Mothering from a distance

road signMy elder son is now at a stage where he needs and wants to do things on his own. Most of these things I have no problem with (I am happy for him to use the kitchen, if a little worried that he could set fire to himself or others), others are a bit more problematic. He wants to walk around our neighbourhood on his own and call on friends without relying on me to organize and take him.  He is a very sensible child (usually) but I must admit that this is hard for me. The area where we live and the area (five minutes away) where most of his friends live are separated by a busy road and, although there are zebra crossings, anyone who has been to Italy will know that this only makes a minimal difference to road safety as drivers do not regard stopping at them as obligatory.

I was thinking of this the other day when I was working on the interviews I undertook with some of the many women who have moved to Italy to work as carers for the elderly. Many of them left behind (typically in Ukraine, Romania and other Eastern-European countries) young children, entrusting them to other family members and following their lives from a distance with only minimal contact (typically going back for a month or so in each year). With the advent of Skype and other technological developments, staying in contact has definitely become easier – just a few years ago, most immigrants (myself included) relied on public phone booths and pre-paid calling cards. Now, we can keep in contact from the comfort of our own homes and also see our loved-ones on the screen.

But keeping in contact is very different to actively bringing up your child, to listening to the minutiae of everyday life; who is arguing with whom in the classroom, who cheated on the test, who gave the supply teacher a hard time. Gleaning any information at all from my taciturn son is hard enough face-to-face, if that time were reduced to a weekly phone call I think we would very quickly grow apart.

And, of course, it’s not just about the small details – what about the bigger picture? Part of the joy of having children is having your input in their lives, seeing how they grow and mature with your help. Watch them do (and refuse to do) things that you and your parents did as children. What must it be to lose that opportunity?

All of the women I spoke to were keenly aware of what they had given up by choosing to come to Italy to work but they also believed that in the long run, their children would be better off for having the opportunity to study (something which was too expensive without their mother’s financial contribution). I don’t know what I would do in the same situation and I hope never to have to make that decision but it puts my own worries about letting my son do things on his own into perspective.