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Raising Kids When Family Is Far Away

We have friends with two small children who still go out for happy hour drinks. Can you imagine? Happy. Hour. Drinks. Guess that’s life when your parents live down the street. But those of us far from family are not only left budgeting for babysitters, but also left without that storied "village" to help raise our kids. After years of resentment, I’ve decided to stop pouting and called in the experts. Here are five far-from-home tips from both Jeffrey Bernstein, psychologist and author of Ten Days to a Less Defiant Child and Nancy S. Buck, a psychologist who is president and founder of Peaceful Parenting Inc.

1. Stop Being Jealous

"Manage your expectations,” says Bernstein. “When you focus on the family who has the mother down the street who comes over every Friday or Saturday night, and the couple goes out, that will just make you miserable.”

But how exactly are we supposed to curb the grandparent envy? Focus on the positive. According to Buck, there is a serious upside to living outside of Nana’s area code: Your mom isn’t hovering over you, telling you how to raise your kid. (Those other couples may not be paying money for a sitter, but they’re paying, all right.) “You don’t get unsolicited advice so much,” Buck points out. “When your family is around on a daily basis, you get phrases like, ‘You’re letting her eat that?’ and ‘He’s watching that show?’ It can be hard and painful,” she says. “You are more free from that. Plus, if you have any notion of doing any kind of parenting differently from your parents, you have a greater freedom to do that.”

RELATED: Forget the Plane. Family Road Trips Are a Fun Alternative.

2. Share Duties

Now that we’re thinking positive, let’s figure out what to do with those kiddos. Since there’s no family around to help baby-wrangle, Bernstein encourages couples to “really try to divide and conquer.” At my house, this translates to a lot of bartering: "You can go out on Thursday night if you let me sleep in on Saturday." And if you’re parenting solo? “Take advantage of whatever supports that you may have from friends,” urges Bernstein. Which brings us to the next point …

3. Make Friends of All Ages

It really does take a village. The more people you build relationships with, the more role models and friends your kids will have. Plus, you’ll have friends to call on when you need parenting advice, or yes, when you need a last-minute babysitter. You’ll be there to support them, too—so everybody wins. Short on pals? “Find something you’re interested in and get involved,” says Buck. “MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) groups are great. Meet-up groups are great. Get involved at a church or temple. Or create a playgroup.”

RELATED: 10 Gifts for Girl Friends

Also remember that villages contain more than just thirty-somethings and toddlers. “Recreate a social network,” says Buck, “and see if you can broaden it to be multigenerational.” In other words, create a pseudo-family. No one can (or should) replace your real family, but letting extra people into your everyday life benefits everyone. Let’s say your 10-year-old neighbor loves toddlers. Invite her over. She gets babysitting practice, your little one gets a “big kid” role model and you score time to do the laundry. There are probably some empty nesters nearby who would enjoy getting to know your family, too.

“There’s a lot of energy in your life that comes from children,” Buck explains. “Adults miss that.”

4. Swap Kids

It can be tough to organize a kid-free evening—and trust someone else with your babies—but you absolutely have to do it. “I think you have to use sitters where you can to replenish the relationship of the parents,” says Bernstein. And it turns out there are ways to score free sitters (besides waiting for grandma’s next visit). Have friends with kids? Volunteer to watch their kids this Saturday night—then ask if you can dump yours on them next Friday. This is a helpful option, especially if your kids are close in age and get along. Even better, form a babysitting co-op: Rally a few other parents, and draw up a schedule where each of you watches another couple’s kids once a month.

RELATED: What Happened to My Baby?

5. Keep Your Folks Involved

While it's important to find local support and build a pseudo-family, Buck stresses that we should never discount the real deal. “Not only are you away from family, but family is away from you,” she says. “Maintain that relationship with grandparents out of town.” It’s our responsibility to keep our parents (and other family) in our kids’ lives. Call. Video chat. Post a thousand pictures to a private online album. Talk about family all the time, and keep their photos around. Quiz your kid on who’s who in pictures, and talk about them as if they do live nearby.

Maybe my parents and in-laws will pack up and follow us one day. But, until then, I’m not letting the notion of a far-away family leave a gap in my children’s lives, or in mine. I’m going to keep finding ways to form a community of support, and keep our family present—even when they’re not.

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