Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. How much do I owe my parents?: I was lucky enough to have a good childhood and parents who were loving and kind. However, I’ve always been both introverted and independent. I moved away to university at 17 and then overseas at 21, and I’ve mostly lived outside of the U.S. since then. I have one sibling, but he’s not particularly close to our parents either. My parents are in their mid-60s, and I’ve started thinking about what will happen when they get older. I like my parents, but they are much more emotionally attached to me than I am to them. I call them every other week and try to see them once a year, but it is both expensive and time-consuming (they are divorced and live in different states). I feel like these interactions are undertaken on my part due more to guilt than a real desire to spend time with them. My job, friends, and life are all over here, and I would like to spend more of my vacation time traveling alone with my husband. But I feel guilty. I know this lack of filial love doesn’t reflect well on me, but what should I do, especially as they grow older?
A: I think what you should do is try to strike a balance between what feels the most immediately rewarding and what you feel called to do as the child of loving, kind parents. That might look like any or all of the following: Inviting your parents to come visit you rather than always visiting them, alternating years where you travel to see them with years where you and your husband take a vacation by yourselves, asking them if they’d care to read a book together or participate in some other long-distance activity that gives you something new and different to talk about, occasionally acting in a loving manner when you don’t feel in an especially loving mood, talking to them about their retirement plans and end-of-life care while they’re still relatively young and healthy so you all have a shared sense of what’s to come. If you assume that you will always feel the same combination of distance and affection, you might feel a paradoxical sense of relief that your behavior does not have to spring from a certain feeling. It will feel relatively freeing, I think, to say to yourself: “I do not have to feel especially loving in order to treat my parents with love and respect. I am also allowed to sometimes skip a week’s phone call or prioritize other travel plans.”