To what do I owe thee, O Smart Phone Notification?

My mom kept a large corner of our upstairs family room devoted to her sewing ambitions. Ceiling-high shelves stacked with fabric, drawers stuffed with patterns and sewing hobby magazines, spools of thread on rows of spindles, scraps of past projects littering the floor; that corner was her private world in the middle of a very exposed life. She sewed out of necessity (when money was tight and seven kids still needed school clothes), she sewed for fun (the doll clothes, diaper bags, and blankets she created are still my own kids’ favorite), and she sewed for therapy, the pleasure of following a plan and producing something useful and lovely often a balm in the disorder of our noisy, chaotic home life. She didn’t sew all the time. We often went months without hearing the whir of the machine or the tapping of her foot on the pedal. But when she did sew, it was almost manic. She stayed up late, she consulted with our grandma and aunts, troubleshooting with her best friends- they’d all be in the same sewing cycle and help each other finish what they began. If she was making something for you, you’d get called to the sewing corner and told to stand still while they all measured you, pinched at your waist and pinned back extra fabric, dismissing your complaints with an eye roll when the pins got your skin. 

My mom was wholly unavailable during these bouts of sewing mania. She was present- tucked into her corner pushing fabric through the machine, or standing at the measuring board with a rotary cutter, or deep into a slightly gossipy two hour phone call while piecing out a pattern- but we weren’t exactly in her orbit. I don’t even know if she could hear us, she’d be so far into her work. But it wasn’t upsetting. It was comforting. She was with us, and she was close, but she didn’t care what we needed or fought about. She had a life that did not include us, and we were fine with that. The occasional autonomy was a thrill in our childhood, a reminder that our mother was human and capable of many talents, not a servant or an admiration society for our own little lives. 

I don’t have a sewing corner. I have a lot going on that does not directly involve my kids, but there is rarely a physical manifestation of those projects and creations. I’m a writer, so what do they see me doing “at work”? Looking at a screen, typing in silence. I manage a lot of relationships and responsibilities, but it’s the age of the smartphone, so where am I doing that work? Not out loud at my kitchen table, the phone cord stretching from the wall and tripping my kids when they walk by asking for a snack. No- I’m looking at a screen, returning a text or reading an email or making a plan via Facebook messaging. It is silent and unseen work. I feel the need to explain what I’m doing when my kids catch me looking at my phone in an attempt to aggrandize the action, like I need them to know that I’m not just scrolling Instagram. 

“Hold on, I’m texting Aunt Becca about coming over later.” 

“Just a second, I need to ask Daddy about our plans tonight.” 

“Wait a minute, guys, I have to read this work email before we leave.” 

“I’m just looking at the pictures we took earlier.”

 

No matter how legitimate the reason, I can’t stand the wall that my phone creates between me and my kids. Hear me on this- they don’t need (or deserve) my full attention at all times. But the virtual reality I step into for work, pleasure or therapy takes me away from them like a silent menace, and all they see is me retreating. They do not hear the whir of my machine. They do not step around the scraps of my ideas. They see me staring at a screen. They approach an empty version of their mother, not invited into the space she occupies, only aware that she is involved somewhere invisible in something they cannot hear, touch, or understand.  

This quote from psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, imbedded in a Wall Street Journal article on the many benefits of reading story books aloud to kids, shook me hard about my parenting.

“Babies are often distressed when they look to their parents for a reassuring connection and discover the parent is distracted or uninterested. Studies show that they are especially perturbed by a mother’s ‘flat’ or emotionless expression, something we might once have associated with a depressive caregiver but which now is eerily similar to the expressionless face we adopt when we stare down to text, stare away as we talk on our phones or stare into a screen as we go online.” 

I know that face. I feel it even now as I type. Do you know it too? Isn’t it what we see at every restaurant, doctor waiting room, school pick up line and on our own couches every night?

So, what can I do? Buy a home phone and plug into that ancient technology of the wall jack? Scoff if you want, but a curly cord and an answering machine actually sound like freedom. Because what bothers me most about the smartphone isn’t just the addiction it produces in me, it’s the expectation of the damn thing. If you own it, you must answer when it rings. If it dings, you must respond. If someone has a question and texts it, you must give them what they need or want from you. If not right this moment, then within the next few. There are many people in my life who cannot stand the selective way I engage in smartphone capabilities. Lots of people try to punish me for it, in fact; they wait a long time to answer my texts, they ignore my calls, they pour a spoonful of my own medicine and passively hold it up to my nose. What they don’t realize is my utter relief when someone ignores me or responds days later rather than right away. Because if we all do it, then we can’t get mad at each other, right? 

Right? 

This essay might sound like I’m trying (poorly) to convince you that I don’t return your texts and phone calls for altruistic parenting reasons, even though we all know that’s only part of my reasoning. I also just don’t like feeling beholden to a screen full of requests. It is overwhelming to live in the real world and the virtual; how can anyone maintain full relational depth with a foot planted in both realms?

But also, what do we owe each other in terms of communication? If I pay for a data plan and carry this phone around with me, aren’t I also signing a social contract? If you have my phone number, doesn’t that mean I granted you access to my life and that I ought to respond with equal access to my response? And how can I defend being choosy about who gets my attention inside that phone? Admittedly, aren’t there a select few who will get an immediate reply? Isn’t there a hierarchy to my response time? Is that fair? 

 

Do I care? 

 

The beauty of the sewing corner was the tactile experience of my mother’s inner self. It smelled like her lemon tea; it hummed with conversations and the rhythm of the serger;  the landscape was busy florals, bright 90’s greens, and the plaid of our homemade Christmas pajamas. 

My phone is a cold rectangle of metal, yet carries a whole bustling world within. It is a miracle and a devil, a distraction and a necessity, 7 ounces of shackles on my wrist- and yet also a key to the virtual universe, a connection to the people I know and love. What do I owe my phone- what do I owe you- and what do I owe the people around me, the flesh and bones who notify me with their voices and hands, not their ringtones or notifications? I want a life rich with color and experience. I want the wonders of the physical world; endless summer skies, my kids’ songs, warm bread that I kneaded myself, conversations that change my perspective. But I also want to text my friends to meet me at the park, I want story podcasts for car rides, bread recipes from my favorite blogger, and video calls to family far away. 

In a society bent towards distraction and removal, can I find a way to use my phone for engagement and presence? Is it even possible, or are we just fooling ourselves? How much moderation is enough moderation, and how long can we stare at these screens before we forget to look up at all? 

Text me with your answers. I’ll get back to you in 3-5 business days. 

 

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