Dear Ms. Hax: My son is 26 and lives in Town B, 140 miles away – he moved five years ago. I grew up in B and still have friends there, so I make the drive to B about once a month and take my son to lunch, then go stay with friends. I make the drive every year on his birthday to take him out for lunch and give him a gift.
As a fully involved father while he was growing up, I never missed a school event; moreover, I coached his soccer and academic teams and encouraged sleepovers. I have plenty of endearing photos and videotapes documenting our family life. Since his move, I have helped him out when I could: I bought him a reliable used car when his heap conked; bought a washer and dryer for his apartment so he wouldn’t have to sit in laundromats; and I randomly give him gift cards to a local restaurant. But my most important gift has always been simply “being there” through the years. As time passes he becomes more indifferent and inattentive about staying in touch. I might send him an email that says, “I did XYZ today, what’s been going on with you?” but there’s no reply. Last week I was in B for a wedding, and he sent a text promising to get together. However, he didn’t follow through, and I drove home feeling down and depressed. He missed my birthday last month, too.
I have tried to explain that when communications become too far apart too often, an inadvertent estrangement may result. I don’t need to inject myself into his daily life, but I don’t want to experience long periods of silence, either; it makes getting together feel so awkward. Five months ago he became involved with a young woman his age, and I know he is very happy about having a girlfriend. I do not resent the young lady – she is cool beans.
Do I ask too much? I don’t think so. Two emails or a phone call each week would be enough to satisfy my parental DNA. I don’t want to pull back and create a stalemate, but I also don’t want to have my feelings hurt any longer. What’s a father to do? – AZ
Pull back, don’t create a stalemate, and stop tethering your feelings to a set amount of communication per week.
Sure, a weekly call or email doesn’t seem like much of an effort from your perspective – but for whatever reason, it’s too much for him, and there’s nothing you can do about it besides complain or choose to accept it. He’s independent and has a nice new girlfriend. No doubt that’s where his energy goes, and yay for him.
Yay for you, too; one clunker, two appliances and a monthly free lunch notwithstanding, you’ve raised an independent son. This is the way he’s thanking you and validating your prominent place in his life. Please don’t look past that as you scan the horizon for the form of validation you prefer.
And, for the love of cool beans, please don’t dictate the kind of communication you think is necessary to avoid “inadvertent estrangement.” Forcing him to interact on your terms is also a path to estrangement. A shorter and more direct one, in fact. You’ve lived the gospel of “presence,” and your son may not have internalized that yet; he’s still taking your presence for granted. Stay connected through your lunches, and ease off on the rest. You’ve been meeting him where he lives, literally, for five years; now it’s time to meet him where he lives in a figurative sense and let him set the pace for a while.
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