A few weeks ago, I sat in the pediatric clinic at Fort Hood's Darnall Army Medical Center, waiting to be called back for my son’s two year checkup. My son sat in the chair beside me munching on Pirate’s booty, his favorite snack I often keep in the diaper bag for times such as these. He picked one up out of the bag, eagerly holding it out for me to see with his little powdery fingers and exclaimed “heart!,” white crumbs falling out of lips and onto his lap. It took me a moment to realize he was telling me that his white cheddar puff was shaped like a heart--and oh, how it was...a perfect heart! We then sat looking at each puff he took out of the bag, observing them as if they were clouds, talking about each one and its unique shape together. When he tired of that activity, he turned to the window and pointed out the “pink flowers,” the “big rock,” and the “man” in the courtyard washing the hospital windows.
As I sat there caught in the moment with my son, I looked around at the other families in the waiting room. I found a sad but unsurprising scene--and unfortunately, one you can find in most public places today. Without exception, every mother I saw was on her phone. I noticed a little girl whining in her stroller as her mom tuned out to her screen. I watched a toddler boy stare out the window with large eyes full of wonder as he sat next to his mother who had gone away to phone land. Chair after chair occupied parents choosing to engage with their phone rather than their child, and stroller after stroller occupied children feeling unimportant and unnoticed.
I know that I should give these parents the benefit of the doubt… perhaps, some of them were responding to timely emails, updating close family on a medical situation, or checking the weather for tomorrow’s picnic. After all, I know too well there’s always a good reason to open your phone. I can always find a way to justify each time I pick up my own, to then later receive the dreaded Sunday screen time notification that I’d once again averaged an unnecessary 4 hours per day on my phone the prior week.
It’s moments such as this one in the waiting room with my son that I realize how important it is to be present as a mother, how much you miss when you choose to give your attention to your phone. It’s moments like this one that make me question how it is that parents (including myself) have become so susceptible to both boredom in the presence of ever-changing creatures who don’t stay the same even in between blinks, and isolation in the presence of those who love them more than anyone else in this world -- two feelings which I believe are at root of both phone addiction and excessive social media usage.
In the months leading up to my recent social media purge, I had begun to loathe the way I spent my time some days. My regret collection was starting to overflow with that bath time I’d tuned out during, that time I said no when he asked me to read him that book for the seventh time, or that hike I spent taking too many pictures to smell or even notice any roses. Something that once used to play a small part in my life had slowly become consuming and my conviction began to grow more with each day: that I was becoming a less present and less focused mother, wife and friend.
I wasn’t sure exactly how I wanted to go about it, but I knew I needed to make some changes. So, in January I began the new year with a three week break from all social media. It was a bigger adjustment at first than I had anticipated, but one that opened my eyes even more so to the consuming nature of these platforms. For the first week, I felt a new sense of boredom and restlessness in my down time. It was uncomfortable learning to enjoy still and empty moments without the ability to mindlessly scroll my phone. Some days, I’d click the weather app, or my photo albums, just so I had something to browse; but as I acclimated to life without social media, I slowly found that I began engaging in more rewarding activities around the house like reading, writing, baking, and journaling… things I always meant to get around to in the past, but rarely did so.
In the three weeks I stepped away from social media, I read five entire books -- more than I’ve read in all of last year. My journal began to fill up with not only the frustrations of the day I didn’t want to share with the world, but the simple joys of the days that no longer had a place on the Internet. I wrote about the day my son and I shared a bowl of pineapple out on the back patio while it rained and I felt the baby move for the first time in my belly. My picturesque sourdough lemon loaf sat on my counter top and tasted just as good when it wasn’t first documented on my Instagram story. Special moments became more special when they became only mine, and my only focus. In just three weeks, our little life at home became simpler and more precious because it was now not just a focal point, but the whole landscape of my lens. My eyes no longer had the opportunity to glance away into the world of others-- it was as if I’d finally had a privacy fence installed around the perimeter of our yard that once overlooked the yards of 387 friends. I could now choose to venture off and visit those friends here and there, but they were no longer the place my attention sought as I sat outside on quiet afternoons. The life of others that sucked me in so often had faded away and my own became of greater importance. With each passing day, I realized I didn’t miss much at all about the digital world I’d reluctantly walked out on. It’s absence did not make my heart grow fonder of it; in fact, just the opposite.
I did not delete social media permanently, like my initial plan was. I realized I didn’t need to be that extreme with my efforts. Rather, after three weeks of creating new habits with how I spent my time in meaningful ways, I was able to set some boundaries for myself to keep certain networks available for certain times. As a military spouse often isolated from friends and family, I do have an appreciation for the efficient means social media equips me with to keep up with those far away -- but it is not a reason to consume such a large percentage of my life. I also decided that all 433 of my instagram followers didn’t need nor appreciate weekly updates on my son or my life, like my family did. Through the use of Apple shared albums, and Snapchat with just few close friends, I am able to keep in touch with my inner circle without having to utilize social media other than rare occasions when I want to share things such as blog posts or major life updates with our family... birthdays, moves, promotions, babies, etc. I also learned in the three weeks without social media that I didn’t need to check my accounts as frequently, and I could drastically limit the frequency of when I checked certain apps while still acquiring updates from friends and family by being more intentional with the search engine, rather than scrolling my feed.
I share my takeaways from this experience only because I found it to be a really rewarding time of personal growth and a simple way to reshape my life in healthier ways. And the sharing earlier of my experience in the waiting room is not to be misinterpreted as “mom shaming,” but rather as a personal reflection on my own mistakes as a mother that I work continually upon each day. The times I sit upon a scene such as the one in the waiting room, I cringe because I remember that I, too, had sometimes been the mother telling her son that her phone was more interesting, more important, more worthy of her time than he.
For any other parent out there who feels the same convictions in your heart, I encourage you to lay out a plan and make the changes that feel right for you. I recommend the Netflix film “The Social Dilemma” as well as the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, as these were two resources that have recently reshaped my views and continue to guide me as I go about new habits in my daily life. In becoming a ‘social media minimalist,’ I have taken control of the phone which used to control me, and have enabled myself to stay connected through social media in the ways I value while also remaining present at all times in the ways I value as a mother, wife, and friend.