There are always moments when the kids come first and moments when something else has to come first. That happens on both good days and bad days.
We cannot make our kids disappear when we are having a bad day. They get to see us struggle, whether we like it or not. There are bad sides to that and good sides to it. But ultimately, it is life, which is not all roses all the time. Pretending that it is, does our kids a disservice.
We also cannot always make our kids disappear when we have something else to do. That can be as simple and short as going to the bathroom, signing for a parcel, or tying a shoe. Or it can be longer and more involved like hanging up the laundry, doing the grocery shopping, or participating in a conference call.
Some people keep their kids and their life as separate as possible. They do whatever it takes to ensure that the time they spend with their children is focused 100% on their children. If they need to or want to work, do errands, clean the house, go on a date night, or hang out with friends, they have school, day care, nannies, babysitters, play dates, sleepovers and more all lined up to ensure that their kids are not around. But how many minutes does that really leave in a day or in a week for parents to spend with their children?
Other parents prefer to have their kids around as they go about their lives. They may do this out of necessity (cannot afford to call on others to care for their children) or they may do it out of preference. They may believe that it is useful for their children to see them going about their day and that they may learn a thing or two about real life as they do that. They may feel that it is easier to find those special moments with their children and to connect with their children when they can happen at any moment, between other activities, rather than at prescribed parent-child bonding time.
Most people, at least in my socioeconomic cohort, probably find themselves somewhere in between. They often take the kids to the grocery store, but revel in the opportunity to go alone every once in a while. They frequently have kids underfoot when cleaning the house or preparing a meal, but seize the opportunity to have the grandparents snatch the kids away for a day so that they can get things done. They use a day care service or school to care for their kids during the main hours of the work day, but may still need to fire off an e-mail or take a call or two outside of business hours. They plan "me time" where they can go on a date or visit with a friend without the kids, but also enjoy connecting with their partner or socializing with their friends in the presence of their children.
Why am I telling you all of this?
The vilification of parenting and technology
It used to be the soaps, now it's twitter on the iphone. Mom should tune out and focus on the kids. It used to be the big game on TV, now it is checking the sports stats on the Internet. Dad should turn off the computer and focus on the kids. It used to be long hours at the office, now it is daring to bring work home. Parents should work fewer hours, leave work at work, turn off the gadgets, and focus on the kids. This is the mantra, from the media and from know-it-all onlookers. Whether they are using an extreme example as a strawman ("This could be YOU!") or wagging their finger at anyone who dares try to touch technology in the presence of their children, it exists (and the two approaches feed off of each other). This is the mantra of those who do not understand how important technology has become.
I'm writing about this because I've seen friends discussing articles in well respected newspapers that were a full on attack on technology use during family time. I'm writing about this because a number of my friends have recently been feeling guilty about the role that technology plays in their lives. I'm writing this because (un)helpful commenters on this blog have suggested that I focus on my kids instead of spending so much time at my computer and even suggested someone should call Child Protective Services. And, I'm writing this because a friend has had multiple strangers make comments this past week about her using her blackberry in the presence of her children.
Our kids are part of our lives and not always conveniently tucked away when we have other things to do. Technology is part of our lives and is not always conveniently tucked away when we are with the kids.
Technology and the working parent
Technology has allowed a lot more parents to re-enter the workforce and still manage to have a significant presence in their children's lives. Without technology, more parents would be forced to choose between being present or having a career. Parents manage to balance the two by starting their own at-home business or by taking on flexible jobs that allow them to work some or all of the time from home. Employers and clients often expect people, including parents to be checking their e-mails and voice mails outside of regular business hours in case something urgent comes up. In return, a lot of them will allow employees to take a few hours, a day, a couple of days, or a week off to spend time with their family when that may not otherwise have been possible. My career depends on technology and has allowed me to spend the spring and summer as a full-time mom with my kids in Berlin, Germany while still doing work for a few key clients. My father's career (and probably many of our fathers careers) depended on him being at work almost all of the time and made it difficult to escape for even the shortest of family vacations. Parents should not feel bad for having to check their gadgets while in the presence of their children, if it means that they can keep their job and spend quality time with their families.
Technology and the human parent
Technology is a lifeline, in both practical and emotional terms.
Whether using a reputable website to find out whether your child's fever warrants a visit to the hospital, finding out what time the lactation consultant drop-in clinic is, registering for mom and tot yoga, or ordering clothing for your children, turning to technology can save parents lots of time and hassle. Instead of dragging your kids to the mall to buy clothes, you can make a few clicks on the computer while they happily play with their toys. The number of car rides, line-ups, phone calls, and other time sucking activities that can be saved by quickly checking something online is amazing. This creates more time for parents and kids to spend together.
A lot of new stay-at-home parents feel isolated. Especially if they have a child who is dependent on a specific routine (nap has to be at home at a certain time), those parents can feel trapped. Technology creates an opportunity for them to connect with other parents online. Having the opportunity to speak with other like minded parents on the Internet over the course of the day often provides a welcome break from speaking with a two year old. As much as parents love their tots, going 10 hours or more without any adult conversation can trigger loneliness, depression, anxiety and more, especially on the bad days. Technology also provides parents with the opportunity to record their feelings, which can be therapeutic. Whether this is done in a private journal, a public blog, or something in between, computers are a more efficient way of capturing information than in a hand written diary (although those certainly do have their own appeal too).
Why do people judge parents and technology?
How is technology different from anything else that may take parents' attention off of their offspring for a couple of seconds? Is it more acceptable to take my attention away from them to bake them cookies than to do paid work? Is it more acceptable to talk to a friend in person than online? Is it okay to read a romance novel while my kids play quietly at my feet, but not okay to read a feminist blog? I think part of the problem is that technology has invaded our lives, but people's image of what a parent should be and look like has not evolved with it. Technology is no longer something we do just when the kids are in bed or just when at work. Technology is a tool that we use for all aspects of our lives, all day long.
Yes, there are some people who use technology more than others. In some cases that is a combination of necessity and convenience. Someone who has a tech job, who gets most of their information online (instead of in newspapers, phone books, cook books, and encyclopedias), whose friends are all online, and who prefers to online entertainment to tired old TV programming (especially in the summer...yawn), will spend a lot of time online without it being abnormal to do so. That person is not necessarily addicted to technology, they just rely on it for more different parts of their lives.
There are people with technology addictions too. But if those people were not addicted to technology, chances are they would be addicted to something else. Their addiction may need treatment, but that doesn't mean that everyone who touches a blackberry in the presence of their children is going to spiral downward into a tech addiction any more than someone who has a glass of wine in the presence of their children is going to become an alcoholic.
Connecting with our kids
We all need to take time to connect with our kids. We need those special one-on-one uninterrupted moments. But we also need to live our lives and our children need to see us living our lives. The way that they learn how to become adults is by watching us be adults. The image of a normal adult that I want to pass on to my children, is of a mother who cares deeply about her children and takes the time to connect with them, but who balances that with a rewarding career and personal interests. I don't want to model the perfect mom who doesn't exist and hide the rest of my life from my kids. I want to model the balanced (and sometimes unbalanced) normal mom who loves them very much. And today, part of normal = tech user. It is time for society to realize that.