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Carolyn Hax: Should expat feel guilty about keeping kids from family?

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: After years of living too close to my narcissistic, engulfing mother and extended family, my husband and I escaped to the opposite coast, then to Europe. We have lived abroad for almost five years and are thriving; we’re mentally and physically healthy and happy. We have limited contact with my family, and I can easily enforce boundaries. My parents visited us in Europe one time; my mother hated it.

We had planned a trip home to the United States but canceled because of covid. We had one terrible fight after my mother attempted to guilt-trip me into keeping our plans, crying about how much they miss the grandkids.

I have NO desire to go back to the States. Ever. My family is toxic, and being around them for extended time is dangerous to my mental health. I also do not want my kids exposed to too much time with them. I don’t feel guilty about this; I’m fine with never going back. But should I feel guilty about keeping my kids from my parents and extended family?

— Expat

Expat: Ask that with a two-word appendage: “for now.” You’re keeping your family at continent’s length for now.

Then answer it: You have your reasons, so, no, don’t feel guilty.

But also know that life is fluid. We’re all making this up as we go, and you’re fine as long as your priorities are in the right place: on your kids’ health and safety. When the fundamentals change and it becomes impossible to shake the sense you’re doing something wrong, then you can revisit your approach to mixing your children with your extended family and maybe make different decisions.

Dear Carolyn: During the pandemic, the alleviation of social pressures, especially surrounding dating, also alleviated my social anxiety to the point where my mental health honestly feels better than it has in years. I expressed this to a dear friend, and her response was one of concern: that I am shutting myself away and depriving myself of fulfilling experiences because it feels safer, and that the pandemic was a convenient, if valid, excuse.

I feel content in my semi-hermitude, but it got me wondering: How can I tell whether I’m doing the right thing for myself vs. simply avoiding my anxiety triggers at all costs, possibly to my own detriment in the long term?

— Happy Hermit, or Budding Agoraphobe?

Happy Hermit, or Budding Agoraphobe?: Can you think of times when you have needed, leaned on or just enjoyed your social network? Are there times you pushed past your initial hesitation and enjoyed yourself among others?

If yes to even one of these, then that’s an argument for pushing yourself out of your comfort zone at least sometimes, enough to keep your social muscles in shape. It doesn’t have to be (even close) to the kind of circulation you had before. Just a little to prevent atrophy and assure yourself you’re not hiding.

Dating gets its own consideration, depending on whether you feel lonely for that kind of connection. If so, then you may want to circulate more for the purpose of finding new platonic friendship connections. That can then widen your dating pool in a lower-stakes way and get you out of the socially pressured circumstances of dating just to date.

Otherwise, yay to learning this about yourself and building around it.