The Mommy Vortex: “Can you hold that thought while I quickly check my texts?”
Before I left for a recent family vacation, I never realized (or honestly admitted) how attached I was to my smart phone. Until the moment when I didn’t have access to what unwittingly had become a fifth limb, I did not fully understand the impact this technology was having on me, my children, and our family time.
On our trip, there were several days where I could not use my phone at all without paying unreasonable roaming charges—with no guarantee the phone would even work. I literally had to shut the phone off and lock it in the cabin safe. I remember the moment I heard the safe click: pure panic. My heart was beating and my breath was short, just because I wouldn’t have the ability to text, use the phone, or check the Internet for the next 48-72 hours. I felt so . . . disconnected. And oddly, alone.
I looked down at my kids’ faces, smiling and ready for their next trip activity, and felt a sneaking suspicion that they were actually happy to see the phone get locked away. I asked my older child why he was smiling at my poor, confined, lifeless phone. He said, without compunction, “You listen to me better when you’re not on your phone.” Ouch.
The truth hurts sometimes. I had resisted the smart phone technology for quite some time, but once converted, I was addicted. Yes, I originally said I needed it to be reachable for emergencies, and no, I never used it while driving, but I soon became quite proficient at texting, emailing, and even reading the newspaper (and, ahem, Facebook) on my little screen.
As we sat at lunch later that day, waiting for our food, I kept feeling like I was missing something. My hand was twitching at my side, not knowing how to keep still, as it was so used to scrolling and clicking any time I had down time—scratch that—every time I had down time. (Potty training my daughter provided me with loads of down time; you would think that I would have recognized my phone addiction when I was texting from the bathroom while my daughter was on the toilet. . . but I digress.) My kids looked at me expectantly. Oh, right. We could actually talk to each other. Spend time in comfortable silence. Just be. Actually act like we were a family on vacation, reconnecting with ourselves and each other.
I just had to stop absentmindedly reaching for my phone first.
Until that day, I had not fully admitted to myself how much time I was taking away from my kids by “just checking” my texts and emails. It may have just been a minute or two here and there (or maybe ten? Or twenty?), but all those minutes added up to hours and days . . . really it just all added up to time away from actual interaction with my children.
And I was acting like a hypocrite. I would not allow my kids to watch television, play hand-held video games, or even have toys at the table when we were eating or had company over for a meal. Ever. And yet, my precious phone would sit idly by my plate, occasionally buzzing, and I would (as a matter of habit), “quickly” check the message. Even if the kids were in the middle of a sentence. How wrong is that?
After being without my phone for almost three days straight, I was ashamed to think about my phone-addicted behavior. While I don’t think that I have scarred my kids for life, I do think I was giving them a pretty bad example, and possibly (no, definitely) giving them the message that they were less important than whoever was on the other end of that buzzing, little black rectangle.
I was also reducing my own face-to-face interaction with my family and friends. My children, obviously, spoke less to me and I to them when I was using the phone. But even those people communicating via text and email saw me and spoke to me less because we were constantly writing to each other (and I use the term writing loosely, as I don’t think emoticons actually count).
When it was time to open the safe and take my phone out again, I actually dreaded hearing the buzz of all 246 messages coming through (yes, that is exactly how many messages I had waiting for me). Other than my emails concerning work-related issues, I didn’t have the desire to read all those (suddenly unimportant) messages. In just two and a half short days, I began to feel that my fifth limb was an intrusion, something that didn’t belong, or at least something that wasn’t so necessary. It was actually a relief to acknowledge that I really didn’t need to check my phone every time it buzzed.
When we returned from our trip, I decided to make a conscious effort to reduce my time checking and sending messages and surfing the Internet on my phone. I am also trying to use the phone at times when my kids are otherwise engaged. Somewhere along the line, I got my priorities mixed up, and my son’s (and even my) initial reaction to my phone getting locked up validated that I needed to get my priorities back in order. Knowing that, and not addressing it, would be a much worse offense.
I still twitch when I hear the phone buzz, and it takes more will power than I thought it would not to “quickly check” my messages when I’m spending time with my children. I’ve had to change my mindset about what’s important, and I often remind myself that it was only a few years ago that we didn’t even have smart phones. Or cell phones. Or Blackberries. Somehow, we survived.
In truth, I believe we might have been better off back then, in some ways, without the constant barrage of interruptions and information in our lives. I think, at the very least, it’s worth putting that theory into practice more often. And I’m pretty sure my kids would agree.
Rosemarie Coppola-Baldwin is a practicing attorney and a dedicated mother of two children. A Georgetown University graduate, Rosemarie has practiced law at a major New York City law firm and for the City of New York. Rosemarie has been a guest lecturer on women’s civil rights and related legal issues at St. John’s University (New York), and offers pro bono legal services to a variety of entities.