The Long View

First of all, if you’ve read the book I referenced and think that it’s full of crap, I can only speak for the first 5-6 chapters, the ones relevant to my own and my kids’ lives. I didn’t read past that because we don’t play video games and will never allow them in our house, my kids are not in public school yet, and my kids don’t watch TV. At the moment I’m much more concerned with the prevalence of tablets and smartphones, and with the tendency for parents to give them to younger and younger children, than I am with television or video games. They’re just not parts of our lives yet.

I know there’s been a significant backlash to this book, and to every one like it ever published. “They said TV would rot your brain 60 years ago, and we’re fine.” “Millennials have grown up on the Internet, and we’re fine.” “Calling smartphones ‘heroin’ is just an attempt to scare parents.”

Are you fine, though? Think back to 2008 or 2009. You almost definitely didn’t have a smartphone. If we’re peers, you were probably in college. Now think about how long you typically spent reading at that time. How long could you sit and write? How long could you concentrate on a lab experiment, a classroom discussion, a conversation with a friend, or a sunset? What did you “do” when you were walking to class, waiting in line, or cooking dinner? And what did you “do” when you were stopped at a red light, laying in bed at night, or (for real) sitting on the toilet? 

You didn’t reach for a phone. My point is that, if you’re like me, the internet has wriggled its tentacles into all of those little empty spaces, displacing time we used to spend listening to music, reading a book, chatting, or just staring into space daydreaming, planning, fantasizing, and thinking. Given an empty few minutes, I find myself scrolling Facebook, skimming the news, jumping through online articles, or virtually window-shopping for crap I don’t need. My mental stamina has plunged to almost nil. I find myself feeling “bored” more than I used to, and instead of using my brain to deal with that boredom, I use a screen. Instead of taking up that space with my own thoughts, I use content generated by other people (and companies). The way that my brain works has changed. 

Are these changes inherently bad? Maybe not for you personally. But they make me very, very uncomfortable. I feel dissatisfied with myself. The first time you realize that you just started looking at Instagram while sitting outside watching your kids play is a sobering moment. Do I need to be staring at my children all of the time? No, of course not! But I could be setting a better example by opening a book, or enjoying genuine mental relaxation by just letting my mind wander. The constant flow of novel content is not actually relaxing, and you know that perfectly well from how you feel after laying in bed with your phone before trying to sleep. 

So are books like this one an attempt to scare you? Yes, because many of us need to be scared. Think about how much your brain changed just since having access to the internet. Now think about how much more it has changed since the internet came to live in your pocket. Now think about kids who are handed devices when they’re 12, 8, 5, even in toddlerhood and infancy. Their brains don’t get the chance to develop normally in the first place. Think about how much they’ll struggle to concentrate on anything–and that’s leaving aside how they will (because they definitely will) struggle with age-inappropriate content and social media. 

I am not the most uptight parent, but screen time is where I’ve drawn an absolutely immovable line that won’t budge until my children are adults. My kids do not get “iPad time.” They aren’t allowed to touch our phones. They won’t get smartphones while they live in our home. They’ve never seen a movie. They don’t know what “Paw Patrol” or “PJ Masks” are. And I’m glad. In ten or fifteen years (in fact, probably in one or two years), it won’t matter whether they’ve seen “Frozen” or know who Big Bird is. It will matter what they were doing instead.

“Our job as parents is to have the long view, because children don’t.”

This is where other parents always get mad at me. I had written several paragraphs about why and how you should make and keep your kids screen-free, but I deleted them, because I don’t think I personally can change anyone’s mind about this. Suffice it to say that if you feel harshly judged and cruelly targeted by someone saying kids shouldn’t spend time on screens, then you definitely need to read more on this topic.

Many, many reviews of this and other books repeatedly use the phrase “fear-mongering.” Even if that were true, and the consequences of screen use and overuse aren’t actually very dire… what about that gets people so riled up? Is there something bad or harmful about not using screens? The answer to that question is an emphatic no, so I don’t understand why efforts to curb screen usage, especially in children, make some people so frothily angry. Scratch that, I do know why. There are three big reasons:

  1. Money. If you do work that profits from people overusing screens, then of course you don’t want to reverse that trend.
  2. Selfishness. You like to diddle your phone and you don’t want anyone batting it out of your hand. Or, you like having your kid(s) “occupied” on screens and don’t want anyone making you do more hands-on parenting.
  3. Guilt. You know it’s a problem and the natural human response to being told we are wrong is to get mad.

So go ahead and call it fear-mongering if that comforts you, but you’re only harming yourself and your family by pretending that screen-time is healthy.

I’m trying HARD to change how I use the internet and in particular my phone. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about switching away from a smartphone, but I am too worried about running into major hurdles because of how app-centric our lives have become. I need an app to sign my kids in to school. I need an app to pick up my groceries. I even need an app to turn off my debit card if it gets stolen! At this late date, I don’t think going “dumbphone” is practicable. But I am determined to use my phone as little as possible. I’ve removed all ways to listen and read on it. I’ve removed all apps that steal my time. I’ve turned off all notifications and set a long daily Do Not Disturb time with a text auto-reply.

I wish that I could completely opt out, but it feels impossible, so willpower is the only tool we’ve got.

Here are things I’ve been reading and listening to:

Glow Kids by Nicholas Kardaras

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

Deep Work by Cal Newport

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Irresistible by Adam Alter

The Ezra Klein Show: this episode & this episode

Jaron Lanier speaking here

And countless other interviews with and articles about authors, thinkers, and “eccentrics” who shun overuse of the internet. I accessed everything above for free.

Back in Texas

I can hardly believe it, but we managed to move our family of four + dog from Provo, Utah to Plano, Texas. We’re settling into our new house, and absolutely loving being back in Texas.

Let me just say that buying and selling homes simultaneously is not for the faint of heart. I thought that buying a house was difficult, but it’s nothing compared to the complex timing processes involved when you have to sell one, too. We had three (three!) sales fall through before we finally landed a solid buyer for our place in Provo. Luckily, we ended up with an amazing, hardworking agent in Texas who managed to get us a rental contract on the house we wanted to buy, which gave us a cushion when our third sale fell through. We only ended up renting the house for two weeks before our purchase could go through, which felt great. We’re homeowners again!

The best things about our new place are that I have an office, we have a fenced yard, and we have few multi-use spaces in the house. By this I just mean that our house is divided up like most modern homes: there’s a garage, a shed, a laundry room, etc. Our old place, because of its age, had a ton of multi-use spaces. The driveway was also the shed and the garage. The master bedroom was also the office. The laundry nook was, well, a nook, so the living room was also the laundry room. For someone like me who loves to be carefully organized, the new house is a huge improvement. We all have plenty of space. Plus: closets! I had to be without them to truly appreciate them.

Right now, in September, I’m trying to take a deep dive back into digital minimalism. I’m re-reading the book (by Cal Newport) and attempting some changes. I’m realizing that our move will enable me to enact many, many more of the “high quality leisure activities” aspects of Newport’s digital declutter plan. I have more opportunities to socialize here, for one thing, but what really stands out to me is that I have space to pursue some hobbies that were recently crowded out of my life, partly by the new-baby phases and partly by the lack of space we experienced in Utah.

There’s already a hobby taking up increasing amounts of my free time: tending to plants. We have a large yard here, and the front is very nicely landscaped, which takes maintenance. The back I want to landscape better, which will be a fun project. And, most interestingly, the house has a fairly large atrium in the center, brightly lit by a skylight. Right now it just contains two boring ferns, but I have plans for two large hanging planters and a collection of herbs and succulents on plant stands on the floor.

An upcoming challenge that my husband and I will take together is to watch less streaming television, too. Our youngest child is now sleeping much better than he used to, which leaves us free to stay up a bit later after dinner. That time has usually been filled with TV, which we often talk over. But now that we’re less tired, I want to fill some of the evenings with board and card games. We have a big collection, some of the board games completely unopened, and it would be really fun to do something interactive together even when we can’t leave the house due to sleeping kids.

My personal biggest challenge at the moment is cutting back on podcasts. Don’t get me wrong: podcasts and wonderful, and I love listening to them while I drive the kids to preschool or fold laundry. But I’ve reached a point where I want to be listening to something all of the time, even when I’m working in the yard or taking a walk, and it’s super distracting. I’m not actually “multi-tasking,” I’m just filling silence. It’s encroaching on the small amount of solitude that I do get to experience.

Here’s to some positive progress in September!

Digital Minimalism Weeks 11 & 12: Reset

I haven’t written anything here since April, and for good reason! We have been incredibly busy figuring out the logistics of a huge change for our family: We are moving to Texas! Starting in August, we’ll be in the Dallas area. My husband has a new job, and I’ll be keeping my current one and working primarily remotely (although we do have an office in Plano).

Unfortunately, the logistics of a move like this with a family of four are insane and ongoing and very stressful. And I’ve found that the stress has made me turn to social media, which distracts me but doesn’t actually reduce my anxiety.

So I’ve publicly announced a social media break and gone back to reading Digital Minimalism. I never actually took 30 days off of social media when I read it last time, and I think that now I can. I have plenty of stuff to occupy my time over the next few weeks: packing, work (that doesn’t stop!), financial arrangements, and even a couple of quick trips to Dallas to look at houses and daycares.

This is probably the first time since I finished my dissertation that I actually don’t have time for social media. I could always be doing something more helpful, or more relaxing (playing with kids, reading a book, exercising).

So here we go… navigating a stressful period of time without the mindless crutch of social media. This is a great opportunity.

Digital Minimalism Week 6: Honesty

I’m currently practicing two forms of pretty rigorous honesty with myself:

  1. Time honesty. In an effort to be more mindful about my time and spend less of it online, I’m on my fourth week of logging my time by the half hour using Laura Vanderkam’s tracking sheets.
  2. Food honesty. In an effort to lose some “baby weight,” I’m using My Fitness Pal to track my calories and exercise.

Both of these forms of honesty are proving effective, especially calorie-logging. It can be depressing to realize that your “healthy snack” of mixed nuts is actually a gigantic unnecessary calorie bomb, but that knowledge also grants you the ability to accomplish your goals without the shady ability to hide your self-sabotage from yourself (if that even makes sense). Instead of telling yourself that you’re eating so healthfully and you just can’t lose weight, being honest with yourself makes it possible to reach your goals despite your own wishy-washiness. You’re forced to take full responsibility, and the sobering numbers staring you in the face are much more motivating than the vague feeling that you’d feel better five pounds lighter.

Tracking your time does help you spend less of it online… but it’s not as firm a deterrent as calorie tracking is. Why? Mainly because, thanks to smartphones, “using social media” or “playing on the Internet” is almost never a primary activity, the kind that you’d log in a timesheet. The time you spend online instead hides from you under labels like “work,” “watching TV,” and “conference call.”

One solution is to be really honest with yourself about your phone usage. And that means writing down “work/social media” instead of just “work” if you actually took a Facebook break in between tasks, and “TV/Internet” instead of just “watching TV” if you got lost in a Wikipedia rabbit hole while you were watching Netflix.

Yes, it will probably be alarming and depressing at first. But seeing all of those hours laid out in black and white might give you the push you need to cut back.

Working Mom Diaries: “Society” Tells Us What?

This morning I found this post splashed all over my Facebook feed when I opened up my laptop for work.

Society to working moms:

-Go back to work 6-8 weeks after having the baby. The baby that you spent 9-10 months growing inside of your body. Go back to work before you have finished healing or have had time to bond with your baby. Keep your mind on work, and not your tiny helpless baby that is being watched and cared for by someone other than you. Make sure to break the glass ceiling and excel at your job- you can do anything a man can do! It is your job to show society this! Show the world that women can do it all. Rise to the top of your career.
-Also breastfeed for at least a year. So take 2-3 pumping breaks a day at work, but don’t let it throw you off your game or let you lose your focus.
-Also, lose that baby weight and get back in shape, as quickly and as gracefully as possible. Make sure to get 8 hours of sleep a night so you can work out, work, and care for your family. But also get up at 5 am to workout, unless you want to do it after your kids go to bed when you also need to clean the house and get life ready for the next day and you know, sleep.
-Maintain a clean, pinterest worthy house. Take the Christmas lights down. Recycle. Be Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the birthday planner, the poop doula (seriously when will this end), the finder of lost things, the moderator of fights. Be fun. Be firm. Read books. Have dance parties.
-Maintain the schedule for the entire family. Birthday parties coming up? Make sure to have presents! Ensure the kids are learning to swim, play an instrument, read, ride a bike, be a good human being, eat vegetables, wear sunscreen, drink enough water, say please and thank you. Don’t forget they need to dress as their favorite book character on Monday, and wear something yellow on Thursday. Oh it’s totally your call but most parents come in on their birthday and read to the entire class. In case nobody told you, if you have more than one kid you will need to buy new shoes approximately every other day. See also: winter coats, shorts, pants that aren’t 4 inches too short. There will never be matching socks or gloves for any member of the family, ever again.
-Remember the dog you got before you had kids? Shes getting old now and needs expensive surgery. She also need walking, a new bed, and she smells pretty bad.
-Hey! Kids need lots of doctor appointments. Monthly as babies. Every time they are sick. Specialist appointments, especially if any of them have extra needs. At least two school conferences a year. IEP meetings, if applicable. Parents night. Back to school night. Get to know your school night (what IS this). Most parents are volunteering at least once during the year, would you like to come make a craft with the kids? It will only be an hour or two of your time.
-Sorry, you are now out of vacation time because you used it all for time taking your kids to appointments or when your childcare is unavailable. You should go on vacations though. It’s good to relax and unwind from work. Makes you a better employee.
-Don’t forget the kids need healthy meals (and so do you! you are trying to lose that last 20 lbs before swim season right). That requires meal planning, grocery shopping, and meal prep on the weekend. But also hang out with your kids on the weekend since during the week you only get to hang out with them when they are exhausted and angry that you made the wrong kind of spaghetti for dinner.
-Date your spouse! It’s important to keep your relationship alive and fresh. Try to go out 1-2 times a month. Good, kid free time. Hire a babysitter, they charge 22+ dollars an hour in your area so make sure to take out an extra mortgage and/or work another job to be able to afford this.
-Oh hey you should have a hobby too. It’s important to have “you time”. Also be well read, keep up with the latest pop culture and tv shows, and keep an eye on politics and be able to discuss at least one of the above on the small chance you are out in public and encounter another adult necessitating small talk.
-Make sure to have friends. Social time is SO important. Surely there is an hour or two left in the week after all of the working, appointments, exercising, cooking, scheduling, cleaning, imparting lifelong morals and learning on the kids, the usual. Maybe go out after the kids are down for a glass of wine and a bite to eat. Make it a healthy bite though. And you may regret that wine at your 530 am spin class.
-Self care though. SO important. See also: getting in shape. See the general doctor, the dentist (TWICE), the lady doctor. Prob need to get your eyes checked. Full body skin checks 2+ times a year (just me? okay well). Mental health too. Postpartum anxiety? But you look fine and your kids are so cute. Everyone should have a therapist. Good luck finding one that takes your insurance and has hours outside of your normal working time (out of vacation time, remember?). That leaves evening time when you want to hang out with your kids. But it’s important, so make time for it.
-Don’t wear yoga pants and a mom bun or society is going to mock you in numerous witty blog posts. Never mind that nothing fits. Going to have to get up even earlier so you have time to style your hair, wing your eye liner and search for a pair of pants that fits your new post baby (or multiple baby) shape.
-Get off your phone, turn off the TV, and enjoy your life. Enjoy your kids. THESE ARE THE GOOD TIMES make sure to love every minute of life because before you know it all of this will be in the past.

I have such mixed feelings about this post and about the many like it that I see on social media lately.

On the one hand, much of this is true. Much of what Friedberg describes I feel too. Especially the stuff about returning to work–the way America handles maternity leave is no good, and I’m not about to argue that.

On the other hand, I have a second, more complex response when I read these posts. I’m kind of sick of being told how hard my life is! Left to my own devices, I don’t feel pressure to lose weight, style my hair, keep up with pop culture or politics, feed my kids particularly healthy food, have a perfect home, manage my whole family’s schedule, or breastfeed for a year. No one in my real life–friends, family members, coworkers, our pediatrician–hold me to any of these standards at all.

I think that the vast majority of this pressure from “society” comes from the same place this post does: social media. Where else would you get the idea that you should “maintain a clean, pinterest worthy house” or “get back in shape, as quickly and as gracefully as possible.” Certainly not from the other actual moms you know in person, right? Not from your husband, unless he’s a big jerk. Ditto your coworkers and friends. When you go over to another mom’s place for a playdate, does she weigh 120 lbs, have a magazine-spread home, buy only organic health food, and have perfect hair? Probably not. This is almost definitely stuff you’re seeing online.

Maybe we can make the choice to step away from the Internet and remember that what we see online often isn’t real. It certainly isn’t reality for the average working mom. So far I only see one comment on this post that says, “Or just focus on what’s actually important to you, and don’t worry about what people on Facebook think.” But this commenter has the right idea. One of my goals in reducing my time on the Internet is to reconnect with my own true likes, dislikes, values, and goals. It can be easy to lose sight of those in the face of a media onslaught influencing our opinions. But that media is optional. You can step away.