“R u there?” I see this text or chat room message several times a day. It’s my daughter in university and she wants to connect for a moment or two.
I have two daughters who are more than seven years apart – one born in 1982, the beginning of home computers, and the other in 1989, the dawn of using computers as communication devices.
Their age difference means I have witnessed how the vast transformation in communication over the past 30 years has changed the way a modern family interacts, and perhaps how children leave the nest – or don’t.
My eldest daughter played Sesame Street games on my lap on my first big IBM desktop; she loved following the labyrinth to give Ernie a bath with his rubber duckie. But there was no e-mail, no cellphones, no Google search, no text messaging until No. 1 was well into her teens. She was 18 before I started hearing drifts of conversations from other parents saying their tweens were asking for cellphones – the nerve.
She is now a whiz at Internet research and a force in business forms and e-mail. But she uses e-mail reluctantly in her personal life. I can send her messages and wait two or three days for an answer. She recently got a cellphone for emergencies but did not give me the number. I have never received a text from her. She seldom logs onto her Facebook account.
She likes it when I send her a beautiful card or a letter on thick stationery. She especially likes it when I enclose a cheque, which is hard to do in an e-mail. She wasn’t raised in the world of instant communication and has found she gets along quite nicely without it.
She left home to go to university and most of whatever troubles she had, she kept to herself. She dated several young men and seldom did we hear anything about them. When she got engaged, she and the young man came home together to tell us, in person. Not via e-mail or telephone. She is now married and launched. She lives in a different city and comes home most long weekends and we have long cozy talks.
Daughter No. 2 came into her teen years when instant communication was in full swing, and our whole relationship is different.
We talk to each other like we are in the same room almost every day, despite the fact she is away at university in England. Whenever I am on my home computer a little chat room or Skype box will pop up saying, “Hi Mom.” There is no hiding. If a day goes by and we don’t chat, which is unusual, one of us will send a quick text: “R u ok?”
She’ll text and ask for a family recipe, how to get a stain out of a dress or what to do because she suddenly realized she doesn’t have enough milk for the cupcakes she is making.
The conversations often go deeper. What is going on in Syria, she asks, and why does it keep happening; what is a recession and what is the connection to the price of houses.
We send each other photos of what we are doing at that moment – the sun setting on the lake or the new kayak. Sometimes we have dinner and put her on Skype at the table so she can join in the family conversation.
I am torn by what it all means. When I left for university and I had a bad day or a bad week, it would likely be over by the time I penned my weekly letter home. Now, when a chat thread starts with, “I am so upset,” my heart leaps and I want to slay all the dragons who have hurt my daughter. But I also worry that I know too much about little things that in the end have neither meaning nor impact.
She is in the fifth year of a six-year medical degree in England, and perhaps all this instant communication has made it possible for her to stay so far away for so long. That’s a good thing. I also like that we have a close relationship, though I try to be careful to guide her, not be her crutch, so she learns to make her own decisions.
I wonder if she will stay more dependent on me and her dad than her older sister, simply because she can access us so readily. Will she become one of those young people who find it so hard to leave home? Will our closeness mean she won’t be able to cut herself loose?
I know exactly where I stand with No. 1 – behind her husband and her dog. And a big part of me says that’s exactly as it should be; just as I was raised to live independently, I had the same goal for my daughters.
With No. 2, the ground is shifting. We are forging a new kind of dependence and interdependence immensely assisted by technology. I wonder where this new path will lead us. I ask myself whether she will be too busy for our chit-chat when she is building her career and a family of her own – and when I might need her but she no longer needs me and my motherly wisdom. Will the pain of separation be greater than what parents have felt in the past?
Or perhaps it means I will never be that old woman staring at nothing, waiting for a visitor, because she will always be there. Perhaps on my wrist in a one-on-one video chat that allows her to check that I am taking my drugs, and gives me a link to another human being who truly understands me after a lifetime of knowing each other’s little victories and upsets.
It’s a different world and each day we, like millions of parents, are forging new relationships – the kind that didn’t and couldn’t exist without today’s technology. In time we will know if the technology is building family bridges or fences.
Mary Sheppard lives in Toronto.