Why Aren't My Grown Kids Interested In Me?

Hard times for Boomers who wanted to be their kids' friends.

Posted Sep 18, 2020

Somewhere on the continuum between present and absent, distant and close, even enmeshed and estranged, there is a point in family life when parents of adult children feel irrelevant. "We just don't matter to them anymore, says Carol, 64, a lower-court judge, who hastens to assure me that she knows her 30-something kids love her; they just don't have as much interest in her as she wishes they did. “When I stop to think about it, I can’t remember the last time they asked me about my life; what I thought or felt or how I spent my time.” And more than one friend who echoes Carol's assessment of irrelevance complains that the only time her grown kids call, it's because they need something.

Sad but true, at least to some degree. And very understandable, at least from the perspective of the social sciences, which remind us that theirs are the tasks of young and middle adulthood, creating and living their own lives, while we're mostly onlookers.

In strictly transactional terms, we want them more than they want us. Which is particularly galling since, unlike our own parents, we are a generation who wanted to be the kind of hip seniors our grown kids would choose as friends even if we weren't related. Judith Viorst writes brilliantly of this stage in family life in her seminal book, Necessary Losses, which bears rereading whatever stage you’re in: “We lose not only by leaving and being left, but by changing and letting go and moving on. And our losses include not only our separations and departures from those we love, but our impossible expectations."

While I'm further along in postparenthood than most of my clients, more accepting of the inevitable, I truly feel their pain. I ask myself the same questions they do: When was the last time my middle-aged children truly saw me, asked me, heard me?

I console myself by remembering what my mother said to me once: “There’s never a day when I don’t think about you, even for a minute." It felt like a burden when I was a teenager, but it hasn't, not for years now; it’s a gift I wish I had properly thanked her for, and once my children had kids of their own, I gave it to them, too. "Sometimes I think about you thinking about me, and it's like a sweater on a cold day," my daughter said recently out of the blue, and in the recesses of my own heart I felt my mother's love.

Attention must or at least should be paid, we grumble, but meanwhile, it's important to make the most of the moments of authentic connection and mutual love that can and do happen between the generations. You can't command that attention by crying wolf, like a sitcom mother akin to George Costanza's, who had so many false health alarms that nobody rushed to her side.

Rather, seek opportunities to make younger friends, through professional or other networks, across a bridge table or at an alumnae meeting or in a political group; join by Zoom if it's unsafe to mingle in person. And when it is, you'll have a wider net to cast when you're looking for others besides your adult children who'll take an interest in you and remind you that there's social life beyond your family. Yes, it's difficult to make new friends at this time of life, especially during a pandemic, but it's not impossible.

But even the pandemic has a bright side: While by now many of us have a pretty good idea about how much we can count on our grown kids and for what, we've been positively surprised by how they’ve risen to the present crisis and demonstrated our importance to them.

“You don’t have kids so they’ll take care of you when you’re old. But it’s gratifying when they do; it makes you think you must have done something right,” said a friend whose son’s concern for her welfare has been unexpected, given how long it’s been since he seemed to care. “Especially since I have nothing he needs or wants, and except for being nearly 80, I’m pretty damn healthy.”

What we don't know and never will is what meaning or influence we'll have on them after we’re gone. Meanwhile, what else happens in the margins of the pandemic? Their concern for and about us now, their reaching out by phone and text if not in person, causes us to reassess what may have been a premature judgment about whether we matter to them. It isn't the same as being their friend even if we weren't related, but it’s better than being irrelevant.