Tuning out

When I was growing up (for the record, I cannot believe I’m old enough to begin a sentence with those words!!), we didn’t have cell phones.  Not, like, kids didn’t have them.  Nobody had them, as they had not yet been invented.  The best chance of tracking down doctors, or spouses kept on short leashes, was by paging them.

My mother was one of the first to get a “car phone,” cutting edge technology at the time which resembled a giant brick attached by cord to a base sticking up from the passenger-side floor.  The receiver weighed two pounds, which may not sound heavy, but imagine driving a car with two full cans of soda held up to your ear with one hand, while using the other hand to steer.  Less than a week into car phone ownership, Mom drove off the road trying to answer a call.  Although her vision and driving have always been a bit… questionable, it was hard not to see a connection between the phone’s added distraction and the crash.

In the late 90s while I was a university student, cell phones were becoming a thing, albeit still a cheap thing with very limited capabilities.  Although I cannot recall the exact pricetags on the phones of that era, I can tell you that the McDonalds I passed between my Paris apartment and the Métro offered a free mobile phone with every super-sized meal. Just after my college graduation, the first Blackberry device was released, adding features like email and quickly earning itself the soubriquet “Crackberry.”  Suddenly one could no longer assume that men talking on and/or squinting at mobile phones in obscure cafés at odd hours were drug dealers (or, at the very least, cheating husbands who’d snuck away to contact their mistresses).

With the advent of the first pseudo-smartphones, communication underwent a paradigm shift.  Where mobile phones once represented luxury – or, alternatively, emergency devices, they suddenly became the most popular form of human interaction.  Social media soon followed as the medium of choice for self-expression.  People all but stopped calling each other, and standard dinnertable conversations tapered off. Commuters who once read or chatted on public transportation began passing the time by tapping away at the interactive keyboards on their phones.  I blame this evolution (or de-evolution, depending on how you look at it) not just on the time-suck of the internet, but also on the dynamic that smartphones created.  Having access to information and each other (literally at our fingertips) trains us to expect instant results and responses.  In some situations this is of course beneficial, not to mention convenient.  Gone are the days when the only option was to page the pediatrician at 2 am and try to describe a funny wheeze the baby was making.  Now, we take a quick video with a cell phone and text it to the physician, or a nurse friend. Or both!  I’ve actually FaceTimed with the doctor on call, shirtless baby on my lap, so she could tell me if T was working too hard to breathe.  He was.  When we were on vacation and the petsitter determined one of our dogs needed to go to the emergency vet, with a swipe of my index finger I e-signed one release authorizing treatment, and another guaranteeing payment so I could settle the bill from 1000 miles away.

The downside to having a pocket-sized computer, phone, (calendar, book, radio…) and camera-in-one is that distraction has become more portable than ever, making it too easy to lose track of time.  All the time.  We miss turns, pieces of conversations, milestones our kids are reaching, potentially dangerous things they’re doing.  Even when we’re seated right beside them.  Parents know the phrase “it goes so fast” is not just another cliché.  We blink, and our babies are grown, our puppies suddenly senior dogs.  We are missing precious moments because of our inability to separate ourselves from our smartphones, because we feel compelled to answer every text the moment it pings.  I’m guessing that I’m not alone in feeling like I am often only partially present when my phone is out.

As unpopular as it may make me to say this, I have come to think we are doing our kids, ourselves, even our friends and colleagues a disservice by perpetuating the notion that every text and/or email will be answered not just promptly but *immediately.*  We are creating expectations we shouldn’t have to meet.  I am as guilty as the next person of not setting proper boundaries, answering work emails or calls during hours when I’m off the clock.  I absolutely catch myself using my kid as an excuse to keep my phone at the ready (T’s dressed so cute today!  I should keep my phone in my jeans pocket so I can grab it to take photos).  Rather than FOMO, I suppose I have FOMAM (Fear of Missing a Moment).  Sadly, my fear of missing a moment has led me to do just that.  At the aquarium with T, I take out my phone to snap a picture of him, and see the notification that I have 17 new text messages (!).  Of course I look at them, notice the children’s dentist called, become instantly anxious about what he has to say, dial his office, and then spend the rest of the outing too distracted to connect to my child.  If I’d left the phone in my bag, I wouldn’t have missed that opportunity to give my child undivided attention, and enjoy the rare occasion when we have an unstructured afternoon to spend together.

I have no excuses left, honestly, for not putting down my smartphone.  All its texting, messaging, and email apps have away auto-responses which can be set.  Pretty much all phones are now equipped with features which allow us to designate certain sounds for different contacts, so we know if the school, the babysitter, the dog walker or the hospital is calling without needing to look at the incoming number.  We are all allowed to say to our bosses, spouses, family and friends that we’re spending some parent-child time or me-time and will be away from our phones for a few hours.  Days, even!  We owe it to ourselves and the ones we love.  As 2 year-old Lili famously said (from her carseat, in a perfect imitation of her dad’s voice): GET OFF THE DAMN PHONE!!

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