I grew up surrounded by a huge family. My father had a crazy large family on his mother’s side in Cairo. He even had a bigger one on his father’s side in Upper Egypt. He had eleven siblings on his father’s side (Yup, you read that right, it is not a typo). My mother’s family was much smaller in comparison. I had over twenty cousins on my mom’s side, and that’s not counting the grown-up ones.
So, growing up, I had tons of uncles and aunts, and cousins. My family was so large that I had to study it every year (historian by nature), adding newcomers to the family tree; husbands, wives, and newborns. It was fun, warm, dramatic, and chaotic, as you can imagine in such a huge family.
I spent my summers in the country going from home to home all summer long and still missed a few relatives in the rounds. Or summers were spent with my Cairo family on vacations to the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts. My parents were ok with leaving me at any of my relatives for extended periods, a win-win for all, I guess. (Something I can never do if you ask me).
Having a large family was sure fun. There was always that aunt who spoiled you rotten, and that uncle who always told the same funny story about your baby self whenever you saw him, and that cousin you shared all your secrets with. And there were all these weddings, baby showers, dinners, birthday parties as well as funerals, and hospital visits.
When we moved to the US, I knew my kids would never have the same experience with family. There are no grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins in the picture. There is only us. And I thought we were enough.
My little one constantly compares herself to her friends who have extended family in their lives and feels a loss. It’s hard to explain the sacrifices we had to make to her at a young age, but I always remind her that she still has them, only they are not around. Sometimes there are tradeoffs. (She does not buy it. But, hey, at least I try). Once she is older, she will surely understand. I can only hope.
My older daughter explains it this way; on the one hand, she is not rooted, which is good and bad at the same time, in her opinion. It was fun for her at a young age, changing schools, moving to a new country at five, moving to new homes until we finally settled in Westchester when she was in third grade. But as she grew older, she realized that all her friends grew up together from pre-k and lived in the same neighborhoods for all their lives. She wants her little sister to at least to have that part and be rooted in one place. On the other hand, she has some very rich experiences and has the freedom to move around as nothing ties her down, which is a concept she came to embrace.
But how can you make up for such loss? The short answer is, you cannot. If you are lucky enough and have made so many friends, maybe this can help create this alternative net of support.
I will not lie; I did not make so many friends. Sometimes I miss having all those people around me, showering me with genuine love and affection. It felt so good being loved by so many, which sure helped me tremendously throughout my life. I wish my kids had that part in their lives too.
You cannot put a price on independence. I could not truly be myself until I was fully separated from my family. I had to leave to find myself (sounds cliche, I know). When there are so many voices around you, sometimes you fail to understand your own. And when you do, you realize you do not get along anymore.
The more I voiced my own opinions, the more they resented me. The harder they tried to tighten their grip, the farther I walked away until I realized I needed to be even farther away, across the world. I needed to not look back.
Yes, I miss that warm family feeling, but it does not come without a cost. I value my independence more than anything that I was willing to sacrifice that feeling to have it.
So, I teach my daughters to be independent not just by doing their chores but to be critical thinkers and to have independent opinions and values apart from mine. Yes, I am their mom, but I have no say in their life choices.
I will give advice only if asked, and they can choose to take it or leave it. And I accept their choices, no questions asked. That created a trusting relationship. They know I will never judge or criticize. They share everything with me with no fear, embarrassment, or holding back. Something I wish I had growing up. That is what you do as a parent, isn’t it? You try to create a better life for your children, avoid your parent’s mistakes, and help your children grow into the humans they want to be. They are not meant to be copies of us but be the best versions of themselves.