As some of my regular readers might recall, I kicked off Lent this year with an Internet fast. It lasted a little over one week, although it wasn’t a true fast since I did permit myself a daily email check.
For several days, however, I went completely unplugged (no email, no fidgeting with iPhone apps, no computer-ish technology at all). These were good days. They were days that were marked more by what was left undone, unopened, and unsaid than by how many emails I’d responded to, how many blogs I’d read, or how much information I’d gleaned from the World Wide Web. They were days when the only hive of activity I paid any attention to was the happy buzz of my children.
During these days, I read more books than blogs. I talked to God, my children, and my husband more than I talked with my fingers flying across a keyboard.
There were no slow downloads to frustrate me (or my children who didn’t have to wait for Mommy’s slow downloads).
There was plenty of fresh air and giggles and sweet whispers I might have missed had the “noise” of technology drowned them out.
Yes, these were indeed good days, but they couldn’t last forever. To be a modern mom demands that I don’t completely sever myself from technology. Email and the Internet are a part of my life, my children’s life, and my husband’s life.
But what this weeklong fast and the subsequent limits on screen time during Lent did teach me is that I can and must keep technology (namely email and the limitless information on the Internet) from having too much control over me. I can and must find a way to marble it into my life without it becoming the focus of my life.
As Lent progressed, I realized I may have been too unrealistic and strict about my online time. Checking my email once a day, for instance, started adding more stress instead of less. Each time I checked my inbox, I panicked at the sheer number of emails. I also stressed out when I discovered an email from an “in real life” (what bloggers refer to as IRL) friend who needed something. While there was always a heap of junk mail, there were always a number of messages from friends who needed something yesterday. There were prayer requests and Evite invitations and notes from my homeschooling co-op.
Email has become the standard way of communicating. Whether I like this or not (and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t), I can’t ignore this fact. Still, I knew I didn’t want my email account to control me or devour too much of my precious time. So I decided that maybe I should plan for two email checks a day – one to clear, archive, organize, etc. the messages and one session to answer to the emails that needed a more timely response. I hated to be too rigid, but I realized I needed to set a specific time frame to accomplish these tasks to keep me from getting too carried away in Email Land and from squandering the hours in my day as well as the time I should be devoting to serving my family. Unfinished sentences and email drafts were completely acceptable and even necessary if I was to fully embrace my primary vocation of being a wife and mother.
Now that Lent is over I’ve decided to continue to try to embrace a relaxed version of this “rule” for my everyday life. I’ll make plans to check my email in the morning, the midday, and possibly the evening but not much else during the day when I’m supposed to be fully present in my children’s lives. After all, what’s the point of being an at-home mom if I’m always “working” on the computer? Whatever I can’t get accomplished in a certain set of time will just have to wait (and wait and wait and wait, if necessary).
Likewise, I will not allow single emails to spiral into inordinate amounts of time spent online. Early on in Lent I received an email about something I’d written that started to cause me to worry (obsess?). It spurred me to break my “no commenting on blogs” fast (which was supposed to last for the duration of Lent, not just a week). I commented on a blog, and then felt like I had to send out just one more email to address the comment further. (Too often I fall into the trap of “just one more email.”)
Then I started talking to my husband about it.
As I rambled on about the comment, my subsequent comment, and then my email addressing my subsequent comment, I realized just how difficult detachment is, especially with something that you can’t completely live without but something that certainly shouldn’t have any control over you or keep you in shackles and from living a life of peace.
My mind was racing. My words were flying out of my mouth, and then my husband said it: “Let it go.”
Let. It. Go.
Easier said than done, but so, so worth the effort.
So I worked on letting it go, although it took a whole lot of willpower. I went completely unplugged for another day. It wasn’t easy. And, of course, I started to wonder what else I’d be missing.
But when I caught something silly one of my daughters said, I thought for the first time that maybe I should have been thinking about what all I had been missing in life, not in my email inbox, by being tethered to the computer.
In fact, my moments of weakness were what helped the most to unblind me to just how dependent on technology I’d become. Computers, email, etc. are supposed to make my life easier. They’re supposed to make me better able to do necessary work more quickly, but I don’t work or do less. Instead, I too often use my boosted productivity as a reason to do more. My expectations of what I ought to accomplish in one day have been raised. I’m speeding ahead, clicking away, and I fear, missing out on so much.
We don’t like to be time killers, but the Internet can do just that – kill our time so that we have very little leftover to make real connections with the people whom we love to most.
With the dawn of the information age, we can “go” endless places. With just a few key strokes and the click of a mouse, we can arrive at social and intellectual destinations. We can find new friends on Facebook and carry on a “conversation” on Twitter. We can read about philosophy, cooking, art, or whatever is on our mind just by Googling it. Instant gratification has become the status quo. We no longer have to wait for much of anything.
Once upon a time, for example, I was forced to stay tuned to a radio station in hopes the DJ would play my favorite song. The alternative was waiting until I’d saved up enough money to buy the CD. Now I can just click over to iTunes and listen to my favorite songs whenever I want. I can even create my own radio station on Pandora. We used to have to look up stock market prices and sports scores in the morning paper. Now I can check box scores, stocks, the weather, virtually anything just on my iPhone. Dewey Decimal? Who’s (what’s?) that? Just Google it. Don’t waste your time at that primitive place called a library. We don’t even have to wait for nature to unfold its beauty. Instead, time lapsed photography shows us the bud swelling and bursting with colorful petals in a matter of seconds.
We can go anywhere, see virtually anything, meet new “friends,” engage in political discourse, find answers to so many of life’s questions…. But at what cost?
When the whole health care legislation went down during Lent, I found myself breaking my screen time rules left and right (pun sort of intended). I told myself it was because I needed to be informed.
Yet, there’s such a thing as TMI. I have a tech-savvy friend who is always connected who would disagree. She believes knowledge is power and the more you harvest off the Internet, the better. But to me there comes a point when there’s an inverse relationship between information and understanding. We’re now able to gather so much information that there just doesn’t seem to be enough room in our brains to process it. (Or maybe I’m the only mom out there who sometimes feels scattered and pulled in a million directions???)
The whole ethos of our culture is that if the technology exists, we should use it. And sometimes, a lot of times even, we should. During our house-hunting adventure, the Internet has been invaluable in helping us. Google Maps is great, and Zillow is chock full of useful information.
But it can swallow you whole, too. It can be so overwhelming. My husband and I were once looking at listings in our new town when we decided to check out houses in an old town where we used to live. We started looking at our old neighborhood and going on virtual tours of homes that were now on sale near our old street when I suddenly asked, “Why are we wasting time doing this?”
“I have no idea,” my husband responded.
It’s easy to hit the computer to look up a phone number or to find directions and then end up wasting inordinate amounts of time on other links that catch your eye. I walk away with all this new information, but I never had a chance to digest any of it. It’s like trying to gulp down your Thanksgiving turkey and side dishes all at once. You end up full, but you missed all the different flavors. Besides, I don’t want to gain only information; I want wisdom, and I don’t think that Google can help us find much wisdom that easily.
Since my Lenten Internet fasting, I’m working on balance. I don’t want to miss out on some of the enriching, encouraging content to be found on blogs and elsewhere. I love how the Internet can faciliate relationships and reveal the Good News. Just recently I’ve been discovered several new e-friends who are kindred spirit as well as found an encouraging space where I’m free to be myself without the fear of being judged.
Yes, I love that the Internet allows me to meet incredible people I probably otherwise never would have encountered and to wander off to encouraging places; yet, when I really, really think about it, the only place I really want to find myself is nowhere a click of a mouse can take me. The people who matter to me the most are right in front of me. Where do I really like to find myself? In my home with my family. Outside in the sunshine. Lost in the pages of a good book. In the cloistered silence of the Adoration Chapel.
Sometimes I fantasize about my family making a home far away from it all and going completely off the grid. Then I start to think about how much I’d miss Target. :-) Seriously, I’m a realist. I know my leave-it-all-behind-forever fantasy is not practical. My family’s future is not in jam-making on some desolate plot of land. My husband has patients to serve. He’s tied to his pager. I’m a mom and a writer. Both of which are solitary pursuits and demand I connect with others. The Internet makes that easy, and I truly do see it as a gift to me. But like most gifts, it can be abused.
So I’ve come up with a new set of guidelines to help me to ensure that I’m spending more time connecting with my real life and not only that one on the Web. Aside from scheduled email checks, I share some guidelines that evolved from my Lenten Internet fast:
Get outside every day.
When you’re stuck inside, especially if you live in a cozy (read: small) townhouse like we do, the computer can seem like the only vehicle to get you anywhere remotely exciting. When we stay within our walls too long, my kids get antsy and ask about TV. I, in turn, start reaching out to my e-friends or visiting “places” on the Web. If I’m really restless, I’m tempted to Google really random things like “how to build a canoe.” (Please tell me I’m not the only weirdo who does this.) But when we venture outside, we forget about technology. We pay attention to the way the wind is blowing or the color of the sky. We notice shapes in the clouds and ants crawling on the sidewalk. As a mom to three little ones, I can’t always travel to fun places like the zoo, but we can take a little time every day to explore our world – the real world not the one that is two-dimensional on the computer screen.
Don’t feel like you have to respond to every email or comment you receive.
Read and be thankful of all of your blog comments and emails, but don’t feel like you have to respond to each one. I turned off my comments during Lent (except for one post on postpartum depression where I wanted readers to support one another). While I missed the chatter, the encouragement, and the sense of community the combox can build, I didn’t miss the guilt that sometimes comes along with the fact that I can’t respond to every person who comments on my blog or emails me. I want to live the life I preach. My blog slogan is “will work for children.” I’d better be spending more of my time working for them than responding to emails and comments.
When we only used the phone or written letters to correspond to people, there was no way we could keep in touch with the big circle of friends we can do now, thanks to the Internet. I love meeting new people, but I can’t invest so much time cultivating new e-relationships that I let my relationship with the people (and God!) whom I love the most suffer.
Pick up the phone.
I’m not a big phone person. I never have been, not even as a social teenager. I can always carry on lengthy chats with my mom, but I tend to get nervous on the phone and ramble. Therefore, I much prefer email. I like being able to think about my words before putting them out there (yes, I’ve been known to suffer from foot-in-mouth-disease on more than one occasion).
Sometimes it seems my kids prefer email, too. When I’m talking on the phone, they see and hear that they’re not being included in a conversation. However, when I “talk” with the keyboard, they’re often more tolerant. Maybe they don’t feel as left out. Whatever the case, I relied on the phone a bit more during Lent and even though things got a little crazy and kids started losing it, I have to say it was so nice to hear some of my good friends’ voices. It was wonderful to hear their laughs instead of just seeing LOL on my computer screen. The phone allows for a true conversation. It’s interactive, and there’s no character limit like on Twitter! (Great for a woman of clearly too many words like me!). So I’m going to make more of an effort to call friends occasionally rather than only relying on the keyboard to do my talking. And good friends completely understand if you have to cut them off to avert a kid disaster.
Pay close attention to your kids’ cues.
Sometimes I’ll decide I have the time to squeeze in some writing on the computer or some blog reading when my girls are engaged in play. I’ll pull out my laptop and start writing or reading. Then one of my kids will stop what she’s doing hover close by. Sometimes she’ll even poke at my computer. It’s infuriating and so easy to get frustrated and to think, “Wait a minute. You were just playing. This is my time. Let me at least finish this thought.”
However, in my experience, this line of thinking or pushing aside of a little stalker usually leads to a more clingy child and/or a frustrated mom. So instead I click “save” or I star an email or article or blog post I’d like to read later, and I give my children my full attention. They deserve it. This rule applies to phone conversations as well.
Realize you will miss things.
This isn’t so much something I can do but something I just have to learn to accept. There are tons of news articles that would make me a more informed citizen. There are so many blogs I’d like to read every single day because I know they would encourage me and offer me wisdom that I need to grow as a wife, mother, and Christian. There are great craft sites and recipes I’d love to explore. There’s breathtaking photography, helpful homeschooling forums, and support for attachment parenting. There’s so much I’d like to consume. But I can’t. I have to accept that I’m going to miss great words, helpful advice, beautiful images, and important headlines. The sooner I accept this the sooner I can get on with the important stuff – like being an attentive mom, a prayerful woman, and a loving spouse.
I have to also realize that other moms are in the same boat. Just because someone doesn’t visit my blog or include it on their blogroll doesn’t mean my words have never spoken to them. It just means they have to work with a finite number of hours in their day. Similarly, when I don’t visit a blog or a site or comment on it, it doesn’t mean it’s because I don’t enjoy the words I read over there. It may mean a sick child needs my arms to hold her. It may mean there are veggies to be chopped for a dinner salad. It may mean I haven’t had a single moment for myself and when I do, I need to use it to pray so I can have the strength and patience to keep at this 24/7 mothering gig.
When I shoot off an email to a blogging mom I admire or appreciate, I always love hearing back from her. However, I don’t take it personally if I never receive a personal response. Please don’t take it personally if I don’t respond to you either. Know that I LOVE hearing from you, but my family needs me active in their lives probably more than you do. :-)
Simplify/streamline your technology outlets.
Every day it seems like another great social networking site or online community pops up. I’m tempted to join them all, but, again, I can’t. So I’ve picked a few and I’m sticking to them without a twinge of guilt or regret.
I’ve also started becoming a copycat over at my Google Reader. As I’ve mentioned, I cannot possibly keep up with all the quality blogs out there, so I often rely on a select few friends and their shared items to keep me in the loop. Sometimes I feel like a copycat sharing their items, but it really helps cut down on the time I spend sifting through piles of posts. I do still try to share a few diverse items, but I’m very grateful for all my friends’ pared down selections.
Schedule regular breaks from the Internet and email.
This is very, very important. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the online world that you forget what you’re missing in real life. Even if you just make Sunday or one other day of the week an unplugged day, you’ll gain so much perspective. It really is freeing to carve out time where you don’t have to be online. Personally, it helps me if I put out an automated response on my email when I’m unplugged. Although I don’t really like to leave people with an impersonal message, I know that if someone who is close to me really needs to get some information to me, they’ll know to call.
Turn off the computer an hour before your scheduled bedtime.
I occasionally have to break this rule because of a freelance deadline or something else, but I’m really trying to stick to it. My husband’s evenings are often filled with studying or work-related stuff, so I had gotten in to the habit of whittling away the nighttime hours online. This not only kept me up too late, but it also affected my quality of sleep. This is unfair to myself and to my children. I’m frequently up with my little nursling, so I have to sleep soundly when I can. Now I aim to spend at least an hour reading or practicing gentle stretches or praying or journaling (the old-fashioned way with a pen and notebook) rather than staring at the glaring screen of a computer.
I had a few other tips, but my baby is up from her nap (older girls are with their Pop*; thank you, Pop for all of your help!), so I’m taking my own advice and letting this go unfinished. These are the important ones anyway. I would love to hear how you – whether you’re a blogger or just someone who emails, etc. – strike a balance with technology.
*This post has been in the works for a long time, but I’m just getting around to posting it, which is a good thing since it means I’ve been sticking to some of my new rules. :-)