You don't call. You don't write. What's a mother to do?
This lament of the neglected mother has become so familiar in the United States that we joke about it. The mother who incessantly kvetches about her children's lack of attention has become an unfortunate cultural stereotype. Yet, what is a parent to do when an adult child recedes into his own life, rarely if ever materializing to check on the wellbeing of those who gave him life in the first place?
As of last month Chinese parents are able to sue their adult children for not paying enough attention to them. On December 21, 2012, China's national legislature amended its policy on the elderly. Adult children are now required by law to visit their aging parents "often" or risk being served with a lawsuit. The word "often" is left open to interpretation.
So how often is often? The question brings to mind a priceless scene from Annie Hall. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, in the guise of their characters Alvie and Annie, are asked by their therapist, "How often do you have sex?"
"Hardly ever," Alvie responds despondently, "About three times a week."
"Constantly," Annie whines. "About three times a week."
But back to China.
In recent years the incidence of elder abuse and neglect has seen a significant increase in China. The rapidly growing Chinese economy has led to the kind of mobility we have known in the US for decades. Traditional extended family units have been breaking down as children's career paths lead them farther away from home. Affordable alternatives for elder care are scarce.
Making matters more challenging is China's family planning policy that limits most families to having a single child. A rapidly shrinking workforce cannot be counted on to take care of a rapidly growing elderly population.
So what is an adult child to do? Visit your mother, says the law.
Obviously, a law such as this would never fly in the US, a country founded and populated by immigrants, who, throughout our brief history, have left parents behind to embark upon their journey to a better life abroad.
Would I like my children to visit more frequently? Of course, but I understand that they are in the grip of market forces that conspire to make spontaneous visits difficult if not impossible. They do their very best and I am appreciative of their efforts. Plus, as a member in good standing of the sandwich generation, I am painfully aware that by wanting my kids to visit more often I must examine my own spotty record of visiting my mother who lives 300 miles away. It is not fair of me to expect more of my children than I give to my mother who loves me as much as I love them.
I wonder how many Chinese parents will find the guts to sue their children for neglect. At the moment, I can't imagine ever taking legal action against the children I bore and adore. But I am neither ill nor indigent. Frailty and neglect could bring any of us to our knees and then who knows where the will to live could lead us? In China it could lead to the courtroom. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.