There’s a game I play with my toddler; it’s called ‘shy phone’. It started when she wanted to look at the thing that I constantly held, to see what it was that so absorbed mummy. Like anyone caught in flagrante, I shoved my phone behind me.
“Mummy, why you hide your phone?”
“Oh, mummy’s not hiding my phone, it’s just that phone is shy. It’s a shy phone.”
Somehow this hastily cobbled excuse charmed her, and thus began a series of hide-and-seek, as well as chase-and-tag, with shy phone. It’s one I would recommend to other parents. There’s not much energetic movement involved; you can stay seated in one spot while shy phone hides behind your shoulder, or over your head, or waves from behind a hand. And shy phone also gets tired, and can be tucked up in a pocket for a nap. The only downside is that you’re unable to look at your phone, because a phone that allows that sort of prolonged staring is, rightly, not shy.
Once the initial self-satisfaction with a successful parenting hack faded, I found myself counting the minutes until I could fiddle with my phone again. The withdrawal symptoms were slightly worrying. I became aware of two more things that increased that sense of unease.
One of them started when I resigned from my job. Being a hospital pharmacist required me to be readily contactable by colleagues, and doctors, and patients. And each time I would react immediately, whether in giving a confident answer, or in Googling up that confidence. Subconsciously I was prideful of being “that good at my job”. Yet each time I reached for a notification, I felt a sense of dread, a spiky “what is it now” and “am I in trouble” that did funny things to my breathing and pulse. And in constantly springing to action, I could no longer focus fully and for extended periods of time at a task without reaching for WhatsApp on my phone or computer.
The second compounding factor was when, for one reason or another, I had to leave one of my core WhatsApp groups. It hit me harder than I thought possible. I had put it on a pedestal of priority, peppering it with one-liner observations that occurred to me as I went along my daily way. There were dopamine rushes when I received notifications of replies to my musings, or the links I posted. In short, for someone who prided herself on not having any active social media account, WhatsApp had become my Facebook-Twitter-Instagram. When I left, I felt unmoored, lighter in the sense that I’d lost a limb. It took me a while to exist comfortably without that validation in my pocket.
The yin-and-yang of dread and validation associated with WhatsApp manifested as a compulsion to check WhatsApp, even when there were no notifications and the number of unread chats remained the same. It was the excuse I needed to switch off from work every 5 minutes, or to squeeze in between a lull in mealtime conversation. I was aware of this. Yet I couldn’t stop. I gave myself resolutions to read a book at night, and then told myself it was hard to hold a book in one hand while breastfeeding an infant. I decided to observe the plants around me as I walked from train station to office, and found myself squinting in the sunshine to take a photograph and then send it on its merry way as a message.
In all of this I still appreciated how my phone opened up the world to a working mother of two navigating the losses and limitations of social interactions. Friends would check in to see if I was ok, for which I remain tearily grateful. I was able to also carry on my own WhatsApp ministry, journeying daily with friends who were facing struggles of their own. But I was unable to draw a demarcation between real, present life in its bite-sized glory, and the infinite permutations of consumption offered via my phone.
My rehabilitation is slow and ongoing. It is also ambiguous, and this has been the most important realisation for me. One day I can recognise that in helping a friend to shop for a saree, I am channelling my compulsiveness into endlessly refreshing vendors’ Instagrams under the guise of productivity. Another day I am thanked by a friend for texting her each day during the last days of her pregnancy, even when sometimes we run out of things to ask after. There is both good and bad in social media, and my own personal act of balance is to not fear falling off the tightrope, but to actively disengage from mindless compulsion and to put the phone away. Even if it is because the phone battery is at 8% and I need the last dregs to scan MySejahtera when I change trains. After all, I did choose not to carry a powerbank and charging cable.
There is enough either/or in my current lived reality, in the vociferation of Malaysian politics, conspiracy theories, bringing up children. I don’t need to complicate it further by demonising social media and going on purges and fasts (even if social media is the one bringing politics and conspiracy theories to my doorstep). I don’t want to end up apathetic or holier-than-thou. I still want to be part of the flow of modern daily life, but I need something stronger than a ledge as a foothold because the current is strong.
One more personal anecdote masquerading as metaphor. I very recently got back on Facebook (after holier-than-thoulishly declaring I do not have any form of social media) because I received summons to join the Ting Clan FB group. (“Post thou pictures of your two daughters,” spake Uncle Aloysius.) I have yet to do so, but have so far enjoyed the trickles of oral history provided by the three Ting brothers of the second generation. I was also late in contributing my own vignette of my late grandmother on the occasion of her death anniversary because checking FB is no longer part of my muscle memory. But it wasn’t late at all, as evidenced by the little ‘Likes’ that dotted my post from the uncles who were slowly and pleasurably sifting through 50-odd years of their own memories. This is another form of social media – hardly current, perennially important, to a mere handful of people.
Lately I’ve started leaving my phone to charge in my bedroom. I play with my two girls. I finish one more chapter of a book I’ve been reading for more than 8 months. I write this article I’ve promised Rama in December. I’ve finally stopped playing the shy phone game, which, despite my inventor’s pride, was wearing rather thin. And out of sight, out of mind, works beautifully for parent as well as child.