Once again, I have found an article that I feel needs sharing. Reading this brought back some fond memories of my childhood. One in-particular, not mentioned here, is of visiting my Grandparents. They only had one phone in their apartment. It sat on a table with a pencil and pad next to it. The little table had one drawer in which was the NY Phone-book (Which I sat on during the holidays so that I could reach the table) and the one that they kept with people they actually knew addresses and phone numbers. And of course there was a seat for longer conversations.
My mother’s address book is one of the small visual details of my childhood that I can perfectly conjure, although I am sure no photograph of it exists. Fake-leather-bound, filled with her formal, spidery script, it was, to me, barely legible, with addresses crossed out and replaced with new ones as friends’ lives shifted. I often was dispatched to grab it for her from a kitchen drawer. I knew when she was looking for someone’s phone number, which seems unremarkable, except that my own children do not know when I am searching for a phone number, because all they see is me, on my iPhone, intently focused on something mysterious and decidedly not them.
It is that loss of transparency, more than anything, that makes me nostalgic for the pre-iPhone life. When my mother was curious about the weather, I saw her pick up the front page of the newspaper and scan for the information. The same, of course, could be said of how she apprised herself of the news. I always knew to whom she was talking because, before caller ID, all conversations started with what now seems like elaborate explicitness (“Hi, Toby, this is Flora”). And when my mother spent her obligatory 20 minutes a day on the phone with her own aging mother, it played out, always, in the kitchen, where I was usually half-listening as I did my homework, waiting impatiently for her to finish. All was overt: There was much shared experience and little uncertainty. Now, by contrast, among our closest friends and family members, we operate furtively without even trying to, for no reason other than that we are using a nearly omnipresent, highly convenient tool, the specific use of which is almost never apparent.
I thought about this for the first time a few months ago, when I was waiting out my twin sons’ soccer practice, reading “Binocular Vision,” a collection of short stories by Edith Pearlman, on my iPhone. The boys were dribbling their way around cones; I was in the gym bleachers, moved by Pearlman’s meditations on mortality, having a bit of a moment in an unlikely place. None of this was obvious to an observer, which didn’t strike me as important until a woman a few feet away turned to me. “Look at us,” she said, with a sheepish smile, gesturing at a row of parents hunched over their devices. “Our kids are out there practicing, and we’re all on our phones.”
I flushed. I was guilty as charged! But I was almost as quickly indignant: I was wrongly accused! True, I was on my phone, and if my kids looked up they would have seen the same thing the woman did: someone slightly bored, distracting herself with some mindless electronic pursuit. That would describe me accurately in many instances, but it just so happened this was not one of them. At the moment of accusation, I was a lover of great writing who happened to be reveling in some of it on a hand-held screen. With my choice of e-book over hardcover, I had unwittingly cast myself as a familiar, much-maligned character: the mom who is blind to the daily pleasures of parenting, focused instead on some diversion which, by virtue of its taking place on that phone, is inherently trivial. The phone cruelly reduces even the worthiest of escapes to one more bit of busywork.
It is challenging enough to manage to be in touch with people, to remember to pick up the thing and drop off the other thing, to show up on time, to show up at all, to squeeze in time to read, to respond to a friend’s question. Worse, for me, is to try to accomplish all that under a vague cloud of suspicion; to strive to do useful or meaningful things while feeling that I look as if I am likely watching clips of Justin Bieber from the V.M.A.s.
Parents today are often chastised for being distracted by their devices, for devoting more attention to their phones than to their children. I concede that Twitter provides, at times, a more witty conversation than the one I might have with a 6-year-old; that there is, in fact, always some excuse to turn to the device and tune out a small child’s rant about the problem with peanut butter; that the feeling of productivity the phone engenders is as addictive as it is false.
But it seems safe to say that our own parents probably gave more attention to their myriad daily tasks than they did to their children, too, and even did so in their children’s presence. I see my mother, circa 1982, the bills spread out on the kitchen table, her checkbook in front of her; I hear her on the phone as she is writing down directions to someone’s house. The difference is that those tasks, by virtue of not all transpiring on one opaque device, were tangible and thus felt legitimate.
I was impatient when my mother’s attention was occupied elsewhere. But my 9-year-old children, when they see me on my phone, feel something more intense, something closer to indignation. They are shut out twice over: They see that I am otherwise occupied, but with what, they have no idea. This is what makes the smartphone such a rich source of paradoxical guilt for the current generation of parents. We are considered at once overbearing and totally oblivious, so besotted by our own children that it’s unseemly, yet so absorbed by our phones, so unaware as precious moments of childhood slip by, that it’s shameful.
I have started to narrate my use of the phone when I am around my kids. “I’m emailing your teacher back,” I tell them, or, “I’m now sending that text you asked me to send about that sleepover,” in the hopes that I can defang the device’s bad reputation, its inherent whiff of self-absorption.
My husband thinks no amount of narration will change the way our kids feel about the phone. The problem, he says, is that whenever I grab it, they know that I am also holding a portal, as magical as the one in Narnia’s wardrobe and with the same potential to transport me to another world or to infinite worlds. I am always milliseconds away from news of a horrific mass stampede near Mecca or images of great medieval art or a Twitter dissection of the pope’s visit. How far am I going, they might reasonably worry, and how soon will I be back? Perhaps they sense how vast the reach of the device is and how little they know of what that vastness contains; at any moment, the size of the gap between them and me is unknowable.
Recently, one of my sons has had trouble falling asleep. I turn on the light in his closet, thoroughly check for burglars and aliens, but he still can’t shake the vague sense that there’s an intruder in the house, that something menacing from the outside has made its way in, or might, while he lies sleeping. And so I lie in the dark next to him, as patiently as I can, willing myself to breathe deeply so that he will do the same. All the while I am fighting the ever-swelling urge to locate my phone, so that I can do something productive, feel that feeling of getting somewhere, at last, while my children sleep, wholly guilt free.