Hands-Free but not guilt-free

Mom cell phone-200This year, I’m trying to be a hands-free mama. I made a resolution to keep my cell phone in one specific spot in the house (out of sight and out of reach), while I was interacting with my children and my husband, in order to prevent the obsessive checking of e-mail and Facebook. Mostly I did this in order to model good behavior for my kids: if I don’t want to raise people who check their phones in the middle of live conversations, then I realized I couldn’t be one of those people myself.

Book cover-175I was excited, then, to read the recently published Hands Free Mama: A Guide to Putting Down the Phone, Burning the To-Do Lists, and Letting Go of Perfection to Grasp What Really Matters! by Rachel Macy Stafford (Zondervan, January), which I hoped would provide me with some good tips. Stafford is a former special education teacher turned mommy blogger, who had a revelation a few years ago when she realized her commitments were causing her to miss out on important time with her children. She launched her Hands Free Mama blog to adjust the focus of her life. The blog in turn launched the book, which was released on January 7th of this year. Stafford is now also leading a Stress-Less Parenting Workshop for the Huffington Post in which those registered will receive weekly challenges from Stafford via e-mail.

The book is organized into twelve chapters, each with its own objective, recommended activities, and reflections. Stafford suggests making the book a year-long project, completing one objective each month. The first chapter, for example, focuses on Awareness, and recommends setting aside specific times each day to go “Hands-Free” (i.e. put down your phone), and reassessing your daily priorities and over-achieving to-do lists to focus on what is really important. The chapters continue from there, all with more or less the same theme of altering the way you spend time each day and interact with your family. Here, then, was my first issue with the book: it wasn’t really about putting down your phone. Instead, being “hands-free” seems to be a catchy phrase that actually refers to re-prioritizing your entire life.

Stafford-175 We can just accept the fact that this book is not really for people who want to curb their cell phone addictions, but more for parents who feel that their priorities are completely out of whack. This is all well and good, except that in her myriad advice to such people, Stafford seems to continually assume that they (like her) have the option of completely restructuring their lives or the way they spend their time. On her website, Stafford describes herself as a “work-at-home mom who beautifully juggled family responsibilities with volunteer activities for my church, community and my daughter’s school.” What strikes me about Stafford’s description of the work she had to let go of is the word “volunteer.” She had the choice to give up the many activities competing for her time and to refocus her attention on her daughters. While this fact doesn’t make her advice for doing the same less valid, her failure to acknowledge this relatively unique circumstance can be alienating for any reader struggling with demands on her time that are not so easily dismissed.

Complicating all of this even further is the notion, underlying the entire book, that to whatever degree they are able to rearrange priorities, mothers should do so in favor of spending more time with their children. (I say mothers here because any mention of how fathers might make corresponding adjustments is missing from the book.)

Stafford writes, “Anyone who feels buried, regardless of background or circumstances, can let go of distraction and grasp what really matters.” The implication, shown through the various suggested activities throughout the book, is that what really matters is paying nearly constant attention to your children. Stafford begins the book with the realization that led to her project that she was frequently missing out on moments in her children’s lives. This theme of “missing out” is constantly repeated throughout the book. Sure, Stafford could have looked at her phone (or read a book, or emailed a friend) while her children played by themselves in the doctor’s office waiting area, but then she would have missed out on something: A conversation! A coloring competition! A moment of snuggling!

While I don’t mean to trivialize moments that are clearly important for Stafford, I would argue that this emphasis perpetuates the idea that bearing witness to our children’s every waking moment is the only worthwhile pursuit for mothers. To be fair, Stafford’s Weekly Intentions do acknowledge that people may choose for themselves whatever is most important for them. For example, she advocates for developing a “Life List” of what is most important to you, and eliminating any activities that don’t support those priorities. Readers are free to set these priorities however they choose, whether they be on their relationships, or health, or volunteering (suggestions all provided by Stafford). But while Stafford includes a multitude of suggestions for spending meaningful time with children, the book doesn’t suggest any activities for those whose priorities might include fitness, or strengthening relationships with friends or a significant other.

Well, sure, but it’s a book about becoming a better parent after all—of course the recommendations are all focused on time with children. This to me is the precisely the problem: the notion that time with children equals better parenting, when in fact sometimes the opposite is the case. I would argue that a night out with friends, or an afternoon of volunteering, would make you a better parent, but nothing like this is ever advocated in the book. What appears at first glance, then, to be a collection of strategies for re-prioritizing your life to focus on what’s really important seems instead to be just another way to trick mothers into believing that the best thing they can ever do is spend time with their kids, and to guilt those of us who either can’t—or don’t want—to put everything else aside so that we don’t miss another precious moment.

 

Photo credits:

Hands: Eunice, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ejchang/

Mother: Gary Houlder, Taxi Photo

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