Communication between busy adult children & not-busy parents
February 10, 2019 3:23 PM   Subscribe

How do you manage expectations of contact frequency and communication at a distance? I think my adult relationship with my parents needs a process-focused reboot, and I’m looking for ideas and suggestions on long distance communication styles.

My relationship with my parents is similar-ish to this poster. I’m in my 30s, in academia, and one of many people for whom that “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” essay resonated hard earlier this year. I work 50-70 hours a week, commute 60-90 minutes a day, and I feel very protective about the uninterrupted downtime I have. Conversations with my folks are one of those “seemingly high effort, low reward tasks [that] paralyze me,” and I don’t think the status quo is working for either of us.

I’ve lived hundreds to thousands of miles from my parents since I went to college, I’m now in my mid-30s, they’re in their mid-60s, and the primary driver of our communication lately is guilt. I like them, there’s no childhood issues, and we get on fine when we’re in the same place for a couple days out of the year. But there’s this widening rift where the busier I am, the more they increasingly rely on me to initiate communications, seemingly because I am busy. I’ve tried explaining that they should try contacting me, too, which worked in the sense that I now get emails or texts from one parent whose entire content is “are you there?” or “when is a good time to talk” or “trying again…” But if I’m being honest, I find these messages passive aggressive, and resent receiving them from someone reasonably tech savvy with near-infinite amounts of free time who I’m otherwise on good terms with.

Anyway, I’m looking for ideas on how to shift the dynamic. I asked my similarly busy co-workers, and found out a lot of them call their long-distance family while driving. I’ve always avoided phone calls while driving, but I guess it’s a thought. I’m also considering re-engaging on Facebook, even though I feel like cutting it out of my life was a net positive. Hoping the green might have some other suggestions on technology, process, or even just re-framing the dynamic in my mind.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (39 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I finally convinced my mother to start using WhatsApp. I created a group with me, her and my brother and we post in there every day or two with a photo or a sentence. The idea is to make her feel connected to our lives in a way that doesn't require a one hour phone call. It's a recent thing so I don't know how successful it will be yet.
posted by lollusc at 3:28 PM on February 10, 2019 [20 favorites]

The only time I call my long distance mom is in the car on my 45 minute drive home. We also text here and there. She appreciates the conversation initiated by me, and I have nothing I have to do in that time other than drive. I probably call her once a week or once every 2 weeks, so it's not like I'm calling every day. I do have a handsfree setup so I just have to press a button on my car to reach her.
posted by katypickle at 3:28 PM on February 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Have a set time to call them when you and they both expect it.

I used to call my parents every Sunday shortly after their dinner time. I knew they would likely be home, and time zones made it late enough that I would also likely be home. It's gotten more flexible lately, because I have less of a life now, so I get bored and call them at other times, but for a long time, it worked really well. They knew when I would call. I knew when I would call. Nobody felt the need to guilt anybody about it.

If they actually needed something specific in between Sundays, my mom would text me.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:33 PM on February 10, 2019 [9 favorites]

I (in California) shifted the dynamic with my mom (in New York) by calling her more or less at the same time on more or less the same day, every week. This time is during a specific part of my commute while I am walking down the hill from my work to the train station. It's a fifteen minute interval that is short enough to not get in my way but long enough to be meaningful to both of us. The short time frame of it even has the side benefit of focusing her conversation so it's not an hour of medical gossip when I call. Since I started doing this regularly, the "please won't you call" messages and passive aggressive texts have completely stopped. It's not rocket science - I just dedicate fifteen minutes a week to calling my mom. You just have to schedule it like anything else.
posted by gyusan at 3:35 PM on February 10, 2019 [17 favorites]

Some of my family share a couple shared google photo drives that we can add photos and occasional notes back and forth - a nice, easy way to keep up with each other's lives. The photos can be meals or the sunset or something that reminds of each other or anything, no need for a bunch of selfies unless that's what you like! Like a personal replacement for Facebook. Great if on other time zones.

You've said a lot of what you don't like about the communications but not what you would like, I wonder what that would look like and if it would be something you could move towards. What would you like their texts and emails to look like?
posted by RoadScholar at 3:44 PM on February 10, 2019

My experience if similar to yours. I'm curious to read the responses. Lately, I more or less exclusively call my mom while going for long walks. At least for me, that balances the experience and leaves me feeling happy afterward. We tried a weekly phone date for a while, but neither of us keep regular enough schedules to actually make that work.

I'm also coming around to the idea that very brief electronic interactions (texts, social media messaging) have a very high value/effort ratio. A "here's what the sunset looked like today" image in a text is something I would never consider sending to a friend, but it makes my family surprisingly happy.
posted by eotvos at 3:49 PM on February 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't talk to my parents by phone ever; I just don't like it. We e-mail, briefly and relatively frequently, and it's easier on me because it doesn't entail the effort of synchronous communication. It only takes me a minute to send something and I can do it on my own time.

I'm in the opposite position with my college-aged son. I've suggested to him that I'd stop nagging him with random questions about his weekend etc. if he just texts me a random photo every once in a while. Like, if he sent me a picture of his breakfast on occasion, I'd know he was alive and feel somewhat connected with him. Would something that low-effort be meaningful to your parents?
posted by metasarah at 3:52 PM on February 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

But there’s this widening rift where the busier I am, the more they increasingly rely on me to initiate communications, seemingly because I am busy. I’ve tried explaining that they should try contacting me, too, which worked in the sense that I now get emails or texts from one parent whose entire content is “are you there?” or “when is a good time to talk” or “trying again…” But if I’m being honest, I find these messages passive aggressive, and resent receiving them from someone reasonably tech savvy with near-infinite amounts of free time who I’m otherwise on good terms with.

Boy is this familiar.

I'm the same age as you (likewise my parents are the same age as your parents) and whenever my Mom and I talk I will end with, "Feel free to text me later tonight or this week" and she will respond, "I don't like to text you because I know how busy you are and I don't want to get in the way and I feel like I am bothering you. I don't want to bother you during the week when you're working." Note that 1) she also says this about texting me on a weekend, except this time it's that she knows it's my weekend and she doesn't want to bug me when I am off from work, and 2) I have asked her if I give her the impression or make her feel like she is bothering me if she texts me, and she admits that no, I don't make her feel this way. So this idea of "bothering me" is definitely something she has decided on her own.

My recommendations:

1) Don't go back on Facebook because of this. There is no need to change back something that you know improved your life by getting rid of it.

2) I agree with your coworkers that driving is a good time to call. Do you have Bluetooth connectivity in your car? If not, I'd recommend getting a Bluetooth adapter and a small microphone for your car (maybe $50-75 total for midrange products?) and using your work commute home as a time to call and check in.

3) If the driving thing really isn't something you want to do, do you have another daily or frequent activity that allows you to be on the phone at the same time? If so, consider making that your "initiate call with parents time." Linking "call time" with another normal activity you already do is going to make it easier to not only remember to do this but to feel like it naturally fits into your week.

4) Do your parents use any social media/online activities other than Facebook, that you happen to like and also use? Pinterest? Words With Friends? Maybe casual interaction via a non Facebook medium would also act as a good supplement to phone calls.

5) In my personal experience, my parents grow more comfortable with iniating contact with me if I regularly initiate contact with them. It's hard to impossible to change what other people do, but we can always make a change to our own habits and behaviors. I think with aging parents it's best to lead by example and eventually they will get into a groove with you. That, or maybe (hopefully) they will at least become less inclined to send passive aggressive texts. Which they shouldn't do, ideally, but that's a separate conversation you may want to have with them.
posted by nightrecordings at 3:56 PM on February 10, 2019

I'm in my 40s, my parents in their 70s. Maybe 10-15 years ago, they stopped calling me at all, and I was doing all the calling. I felt mildly miffed, but went with it. On the few occasions I asked about it, a similar kind of vague "We never know when you'll be free" thing was the nearest I got to an explanation. Then I heard my mum chatting about someone whose kids never phoned them, and saying something that I can’t remember verbatim but which was along the lines of: "Well, you never think about your parents getting older, do you? You still think it's all about you, the way it was when you were a child.”

That gave me a shift of perspective, to feel more like calling your elderly parents is one of the things you kind of owe them after all those years of raising you. It’s part of the wider change of relationship between you as you get older. Your parents have gone back to being people in their own right rather than just your parents again now that you’re grown, and it's your turn to put yourself out for them. I don’t know if that’s the kind of reframing you’re after, but it’s how it panned out for me.
posted by penguin pie at 4:05 PM on February 10, 2019 [40 favorites]

This is going to sound crazy but can you show them gifs? My parents got really into them and they are GOOD at finding amazing ones. As they say, a picture says a thousand words and gif exchanges are really fun (ok I added that last part)
posted by CMcG at 4:07 PM on February 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

As tech savvy as your parents may be, they probably are not up to date on the latest social media and electronic communication options. Something that they might seem to resist, say Whatsapp, is only because they don't get it until someone they trust walks them through it a couple times.

Is there is a TV show or podcast you all watch? A quick call or text after or during the commercial break could be a nice and easy thing to connect over.

It's a slippery slope but could they email you articles occasionally? Not that you'd have to even read them but you can just respond: "Interesting topic, thanks for thinking of me!" However, you know your parents and if this would or wouldn't be a good idea.

In addition to phoning while in the car, how about phoning when you aren't stressed but are pressed for time? For example, the ten minutes after you finish lunch and before your office hours start? Or call from the pharmacy while you're waiting for a prescription to be filled. They know you have to go but you can share a lot in a few minutes and, most importantly, they feel connected while you don't feel burdened. For some people, a weekly call time is best. I find a few spontaneous chats frequently -- for some a few times a week and for others a few times a month -- means you don't have to go through the underestimated pressure of "catching up." Anecdotes from daily life are as good conversation fodder as anything and something your parents can relate to more themselves. I will randomly leave voicemails for a sibling who is very busy: they can only rarely call me back but appreciate the 1-2 minute message. Perhaps you could do that, too; again, you know best for your family!
posted by smorgasbord at 4:17 PM on February 10, 2019

I would call my mom on my way home from work each day. It was usually a fairly short call (<15 minutes) but it was great because we could chat about the little things that happened during the day. It took pressure off of having a long call. Also, it was helpful because it was fairly time bound as I could easily say ‘I’m home now. I’ll call you tomorrow.’
posted by statsgirl at 4:17 PM on February 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

My husband for many many years has called his parents and his sister once a week, usually Sunday. Now that we have a kid this has shifted to Skype so everyone can see their grandkid/nephew, but even before we spawned this was a habit he got into. He will often text to set up a time in advance. The calls don't have to be long, often 15 minutes or less. Because they're once a week, there's no need to spend ages on the phone catching up. It's kind of like cleaning that way. (We live locally to my parents, so with them I just text funny pictures in between visits.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:26 PM on February 10, 2019

In addition to many of the suggestions above, I use the Marco Polo app to send and receive brief videos from my family members on the opposite cost. It's been a nice, low-effort way of supplementing phone calls without having to coordinate schedules or invest a lot of time. My family's been using it now since September and it continues to be fun.
posted by DingoMutt at 4:56 PM on February 10, 2019

I asked my similarly busy co-workers, and found out a lot of them call their long-distance family while driving. I’ve always avoided phone calls while driving, but I guess it’s a thought.

Please don't phone from the car. Phone conversations while driving aren't safe, even if you're using the phone hands-free.
Dr Graham Hole, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex, said: "A popular misconception is that using a mobile phone while driving is safe as long as the driver uses a hands-free phone.

"Our research shows this is not the case. Hands-free can be equally distracting because conversations cause the driver to visually imagine what they're talking about. This visual imagery competes for processing resources with what the driver sees in front of them on the road."
It's also different than having a conversation with someone who's physically in the car with you because a passenger will usually be aware when road conditions require your attention. Someone who's on the other end of the phone won't be able to tell and will keep on chatting at you, dividing your attention.

there’s this widening rift where the busier I am, the more they increasingly rely on me to initiate communications, seemingly because I am busy. I’ve tried explaining that they should try contacting me, too, which worked in the sense that I now get emails or texts from one parent whose entire content is “are you there?” or “when is a good time to talk” or “trying again…” But if I’m being honest, I find these messages passive aggressive, and resent receiving them from someone reasonably tech savvy with near-infinite amounts of free time who I’m otherwise on good terms with.

I'm confused. It sounds like your parents are initiating contact (as you requested) unobtrusively via text or email to see if you're free for a phone conversation or to try to schedule one. But that's not what you want after all? If you're wanting them to engage with you via written correspondence rather than live you may need to be more explicit about that preference. From here it seems like they're trying to be considerate rather than passive aggressive, but they're misunderstanding what you want. If it's easier for you to manage being pen pals than it is to schedule phone conversations make sure they know that. They may be perfectly willing to accommodate you.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 5:22 PM on February 10, 2019 [11 favorites]

My age, field, and geographical distance from my parents are similar to yours, and the vast majority of my communication with my parents these days is via text. Is it important to you or to your parents that your way of keeping in touch be phone conversations? Are you in the habit of texting about things other than the logistics of the next phone call? I've been surprised by the way that my mom, who is in her 70s, has taken to texting even though she's a bit technophobic, overall. (She's become more enthusiastic and fluent in her use of emoji than I am!)

If you don't have anything specific that you or they want to discuss over the phone, short texts as the mood strikes you might allow all of you to feel a little closer, and could be less stressful and easier to segue into the rest of the activities and conversations that you're juggling - assuming that all of you have phone plans that wouldn't make that cost-prohibitive. I've encouraged my parents to send me photos of specific things (the weather/the view outside where they are, the gardening and other projects that they've got going on at home, what they're cooking and eating, visits to places that we like to go together) and when they do that, it doesn't take much for me to reply with a quick reaction or a message or photo that lets them know what I'm up to at the moment. It seems to work really well to make all of us feel like we have a sense of what's happening in one another's lives. I probably exchange messages with my mom at least a couple of times a day, and with my dad a couple of times a week.
posted by Anita Bath at 5:31 PM on February 10, 2019

I call my mother on Sunday afternoons, every Sunday. I have a headset so I sometimes fold clothes or cook while we talk.

I like it, because that is the best time that I'm free and in the mood to chat; she likes it because she's also free but knows to expect my call at that time. Some weeks we talk only a little, some weeks we'll go an hour or more. And some weeks I'm out or whatever (and I message her and let her know).

I am, it must be said, a creature of habit. But I think we both like the consistency and also I know that she likes that I make the effort to call every week, even if I don't have much to say some weeks. It seems a small thing to do for her.

I also set whatsapp on her phone up, so we can message when something we're both interested in is happening (eg trading short lines about Survivor or the Aus Open tennis with each other, sharing pics of the cats or her grandkids). It's works well.
posted by smoke at 5:43 PM on February 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

My sons are in their 30s. I find texting works well. Especially if we send pictures. It's just touching base. I hope they don't take it as an imposition if I text `are you home' or whatever. If they are. I'll call, and 10 minutes is fine with me if not, well I was in my 30s at one point, and busy. I get it.
You are stressing out too much. Parents just want to know you're okay and that you still recognize them as part of your existence. Speaking for myself, of course: I realize there are differences. Try sending pictures of whatever in your life is weird or wonderful or on the way to work from time to time, just to let them know you still breathe.
posted by Enid Lareg at 6:04 PM on February 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

An idea of how to suggest that your parents can initiate without worrying about imposing on you. I'm close to your parents age. What seems to work is for us to for me to send my adult kid a text saying "is this a good time talk?" He'll either then call me or text back to let me know when he wants to talk. It means that I can initiate but I don't have to worry about whether it is a good time. It only takes a moment for him to reply. If I don't hear back I know he's in transit or out of touch and he is reliable about following up when he can, even it is just to say "busy. will call tomorrow"
posted by metahawk at 6:50 PM on February 10, 2019

I could have written this post myself. We’re slowly growing out of it, and what has worked best for me is a) scheduling time to talk, usually while I’m walking to work, the same fifteen minutes every week b) posting a photo or link to our family group text thread about once a week and c) using earbuds to talk while I’m cooking, folding laundry, or doing something else.

I used to find the “give me a call sometime” infuriating, but I guess I kind of realized that I’d done *too* good a job convincing my parents how busy I was. This, combined with the realization that because they always answer our (kids) calls no matter where they are, the concept of me just not picking up if I couldn’t talk was totally foreign to them. Like I think my mom has this vision of her calling me and me picking up when I’m in the middle of teaching a class or something? Which would never happen, but that kind of helped me reframe it. YMMV but know that you’re not alone!
posted by stellaluna at 7:05 PM on February 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

I find these messages passive aggressive, and resent receiving them from someone reasonably tech savvy with near-infinite amounts of free time who I’m otherwise on good terms with.

Yeah it's hard to say without knowing your dynamic if this is passive aggressive, aggressive or just passive. I finally had to have it out with my mother that she was expecting a level of communication frequency from me that no one else in my life got, including my boyfriend. I finally got to the point where I would only call her on her birthday and Mother's Day and otherwise, no phone calls. That said I did move to more frequent communication especially as she got older. I'd send postcards any time I would travel (i.e. was anywhere overnight) just short things but definitely got the point across "I am thinking of you... but also i am busy". At some point I switched to emailing her every day, just usually short blabity bla what was up with me. This was good because I'm in my inbox anyhow, I type quickly, it never got me trapped in a long conversation (as much my fault as hers really, but only *I* dreaded it) and she could write back if she wanted. I think it made it clear that I wanted to communicate but the only option she picked (phone) was a non-starter and if she wasn't going to text or use FB messenger, this is what we had. My sister was more of a "call her every Saturday" type of person and that worked well for her.
posted by jessamyn at 7:41 PM on February 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I call my parents every weekend for about an hour. I text them at 11am every Saturday to arrange the call for the weekend. Normally it's afternoon/early evening one of the weekend days. I try to pair the call with some other task: grocery shopping, cooking, or walking the dog, normally.
posted by crazy with stars at 7:53 PM on February 10, 2019

Some people prefer voice, some email, some txt. I've been at cross purposes for years with parents, children, siblings, friends about how best to stay in touch. It's too late for me to stay in touch with some of those loved ones.

Assuming you live to the age of 90, you had already used, when you were 18, 93% of your in-person parent time. You're now on your last 5% I've gotten in the habit of making sure I end each convo with relatives with "I love you", and imagining that that convo will be the last time I speak with them.

I'm just saying find a way. Maybe if you get into a fixed schedule, say, 15 minutes on Sunday night, your parents will be satisfied, and it'll be less of a burden on you.
posted by at at 9:30 PM on February 10, 2019 [10 favorites]

Nthing scheduling.

I call my mother once a week and we talk for about an hour. We'll use the same time every week for several months at a time; we change it when one of our schedules changes (she's retired, but busy, and I do contract work) or in response to daylight/standard time shifts (we live multiple time zones apart and in opposite hemispheres).

At first it was super weird! Like, are-we-really-going-to-find-an-hour-of-things-to-talk-about weird. But I suggested it (thanks to Captain Awkward), and we just acknowledged that it might be weird, and now it's great. Been doing it for a couple of years now.
posted by inexorably_forward at 10:04 PM on February 10, 2019

I think some things you can attempt to change and some you can't. You could request that emails be actual updates/letters that you can respond to as such and you can ask that they only text "is now a good time to talk?" when it is in fact a good time for them. That might help a little.

The resentment, communicating with them being a chore, rather than fun, and the guilt trips are harder to change. I had years of that with one of my parents, and the main thing improving it has been them finding something new in their life which is totally absorbing. Now I call frequently enough, because they barely noticed it has been a few weeks. I don't think you can help your parents get to something like that, but do at least be enthusiastic and encouraging if they tell you about dreams they want to follow.
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:20 PM on February 10, 2019

My siblings created a WhatsApp group like lollusc suggested and it has been really effective.

Also sending a picture (usually the same ones I post to my instagram story) here and there is a low effort way to let them feel more like part of your life.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 10:29 PM on February 10, 2019

Over time I’ve come to realise that you can just put people on speaker when you’re at home and keep doing whatever you were doing. I’ll quite often just keep cooking or whatever it might be. Chances are that, if you lived close and popped in regularly you wouldn’t necessarily sit down for a dedicated chat. At least in my family we’d keep doing what we were doing as long as it was vaguely compatible with chatting with somebody. And there is a good chance you’d do things together such as running errands so by all means put them on speaker and keep pottering about or else call them when you’re doing your shopping.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:21 AM on February 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Headphones on, ring them while mopping or dusting. Or washing dishes. (Put the phone in your back pocket if you're doing this. Ask me how I know.)
posted by Mistress at 3:00 AM on February 11, 2019

It sounds like the resentment stuff and the sense of pressure is killing any authentic wish for communication. You're not able to see any value in the interaction, because everything about it is pressing negative buttons. So it's causing internal pushback, just like any other activity that falls into this category might do.

I almost think it's a case of, until for some organic reason you truly WANT to talk to them, you're going to be stuck in this resentment mode; a feeling that it's obligatory and they are putting a burdensome, emotionally laborious task on you. Is there anything about talking to them that generates positive feelings? Can you find any nugget of good to fix on, and try to build on that?
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:53 AM on February 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I ring my mother when I'm making dinner, folding clothing, and sweeping/tidying. It's not that hard.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:42 AM on February 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Other responses have covered the essential practical tips. I wanted to address your guilt, your motivation for seeking contact with them, and your unspoken but present question of "What do I owe my parents." I've spent a lot of time these past few months thinking about that. It feels icky to relate to someone entirely out of guilt and obligation. Not just for you but also for them. I imagine their hesitant messages to you read as passive-aggressive because they sense it too and feel weird about intruding on your life, making demands on you. So how to solve that?

If you're lucky enough to have shared interests with them, you're golden. You call them up to chat about books or TV or whatever it is you share. If you already enjoy your parents in certain ways, you're all set. You'll call them up to hear their caustic take on the family gossip or for rehashing the game or whatever. If you have these natural adult-adult relationship avenues, your main challenge is to remember that you like talking about X with your parents, and then use that as conversation fodder when you call.

But sometimes it's harder, because you've just grown up different or because you don't particularly connect with your parents on an adult-adult level. In those cases, the surefire way to create an authentic adult relationship with your parents happen is to share yourself with them. Your job is made easy by the fact that your parents are voraciously interested in you and your life. They want to be part of it.

They could be your confidantes and your mentors if you are comfortable having them in that role. This works really, really well if you have parents that are kind, smart, respectful of your autonomy, and supportive rather than intrusive. If they aren't, then sharing limited parts of your life will still work in helping you forge an authentic connection. Like, I have massively (abusively) intrusive/enmeshed parents, but I can still connect with them by letting them into my life in carefully limited and boundaried ways, like calling my mom when I've had kitchen drama (OMG MOM I WENT THROUGH SIX GALLONS OF MILK listen to the story of my cheese-making day) or calling my dad for help with waterproofing the concrete in my basement. They will never hear me cry about my divorce, they will never get anything but the most superficial updates about my kids, but even so, there ARE some "safe" areas which I can share with them so that talking to them doesn't have to be such a chore.

Good luck.
posted by MiraK at 5:29 AM on February 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

I was thinking about this overnight, and i wonder if you could turn the texting situation into one that works for you by asking them to be slightly more detailed when they text. Whether you have time to talk isn't a binary decision -- if they just need to ask a quick question, you might be free for a five minute phone call, but if they need an hour of hand holding on getting the virus off their computer, maybe you aren't free until Thursday.

So, if could ask them to let you know the subject they want to talk to you about, that could help make it feel more like they're actually initiating the conversation, rather than just prompting you to do it. Instead of 'are you there?" it could be "honey -- I have a quick question about that tax thing we talked about before, do you have a minute?" or "hey, we haven't chatted in awhile, are you free?" or "your dad and I are considering moving to Houston and I wanted to talk the idea over with you". From the subject, you can figure out both the urgency and the likely time requirements.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:46 AM on February 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm in my late 40s; my mother is in her late 70s. I live 450 milesl away. In the last 4-6 years she's definitely reached the "we're going to have the same conversation several times" stage, which is coupled often with the "difficulty disengaging" phenomenon.

Car conversations are the answer, because I need the obvious endpoint, and it's not like we're splitting the atom in these talks. Also, it sets me up to be able to have several shorter conversations in any given week, which probably feels nicer to her.
posted by uberchet at 6:46 AM on February 11, 2019

I have these issues sometimes with my mom. I try to remember that someday it will be me in the same position (well, not with my non-existent kids, but presumably with younger people in my life). I try to think about how I'd want to be treated in that position. We aren't always going to be the busy and "important" ones.
posted by praemunire at 7:53 AM on February 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

I feel I could have written this question, too. A lot of logistical advice that I would give has already been given (and I've gotten a few takeaways myself), so I won't echo them.

I obviously don't know much about your communication dynamic with your parents, but I would stress to be kinder than necessary, e.g.: reading those short emails as possibly passive aggressive.

An example from interacting with my parents. For a while, every time they called me (it's almost always both of them on the other end), my dad would start off with "Is this a good time to talk?" After hearing that dozens of times, it really started to annoy me. Eventually I stopped him and said very directly, "You know, if it wasn't a good time for me, I just wouldn't answer." I had to tell him this a few times but eventually he absorbed it.

At first, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I had taught them something! That if they call and I answer it's because I'm able to talk and I want to talk. And if I don't answer, it's not rudeness, I'm just not able to talk right then. Because to them, a ringing phone is A Thing that must be addressed. They've had the same land line for decades, no caller ID, and have lived long-distance-fee distance from their family their whole adult lives. The notion that you wouldn't answer a ringing telephone even in the middle of dinner just didn't exist in their minds. To them, you always pick up, and if you can't talk at that time you quickly say you'll call back later.

But none of that occurred to me. All I felt was my own annoyance at always being asked if it was a good time to talk even though I had just answered! Because to me, deciding to accept a call is actively deciding to make time for whoever's calling. And to me, not answering a call is not a slight against who's calling; it's just a passive and banal acknowledgement that you can't talk right now.

We viewed telephone interaction differently and neither of us realized it. Yet my dad was making the effort to extend a social nicety to me in his way, and my reaction was to be annoyed. Now that I better appreciate his perspective, I feel guilty about how I handled it. (And I call them more often!)

I try to apply this lesson to other situations. Like I never leave a message on their answering machine (answering machine!) because I dislike audio messages. Yet if I don't answer they always leave me a voicemail. "Just calling to say hi." I feel that a missed call without a VM message says it was going to be a chatty call and that leaving a VM means there might be something important to talk about. But they don't dislike VM messages and leaving a short message is how you let someone know that it was going to be a chatty call not an important call. So I try not to be annoyed when they leave me a message.

Their increased cell phone use I think has helped bring them closer to my perspective, and their adoption of texting has helped, too. But I still try to be diligent that if I start to get annoyed by a communication practice of theirs, to tamp down that annoyance and think a bit. We have a good relationship and they're probably actually trying to be nice. How can I see it that way?
posted by cyclopticgaze at 8:37 AM on February 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

I am one of the least busy people I know, which can make communicating with my friends hard. I actually feel guilty contacting them, because of course they are really busy they probably have no time for me. A lot of the time when I do end up reaching out, it's because I've accepted that our friendship is most likely over, and thus I have nothing to lose by doing so. This is of course my anxieties speaking, and my friends will respond and we will hang out and have a good time and things are normal. But then they'll talk about how busy their lives are, and in my head I wonder where I fit in, and if I'm important enough to be a part of their lives. Which makes me nervous about contacting them in the future.

Obviously relationships between parents and their children are different from relationships between friends. But I wouldn't be surprised if your parents also have worries about getting in the way of your super busy and super important life.
posted by chernoffhoeffding at 5:46 PM on February 11, 2019

WhatsApp, and scheduled video calls. It helps that we have kids so I can always send a quick photo and a “look what cute thing Toddler Tinkletown did today” message. And most of the calls are taken up with him showing my mum his toys, or pulling me away to get him a drink. So while they aren’t hugely satisfying in terms of adult communication the time totally flies.
posted by tinkletown at 8:32 PM on February 11, 2019

Obviously I don't know your parents, but it doesn't sound to me like they are being passive-aggressive. My parents refused to call me for literally years (though they do email often, and my mother occasionally texts). But I couldn't get them to call. I'd ask them why and they'd say "we don't want to bother you" and I'd say, "that's ridiculous, if you call and I'm busy I just won't pick up". They wouldn't really have any response to that, but they also never started calling. I found this equal parts mystifying and frustrating, but reading others' responses to this thread has shown me that this seems to be a common generational issue. So I really think it sounds like your parents are tiptoeing around, trying to avoid bothering you when you're busy by sending you these "are you there?" messages.

I think scheduling a weekly call is a good way around this frustration for everyone involved. You also might try asking them (perhaps several more times) to just call, and reassure them that if you're in the middle of something, you will call them back. I repeated this message often enough and my mother finally got it and now she just calls! (My dad still won't, though :) )
posted by sunflower16 at 2:06 AM on February 12, 2019

Just a couple of afterthoughts to my comment above -

* Your parents are not terribly old, but the older they get, the more real it'll become that they won't be around forever. Just picking up the phone once a week yourself is a fairly low baseline to hit, to make sure you don't look back with regret when they're gone. You still get to spend 23.5 hours of your Sunday (or whatever) doing whatever else you please.
* You say your parents have "near-infinite amounts of free time" - if their lives are quiet and routine, maybe they feel awkward phoning you when they don't have any particular news to relate. I can imagine feeling odd about picking up the phone and feeling like I had no actual reason to be calling because I didn't have anything to tell you. But they'd probably still love to hear from you with news from your busy life.
posted by penguin pie at 2:47 PM on February 12, 2019

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