Dear Laura

Dear Laura: One Guilt Trip Away

Dear Laura

Dear Laura,

I’m the oldest sibling in my family and the first one to get married and move away from my parents. Living in a different state makes me miss my family quite a bit, but I think the transition has been harder on them. After living three states away, we have now moved to *only* one state away. My parents want to take this as an opportunity to visit us almost every month. While I try to be accommodating, I have to tell them, “no” sometimes because of the difficulty of fitting visiting relatives in to our already hectic grad life schedule. When I talk to my parents on the phone, they always seem so desperate to hear even the most boring tidbit of my life. It makes me feel guilty and sad for them. Is there any way to help them be more ok with me being far away?

Only a Guilt Trip Away

Dear Guilt Trip (if I may),

My husband and I just celebrated an anniversary, one of the double-digit ones that seem like they’re creeping up with a suddenness that is difficult to wrap our minds around. As part of our two-day celebration we sat down one night with a bottle of red and spent a few hours remembering.  We recalled travels and moves (and moves and moves) and stages and celebrations and milestones, but what was surprising and striking to me was how many of the most poignant and substantial memories were so simple and so deeply woven with people, our favourite, beloved people, and what was so clearly absent was…everything else.

The things we thought were so challenging and difficult and overwhelming at the time of their occurrence didn’t rise to the surface at all; it was our spirited and hilarious best-people that were sharply present in our remembering; those nights of board games and hot fudge sundaes, travel weekends, wine nights, and leisurely walks with these cherished friends and family cut right through the days, weeks, months, and years that at the time seemed so full of the pressures of life .  So, here is why I’ve started to answer your question by instead talking about myself (which is obnoxious, but thank you for indulging me):  it struck me so clearly that when we hit the greatest milestones – anniversaries, birthdays, and even death, what is going to be the best stuff of our memories, the stuff that makes everything else fade into the background is….people.

The stresses of the grad student journey will fade, the weekends you wish were spent recuperating on the couch instead of entertaining guests will fade, the irritation with the needy phone calls may even eventually fade, but your family is going to be there until the end. With that end in mind, let’s figure out a way for you to draw some boundaries around your rest-time and couple-time and give you a shot of confidence as you uphold these boundaries. It is great to have limits and to learn to express them clearly – what a gift to the people with whom you share relationships! – and it is also fantastic to serve the people you love by giving them time and access to your life to the extent you are able. What would that look like? Can you and your spouse talk about what the balance might involve and then can you gently start to work toward achieving that balance with your parents? Is there anything you can do to make the visits more enjoyable and less taxing? All worth a good discussion and planning session.

Also, I think we need to remember that the graduate journey, with all it’s trials and sacrifices and joys, does not belong only to us; our families and friends are affected deeply as well (especially when you start introducing grandchildren into the mix!). You’re not responsible for their emotional well-being and you needn’t feel guilty for launching out into this life adventure, but a positive response to their sadness involves striking a wise balance between your own needs and theirs. So, let’s be both wise about what we need as far as protecting our own marriages and selves, but also gracious to those people who are trying so hard to let us go, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so.  (Come to think of it, perhaps we need a new blog called “Graduate Grandmas”…. you’re welcome, Mandy and M.C.!)


Laura M. Benton, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and professional Graduate Wife (12 years, friends. Two MA’s and a PhD.)

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