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I haven't seen my mother for three years. My sister hasn't seen us for four years. I haven't seen my nieces for five years and my father has never really met any of my children. The reason? We are serial expats. We move around a lot and try to take advantage of where we are rather than continually travelling back to our home country. Right now we are living in the UK, and as Australians, Europe is on our door step. We have the opportunity to see as much of Europe as we can during this posting. So, rather than trek back to Australia, we tend to enjoy breaks in France and Spain and other places in Europe. We know it will cost us far too much to do this sort of travel from Australia if we ever get posted back there so we have to take the chance while we can.

The thing it though that I do want my children to experience some sense of extended family and "real home" community and when you very rarely in the same country as your family, this is somewhat more difficult.

The need to do this was brought home during one trip by the grandparents to visit us in Hong Kong. My children were in fear of these strange elderly people who wanted to hug and kiss them and they spent most of their days skulking around the house trying to avoid them. The grandparents were devastated and I felt caught in the middle between children who were in fear of these strange affectionate people and grandparents whose hearts were breaking at the fact that their grandchildren didn't know them.

Something had to give and I worked hard to create a solution.

The family wall
My first step was to create a family wall. I printed up photos of all the family. Each person who means something or is related to us in some way has a place on our wall. It is one of the first things we put up each time we move and one of the last things we pull down when we leave.

I also upgraded our computer and downloaded all the photos onto our screensaver. Now, our screen saver is a rolling diary of our lives. Shots of the grandparents, aunts, uncles and nephews scroll through as our screen saver. The kids love this rolling diary and often sit in front of it looking at the pictures as they change. I have also put this screen saver on a very fast scroll through so every few seconds a new picture comes up.

Installing broadband was an obvious step as it means we could take advantage of some of the technological developments going round. We made sure that the grandparents have broadband and we purchased headsets and webcams for everyone. We then downloaded an instant chat type programme (similar to ICQ, MSN or Yahoo Messenger) which means that we can tell if any of our relatives or family comes online. We can then turn on the webcam, put on our headsets and talk over the internet for as long as we want. This saves substantially on international phone bills and gives the children an immediacy of contact with family. They can come home and show relatives what they have done at school. They can dance for their grandmother in Brisbane and show their aunt in Sydney how adept they are at handstands. Even the dog has featured although I am not sure how interesting it is for the relatives to watch the dog eat dinner!

Fax machine
I also made sure that I put everyone's phone numbers on direct dials. We used our fax machine to do this and it meant that if anyone wanted to call Grandma all they had to do was to pick up the phone and push the button with the green butterfly to reach her. We did a have a few strange calls to her at 3am until I wrote up a time chart so they could work out time zones. The advantage was that they received regular calls when the children thought of them, not when I picked up a phone and said "talk to them now".

They would pick up the phone and call when they came home from school and say, "Hello. I'm home from school now. Goodbye". Short and sweet but it really touched the family as they knew that the children were thinking about them and that they were happy to call on their own terms.

By careful of your phone bills though if you have someone who really likes to talk in your family as it can get very expensive!!

A fax machine is also a good way of sending school pictures and drawings back on a regular basis. One of my children has even sent school homework back to get help from their grandmother who is great with crossword puzzles and, while I could probably have helped just as easily, it was good for my mum to help and good for my children to talk to her. Everyone was happy.

Digital cameras
We also equipped the family back in Australia with digital cameras and a few quick lessons in downloading images and we now get emails with pictures on a regular basis.

You may also like to think about setting up a family webpage. We have for our family - and while I think friends would find some of the minutiae dull -we do make the effort to download images from birthday parties, Christmas and so on as they happen.

School projects
One other thing which the children really enjoyed was a school project where they had to interview family members about their lives - they researched people's backgrounds, wrote about them, obtained photos and so on. We then compiled it all into a family book which we had bound.

Recently my mother arrived here and, after three years apart from the children, it was utterly amazing to see how easily they embraced her this time. I don't think I will ever forget taking my mother up to the school to pick up my children. My mum poked her head around the classroom door and without saying anything my children broke out into beams of delight. They recognised her and were delighted to see her again in person. It made for a wonderful visit!

Of course as the children get older all of this effort may not be necessary but the thing is as I write this the children are at home with relatives that they haven't seen for many years. They are all happily playing, tap dancing (my mother is a dancer), cooking, learning how to do French knitting and learning to sing songs that my mother sang to me when I was a child.

They are also wearing newly knitted hats, socks and sweaters!

Even though they may not actually have it in the traditional sense, I think that with a bit of effort and technology, my children still do have a sense of what it means to be a part of a family.

Dr Amanda O

Homesickness. Just one of the things you can experience while living overseas.
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Posted 15Oct05