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I have four kids and a career, but I’m happy to have no cellphone

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I’ve received raised eyebrows, laughs, even gasps in response to my admission that I don’t have — or want — a cellphone. As the mother of four children and a freelance writer surrounded by a teeming suburbia of parents with shiny gadgets in hand, I know how odd it is that I remain firmly disconnected.

Years ago, I did have a cellphone. I scrolled Facebook and Twitter while waiting for my kids to get out of school; I received last-minute notifications of changes in plans; I called my husband to work out schedules; I took photos of our children and selfies; and of course, I texted. There is something deeply satisfying about the immediacy and urgency of cellphones. They give a shadow of importance and small electricity to the mundane moments of daily life, from planning dinner to gossiping about Christmas parties. As a teen I hungrily watched reporters make urgent phone calls about stories and type madly on their computers; smart phones lend this tiny spotlight to everyday life.

And while I liked sliding my white phone from my purse­ — the compact weight of it in my hand, the instant connection with my husband and children — I slowly grew to dislike the every-waking-hour, all-consuming nature of having it. The device put Facebook and Twitter at my fingertips, but it also put me at the beck and call of anyone with my number. I have a land line, but people leaving messages on my home phone didn’t ask me why I didn’t call them back right away, or repeatedly call me. They left one message, and then waited for me to call back. I found that some people became anxious or irritable about my not-immediate response, or took it personally.

I started to feel resentful of the dictatorial feeling of the cellphone’s text message alert. The incessant pinging and the assumption of family and friends that I would reply quickly — or have an explanation for why I didn’t — created a subtle but pervasive tension in my days. This is the underside of the “You are alive! And receiving texts! Because you are social! And things are happening!” cheerfulness of cellphones. It is only a cheerful feeling if you don’t mind constant stimulation and requests. I found that having four children, a husband and a career were more than enough stimulation and requests for me, and that the cellphone was becoming an enemy.

Soon, I began forgetting my cellphone at home, or in the car, or letting it run out of juice. It took a while for me to realize the connection between my forgetfulness and how I felt about actually having a mobile phone. I noticed too, that pulling out my device was becoming an increasingly large part of my parenting experience. Although I was careful not to be an “always on the phone” mom, my device was becoming another layer of interference between my kids and me, in a world chock full of them.

There are many messages on how each part of life as a parent “has to be” or “should be” a priority, but little reality attached to those messages. There are only so many hours each day. I’m trying to make time for enough sleep and exercise, and time with my husband to keep my marriage from becoming a failure from putting children first, and time for meditation so I am sane, and time for work, and time to eat real, whole food that doesn’t come out of a box. Those are my priorities — along with being a present, loving mom. That makes the repeated ping ping, the repeated “Let me take a photo,” the repeated, “Let me answer my phone,” the repeated, “Just a minute,” a cellphone brings into my life take on a more significant role.

Parents are the ones who need limits on screen time

Perhaps parents who don’t work, or who don’t work full-time, find it much easier to balance the ever present nature of cellphones with the need to be present for their children.

I had a Pavlovian reaction to the noise of the cellphone, as well, so that despite constantly reminding myself that there is no hurry, the sound of my phone pinging or ringing while I was driving always made me slightly anxious. I could turn it off or silence it, but I rarely remembered to do that.

After I gave up my phone, I felt an immediate sense of freedom. My 14-year-old daughter and husband both have one, and I can borrow theirs in a pinch. There is something different about carrying my husband’s phone on a walk. When the phone rings, it’s either my husband for me, or it’s not a call for me, and I let it go to voice mail. I don’t pull up social media on his phone. I don’t scroll through texts, or feel the same sense of being tethered to a larger world of social interactions and responses even when I’m outside.

I realize that cellphones are so useful when you have one that to not have one almost appears irresponsible, or wasteful. According to some people who have reacted to my admission of not having a cell, it is irresponsible. But it is this same undercurrent of demand that ends with the phone in my hand more often than I’d like it to be. How could I not check for that important email from an editor? How could I take the chance that in the hour I’m at the store, something horrible happens with my children and no one can reach me?

That sense of demand and anxiety is, to me, the dark side of technology. Studies have been done on the effect of time spent on social media, or the effect of cellphones on engagement — and plenty more studies will come. But I didn’t need a study to tell me what I could see: My cellphone was creating another layer between my children and me, and it was creating a life of small demands and reactions that were the opposite of what I am trying for. What is that? Peace, presence, response instead of reaction, memories fully coded into my brain and wireless, integrated parenting with my hands free and all senses alert. I’m sure there are parents out there who have a cellphone and still achieve this, but I was not one of them.

Maybe one day I’ll feel like I need a cellphone. But for now, I’m happy being the oddball mom without one.

Maggie May Ethridge is a freelance writer based in California. Find her at or on Twitter @fluxcapacitor74.

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