Spotlight ~ Cutting the Cord

Reflecting on My 1st National Day of Unplugging

Originally published on May 17, 2019

“You are in no position to unplug COMPLETELY, Mom!”  Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom. Or was it misconception?  I was about to find out…

As sundown approached that evening I found myself standing in my office, also known as the kitchen, waiting on the appetites that would soon be descending into the kitchen’s barstools, forks (and phones) in hand.  I hope that opening statement doesn’t imply I wasn’t ready and willing to accommodate these ‘hangry’ kiddos because, in actuality, my kitchen is my happy place. It’s the place I’m most comfortable and, for over 30 years, most productive.  Whether I’m cooking up the short orders of the day for my children or folding a load of laundry, I feel hugely successful day in and day out because I enjoy being busy and tackling tasks one after the other. You might be wondering what this has to do with National Day of Unplugging and I can understand your query.  Allow me to make my position clear and also the revelations revealed to me in the two dozen hours that followed sundown on that first day of March 2019.

I must confess I was looking forward to signing off.  So much so that I buzzed around the house that afternoon announcing to whoever was within earshot…”It’s the National Day of Unplugging and I’m signing off of my phone as soon as the sun goes down!”  Insert here sixteen-year-old daughter, Melina, and her declaration that I am in NO position to entirely unplug from anything, especially my phone. She went on to illustrate that, as a mom, it simply wasn’t responsible for me to disconnect completely.  I assured her that this particular day was actually the perfect opportunity for me to accept the challenge as this year’s National Day of Unplugging fell on a weekend, and weekends mean freedom in my world. For one, I don’t need to check my work email as frequently, and two, my younger trio (ages 14, 16 and 16) are typically home relaxing and enjoying the bliss that comes with the start of any given weekend.

Fast forward to the sun setting in Glenview that evening at 5:41 pm.  I made one final announcement to my family and with a swipe and a tap…I was officially signed off.  My phone instantly and automatically was set to respond to a text with the message that I was currently unavailable and would get back with them as soon as I could.  A second message immediately followed, explaining I wouldn’t be receiving notifications at all while signed off and they should text the word URGENT for their message to override the setting. This second message is the key that unlocks the door for parents to embrace this whole idea of going phone-free. It allows for peace of mind in terms of remaining available in case of an emergency. You’re welcome, Melina!!

I was excited I’d accepted the challenge and felt pretty confident I’d be able to stay unplugged for the full 24 hours without any problem at all.  The feeling that initially washed over me as I stood in my phone-free reality was FREEDOM. The other word that comes to mind is UNtethered. I literally felt like I’d been given the gift of time.

I felt like I would be able to focus completely on whatever I wanted to do without the distraction of my phone – which, up to this point, had become the equivalent of a little babe that I never put down far enough away that I couldn’t hear it cry.  

There I was, on a typical Friday night, open to the possibilities that a full-send UNPLUG might bring… With sunset came dinnertime and the few things I’d had planned for that evening.  It wasn’t anything too exciting as my husband and I enjoy our home more than anyplace else I can think of.  Our typical Friday night almost always includes a salad from our favorite restaurant, our kids slipping in and out of the family room, and a Dateline and 20/20 marathon. Usually, I keep my phone next to me, checking work/personal email along with texts and the occasional scan of my Facebook notifications.  

Without that to divert my attention and detract from whatever I was focusing on during any given chunk of time, I was able to focus solely on those things I’d devoted my evening to. Per usual, I ate with my husband and enjoyed some eyeball to eyeball conversation. If I’d set a place at the table for my phone, our conversation might’ve been somewhat spasmodic, but not tonight. We ate and chatted and I took note that our dinner lasted a bit longer than we were used to. It was nice. Afterwards, I watched my two favorite shows without distraction, grocery shopped all peaceful and relaxful-like, and baked some pumpkin bread for next morning. I even had time to get a workout in.  

It seemed I had more than enough time to do everything I wanted to do that evening because of the extra time unplugging afforded me.  As I lay in bed that night, phone somewhere other than my night table, I thought about the day ahead. I set goals for the 8-9 hours I would have without a screen and looked forward to it, knowing both the quantity and quality of my time would definitely be amplified. I drifted off to sleep as my brain quietly processed the shift in my subconscious from screen reliance to regulation.

Morning broke and I hit the ground running.  I knew I had to check boxes on all the usual Saturday morning tasks and things moved right along.  Morning coffee, breakfast for all, laundry machine loaded, rides to practice at the high school to name a few.  The only part of the morning that I thought about reaching for my phone was while I was drinking my coffee. On any given morning I use this time to check emails and texts,  making sure to clear out junk mail and respond to texts from the night before.

Instead, that screen-free morning, I sat right by the kitchen window and took in the yard and all that a nearly-spring morning had to offer.  The squirrels had been scampering about gathering and gorging on whatever they could get their little paws on. I took in the birds that were hopping from tree to tree and the flock of ducks that our neighbor fed each day as they slowly crossed our yard for their daily handout.  I actually LOVED the peace that I felt as I sat there in my soundless and tranquil kitchen. Everyone else in the house was still sound asleep.

For the rest of the day, I didn’t find myself feeling bored for even a moment.

Not only that, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything either. It was reassuring to know that anyone trying to reach me knew exactly what my position was and that I wasn’t choosing to ignore their communication.  It also helped that it was a Saturday and I knew I could count on my husband to ‘come in off the bench’ and be present for our kids if they needed anything while I was away. And I did step away – for several hours, actually – but not before having the pure joy of making some homemade chicken soup for my most favorite cousin who was home recovering from brain surgery.  I intended to drop it off later in the afternoon on my way to a scheduled appointment, and that’s the very way things played out. After the soup drop around noon, I went to my favorite place for a pedicure with the lovely Vickie.

Vickie is a sweet Asian woman I’ve been going to for many years.  We’ve always connected during my pedicures, albeit sporadically because of the distraction of my phone on my lap, but today was different.  Without my phone in hand and the impulsive feeling to check it every few minutes, I was able to genuinely immerse myself in the topics of conversation that arose.  It occurred to me that, when I DO have my phone in somewhat monotonous encounters like a pedicure, I check it mindlessly because it’s THERE and not because I really NEED to.  

I’m sure this mindless action sends the message to Vickie that I might be searching for something more important than whatever she’s sharing, which, in my opinion, takes away from the meaningfulness and sincerity of our discussion.  I say this because it’s exactly how I feel when the shoe’s on the other foot and I’m doing the sharing. That said, on THIS day I felt lighter and happier than usual leaving the salon. I had the sense I’d just done something very special for not only Vickie, but for myself, because the quality of our time together was so much more satisfying.

In the car between errands, I left the radio off.   I allowed myself to daydream. It’s not the first time I’ve driven somewhere without the radio, but it was the beginning of a habit I’ve actually continued ever since.  In doing so, I’ve discovered I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I don’t mean to imply that driving in silence is the key to contentment, but what I will propose is that it affords you the opportunity to think about things that you may not otherwise have the time to really marinate in.  

When I’m presented with that kind of time now, I tend to direct my thoughts to the things in my life that make me the happiest. I think about my kids and whatever it is about them that makes me smile. This will generally take me down memory lane, which can almost always be a very good thing.  And, when it isn’t, I allow myself to contemplate things that haven’t been so easy or a situation I may have mishandled for whatever reason. It allows me to really think through things in a way that helps me accept certain circumstances or grow from a lesson learned. I’ve honestly noticed a shift in my presence and I’m loving the positivity that seems to have resulted from this simple action.

By the time I arrived home that afternoon, it was after 5 and nearly sundown.  I had squeezed in a stop at my favorite Marshall’s before heading home and I can’t tell you how relaxing it was to peruse the aisles, phone-free, feeling I had all the time in the world TO MYSELF.  And that is how I would describe the overall takeaway from National Day of Unplugging 2019.

Going phone-free, while unrealistic 24/7, transformed my time from somewhat unconscious to completely aware of everything I did that day.

It turned time into something I felt I could manage and even enjoy instead of the imaginary ticking we all hear when we’re trying to manage too many things at the same time. It’s true that, as a mother, I am rarely in a position to completely sign off from my family.  But, I realized that it IS possible with some teamwork and should be something I make an effort to do if I want to create true quality time for myself.

Having this experience has absolutely inspired me to unplug again and again.  I have yet to run into a situation when I’ve actually missed something that couldn’t be recreated.  Circling back to my teenage daughter’s point that it’s not possible or responsible for a mom to sign off from her phone, I would beg to differ.  I think in large part, their discontent is associated with their need for ‘instant gratification’. All three of my younger children initially reacted poorly when my ‘away message’  instantly informed them I was unavailable. I was ok with that because I knew, eventually, they would be ok with it too. It has served as a lesson in patience and a reminder that it is not realistic for their every want and need to be fulfilled the moment it arises.  It’s still a work in progress, but like everything else that’s new or uncomfortable, it’s getting easier with practice.

Since March 1st, I’ve found myself looking for opportunities to sign off, but I recognize that habits are as difficult to create as they are to break, and I need to work harder at it.   I find it easiest to do when I’m exercising or driving. My goal is to arrive at a point where I instinctively sign off if the circumstances are ideal because I recognize it’s both necessary and worthwhile.  It’s also my obligation as a mother to model the practice for my family. I strongly believe that in order to be a lifelong learner, one that continues to evolve and grow, we must remain open to new experiences and the possibility that change can be a very good thing, even when they seem radical.

I think the general population, particularly parents, recognize that gaining awareness is the first step in addressing screen addiction, and doing so will not only be a good thing…but vital in healing the digital dependency that is now an epidemic.

I, for one, am happy I embraced the challenge and have committed to being more intentional with my tech-use from now on.

🥑 Elizabeth Nestos

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