Opting Out and Linking In

LinkedIn sent me a list of suggested jobs: Construction Project Coordinator, Entry Level; Entry Level Consultant; Research Associate I; and Assistant Media Buyer. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be awesome at these jobs, because I’m pretty sure I’d crush it. My problem with “entry level” and “assistant” is twofold. First, the assumption that full-time caregivers don’t develop marketable skills as anything other than full-time caregivers means that those who choose the “mommy track” stand still professionally – which effectively means they rapidly lose ground. Second, even objective markers of pre-maternal accomplishment, like, say, a JD, seem to be forgotten once the stay-at-home mommy switch is flipped.

As it turns out, I don’t much want to rejoin the paid workforce at the moment. I loved having a toddler and a baby, and – despite the short living hell that was having two toddlers – I now truly enjoy spending my days with a baby, a toddler, and a little person. Yes, as Tina Fey put it, “[there are] many moments of full-time motherhood that stink like Axe body spray on a brick of bleu cheese”; but I also learn and grow every day. I find satisfaction in helping my kids develop into empathetic, inquisitive, and independent little beings. I like teaching math, chemistry, impulse control, and delayed gratification by baking cookies on a Tuesday afternoon as much as I dislike cleaning up feces. I like helping the kids find their way to answers and understandings about the world as much as I dislike constant physical and auditory contact. I like exploring and evaluating new experiences through fresh eyes as much as I dislike feeling pulled so vigorously in so many directions that I may snap at any moment. Like everyone else with any choice in the matter, I put up with the more unfortunate aspects of my current occupation because, on the whole, it fulfills me more than any other would right now.

And there is no question in my mind that the past five years have increased my skill set tremendously. I’m not talking about job-specific skills like “wipes baby ass thoroughly and efficiently” or “makes engrossing noises with fingers and mouth.” My blue-booking (i.e., ability to check legal citation format) may be a little rusty, but other gains at least rival the legal skills I would have acquired. I recently drafted the following addition to my resume: “Stay-at-home mother, 2009-present: Developed patience, perspective, and unflappability. Enhanced ability to manage time, multi-task, network, problem-solve, resolve conflict, and handle difficult personalities and behaviors. Engaged in various volunteer efforts including, but not limited to, serving on a CPI committee at Seattle Children’s Hospital, facilitating a local play space, and organizing multiple parents’ groups.” And that description may even be a wee bit modest: there is no question in my mind that I am a far stronger, more efficient, and more reliable person than I was five years ago. Perhaps most valuably, I now know a tempest in a teapot when I see one.

I consider these years to be a sabbatical. Though I generally hate to quote Wikipedia (most amusingly elitist trash talk ever: the Harvard GameDay sign reading, “Yale Cites Wikipedia”), it helpfully summarizes that “in recent times, ‘sabbatical’ has come to mean any extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve something. . . [,] typically to fulfill some goal, e.g., writing a book or traveling extensively for research.” In other words, I plan to seek paid employment again, certainly by the time my youngest begins school, and I believe I’m accomplishing something in the meantime, not just for my kids, but for me – and not only for private-me, but also for professional-me.

Hopefully, when I attempt to reenter the fray employers will recognize that. And if they don’t, perhaps there’s strength in numbers. I figure if enough of us stay-at-home parents (particularly women who have opted out of professional careers) refuse to be deterred from trying to re-engage with the workplace, our talents – old and new – will prove impossible to ignore. If, however, that time comes and all that’s available to us is “Entry Level Consultant,” our national economy and ethos will have lost out. The abandoned productivity of multi-decade, post-kids careers would be tremendous.

Much energy has been spent dissecting the decision to opt-out. It’s time we turn some of our attention toward enabling these women to link (or lean) back in.

Embracing Anger

This article is now available over at Parenting Write, a new blog I started after realizing that some recent serious pieces had dampened the spirit of Joie de Viv a bit. I hope you enjoy it!


Third time’s a charm . . . when it’s not a hex

At least twice a day another mom pulls me aside and asks, “How is it,” her voice dropping nearly to a whisper, laced with a mixture of reverence and fear, “with three?” Since stringing thoughts together into a logical narrative feels a bit beyond me at the moment, I present a series of random reflections on life with a newborn this third time around:

  • Every morning is like stepping off a red-eye, except on a red-eye you can at least hope for five hours of sleep; and when you’re awoken it’s by people offering food, not demanding it. Plus usually you don’t disembark knowing you’re boarding another plane that night and every night, indefinitely.
  • It turns out I didn’t truly understand the phrase “emotional roller coaster ride” until recently. Exhilaration, panic, exhilaration, panic. Sometimes I glow with confidence and elation, proud of my ability to keep all three of my precious children happy. A few moments later I find myself crying in frustration and defeat as one person’s mood or misstep throws all four of us off-kilter. I am the most gentle, flexible, playful, and creative parent a child could want. The next hour exhaustion rears its head, and I meet even trifling offenses with red-faced anger. I am almost overpowered by gratitude for my three little blessings, our home, our city, and our occupations. Later that day I compose a text message demanding that my husband quit his dream job so that we can move to Montana and live off our savings; in that moment I’ll sacrifice anything just not to be left alone with all three children again. When it’s just the four of us, we are up and we are down. We fire on all cylinders or smoke billows up from under the hood. There is no middle ground.
  • My baby doesn’t fall asleep; she needs to be pushed.
  • While changing into my pajamas at 7:05 p.m., I noticed a dried piece of scrambled eggs tucked inside my nursing bra. Before (and between) children I would have been disgusted as well as grateful that I was the one disrobing me that particular evening. Not these days. I just shrugged and thought, “Hell, at least I got dressed.”
  • I envy healthy newborns’ zest for eating. Can you imagine being so into your meal that you respond with indignance when someone tries to convince you to stop in order to change out of the pants you’ve just wet?
  • I’ve come to resent people who say, “I was up half the night” like that’s an impressively bad thing. Going to sleep when the kids do at seven, getting out of bed at seven the next morning, and banking six hours of sleep in one-hour stints (or, please God, two-hour increments) is actually a fairly decent night’s sleep for the mother of a newborn.
  • I’m ridiculously productive and efficient – at tasks that require only one hand. That means I’m able to do laundry, but not fold it. Brush my teeth, but not wash my face. Eat, but not cook. You get the idea.
  • Why do I try desperately to get the baby to sleep, only to wake her ten minutes later by sniffing her head or hovering over her mouth to make sure she’s still breathing? Will I never learn? I think after three kids we can safely say, no, I will not.
  • Week one post-delivery my big kids both caught a head cold (waking on alternate nights, of course). Week two, pinworm. Week three they brought home a second cold, and this time infected the baby. That’s when I stopped counting weeks. She’s two months old, but I still refer to this as our third week. A bout of hand, foot, and mouth disease went around Stuart’s new preschool two weeks ago, and we remained unscathed. Take that, Science.
  • My autocorrect changes “wine” to “whine.” Enough said.
  • I get annoyed when strangers hear my newborn crying and say, “my, she’s hungry” or “poor thing’s tired.” As a first-time parent it was worse; I wanted to murder them. “She just fucking ate,” I’d scream inside my head. What gives? I would never presume to know what another person’s baby needs. Okay, that’s a lie. I’d definitely presume, but I’d keep my mouth shut. I’d like to see my kids grow up, not die in some sort of hormone-fueled rampage.
  • My shirt is now soaked in someone else’s regurgitated beverage even more often than it was in college.
  • I’m obsessed with establishing a sidewalk cutout and elevator hierarchy in order to avoid awkward, time-consuming pauses. Here’s what I’ve got: (1) person in a wheelchair because he or she is sick or severely disabled, (2) person in a wheelchair because he or she is old, (3) handy-capable person in a wheelchair, (4) person pushing a shopping cart filled with belongings, (5) double stroller with small wheels, (6) single stroller with small wheels, (7) person pushing a dolly laden with packages, (8) double stroller with big wheels, (9) single stroller with big wheels, (10) person pulling a suitcase, (11) person pushing an empty dolly, (12) Segway, (13) bike, and (14) able-bodied person who presumes an inalienable right to walk in a straight line or avoid stairs. My biggest theoretical dilemma lies in implementation of numbers (1) and (2), but I figure if I approach an elevator or sidewalk cutout at the same time as two people in wheelchairs, both of whom appear sick and old, I can sit back and let them duke it out.
  • Baby poop is all liquid and gas, almost no solid.
  • When I get my older kids in bed, the promise of sleep renders me punch drunk. Taken to the extreme the giddiness caused me to text Ian the following: “The kids went down easy like your sister on a first date.” Luckily he doesn’t have a sister (and, as you’ve probably discerned by now, he’s careful not to leave his phone where coworkers can read my texts).
  • I ran into the male OB resident who examined my lady parts upon arrival at labor and delivery three weeks postpartum . . . on the sidewalk, three blocks from my house. I felt surprisingly (1) unabashed, and (2) glad I’d gotten waxed the week before the birth. In retrospect, I’ve always been this way. Back when I was a chubby middle schooler, I used to plan my jogging route so as to pass by my crushes’ homes, confident in my sweaty red cheeks. Sure, there was a lot of unpretty going on, but I rested easy having telegraphed my effort to improve the situation.
  • Though they’d seem to describe the same series of events, the phrases “I got her down” and “she fell asleep” carry vastly different practical and emotional connotations.
  • I love how pleasantly surprised babies are by the appearance of the second breast. Picture remaining a wee-bit hungry after finishing a delectable helping of salmon a la plancha only to have another serving magically plopped down in front of your face. I don’t have to fantasize. My sister-in-law ordered me four boxes of salmon a la plancha from Munchery.com as part of the sanity-preserving meal registry with which I’ve been blessed this time around. I shafted the kids, fed them leftovers, and ate two full entrées myself.
  • If I haven’t called you it’s because I’m doing everything I can to get through each day; if I have called you it’s because I’m doing everything I can to get through each day. Either way, please let me off the hook. (That line will only ring true if you’re old enough to remember the days when answering the phone required lifting the receiver off a literal hook.)
  • I go absolutely apeshit with concealed glee when someone assumes this is my first dance at the ball. Especially when they inevitably say, “Just wait ‘til your second; your standards will loosen up.” As a first-time parent this type of comment – that implies any anxiety or rigidity is borne of inexperience rather than love, commitment, or rational processing of data – drove me insane. Now I just smile, nod gratefully, and plot how to go about running into them with all three well-behaved kids in tow.
  • I knew a scarcity of parental resources would create at least a little sibling rivalry, but I expected the kids to resent the baby. Instead, they fawn over her and pick fights with each other. Because that makes sense how?
  • The first time around I felt vaguely embarrassed about nursing and covered up in the presence of men, particularly my squeamish brothers. Now I’ll whip a nipple out of my shirt and pop it in her mouth with no hesitation whatsoever – in crowded three-star restaurants, in Meeting for Worship on Sundays, on public transportation, and even walking down the street. It’s not a principled stance, just a total acceptance of my boob as an instrument of food production.
  • Although, I do delight in oversharing about the physical aspects of nursing – as well as pregnancy and labor – with my brothers and brothers-in-law. I’m not blind to their sensibilities, just amused by their discomfort. I think that’s how hippies must feel when they give stinky, lingering hugs to the rest of us.
  • Two of the coping mechanisms I developed during Vivi’s infancy continue to preserve my sanity: (1) each day I set a fairly modest goal like “cry fewer than three times” or “keep the children alive,” and (2) I add almost everything I do to my to-do list (sometimes after I’ve already accomplished the task, simply for the pleasure of retroactively checking it off) including such noteworthy items as “shower,” “clip nails,” and “put in contacts.” WARNING: A parent, especially a Type A or obsessive-compulsive one, must never add “do laundry” to a task list. If I were captured by a terrorist organization, they could break me simply by putting this ultimate Sisyphean chore on my list (you know, if changing the angle of my placemats or knocking my hallway runner askew didn’t work first).
  • After dealing with a sick kiddo the first time around and a reflux-ridden first few weeks with the subsequent two (praise be to the developers of Prevacid), I will never stop being amazed and grateful when my baby eats, opens her eyes without screaming, and sleeps.
  • Josie is our own little start-up, privately-held of course.
  • Baby skin works magic. No matter how tempestuous our teapot gets, I can rub my cheek on some uber-soft newborn flesh and get an instant infusion of Zen. Like Motrin for cramps, it’s not enough to make everything okay, but it certainly takes the edge off.

Though there’s a bit of “two steps forward, one step back” going on (or “no steps anywhere,” as the case may be, since Stuey dislocated my toe yesterday), week-on-week my blessed yet overwhelming life consistently improves. I figure the trajectory should continue in a positive direction, at least until Josie hits the terrific twos or Vivi goes through puberty. Knock on wood. Rub the rabbit foot. Ice the broken foot.

I love not camping

Did you ever hear about that lion cub that was raised by elephants and thought it was an elephant? Like wallowing in mud and stuff? In high school, I ran with two crowds: there were the jocks, and then there was a motley assortment of outdoorsy, weird-in-a-nascent-hipster-sorta-way types. If asked to describe my interests in 1997 I would have listed the following: camping, backpacking, 49ers football/Giants baseball, surfing, hanging out at the beach, and parties where no one drinks but everyone acts as if they have (by creating “performance art” or coming up with elaborate games involving Nerf toys and shopping malls). In college, I spent a great deal of time sailing and watching other people sail. It wasn’t until I moved to New York for law school that I got to know the real me. My friends and I were just too busy studying to form any group pastime preferences (cathartic binge drinking aside), and the severe time crunch compelled me to run triage on my hobbies.

As it turns out, I hate being cold, wet, seasick, sunburned, and bitten by insects. Camping, backpacking, surfing, and sailing? No thank you. Since my early love of exercise was sincere, I’m still game for running, hiking, and other aerobic activities that take place outdoors (so long as I’m allotted plenty of DEET and sunscreen during the day and a hot shower and comfy bed at night). But spectator sports? What the heck is the point of that? I don’t burn any calories and spend a whole ton of time producing nothing. The only thing more useless than playing a game is watching other people play a game.*

Maren Schmidt writes, “Our preferences for interaction with our environment create our compass. Unfortunately, we can’t read this compass easily until we are older.” And some of us realize that anything requiring a compass (math, eww; wilderness exploration, blech) ought to be categorically disqualified. Yet her point is well-taken.

Hopefully my kids aren’t as enslaved by the need for physical comfort and a sense of productivity as I am, and with any luck they’ll figure out which activities they legitimately enjoy before they turn twenty-five. All I can do is make sure they’re exposed to a variety of diversions, like camping and backpacking with their father – and objectively rewarding activities, like independent reading and creative arts with their mother. In all seriousness, I make a sustained effort to delve into projects and places I wouldn’t ordinarily enjoy in order to give the kids a more diverse set of experiences from which to choose their own passions. After all, how will they ever realize that their favorite thing to do is compare insectoid markings if I don’t drag my butt to “Ranger Day”?

Sometimes I even over-correct. A few months ago, I took the kids to a – gulp, swallow bile – mini petting zoo. First Viv and then Stu began to grab handfuls of the pee-soaked and poo-laced wood shavings, throw them into the air over their heads, and yell, “it’s snowing!” I restrained myself, determined not to let my prejudices and squeamishness infect their experience. As I stood determinedly plastering a frozen half-smile on my face, one of the naturalists emerged from the office: “Kids, please don’t touch the animals’ bedding. You can contract any number of illnesses by handling their excrement.” (It’s almost like nature doesn’t want me to like it.)

Though I’ve since realized that I’m a lion cub, I cherish all my childhood friends – as well as new elephant buddies I’ve picked up along the way – despite our divergent interests. (I mean, Burning Man? Seriously? You wait in line, are super sweaty hot, get covered in dust, and have no money – on purpose?!?!) I love that we can find a way to have fun together, personal preferences aside. I guess the most I can hope for my children is that they too find something they hate doing – and people for whom they’re willing to do it anyway.


*Okay, that sentence is far from accurate. I happen to love both very active games (like soccer and tag) and extremely sedentary games (like cards and drinking games); only in-betweeny games (like croquet and other lawn games my husband adores as well as the “sport” of golf) truly disappoint. And I do see the point of fun for fun’s sake as well as both spectator and participatory games as a conduit for socialization. But those rather gaping caveats would have undermined my argument – and we can’t have that.

Three’s company?

Ian bought me a pair of $200 Coach sunglasses for my birthday. For the last eight years I’ve been wearing shades he scored on St. Marks Place for $5 after significant haggling (and then an identical replacement set I snapped up on eBay for $11, including shipping). I’m terribly excited about these fancy new glasses which fit my face perfectly, come with a glam case, and, oddly enough, don’t have bits of plastic peeling away from the sides. But I’m also concerned. I mean, can they really be worth $195 more than the ones I’ve happily been sporting? And what message does the designer logo convey to passersby? I’ll obviously keep and treasure them, but . . . still. It’s not the sort of ambivalence that leaves me torn in any way. I know I love them. There’s just a little hesitance there, a recognition that their benefits do have costs.

A similar inverse-of-the-silver-lining-on-a-dark-cloud feeling kept me from publishing a post announcing the arrival of our third child until now. I just haven’t been able to muster the entirely unbridled enthusiasm with which one normally treats such news. “Yay! A baby! A miracle! The gift of life! We’re thrice blessed.” I think and feel all those things, but they aren’t the only thoughts and emotions at play.

Having Vivi was a no-brainer. We knew we wanted to be parents. Deciding to welcome Stuey into the world also didn’t take much thought: we both enjoyed growing up alongside siblings and wanted that experience for our kids. (We also had such a rough go of things during Viv’s infancy that we were eager to get a do-over of sorts.) But deciding to try for a third kid took quite a bit of deliberation.

Everyone, every website, every book told me that upon giving birth to a second child, my heart would simply expand, creating more love to go around; my adoration of Vivi would remain the same only accompanied by a new brand of love specifically for the baby. Um, I’m going to go ahead and call bullshit on that. I will never love Vivi the same way I did before Stuey came along. When I left for the hospital, I said goodnight to my baby around whom the earth revolved; when I returned two days later, I greeted a massive child exerting cumbersome gravitational pull. During the first few weeks postpartum I actually grieved for the loss of Vivi as my baby. It’s not that I loved her any less, just differently.

Moreover, the same amount of love certainly doesn’t translate to the same amount of attention. As Gavin deBecker writes, “In parenting, as in physics, everything we give energy to takes energy from something else.” Which is why I know that if we have a third, both Stuey and Vivi will lose a little bit of the mommy they’ve known. There will be less parental attention and fewer demonstrations of affection available, and I fear that Stuey will suffer Vivi’s fate as the baby instantaneously becomes our baby.

But that’s okay, because parental attention isn’t the only variety. In “The Happiest Toddler on the Block,” Harvey Karp writes: “Please set aside any guilty worries about your baby not receiving the same undivided attention from you that your first baby received. What your new baby doesn’t get from you, he’ll get five times over from his big brother or sister.” Though I’m concerned about the statement’s contrapositive, the principle holds. I’ve already seen it in action: when I start “quiet time” each day, they make up for the loss of my focus by engaging one another. They “read” each other books, play pretend games, argue, negotiate, and generally create the coveted distraction. (As of late, they’ve repeated the following scene: shortly after I hand them their “quiet time treat” designed to take the edge off my unavailability, Stuey turns to Vivi and whispers, “Hey Sis, want to go say potty words?” They then clasp hands, carefully shifting their popsicles over to their outside arms, and saunter off toward the bathroom where they sit on the floor and consume their spoils amidst a Tourette-type storm of “poo poo, pee pee, toot toot, fart fart” interlaced with uncontrollable giggles.)

Moreover, the kids absolutely love babies. When I was pregnant with Stu, we had a hunch that Vivi would welcome a sibling because she took to continuously kissing my pregnant belly. Then again, at around the same time, our pigtailed two year-old stopped walking along the sidewalk in order to introduce herself to a shrub – and then proceeded to give its fronds a series of loving smooches. Stuey is now showing similarly ambiguous signs of welcome: carrying around “My First Disney Princess Baby Cinderella,” calling her “Sebastien,” whispering sweet nothings (like, “Daddy will change you diapa”), and purposefully running her/him over with a bulldozer. Still, they both routinely fawn over infants in what Billy Crystal calls “that babyspeak that adults use on kids and people from other countries.” Stuey, in a perfect imitation of his big sis, recently leaned over a four month-old at the rec center and said, “She’s just so key-yute. She’s just a teeny little tiny little thee-ing.”

But still, they will have to deal with another competing claim for the most important resource in their little worlds. Also, we like sleep. And kids are expensive.

Faced with these considerations for and against adding another, we decided to work backwards. We want more than two adult children. I don’t want to be pregnant for more than a decade. Put the two together and our decision’s made. Hopefully this infallible logic begets a seamless reentry into the world of sleepless nights. Fingers crossed. I’ll let you know how it’s all working out on or around August 31.

Here’s hoping you’ll find me strutting down the street, adoring both my new specs and our most recent addition to the species – despite their price.


There’s been a lot of talk about death at our place lately. At first I blamed the pseudo-recent demise of Hunter (Uncle Curt’s beloved doggy), but after chatting with other moms of four year-olds, I suspect there’s something developmental at play. Here are a few sample conversations:

Vivi: “Happy Birthday, Mimi!”

Mimi: “Thank you!”

Vivi: “How old are you?”

Mimi: “67.”

Vivi: “Wow, Mimi! You are lucky you aren’t dead yet!”


Vivi: “Hey Mommy, I’m going to eat lots of broccoli and run around the house.”

Me: “Um, okay.”

Vivi: “Because I don’t want to be dead Mommy. If I eat healthy things and exercise I’ll get to die later.”

Me: “Righto.”


Vivi (at a high volume, pointing at a middle-aged woman in the grocery store): “Mommy! Mommy! She’s going to die before you die.”

Me (rapidly turning the cart and heading in the opposite direction): “Sure, sweetie, let’s go look at the pies.”

Vivi: “No, Mommy. She’s going to DIE. She’s going to DIE before you DIE. Because you were born second, Mommy. She was born first so she will die SOON.”


Vivi (whispering sweet nothings to her baby doll): “You’re such a teeny little tiny little thing. Yes you are! Yes you are! Unfortunately, teeny tiny, I’m going to die. Everyone dies. Look at your cutie little cheeks. Cutie little cutie.”


Vivi: “Mommy, your grandpa died. He died of cancer. Because you get cancer when you’re old. And when you have cancer, you don’t eat healthy and you can’t exercise.”

Me: “Close, but no” (followed by an explanation that attempted to explain faultless illness without utterly terrifying her with the notion of random and ageless death).


Viv doesn’t seem at all disturbed, just eager to nail down the details. For my comfort level with all this death talk, however, we’ve introduced the concept of heaven. I’m less surprised by Vivi’s idea of the perfect existence, and more by the degree of overlap between hers and mine. Here are a few of her declarations that had me nodding along in agreement:

  • “In heaven everything at Target is free and you can just fill a basket with as many things as you want and walk out of the store.”
  • “Lollipops and syrup don’t make your hands sticky in heaven.”
  • “In heaven you get to just eat and eat and eat and not worry about getting a tummyache.” (Okay, for me, swap “a tummyache” with “fat.”)
  • “In heaven raspberries go on sale all the time like melon.”
  • “When I go to heaven I won’t have to see anyone I don’t like, and I’m going to get to see all the people I like, and also people who are already dead but probably were nice like Teddy Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, and Sacajawea.” (I’d modify the guest list a wee bit, but I’m totally digging the vision.)
  • “In heaven you don’t have to sleep for your body to feel happy tomorrow.”

More than anything, her musings on heaven make me realize how good our family has it. There aren’t many big changes listed up there. Just icing on the cake. And under our rules, we can swing by the heaven CityTarget and get free, zero-calorie icing on the cake. Divine.

Yes, Mommy stares at her iPhone sometimes

As her son happily devoured a newly acquired breadstick, a friend of mine looked up from her phone to see another woman hastily lowering and pocketing a handheld video camera. When she asked, “Were you just filming me?” the woman answered, “Yes, but don’t worry, it’s anonymous, I was filming from the neck down.” In response to my buddy’s disbelieving stare the woman added: “It’s for a documentary about moms who spend time on their phones instead of interacting with their children.”

I’ll admit, I used to judge. Before I had kids, and even in the first year or so of motherhood, I pitied the poor neglected children of parents (and worse, nannies) blabbing away on the phone or distractedly rebuffing curiosity with stock refusals like “give me a minute” and “not now.” After all, what is the point of having a child if you plan to ignore her? To the ghost of me past, I reply: “Shut the truck up, you hypercritical ignoramus.”

I think we can all agree that constant attention is unhealthy for both children and parents. Every parenting book I’ve read (and the official quantification of the volumes over which I’ve pored is “a buttload,” see readymommy.wordpress.com) says that parents who lurk and continuously engage do their children a disservice. Kids must be allowed and/or forced to explore their world independently for parts of each day in order to develop self-confidence, problem-solving ability, and a plethora of other new-agey sounding traits that are actually quite essential for building resilient, capable human beings. Plus, signalling to your kids that you need a little alone time models important self-care. And that’s just looking at the kids’ side of things. A mother who takes zero time out of the day to pursue her own interests and connect with other adults fails herself as well.

If you’re with me so far, then the question is not a matter of if parents should ignore their children but when and for how long. This leads to a data point problem for Judgey McJudgelepants. As a casual observer on the street you see an extremely small – and not necessarily representative – fraction of a parent’s day, which in turn is part of a long week, month, and year. For example, last Friday I was awoken by little hands literally pulling on my face, pretended to be glad to see my kids before dawn, snuggle-read to them on the couch, chatted about the day’s itinerary while preparing their breakfast, put lotion on a stick so that I could give them their requested pretend echocardiograms, and oversaw construction of a lego tower that turned out to also be a rocket ship, all before getting them dressed and out the door. On the way to the Children’s Creativity Museum, I fielded question after question regarding things like why leaves eat sunlight instead of gas like cars, why I crossed the street when that lady wearing tons of clothes started yelling, and why someone killed Martin Luther King, Jr. I worked hard, physically, pushing my double stroller all the way down to SOMA to avoid paying for a BART ticket. I enthusiastically sang and rocked in the museum’s free music class. When I then sat down on a bench while my kids happily played at the craft table and got out my phone, I carved out a moment for myself. Looking over my shoulder at that minute, you’d assume a day filled with neglect or disinterest. You wouldn’t see that I’d performed two echocardiograms before eight a.m.

All this is to say, you shouldn’t judge a parent for distracted moments unless you’ve observed a statistically significant number of them during a statistically significant number of different days at different times (it’s not enough to see a dad on the phone every Thursday at the playground; I reliably choose enclosed park time to check in with the rest of the world). You may happen to see a mom’s single ten-minute block of phone time for the whole day, or, more realistically, one of her four three-minute periods of mommy time (hopefully these clearly unobjectionable lengths of time help us dodge the details of the how long question). And maybe that other mom who’s giddily chasing her squealing brood around the park has all that energy because she planted them in front of the TV for four hours that morning. You just can’t know. Of course parents have a duty to unplug periodically as necessary to give their kids an appropriate amount of undivided attention; but a casual observer just doesn’t have enough information to determine whether any given parent has or has not done so.

Still feeling a little inclined to judge? I have a theory that there’s a transparency issue at play here as well. Humans are naturally social, nosy creatures; we like to know what other people are doing. Smartphones foil that impulse. When I get my phone out, it’s almost always to coordinate current and future playdates, check my Facebook feed, read on my Kindle app, vent to my husband via email, or text a picture of our day’s adventures to friends or the grandparents. Would the documentarian be just as upset if a mom picked up a book or newspaper while her kids played in the sand a few feet away? If she wrote a letter pen-and-paper style? If she chatted with a mommy friend who happened to be sitting next to her (rather than across the country)? Fiddled with a camera? Stopped at a payphone on the way home? I honestly don’t think so. And if one can legitimately carve out time to peruse the funnies, she should be able to browse internet memes.

Smartphones do have the “rabbit hole” phenomenon (wherein you open it for one purpose and then get stuck in there as different apps grab your eye), the “bread crumb” problem (clicking on a news article linked in your Facebook feed, then another article referred to in the first article, etc.), and the “sky is falling” issue (the fact that alerts make it seem like every little thing must be dealt with immediately to put the world to rights – i.e., to get rid of those pesky little red circles) – each of which leads to increased usage. But any social butterfly or voracious reader knows that, minutes spent being equal, screen time isn’t inherently more distracting than a good conversation or book (okay, yeah, fine, it’s usually the bad books that make me feel like a drug addict craving each plot turn or line of dialogue like a hit, see, e.g., “Twilight”). We disdain screen absorption more than any other kind for one primary reason: since we have no idea what the person is doing and whether it merits their sole focus under our value judgment system, we assume it doesn’t.



*Actually, whether out or at home, almost every time I use my smartphone in another person’s presence I spell out what I’m doing. That way my friends can know exactly what it is that’s more important than talking to them, whether my digital undertaking is relevant to our discussion, etc. It keeps me honest. More importantly, it gives me the right to raise my eyebrows questioningly whenever my husband unholsters his best friend and constant companion, I mean iPhone.