Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sacred Text(ing): Staying in Touch with Adult Children

When I became a mother, I’d heard plenty about the terrible twos and the anguish of adolescence. The phrase empty nest syndrome was also well-known to me. But nothing and no one prepared me for having fully grown, independent children in their twenties who don’t consider it compulsory to call their parents once a week.

With my mother, the once a week call was an ironclad, if unspoken, rule. If I failed to call, she would call me, her voice cool, subtly reproachful, unsuccessfully denying a need which I now understand all too well. Sometimes I ask my children (with mock-incredulity) how they dare to flaunt this law of the universe? Occasionally I am more direct: call me once a week. So far it hasn’t happened.

I once had lunch with an advice columnist for a local paper. “Ask me something,” she said. “I get tired of making up my own questions.” Ok,” I agreed. “How do I get my adult children to call me?” This veteran mother and grandmother looked at me as if I were an idiot: “You don’t,” she told me. “Leave them alone. They’re busy.”

Even though I have heard similar things from other mothers who have weathered this phase and from younger friends who also don’t call their own mothers, I get weird after a couple of weeks of no communication. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a mother can fill a silence with all kinds of worries and projections. It is even worse when I break down and leave a voice mail or send an email that goes unanswered. Low-level anxiety becomes a backdrop to my life, like a funny sound in the car I know I should get checked though the car still runs.

Last time my daughter visited, she decided to teach me how to text. I am a Luddite who has resisted (and finally succumbed) to every new technology from old-fashioned answering machines, to email to cell phones. I insisted texting was where I drew the line. But my daughter was determined. “Too funny!” she laughed in delight at my clumsiness. (Her laughter is one of my favorite sounds in the world.) So I learned (more or less) though I still don’t know how to back space and find the process so laborious that my messages are necessarily brief.

Here is the wonder and the glory: My children text back! “It is one hundred and one degrees in the shade,” I texted my daughter last week (long message for me). “Yech,” she texted back. “Same here. I can hardly eat or sleep in this heat. But I am watching Spain play Germany and Spain is winning!” I was over the moon. My daughter is alive! She is watching a soccer game. I realized that is all I needed to know. It’s not that I wouldn’t welcome knowing more about her life, but I don’t need to. If there is anything she wants to tell me, she will. Since she did respond, I can also short-circuit the endless loop of: what did I do wrong as a mother? If I had been a better mother, they would be closer to me, they would call me.

Really, it’s not about me. That’s what texting is teaching me. They’re fine. They know I’m there. I’m the background of their lives, not the focus, the harbor to their open sea, the boulder or tree that serves as a point of reference. That is as it should be. Also, I am making a rule (for myself only) out of respect for the sacred text: Not to do it more than once a week (or maybe twice!)

Note: next week in honor of Mary Magdalen's Feast Day July 22nd), I will be writing about my twenty years with Maeve (aka The Celtic Mary Magdalen)


  1. Maeve here: I don't know how Eliz would have coped with a daughter (like mine) who went missing for seven years. No phone calls, no texts, the occasional appearance in a dream. (See Bright Dark Madonna). Well, I do know. She would have done exactly what I did: searched all over the world. My love and sympathy to all parents who went through what I did.

  2. It's so strange to read this, knowing that I have NO IDEA when I will next speak with my mother. She's always been more interested in other people's children than her own, and after being abused as a kid, I feel like.. just leave it alone. Especially since when I try to reach out, she's pretty indifferent. It depresses me too much to try harder.

  3. Sorry to hear that May- Hope you can "adopt" some good moms in your life!
    And Elizabeth- sometimes one has a different challenge- my 37 year old son has been "visiting" for 7 weeks!

  4. I enjoyed this.

    Yes, "visiting" is the other side of not calling or writing, and could be even harder. I should be thankful that none of my children has ever visited for 7 weeks.

    It is hard from a parent's point of view to understand why one's children don't contact you. I look back at my own life, though, and know I didn't keep weekly contact with my parents. However, my parents had a very full life running a school.

    But then, I know, Elizabeth, that you have a full life, too.

    The difference may be in what you grew up to expect. Since your mother demanded weekly contact, that's what you expect. Since my mother didn't, I don't.

    That being said, however, I do find it frustrating when trying to contact my children and they don't respond. I've tried phone and email. Neither is terribly effective, although phone seems to be more so, if I have a specific request or question.

    Texting may be preferable to either, if one can get the hang of it, simply because of two things: one, the younger generation sits there texting all the time, and two, maybe they think it's less invasive of their privacy.

  5. Thank you for this post. It really moved me. I am that wretched daughter who grits her teeth when she hears her mother's weak voice message asking her to "please call your mother". I am still fifteen, rebellious, not wanting to be anything like her mother and certainly not wanting to do anything out of demand or obligation. Even after losing my father in March, I still balk at the universal tradition of calling on Sunday. But what I don't tell anyone is that I think of her more than anyone else in my life. Even more than my lovers or best friends. We are connected for life, and we have survived some very dysfunctional times together. Sometimes it's too complicated and loving someone that deeply is painful. I haven't had children of my own so I haven't earned the experience of being someone's mother. This week i surprised her by calling a day early. I could hear the joy in her voice...