Last week a headline at the New York Times Bits blog caught my eye: “You Don’t Have to Feel Very Guilty About Using Your Smartphone While Parenting.”
Since I often feel guilty while parenting, even though I don’t own a smartphone, I clicked on the link.
In the piece Farhood Manjoo describes a week when his three-year-old son was off from preschool and, thanks to his smartphone and his “digital-friendly job,” Manjoo was able to spend time with his son and work at the same time. One moment he was writing a column, conducting interviews, and “tweeting obsessively and mercilessly,” while the next he was at the science museum and playing “with bubbles and toy woolly mammoths.”
Manjoo concludes that for all our chiding of parents who stare at their smartphones instead of their kids, there is a “trade-off few of us think about when we consider how phones have changed parenting”:
By liberating us from the office, smartphones have greatly expanded the opportunity for certain kinds of workers to increase their involvement in their children’s lives. Because you can work from anywhere thanks to your phone, you can be present and at least partly attentive to your children in scenarios where, in the past, you’d have had to be totally absent. Even though my son had to yell for my attention once when I was fixed to my phone, if I didn’t have that phone, I would almost certainly not have been able to be with him that day — or at any one of numerous school events or extracurricular activities. I would have been in an office. And he would have been with a caretaker.
I’m not sure what I think about this. On the one hand, I’m with him. My husband and I both work from home, and we don’t hire a babysitter for our two-year-old and three-month-old. Instead, we take turns watching them and rely on help from family and sometimes friends when we need it. We figure that there are twenty-four hours in a day, and we only need to spend seven of them sleeping, and twelve hours working between the two of us, so this kind of flexible, create-your-own-work-and-family-schedule theoretically should work out great.
And in many ways it does. We get to share family meals each day. My husband gets to be as involved in parenting as I am, which is nice given the copious research on the benefits of father involvement. And I still get to be involved in the world of work, which sometimes feels like a much-needed break, a moment to sit by myself at a desk and think. As I write this, my husband is outside helping a friend with a resume, while our toddler plays with his trucks in the grass and our baby watches the clouds and kicks his feet atop a beach towel. Sometimes our life reminds me of the lifestyle that my grandparents had as farmers, or that my husband’s parents had before they left the Amish—a husband-and-wife team working together from home—the difference being that my son associates work with furious typing at the computer, while my husband grew up associating work with milking the cows and plowing the fields.
And yet, if I’m honest, moments of harmony like this morning are rarer than I’d like. Too often it feels that we are neither present nor productive, in the attempt to be both. We’ve spent the last two years trying to perfect our routine, figure out what works best—and we’re still not there.
Too often it feels that we are neither present nor productive, in the attempt to be both.
Because when you have a digital-friendly job, you can work any time, any place. Which means that every moment becomes burdened with the paradox of choice. If my son is banging on the office door asking to play, should I play with him for fifteen minutes? After all, I can always work after he goes to bed (as long as he does go to bed and it’s not one of those nights). If my neighbor stops by asking for help with something or for me to watch her kids while she takes her other kid to the doctor, do I say yes given that I can make up the work at another time?
If I were at an office, no one would ask for a favor during the workday. My kids would be in a separate building, not stampeding through the hallway outside my door. I wouldn’t have to choose so many times in the day. I would get up and go to work, follow the crowd at chowtime, so to speak.
Sometimes every day feels like we have to make it up moment by moment. Which is kind of thrilling, but frequently frustrating.
This can get exhausting, and it takes a toll on parents, as Jennifer Senior documents in her book, All Joy and No Fun (which I reviewed here). Senior found that among parents who worked from home some or all of the time, the most common complaint was that their attention was divided. They were living lives of “chronic interruptions and ceaseless multitasking,” something that “reams of studies” have shown that our species does not do well. According to Mary Czerwinski, an attention expert at Microsoft Corporation, task-switching affects the way we process information, preventing it from sinking into our long-term memories as deeply.
Senior cites a number of scholars to explain why some parents might be finding it so difficult “now that the border between their living room and their workplace has dissolved.” A lot of it probably has to do with what psychologists call “flow,” which Senior describes as “a state of being in which we are so engrossed in the task at hand—so fortified by our own sense of agency, of mastery—that we lose all sense of our surroundings, as though time has stopped.” Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has discovered common patterns that facilitate flow: it’s easier to achieve in situations that are more structured, with clear goals, feedback, and limits. It should be easy enough for any parent to see why flow is difficult to achieve with small children around.
Working from home, I’ve experienced the life of “anti-flow.” And yet, like Manjoo, I’m grateful for the potential that I see technology opening up for families, namely more time at home, less time away and commuting.
The problem is that we have not yet developed a script to help us navigate this opportunity. There are no rules, few guidelines to help us set boundaries between work and family life when we work from home. The freedom, the flexibility, the lack of script is both the blessing and the curse.