As I write this post in Sydney, Clive’s daughter is travelling from Prague to Berlin. My son left Australia today to make his way to Washington, D.C. My stepson, his wife, and their three young boys are at home in Bethel, CT. My mother is anxious to see us in New Jersey, and when we’re there, my father and his wife also expect to see us. Clive’s father is looking forward to our being in Suffolk, England, for his 89th birthday.
In East Maitland, New South Wales (NSW), Clive’s mother and her husband are accustomed to our regular visits. Clive’s son and daughter-in-law on the NSW Central Coast are raising two pre-school boys and going through a difficult time with a serious work challenge. When we told them about our upcoming trip, they said they didn’t want to put pressure on us, but find it comforting to know we are not too far away if needed, and they are sad we are heading off again.
Family Globalisation is the term I’ve coined for the personal impact of globalisation on individuals, couples, immediate families, and extended families. Globalisation is widely-acknowledged as a world-altering phenomenon, and I think Thomas Barnett and James Fallows are the two best thinkers and writers on the subject, whether they are discussing economics, nation-states, business, or politics.
Clive and I hold the globe of our relationship and the relationships we have with our own and each other’s family. Sometimes we cradle the globe carefully between us, and other times it feels like a tug of war in terms of who, what, and where the demands are, and where we need and want to be.
Family Globalisation Is Personal
Family Globalisation is as important, powerful and life-altering as world level, business and political globalisation, with similar facets and dimensions, but at the personal, relationship level.
Globalisation is generally understood as the breaking down of economic, political, and social barriers and the rapid development of new forms of integration and connectivity between nations, regions, and cultures. I define Family Globalisation as a similar process within families; like large-scale globalisation, Family Globalisation is happening and it’s unstoppable. It’s also intensely personal. And like political and economic globalisation, Family Globalisation affects everyone in the family, whether they choose to embrace it or not.
Within a single city, or country, there are challenges and normal rites of passage for individuals, couples and families. Newlyweds learn to manage competing in-laws and figure out where to spend holidays when both sides expect their presence. Divorced and widowed individuals repartner and blend families, creating infinite permutations and combinations of step-parents, step-siblings, and half-siblings, each of whom has a new relationship with every other member of the family. I experienced this first-hand when I married my late husband; he had full custody of his 14 year-old son, and we had our son several years later.
It’s also normal in families that some events are planned in advance: my son’s college graduation in the U.S. and Clive’s hand surgery in Australia. Other events are unexpected: my mother’s hospitalisation and move to assisted living, and in the same month, Clive’s son’s emergency appendectomy and unplanned job change. Parents with more than one child know it’s not always possible to be everywhere one may be wanted or needed. Choices must be made.
These ‘normal’ family issues can be difficult to manage if they occur within the same metropolitan area. Taking them global and entering the realm of Family Globalisation raises them to a new level and makes them an order of magnitude more complex, rewarding, and challenging.
Family Globalisation Has Important Benefits
As with nations and businesses, some individuals and families are more global than others, and can choose, or not, to embrace the Family Globalisation process. Some benefits of Family Globalisation are obvious; others are less so, and their value emerges over time:
· learning another person’s and country’s, society’s, and/or religion’s traditions, culture, and values
· increased tolerance and understanding as knowledge and insight grows
· personal growth and development based on new knowledge and understanding
· increased personal integration and connectivity with others who aren’t exactly like we are
· personal connections that contribute to peace in the world
· learning more about ourselves and seeing our own county, traditions, and values differently through another’s eyes
· Family Globalisation is often exciting, inspiring, and fun
At its best, Family Globalisation expands us personally, intellectually, socially, and spiritually, not necessarily in a religious sense, but in the sense of expanding awareness and appreciation of people and the world beyond our family and country of origin.
Family Globalisation Tools and Technologies Are Fabulous
Thanks to state of the art tools and technology that enable and support Family Globalisation, we have instant communication, imaging, videos, text messages, e-mail, fax, Skype, and the old-fashioned telephone through which we can stay connected to loved ones. There is still a rotary phone in my mother’s house.
But as with globalisation of business, politics, and nations, while extraordinary progress and communication can occur by leveraging technology, sometimes face-to-face meetings and being there in person is required.
The older generation sometimes finds new technology difficult to use, and some seniors choose not to engage, because it’s too hard, too costly, or just too overwhelming. Clive’s father’s hearing aid doesn’t always work properly, making their regular telephone conversations increasingly difficult. As with nation-states, some individuals are more connected than others, but even those who choose not to actively engage still benefit. My mother no longer e-mails me, but her assisted living facility prints my e-mails to her every day. Most of my son’s cousins haven’t travelled outside the U.S., but in elementary school virtually all of them contacted him for input to Show-and-Tell and projects about Australia.
At a business or political level, embracing globalisation is often mandatory to survive. Telling a family member, “You have to embrace Family Globalisation to survive” isn’t a good idea. Those who do the travelling will always be more positive about Family Globalisation than those on the receiving end. Telling my mother, “I’ll call every day” doesn’t make her happy the way our visiting in person makes her happy.
And tools and technologies don’t overcome expectations of different family members, who would like us to be physically present. Reading “Curious George” over Skype isn’t the same as sitting next to Clive’s four year-old grandson and snuggling on the sofa. But we were thrilled the little guy’s parents suggested it; they accepted we weren’t in a position to change our plans, and suggested the use of that technology to lessen the gap between us. We can’t change family members’ expectations of us and wouldn’t try; we respect their right to have them, and we value the positive relationships.
Most of all, we struggle with our own expectations. What are our duties and obligations? How much is enough? What is the right line for us between making time for ourselves and being selfish? What is reasonable for us as a couple and in our relationships with aging parents, our children, and their children?
The Biggest Family Globalisation Challenge is Physical
Despite the best technology the world has to offer, Family Globalisation at its most challenging creates guilt, resentment, divided loyalties, competing demands, stress, and sadness. It risks harming the things we hold most dear: our personal relationships with people we love the most.
Distance itself is a challenge, as it can be within a country, too, especially large ones like Australia and the U.S. Time and cost depend at times to a very large extent on distance, and regular, frequent trips to visit loved ones can be cost-prohibitive. Again similar to business and political globalisation, money and access to resources is an issue, and individuals and couples with greater financial resources often participate more in Family Globalisation.
Family members who are less financially able are entitled to feel, “You’re promoting something we would be doing if we could afford it, but we can’t, yet you expect us to have the same level of enthusiasm as you do.” They’re not as readily inclined to embrace Family Globalisation when they feel they’re missing out on its benefits. In these circumstances, the initiator-receiver relationship is highly sensitive and tricky to manage.
Misunderstandings, impatience, and sometimes incredulity can occur when learning another country’s customs or culture. When we moved my mother from hospital to rehab to assisted living, Clive learned more than he ever wanted to know about the U.S. healthcare system. When his father had a bicycle accident in England, I became more knowledgeable than I ever thought I’d be about British hospitals and waiting lists.
How important is physical presence? We embrace Family Globalisation and the tools that support it, but we cannot physically be two, three, or four places at once. I struggle with this the most; I can’t walk with my mother at her assisted living facility and hold her hand; Clive can’t put his arm around his father’s shoulder at the Speedway. It gets harder, not easier, as parents get older. Long-distance we can be attentive and supportive, but not physically present.
When we were in New Jersey in June, after my mother’s unexpected hospitalisation and in the throes of moving her from rehab to assisted living, Clive’s son was hospitalised for an emergency in Australia which was immediately followed by an unplanned job change. Is there an alternative to feeling guilty and sad when we cannot be in two places at once?
We have people we love and care about; we are not hermits living disconnected lives. Family Globalisation creates personal and physical complications. We are connected to each other and to our families, and that means sometimes we feel sad ourselves, and sometimes we know that despite the best tools and technology available, our physical absence and distance from people we love causes them to feel sad, too.
Some of my friends say, “Why aren’t you spending more time in Paris? Now that you left the corporate rat race, you should just go, follow your dream, think of yourself.”
It’s not that simple. This is the life I chose, and I’m happy living it, but it’s just not that simple.
Family globalisation changes the individual, the couple, and the entire family. It’s a phenomenon, it’s here to stay, and it’s personal.
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