Driving a car, operating heavy machinery or being wrist deep in a shitty nappy, are all things best done while not looking at your phone. Death, maiming, the upsetting realisation that your finger has pierced a wipe and the whiff of poo under your nail is going to inexplicably linger for hours, are all reasonable motivation for not titting around on Twitter, or fiddling with filters.
But at a playgroup?
A few weeks ago I was shamed and consigned to staring at my child while he stayed still and played with the same toy for 45 minutes. He did not want me to touch the cars – a firm out-stretched fore-finger and the words no, mummy made that clear – and naturally, as I could not exploit the time for my own purpose, he discovered hitherto unknown, and since unvisited, levels of concentration.
To begin with I was sat on a twelve-inch-high chair, two feet and a flicker of an eye-ball away from my son. My phone was in my lap and I was tweeting (for my course aka study aka my new future aka how I hope to pay bills and buy stuff) when there was a tap on my shoulder accompanied by a conscending smile and, “Sorry, can you put that away? We don’t allow phones inside.”
In a click I worked my traitorous-face away from my first thought of, WTF? Do you KNOW how much work I have to do?! through to the reasons why this was their rule. I figured they were concerned that parents might not interact with each other/ their children/ keep their children alive if they were distracted by screens, and I was on the verge of a self-congratulatory I’m-such-a-good-adult-it’s-not-the-end-of-the-world moment when…
“You can use it outside though…”
WTF? smeared itself back across my face as I struggled with the logic of this, but fortunately the member of staff had moved away to deal with a squabble over a half-functioning plastic vacuum cleaner.
I observed as one tiny hooligan’s owner extricated herself from conversation and did that large-stepping, half-stooping walk we do when we realise our children are being feral. Its as though we are trying to reasssure any onlooker that we’re moving quickly and are ready to get down on their level and make eye-contact because we’re such a good mum who was in no way, nope, nada, not at all, distracted.
I (ironically) waited for the, “Sorry can you look after your children? We don’t allow conversation inside,” judgement to descend but unsurprisingly there was none.
What had dawned on me though was that this may not be about interaction or safety – this was (sort of) akin Chamillionaire’s tales of racial profiling and police brutality in his 2005 hit Ridin. I had been judged and juried for using my phone in the presence of Prince Procreated – they’d seen me scrollin’, and they were hatin’.
It appeared bizarre that we weren’t to use our phone inside while our child was playing quietly, but using it outside in an arena reminiscent of the Hunger Games was a-ok. The part of the film when all twenty-four tributes enter and make a dash for the most covertable weapons, picking off the weaker contestants along the way, while displaying vein-rupturing levels of aggression, can only have been imagined by someone familiar with the average preschooler tussle over the Little Tykes. But apparently parental distraction was to be welcomed here?
And what exactly is the difference between someone being engrossed in a Twitter thread about Piers Morgan being a penis, and being crotch deep in a face-to-face discussion of Brexit/ school catchment areas/ how your blood bubbles every time your husband fails to see “the stairs pile” (a common and bonding annoyance I have found)?
Who hasn’t, mid-conversation, vaguely heard a child yelling “mummmmmyyy, heeelllpppp” in the background but carried on chatting? Seconds later you’re yanked away by the flapping realisation that the yell is coming from YOUR child who has climbed into the toy washing machine. Thanks to genetically-acquired-and-one-day-to-be-grateful-for-freakishly-long-legs she is now jammed and can’t get out, and yet no one has ever told me not to chat.
The fact is that levels of attachment to a screen is definitely NOT an accurate prediction of a parent’s attention to the scream, so why the Rule, heavy as it is with all its implicit judgement that a parent on their phone is a neglectful one?
I am friends with enough working mums to know that receiving emails, messages and phonecalls during their “days off” is not unusual, and in many cases is expected. One friend told me how, when receiving calls from work, the person on the other end would hear the children and say, “Oh is there a better time?”. She would think, Yes, when I’m in the office. This is how I spend ALL my time when I’m not, you ignorant childfree chump – most people have nowhere to stash the small people whenever they become “inconvenient”, so what’s with the sniffy?
The world is also awash with parents (dare I say mums, because in the main it is?) who have been booted out of the traditional workplace so are setting up for themselves. As makers, cake-bakers, social media managers or clothing designers, they are in a classic chicken and egg situation – the money they need to pay for childcare comes from working more, but they can’t work more until they have the childcare.
So in steps the safe, friendly, entertaining stay-and-play where emails can be checked free of whines and requests for a few minutes, and you can be reasonably certain that no one is going to die.
And besides the working mums, what if, starved of empty minutes spent commuting, the stay-at-home-mum is using her phone to connect with family and friends? She’s had a pretty shit day, or week, or month, and that connection with other people gives her comfort and reassurance.
But oh no. Bad mum.
I once saw a woman stand up (with a microphone no less) and say, “Whenever I see a mum walking along or in the playground on her phone, I wanna trip her up and tell her to look at her kids.”
The jarring lack of thought and empathy could have sent me sliding down Guilt Gulley midway as I was through the training to be a social media manager that had me treating my phone like an extra limb. Instead, in a moment of rare confidence and certainty I decided to view her as a few bars short of Instagrammable wi-fi.
But this Rule at the playgroup has made me think again.
The implicit assumption seems to be that whenever you see a mum on her phone in the presence of her kids, 1. what she is doing is unimportant, and 2. that it is all she ever does.
I’m not suggesting that parents shouldn’t limit their screen time when around their kids. I’ve definitely been guilty of using my phone too much and have seen how my children turn from charmingly cheeky rascals into feral wildlings as a result.
I also don’t want them to ever think that I find my phone more interesting than they are so I do my best to limit it.
But the main thing is that, like everything in this parenting lark, judgment is cheap and easy when compassion and understanding would actually go much further.
So next time you see a fellow mum with her face in her phone, maybe challenge the first thought you have. Maybe speak up at work when a colleague says, “Let’s just give Nicola a quick call” with its unspoken suggestion that she’s only looking after her kids, or you could even join The Women’s Equality Party who have affordable childcare as a cornerstone of their manifesto.
At my local playgroup meanwhile, I might just (probably anonymously) suggest they display signs which say, “If you hear a scream, look up from your screen”, because next time they see me scrolling, I don’t want to feel them hating.