Recently I watched a mash-up of family videos in piece meal fashion from my childhood. This is normal in our family since Dad was famous for taping over one event to catch the next one, not deliberately, but because we were always running out of film. We flew through memories strung together out of chronological order. I watched milestones of my life squeeze together like sardines – my First Holy Communion, girl scout ceremonies, band concerts, dance performances, my sweet sixteen, school dances, my high school graduation and many moments of every day life with my siblings and friends.
Memories, thoughts and feelings flooded my senses on all sides as I watched with my family, their milestones as well. My grandparents, all faithfully departed now, made appearances, as did dear old friends and teachers. I paid close attention to my parents – such young, brave smiles, yet surely struggling with the same exhaustion, longings and worries which I face today with my husband.
Mom always had a smile and a quip to share on camera. They would be brief, but thoughtful and insightful, as if she was a documentarian or a journalist. Sometimes she’d be seen in her nightgown, waving the camera away with a laugh in the morning or bringing a brightly lit birthday cake out to the dining room one evening. Dad is always behind the camera and never featured in the footage. Which is astounding to me, because my father is a presence that you feel before he even enters a room. You sense him in every moment of the footage, seeing the way he sees the world, relates to people, and cherishes his family. Most of all, how earnestly he wants to capture the fleeting quality of a present moment. He always has a comedic comment, or a thought-provoking question (usually directed to a kid from the neighborhood with a “deer in the headlights” expression). The footage is rarely dull, especially with four children leaping around.
All personality and characteristics aside, what struck me was how hard my parents were working. Not by carrying rail ties and heaving bricks as some of their great grandparents did before them, but by being so engaged in their environment when they were home. Nothing was diverting their attention from the tasks of taking care of a home and children, yet we were always aware of the adult world my parents maintained that coexisted peacefully within ours.
They were industrious when I was a child. During the day, Mom would have to pick up a phone to actually reach the outside world (which she’d only do if it was functional, or to talk to her own parents). She didn’t even indulge in daytime television. When not caring for us and getting us from point A to B, she was either cleaning house, cooking a fairly complicated meal or tending to the yard or pool. At night she would curl up with a book or sit on the patio to talk to Dad over a glass of wine. When Dad was not traveling, his quiet moments at home were spent either playing the piano, working on his computer, praying a rosary or reading.
Most nights Dad would come home around 7pm, often with migraines, but he tried to be cheerful. We would have already been fed and bathed, and he’d lay on the living room sofa and we’d bring him a cool cloth. Some evenings he would lay on his stomach on the floor and we would pretend to give him acupuncture with Mom’s shrimp peelers. He was a good sport. When bedtime came and Mom was packing lunches, my eldest sister would set aside her Calculus homework or her flute practice, and help with night prayers and stories.
Despite the fact that my father worked for IBM for nearly 18 years and technology was an ever-present theme in my childhood, there were no devices in plain sight, aside from the family television and the IBM PC’s which had some basic games. We never owned nintendo or anything fancy or exciting, my parents didn’t buy into the culture of getting us the latest and greatest. They believed in experiences, and with the help of frequent flyer miles they took us abroad, to concerts, museums and events. They made teachable moments out of nearly every experience, and when we had free time at home, it was spent/wasted the old-fashioned way, making up our own fun, or being outside with neighbor kids until the light post in the front yard turned on, signaling it was time to come in.
A simple summer day in my childhood involved swimming in our pool, riding bikes with friends, and in the evenings we’d play four square in the street or watch a movie together. When my Dad wasn’t traveling, he’d be relaxed at home and we’d sometimes put on a family talent show. Dad would tape us singing, acting and dancing and Mom would be our faithful audience member cheering us on. Many times neighbors and friends would be willing (and unwilling) participants in these “productions.” We were all just so happy to have each other in those days, it was all we needed.
Today, I have to remind myself to smile at my children when I see them in the morning, as if it is a task on a “to do” list. Don’t they know I have to log onto Facebook first, before I pray, or have breakfast, let alone smile? My attention is so fractured, so split. I often wonder, will they remember me as an engaged mother or just a present one? Parenting young children is already a time of frequent small natural distractions. But adding in the constant temptation of social media too? Too easily we can become a generation of parents who don’t even realize our names have been called several times until we say half-heartedly “just one minute,” because we’ve been pulled into an invisible world kids just don’t see. How it must look to them, these screen that we parents stare at, on and off, all day long. It gives me pause for thought in my own life.
Speaking for my demographic, social media has such a strong appeal for stay- at- home Moms because it can fill a need for connection in times of isolation. Like anything, it’s good in moderation. And in our defense, most of our family activities and interests are now connected with Facebook, for example. But unlike a favorite morning program or phone conversation, there is no finite end to the distractions we have today. They are all-consuming, they just keep going, and there’s no one to stop us but ourselves.
No generation of parents will be perfect, there will always be some mark that we miss. But I think the idea is to avoid missing the big marks. The big picture is that we can’t lose touch with the next generation. And beyond friending them on Facebook and following them on twitter, I mean by demonstrating the value of full attention. The value of feeling empty-handed, maybe even to the point of feeling awkward. The importance of driving with BOTH hands on the wheel (no one on twitter needs to know where you just ate for lunch when you’re driving). The freedom of sitting in a waiting room, or standing at a bus stop and looking up at the sky, or at nothing at all, and not feeling foolish for it.
Our generation is losing the art of paying attention…to the things we do, to the people we are with, to what matters and what doesn’t matter. A wise friend once told me how the devil can use our busyness and distractedness to slowly destroy relationships and pull us away from our vocations. Technology is awesome and good and necessary, but we have to remember it’s designed to serve US, not the other way around.
We can never be completely up to date, we will never know it all. Our appetite for distractions will never be sated, especially when we train it to be hungry every five minutes. We have to come to grips with that. But one thing we can get right is being more present to our loved ones. We won’t get 780 “likes” for doing it, but a few very important people will be profoundly impacted forever by it, as will the generations that follow them.
My parents were not perfect and did not seek to appear so. But even in a busy family, I knew I could count on their full attention when I needed it, remarkably, I still can 30 years later. That is a significant part of my self-worth as a human being. My husband is a technologist, and again I find that it is the bread and butter of my family’s livelihood and the path of our children’s future. But like my parents, I pray that we can be countercultural in a world of distractedness, because I want our children to feel this way 30 years from now, too.
Thank you for your time and attention, because it is precious indeed.