How to be an Intergenerational Family when you live across the seas.
As my 11 year old son walked over to me a second time with a huge frown on his face, only to ask if he could order yet another Coca Cola at the open bar, I truly started to wonder if this was all a huge waste of time and hard earned money. Why did I fork out mega bucks and drag Leroy, in peak season, all the way back to Ireland for a 15-year family reunion? He seemed so unhappy and bored. What was I doing? He had survived without extended family quite happily in Australia – so why did I choose to rock the boat? What on earth was I thinking?
There were about 100 of my family squished into a tiny bar at the local yacht club mid summer on the West Coast of Ireland. Many of us travelled from Canada, England, the Netherlands, the US and of course us, all the way from Oz. The noise was deafening. People were hugging, nodding, smiling, laughing and also looking a little awkward as they tried to complete their name tags with reference to their grandparent lineage, or remember the names of cousins they had not seen or spoken to for yonks.
I tried to re-learn the names I had only really spoken 15 years ago and we all tried to catch up on the babies, the deaths, the joys, the divorces, the triumphs amidst all the chaos. And over in the corner was my little Leroy – sitting at a table all alone – hiding behind his new essential travel tool: the iPod. I glanced over and completely started to freak out internally…There are no cousins here his age…This is just the beginning of 2 weeks… in this remote village… there are no friends for him to play with…and oh my god there is no school either…. HELP…..
He sipped his second Coke watered down with a bucket of ice and smiled back at me sarcastically. But then slowly a little revolution began to take place. By the time we ate dinner and the speeches were made from three different generations of each family ‘branch’, Leroy had begun darting around the room. And people I noticed were also squealing. It took me a short while to realize just what was happening. Leroy, the boy who hated being in Ireland and had no idea who all these new people were, was finally enjoying himself – but in a different way to normal.
My son was having an absolute ball simply being cheeky and annoying everyone. He was ‘manual tazering’ – for those of you without a tween boy, this is when someone sneaks up behind someone you and digs their fingers into your side ribs unsuspectingly – bringing about a spontaneous lurch, jump or squeal. He kept running back to me in between his manual tazering in hysterical fits of laughter to ask me; “Is Fergus really my cousin?” I saw the older and the younger cousins ruffling his hair and giving a few back. He would return and say, “Is Myles really my cousin too?” “ And Freya is as well?” and so on and so on. Somewhere in his little head family was starting to make sense to him. These people were our mob, our clan. The folk that love you no matter what! They are blood and bone, lineage and kin. It meant that they loved you even if you annoy the hell out of them and poke them continually!
After a couple of hours of tazering he then proceeded to clean up on the dance floor – pulling moves usually kept for very late nights at home. It was all starting to make even more sense. I have never seen him express himself so freely in front of so many people! It could have been the Coke, but I think it was something a lot more subtle and real. It was, what I like to call, ‘the invisible hug of acceptance’ that comes when family unites. The deep relaxation that comes when we feel at home with those who truly love us. These were his cousins, even though he’d never met them and none were his age. They were mainly second cousins really or once removed we think, but somehow that didn’t matter. He had found his place amongst our mob and I was both ecstatic and relieved.
And of course by about 11pm he had gravitated towards the younger men of our clan and the entrepreneurs of the family. I also found for myself it was a beautiful opportunity to get to know family that I had only met briefly so long ago. When I was 24 years old, I was not so interested in family, more into hanging out at the local Yeats festival or meeting new American friends for a Guinness at the local pub.
I was surprised to find that there were family members like me amongst the diverse mob. I didn’t realize we had an artistic and spiritual side or that some members were self employed running successful businesses. This diversity in our family was something I had never been aware of. And I wondered what it would have been like if I had grown up with a connection to all of these amazing people. Would I have struggled so much in defining myself and my life path? Would I have doubted the risk of self-employment if I had known my cousins had already taken that risk and succeeded? Would I have questioned my innate spirituality if I had met my other cousins so devoted to that path already? Having only a mum and dad here in Australia as I grew up, I realised that they had been my only internal or subconscious reference points as I began to self define. In retrospect, I think this was very limiting. The physical sense of loneliness as a child with separated parents, living away from overseas family was tough, but also the internal doubt when I was branching out into discovering myself and expressing myself in new ways, different to them, brought times of great self doubt and crises of confidence.
I thoroughly enjoyed noticing our family’s diversity but also the similarities amongst us all. We are what I call the simple true-blue Irish – to be sure now! Through and through. For me that means we all just simply love people. A light switches on in our eyes when we start to talk and share with others. We love connection, we love the crack, the jokes, the natter. We love a joke at our own expense and are pretty humble to say the least. Ireland certainly does not suffer from the oppressive class systems, like they do across the seas in England. Equality in Ireland and that willingness to connect with all people is an awesome feeling to be a part of, both in your own family, but also travelling there in general.
Back in Australia, far across the seas from our clan, Leroy is now preparing for the big transition into puberty and the start of high school – but that’s another article. And I’m going through my own mid life crisis alongside as I approach 40. Another article too! But in my recent search for knowledge and resources about these topics I came across a new parenting mentor, Bruce Feiler (Author of The Secrets of Happy Families). He says that children are more resilient if they have grown up with a connection to their broader family. And that children were best able to handle stress, had a stronger sense of control over their lives and a higher self-esteem if they knew about their family’s history. The evidence is quite mind blowing.
The reason, he says, is that these children have a strong sense of “intergenerational self”—they understand that they belong to something bigger than themselves, and that families naturally experience both highs and lows.
There were plenty of stories shared over those two weeks in Ireland as you can imagine. Wherever I was and whoever I was with I made a conscious effort to ask questions and ask cousins, particularly the older ones, to share their stories. Many of these stories will die with them I’m sure and never be remembered but many will be remembered within me and in Leroy. I’ve now conducted four funerals and I have to say how sad it is for a family when creating a funeral to realize that so many stories about the deceased simply go to rest with them. We often look at photos and can’t remember who the deceased is with or what was going on then in their lives.
So my suggestion for all of us, with family near and far, is to spend quality time with your clan and drag out the stories. Somehow the knowing that say, Uncle Joe got through the war as bomb defuser, or that Cousin Betty was a dress designer in the 50’s in Paris will sink deep into the subconscious and gift us with an inner resilience, with faith in life and our abilities and ultimately allows us to move towards more fulfillment and joy. Finally, the big trip with Leroy, and for me, makes complete sense.
Nadine Richardson – Yoga Mama
Nadine’s work arose from her deep personal gratitude and passion to empower women via the practice and ancient teachings of yoga. She is the only Australian yoga teacher to be included in the award-winning documentary film Yoga Woman for her inspirational contribution to developing a new and dynamic style of prenatal yoga. As well as running yoga retreats worldwide, she also transforms mums and dads lives daily by allowing them to joyously embrace childbirth via her course She Births®: The Ultimate Childbirth Education. Considered a modern woman’s spiritual guide, she also works as a civil celebrant convening weddings and funerals and stays busy raising her young tween son Leroy. See more at: www.shelives.com.au
Life Balance = Awareness. Discipline. Refinement.