My partner, Dustin, and I take turns getting up early with the kid each morning, and while getting to sleep in half the time is a godsend, sometimes I question my good fortune. Maybe if we got up at the same time every day, maybe then our 5:30 a.m. wake-up call would be easier?
When I floated my self-improvement idea to Dustin he objected with uncharacteristic firmness: “No,” he said, eating his toast, not making eye contact. “This way there is no wondering who needs to be watching him and who can look at their phone.” I stopped in my tracks and laughed the laugh of someone who is fully known, the laugh of relief when one of the many undercurrents of your life is spoken out loud. In this case it was my almost-daily semi-shameful inner monologue about whether I should be paying better attention, or whether this was a moment I could check out of family time and pretend I was invisible on a corner of the couch, reading some#longread or other. The discussion ended there. I shrugged and said, “True.”
I’m ambivalent about the way staring at my smartphone makes me feel or affects my life, sure, but I’ll defend to the death my right to carry my phone with me from room to room, waiting for my son to turn his back so that I can check my email. He has a pacifier; I have a glass rectangle tucked into my pocket so I’ll never be bored, so I’ll never be lost, so I’ll never miss someone saying something about me on Twitter.
“What did people with babies do before they had iPhones?” is a thing all new moms say to each other, usually with regards to breast-feeding. He’s old enough now that he knows it’s an object of great importance, one he wants to tear out of my hands and take off running with until he, too, can find a quiet place where he can tap and poke at it undeterred. But before he discovered the glory of the flashing screen, he was a tiny baby, and he spent 30 minutes out of every two hours silently drinking milk from my body while I, pinned to the couch, vacillated between "savoring the moment" and "reading the internet." Without the ability to text photos, write long emails, and read Elena Ferrante in the middle of the night (though The Days of Abandonment, I’m willing to state authoritatively, is not the best new-mom, middle-of-the-night read), I’m not sure where I’d be. Spending 25 percent of each day stuck somewhere — well, we all know the way internet can pull us out of time and space and turn us into a disembodied brain stem. We like to talk about this like it’s a bad thing, but in those early weeks I could think of nothing better.
Now, though, we have long since discovered how utterly obsessed with screens our child is. It’s not that he’s jealous that we are paying attention to the phone and not him; he’s jealous that we aren’t showing him photos from the #catsofinstagram hashtag. The American Academy of Pediatrics makes the near-impossible recommendation that kids under 2 have no time in front of a TV or phone or an iPad whatsoever, stating that “young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” And of course they do — though the AAP should really also add something along the lines of “Although we recognize that babies are obsessed with looking at themselves in the turned-around camera, and will lose their shit if you do a Google image search for ‘dog.’ We apologize for robbing you and your toddler of guilt-free repeat viewings of ‘Hotline Bling.’”
My child’s obsession with the forbidden and beloved iPhone means I end up hiding it from him whenever he comes ambling toward me muttering, "dog, dog, dog," and I can barely look at it when he’s around anyway. I’ve heard from other parents who make vows to not look at their phones around their kids, in an effort to "be present," or you know, pay better attention. I know this aspiration well, and know that it goes beyond heroic virtue. There are some afternoons spent at the park or at story time, when I am waiting on an email, or have just published a piece, and having my phone in my pocket is like knowing all my friends are in the next room while I sit on the edge of a lonely sandbox. I want to focus on the sandbox; I don’t want to care so much — to feel the urge to tiptoe quietly away and peek my head back through the door of the adult world. I don’t want to so badly miss jokes and opinions and links to essays other, younger people are writing while I’m at the playground. But I do, often. I miss it. There’s no use denying this. My phone feels like a lifeline back out into the world.
Taking out your phone while parenting has turned into a vice, when it can just be a way to escape your corporeal reality, use your adult brain, have an informed opinion, make a dumb joke. I’m sure your mother paid you great attention as a child — isn’t that what’s at work when we wag fingers or pass judgment? Are we not all children hurt by the revelation that our parents were or are people with needs and desires? I am thinking particularly here of my friend Jess, who just last week had a strange man grab her stroller out from under her and tell her to "stop looking at Facebook." (She was texting her husband about when she and her two kids would be home.) My ambivalence about smartphones immediately evaporates, of course, in the face of this sort of judgment and presumption. Long before the days of Dad Twitter, kids were routinely ignored in favor of the morning paper, a romance novel, a poker game, the knitting! Checking out is nothing new. I'd venture that the only thing that’s new is our guilt-ridden modern ideal of a parent who is 100 percent tuned-in and engaged with their children all the time, without a break.
Still, it occurs to me that my phone is way too good at what it does, that maybe if the lifeline weren’t there I’d burrow in better to the life of my small family. Maybe I’d stop crafting tweets in my head and taking photos, and I’d be a better person. I’ll never do it, never trade it in for a dumbphone — what if I get lost with the stroller in the dark, what if the car breaks down, what if my child falls off the side of the slide the way I’m always fearing, what if someone emails me something nice and I don’t read it and so my day isn’t changed for the better, my mood improved just enough that I better appreciate what is right in front of me, and I no longer feel the need to hide out in the bathroom and text my friends photos of the child who is standing right outside the door, pounding on it with tiny fists?