When my son was in kindergarten his teacher gave the class an exercise designed to help the children define what was important in their lives. They were asked to draw a series of concentric circles, with room within each circle to add drawings. In the center circle, the children drew the people or things that were most important to them, while the outer circles contained things of decreasing importance. When my son showed me his drawing, I saw that he’d made several perfect circles, but his only drawings, at the very center, were of our two cats. When I asked him to describe his work, he quickly explained that he’d run out of time to add anything else, and he seemed to feel the need to reassure me that he was going to draw his family in the center too. I didn’t take it personally. My husband later pointed out to me that of course our son wouldn’t always remember to put us in — our love is always there and he didn’t have to think about where it ranks in his life. What a great thing that he can take his family’s love for granted — he needn’t worry about where to place us, nor did I worry that we weren’t the first things he included in the picture.
I’ve been thinking about this circle exercise for some time now. Like many academic couples, my husband and I live far from our parents and siblings, and we spend lots of time trying to keep them in our circle. I grew up in a community where almost all my friends had to travel long distances to visit their grandparents. My mother planned phone calls to her parents to make sure I’d be home to say hello. As I got older, I grew to hate those phone calls, yet I knew I was expected to be polite and make conversation because the calls were so important to my grandparents. But I just didn’t know what to talk about, and my grandparents weren’t part of my everyday life. I didn’t love them any less and knew that when we got together once a year we’d all feel close again. I try hard with my own family not to feel that our relationships are on hold until we see one another again, but sometimes I become way too caught up in what’s right in front of me to stay in touch. Then I saw Elizabeth Coffman’s piece last week,  which reminded me of how essential it is not to put relationships on hold. And the communication innovations I’m slow to embrace make it possible for her to easily keep up with and be part of her kids’ lives even from a distance. My techno-savvy, Facebook-loving mother is right — I need to get with the times.
Many of my children’s friends are fortunate to have grandparents and cousins living nearby. Some couples we know even get weekends away together – imagine! — because their kids stay happily with grandparents who live just around the corner. When my son’s karate class is over for the day parents, as well as aunties, nonnas, and abuelos come to pick up the kids. Of course it’s not just the free childcare I envy. Holiday celebrations and birthdays are big affairs with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. One family we know has four generations living together, and after we visit them my children always wish that we too could live in one big house with all our extended family.
As much as I dream of family togetherness, though, we’re all living where we want to be, or need to be because of jobs. Even if academics had the luxury of picking and choosing where to find jobs, I’m not too crazy about the places my parents and in-laws live. It would be equally difficult for our parents to uproot to be near us, and I’m not sure they like where we live either! We’re fortunate that we don’t yet have to make difficult decisions about re-locating to be near family, but as we all get older I realize that I need to consider what’s important to my parents’ daily lives too.
Thinking again about my son’s circle exercise, I’d like to imagine that our circles of importance are fluid, even though our central focus is on those in our immediate vicinity. Or on those who clamor for our attention most, like our beloved old cats did with my son when they meowed for food or cuddles. My children tend to occupy the center of my circle a lot of the time, but I know that for the sake of our marriage my husband needs time in the middle. And even when they’re far away, and don’t seem to be in the immediate picture, my parents and other family members are in the circle too. I just need to remind them of that, even if I don’t always remember to draw them.