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What I Got When I Gave Up My Phone

A couple weeks ago, during my daughter’s Friday afternoon swim class at Silver Bear Swim School, I sat in the front row of the parents’ waiting room, right in front of the wall-sized windows for a great view of class. On that day, while my daughter was swimming, the little boy turned to make a face at his mom. I looked around to see which mom he was clowning, and found that it was the woman two seats to my left, and she had missed this little loving display from her son because she had been staring at her smart phone. I looked around the room and found that she was one of many such parents whose eyes were riveted to a little screen rather than to their kids. In fact, I was the only parent in the room not glued by the hand to my phone. Even my husband held his, though at least he was using it to record a movie of my daughter doing a rollover breath.

The same phenomenon happened the next morning during her ballet class. In the room with me were four other parents, and only two of us, myself included, didn’t have our eyes fixed on a smart phone. The idea that these sweet little girls, none of them over age 6, might turn to her mom to show off a scissor kick or a tondu and find her mom not paying attention … well, it broke my heart. How must such a girl feel to know that her mom prefers to stare at her phone to watching the class? I shudder to think what I might miss if I were to do so. The most special moments occur in an instant.

I came home all fired up about it. “Stupid phones should be illegal!” I thought, and planned to chastise every mother I knew about using these devil instruments. But then I realized that, although I may not have been guilty of looking at my phone during my daughter’s classes, I have, on numerous occasions, been guilty of replying to a text message while my daughter tried talking to me, and I’ve responded to her with a distracted, “Mm-hmm.”

Could I stop staring at my phone? Could I challenge myself to focus solely on my daughter, to ignore the undeniable draw of my phone’s text chime (What IS that anyway, the thing that makes an unread text so alluring?)? Could I show my daughter by example that SHE is my top priority, the thing I most care about, the thing I’d hate to miss, and not my phone? Could I break her dependence on its games and the movies she loves to watch of herself?

To do this, I’d need buy-in. I presented my proposal to my husband during my daughter’s nap time that day:

“I have an idea,” I told him.

“Yeah?” he said, looking up at me with one eye while the other remained on his cell phone (true story).

“So, you know how I was complaining about the parents and their phones at ballet class today?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I want to see if we can go one week without staring at our phones. That really upset me and I want to do something about it.”

“Sure! Absolutely!” (He turned off his phone and pocketed it.)

“Seriously. When Olivia’s around, no phones. I don’t want her seeing us looking at it. And no handing her the phone either to play games. No phones for a week. At least not when she’s home from daycare.”

“I agree. Let’s do it.”

“I think this will work,” I said enthusiastically. “I just think, if she sees us obsessing about it, she’ll be obsessed with it. I don’t want that.”

“Done,” he says.

So began my Week of No Smart Phones.

Day 1 – Later that Saturday

Fast-forward two hours. My daughter is awake, and we are coloring at the kitchen table. My phone chimes with a text message. I’m magnetized to it, but deliberately sit still and try to ignore it, though I know my body language has changed to a state of alertness.

“Mama, your phone,” says my daughter.

“I know, honey, but I’m coloring. This is more important.”

“Yeah!” she replies enthusiastically. “First you have to finish coloring.”

I smile smugly to myself. It’s working already. Am unaccountably proud of myself. The allure of the text chime passes within seconds, and I forget about it for hours until it occurs to me late that night to check my texts. What if I’d missed something important! Nope. Nothing but a smiley-face response text from a friend. Am even more smug about the pointlessness of the smart phone.

Day 2 – Sunday

I am awakened by the unmistakable humming sound of my husband’s phone vibrating on the bedside table. I know he has left it here to keep it away from Olivia. I read it: The two friends coming for brunch are running late.

I make myself some coffee and join my husband and daughter in the living room. They are watching a movie. I pass along our friend’s message, and have a seat on the couch. Within minutes, my own phone chimes from across the room. Dangit! Seriously??? I ignore it and go to fix a cup of coffee. On the way back, I swipe the phone covertly and carry it back to the bedroom to read it in secret. It’s my brother and his family from across the country, asking whether we have time for a catch-up phone call that day. It strikes me as ironic that this is what we do: We text to arrange phone calls. I respond with some available times, and wait in the bedroom for the reply. Olivia ambles back into the room to see what I’m doing, and finds me on the bed staring at the phone. Crap.

“What are you doing, Mommy?”

“Honey, I’m talking to your Aunt Heather and Uncle Josh. Do you want to talk to them on the phone today?”

She exclaims, “Yes!” and jumps up and down, then runs to tell her daddy that she’ll get to talk to her cousins on the phone.

The reply doesn’t come. I leave the bedroom to go get my coffee, and leave the phone on the bed. I hear it chime from the other side of the house. I feel like I’m a bit too tethered to the phone. We arrange the phone call, and that’s the last time all day that we all look at the phone. The rest of the day, it remains firmly in my purse, and I feel a lovely sense of freedom.

We cap the evening off by going to The Blind Onion for pizza with friends. We have a nice time, and on our way out, I spot a couple sitting at a patio table. They aren’t talking; each of them is staring at a phone. I pity them. I want to say, “People, look at yourselves. You are pitiful. You have RIGHT NOW, with each other. Pay attention.”

Days 3-6 (Monday-Thursday)

We work all day and Olivia goes to daycare. We don’t need to spend much time worrying about her phone exposure. A few times, when we pick her up from school, she asks to play games or look at pictures on the phone. We already don’t do this often, only occasionally. This week, however, we dismiss it quickly with a “I don’t have any games/pictures/movies on my phone today.” She immediately forgets about it and we instead play “I Spy” in the car.

Another by-product of this experiment arises: Our attempts not only to avoid using the phones but to keep her from seeing them at all mean that we haven’t brought the phones out for pictures. Having no camera at the moment, we feel a bit of sadness that we have no recent pictures. We also laugh at that, because when we were growing up, we didn’t have every freaking moment of our lives documented, and we turned out just fine. We can go a week.

On Day 6, my husband breaks the rule. We’re at his dad’s house for dinner and, afterward, sit down to watch a baseball game. Father and son get to talking about a certain player, and son gets on his phone to look up a stat. I glare at him, unseen, but realize Olivia isn’t paying attention at all, and is instead playing a game she loves, which is, “Let’s pretend we’re at preschool and it’s naptime.” I feel relieved and proud of her.

Day 7 – Friday

Maybe I sent psychic vibrations into the universe. We go to swim class at 5:30, after I pick Olivia up from school. The waiting room is full of parents, and I see no phones. I feel unaccountably smug again.

We go home and eat dinner together, then all sit down on the couch together for the first time of this whole crazy week. I realize that this is almost the end of our week, and I feel that I could keep doing “experiment” this forever. I don’t miss my phone, or the feeling of being at work that it always gives me to look at it. My daughter has stopped asking for it, and we all have paid closer attention to each other more consistently this week than I can remember.

Days 8-???

It is now Sunday, our Day 9, and another weekend has passed. Neither my husband nor I have made any attempt to call an end to our experiment. We play I Spy and sing songs in the car, don’t feel compelled to look at the phone while we’re together, don’t worry about Olivia asking for the phone, and don’t feel like anything’s missing from our lives. Do we intend to live this way forever, being afraid of her seeing our phones? No, but we now know the joys of not feeling tethered, and I don’t expect we’ll be as quick to pull the phones out when we’re at home together. I for one have begun employing the Do Not Disturb setting on my phone when it’s not the workday (and sometimes I do this DURING the weekday, and I get more work done that way), so I’m not compelled to run every time I hear the text chime. I control the phone now, and not the other way around. If someone’s in a hurry to reach me, that person can call our home phone.

I’m really trying to understand what it is about the smart phone that is so compelling to people, myself included. It is an addiction. And if we’re not careful, our kids will become addicted, too. We are their examples of how to behave. Is this what we really want them to see? Don’t we want to show our kids how to be polite by looking people in the eye when they are talking? Don’t we want them to pay attention to the world around them? Don’t we want them to know that the most important thing is what’s in front of us right now, and not the thing on the other end of our phones?

Don’t we want to watch our children being children, before they aren’t anymore? I know I do.

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About Jessica Santina

Jessica Santina
Jessica Santina’s love for writing started the summer when she was 11. She and her father created their own hand-bound book of poetry that they’d written together, which they called “Pop & Kid: Collected Writings.” It’s this love of the written word that fuels Jessica’s business today as a freelance writer, editor and university instructor, as well as spending countless hours sharing beloved books with four-year-old daughter, Olivia. When she has a few minutes to herself – a rare gem – Jessica loves to cook, read chick-lit novels, watch cooking shows, and take long, leisurely walks that allow her to come up with blog ideas. Check out her blog for words of wisdom on writing and more.

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