Just to prepare you: This summer, I will be that mom, the one looking at her phone as her kids run through the neighborhood, swim in the pool, climb at the park, hit balls, shuffle off to Buffalo, lie in the sand, and rumble along on train rides.
I will check e-mail, respond to texts, read Facebook, and take calls during all of these activities—and more!—while motioning to my children to hush or give me just a minute. I will do this without guilt or shame, no matter how hard some may try to make me feel bad for it.
Some like blogger Tonya Ferguson, for instance, whose "Dear Mom on the iPhone" column offered judgmental, unmerciful words toward us phone-checking moms. And like Kid President, who opened his Ten Things Every Mom Needs to Know video with his precocious command to "put down the phone." (Kid recovered a bit with his silly-sass mouth humor… but still.) The message is clear: Moms are not to look at phones when in the presence of our children. Our eyes should be for our kids only.
Here's the thing, though. I do like to look at my children. I like to watch them whirl and twirl at parks, like Ferguson says we need to be doing. I like to watch them make funny videos, like Kid President would want. If I didn't have my phone or I didn't check it, I'd be actually watching my kids a lot less, since I'd probably have to be in an office.
My phone allows me to be engaged with my kids more than it distracts me from them. When my husband gave me a Blackberry for my birthday seven or so years ago, he gave me more than a phone. He gave me freedom. Until then, as a work-from-home mom of three tiny kids, I felt tethered to the house—or at least, my computer.
Every rushed pre-Blackberry playdate had me stressed, my thoughts turning to the important e-mails I might be missing at home. Having ready access to e-mails (and then Facebook and Twitter and texting and Google and every other form of communication I depend on) changed all that. Our activities increased, and my stress-level decreased. No more rushing in to check inboxes; no more spaced-out wondering if that manuscript I'd sent had been sent back.
Certainly smart phone abuse happens. I confess to my own Pavlovian-dog response every time my phone shakes and bings, alerting me to text or message or e-mail. (I'm quite good at ignoring rings, for what it's worth.) I confess that when the innings at t-ball drag on and on, the siren call of reading news or checking Facebook is too much to resist.
But not all of us glancing down at our phone screens are trying to escape, relax, or ignore our kids. One friend, also a write-from-home mom, calls her smart phone a "life tool." It's the tool we use to live out our various callings. Mine allows me to raise my kids, manage various freelance and writing projects, and stay on top of my part-time position on the worship staff at church. Asking me to "put it down" or trying to guilt me into all that I'm missing, gets motherhood all wrong. Kid President is a kid, so naturally he thinks kids should be front and center 24/7. But adults for most of human history have understood that children do not require, are not entitled to, and are not benefitted by this sort of focus.
Telling a working mom to put down her phone would be like telling a prairie mom to put down her plow, to lose the milking stool. Or telling a homemaker champ mom to put down her vacuum, her dishrag, her spatula. To a mom like me, suggesting I put down my phone—a tool of my trade—implies that my most essential role as a mom is seeing every last thing my kids do.
The God-made role of mother is not about remaining fixated on our children; it's not about never turning our eyes away from them. A good mom pays attention and watches, yes. But a great mom does these things while also providing, in its various forms, and modeling what it is to live a life following a calling, making appropriate use God's gifts.
When guilt and shame do start to sneak up as I reach for my phone, I take great comfort in none other than the Blessed Mother. God choose Mary—a mom rock-solid in her calling but so distracted by conversation or the scenery or who knows what that it took her three days to realize her 12-year-old got left behind—as the mother of his Son (Luke 2:43-45). Throughout all time, God decided she was the best mother ever.
While I don't recommend being this distracted, since God didn't smite Mary for turning her eyes off Jesus and since Boy Jesus run to her crying and screaming as my kids (rightfully) would, it seems God's okay with two minutes responding to a text, even as my kids ask me to watch yet another cartwheel. And if God's okay with it, we should be, too.
Caryn Rivadeneira is the author of Known and Loved: 52 Devotions from the Psalms (Revell) and a Her.meneutics regular contributor. She and her family live just outside of Chicago.