A few years ago, in a moment of intense but all-too-common desperation, I impulse-hired a nanny from Care.com based off a single 15-minute FaceTime call. She was a couple years older than me, the mother of three boys, and looking to make a little money while she worked on starting a small business. I figured, great, she’s a mom, she’ll “get it.” I expected she would quickly intuit how to care for and entertain two small children. What I didn’t count on was her showing up at my house acting like an exhausted mom, just with my kids now instead of her own.
She came for several days and, since I work from home, every time I quietly seethed as I watched her sit on the back porch, AirPods in, staring blankly at her phone. The kids bounced around and whined for her attention, bored out of their tiny minds. I ended the relationship within the week.
Not that this should have been a huge surprise. If there’s a recurring gripe amongst my mom friends about babysitters, it’s “she was on her phone the whole time.” And whenever a babysitter has occasion to drive one of my kids, I can’t resist calling after, “No texting while driving!” Phones seem to be the enemy of competent childcare and I now have a hard and fast rule: Anyone who watches my children needs to be engaged, on the kids’ level, and not distracted by screens, a.k.a. liking pictures and scrolling through TikTok. That goes for everyone. Except for me.
Because if I’m being completely honest, I can’t, for the life of me, manage to hold myself to the same standard. It’s one of my biggest sources of shame. I’m mostly at peace with my other secret failings as a mom: I let my kids watch TV in the mornings. I don’t manage to bathe them every day — fine, probably not even every other day. More than once I’ve let my kid sleep on a bare mattress when I was too tired to change the sheets in the middle of the night. And there are a lot of corn dogs and chicken nuggets going around the Baker household. I actually find joy in confessing these types of transgressions to other parents. They seem, I don’t know, kind of cute? At the very least unfiltered, harmless, nothings.
Because, in general, I believe that none of us are as good of parents as we purport to be, nor as bad as we believe ourselves to be. But it’s my reliance on my phone that makes me feel straight up bad about myself. In fact, while writing this, I went to look up my daily screen time average to share here and immediately X’d out. Nope, can’t do it, sorry.
Listen, I am the over share friend, the friend who can’t feel connected unless we both make admissions like a little blood oath. But the truth behind my phone usage is the one exception. The source of real, honest-to-god vulnerability. Like if you only knew the extent, you might actually think I’m a bad mom. Or worse, I might think I’m a bad mom.
I hate my phone, but only because I love it so. I hear other moms talk about how they need a glass of wine to get through dinner and bath time, but if asked to make a choice — alcohol or iPhone — I’d choose Apple every day of the week. I have no idea when it got so bad, this love affair with my phone, only I just know that at some point, I began to need this intimate time with my eyes glued to the screen the same way I used to crave chocolate or sex or really good sleep. Because even when I intend to set the phone down, to be in the moment, I often find myself picking it right back up again to look up just-one-more-thing before I forget. And that’s how it goes, reading about the dangers of screen time while ignoring my own children, wondering if every mother is doing the same or whether I really do have a problem.
There’s a theory called ego-depletion, which is the idea that willpower is connected to a limited reserve of mental energy. Once you’ve run out of that energy, you’re more likely to lose self-control. Now show me a mom whose mental energy reserve isn’t running on empty.
There are lots of things I would genuinely prefer doing other than staring into the screen abyss. I’d like to do a craft or brush up on my French or sit down with a good book or learn how to cook a halfway decent meal, but those are all activities that require a distraction-free zone that simply doesn’t exist here. So I settle for my phone. I settle for it because I do enjoy being present and available for my kids.
But my brain and my body need a break because — hello — work and parenting and relationship-building are demanding and I need to recharge my battery and the quickest weigh station at which to do so just so happens to be the little rectangle in the palm of my hand. Unlike that babysitter, my kids don’t need to bounce around and whine for my attention. I expect and welcome the interruption of my children. I love their long-winded stories and their sweaty hugs. I love doing drawing tutorials with them and playing on the waterslide. On the flipside, I don’t love playing pretend with figurines or chasing them around as a monster or refereeing sibling fights and I don’t love reminding them to brush their teeth. For eons, affairs have existed as a means to escape the unwanted aspects of a relationship. My great love affair just happens to be with my phone.
Chandler Baker is the New York Times bestselling author of Whisper Network, a Reese’s Book Club pick, as well as the Good Morning America Book Club selection The Husbands. A former corporate lawyer, she lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, two small children, and even smaller dog. Cutting Teeth is her third novel for adults.