A post by writer Gwen Bellinger. Gwen is the daughter of my good friend Susan. I asked her to write us a piece about living away from her mom, far away, and the challenges, insights, and joys it brings:
You’ll be fine,” my mom says over the phone. Or maybe it was on Skype, or Facechat, or in person during one of my visits to the United States. I can’t remember because she’s said it to me so many times over the last few years.
I don’t live in the same country as my mom, nor do we talk everyday, so sometimes I feel guilty dominating our conversations with self-doubt or rambles about boys. She never seems to mind being used as an emotional crutch. In fact, I believe our relationship has grown stronger in the last years, maybe not despite the distance, but because of it.
Having lived abroad (or at least in another time zone) for six years now, I’ve navigated the majority of my twenties with a lot of physical distance from my mother. My current location is Vietnam.
Last year I lived in South America, and before that, India. As a “digital nomad,” someone who makes a living by working online, I can literally be anywhere as long as I have access to a computer and internet. It’s a brave new working world, one my mom still doesn’t understand, but at least she stopped calling me unemployed. I haven’t lived at home for ten years now, and for the majority of that time I was not within driving distance (or even the same continent).
So what does that mean for my relationship with my mom?
Well, there are definitely times the distance bothers me. Sometimes this is due to nostalgia. I teared up in public last month when a friend left me a voice recording and I could hear the overwhelmingly chirp of cicadas in the background. It made me think of my unexpected visited to North Carolina a year ago in the thick humidity of July, the last time I saw my grandmother. Sometimes I crave banana pudding and BBQ sandwiches and going to the gym with my mom.
Other times I miss my mom taking care of me. Once, I got brutal food poisoning in India and spent a week moaning on my hard mattress, in so much pain I couldn’t even watch TV, and running to the bathroom to expel liquids so vile I’m ashamed (and shocked) my body was able to produce them. I was miserable. There was nothing I wanted more than to have my mom dote on me.
Often I miss her emotional support. As I have transitioned from my early 20s to my late 20s, the decisions I need to make have become bigger and weightier. Part of that is just having more options and needing to think more seriously about the future. In college, my “big” decisions were if I would live in the dorms or in an apartment and where to go for spring break. Now I need to decide if I should give up my freelance writing career for a lucrative position in China. “Big decisions” involve moving in with boys and career paths.
Mothers have invaluable life experience, are devoted to your best interest, and know you better than anyone. They can slip into roles of life coaches or therapists but are better because they don’t charge by the hour.
It’s times like these I miss my mom most of all, if nothing else, just to have her tell me, “you’ll be fine.”
And yet, the independence of living abroad has made me a much stronger adult. While I usually call to talk out difficult decisions with my mom, the consequences of my choices are ones I must bear alone. While a good Skype cry once or twice when I first moved to India were great cathartic releases, ultimately I was the one who took on those challenges without much handholding. When things got hard, I couldn’t retreat home for a weekend. I had to get resourceful.
Likewise, family time has become something sacred. There isn’t much of it, so it means really taking advantage of it while I have it. My parents have an excuse to travel to odd places. They’ve visited me in Chicago, Budapest, Prague, India, and Buenos Aires. These trips mean being able to share something a little outside the usual with my family and show them different sides of myself. In Argentina, I served as the translator. In India, I became a traffic controller to get them across the crazy streets. In every country, I have to find the best bakery for my mom.
As much as I miss the “routine” of going to the gym or lunch with my mom, or chatting in the living room, I still think the distance has helped, rather than hindered, our relationship. We value the time we have, and we make our conversations and communication count. She’s given me the emotional (and physical) distance to experiment with adulthood, and find the best path for myself. It’s nice though, that technology has given me the possibility to always pick up the phone, and have someone at the other end tell me I’ll be fine.
Gwendolyn Bellinger is a freelance writer, editor, and English teacher, currently working abroad while exploring the world. Originally from Hillsborough, North Carolina, she has worked and written her away across 60 countries. She currently lives in Beijing and works as a college counselor at Due West Education while continuing to offer some writing and editing services on the side.