Jenny Uebbing | October 20, 2019

Question: I want Catholic advice on screen time. Not for myself, but for my kids. Not just TV, but having parents that constantly look at their phones and computers throughout the day. Am I going to be damaging my child as a working mom? How do I balance this necessity of checking emails and phone calls with quality time with my little ones?

The work life struggle is real. One of the greatest struggles of my own motherhood has been the tricky and as-yet-not-achieved balance between keeping the kids alive and thriving and keeping the bills paid.

I have always worked from home. I went into labor with our firstborn during a particularly memorable office lunch and cleaned off my desk on the way to the hospital. When maternity leave ended, I stepped away from the 9-5 for a remote work opportunity, and I haven’t looked back since. For the first year, it was a dream. The smartphone was still in its infancy, so I had decent boundaries by default. When the baby was awake, I was on mom duty. When he slept, I put on my professional hat. I’d pull out my laptop during nap times and in the evenings and tap away, making 30 hours a week appear from stolen mornings, afternoons, and weekends.

As he grew in mobility and awareness, the balancing act became a little trickier. No longer content to coo from his infant carrier under the table at Starbucks, I had to make some tweaks to the routine. And then his younger brother came along and I learned the definition of hustle.

By the time I was pregnant with number three, it was becoming evident that cramming little bits of work into nap time pockets was no longer cutting it. I was pulling late nights and I was definitely pulling out my phone far, far too often, basically spending my days feeling like I was failing moderately in both spheres.

Because there were no clear boundaries for either my professional or parenting life, I was consistently overwhelmed. If I had a great mommy day, I sweated over the mounting inbox. When I would disappear into a brilliant 2 hours of writing flow, it often came at the cost of little eyeballs while Netflix picked up the slack. (Nothing wrong with a little screen time now and then, but I allowed it to become our norm).

Finally, I had to concede the point that while technically I could keep them alive and work simultaneously, with three of them and one of me (and another on the way) I was outnumbered. I hired a high school girl to come twice a week for 5 hours at a time to work as a mother’s helper. She ran kid duty while I wrote as fast and furious as the words would come, and I relegated social media and email to the post-bedtime margins or the early mornings.

Except, as you might be able to guess, that’s not exactly how it went.

Yes, I was massively productive during those ten hours of hired help, but I continued to steal pockets of time throughout the day, every day, checking in for a quick peek here or there, answering an email at the park, replying to a comment while sitting in the library during story time, and on and on it went.

Now there’s nothing precisely wrong with any of those things, taken in isolation, but when you combine all the little moments of inattentiveness and just one minute, honey and not right now, go plays it adds up to a lot. A lot of choosing my paid work over my real work, these little people.

And a lot of modeling of crazy bad behavior that I didn’t want to see manifesting in my kindergartener ten years down the road at 16. Constantly checking the phone, putting up a hand to shush someone, stepping into the backyard or the bathroom for a quick call, checking emails at stoplights, and on and on it went.

The answer for me has been kind of radical and is still relatively new, but I share it with you here because it’s working for me in a powerful way. In short, I’ve given up my smartphone. I deleted all the apps, turned off the wifi, untethered my email, and am now carrying around a heavy calling/texting device that takes pretty pictures.

I don’t propose this as a catch-all solution for everyone, nor to to rail against the evils of smartphones while lamenting the death of the human attention span. But I do want to extend the invitation to consider if there is something in your own life that you can remove/tweak/rearrange in order to increase your real presence in the lives of the people you love.

Because that real presence is at the heart of our vocations as mothers. This does not mean a girl can’t work, can’t ever have a night out or a weekend away. But I want to propose that when work is over we need to let it be truly over. And unless you’re an OB or a Realtor, (and even then, for mental health’s sake!) it is reasonable to expect that certain hours hopefully entire days render you unavailable to anyone outside of your inner circle. Not because you aren’t mentally and physically capable of being available anywhere there’s WiFi, but because we shouldn’t have to live like that.

So I propose boundaries. Whether that means leaving the phone tethered to the charger between 10 am and 4 pm, switching to a dumb phone and relegating work time to specific hours at the computer (and actually adhering to those hours), or taking a day off midweek where you are utterly available to your children, it is essential that we the first women in history to face down the unique challenge of perpetual communication figure out how to do this. And then teach our kids how.

We are all parenting in uncharted territory with these devices of ours, and our kids are watching us to figure out what it means to be connected, and what it means to be a parent. We have to figure this out for their sake’s, and for our own, so that we can maintain a healthy sense of self while doling out a healthy amount of self-giving. Our vocations as mothers depend on us figuring this out. And demanding more from ourselves and from our jobs. If we accept this hyper-connectivity as the status quo, the status quo it will become. For many jobs, it already has.

On a final note, I want to say something radical and common sensical; perhaps not every job is suited for a mother whose children are still at home.

Our society struggles to admit gender differences, but children still very much need and want the love and presence of their mothers. And it is our job to advocate for that as their right, whether by demanding better flex options from our employers, putting up boundaries for ourselves if we’re self-employed, and perhaps even stepping out of the workforce entirely while they’re young. God really could call me or you to make that sacrifice, even at the expense of the mortgage or the car.

Because this motherhood gig? It’s the most serious and essential work on earth.