The Game of Telephone

This essay was originally published in the paper version of Brain, Child Magazine in 2015. This cartoon accompanied it.

Last April my son’s desire to own a smart phone became supercharged, and I started psychotherapy.

For months Wilson and I had been locked in a redundant face off over the appropriate age for texting. He was nearly twelve, and puberty had lassoed itself around his hairless chest. Daily — relentlessly — over every snack, school pick-up, soccer drop-off and meal, he worked in his device-less frustration. This is an overstatement, but barely.

Wilson’s desire to join the throngs of tweens that flung emojis and Internet acronyms at each other was not my only issue. It was the most accessible one. I was forty-something — the stranglehold of mid-life stagnation shoved my face in all my failures. It had been more than a year since I was removed from the startup I co-founded, and because I was still unencumbered by out-of-home work, I was lucky enough to be present for unexpected flashes of joy, and also regular disputes, with Wilson.

“Mom. I really want a phone,” Wilson said one day as he was eating his snack of Safeway prepared meatloaf. He leaned back to chew, a methodical eater, methodical everything. I was sitting with him, listening to his latest I Need A Phone presentation. My husband Noah was at work. My son Ben, was at soccer practice. My innards tensed and I girded myself.

“I know that,” I said, with more shortness than I should have, hoping to cut him off. “I hear you.”

“No you don’t.” Wilson shook his head and popped a piece of meat into his mouth with his fingers. Was he right? Perhaps I no longer listened. When the topic came up, I felt loathing and panic.

“I know it seems that way,” I said. “I’m sorry honey.”

“Why can’t I have one?” he asked. “Just tell me. Why.”

“I’ve tried to explain,” I urged. “I’m trying to protect you.”

“From what?” Wilson asked.

* * *

In therapy, it took a few sessions to get to the phone issue. We had to go through my life first — the commonplace history of my parents’ divorce, and a surface look at the failure grief and identity crisis I was slogging through. None of this was remarkable.

Everyone suffers. But as mothers we are expected to circumnavigate our own disappointments and concentrate on our children’s delight. We must enforce limits but encourage experimentation in a world ruled by devices we did not grow up with.

In Silicon Valley, electronics are ubiquitous. Here, toddlers own handheld Apple products and trail the sounds meant for Saturday morning family room cartoons from the doctor’s office to the restaurant table. Kids are driven to the grocery store in minivans with screens that drop down and play videos so they will not whine or cry, even for half a mile. An entire generation is missing patience by playing old school Tic-tac-toe or Telephone. Adolescents are given smart phones for security while roaming the safest two square miles of the country. There’s no room for boredom, no time when it isn’t possible to connect, consume, or produce — no reprieve from the tyranny of popularity or exile.

I wanted to protect my son from this for as long as possible. I had planned to hold firm on the smart phone, and all social media for another year, until Wilson was at least thirteen.

Perhaps I was projecting. But I was determined to allow Wilson his childhood uncluttered by the coercion of Silicon, and, perhaps more, I was resolute about retaining control over my relationship with him. Now jobless, I struggled to find myself at home, but at least Wilson could see me. We lived in the Valley, where Instagram loomed, and hormones had more sway than fearful mothers. As a result, my son (along with my friend Marina’s son, Oliver) had often been his peers’ anomaly.

And then, I was too. I earned nothing and produced nothing. I was confused and self-loathing. How would I navigate my angst during Wilson’s adolescence without wholeheartedly losing my shit? I hoped this new therapist could help me.

* * *

“What is it you hate about the phone?” Dr. Rachel asked.

“It’s inappropriate,” I said.

“How so?”

I launched in and jumped around, frantic to justify my position. “A sixth grader doesn’t need a phone. They get addicted to them. Parents say they need them for safety? In Menlo Park? I’d rather not know whether my kid is skateboarding in front of Oliver’s house or Jim’s house than give him a screen to carry and look at constantly.”

“So you don’t want it for safety,” she said calmly.

“No. He’s safer without it.” Or was I? “I don’t need him to check in or ask me when to be home. We decide upon that before he leaves the house. I trust him.”

“Is that what he wants it for?” she asked. “To check in?”

“Well,” I said. I wondered: does it matter what he wants it for?

“Does he tell you?” she asked, and then a pause. “What he wants it for?”

“Yes,” I said. “To make plans.”

“To get together with his friends?”

I nodded. “And talk after school.”

“So he wants to communicate with them,” she said.

“Yes.”

* * *

I did not want him introduced to round the clock communication. I knew the dangers of addiction to the electronic speed of feedback, to the flood of compulsion, like an internal itch that forces you to grab a device and do diligence. I missed it.

It had happened at ten o’clock at night, at twelve, and then at four in the morning and throughout the day: ping! I need you. What should I do, Sarah? Decisions came easy to me, even if they were the wrong ones.

But also, if Wilson talked to his friends all the time, when would he talk to me? What if — OMG — he started to text me? I did not want to be his Facebook friend, or his employer. I wanted to be his mother. I wanted him to sit across the table and talk to me, face to face. But it no longer seemed reasonable to insist that in-person was the only way to communicate. Was it really so awful to imagine that sometimes he might tell me his whereabouts or feelings electronically? I wanted to do right by him and allow him appropriate freedom. Was I?

“And you trust him to follow your rules.”

“Yes,” I said. “Mostly.”

Did I trust myself to let him?

* * *

On the afternoon before my next therapy session, Wilson slumped in from school and threw down his sweatshirt and backpack in frustration.

“Whoa,” I said, “did something happen buddy?”

“Ethan and JT are meeting up later to skate,” he said, as if they had been given an exclusive pass to fly off to the moon. “They’re texting each other to say where.”

It was Friday, the only day a week he didn’t have soccer training, and this was his standard complaint: without a phone he couldn’t hook up with his friends to hang out, not without my help. Over the past few weeks I had texted with four of his buddies in a clumsy process of figuring out where they were and when Wilson could meet them with his ball to shoot around, or his board to skate some sidewalks. For a while it was humorously “lame” that his mom was arranging things for him. This didn’t embarrass either of us per se — I knew his friends — and we both laughed over the clunkiness of it. We weren’t laughing anymore. And I was starting to wonder if his reasons for wanting a phone were valid.

“So call their houses,” I said.

“I can’t, Mom. They’re out already!”

I stood cradling my afternoon coffee, ready to listen.

“I can’t believe I got the ONE set of parents who are against technology!” he slumped. I refuted this. Noah and I were both engineers who started online companies. Yes, mine failed and I was angry, but at myself and at my investors, not at technology in general. Yes, I made rules Wilson despised, like no TV or video games on weekdays, but he also had access to a family Xbox, airMac, iTouch, and his own school issued iPad populated with hundreds of apps (though disabled from texting). How dare he say I was against technology?

“I’m sorry honey.” I said this to his back as he trudged up the stairs. What was I against?

* * *

I was proud that I declined the DVD package in my Honda Odyssey during their toddlerhood, and that my sons were intimate instead with chapter books. But now, the promise of a phone seemed imminent. Admittedly, and somewhat pathetically, my phone was my own most reliable companion. I was against it for Wilson before he was ready. Before I was.

The truth? I had already lost my company. I was against losing my son. But how many of my rules were based on what Wilson needed? How many were reactions to what I was missing?

* * *

“I mean, I’m only a kid once!” Wilson said. Gosh he’s cute, I thought for a moment. “Do you know what it’s like to be a kid without a phone?” he continued. Jesus, I thought, give me a fucking break.

Though I knew it would incense him, I couldn’t help but smile. I wanted to be empathetic without either raging over the state of our youth or laughing openly at his still sweet innocence and paradox. I was unsure of the correct response. Was the situation more apocalyptic or amusing? My smile faded and I became angry again, not at him, but at the divide we were digging.

“Everyone has one,” he said. In middle school not everyone had a phone, but ninety-five percent of them did.

“No, not…” I began to say Oliver, Jack, Ronan, and one other. Wilson sat down heavily at the table and cut me off.

“Everyone but me.” He started to tear up and looked as if he was about to say something I didn’t want to hear. “It’s so stupid. I hate my life!” His eyes went wide, immediately guilty. I knew in that moment he meant he hated me.

I tried not to let his strong words rattle me. I reminded myself that railing against parents was the job of tween-agers. I had blamed my mom (who became my most trusted confidant) often for mine, and my son would do it to me, and his to him, and on down the line. It was my job to be strong and show him I could take it. I needed to absorb what he said and be able to process it, and either hold strong or explain why I’d loosened. After all, this was my only job.

* * *

I got up and walked away so I could cry.

In my room I threw cold water on my face and heard him move into the other room to twirl the foosball handles. Alarms went off in my chest like big red fire engines. I had too much invested in this. Wilson was doggedly appealing his case to an arrogant and opinionated judge. In the absence of work related verdicts to engage in, had I become too entrenched in what I saw as an irreversible parenting decision? Maybe he was right: I was no longer listening to what he wanted or why. I was listening to the timbre of anguish that had infused his voice. I was terrified of losing control over my connection with Wilson.

At the time, what I considered to be my own weakness disgusted me. Now I see it was strength. It was love.

* * *

I did not tell my mom I was in therapy — it would have been too claustrophobic for me — but we did talk about Wilson’s desire and my intractable hold. “The phone is ridiculous,” I said to her on the phone the next morning. I was deliberate, but convinced I was masking my plea for her agreement. “These kids are way too young.”

“Oh, with you it was a separate line in your room,” my mom said casually. “Remember?” When I was in middle school, the idea of having a phone in my room seemed initially insane to my strict mother, whose wildest adolescent experience was the Wednesday night co-ed potluck dinner in the basement at the Savannah Baptist Center. But with constant browbeating and claims for the convenience of not tying up the family line she was using partially for her on-the-side private speech practice, I was able to sway her. In one single glorious day she bought me a white Trimline phone at Radio Shack, set up the line and sported the extra $3.50 per month for the Call Waiting service. She could see that I needed an outlet, and she provided one for me. Was this because she had one of her own? Every time I pushed the rectangular flash button and heard the switch of the connections I felt closer to her, grateful she’d finally understood what I needed, and then gave to me. I could use the phone only after my homework was done, not during dinner, and not after eight o’clock. I happily accepted this. That phone was my lifeline.

“At first I thought the idea of a phone in your room was hogwash,” she said. When she imparted wisdom my mom often reverted into quaint Southernisms nearly disguised by proper English. “But you had great friendships. Eventually I reckoned it would be wise to encourage them.”

* * *

That afternoon I drove to Redwood City to see Dr. Rachel, though my therapy had rapidly become cause for anxiety. Week by week nothing earth shattering happened and I felt unqualified to spend hundreds of dollars rehashing the unexceptional fact that I was struggling with my first world problems of aimless boredom and parenthood. Dr. Rachel told me this was part of the process, and everyone’s issues were relative; I shouldn’t feel guilty. She didn’t relieve my agony easily — she let me sit silently. She waited for me. Ten minutes (and twenty dollars) in she said only: “So,” and I babbled about the fact that I had nothing to talk about. I talked, of course, about the phone.

Forty minutes later she asked, “What was most important to you when you were Wilson’s age?”

“My friends,” I said. “No question.” I folded my arms across my chest, thinking what I meant was being with them; feeling smug about the old-fashioned face time I thought I remembered. Quickly I realized this was wrong. I meant talking on my princess phone on my bed from home, and writing penciled, loopy cursive notes that were full of the same acronyms my son would text — BFF, TTYL, KIT — in class. I meant communicating with them.

Dr. Rachel seemed to tolerate my thick-headedness. “Is there anything you might want to promote for Wilson with the phone?”

Perhaps naively, I was not worried that my son would go girl crazy, be cyber-bullied, or otherwise engage in inappropriate behavior that texting might have led to. I have said that I resisted the tethering of Wilson’s mind and attention to the phone, to the way it might have called to him, like a drug. I will admit now that I was afraid it would call to him louder than I could. For a time, of course it would. But I love my son. I could not forcefully keep him engaged exclusively with me.

“Friendship?” I said.

She looked at her watch. “It’s time to stop now,” she said. Our hour had ended.

* * *

That night I talked to my husband, Noah. “I still hate it,” I said. “But I think I’ve been resisting the phone for my own reasons, not Wilson’s.”

Noah nodded as if he’d known this all along, as if he’d known that I alone would pay for remaining too closed to our son’s independence, and that a fractured relationship with Wilson, much more than the threat of technology’s corruption, or the loss of my career, would kill me. “So. Want to turn it on tomorrow?” he asked, visibly relieved. Noah had always been amenable to giving Wilson a phone.

“No!” I said. “Hell no. I need to draw up a contract.” I had already Googled and found a twenty-five-point document detailing our expectations — clauses with acceptable times of usage, steps to take if he received inappropriate or harassing messages, promises he’d continue riding his bike, play outside, think, read and wonder.

“Roger that,” Noah said, always supportive.

“And also probably wait until summer. We have to discuss it. But I wanted to say I’m open to it.”

“Oh,” Noah said, and flashed me a smile. “Good. You’re open.”

I laughed a little, and hoped that I could be.

By the time we surprised Wilson with the contract at the dinner table six weeks later it had grown to twenty-eight points. The rules didn’t faze him. He’d seen similar contracts in his friends’ rooms and he knew they were reasonable. In response, he jumped out of his seat and gave me a heartfelt hug and kiss. “I love you!” he said.

“I love you too,” I said. “More than anything. But you know how concerned I am about this. I hope it’s the right thing.”

“It is, Mom. It is.” He said. Of course he did.

“We’ll see.”

For the next week, Noah and I quizzed Wilson on the intricacies of the contract, and then, satisfied with his knowledge, at the end of the week we turned on the phone. When the screen lit up that next Saturday morning, Wilson’s face did too.

And then my son plugged in my phone number and sent his first text to me. It said: “thank u, mom.”

My chest swelled, and I texted him back, “np.”

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