Forcing relationships

I don’t really know how to react to a conversation I had with my mom last night. In it, she pointed out that my middle son (who just had a birthday) didn’t respond to the text she sent him on his birthday or acknowledge the birthday card and gift she sent him. My other two kids reacted the same way in response to their birthdays. She was understandably feeling very hurt.

Quite rightfully, she should expect a response when she texts them to wish them a happy birthday and they should thank her for the cards and gifts. Period, no exceptions. It makes me feel like quite a failure as a parent that my kids could be so rude and they should have better manners. It’s my fault that I didn’t teach them better.

All that stands alone as fact and I’m not making excuses for any of it.

At the same time, though, I also can’t really blame the kids for their lack of interest in forming a relationship with their grandparents now in their late teens and early twenties. (I remember that I myself had very little interest in my own similarly standoffish grandparents at the same age.) My parents have at times been extremely generous with my kids, including paying for their plane tickets when they moved down here, and I’ve tried my hardest to thank my parents for these gifts. My parents are very supportive of my trans daughter and the kids respect that a lot.

But my kids don’t have much of a relationship with my parents because my parents never expressed much interest in having one. What my parents are experiencing now is the natural outcome of what they themselves established with my kids over their entire lives.

Don’t want to be bothered with occasional babysitting or taking the kids for a week in the summer? Fine. But don’t be surprised or offended that they had more of a relationship with their other grandparents who did. My parents were holiday-only grandparents, as were my grandparents. That’s simply not enough contact to build a relationship. My in-laws, on the other hand, invited us over far more often, as well as offering to help on occasion with the kids.

On the very rare occasions that my parents would come over to my house when we still lived in Michigan, my kids would try to take my parents into their bedrooms to excitedly show them their interests at the time–and my parents showed no real interest in what they were excited about. My kids could have and would have talked for hours about what they were interested in, but my parents didn’t have the…patience? interest?…in doing so. When we gathered for holidays, they all but ignored my kids and chose to talk to the other adults present.

What my parents didn’t realize is that those little moments when the kids wanted their attention were the way to build a real relationship with my kids. Kids like gifts, sure, but what they value even more are people who care about their interests and spending time with them. The fact remains that my parents didn’t put in the time and didn’t express that genuine interest in what my kids cared about, just like they didn’t with me.

It took me decades of my life to accept that my parents just weren’t really interested in me and it fell on me to figure out a way to have some kind of relationship anyway. If I don’t call or text them, they don’t do it to me either because they’re waiting on me to make the first move. They say they’re worried about interrupting me but I’ve assured them I’ll appreciate hearing from them. They still wait for me to make the effort almost every time. The only time they call me is when one of my grandparents have died—and even that’s only because I reacted very poorly to not being told that one of my grandmothers had died until weeks after the fact.

Then, there’s a similar issue with my sister. She always sends the kids’ birthday cards very late (though she read me the riot act the one time I accidentally completely forgot to send her son a birthday card) and she stops sending gifts with the 18th birthday, but so far my middle son hasn’t received a birthday card yet and his birthday was now four days ago. He hasn’t seemed to notice but I have. I don’t know if my sister and my mom have been discussing together how rude my kids and I are for not properly acknowledging birthday cards and maybe my sister decided not to send a card to my son.

I didn’t email my sister to let her know that my 23-year-old received her birthday card in November, in part because my daughter is 23 and it’s no longer my responsibility to manage her mail, but also because that was in the middle of my most hectic week of the year (in which my oldest and youngest both have birthdays, plus Thanksgiving falls in there, too, plus my youngest was doing college applications at that time) so it just slipped my mind to email her an acknowledgment.

But the only way I communicate with my sister is by email and only around our kids’ birthdays. I don’t text with her and I’m not even sure I have her cell phone number. I tried to open up to her a few years ago and hoped to become closer by telling her when I was going through some difficulties in my marriage, and her response was that she didn’t have time for my drama. So yeah, there’s no relationship of any substance between me and my sister and I can’t imagine that changing any time soon.

It’s a really big deal to my sister that we send birthday cards and small gift cards to each other’s kids, and she has said in the past that she thought this would foster some kind of relationship between us and each other’s kids. But the weird thing to me is that I never received birthday cards or gifts from my aunts and uncles when I was growing up, and we’ve never exchanged birthday cards or gifts with J’s sister’s kids. It feels like it’s trying to force some kind of relationship where there is none.

Oddly, despite never receiving a birthday card or gift from J’s sister, the kids’ other aunt, they all feel closer to her than to my sister. They’ve said that the reason why is because when we visit J’s sister, she actually talks to them about their interests.

I don’t know what the expected etiquette is in this situation with my sister, just because it’s such an unfamiliar experience. Like my parents, my sister feels slighted because we didn’t form more of a relationship with them when we lived in Michigan and thinks we were deliberately snubbing them for some unknown reason (when in fact, we were just following their lead.) But unlike my parents, who just didn’t show interest in what my kids wanted to talk to them about, my sister thought we would build those relationships by going to her kids’ sports games and she would do the same by going to the non-existent activities that my kids didn’t participate in.

Like my parents, my sister expected to form close relationships with my kids (and I with hers) by proxy, by being in their presence but not truly interacting with them. I know my sister is upset that we didn’t go to more of her kids’ sports games. That’s how she expresses interest in her kids, so she expected me to do the same. She was also upset that we didn’t invite her to attend our kids’ activities and I don’t think she believed me that they didn’t really have any. (Well, they were in Cub Scouts for a while, but the kind of activities they held weren’t really open to a large audience.)

I just feel yucky and uncomfortable because I know my mom and sister are upset with me for not doing more to foster a close relationship between them and my kids. In a big way, I don’t know what’s expected of me (particularly with my sister, who wants us to have a different role as aunts than we had with any of our aunts or than we have with J’s sister.) I get the sense that I’m perceived as rude but there isn’t any rudeness behind my actions. Rather, it’s the fact that I don’t know what’s expected of me.

Yes, it’s my fault for not teaching my kids good enough manners to thank their grandma for a birthday gift and to respond when she texts them. The “not responding to texts” thing is an issue for us with them, too–not because they are deliberately ignoring us but because sometimes they just don’t reply and we have to text them again. It’s maddening. From what I understand, this is not uncommon behavior from kids in their teens and early twenties. (One dad got so fed up with his kid ignoring his texts that he actually developed an app to interrupt what the kid is doing to get their attention.)

My middle son, who got a text message from my mom on his birthday and didn’t respond, explained to me that the text came in while he was playing a game and he meant to reply later, but forgot. I don’t think that’s indicative of intentional rudeness, though it certainly had that appearance.

There are bright signs that show me that my kids aren’t selfish in general. All three of them have recently donated to various causes, from GoFundMe accounts for friends whose houses burned down to a charity that provides stuffed animals for kids who have just experienced trauma. I had to suddenly order a new computer yesterday, quite unexpectedly, and my daughter voluntarily sent me a few hundred dollars toward the cost of the computer “as an early birthday gift.” So I know it’s not that my kids are just rude, selfish people. It’s probably more likely that they, like me, don’t know what’s expected of them.

But at the same time, setting aside the issue of proper etiquette regarding thank-you notes and text responses, my mom and sister can’t blame me for their lack of a more genuine relationship with my kids. The time for building that kind of relationship was years ago–it should have been an ongoing process in which they themselves put in the effort, rather than leaving it up to me or worse my kids to create it. Simply making them observe proper etiquette won’t create that relationship now.

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