My baby girl turned 10 years old last week. I’ve been reflecting on how much has changed this past decade. Changes within myself and in the world in which we live. I was newly pregnant when September 11th, 2001 happened and the US was thrown into a time of shock and anger. People asked me how I felt bringing a baby into this world. In some ways it seems like yesterday and in others, it seems like a lifetime ago. Strange how time can do that. Since her birth, we’ve welcomed three other children into our family, moved to a couple of different states, and experienced the first decade of our parenting journey, ups and downs, twists and turns and all.
I saw a post in my Facebook newsfeed on my daughter’s birthday which really struck a chord with me. It was How to Miss A Childhood by Hands Free Mama. It was as though she had peeked into my life and my own thoughts that I’ve been trying to push away. It has haunted my mind ever since. It includes this message from a long-time child care provider who has witnessed the change in parent behavior as we’ve entered the digital age:
“I can recall a time when you were out with your children you were really with them. You engaged in a back and forth dialog even if they were pre-verbal. You said, ‘Look at the bus, see the doggie, etc.’ Now I see you on the phone, pushing your kids on the swings while distracted by your devices. You think you are spending time with them but you are not present really. When I see you pick up your kids at day care while you’re on the phone, it breaks my heart. They hear your adult conversations. What do they overhear? What is the message they receive? I am not important; I am not important.”
This breaks my heart. Is this what my children now get from me? Ten years ago, it wasn’t. I didn’t have a cell phone, not even a digital camera. How different was my parenting? Have I forgotten? Have I lost my priorities? Am I offering my youngest child, only 10 months old, enough of my self? Has my effort to escape the chaos inherent in a four-child household and find “me time” by diving into the virtual world become all-consuming and out of hand?
The recipe for How to Miss A Childhood continues and these are just a few of the ingredients that stabbed at my heart and my conscience:
*Go to your child’s sporting event and look up periodically from your phone thinking she won’t notice that you are not fully focused on her game.
*Neglect daily rituals like tucking your child into bed or nightly dinner conversation because you are too busy with your online activity.
*Don’t look up from your phone when your child speaks to you or just reply with an “uh huh” so she thinks you were listening.
*Read email and text messages at stoplights. Then tell yourself that when your kids are old enough to drive they won’t remember you did this all the time.
As my own 40th birthday rapidly approaches, I saw another jolting post written on this author’s 40th birthday. Titled The Children Have Spoken, it lists some of the heart-wrenching stories shared by children of their parents’ excessive use of phones and electronic devices at the expense of time connecting with their children. I wondered, Am I brave enough to ask my own kids if they think I’m on my phone or computer too much? They’re young enough to tell it like it is. Can I take it? What would they say? I had a feeling I knew what they’d say.
Still, I gathered up my courage and I asked. One by one, at bedtime, as I tucked them in, I popped the same questions: “What do I spend most of my time doing? Do you think I use my phone too much? Do you think I use my computer too much?”
First, I tucked in my 5-year-old. I asked him What do I spend most of my time doing? He pondered this, with a finger to his chin, looking up. Working. Hmmm. Having fun. Loving me! And then we laughed and told each other how much we loved the other. Hmm. Bittersweet. I’m sad he thinks I work mostly because the fact is, I’m not – I just say I’m working whenever I’m at the computer – sometimes I am, but often I’m not. I shouldn’t be. I don’t need to be. And I know I can and should use my time more wisely, curb my Facebook addiction and compulsive need to check email, and refocus on my family. But it melts my heart he knows that loving him is an important part of my day. I pressed on: Do you think I use my phone too much? Do you think I use my computer too much? He thought for a second and said, yeah. My heart fell. Really? I said. Not really, he replied. He’s so sweet. He was revising his answer to what he thought I wanted to hear. But I had heard loud and clear what I needed to hear. What I knew.
Next, I went to my 10-year-old. What do I spend most of my time doing? I asked. It’s kinda hard to decide, she said. I guess I’d say working on your computer. As we talked, she said Sometimes I wish you’d spend less time on the computer. But then what would you do? Take care of the baby. Why, are you worried you spend too much time on the computer? You don’t need to worry about that. Oh, but I do.
Finally, it was time to ask my 8-year-old, the comedian. What do I spend most of my time doing? I asked. Hanging around, he said in a silly voice, staring at your screen at the computer, emailing, texting, going on Facebook with your friends. Hmmm. Do you think I use my computer too much? I asked. Yes. You could watch me doing amazing stuff instead! he laughed. He was feeling decidedly silly and I got the impression he perhaps saw potential for more time for himself on the computer to visit LEGO.com if I wasn’t at the computer. Even so, I know he’d like more of my focus and attention.
The message to me is crystal clear. My kids are growing up and they’re doing it fast. I only have so many hours in the day with them, and their childhood is but a very short time in their lives. I have to think about what I want them to learn as they set out in life. And I know it’s not just parents who are guilty of this over-reliance on their machines. One situation keeps coming back to me because it really got to me: we were invited to go roller skating with some neighborhood families and we went to lunch first. The kids all sat at a long table together. Mine were literally the only ones without DSes. All the other kids had their heads down in their games, sometimes interacting, and my kids were left looking over other kids’ shoulders to see what was being played. It was strange, surreal, sad to me. But the fact is that this is what and who they will grow up with. They must learn to connect with others and it’s up to me to make sure that happens – it starts with me.
It may well be one day that I will be the one longing for their undivided attention and feeling frustrated and unimportant when they can’t have a conversation with me, their own mother, without checking their phones, texting their friends, updating their statuses or doing who knows what. When I even think of that possibility, it breaks my heart. I cannot let that happen.
Fortunately, all is not lost. Hands Free Mama also provides a great recipe for How to Grasp a Childhood. I, for one, will be making a renewed and conscious effort to be fully present for my children, to look into their eyes, play with them, set a good example behind the wheel, put more time into our nighttime ritual, and step away from my keyboard more often during their waking hours. They’re worth it.