Wait, is this the actual apocalypse?
an archipelago of thoughts on time vs. screen time
Every week or so, I will look up from The New York Times article I am reading about fires and floods or the post-facts reality we live in, or from the endless pharmacy PCR-test scheduling portal I am dutifully attempting to navigate, or from the email from the school district about the latest lockdown drill at the elementary school, and I will ask my husband, Wait, is this the actual apocalypse?
Sure, it’s been feeling pretty apocalypse-y for at least six years now, but what if that is because it is actually, in fact, the apocalypse? And what does it mean to be raising kids in the middle of an apocalypse with more and more digital tools for numbing and distracting and expert-level apocalypse-desensitizing?
My 11-year-old will turn 12 in February and every day he asks us for a phone for his birthday. That’s not happening. Many of his friends have phones now, and if he walks to town with them after school and has to change a pickup plan with me, one of his friends will politely call me on his behalf, like an executive assistant. I argue that this is excellent problem solving and communication skills training for everyone involved, but I can also see that it’s just not cool. I get why he wants his own phone. I would want one too if I were his age. Lord, did I love on my landline telephone more than almost anything in middle and high school. (I wrote about that love here.)
He has an iPad and can FaceTime and text with friends. He has many, constantly dinging group chats. He speaks largely in meme. He knows everything there is to know about MineCraft. He is not tech deprived. Still, I cannot see any way in which it would be good to introduce into this equation a portable handheld all-powerful computer that he would carry with him wherever he went, a new variable that would further dissolve the boundary between “time” and “screen time.”
I’ve never liked or been good at rules, was never really able to complete a writing assignment according to the assignment because I resented being told what to write about, and as a mother I don’t enjoy implementing rules and have trouble following ones I’ve haphazardly thrown down. I’m learning to love boundaries though, and I spend a lot of mothering time creating boundaries around screen time: negotiating new screen time limits, setting new screen time controls on various devices, preparing a snack to ease the transition off screen time, dreaming up diverting activities to do in lieu of screen time. Often, I find myself asking, what would we be doing if not for this? What would my kids be most obsessed with right now? And how would I be spending that post-bedtime hour if “doom scrolling” had not yet been invented?
In “Screen Time” it is always the apocalypse. In gaming, there is a zombie to whack with an iron sword, and you can measure your progress in “kills.” In the news, there is a mudslide, a tornado, a congressman threatening colleagues with death, a covid flu hybrid. These news stories are happening in “time” too, but because they are always happening in “screen time,” relentlessly so, and constantly being “updated,” (whereas in “time” there are breaks for cooking dinner and walking the dog) we become inured to the unrelenting disaster. Our problem-solving and risk-analysis skills, long past the saturation point, shut down. We are terrified, and numbed.
I want to keep my kids in time for as long as I can. I want to keep myself in time more and more, too. If this is the actual apocalypse, I don’t want to be numbed to it; and if it isn’t, I don’t want to be terrified.
This fall I quietly stopped drinking. I didn’t drink that much, but whenever did, I felt horrible. Half a glass of wine would give me a depleting headache. I didn’t resolve to stop. I just said, I’m tired of getting headaches. And when I stopped drinking, and the headaches stopped, I just kept stopping. It’s made me want to keep stopping other things, too.
We think of resolve as so definite, firm and fixed. Resolutions are like rules, and as I said, I’ve never liked rules much. But the Latin roots of the word resolution come from almost the opposite: “to loosen, release.” In music, the resolution is “the passing of a discord into a concord during the course of changing harmony.” In science, resolution is “the smallest interval measurable by an instrument,” and in photography it is clarity of an image.
So, this January, I am loosening, and releasing myself and my family from “screen time.” I am going to spend as much time as I can in “time.”
I am wishing all of us a passing from a discord into a concord.
I am wishing us all more refined tools of measurement.
I am wishing us all clarity.
I wish us all more time.
Atlas of the Heart, by Brené Brown: Yes, I am that middle-aged mother. When often at dinner I bring up the subject of feelings, my kids are like, Is this about Brené Brown again, Mom? This book is a comprehensive emotions primer and I’ve been trying to read bits of it with my tween, who was born with a minor allergy to naming and discussing emotions.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion: Like so many writers my age Didion was a huge influence in college and grad school—her effortless cool, her genius take-downs, her cutting through the narrative bullshit to carve out a hard truth. She was for me a literary mother, and I felt such a comfort knowing she was witness to the crazy goings-on on earth, even if she wasn’t writing much about them in recent years. Her death left me feeling bereft. Her bracing essays are a comfort of sorts to return to.
The Ask Lisa Podcast by Lisa Damour on the psychology of parenting is a fount of wisdom and reassurance and each episode is under 30 minutes—excellent for a commute or a brief solitary walk. I’d recommend any of them that speak to your current concerns, but particularly relevant to this newsletter, see episode 54: How and When Do I Give My Kid a Phone?
Please see above.
Suleika Jaouad’s tender and thoughtful newsletter right here on Substack, The Isolation Journals, sends out weekly creative prompts and this week she sent to paid subscribers an additional 7-Day New Year’s Journaling Challenge that is helping me stir the creative soup that had started to thicken in my mind in unwelcome ways over the holidays! Recommend.
I bought Esther Perel’s new storytelling game, Where Should We Begin? as a family Christmas present and though we haven’t played it according to the rules yet (see above re: rules), we brought it with us for our New Year’s Eve dinner (in an restaurant, which felt revolutionary, risky and wonderful —still savoring that, too) and the staff kept coming up to us to ask what we were doing. Such good conversational prompts for every age and every kind of group (you can remove certain cards if not playing in a more intimate context!). My 8-year-old got very into it, and we all shared some things in real time we might not have shared without this prompting.