Every day Elaine Lui wakes up and calls her mom. It is the first of at least a dozen mother/daughter telephone or text correspondences before bed. Some messages are practical ("Where are we meeting for dim sum?"), some are instructional ("You looked sick on TV today – drink more soup."), some are simple status updates.
"Whatever I'm doing, wherever I am, I check in with my mother. When I get into a cab, I call her. When the cab drops me off, I call her," writes Lui in her new book, Listen to the Squawking Chicken, a memoir about what she calls an "excessively dependent" mother/daughter dynamic.
Lui, who also writes the Lainey Gossip blog and is a co-host on CTV's chat show The Social is over 40, married and more than a little bit busy. Still, checking in with mom multiple times a day is non-negotiable. "It's just a part of me," she said in an interview. "I've been doing it for god knows how long – checking in, checking in, checking in. It's as necessary as going to the bathroom."
Lui's phone-home fixation is an extreme example of an increasingly common reality. On the whole, parents and children are closer than they used to be, and smartphones and Skype make it easy and inexpensive to maintain regular contact. The frequency of communication between parents and their adult children recently became a hot topic after a survey by a British telecom company found that the average adult calls his or her parents once a week. But that's just the average, and includes those who speak never, or at least rarely. At the opposite end is a growing group of high-frequency communicators – parents and their adult offspring who may have cut the cord, but have no intention of cutting the wireless signal.
When I asked friends on Facebook to share their parental phoning patterns, it was mostly members of the frequent-callers group who responded: three to four times a week; twice a day; one friend spoke to her mom every day even when she was living in Kenya. Such responses probably say less about the norm and more about a bit of humble bragging. As with other "telling" figures (the price of a home, the tally of past romances), the number of times we speak to our parents is a quantifiable, easily comparable detail that carries certain connotations about the quality of the ties that bind.
"Having a close relationship with our parents is part of a modern definition of success," says Alyson Schafer, a Toronto-based family psychologist and author of several books about child-rearing.
This doesn't mean that previous generations were indifferent to intergenerational bonding, only that "parent" and "bff" tended to be mutually exclusive terms.
Today, evidence of the overlap is all around: Rather than the usual supermodel dates, bad boys such as Jared Leto and Leonardo DiCaprio took their moms to this year's Oscar festivities. Earlier this week, singer Rihanna posted a mother/daughter portrait on Instagram, along with a gushy happy birthday message. "There used to be a commonly accepted notion that rebelling against, and more or less hating, your parents was a part of adolescence, and that the parental relationship needed to be severed for the child to become independent," Schafer notes. "More recently, we have realized that detachment doesn't have to be part of the maturation process."
These are positive developments, says Jessica Grose, an American journalist and co-creator of the website Postcards From Yo Mama. Grose and a girlfriend got the idea for the site (which eventually became the book Love, Mom) when they realized how many of their peers were engaged in constant (and comical) text exchanges with their mothers. Grose says the book could be interpreted as a portrait of an emotionally stunted generation, "unable to make a move without mommy council," but really it's a sign of how our society is evolving sociologically, technologically, even pop culturally: "Today parents and kids watch the same TV shows and movie, read the same books – the generation gap has shrunk. There's a lot more common ground," Grose says.
Common ground is definitely a hallmark of my mother/daughter phone habits, which falls somewhere between three to five times a week. Most exchanges are flagrant in their non-essentialness, but the cumulative effect of endless throwaway discussions – on family gossip, on The Good Wife, on Michelle Obama's blond highlights (blech!) – is anything but. Having a adult, close relationship with my mom is one of the cornerstones of my identity, and speaking on the phone several times a week is part of the upkeep. Does this make me co-dependent? Clingy? In need of a hobby?
According to Schafer, the difference between healthy and unhealthy communication isn't a matter of quantity so much as consensus: "If both people want the same thing, and neither is using talk time as an avoidance tool, then there generally isn't an issue."
There is also the matter of boundaries, and not taking advantage: "If you are chatting to your mom on the phone about what you're making for dinner, that's okay," Schafer says. "But if your mom is driving across town to pick up a chicken for her adult, working daughter, that's a problem."
Lui, who receives homemade soup deliveries from her mom several times a week and takes maternal instruction on everything from wardrobe to what to eat for breakfast, says she has certainly felt judged for her relationship, but feels that this says more about the person doing the judging. "Calling my mom several times a day makes her happy, and that makes me happy. It's pretty simple."