How My Child Helped Me Learn to Unplug.

One piece of art; a long-lasting impact.

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He was a preschooler – full of awe and wonder with a joyful, open heart and mind. And, along with his older brother and my husband, one of the three brightest lights of my life.

I was that mom who thought I could do it all – running from work to after school activities to Board meetings like a champ. Kicking off high heels for sneakers at the speed of light. My secret power? The Blackberry, which had become another appendage on my body. By staying connected at all times, I felt I could be all things to all people. 

With tremendous gratitude for this new era, where groundbreaking technology allowed me to work remotely and be “ever-present” to my family, it really did feel like a bit of a “super-woman” experience. While watching my kids run around on the local playground, I led conference calls. As we walked the streets of our sweet village, the phone buzzed with “alerts”, prompting me to quickly respond to seemingly important emails. While the kids played on the floor of our living room after the sun went down, my laptop screen magically brought my clients right in front of me so that I could make use of every last moment of the day. I was with the kids almost all the time, and it felt great to have the kind of work life that allowed me to do so.

And although I spent a great deal of time working from my device, there’s no question that I was often the mom running WITH my kids on that playground or chatting about life’s most philosophical questions as we explored the streets of our hometown together. But there was another character in our story during those moments – that Blackberry. An intrusive third party who demanded my attention at all times. I, of course, hadn’t realized how much this character had become entrenched in our lives. I was too busy assuming I was knocking it out of the park with my “I can do it all” mentality.

One afternoon, feeling totally empowered as I wrapped up a big project, I made my way over to Montessori School to pick up my son. It was one of those days where the sun was shining, the sky was “Carolina blue,” and I felt like I was really “owning” my life as a working mom. 

As I arrived, my son came running over with arms wide open and a huge, warm smile on his face, just as he always did. He had a new masterpiece to show off. As I took the construction paper from him that still held the smell of magic marker, I looked into his eyes and thought, “I am the luckiest woman in the world. I get to enjoy a fulfilling career while he discovers his own unique talents and passions during the day.” I knew he loved art, and I couldn’t wait to absorb his new creation.

With one look at it, my heart dropped into my stomach and my eyes welled up.

The painting showcased a typical scene in our house. He and his brother were on the floor playing together, Dad was laughing with them (having just arrived home from work), and I was there as well – but I had the laptop open in front of me. 

Symbolic of technology’s intrusion into our family lives, the laptop screen was actually between my face and their joy in that eye-opening piece of art my sweet young son had created. I cried a million tears that night, apologized profusely to both kids as they fell asleep, and realized it was time to be more mindful of Blackberry’s role in my life.

Almost a decade has passed since that day. As my career has evolved, so too has technology. Today, we have social media channels to check constantly and a seemingly endless stream of emails and news alerts that could keep us reading 24/7. It is all extraordinary, and I am one of the lucky working moms who has been able to be there for my kids BECAUSE of the remarkable advances that have been made.  I can manage projects right from the same kitchen table where we have labored over math homework with our kids for hours on end, and can schedule conference calls with clients from all over the world around the needs of my family. 

But ever since I saw that one piece of art, I carry a message in my heart: put the device away whenever possible when enjoying family time. (Except, of course, to take photos to add to my beloved collection of images!) I’m far from perfect in this effort, but definitely more mindful than I was when they were little. I have tried to help the kids understand that there are specific times that must be carved out for work if I am going to be able to maintain my flexibility – but that those time blocks will, to the best of my ability, be scheduled around their needs – and that when they need to have a chat, I’m all ears (and eyes, too – realizing what a difference direct eye contact makes in communication).

Admittedly, I still get “sucked in” to the world available through my tiny screen (and they’re the first to remind me), but the piece of art my son created a decade ago has made a permanent mark on my heart and mind, still evoking emotion today. Now we have a mantra that I have asked our kids to speak when they see me getting caught up in my work life while we are enjoying precious time together: “people first.” And, of course, now that they’re getting older, I’m embracing every single moment with them as much as possible; I’m ever aware of how painfully fleeting time is. It breaks my heart to think of missing a meaningful conversation or moment. So I continue to pledge to give it all to being present, rather than giving it all to being all. 

I have been able to build a work life around those personal moments BECAUSE of technology – and for that I am truly grateful. The important thing is that I remember that I cannot be present to clients and my family simultaneously. It’s not fair to anyone (including myself).

While there are countless benefits to “plugging in” to the world outside our inner circles, I am reminded daily that the most important connections we make involve face-to-face contact and human-to-human sharing. At home and at work: “people first.” And I have found that the only way to make that mantra truly come to life is to be sure that the person who wants to share a moment with me feels like the most important person in that room. Because that person IS the most important one in the room in that moment. And if I design a schedule that designates time for both work and play – and avoid trying to blend the two – everyone feels connected.

Recently my son acknowledged that he’s lucky I have always been around to attend his events, help him with homework, and make sure we have a family dinner every night even though I’ve always maintained a full-time career. Sure, there are days when work demands are intense and sometimes have to come first. But as he and I discussed the role of technology in our lives, I smiled and thought about all of the photos in my iPhone gallery that include all 4 of us hiking, hanging out at home, enjoying sunsets at the river after dinner, and visiting people we love. My heart felt full.

Yes, not because of technology – but because on the days when we are most mindful of our relationship to technology (which takes work) and how to put that in context of the more important relationships we have with the people we love, I realize that most of us can really “have it all.” Our super power? Mindfulness.

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