I’m at my desk in California, so it’s still morning when my daughter calls from a Chicago deli where she’s ordering lunch. “Oh, you’re there,” she says, sounding surprised I’ve answered, and possibly disappointed. “I’m waiting for them to make me a sandwich, then I have to run.”
We need to pin down travel plans, so I pull up my calendar and make notes while she runs down the days she can get off work. The next thing I know she has her sandwich. Our connection is gone. And I realize as much as we joke about burning up our phones with text messages, I can’t recall the last time I heard my daughter’s voice.
When I was growing up, my mother called her mother every day, and Grandma called our house almost daily. Grandma was always on the phone and had a reputation in our small Missouri town for ringing up the local hardware store for instructions on how to fix things and the corner grocery for price checks on Tony’s frozen pizza, butter pecan ice cream, and canned vegetables. Her green kitchen phone, I see now, with its sticky round dial and cord that swept the floor, was her best bet for instant connection.
Unlike my grandmother, I feel like I rarely talk on the phone with anyone. Even my own children. Both of our kids left for college and, after graduation, found jobs in the Midwest and did not come back. There is a 2-hour time difference with our daughter, 3 with our son. We are a texting family. How did this happen? One day we were talking and laughing and arguing in real-time, and the next thing I knew my kids stopped picking up (“I saw it was you, but I was sleeping/driving/studying/in a meeting.”) and told me to not bother leaving voicemail (“I can see you called.”). I’ve also been warned to text before I call, since an actual real live phone call is so out of the norm as to be alarming. I recently called my son at work to get his social security number for some forms I was filling out. He answered on the first ring. I could hear the panic. “God, don’t ever do that,” he said. “I thought something happened to dad.”
Last week, an old friend was in town for work and stayed over. I noticed her constantly texting her husband and assumed she was helping him arrange rides to school or sports for their son. But no. Ironically, she felt she had to text reminders to put down his phone, fearing he might go the entire week texting with their 9th grader in lieu of laying eyes on him or talking in person. “Texting,” she said, embarrassed, “has lulled us into some really bad habits.”
I turn the mirror on my own bad habits. How often do I send a text instead of calling to deliver unwelcome or disappointing news, or when I want to check something off my to-do list? If I leave home and forget my phone, I will turn right around and drive all the way back, even if I’ll be home in less than an hour. Most devastating, I guesstimate the percentage of times I text my children instead of calling to be about 90%.
To make myself feel better, I ask 12 other moms I know what they think their percentages are. Most say 50/50, and that many of their texts read simply, “Call me.” The moms who text 75% or more have older children who no longer live at home, or teenagers. “It’s the only way,” one said. “Otherwise I just call and call and call and by the time we talk I’ve forgotten what I needed. Plus, I’m mad.”
It’s dinnertime here in California, night in Chicago, and I’m about to text my daughter to ask if it’s a good time to talk. But before I can hit send I think of my own mother, dead 14 years now, and all the times I saw her number on the caller ID and chose not to pick up. “It just me,” she would say softly into my machine, like the air had been let out of her. “Call when you can. I didn’t really want anything.”
I delete my unsent text. I call. My daugther’s phone rings and rings, and though I know she won’t listen to it, I leave a voice message anyway. “It’s just me,” I say. “Nothing urgent, but we need to book flights soon. Call when you can. Love you.” But my words feel wasted. Like I would have been better off texting. Like my grandmother with her green phone calling the hardware store and the grocery, text messaging, as cold as it seems, gets the job done. It fills the void.
I’m putting away the dinner dishes when my phone rings. “Sorry,” my daughter says. “I’m finishing up a late work dinner. What did you figure out for flights?” I quick give her the options. She makes her choice. She promises, swears, she’ll call this weekend, and I let her go.
I let her go even though all I want to do is keep her on the line for a whole hour and hear her talk about her day, her work, her friends, the cat, her new apartment, her life all grown up and out of school. Her life –I pull up the map on my phone and calculate the distance—2,168 miles from me. And before I turn off the kitchen lights, I send her a text to say good night.
Teri Carter’s work can be found at the NY Times Motherlode, Brain, Child Magazine, and The Manifest-Station, as well as in other journals and anthologies. She lives in California and Kentucky, where she throws a lot of tennis balls for her 3 big retrievers while working on her first book. You can follow her on Twitter.