Lilly, barely 4 and still the baby, is laying on her belly in my bed beside me, chin in her hands, feet kicked up like she’s seen her big sisters do all her life. It’s about my bedtime and well past hers. An altercation between her sisters woke her up, and she needs a place to be while they settle down, so she’s chilling in my room while I read. It’s nice—there’s nothing really pressing; she’s just hanging out.
But then she spots a shiny, black battery bank on my headboard and grabs it, immediately bringing it to her ear. It’s almost exactly the size of a phone, even happens to have its “on” button where an iPhone’s “home” is. She proceeds to prop herself up on her elbows and spend the next—I wish I were exaggerating—20 minutes staring at this black phone-like brick. She scrolls up and down with her right index finger, types away with her itty-bitty thumbs, makes and answers phone calls and video chats. “Hello, fwiends…Yes…No, I don’t think so, but I will in the afternoon. But first, we will have dinner.” Her one-sided “conversations” sound eerily familiar. What has happened that my 4-year-old would rather talk to a piece of plastic than to me? I’m right here, reading, and that never kept her from chattering at me before.
I’m not offended that she doesn’t want to talk to me—it’s 10:00 pm and I’d rather not be talking to children right now—but why is the “screen” so intriguing to her, even when it’s not doing anything?
Then it comes to me—I remember being in my bedroom several weeks before, putting away laundry while Jenna (my oldest, age 9) chattered on, narrating a picture book she’d written called “The Boy Who Didn’t Baleev In Himself.”
“…and then the boy tried to fly, but he just fell on the ground. ‘Oof. I guess I’m just no good at anything.’ Mom! Are you even listening?”
“Wha? Oh. No, baby. I’m really sorry. I got a message and I need to just send someone a link real quick for work. Hang on a sec and I’ll listen better.”
[Unknown amount of time passes.]
“MOM. You said a second. It’s been like five minutes!”
“I’m so sorry. Here.” [I set my phone to silent and lay it face-down.]
This scene, or variations of it, unfolds constantly throughout the day. I’m trying to mom my kids, but a notification dings and I’m sucked into my phone. I manage good-enough parenting, but not a bit more. I’m not bringing my best self to them.
I guess that’s where Lilly gets it, this compulsive screen-staring. We’ve all heard how detrimental screen time is to kids and how kids tend to model their screen usage after their parents. We’ve all seen campaigns about not robbing the kids of attention by staring at the phone constantly. Honestly, I hate those guilt-trips with the fire of a thousand suns. I don’t need one more ounce of mom shame—not for staying home or working or vaccinating or using my phone. I am using my phone mostly for work stuff, and the work is meaningful to me. I do want them to see me doing work that helps others and makes me feel alive. It just so happens that my work is largely done on a screen.
And besides, this is not a one-way phenomenon. My various screens pull me away from them, but my kids also interrupt my creative work on the regular. It’s not like work is getting my best self, either.
This week, I was on a Zoom call with my team. I joined late (because kids) and resorted to letting them watch My Little Pony to keep them out of mischief. I grit my teeth—Pinkie Pie’s voice is distractingly obnoxious, even when she provides free babysitting. And then she was not doing her job at all—the consequences of utilizing an animated horse as a nanny. My middle two kids were in a yelling match and someone’s hair was pulled and someone was thirsty and she spilled her water so she needed more and also there was a puddle. I was progressively pulled away from my meeting as the chaos increased. ”Excuse me. Sorry,” I muttered as I muted myself. Finally, I just removed my earbuds and walked away to deal with whatever fresh hell just materialized in the living room, fearing the fallout of not managing this now.
So my children aren’t getting my best self. My work isn’t getting my best self. This dilemma reminds me of my kids’ hourly fights where everyone gets hurt and nobody wins. I feel bedraggled and guilty for giving everyone short shrift. I’m doing the best I can at all my roles, but what happens when “the best I can” kinda sucks?
I want to find a way to separate my realms, even if just a little, so they don’t intrude on each other constantly. I hate feeling forcibly disconnected from everyone all the time. I don’t expect to reach the oft-discussed “balance”—some unicorn homeostasis where my work is work and my home is home and everyone gets the best of me in their scheduled and well-defined slots. I just want…better.
I dream of sitting on the floor with all four babies, reading to them, playing blocks, offering art projects full of glitter, and then guiding them to clean those projects back up with grace and equanimity. My phone will be off and out of the room. My children will know they are my priority. And then when it’s work time, I will be entirely focused, monotasking at peak efficiency. My children will be within eyesight, but playing quietly together. Perhaps the big two take turns reading to the younger siblings. Oh! Maybe they can work on teaching the littles to read! If they get bored with that, they will begin quietly cleaning the house. They will cheerfully cooperate to manage their own behavior.
Uh…right. So that’s clearly not happening. Truth be told, their happy self-management is not the only part of this scenario that’s pure fantasy. I hate glitter—even more than I hate essays telling me I’m a terrible mom for using my phone in my kids’ presence. And while I’m being transparent, I’m just gonna say it: sometimes conversing with my children is boring. I love my kids. I love spending time with them. But when my attention is completely focused on them for long chunks of time, I get antsy and the clock slows down to the point where I wonder (constantly) if it’s broken. In addition, my kids get weird. They swiftly start feeling entitled to my full focus all the time, but I don’t have enough attention to give 100 percent to each of four children. The math doesn’t work.
It’s not like I haven’t tried to separate my worlds—years ago I got rid of most notifications on my phone, so I know now that when my phone dings, it’s probably something I want to see fairly quickly. (This works for me about as well as telling the children to watch My Little Pony while I have a meeting—I can try to minimize distractions, but they keep finding me.) The urgent always invades from whatever realm I’m not currently living in, and I always try to address it immediately.
That immediacy is something I am reexamining—when every need and request receives the same priority (the very top), life becomes unnecessarily chaotic. Maybe rather than giving all my attention to whichever need I’m trying to meet right now, I need to give more to assessing my own motivations. Is this need really emergent or does it just feel urgent? Do I want to respond right now because that’s necessary or because I neurotically and aggressively meet needs? Can this wait?
Perhaps the urgent does not need to be such a tyrant.
Eventually, I want my kids to become adults who know how to adapt to the world around them. I want them to know when to focus and when to switch tracks to attend to something urgent. But they won’t ever have “balance” entirely dialed in, so they will have to fight for it, just like I do.
As I sit at my table writing today, my kids are eating lunch. They pull me away every few minutes with a fight or request for more milk or food, but my work is getting done. (Both kinds of work.) I don’t always get it right, but I am showing them how to be people who do their best, even when “good enough” is as far as their best can go. It’s not comfortable, but I can teach them to live in the uncomfortable mess and pull of life as it is, rather than being mad about what it “should be.”
Do I really want to fully separate these worlds of mine? My work brings me sanity, saving my brain from an endless stream of unfollowable words from four different mouths simultaneously. And, while my children do pull me away from my creative work constantly, they also provide the bulk of the material for it. I hesitate to call it symbiosis—it’s a lot more frustrating than the word implies—but the bleed between my worlds isn’t all bad.
Robin Chapman is a part-time writer, editor, and birth photographer and a full-time imperfect mama, wife, Jesus follower, and normalizer of failure. She’s trying to learn how to do this motherhood thing in a way that doesn’t land the whole family in intensive therapy. She has a heart for helping other mamas buried in the little years with hope, humor, and solidarity. You can find her hiding out in the bathroom with an iced dirty chai, writing and editing and making spreadsheets for Kindred Mom where she is a cheerleader for mamas, or online looking for grace in her mundane and weird life. She lives in Fairbanks, Alaska with her four delightful (crazy) kids and her ridiculously good looking husband, Andrew. Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and her blog.