On having family close by

21 February 2019

In October, I shared the happy news that my sister was moving to North Carolina. It was exciting enough to have Kim in Nashville – in the South! a short flight away! – and Nat and Joe in Northern Virginia – a reasonable weekend trip! – but this development was a revelation. Kate and family are now outside of Charlotte, a little over two hours away from us, and that’s closeness of a whole different order.

Since my sister’s arrival about three months ago, we’ve gotten to taste the sweetness of proximity – taking the girls to the Nutcracker, organizing their new home together, texting about North Carolina happenings (since they now matter to all of us!), celebrating birthdays around the same table. And we’ve made plans, so many things to look forward to – trips to the zoo (the perfect halfway point between us!), shopping my favorite consignment sale elbow to elbow, weekend visits with scooter rides and cousins piled in the same room.

You have to understand that I truly never thought this would be our reality. My family always desired to be closer to each other, but everyone seemed firmly ensconced in their separate – widely scattered – states.

North Carolina welcome

So, over the last almost ten years since moving South, we built our own life here. We’ve (slowly) made friends that have become family. We’ve worn traditions like grooves that have become part of our family identity, ones that were once new to us but will always be familiar to our kiddos.

Away from our hometown and our extended family, we turned homesickness into homeyness out of necessity – begrudgingly at first, and then with gusto. We had to make this place our home, even if our family wasn’t her. We couldn’t just wait for them to show up one day.

And I know that even as this was sometimes hard and lonely, it was also a gift, because some new couples in the literal shadow of their parents or hometowns are never quite able to set themselves apart, to establish their own traditions, celebrations, and identities. And we were.

welcome box

And therein lies the rub. It happened almost immediately: Kate and Co moved in October, and the conversation quickly turned to Thanksgiving. Of course we were going to spend it together, since we were now so close! And of course we wanted to be with family on this most family-centric holiday!

But but but. For the last six years, we’ve eaten Thanksgiving dinner with our dear friends and their parents. Air travel at Thanksgiving is SO expensive, and besides, John has only ever gotten Thanksgiving Day off, making multi-day travel impossible. The Terhunes may not be our actual family, but Thanksgiving at their house has become a deeply-cherished tradition – the only Thanksgiving setting June has ever known!

But how to explain this to our flesh-and-blood family, who understandably assumed we would spend Thanksgiving with them?

It all shook out – we spent Thanksgiving Day with our friends, and then drove over to Charlotte after John finished work on Friday – but not without a small sense of disappointing people, at least on my part.

We are tasting a little bit of what those with family close by know well – the push and pull of obligations and expectations for time and presence. This is not the last time we will face this kind of quandary, and while our lives may be slightly more complicated for it, all I feel is grateful. After all, the only reason we now have more family expectations to navigate, is because we have more family. Thanks be to God.

Friends, I would love to hear what this has looked like in your life. Do you live close to your or your spouse’s immediate family? Have you always done so? If so, how often do you see each other? What have been the best and hardest parts?

Above, the North Carolina welcome box we sent Kate and Co before their move, filled with some of our favorite reasons to love the Old North State: popcorn from Asheville, peach candy, Chapel Hill toffee, a bucket list map, Cheerwine, Videri chocolate, the Western NC jam we served at our wedding, Duke’s mayo, cheese straws, an NC coloring book, the best magazine, and a CAT earth mover in honor of their presence in the state. It was so fun to collect and put together!

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February 21, 2019 8:33 am

Oh this topic is near + dear to my heart! I haven’t lived near my parents since high school (though we live in the same state now – three hours apart), and the exact same goes for my husband. We have zero family within three hours of us, and minus my parents, everyone on both sides of both of our families is at least eight hours away (most much more). Neither of us grew up near our grandparents, either, but we’re also so grateful that we are both incredibly close with our parents, our siblings, our grandparents, and all of our families — family is everything. So even though we aren’t geographically close, I feel like we almost cherish family time even more now that it’s so limited in person. We LOVE going to visit both sets of parents and our siblings (also spread out everywhere), and it’s the happiest time when they come visit us. Facetime, Marco Polo, phone calls, and upcoming scheduled trips make it not too hard, though it’s my (very unlikely but very real) dream to live close to my sister + her husband one day.
Any way, we feel zero pressure from either set of parents about holidays/visiting, but it’s also something that has happened very naturally and easy for us with alternating holidays. We always do Thanksgiving with one set of parents/siblings and then Christmas with the opposite set — and the reverse the following year. We just so happen to be on the same holiday travel schedule as all of our siblings, so we’re ALL together for that holiday (or all not). It’s surprisingly worked out so smoothly, for which we are really thankful.
As we plan the upcoming year, though, our vacation time is almost completely filled by just going to visit family, and very, very little is leftover for a trip for just the two of us or even a trip with friends. But at the end of the day, we truly can’t complain about that, as we love our families, visiting them, having them visit us, and even going on beach trips together. We all really do prioritize family time, and it’s something we all genuinely love. I love that my parents are now just three hours away, so we do get to see them a bit more spontaneously!
This is such a great topic to discuss and mull over! I love hearing what family time/travel looks like for others, and I’m grateful for both the independence I’ve/we’ve gained living away from our parents — but also that family time is absolutely the most important thing and something we all value and cherish so much!

February 26, 2019 9:40 am

Family has been one of the unexpected sucker punches of having kids! I grew up with my Dad in the Army and never lived close to extended family and never thought of it as a big deal. I had my immediate family and saw extended family every couple of years and that was enough. My husband has lived within a few miles of his extended family all of his life, so I see that perspective too. Both have pros and cons. My parents and sisters live close to each other, but 1800 miles from me. For holidays, we are either all with my family or all with my husband’s family, there is no back and forth or multiple visits we try to squeeze in. I think we also do a better job of really enjoying our time together more and making more impactful memories. But it is way harder to be away from my family now that I have kids and especially now that I have a nephew. I do feel left out of the “unimportant” time together or the small minor celebrations. However, I spend most of my limited vacation (and most of our travel budget!) on visiting my family which is hard when there are so many adventures I want to take my kids on and I don’t know how I will ever be able to afford that time and money-wise. We are blessed that we see my family as often as we do and my parents help us out with the plane tickets sometimes. And lately we are trying to travel to a place together or vacation together instead of just being at my parent’s house. My husband and I have talked many times about making the move to be closer to my family but I just don’t want to live in Arizona, ha! Ironically he is not as close with his family as I am with mine. This whole issue is one of many curveballs of having kids I didn’t know would impact me as much as it has! But there is no right or wrong way and we just have to figure out what is best for our family as we go along. I’ve enjoyed reading all these other comments to see how others do it!

February 21, 2019 8:46 am

This is such an interesting topic, and one where I am on the opposite end of spectrum!

Both my family and my husbands family all live about an hour and a half away from Raleigh, and my mom and in-laws (and my grandparents) all live within 15 minutes of each other in the same town. My parents are divorced, and my dad and step mom live about 40 minutes away from my mom/in-laws.

We don’t have kids yet, but here’s how the holidays shake out for us right now:

We used to do separate Thanksgivings and spend the day running back and forth, but this past year we asked my mom and in-laws to combine Thanksgivings to see how it worked. I was admittedly a bit nervous about this, my husbands family typically has a very traditional Puerto Rican Thanksgiving and we have a very Southern one. But it ended up working out great, everyone got to try new foods and it was so much less stressful on everyone. We do a big “dessert day” with my dad and stepmom, usually the next day.

For Christmas, one family gets Christmas Eve dinner, one family gets Christmas Day dinner, and one family gets Christmas Day breakfast. This varies every year and typically depends on work schedules/when people will be in town/etc.

We break up Fathers Day and Mothers Day into either a whole weekend event, or two weekends, once again depending on schedules.

For the other holidays (Easter, 4th of July, etc) we host. There was a time, like you, where we didn’t live close to family and started traditions with friends. We use these holidays to invite everyone (family and friends) to our house to celebrate with us. That way, no one feels left out. We also host smaller get-togethers with family and friends throughout the year. At the end of the day, the actual day of a holiday might have symbolic meaning, but spending time with those you love is way more important regardless of the day, in our opinion.

One thing I will say – figuring out how to combine holidays in a way that works for your family does get easier! The first few years were hard for us too, and I also felt like I was letting people down. After a few trial and errors, I feel as though we’ve gotten into a groove that everyone can agree with :)

February 21, 2019 9:11 am

Here’s the thing (IMO): Coming from a big, blended, loving, celebratory family- who happens to be scattered all over the US- a holiday is NOT a day… it’s a season. We don’t put a ton of (unnecessary) pressure on anyone to be anywhere, on a specific date. Sometimes people have different obligations, which only seem natural as their families grow/expand/change, and that’s okay! We keep it easy; we keep it fun; we embrace the SEASON- not the date.

February 21, 2019 1:32 pm
Reply to  katie

Yes, yes! My mom always told me she’d rather be appreciated 364 days a year rather than have a big to-do on Mothers’ Day. Viewing a holiday as a season helps so much.

That said, my husband, toddler, and I live walking distance to my mom and step-dad and a short drive to my dad and step-mom. We treasure the “drop by” visits and helpful babysitting. But sometimes Thanksgiving can make me feel less than thankful. We also have dear family friends (known since middle school) who are “auntie and uncle” to our child, as my husband’s siblings live two time zones away. Spending time with them is a priority, too.

We’ve adopted some new traditions (Boxing Day! Pi (Pie) Day on March 14!) to help relieve pressure during the holidays and have also tried to do more “shared vacations” to get that in-depth, shared experience with family.

As our family grows, I expect our approach will evolve. The key for me is to make sure we’re exposing the kiddo to a variety of people who love him in a variety of different situations. And that saying “see you later” means more fun adventures in the future!

February 21, 2019 9:25 am

Our parents and siblings (minus one brother-in-law) all live close by, with my parents living just FIVE MINUTES from my husband’s. I spend time with my family members about 2-3 times a month. They are also big on “Sunday dinners,” so we try to get to those at least twice. My husband coaches one of our niece’s (on his side) soccer teams. So when the team is playing, we’ll see his family once a week; when soccer’s not in session though it’s more like once a month.

As for holidays, while we were dating (all 8 years), Ben and I didn’t spend many holidays together. We’ve been married for almost six years now, and the first year of holidays was a little difficult (guilt/FOMO/outside pressures/lack of boundaries/perceptions). But now we’ve settled into a holiday scheduling system that relies on these three things:

-We don’t have to do the same thing every year. I LOVE routines/traditions. But as a recovering “control freak,” I’ve learned that the world will not end if I don’t celebrate every holiday exactly the same way as we did in the previous year. And a lot of times, it can be fun to mix things up and try something new.

-> Ben and I don’t have to spend every holiday together. This will probably change when we have kids as it will get harder to split up or pair off. But right now, we agreed that Christmas is the only holiday (the BEST HOLIDAY, all 25 days of it LOL) that we really care about spending together. For all the others, we just decide based on timing/convenience. This works for us because my dad has a habit of scheduling family trips during the holidays (without consulting anyone), and sometimes I’d much rather go on those trips than stay in VA.

-> We set our own boundaries. We agreed that Christmas is our main holiday together. We also agreed that we are NEVER hosting Thanksgiving. And before every party/outing/visit we make together…we agree on how long we’re staying and what time we’re leaving :)

February 21, 2019 2:40 pm

All of our immediate family on both sides lives within 20 minutes (so so so many pros.. my niece literally asks me why I have to live “so far away” and its a 10 minute drive) and then all of my extended family (plus my brother) lives abroad making visits rather tricky. I was actually thinking about you yesterday.. and the post you wrote about things you don’t do and I honestly don’t even remember if this was for sure on there but I was thinking about how I have naturally started to set a boundary that I don’t talk on the phone a lot… anyway!! Haha! Especially over the past few years with children in the mix I’ve just realized how important it is that we set boundaries that are best for our family. For example, we had celebrations from sun up to sun down on Christmas Eve, so on Christmas Day we made sure to not plan anything outside of our walls during the day to allow true rest and celebration within our little family. I’m kind of rambling and feel like this comment would be a much better conversation but I would just say that something you excel at is setting up boundaries that lead to sweetness and connection so I’d say there are probably just some new growing pains but that you’ll settle in with it. :)

February 21, 2019 6:35 pm

Our families live close by – my parents are fifteen minutes away from us and my in-laws are about half an hour’s drive. Both my sister and my husband’s brother (with the respective spouses) live three hours away from us. Luckily, they live in the same city as one another, so we try to visit with both when we drive down.
We’ve been married for 2.5 years and are still trying to figure out how to balance everyone’s expectations around the holidays. We want to be together for holidays (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving) but sometimes think if we went to our own families for each holiday as there is always so much pressure to meet everyone’s expectations. Both mothers want us at their respective church for Christmas Eve or all day on Christmas Day, for example. It has been a real struggle for us! We would never even attempt having one big holiday with everyone, as our families are cordial, but not friendly.

February 22, 2019 8:51 am

SO interesting to read, both the posts and the comments! As you know, with an 11-hour drive to Dave’s family and a three-hour flight to mine, having family close by is not something we’ve navigated, and as of right now, don’t really expect to…but I guess y’all are proof to never say never!
We have alternated Thanksgivings and Christmases for the last few years, but are realizing that may not be what we want to do moving forward, for many reasons…like we get more and better quality family time in NY if we join them on their annual summer trip than we do over Christmas, and since we’re flying to TX multiple times this year for Dana’s wedding, we won’t have the budget for another trip over the holidays. The fact that we have to buy plane tickets for Charlie now certainly doesn’t help! Overall, we have put forth our BEST effort to show up to as much as we can when we can (we did six 11-hour drives, plus three round trips to Texas, last year…it was a LOT), but especially as Charlie gets older, I know that will grow less and less doable. Our hope is that people will come visit us more often to make up for it :)

Kristen M
February 22, 2019 12:05 pm

This is a great topic! Growing up neither of my parents extended families were nearby (one in the northeast and the other in the midwest) so my parents did a lot to create traditions just for our family here in NC. Summers were for seeing extended family – as travelling north in the winter is never fun (and I have a big family so driving was the only viable option). Plus lets face it, summer in New England is gorgeous and way preferable to NC haha. So holidays spent with just the immediate family were normal! Now that my husband and my family’s are within 20 minutes of each other and us – it’s tricky to juggle it all! (and my siblings in-laws are also all local, so that’s more family plans to balance!). Holidays are not so lowkey and tend to be very busy! After a rather trying Christmas this year – we’re realizing we need to set more boundaries going forward to protect our time with our daughter!

Kelly Strawberry
February 22, 2019 12:59 pm

My parents and sister’s family are all in the Triangle, and this is where I’ve always lived. I never thought I was someone that would have stayed close to home, but, low and behold, here I am! Now that I have a child, I am seeing what a HUGE advantage this is (as you know, my parents keep my son almost every Friday or Saturday night, so we have a night “off” every weekend and my son is super close his Grandma and Grandaddy….I truly think he would prefer to live with them LOL!!!)

My husband is from Annapolis and his parents and grandma now live mainly in FL Keys/Palm Beach area….we have never driven, but fly down to visit about 2x per year.

I think you have an advantage that you and John had to adjust to a new city together and make friends as a couple. I still have my childhood friends and my family close by, so I think it’s been harder as a couple because it makes things a bit more separate. I never really had to stop relying on my parents and sister.

February 25, 2019 3:28 pm

This topic has been heavy on my heart lately, mostly because I really struggle in this area. Of course we love both sides of our families, but I have a hard time setting boundaries. My husband and I live exactly 2 hours in between both my family and my in-laws, which makes it easily driveable in either direction to either family. However, because of this, there are expectations that we go home for every holiday OR family can come visit whenever they want. It’s hard for me to say no to family time. We are expecting our first baby in April, so this stress has been extra heavy on me lately. I’m grateful that we have the ability to see family easily, but it does take a toll on me to feel pulled in two different directions constantly. I can’t imagine what it’s going to look like with a baby in the mix!

February 26, 2019 6:58 pm

Oh, a tricky one indeed! It’s natural for family customs to be influenced by what you experienced growing up – if you were always with your grandparents and cousins on Christmas (like we were), then you’re likely to expect the same for your children! And yet, society has changed! For those of us who don’t live near family, friendships are such a big part of our support systems, and it’s natural to build new customs and traditions, too. To fully embrace that independence, however, I think it’s so wise of you to recognize there may be some undesired and uncomfortable consequences, like disappointing others. That stuff can be hard to think about, nonetheless write about! I think the challenge we all face is to recognize and be in palms-up acceptance of the downsides of our choices. It’s part of the equation to consider, and it doesn’t make one choice right and another wrong. We all just have to listen to our hearts and do our best to live by our values. Like y’all say about January 1, there’s nothing more “real” about celebrating a holiday on its actual date, it’s the gathering that counts, right?

(Also, some food for thought! Have you considered thinking in terms of personal limits instead of boundaries? Limits are more flexible than boundaries and may change over time, just like humans. And, our brains don’t treat them as though they are concrete boundaries other people can see, which can get us in trouble when we perceive that someone has “crossed our boundaries”).