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My sons never call — should I give up on the relationship?

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2021. Send questions to bintel@forward.com.


Dear Bintel,

I’m an 81 year old mother who wishes to speak on the phone more than once a month with my two long distance children ages 51 and 53. They appear to believe that unless I’m sick or if their stepdad is ill, there is no need to call.

I don’t feel that a one line text or email is enough — and I often do not get even that. I recognize that they lead busy lives but … am I expecting too much? When I call my son I usually get his voicemail and if I text to ask how things are, he’ll reply, “Fine” or “Super busy!”

He finally called when I emailed to say that I felt he didn’t want to communicate and asked why. I’ve also been a generous gift giver.

Is it too late to turn things around? Are things beyond improving?

If there appears to be no genuine interest in my well- being — shall I just live my life with my sweet husband (he was a good stepdad) and accept their indifference? I don’t want obligatory homage.

Signed, <br Frustrated and=”and” Sad

Dear Frustrated and=”and” Sad,

I think if you can see the lack of communication as a scheduling issue rather than lack of feeling, it might be easier to find solutions.

From what I can gather, it seems that your sons do care about you, and=”and” there is genuine interest in your well-being. They call when you or your husband=”and” are sick, and=”and” when you explicitly tell them you are hurt by the lack of communication.

Rather than demonstrating indifference, to me this shows a lack of worry. You don’t mention if your sons are married or have children, but for most people, their 50s are often the time of life when work, family, and=”and” household/social obligation logistics hit their peak.

Your sons are likely operating in emergency management mode all the time, with a rotating list of priorities ranked by which fires need to be put out most urgently.

You, meanwhile, are usually in good health and=”and” live with a loving husband=”and”, so it is likely your sons feel that you don’t need them, because they don’t have to be worried about you. This makes it hard for phone calls to mom to take priority over a work meltdown or a last-minute request from their daughter’s school. (And they might still have a kid’s mentality where they don’t think of their mom as someone who needs them.)

kid in baseball cap

Image by Liana finck

That doesn’t mean you are expecting too much! Not at all. But it does mean getting to a place where you communicate more frequently will require a little more planning on your part.

Could you establish a weekly phone call time? Some people feel like Friday afternoon, just before Shabbat, is a good time to check in with family. Maybe they have a weekly grocery trip where they have 10 minutes in the car, or a few minutes every week while waiting for a bus to work. Perhaps they could call while they walk the dog on Thursdays.

Right now, your sons have fallen into a bad rhythm of having calls to you be another chore they are failing to complete. But even if they start calling once a week out of guilt, the calls will eventually be out of genuine enthusiasm — once people start talking regularly, there is more to talk about.

The occasional text and monthly call means your communication is just infrequent enough that it stays at the level of generalities. Your son is not going to update you on a small work thing if you have no context for it, but more frequent, casual calls will mean he doesn’t need to give you every small detail in order to share small ups and downs. When he texts that he is “’super busy”’ it is because he feels bad he doesn’t have the bandwidth to take your call. But he’s engaging! He’s doing his best!

For many people, it can be hard to just pick up the phone at any old time, but easier to build it into their weekly schedule. Tell them you love them, miss them, and ask explicitly if the two of you could think through their schedule and find a weekly time to connect.

If you can get these weekly calls going, they should be brief, or under 10 minutes. You want to establish your phone calls as routine and easy, not a production or something for which they have to schedule and plan. The more we can remove barriers of entry, the easier it will be for everyone to pick up the phone more regularly.

Obligatory homage is not ideal, but I also don’t think it is a terrible place to start. The Talmud, in Pesachim 50b, encourages somebody motivated to do a mitzvah for the wrong reason — ie, getting praise or prestige — to keep going, because eventually they will do it for the right reason. It’s more important to get into the habit than to start with the perfect motivation.

Of course, it’s possible the subjects or nature of your calls have been stressful or unpleasant, and that is contributing to the issue. Are you close with your sons? Have there been any major issues in the relationship? Is it possible that on your calls you frequently ask about issues at work which they might not want to discuss, or are often keen to provide input on areas where you both differ?

If you think this is the case, then shift subjects. Withhold judgement or negative remarks for a while. The conversations don’t always have to be light, but as you try to establish a new rhythm, it will be nice if the conversations can be more fun than fraught. Tell them about a friend you saw, a book you read, or some development in your community — plus, sharing about yourself will have the bonus effect of giving them something about your life to be interested in beyond your health.

It’s kind you’ve been generous with gifts, and reasonable to want more communication. But you’re on the To-Do List. From what I’ve read here, your sons only feel the need to reach out when they sense there is a problem. I think we could start to shift that mindset, and build you into each other’s daily lives, if we can get some brief, weekly calls on the schedule.

But let’s start with the assumption that they DO want to talk to you more, they just need a little help making it happen.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to bintel@forward.com.

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