‘Mummy, how do you spell water?’ my four-year-old asks me over breakfast. Next to her sits my one-year-old in her high chair, patiently waiting for her next spoonful of porridge which I’m holding. ‘Mummy? Mummy! Mummy! Mummy! How do you spell water?’ my oldest asks me again, her voice a few octaves higher this time and the tone more insistent. My youngest has managed to grab the bowl of porridge and is feeding herself now, the porridge going everywhere but her mouth.So, what is mummy doing? Of course, she’s on her phone.
Now I don’t mean to, but I’m ignoring my children because I need to check five new What’sApp messages, three new emails and a couple of new texts. The type A personality that I am, I will also need reply to them, immediately. I’m aware that I’m ignoring my children, I know I should be doing this later, when I choose to do it, but I simply can’t help myself. I have no choice in the matter, my iPhone is commanding me to give it all my attention.
And I feel terrible, yes, pretty damn shit about it. I feel guilty. Guilty towards my children for not fully being there for them, guilty towards my partner for giving half-arsed answers to his questions because I’m not listening properly and guilty towards myself. Why can’t I spend my precious time doing something more worthwhile rather than involving myself in endless strings of over-communication
But everyone does it, right? On my way to work I see a mum pushing a buggy with one hand whilst using her smart phone with the other. Around the corner comes a guy on a bike, he’s only got one hand on the handle bars, as the other one is holding his phone which he’s speaking into. A girl is having a conversation on her phone via her earphones whilst typing away on her phone at the same time. She bumps into a group of students who are sharing something funny with each other on their phones. Three people are waiting at a bus stop. All three are staring at their phones. I pass a couple in the window of a restaurant having breakfast. They’re not talking to each other, each too busy with their own phones.
And apparently this is normal. A bright 20 something girl I know tells me it’s fully accepted amongst people her age to have a real-life conversation whilst also doing stuff on your phone. She also admits that she feels nervous during those very rare moments when she’s not connected to internet.
So yes, everyone does it. But rather than feeling vindicated or justified about my phone addiction because it’s ‘normal’, it fills me with a sense of despair and downright misery. Call me old school, but what’s happening to normal daily face-to-face human contact? A nice chat with a stranger whilst asking for directions (instead of staring at Google maps), a chance meeting with a potential date at a bus stop whilst chatting about when the next bus might arrive (rather than looking at a bus times app), giving a friend a real hug (rather than a rather meaningless emoji doing it for you)…
The more I think about it and notice my behaviour, the stronger the urge to change my ways becomes. But along with that urge, the fear of being separated from my phone grows stronger. What if I miss an important email and reply much later than intended? What if I miss a WhatsApp conversation between friends and miss out on plans to meet up? What if I miss that tweet about the latest developments on Brexit and everyone else will know before me?
Then three things happen that help me overcome some of my fear of going cold turkey ‘iPhone-less’. One – the looming prospect of going back to work after my maternity leave. Just thinking about dealing with the constant stream of work emails at all times of the day is suffocating. Two – I hear a hilarious sketch on radio 4 by comedian Ari Shaffir about how he lost his smart phone and just simply never replaced it. Three – a friend of mine introduces me to the inspiring works of Hands Free Mama Rachel Macy Stafford, whose philosophy is to grasp what really matters in our busy lives by, amongst other things, putting down the phone.
And inspired I am, as a simple crystal clear thought enters my head: so what? So what if I’m not the first to know? So what if my friends make plans without me? So what if I don’t reply to that email straight away? I will still find out, make plans to meet friends and reply to emails, but in my own time, when I feel like it, not when the number five in that annoying little red dot next to an app on my phone compels me to do so.
So here I go, I take the plunge and get myself a Nokia 108. It does the very few things that all phones once did, you can text and make calls, that’s it. I have to keep my iPhone as it belongs to work and I use it whilst at work to make and take calls. So after taking all the apps off, I hide it, to protect myself from, uhm, myself.
Hard? Definitely not as hard as I thought it would be.
Now don’t get me wrong, I still do all those things that I used to do on my phone, but now I do them whilst sitting comfortably behind my laptop with a cup of tea when everything is quiet around me, when I choose to do them. And despite the fact that every text message now takes twice as long to write (remember tapping the 5 digit three times to get the letter L?), I have certainly gained more time. I feel calmer, less anxious and yes, I’d go as far as to say happier. When I’m five minutes early for an appointment, I don’t automatically reach for my phone, instead I pick up a magazine and might read something interesting that my fully personalised news feed on my iPhone would have never given me. Instead of looking at Google maps every time I’m lost or want to find a good cafe close by, I go up to people and ask for help, and often have a surprisingly nice human exchange. Instead of trying to multi-task between phone and kids and failing miserably time and time again, I pay more attention to my children and realise how delightful they can be, rather than just getting annoyed with them, a lot.
It’s Saturday morning. My four-year-old and I go into a cafe for a well-deserved hot chocolate after a nice bike ride. The desire to check my now incredibly boring text-only phone just simply isn’t there, so it stays in my jacket pocket. We chat for a bit, made a quick picture for daddy and baby sister, and then do our own things. She puts all her energy into colouring in the picture she was given by the waiter. I pick up a newspaper for the first time in ages. I love the feel of the pages and the fact that I’m not squinting to read the news on an impossibly tiny screen. I look up and see my daughter’s tip of her tongue between her lips in absolute concentration. And for a moment all I experience is a sense of uncomplicated peacefulness. Life can be this simple.