I use my phone too much when I'm looking after my kids; I know it. If it beeps at me, I lunge for it. It's like a compulsion. I need to get over that.
What would I miss if I didn't have it with me? What would I miss if I left the thing alone rather than jumping for it as soon as it calls me? I wouldn't know that I could get 15% off winter coats at Banana Republic; coats I have no intention of buying. I might miss an incredibly urgent letter from my alumni association. Shock news: they want my money. I would miss knowing that a grand total of 8 people 'liked' my status on facebook. How would I ever cope?
Like everyone else, I have to fight the 'switch on and switch off' temptation of the phone in my pocket. Too often, actually, it's the phone in my hand. I don't really need to check for the price of silver wire on ebay right now, or read every single review of every single Barcelona guide book on amazon, or try to find the perfect rose gold shoes* whatever other compulsive activity I'm doing in order to block out whatever it is I'm trying to avoid.
On the other hand.
I know there's nothing important going on, but sometimes I just want something other than the thing that is happening. Is that really so awful? Sometimes there is a limit to the number of diet cokes I can drink during a 45 minute dinner marathon, and I want to look at pictures of tropical beaches and pretend I'm sitting under a baking sun rather than being yelled at by four-year-olds in the dim and grisly suburbs. Looking after kids is really, really boring sometimes, you know?** Boring and difficult; the worst combination. When I'm at my job, I always say that I can do boring or I can do difficult, but not together or I'm going to make mistakes***. Parenthood has proved me right about that many times over.
When the babies were small, sometimes I would put them in the stroller and take them for an outing, and while we were walking I would put my ipod in and listen to music. At first I felt guilty, and used to hide the headphones under my hair, but actually it was great - they got to watch the trees, see the sights, and I got to enjoy something grown up. I do not think any permanent damage was done by me not leaning over the top of their seats and saying 'Oh look, a birdie!' every twenty seconds. I listened to a lot of Broken Bells at that time in my life; even now I can't hear any of their songs without being transported back to the river path near our house, pacing my way across the bridge, feeling that intense happy-sadness that comes with new motherhood and marking the hours until naptime.
That ipod technique doesn't fly around here any more. There's still a lot of music in my life, but it's mostly Mary Poppins and frankly, more often than not, that's what I'm trying to mentally escape from. And so I find myself on my phone.
Am I doing this too much? Well, probably. Is it hurting my kids? Shouldn't I be stimulating their young minds more? Well, I don't know, but I think probably not. Personally, I think that if I'm the kind of mother who stops to wonder whether my child is getting enough stimulation, then my child is doing fine. Never before in the history of mankind have children been so thought-about, so played-with, had so much attention paid to them. Children do not need to be watched and adored every moment of the day. And I don't know what mothers did to distract themselves before cellphones were invented, but I'm sure they did something. (Maybe they cleaned the house. Imagine that!)
Kids give so much negative feedback, so much of the time (I won't / I didn't / I can't / I don't want to) that it's positively thrilling, at times, to know that there might be a tiny adult somewhere, inside my phone, who is going to say something encouraging to me, send me a nice email, do something that will make me laugh or maybe just give me ten seconds of respite so I don't yell. I need encouragement through my day, and often the place I get the most is through my phone. I don't think this is anything to be sneezed at.
(Sometimes I actually use my phone to take pictures of my kids, so there's that, too. Hey, look, I was already holding it! What a coincidence).
And yet I've read and heard a few people saying some pretty judgy things about mothers who spend too much time on their phones, and it bothers me. I don't disagree that probably, lots of us could do a better job to get the balance right between boredom, engagement and distraction (I talked about pushing kids through the boredom barrier recently, and I'm all too aware that sometimes I use my phone as a way to avoid pushing through my own). However, this attitude always, always makes me uncomfortable, and not (just) because it makes me feel guilty.
I don't know. I think that most mothers who I see idly thumbing on their phones are probably bored; bored and tired and wondering how much longer they have to stay at the swings until they can legitimately claim it's time for dinner. And if you think they shouldn't be bored and tired, if you would prefer to see them engaging their children more actively, I have a solution - offer to babysit and give that mother a bit of time to herself. Yes, that's right - walk up to her and say 'hey there, mama, you look like you could do with a break. How about I push that swing for you while you take an hour or so to read a book in that coffee shop?'
Is this too weird? Is it impossible? Would nobody ever, ever, do it, because they would seem like some kind of crazy kidnapper, offering to look after a stranger's children? Well, maybe this is right, but my opinion is: if we don't know a person well enough to offer to babysit her kids, we don't know her well enough to judge the fact that she is on her cellphone.
Perhaps we should, instead, try this. No crazy kidnapping involved. Every time someone judges a mother for being on her phone, they should be forced, by law, to shout something distracting and encouraging at her. After all, if we don't like the fact that this woman is going to her phone for encouragement, for emotional sustenance, if we think she should be getting that from real relationships, well, we should be willing to be that real person. And maybe we should all try it. Next time you feel tempted to shake your head at someone, instead do this: walk past and say 'you are doing such a good job' or 'those kids obviously love you so much, I can tell by the way they smile at you' or any one of the many things we find it easy enough to type on facebook but rarely say in real life or, if that's too uncomfortable, I dunno, just hand them a really funny picture of a cat.
Maybe this cellphone addiction so many of us have really is a sign that society is disintegrating around us, like people say. Maybe it's reason to worry. Maybe it's an epidemic. But if it's an epidemic of anything, I think it's an epidemic of loneliness rather than laziness, and we can all do something about that.
I think what I'm trying to say is this: don't be the judgement. Be the encouragement instead. Free babysitting or friendly shouting; that's your choices. But from here on out: no judgement. Shout something nice at a stranger on her cellphone today.
I dare you.
*Found 'em! And what is it about Autumn/Winter 2013? Suddenly I'm all about rose gold everything.
**And if you don't know that yet, I genuinely apologise if this post is annoying.
**Employee of the year, obviously.