How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
At my age rarely a week goes by that an article doesn’t pop up in my news feed to warn me of the danger cell phones pose to my children. Not actual physical danger like texting while driving, but rather the more damaging psychological kind that comes about from checking Facebook while they swing at the playground.
Always desperately precious in tone, these articles are compelling to me as a stay at home mother of three. They warn of missing childhoods and creating humans with a sort of techno version of reactive attachment disorder, two things that are horrifying to contemplate as a person who gave up my own career to focus all my energy on these three people, to make them as perfect as I can make them so they can be a force of good in the world.
For years I fell for this guilt trip, but as my oldest nears 14, I feel like I have enough years of mothering under my belt to finally call bullshit.
The number of ways that you can damage your child as a mother is legion. There’s physical abuse, and psychological, but there’s a sneakier type that can also be damaging and that is making your children think they are the center of the universe.
One of the best compliments I’ve ever received as a parent was when my oldest daughter was four. The lead teacher at her Montessori school, a kindly old hippie who had nurtured twenty years of children, stopped me to say what a good human she was. Coming from him that meant so much, but it was what he said next to explain himself that has always stuck with me: “You can love them too much, you know.”
The idea of course not being that there should ever be a limit to what we feel for our children, but rather that as a parent it is damaging to love them slavishly, to give ourselves up to them absolutely. As a young mother it was a powerful statement and I’ve never forgotten the message behind it. It is this attitude of “loving them too much” that sits behind every article I’ve ever read about “putting your phone down” to look at your children. You can love them too much and that does them no good at all.
Modern mothers don’t get cut any slack. In this era of Pinterest parties and the monthly picture next to the keepsake bear to measure how much they’ve grown we are expected to not only love and nurture our children, but to package them in a compelling way for public consumption. We can no longer rest on just feeding them and reading to them and keeping them safe and warm, we are expected to play with them vigorously and do crafts and make pillow forts and go on scavenger hunts in the yard.
Stay at home motherdom has become less about the practical economics of child rearing and more like a really expensive day camp with mom as camp counselor. We are no longer fully adult women who have advanced degrees and careers and a life of the mind, we are now the equivalent of a 15-year-old CIT at a beautiful lake in New Hampshire. AND WE MUST LOVE IT.
And some of us do love it, and some of us are more natural at it than others. Some mothers are just latent kindergarten teachers; they draw strength from making their own play-doh and finger painting. But that was never me. And as my children have gotten older, I realize that’s okay.
What nobody tells you before you have kids is how mind-numbingly boring it can be. Once they are fed and asleep and you have showered and unloaded the dishwasher there’s not a whole lot to do. My oldest was born in 2001, years before we could hold the internet in our hand. I think back to a couple of things from her early days after we’d gotten our routine down solid: 1. Reading a whole lot of books 2. Being fantastically lonely and bored. I remember lying on the floor with her crawling all over me, loving the smell of her and the shape of her and how funny she was and wondering what was wrong with me that I wished I’d had something else to occupy me at the same time. Someone to talk to or something to laugh at, something to engage my brain while we waited for her dad to get home.
I wonder how our grandmothers and great grandmothers managed in such different times. Those were the days of front porches when the majority of women on your street or in the apartments next door were probably in the house going stir crazy just like you and you could pop out for a smoke and a chat while your babes napped inside and communally bitch about whatever it is we bitch about. Combine that with there being no expectation that mothers would actually play with their children and you have a very different set of circumstances. Long gone are the days of the Goonies where children could disappear on their own adventures. We are our children’s best playmates, for better or worse.
Which is why I feel zero guilt when I pull out my phone. My children’s lives are magical. A treehouse and chickens and a driveway to ride bikes in. A big dog to run with and regular vacations to the ocean. We go for walks and to playgrounds and watch the Simpsons while we eat dinner. We have obscure family jokes and we enjoy each other’s company. And during the course of any of this, while they are occupied with the comfort and magic of the life I have laboriously constructed for them I will often pull out my phone, to check the weather, or my messages or just see what my friends are doing on Facebook. I’ll read the news or edit a story or send a text to my mother.
Do my kids get annoyed? Of course they do, because they are children and children would always prefer you be looking at them. But children also need to understand that their mother doesn’t only belong to them, that she also belongs to herself and that she should be allowed her moments to do what she wants to do, like they are allowed theirs.
When I think back to my own childhood I remember my mother in the kitchen. My dad traveled and my mom would come home from work and fix dinner for me and my sister and the entire time she would talk to her sisters on the big beige telephone that hung on the wall. She had a thirty-foot cord so she could do all of her business in the house without ever having to hang up or put it down. Did I want her to put it down? Yes. But I understood that was just her thing, and I always had what I needed and we hung out and talked and she read to me and took me places. We were friends then and we are friends now.
And now that I’m grown and I realize how hard she worked I understand how important that was for her. I would never begrudge her that thirty-foot cord.
I am lucky that I get to be there full time for my kids. This is the life I chose and I am grateful I have this option. But just because I chose it doesn’t mean that I gave up who I am and what I need as a person. I think it is crucial that our children always understand that as mothers we are also individual humans with interests and friends other than them. This glorious lifeline of the internet that allows people who stay home to reach out to others has doubtless saved lives and I’m grateful I get to mother in this time of possibility, and I’m sad for those women who had to go it alone. We may have given up our livelihoods for our kids, but we should never be expected to give up our lives.