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Sunday morning, 6:15 AM = Hot Wheels races
Aaron and I finally got iPhones last week. I also recently lost patience with my Dell laptop -- it was wasting endless amounts of my limited work time "thinking" about stopped scripts (whatever those are) -- and bought myself a new MacBook Pro. So I guess I'm a full-fledged Apple person now. Aaron -- and some of my nerd friends -- are far more excited about this than I am, but I'm definitely pleased with both upgrades. I certainly appreciate having an awesome computer, given how much I use one. And I'm getting the hang of the phone. There are a few things that are different about it (I'm actually almost confused by how user-friendly it is) but what's most different, and has been most helpful thus far, isn't an app or another fancy feature. It's a simple setting that can ostensibly be changed, although I don't ever plan to change it. 

My old phone constantly updated me when I received emails; my iPhone, on the other hand, waits for me to ask, and then takes a moment before telling me what's new in my inbox. I guess this setting preserves battery power or some-such because the phone isn't continually refreshing its signal and updating this information on its own. It turns out that it also preserves my relationship with the present moment. This sounds a little cliche already, and we've all heard (and espoused) the value of 'unplugging', but actually doing so (even in tiny increments) can be revealing in showing us just how plugged-in -- and potentially checked out -- we really are. 

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In my case, I juggle a lot every day, sometimes three or four work things, plus parenting. (K goes to a Montessori school during weekday mornings through mid-afternoons; the aforementioned combo would be impossible without it.) And being plugged in isn't all bad, by any means; my computer and phone connect me with the various people I work with, in the various cities they're based in, so I don't skip a beat. I am able to work from home, create my own schedule and spend every afternoon from 3 PM on with Kaspar because I'm remotely 'present' in this way. Responsiveness goes a long way when you're a freelancer, and I take a certain amount of pride in my prioritizing (and re-prioritizing on the fly) prowess. When my old phone blinked its little green light at me, I'd check it at the next available moment -- whether at a stop-light or during playtime with Kaspar -- and attempt to respond to whatever had come in during those few quick moments before the traffic light turned, or before turning my attention back to little man. Of course, sometimes the light, or Kaspar, would beat me to the punch and I'd be left hanging, feeling a little frazzled by my ping-ponging attention shift, and a little frustrated by the conflicting demands for that attention in my everyday life. 

It wasn't unmanageable, though; I usually try to keep work stress pretty minimal, and I'm a good, attentive mom; I don't believe, in principle, in being distracted from one's children by one's phone. When with Kaspar, I do keep my phone time very brief -- but, over time, a lot of little attention-diverting moments add up to a general sense of distraction and dis-ease. I'd tell myself that this was the necessary trade-off for enjoying the luxuries my freelance life affords me (and honestly, it still beat the pants off of any kind of day job involving cubicles, managers and meeting rooms), but... it turns out it wasn't actually necessary, and I wasn't enjoying the luxuries. No one expects me to check my email at traffic lights. And, now liberated from blinking-light updates, I am no less productive today than I was a week ago. That whole sense of urgency was entirely self-imposed.

In my first several days with my iPhone -- btw, this post is not meant to be a big Apple commercial... I'm guessing my Android could probably have been reset to do the same thing -- as I found myself without those blinking updates, and istead actively soliciting them from my phone, I noticed the incongruous contexts in which I was doing so. Traffic lights. Grocery lines. Playtime. And I noticed, once finished checking my email, that I wasn't just dealing with high-need work stuff. I was also reflexively opening up emails that could obviously wait. And Facebook. I began to ask myself, 'Do I really care about what's gone down on Facebook in the last thirty minutes? Is it something I can't see this evening during a ten minute scroll down my news feed?' No, of course not. It was a habit, and a time-suck on top of that. And when I found myself flustered because the traffic light changed before I'd had a chance to 'finish' whatever I was doing, I thought, "Why am I even doing this?" My new phone's requirement that I participate in its updating processes (instead of updating automatically, as the old one did) provided an opportunity for me to become aware of my own choices, too.

Meanwhile, I started to notice that Kaspar would do things to get my attention when I looked to my phone. He'd jump on me, or throw something (not in anger, but he knows he's not supposed to, regardless), or suddenly (loudly) "need help" with a task. His own sense of focus seemed to diminish when I was distracted by my phone. This is actually quite annoying when I truly just need to reply to a text with Aaron about dinner (or with a friend about a playdate, or whatever), but I understand where Kaspar's coming from. To him, I'm physically 'present', and supposed to be playing with him -- I said I would, anyway -- but then I'm staring at a little black plastic rectangle, answering him in mono-syllables or asking him to "wait, just one second." I think there's value in being asked to wait, and learning to do so. But the fact is that my phone was causing me not to be present with Kaspar more often than it should have been, even if only for a few short moments at a time. It was a recurring thing, and I've found that consciously choosing, as much as possible, to avoid distraction by my phone/email/Facebook when with him has made him, in turn, far less demanding. He's having a lot more fun. And when I do need to quickly respond to something, he doesn't mind, because I haven't been playing that card repeatedly during our time together.

As I reflected on what Kaspar's experience of me staring at my phone is like, it also hit me that, someday, he may (probably will?) be doing the exact same thing to me. And the truth is, when he's sixteen and texting with some girl -- or whatever the equivalent to texting is by then -- he won't be mentally/emotionally present with me, even in we're in the same room. I've seen teenagers with their phones. It's not a "few quick moments" kind of relationship. I really hope Kaspar won't go there, but a) it may be an inevitable phase, b) I definitely don't want to do that to him now, and c) I realized in reflecting this way that my time with toddler-Kaspar, who wants nothing more than to talk to me, crawl all over me, and play with me -- non-stop -- will not last forever. I love my little boy beyond the moon, but, like most parents, I don't find the 'play' that so thrills him to be personally entertaining, at least not when we re-enact the same thirty-second game five thousand times in a row. It's a beautiful thing that kiddos think something is hilarious no matter how many times it's repeated, but, obviously, adults aren't wired that way. You know what, though? Being personally entertained is not the point. Although we often turn to Facebook for that fix-- for that connection to our social lives in the midst of repetitious parenting/daily to-do stuff (it's the same impulse that leads us to social media sites when we're supposed to be working) -- resisting that temptation makes for far more meaningful time with our people.

Kaspar and I invented a game the other day in which we alternately pretended to 'fall' on the floor beside the "big bed" (Aaron's and mine), called for help, and the other one of us would 'toss' the fallen party onto the bed. (I did toss him, gently, which he LOVED... When he 'tossed' me, I actually jumped so he felt super-strong-amazing.) Then we both laughed, jumped around and sang "Ring Around the Rosie" on the bed, fell down, and jumped off to begin the game again. (Don't worry if you don't follow-- there's no logic or point to this routine.) I'd left my phone in my purse, intentionally, as we played together, and I noticed a few things as we went through this game, over and over. First of all, the hilarious-every-time toddler thing, mentioned above, was downright stunning. Kaspar was having a blast. (This was actually personally entertaining for mom reasons, even if pretending I've fallen and need help is not exactly a thrill. It's okay -- and worth it -- to fake enthusiasm in this respect.) Second, I was getting a major workout. Going at this game non-stop was making me sweat. Third, the hands on my bedside alarm clock were turning remarkably slowly; it only took about a minute to go through one fall-toss-laugh-play-jump sequence, so clocking five minutes meant we'd played the game five times over already. But by twenty minutes in, I noticed our eye contact had increased from when we first began to play. I was consciously present with Kaspar, and he was responding to that. Our bond was nurtured by it. I felt close to him and deeply appreciative of his little toddler self. After forty minutes, I was breathless and, admittedly, a little (lot) bored with the fall-toss-laugh-play-jump game (X40), so started to slow things down, and suggested Kaspar look at his books and choose a few for us to read after I folded some laundry. Had I only half-heartedly participated in our game while we were playing, I'm sure he would have resisted this. Instead, he said, "Yeah, okay!" -- and marched happily into his room to look over his books. Having had my undivided attention for that time, he was willing to release my attention back to me so that I could do something else. Had I needed, or wanted, to check my email then, I know he would have been fine with that, too. (I didn't need, or want, to check my email then.)

One of the most challenging aspects of being a mom, especially for working moms, is the sensation of being pulled in a million directions at once. Working as a freelancer is wonderful (let me count the ways), but it can also compound this experience -- it's easy to feel like I'm always on call. This recent shift in phone habits, however, has helped me to become more strict with myself about defending my 'unplugged' time in general. I'm far more productive, anyway, when sitting, focused, at my computer during dedicated work hours -- responding to stuff and gittin' it done -- than I am at a traffic light. And I'm a more effective parent (/person) when I make the conscious choice to be totally present for that. Those 'few quick moments' of checking in with my inbox really can wait. And feeling less pulled, and more present, wherever you are? That's priceless. 

What's your relationship like with your phone/email/social media stuff? Do you think it affects your relationship with your kids? How do you strike your work/life balance?
 


Mia
11/03/2012 18:59

This really resonated with me. I'm more glued to my phone than I want to admit, but my time with my kids is always more fun for all of us when I turn it off and forget about it.

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