Being the Aunt and Uncle Who Travel and Live Abroad

Late last night, just before midnight, we welcomed to the world the newest member of our family, my sister’s baby girl. This made us an auntie and uncle for the THIRD time in two and a half years! And caused us to reflect on some of the difficult realties of being an aunt and uncle who travel and/or live far away.

There are an incredible number of benefits to living and traveling abroad. But one major drawback is forever being away from family and friends, especially during occasions such as the passing of a loved one, weddings, and of course—the birth of a new baby in the family.

Two weeks ago, Phil’s sister also had a baby girl! For both of these recent births, we couldn’t be physically present (we’re in Vancouver, my sister in Washington DC, and Phil’s sister in London). And when my brother’s son was born two and a half years ago, we were in the Philippines! Distance hasn’t allowed us to be there there for any of these three special occasions.

We’re very lucky that our families don’t make us feel guilty for being away and are actually very awesome and supportive. And we’re also not the only ones in our families who travel and live abroad, so even if we wanted to, just moving back “home” wouldn’t be a solution to this issue of distance for us. Our families are very spread out.

What are nomadic family members to do? Everything I learned about being a good faraway aunt and uncle came from my amazing godparents, one of my aunts and my dad’s best friend. When I was growing up in a military family with my parents and siblings, we moved constantly and never lived anywhere near my extended family (in the Boston area).

Regardless of the distance, from the time I was an infant, my godparents always made me feel loved and special—even though I only ever saw them maybe once every two years (if I was lucky).

Here’s a list I made of how to be a good auntie or uncle abroad, that I hope to use myself for our little nieces and nephew:

#1 – Send cards by snail mail

I have to admit that I have failed so far on this one! I have sent zero snail mail to my toddler nephew. My excuse is that he’s still too young to care. But in a few years, it would be nice to send him real mail on his birthday. I know some skeptical people will disagree with me, but I don’t think it even has to be a card with money in it! I think just a nice, funny or pretty card is awesome! Something to let your niece or nephew know that they’re on your mind, even though you’re far away. My aunt always sent me the most creative presents and her handwritten and unique cards were always my favorite part. I still have many of them!

When you travel, you could also OF COURSE buy postcards from around the world for your niece or nephew, and make them feel so special. Make it a game to buy a postcard for them every place you go and bam—you’ve started your first adorable tradition between yourselves. It also allows them to “travel with you” and feel closer to you on your journeys.

It would be a good idea to schedule “send a card” on your Google calendar, one month before your niece or nephew’s birthday and Christmas. Because if you’re like me, you WILL forget to do it.

Take the 30 minutes twice a year to write a personalized note on fun stationary. Of course, depending on where you’re traveling, this might not be possible. I’ve been in places where I would never see something again if I tried to send it by snail mail. If this is the case, just keep the card or postcard and send it when you get home!

#2 – Unique presents are always a good idea

I keep going back and forth on my present philosophy. I think Phil is rubbing off on me because he hates “having to buy” presents for a predetermined occasion, like birthdays or Valentine’s Day. But he’ll buy random presents for me and others all the time, for no reason. I have sort of adopted this thinking, even though I still feel like I need to buy obligatory presents sometimes.

I think the key is not to feel like cool and unique means expensive.

Having received cool and unique gifts from my godparents all my life, I have to say that it was amazing and that it made me feel like they “got me.” But they didn’t have to be pricey. I was so touched when my godfather would tape Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes for me and mail me the VHS to Korea, where we were living at the time.

Now, when I’m traveling, I usually have my eye out anyway for interesting (and cheap and SMALL since we travel with just carry-ons) gifts for our family members. I pick these items out (they reeaaally have to be small), carry them with me and then give them as Christmas gifts.

#3 – Call or message regularly

This sounds obvious. But not always easy when traveling! Half of Americans think we should call our moms at least a few times a week, so where does that put siblings and aunties and uncles?? Is once a week enough to message our nieces? Once a month? A YEAR?!

The way communication works in my family is that we have a Facebook messenger group that we’re all always writing in, usually several times a day. When we’re traveling, there are times when I don’t have wifi and come back days later to find that I have hundreds of family messages to catch up on.

I don’t think I call my nephew enough—I’d say about once a month I FaceTime my brother and chat. I think if you can make time for more, the better! And making time is the key. We’re all busy and there’s nothing wrong with scheduling a call with your family like you would a work meeting, to make sure it’s more likely to happen!

With our two new baby nieces, it might get even more complicated! Phil is very good at just calling his family whenever and if they can’t chat, they can’t. If they can, they can. When dealing with multiple time zones and young babies, everyone just needs to be patient and understanding, and never stop trying to call.

And they have young children who occupy a lot of their time and brainpower—WE should make the time to call THEM, in my opinion.  

#4 – Make the absolute MOST of your time with them

Like I said, I was rarely home visiting my aunts and uncles growing up. Whenever I had the chance to hang out with my godmother on these rare occasions, I would be so excited! The positive impact that I had from these visits with my extended family makes them seem like they were actually much more frequent.

My godmother always braided my hair and gave me lots of attention (a big deal when you’re one of 5 kids!). She had cool games at her house, told me stories, watched horror movies with me…

I loved having sleepovers at her place and feeling like this other, cool adult wanted to have me around.

It’s important to listen to our nieces and nephews as they get older—it’s not always easy to talk to our parents about our problems, and it might be more comfortable to speak with an aunt or uncle about a problem instead. We’re lucky to be in this position!

I think we forget that as aunts and uncles, we can actually have a lot of influence. Our nieces and nephews have the potential to really look to us for validation and guidance. And when we have just these small windows of time to spend with them, showering our nieces and nephews with attention is the least we can do : )

Without my godparents and many other awesome aunts and uncles in my extended family, I wouldn’t have the model for what great aunts and uncles are supposed to be.

I was a traveling niece when I was little and here I am the traveling auntie—and Phil, the traveling uncle. We’ll keep these tips in mind and try to do our best for our new baby nieces and little nephew.


Brittany is a Wayfaring Human who loves to adventure with her husband and son. When she's not having adventures, she's taking pictures of them and writing about them.

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