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 backspace 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!)