It’s 8 a.m. on Sunday morning and the smell of coffee beckons from the kitchen. Rolling out of bed, I make my way to the living room sofa and groggily settle in between my husband and our eight-year-old daughter. She immediately snuggles against my side, chattering away.
I’m often on my phone right now, I think. I glance down at the red callus on my right pinkie—it had formed the past week from holding my iPhone. I knew I’d been on my phone more than usual lately, but that confirmed it. The raised skin was a hard reality check. Once my eyes saw it, I began wondering what else I hadn’t been seeing.
The lights from the stairwell flicker, catching our attention. On, then off, then on again. Our two-year-old son’s head eventually emerges from behind the railing. A wide smile spreads across his round face, clearly proud of his light show antics before ascending the stairs from his basement bedroom. His tiny feet pound against the hardwood, finally propelling himself into my husband’s lap.
I had been mid-conversation with our daughter, recounting my dream from the previous night about a vacation to Paris. Our family of six had been up until 1 a.m. playing charades beneath the sparkling Eiffel Tower. Turning back to my story, her brown eyes fix on mine. She gives me a giant, gap-toothed grin. A feeling of connection sinks in, stronger than I’d felt in a while.
It’s 10 a.m. and we’re piling out the door to church. Ten minutes late. I decide not to care, we had a newborn after all.
Isn’t that how I kept rationalizing my phone attachment the past couple weeks? I had a newborn, I was tired, my mind was distracted. What else was there to do during a 2 a.m. feed but scroll? And an 8 a.m. feed and 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. … Several times I’d looked down at our baby, she was looking up at me, but my eyes had been on my screen. How long had she been looking at me like that? I wondered what else I hadn’t been seeing.
We pull our SUV onto the country road. Trees with thick green leaves hug the shoulders. Several are laden with purple berries, branches sagging from the added weight. Mulberries! Just yesterday I’d told our four year old I’d take her mulberry picking. If I could find a tree.
How hadn’t I noticed those before? Didn’t we drive this way on Saturday’s family outing? Riding passenger side, I’d been checking email and Instagram. For the majority of the drive. Mulberry trees were elusive because my eyes were elsewhere. I keep them fixed out the window this time, and I wonder what else I hadn’t been seeing.
It’s 12 p.m. and our four year old is asking for Georgia peaches from the farmer’s market. Deciding to be spontaneous, we stop. I stay in the car and feed the baby while my husband and three other children browse the tent-covered stands.
I feel hidden, an observer of the world outside the car window. I’d usually be on my phone now. Instead I think of a photography series called Removed by Eric Pickersgill that I’d viewed recently. The artist set up scenes where people focused on their phones. Before taking the picture, the phones were removed from the people’s hands, but their focus remained where their phone had been. The images showcase our phone devotion. They highlight people together, but not together. Attention stolen by an addictively designed force.
I decide to people watch from this perspective. A mother and her three elementary aged children stroll through the parking lot, leaving a nearby community center. Fluorescent pink swim caps fit snugly against the children’s heads. They talk, seemingly engaged with one another.
The mom pulls out her phone, her eyes shift downward and glue to her screen the remainder of their walk. Her children continue to watch her. I construct a Pickersgill image in my mind, freezing the scene, I mentally remove her phone. The visual is striking.
Maybe she turned to her phone for something urgent, I decide. How many times recently had my eyes shifted when it wasn’t urgent? At all. I see my awareness increasing. I feel gratitude, not guilt. And I wonder what else I haven’t been seeing.
It’s 5 p.m. and our children are tired and hungry. Pre-dinner restlessness commences. Instinctively, I reach for my phone and begin to scroll. It feels better than listening to whining. I stop.
My mind drifts to yesterday evening. To the conversation with a mentor that inspired me to unplug. To experiment a while with what I hadn’t been seeing.
I had described myself as distracted, disconnected. Constantly tempted to check my phone in front of my family. Much quicker to impulse scroll than usual.
His response, although annoyingly Socratic, was what I needed to hear. He simply asked me to consider the symbol on the back of my iPhone. An apple with a bite out of it. To a Christian, it might as well be the symbol for temptation. He spoke of freedom—the ability to choose the good. To control our choices and actions. If I felt the need to grab my phone whenever I saw it, was I truly free? Who controlled who?
“Mama, eat, now!” I’m jolted back to the kitchen, our one-year-old son’s small hand pulls on my t-shirt. I look down at the six inch rectangle in my hand. I put it away. Looking down again, big brown eyes anchor onto mine. The smell of oven roasted potatoes wafts through the room. Promising him we’ll eat soon, I usher him to the sofa and grab a board book. He snuggles in close. I’m beginning to see what I hadn’t been seeing.
It’s 9 p.m., and I’m midway through another baby feed. I begin reflecting on the day. The day I put my phone back in its place. I feel more focused, calmer, and more connected than any recent day. The words of author Mel Robbins pop into my mind:
“Don’t miss out on your life just because you’re too busy scrolling through someone else’s.”
The temptation is real. For all of us. And in a postpartum, sleep-deprived fog, I—previously so intentional around my phone—had succumbed. If my phone-related choices continued unchecked, I now knew exactly what I wouldn’t be seeing. My life.
Life is full of moments that only happen once, in real time. Moments we miss if our eyes are downward.
Take a minute today and consider who has the upper hand in your relationship with your phone.
If it’s not you, it’s time to take it back.
You won’t know what you’ve been missing until you see it.
About the Author: Julia Ubbenga is a freelance journalist and mom of four who documents her family’s journey into minimalism on her blog Rich in What Matters. Her teachings on simplicity and intentional living help others live with less stuff and more life.