Loneliness of the long-distance family

I’ve begun to pine for the days before we all became so mobile and independent, back when three generations routinely lived under one roof.

Gracia Lam

WHEN I MOVED TO BOSTON 15 YEARS AGO, people invariably noticed my lack of an accent and asked me where I grew up. When I told them Northern California, they often wanted to know why I moved here.

“Because my family still lives in Northern California!” I’d announce.

It was my go-to line, a jokey way of suggesting how glad I was to have put some distance between myself and my kin. Back then, virtually all of my friends also had moved away from their families. In so doing, we felt we’d shed the baggage of our past.


There were two problems with this mind-set. The first, which I discovered in my early 30s (with some professional help), is that you never really leave your family behind. All the anger and guilt and anxiety they induced in your youth merely relocate themselves in your adult relationships.

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A second and more practical concern has arisen as I’ve moved into my 40s, gotten married, and started to have children at an alarming rate. Simply put: My wife and I live on a genetic island. We have no grandparents, aunts, uncles, or even cousins in town.

We drive a couple of hours south once a month to visit my in-laws and fly west at least once a year to see my family. Otherwise, we’re on our own.

Most of the parents we know are in the same boat. We’ve all done our best given the circumstances, forming baby-sitting co-ops, haunting the local libraries, madly organizing play dates. But on the whole, the distance that seemed so liberating a decade ago now feels more like a self-imposed exile. This is especially true now that our parents are starting to have health problems.

It’s this latest twist that’s made me feel how deeply unnatural our arrangement is. I’ve begun to pine for the days before we all became so mobile and independent, back when three generations routinely lived under one roof. I realize these circumstances are easy to romanticize. But it’s also true that human beings have lived surrounded by family for the vast majority of our history as a species.


And my guess is that, by and large, we were happier living in close quarters. We had a clearer sense of who we were and where we came from. The responsibilities of caring for children and keeping the larder full and tending to the elderly were shared.

Only in the past century have Americans embraced the concept of “making our way in the world” as individuals. It’s a lovely idea on paper. In real life, so far as I can see, the general result is a population that’s more lonely and stressed.

I’m not calling for a return to the days before indoor plumbing, plane travel, and penicillin. I am saying, though, that many of us find ourselves in a precarious situation of our own making. We want our children to know their extended family. We want to help care for our aging parents. But we’re also deeply invested in the lives we’ve built apart from them.

A couple of months ago my wife announced, rather unexpectedly, that we were going to have a third child. I was momentarily speechless. Then a horrible thought came to me. Given that my wife is in her late 30s, and that I’m a twin, we might be expecting two bundles of joy.

“Don’t worry,” my wife said, only half-joking. “If it is twins, we’ll move to California and throw ourselves on the mercy of your parents.”


We found out recently that we’re having just one child. We were both relieved, of course. But also, secretly, a little disappointed.

Steve Almond’s latest story collection is God Bless America. Send comments to