, both my sister and I video-call home so we can help sing happy birthday to each of my parents and watch them open presents. Though it would be lovely to actually be home, technology has offered me the next best thing, to be able to celebrate from afar.

Whether your celebrations are marked with a card, a phone call, or a package in which you’ve carefully packed a helium birthday balloon (I’ve been the awed recipient of this feat!), acknowledging these moments that have been important to your family context is a good way to keep close to family from afar. And if celebrations weren’t a big part of your family context, making time to check in every so often—maybe to eat an ice cream together or drink a cup of coffee—can express the desire to draw close to individuals within your family.

03. Find ways to “come home.” “Coming home” does not have to look like traveling home for the holidays. Living away can provide opportunities to come home in a different way—to meet people who become family to you. Though family can be a source of comfort, love, and joy, it must be acknowledged that family can also be a source of brokenness and dysfunction. If this is your story, this third point is especially for you. Or, if you simply live too far to make it home with any frequency and still need the emotional support that a family structure can provide, there are ways to “come home” even when home is out of reach.

Populate your life with people of different ages. Find people in your workplace who are older and younger than you, and befriend them. (The lovely thing about the working world, as opposed to the college bubble, is that there is a diversity of ages.) Or, find a writing buddy in a grade school or retirement home, join family dinners with your married friends, attend a fun event with a peer.

Chances are that your own activities have already put you in the path of lovely people. Recently, for example, I was invited to a married friend’s house for an Irish-themed evening. We ate a roast and watched Brave. The evening reminded me of the whimsy of childhood—the older kids in the family spent the evening preparing shortbread cookies that looked just like the cookies in the movie, and I found myself having a meaningful conversation about gymnastics with the seven-year-old. Not being around families very often in the last few years, I was reminded that I enjoy talking with children as well as adults. That evening, I got to “come home,” though not in the way I expected. I was gifted with the invitation to come into someone else’s home and spend life with them.

Maintaining connections can be difficult in a society where grown children are encouraged to live far from their families. Though it is normal for this to happen in many Western countries, staying close to family as an adult does not have to be painstaking or difficult, even if going back home for visits isn’t possible. There’s beauty and perhaps even an art in finding creative ways to draw close. So here’s to more memory-making with the people you call family.