For my parents it's tough that they see my kids on video calls. For five-year-old Layla and two-year-old Ray, it's normal, and that's what makes it tougher.
My parents have supported my decision to move to Australia from London four years ago, but that’s not to say that it’s easy for them. We are a family of migrants, they moved from Argentina to the UK, and my grandparents and great-grandparents also moved from Europe to South America. Each generation, someone moves away.
Part of what I'm doing is learned behaviour. I'm copying what my mum taught me about staying in touch with family around the world during my childhood. We didn’t have mobile phones or the internet, international phone calls were expensive and saved for special occasions.
We might call my dad’s siblings for Christmas, marking Argentine Navidad with a call ahead of the evening party on 24th December, while my parents tried to figure out why the Brits celebrated with a lunch on the 25th.
Keeping extended family bonds is easier now, thanks to cheap mobile phone plans and social media.
Keeping extended family bonds is easier now, thanks to cheap mobile phone plans and social media. I had zero concept of my uncles and aunties as people with actual birthdays when I was growing up. I would see them every four or five years, and they would have aged, as grown-ups do. But thanks to Facebook, I know now everyone’s birthday and can send them an audio message via WhatsApp.
I’m using WhatsApp to keep in touch with my parents and my brother, too. We’re working like a finely tuned comms machine, across email, group chats, and video calls. I don’t know that it ever addresses the fundamental truth: it’s just not enough.
Latin people will tell you they’re crazy about kids, and I don’t know of a single culture that doesn’t apply this to itself. You can leave your home or your country as a single person easily but raising kids away from their grandparents is a much sadder adventure to embark on.
You are never going to be able to mark all the dates that matter together. We can, and do, encourage my parents to visit us at a time that coincides with a special first for the kids. They came out for Christmas and left just before my daughter started Prep, missing the first day but not the excited build-up.
You are never going to be able to mark all the dates that matter together.
One year I got me and the kids back to London for my birthday and my mother’s, and it was low key. Normal. The kind of everyday you miss out on when you’re far from home, or when home is far from your folks.
I was able to leave my kids with my parents, giving them strict instructions about how to cut grapes and watch them on play equipment, only to get halfway down the street and hear the deafening sounds of Peppa Pig at grandparent volume.
In moving to Melbourne I’ve noticed how many people live close to their parents, and how often the grandparents pop over to babysit, enabling the parents to actually date each other as opposed to load the dishwasher together.
My son Ray was very taken with my parents’ Christmas visit and weeks after they left for London, pointed up at a plane and said their names. I try to spontaneously video call them when we’re all up the same time. My two-year-old’s so happy to see my parents that he kisses the phone passionately, leaving gooey marks all over it, and leaving his abuelos wondering what happened to the picture quality.
Recently I’ve started videoing us reading books together. My mum, who’ll tell you Latin people don’t like throwing things away, saved a lot of my childhood books and it's fun seeing how much my kids have loved them too. These videos and photos, constantly streaming from me like Mum TV, serve as a time stamp too: these are my kids today, and then here they are next week; haven’t they changed?
My mum, who’ll tell you Latin people don’t like throwing things away, saved a lot of my childhood books and its fun seeing how much my kids have loved them too.
I wonder sometimes whether all of this imagery makes it harder for my parents, if “out of sight, out of mind” isn’t kinder considering how far we are from each other. But I need the interaction as well, the back and forth of messages, their approval, the unsolicited advice, the random photos of my parents’ day, too.
Growing up I wondered why they kept up on the news from their homeland but now I understand that as a migrant you don’t let all that accumulated knowledge go to waste. You’re an expert on where you came from, and an observer where you’ve ended up.
As virtual grandparents who visit, they are a constant presence in my kids’ lives. They know what we’re doing, and we know what they’re doing. They’re just a long way away.
Fernanda Fain-Binda is a freelance writer.