I wrote a blog post called Screens about my one and a half year old daughter’s addiction to phones and computers. After my editor read it, he said:
“You should do a follow-up about your own use of devices and what type of example you’re setting.”
It was a terrible idea. Being single and childless most of my life, my phone has always been my weapon against loneliness, and even now that I have Autumn, my addiction continues. I had no interest in confessing my obsessive compulsiveness when it came to getting rid of those red notifications on my phone or admitting that six months into breastfeeding, I didn’t know whether my daughter nursed with her eyes open or closed because I was too busy on social media.
But my editor has pretty good sense, so I decided to humor him with an experiment.
I drew a line with my screen use for one weekend. Guidelines were as follows:
Any time Autumn was napping, my phone was fair game, but any time she was with me, there’d be no checking email or Facebook.
Taking photos would be limited -- either I’d capture images in my head, ask someone else with a phone to take one, or, as a last resort, snap only when absolutely necessary.
I hypothesized I’d last maybe an hour before deciding to call the whole thing off. I came, I tried, I moved on. But that’s not at all what happened.
Saturday morning, we had swim class. I consciously left my phone in the car, and with it the obligation to respond, urge to browse, or desire to fact check. I was left with only one thing.
What a gift it was to change Autumn’s swimsuit, give her a snack, and watch her peek under the dressing room door without jumping in and out of Instagram and Safari. I could just be in Big Blue Swim School and that was enough.
Walking out, every parent in the viewing area was only viewing one thing -- their screen. Whatever was happening on that device could likely wait, but for sure what was happening in the pool would end. It was like being in a Christmas Carol, getting a glimpse of my future if I didn’t change my ways.
Afterward, we drove to the market, and instead of looking down at my apps, I looked up, and into my rearview mirror. My daughter was sticking her tongue out at her reflection.
“Is it blue from the sprinkles on the cookie?” I asked.
She giggled and nodded. Yesterday, I would’ve missed that moment.
Then we walked through the market toward the mini train ride, Autumn sporting one boot and one shoe because I wanted boots and chose compromise over tantrum. My senses were keener because I wasn’t lost in cyberspace. I made eye contact with shop owners, and heard the woman behind me on the ride tell her girls to pretend they were on an Alaskan excursion.
“What animals do you think we’d see here in the winter?” she said.
I knew she was making it a teachable moment. I had done it a million times, but hearing someone else do it sounded so strange. Yes, imagination is important, as are pretend polar bears, but so too was where we were. We didn’t need to head north to see our daughters, innocent, bundled, and unburdened, still young enough to find thrill and magic in a mini train ride around a parking lot.
In fact, we couldn’t be anywhere else but right there.
On the way back to the car, Autumn drew attention from passersby while she munched on a bagel bigger than her face. Instead of worrying about what calls I missed, I held her hand and responded to her admirers.
I made it back to the car, having only snapped a few photos. And on the way home, I watched her play peek-a-boo before she fell asleep.
The day was only half over, but I decided to leave my phone in my pocket until Autumn went to bed. And instead of feeling alone, as I had predicted, I felt more in tune with my daughter -- and even my surroundings.
Addicts aren’t cured in a day and it took a while to build Rome. I realize I’m the source of my daughter’s addiction -- all kids want to be like the older people around them. But since I created her obsession, I hope I can be the destroyer if I set a better example.
So if you’re the author of one of the 29 text messages, 33 emails, or eight Facebook notifications from this afternoon, thanks for waiting. And know that in the future, I will always get back to you. It’ll just take a lot longer.