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Cellphone Neglect, Busy Parents and the Judgment of Others

Article originally published in The View In Mission, June 2017


I’m at the pool watching my three year old in her swim lesson, and occasionally checking up on my one year old in the gym’s drop-in daycare. I can hear my daughter shriek with laughter and my eyes look up to find her splashing with her classmates. Then they slide back down to my phone, where I’m emailing my editor – one of many editors, because I have more than one – about a story that’s on deadline.

I can feel the eyes of the other parents watching me, and I’m steeling myself for at best a set of pursed lips, at worst, a comment.

Judging by some of their looks, they’re thinking this: “Get off your phone.” Or: “It’s only a 30-minute lesson, the least you can do is give her your attention for half an hour.” “Be present. This goes by so fast.”

I could get off my phone, I suppose. I could leave my phone in my purse and deal with whatever messages, texts and phone calls come in later. But the thing is, sometimes I can’t. I live on the West Coast, my editors are on the East. So when it’s mid-afternoon here, it’s the end of the workday there. The copy editors can’t wait. The printers can’t wait. I have to do my job. That’s the life I live, as a freelance writer and a work-from-home parent.

This has been a hot topic lately. In February, a daycare in Texas made headlines around the world for posting a scathing sign telling parents to get off their phones during pickup. Many people applauded the sign for calling out moms and dads who ignore their kids for their mobile devices. Others found it snarky and judgmental.

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And recent studies are showing that children feel unimportant when their parents spend too much time on their phones, adding that they feel they have to compete with mobile devices for the attention of their caregivers.

There’s validity to this. And I’m cognizant of the amount of time I spend on my laptop, phone or iPad, and the need to put those devices down to give my children meaningful attention and one-on-one time – what my husband and I call “filling their cups.”

But there’s another side to this issue, especially for parents who work from home at jobs that don’t have set start-and-finish times, and especially those of us who don’t have offices.

My days are filled with spurts of phone activity when I’m with my kids, whether I’m at home or out. And since they are with me all the time, I am guilty of turning my attention away from them them whenever I have to check my phone.

I wish I could have a sign on my forehead that announces this reality. “I’m not on Snapchat!” it would say. Or: “I’m on deadline, and I have to answer this email.”

But even that would be a half-truth, because sometimes I am on Snapchat. Or Pinterest or Twitter or Facebook. Because I have to carve out little breaks in my day for my own sanity. Otherwise I would go crazy.

What people need to understand about stay-at-home and work-from-home parents (or really any parent, honestly) is that our phones are so much more than Candy Crush machines.

For many of us, they are our email, day planner and camera. They’re how we stay connected with family out of town or out of province. They’re how we communicate pressing shopping concerns with spouses, or double check what time our kid’s dentist appointment is later in the afternoon. If you see me at the grocery store with my nose in my phone, I’m probably checking my shopping list.

It’s how I talk with my husband about what we’re having for dinner, and who’s going to pick up toilet paper. It’s how he checks in on me to see how my day is going, and vice versa.

Some texts are pressing. Some are silly. All of them are my business.

The amount of time I spend staring lovingly at my children as they go down the slide at the park, or practice blowing bubbles at swim lessons, or perform the perfect plié at ballet – that’s my business.

Sometimes I shadow them as they move around the park, spotting them on balance beams or coaxing them down slides. Sometimes I don’t, because they don’t always need me. Sometimes they don’t even glance in my direction.

I could be giving them my undivided attention during these moments. But do I need to? Does she need me to? If I watch her every moment of her lesson, does she even know it? Does it change her life in any profound way? Or mine?

The thing is, I don’t need or want to be that parent. I don’t need or want to be their shadow, physically or otherwise. I can give them undivided attention, and I do. For hours and hours every day. Seven days a week.

But I need breaks from them, and they need breaks from me. And I also need to work. And for freelance work-from-home mom journalists, a lot of that working happens on the phone.

If typical office workers are entitled to these time outs, why aren’t mothers?

I’m more than just a parent to two little girls. I’m also a wife, a journalist, a daughter, sister and friend. Which means I have to balance caring for my children, with caring for the other people in my life. And I also have to carve time out of my busy day to do my job.

I have to be flexible as a mother and a journalist. I have to be present for my children, and punctual for my employers. And that often that means doing both jobs at the same time.

Plus – honestly – sometimes I just need to veg out on Snapchat.


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