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ImageIt’s a delicate dance, this parenting of grownups. From the point of view of the adult daughter, I’ve always strived for some distance; I moved out of the house at 16 to go to college, moved out state at 19 to start a new life with my new husband, moved a comfortable 250 miles from home when we decided to start a family. iDaddy and I raised our girls with only an occasional visit from my parents, either at our house (my preference, because then they were less likely to treat me like a child) or theirs.

I knew the connection wasn’t strong enough for Ur-Momma. I knew that, from her point of view, the visits weren’t frequent enough. I knew she didn’t like talking to us only once a week, seeing us only once every few months. But it was pretty much exactly right for me.

Now that I’m on the receiving end of the not-frequent-enough visits and chats, I see how much it must have pained her when I kept her at arms length — at arms length from my life and, especially, from my daughters. Now we see our girls once a month, maybe twice, even though they live nearby. It’s not enough for me, and there’s nothing I can do about it but ratchet down my expectations.

For a while when Nutmeg was single, we saw her often, maybe every week and a half. Sometimes iDaddy and I would take her to a play or out for dinner; sometimes I’d meet her after work for a drink; sometimes iDaddy and she would go together to a football game. During this time, when Nutmeg was about 24 to 28, Meta was married to Wilcoand living a four-hour train ride away. So I didn’t see Meta often, but I was in constant g-chat contact with her — electronic chats that were sometimes even better than chats in real life, in much the same that hard conversations with her during her childhood were often better when we were in the car and she was in the back seat, confessing to the back of my head.

But now Nutmeg has a boyfriend, and she’d understandably rather spend time with him than with us, or even than with him plus us. And Meta has left Wilco and moved to an apartment not far from Nutmeg, where she’s busily — you might almost say frantically — building an incredibly active social life. So even though they’re now both living about an hour away from us by subway, they’re usually too busy to see us when we suggest it.

In fact, the last time I suggested a family get-together Nutmeg let me know, gently, that I had kind of pissed off Meta with the invitation. “Did she ask to get together this much when I didn’t live here?” she asked Nutmeg, clearly feeling hemmed in by our proximity. It’s the kind of question I would have asked Avuncular about our parents (he always lived in the same metro area, so he never knew the luxury of distance that I knew). That’s why it stung. When I used to think, “Why does Ur-Momma need to see me AGAIN?” it was because I felt no need to see her; our connection was fraught, and our contact was, from my end, mostly merely dutiful. So knowing now that Meta bristles at my contact in exactly the same way is terribly painful.

It’s a balancing act, though. Do I not invite her, and make her feel left out? Is that better or worse than inviting her too much, and making her feel burdened? And how much should I really communicate with and visit Nutmeg? We’re both journalists working for the same publication, which makes the balancing act especially hard. I try not to dump my career concerns on her too much — yet a few weeks ago, when I had a couple of assignments I had failed to mention that she had to hear about from an acquaintance, she felt miffed that there was something about my professional life that she didn’t know. Yet obviously there’s plenty about her life that I don’t know — not the professional stuff, which she eventually tells me all about, but the intimate questions I can’t ask, about marriage, babies, houses, plans . . .

As I said, a delicate dance.

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As focused as I’ve been in thinking about being a mother to adult children from the point of view of the mother, I seem to have lost sight of the fact that I also have a stake in this issue from the point of view of the child.  My mother, God bless her, is still alive and opinionating at age 85, and our relationship in recent years has become a lot more mellow than it was at its worst.  (And its worst, contrary to conventional wisdom, was not during my adolescence, when I was a pretty placid and agreeable teenager, but during my young adulthood, when there was something about my sense of a self as a mother of daughters that poisoned the way I felt about myself as the daughter of a mother.)

But sometimes, even though our relationship is basically good, we flare up at each other.  We did today.  It seemed to come out of the blue with a phone call this afternoon, in which my mother — what should I call her as a blog nickname?  how about Ur-Momma — called to inform me that she was very offended by what she heard as “disdain” in the outgoing voicemail message I had left on her new cell phone.  “Don’t bother to leave a message, she can’t retrieve it,” I said in what I remember was meant to be a sort of joshy tone.  “Just call back.”

I was leaving the message on her behalf because I was giving her a different cell phone — my old phone, since I had caved in and accepted the hand-me-down smartphone that Nutmeg was offering me.  (This was a difficult decision on my part, which I arrived at mostly because whenever I heard myself saying things like, “But my own stupidphone works just fine,” I knew I was sounding just like Ur-Momma.  I didn’t want to turn into Ur-Momma.)  And here’s the crucial bit: on her old cell phone, Ur-Momma’s own outgoing voicemail message was, essentially, “Don’t bother to leave a message, I can’t retrieve it.”  She had made exactly the same joke.

Now, I told her that.  I told her I was only trying to imitate her own clever message.  She told me to listen to it again myself (three hours later, and I still haven’t, and don’t intend to) to hear how dismissive and disdainful my tone was.  It’s not funny that I don’t know how to retrieve messages, she said.  I know I’m a Luddite, but you don’t have to make fun of me for it.

I could tell that the outgoing voicemail message wasn’t what was really bothering her, but I couldn’t get Ur-Momma to tell me what was.  We hung up on bad terms, and I looked for a wireless retailer where I could re-activate her old phone.   I called her back to tell her I would walk down to her apartment, take the old phone and the new phone, walk the two blocks to the wireless retailer, and get her the old phone back so she wouldn’t feel like such a technoklutz.   No answer.  This happens sometimes when Ur-Momma is feeling “down” — she just ignores the phone.  I called her back half an hour later.  I made my phone-switching offer, and then I asked her what was really going on.  I’m down, she said.  Why, I asked.  And suddenly we were yelling at each other about what was really bugging her — that my brother (let’s call him Avuncular) had called me last night, and I had told him that I was in the middle of a meeting and we’d have to talk another time.  When Ur-Momma called me this morning to see if I had talked to Avuncular, I told her that he had called but that we hadn’t spoken because I was in the middle of a meeting.

Turns out she was upset because I didn’t follow that up with “and I called him back when the meeting was over.”  Did she really need to know that it didn’t end till 11, and that I sent him an email early this morning suggesting that we talk later tonight?  Is it any business of hers?  I’m 56 years old — am I not allowed to deal with my relationship with my 53-year-old brother on my own, without one of us calling the other “because Mommy says”?

Apparently she thinks it is her business.  (And in another post I’ll say wonderful things about how smart and funny and involved and generous Ur-Momma is; just give me this one, about how annoying and intrusive she can be.)  After we stopped yelling, Ur-Momma went on and on about her favorite topic — my brother and me.  “The only thing that matters to me in my life is that my children are there for each other,” she said for the gazillionth time.  Avuncular and I grew up with the sing-song in our ears of “Brothers and sisters are the closest thing in the world.”  Ur-Momma is the oldest of three sisters and they are extraordinarily close, so even without the relentless sloganeering, Avuncular and I would have gotten the message from their loving example that siblings are a lifelong commitment.  AND I HAD ALREADY EMAILED HIM.

I get it, sort of.  I want Nutmeg and Meta to be friends and to rely on each other; in fact, before Ur-Momma ruined my day, I was still smiling after a lovely lunch with Nutmeg in which she had told me in hilarious detail about an endless Twitter and g-chat exchange between her and Meta regarding live yogurt cultures.  (Meta had even included me in the discussion by g-chatting me, “your other child doesn’t know what YOGURT IS MADE OF.”)  Like my own mother, I’ve always wanted my kids to be friends, to love each other, to know they could depend on each other.  Sometimes their relationship is good, sometimes less good — like any relationship.  But I’ve learned that the worst thing I can do when it’s not going so well is to insert myself into it to try to make it better.

That’s what Ur-Momma has been doing between Avuncular and me our whole lives, taking the temperature of our relationship to make sure it meets her exacting standards — and if for some reason it doesn’t, to try to fix it.  That’s what she was doing today.  Amazingly, my brother and I love each other anyway.  I love my mother, too, but at the moment she’s pissing me off, and reminding me that with even the best of intentions, the parent of an adult child can sometimes make mistakes.

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Kids are now spending more time with their screens and electronics than they are awake (you can double-count hours for multi-tasking).  That’s the news from the latest survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Generation M.”  I guess Generation M is as good a name as any, at least for now, for these media-crazed 8- to 14-year-olds.

But reading about the study in The New York Times this morning made me feel like these kids, who spend tk hours a day online, aren’t all that different from my own kids (Generation X? Y? Millenium?) or even, truth be told, from me, Ms. Baby Boomer.  The article, by Tamar Lewin, has the headline, “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online.”  I hate to say this, but if I’m awake and in the apartment, I’m probably online, too.  If iDaddy is awake and even NOT in the apartment, he’s also probably online, thanks to the iPhone he carries around with him and whips out of his pocket at the slightest provocation (not necessarily to phone or text anyone, since he’s not super-social, but to check out google or imdb for an answer for just about any question that arises in conversation).

As for the girls — phew.  If their g-chat status is to be believed, and I think it is, Meta is online just about round-the-clock, and Nutmeg is online whenever she’s either at home or at work, which is just about always.  Now that both girls also carry smart phones with them, the perpetuity of their plugged-in lives has become entrenched.  Sometimes I think I’m g-chatting with Meta imagining her at a laptop somewhere, sitting on a desk or at least on a couch, and it turns out I’m communicating with her on her phone while she’s on the Metro or in the passenger seat of a car.  (Lord, I hope it’s the passenger seat, and I hope whoever is driving isn’t ALSO engaged in an online or text conversation.)

So is this a bad thing?  It depends.  It depends on what it replaces.  iDaddy has been on sabbatical this year, spending his weekdays on his own in another town, so I’m alone during the week and left to my own devices. (Interesting phrase, that, created in the era long before devices actually meant iPhones and iPods and all the other i’s.)   So it’s been interesting to watch how much time I spend with what.  I’m pretty device-deprived — we own one TV, though it does have TiVo, and my cell phone is an old-fashioned one that doesn’t even have a camera — and the only things I own that would qualify as part of the plugged-in stuff the Kaiser Family Foundation is concerned with, besides the one television, is my MacBook and my iPod, both a couple of years past their sell-by dates.  In this relatively low-tech environment, I had high hopes for the things I would get done when I was on my own in the evenings — lots of reading (at the moment I’m enjoying The Unnamed by the wonderful young writer Joshua Ferris, though his first book, Then We Came to the End, was probably better), lots of organizing (do I really need all these pieces of paper in all these bulging file folders?), lots of socializing one-on-one with people I feel guilty about spending time with when I know I’ve left iDaddy home alone in his study watching TV.  But it turns out that the TV in the study is awfully appealing, even to me.  And a sense of connection to the world outside my walls when I’m home without a drinks or theatre invitation — well, the idea of young people doing this to excess, I get it.

What I don’t get is why they do these things when they’re NOT alone.  It’s the people, no matter what letter is attached to their generation, who insist on staring at their mini-screens when they’re at the dinner table or sitting on the Acela or DRIVING A CAR who really perplex me.  Being out in the world, eavesdropping, noticing, potentially even interacting — all that is so cool.  Why is it that a cold hard screen has greater allure?

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online fretting

There’s a new way to keep up with, and fret about, adult children these days: I can see whether my kids are online and available for chatting through our respective gmail accounts.  It’s a consolation to log on and to see the little green dots beside Meta and Nutmeg’s names.  I know that they’re at least safe and at home or work.  But what agony it is to not see those dots, especially if I know, as I do today, that they’re en route somewhere (Meta is off to Minneapolis to accompany Wilco to a science conference, and to see a good friend while she’s there).   I noticed a wire story (also online) about the FAA managing to screw up air traffic controlling because of some sort of computer glitch, and I forwarded it (online again!) to Meta, but she must already be en route.  But Wilco’s gchat status is flashing green — isn’t he supposed to be with her?  And what’s that airline’s web site address again?

This is the stuff of worry that my own mother never had available to her.  For her, it was the telephone ringing unanswered, which to her always seemed to mean that I must be dead in a ditch somewhere (judging from the tone of the “Where WERE you?” that greeted me when I finally picked up).  For me, it’s gchat status, and wondering why Meta isn’t twittering from the airport.  Wait, maybe she is.   Let me go check.

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