My toddler asked me to get off my phone

"Mama, get off your phone!"

woman lying on bed with phone
aleeenot/Twenty20

During a recent morning, which was not unlike most other mornings, I found myself checking some emails in the company of my daughters. After the usual A.M. rush—a daily battle to put fresh clothes on my kids, feed them something sort of edible, and gear ourselves up for another day of lockdown—my 2- and 4-year-old started drawing with their wonder pens. Upon deducing that they were engaged enough in their activity, I brought out my iPhone, read through my Gmail notifications, then opened up Instagram just because. As per usual, I got sucked into mindless scrolling, catching up on everything that both my actual friends and the random people whose lives I'm invested in had been doing since I last checked up on them the night before.

I heard my eldest shout before I saw the look on her face. "Mama, get off your phone!" she screamed. As I turned to register her expression, I noticed it was inundated with frustration, sadness, and definitely some anger, too. Actually, she looked kind of heartbroken.

It was the first time she ever addressed my screen-time habits, and her body language seemed to be asking, "Why does that thing matter more than me?"


Ultimately, I had no suitable answer. I mean, I had reasons. "Mama's work is on the phone," I could say. "I need to work in order to earn money for food, toys, and other things you enjoy." Or, "Social media is part of my job." Or, "We're in a pandemic! I can't see anyone outside of this household so I'm trying to maintain my relationships with friends, colleagues, and relatives in the only way possible." Or, "Honestly, this phone is my only connection to my personhood; at least, the bits of it that exist outside of being a mom."

There was nothing I could say that would make sense to her, though. In that moment, I realized just how difficult I have always found this stuff. Even before COVID-19, the bulk of my work as a writer and editor has always been on the internet. I have long struggled to unplug, including in moments when I'm meant to be socializing IRL. On the one hand, there's the fear that I'll miss something important, be it an email from a boss or something huge happening in a friend's life (or, I don't know, Lizzo's life). On the other, there's probably some level of dependence. Like most of us, I'm not immune to the little dopamine hits that arise when our iPhones ding or ping.

Ever since my eldest was born, however, I have wanted to be more present for her. I regularly tell myself that this means getting off the phone more—but the question of how to do so when so much of my life outside of parenthood exists on that screen remains an ever-present black hole. It's a balancing battle that has only been exacerbated during the Coronavirus pandemic, when so many of us find ourselves working online and using the internet for the bulk of our socialization, whilst simultaneously trying to raise small humans.

"I don't want my toddler to grow up seeing me with a phone in my hand, but it's difficult," classical musician Sarah Jeffery tells Motherly. "For a while, we had the rule that we didn't use our phones around our daughter, but that has completely gone out of the window and I often find myself guiltily checking Facebook."

Before COVID, Jeffery's work existed predominantly offline, in the form of rehearsals, concerts, and teaching. Though she'd been running a YouTube channel for five years (and monetizing videos and Patreon work), the pandemic led to some major shifts. "All of my regular work was cancelled in one fell swoop," she explains. "I put together two online music courses, and they were really well received—and now are my main source of income. The online workload we are used to—emails, social media, admin—is a constant, and takes up a good few hours each day."

Her phone isn't just part of her work, though. Particularly doing COVID, it's her primary way to stay connected. "I've found a wonderful community online, I can keep in contact with family (who all live abroad), I can make a living. I've been learning a lot from fantastic accounts on Instagram, too," she explains. "But the addictive nature of social media is something I have to be careful with. I think if I was 'only' on my phone for the things I actually want to do—work, then chatting with family, and maybe looking at two memes—it would be fine. It's the endless doom-scrolling I do every evening that I really want to cut out."

For teacher Rebecca Kenny, the pandemic has been similarly challenging in terms of balancing work, screens, and motherhood. Kenny teaches online through the week while also parenting her 2-year-old son. Her husband is a mental health nurse who often works night shifts, meaning she is "working and parenting for a large portion of the week."

"I struggle daily with the guilt of not spending time doing more creative and enriching activities with my son, especially as I feel I dedicate my time more to other people's kids than my own," she says. "I try to make up for it by scheduling one unplugged activity a day—even if it's just a shopping trip (he loves riding in the trolley!). We usually paint, or make a cake, or watch a movie together. We also read before bedtime every night, and having that one-to-one time is invaluable when it comes to keeping the guilt at bay. We cuddle a lot, too. We are a very tactile family so I try to keep his need for contact in mind, and hug him often."

Perhaps part of combatting the guilt also lies with reminding ourselves that the internet isn't an inherently bad thing — and subsequently, that it isn't an inherently bad thing we are inflicting on our offspring. The addictive nature of certain aspects of it are certainly worth considering, of course, but we aren't always on our phones for entirely superfluous reasons. Even outside of our jobs, there are some really good things we get from our screens when we are mindful of how we use them.

"I think there is often judgement about what people do on their phones, and it's often misplaced," Kenny tells Motherly. "For example, I'm a reader. I read a lot...When I'm on my phone, I'm often reading articles, or researching ideas—I'm not always on social media. I also maintain conversation with colleagues, friends, and family via my phone, as it's easier than carting my laptop about the house. I think we need to remember that right now, a phone isn't just a phone—it can be a lifeline. We mustn't fall prey to the idea that anyone who is immersed in their phone is a bad person who doesn't pay attention to the world around them. Perhaps they just need a break from the monotony of watching Peppa Pig or navigating a Zoom lesson."

Avoiding "super mom" feeds is also imperative, Kenny adds. "They are guilt factories! Watching another mom's highlight reel wasn't doing my mental health any favors. Instead, I follow more accounts that do not focus on parenting at all, but social justice, politics, art, and literature, with a view to developing conversation with my boy on the topics I come across. By separating my tech from my parenting, I find that I am able to focus more on my own development as a person rather than my perceived failures as a parent."

When possible (and, understandably, it isn't always), Jeffery also suggests trying to set some boundaries between work and parenting. "I realized quite early on that working and looking after my daughter don't mix—so when I'm with her, I'm 100 percent with her," she says. "Trying to answer emails with her on my lap has never worked. This often means working just at naptime and into the evening, so I don't really ever have a break. Since the last lockdown began, my husband and I actually made a schedule for who works when and who is on 'kid duty,' and that has helped enormously."

Every family is different, of course. Everyone's lockdown situation is unique. Some parents are doing it all completely on their own; some have partners or "childcare bubbles." Still, it's obvious that, regardless of circumstances, a lot of us have spent a lot of time berating ourselves for "not doing better by our kids" because of the time we spend on screens. Or, in my case, the amount of times my eldest has now asked me to please put my phone away.

It is undoubtedly really, really hard to explain our relationships with our phones to a young child; to explain that we need to work, or take mental health breaks from Paw Patrol, or talk to people with a more extensive vocabulary, or stay up-to-date with the news, or read something that doesn't rhyme.

What we can do is explain it to ourselves, though. We can keep explaining it—reminding our own guilt-ridden consciousnesses that things are never as simple as "a good parent unplugs and a bad parent doesn't," especially in times as uncharted and difficult as these.

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