Disconnecting Meant Reconnecting

The struggle is definitely real: the parental struggle to exist and maneuver in today's digital world with children, that is. In 2015, there are more ways to broadcast our lives than ever. Which leaves less time for living them. To close down a crazy 2014, we spent the month of December exploring Costa Rica from the Pacific to the Caribbean coast and back again. Costa Rica is a powerfully peaceful country and this trip came at a time that I very much needed to disconnect from the day-to-day routines and realities of our hectic life, and spend some quality concentrated time with our little family.

But just over a week into our four-week trip, I became very aware that I was collapsing into my screens. If we were chilling at home after adventuring, I would immediately pick up my iPhone or iPad and start scrolling. Seems fine enough, right? Just a mom taking a minute to check out and relax.

Wrong. At least, wrong for me.

Because when I collapsed into a screen, I pulled my attached-to-my-hip 20-month-old daughter with me. She associates a screen with her "Peekaboo Barn" game and her Elmo movies. So when I pick up a screen, she begins to frantically squawk for one of the above.

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Which either results in both of us on a screen, or incites a battle between us that invites me to say no to her on two fronts: no, you cannot use a screen because I'm using it, and no, you also cannot have my attention because I'm channeling it into this screen.   That's what was (and is) wrong.

I noticed that not only was the World's Cutest Human having meltdowns if she was denied a screen, but she was having even worse meltdowns after too much time on a screen. So, ten days into our trip, in a beautifully isolated little spot facing volcano Arenal, the realization slapped me in the face that enough was enough and we had reached critical mass.

I felt guilty and sick to my stomach, and I did what many do these days as we all attempt to control our online addictions: I took a digital detox. I knew we would be in La Fortuna (Arenal) for a week, so I let my phone and my iPad die (while checking them every ten minutes as they died like a crackhead on her last rock, further illuminating the problem) and then I put away the chargers.

When the World's Cutest Human would chirp for "A'boo!" which means, "Gimme that iPad!" I simply showed her that the screen was black and it was dead. "All done," I told her, and let her watch me put it away in the closet.

She stopped asking for it after only a day or so. And that's when the magic began. For me, sure, but especially for her, and therefore for our entire family.

I devoured three books during my quiet time over that week, which was indeed magical. But the most magnificent effects of disconnecting were evident in my girl.

Without Elmo on a screen in the car, she started to observe what was around her along the sides of the road. She's obsessed with animals, and realizing that there were endless fields of cows and horses in Costa Rica, she began to scour the horizon for "tows" and "click click click's (insert the sound of a horses' hooves here)." It's not unusual for a cow to stand in the road in Costa Rica, so more than once we were able to pull up alongside the animal and open her window, blowing her mind.

Over that week she developed an insatiable appetite for drawing with her papa, but only with her papa, which didn't hurt my feelings (really!). Since Papa works in the City five days a week, I was ecstatic that they were finding a special way to bond on this trip. And creatively! My heart soared when she would wake up in the morning yelling, "Papa! Papa! Daw! Daw!" (Draw! Draw!) as she rushed for the sketchbook and crayons.

I'd sit back and watch them, wrapped around my cup of Costa Rican coffee (seriously, she didn't let me join at all that week, though I was invited into the tribe on week four), with a perma-smile plastered across my face as I took tiny sips. I was watching her imagination emerge.

As I've mentioned, we see a lot of growth in the World's Cutest Human when we are traveling. But it would all be for not if the energy dead-ends on a screen. Instead, it was exploding in colorful swipes and dots across a page (or sometimes on the cushions or sheets of the house we were staying in. Hooray for washable coloring utensils!).

We bought her a cheap set of small barnyard animals and some colorful blocks. She lovingly moved the animals one-by-one around the cabins, setting them up into different scenarios, and repeatedly built skyscrapers of "boks" only to tear them down. More imagination! We could not read her enough books, and she 'read' twice as many to herself.

During this detox, I developed a different kind of FOMO than the kind I felt when I quit Facebook last year (another story for another post): this time, it was FOMO IRL, the fear of missing out in real life. If she was drawing with her daddy, and I was reading in the bedroom, I became distracted wondering what they were drawing and if they were having fun (without me).

I'd sneak back out, unobserved, to watch them from afar, soaking up the most primal, deepest feelings of love and contentment to see them connecting in this way. Even if I wasn't drawing with them, I wasn't missing out. I was experiencing the moment, quietly and separately, yet right along with them. We were all one, expressing ourselves authentically without device distraction.

Everyone was happier, everyone was calmer and everyone was in tune that week. We actually listened to each other during long conversations (including incoherent toddler babble) and enjoyed long silences and beautiful vistas absorbed in our own thoughts. Both are equally fulfilling and equally in sync, and neither happen when a device is present.

At the end of the week, before we moved on to the next adventure, I charged up my devices and tuned back in to the interwebs. But not without a pang of "I wish I wasn't doing this." Which, of course, is always an option. I don't have to be on any screen. But as an independent adult, I want to be, sometimes. It's just a matter of finding that fine balance of satiating my desire to be tuned in (on a reasonable level), and keeping my screens out of the World's Cutest Human's line of vision.

Growing up, the back of a screen was never between me and one of my parents' faces. But my daughter knows no other reality. It's one I attempt to control, absolutely, but it's not one I succeed in managing 100% of the time. Being the first generation to deal with this, we don't know what this will do to our children. Likely, they'll adapt and be fine, or better than fine. But we never know.

My digital detox allowed me a glimpse into a screen-less utopia, which while unachievable in everyday life, certainly taught me a valuable lesson that I took home with me. We had to disconnect to reconnect, but the important thing is that we now maintain that connection. Even if the struggle is real.

Do you struggle with this reality? How do you deal and manage your screens with your family? Please share below. As always, please keep your comments positive and supportive of one another.