Moms, let go of your smartphone guilt: Every time technology makes our lives easier, we invent ways to make motherhood even harder

You wouldn't apologize for using the washing machine, would you?

Published August 20, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>Milan Stojanovic</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(Milan Stojanovic via iStock)

The contractions woke me at 2 am. "This is definitely starting," I said to my half-asleep husband. "Mmmpbh," he agreed. Then I reached for my smartphone. But not to call my OB. Instead, I launched my phone's clock app and tapped the stopwatch function to measure the seconds between contractions. I turned on my out-of-office notification for my work email account. And in the meantime, I fired off text messages to my mom and my sister: Smally launch, engage! (And then a few minutes later, yes, I did actually call the OB.)

Fast forward a week. My daughter is a newborn, and I'm a newborn mom. Breastfeeding is not the effortless, snuggly experience I was promised, and I am pretty much stapled to a chair for most of my waking hours, exhausted and trying to nurse. Because we're Americans, my husband got two whole days of paternity leave. My family lives across the country. I'm alone, and immobilized.

But I've got my smartphone. And I can use it to search for helpful listicles like "7 Things to Try When Breastfeeding Hurts," and to read what's happening in the world on my news app, and to make to-do lists on ­my productivity app, and to start a historical horror novel about motherhood on my notepad app, and to order food for the house on my grocery-delivery app, and to order the jumbo case of diapers (and the nursing cream, and all the other essentials I didn't think I would need but really really do) on my everything-but-the-baby app. And of course, to text with friends and scroll through Facebook while the baby sleeps. Technically, yes, I'm alone and immobilized with a newborn and without any help—but I'm never more than a finger swipe from human contact and crucial reinforcements.

Smartphones have completely transformed what it means to be a mother, and the bona fide miracle of same-day diaper delivery is just the beginning. Friends have never been easier to keep up with, play dates have never been quicker to arrange, important messages from our children's educators and health care providers have never been faster to arrive, solutions for everyday parenting dilemmas from sleep training to teething have never been simpler to find. Playground benches are now mobile home offices, where a mom can take a few minutes to catch up on email, order groceries, call in to the office, bang out notes for a chapter, or just sail through a sea of Instagrams. (All of which means you also have a convenient pretext, should you require one, to ignore other playground moms who may not be exactly your cup of tea.)

But the iPhone and its ilk are only the latest in a series of technologies we now take for granted that have utterly transformed the everyday lives of millions of women—and specifically, mothers. Put another way, you're living (and possibly mothering) in the midst of a period of technological change that cultural critics will probably study for decades to come. And as much as smartphones have changed the way news is disseminated, the way work is done, and the way Saturday night plans are made, there is probably no one group of humans on Earth for whom the smartphone has created more everyday life-change than mothers...Who are, of course, precisely the humans on Earth who are supposed to feel the most guilt about using them.

Moms and Smartphones: Forbidden Love

Moms lead the smartphone market both in hours spent and in consumption of media on devices, according to a 2014 study. Mothers are also more likely than the average consumer to use their smartphones for purposes other than calling—on the night I went into labor, I used my smartphone for a few other applications before finally calling my OB, but I'm far from alone in using my smartphone as a kind of digital-age Swiss Army Knife. For a busy modern mother, a smartphone is a camera, a photo album, an alarm clock, a timer, a day planner, a newsstand, a public transportation timetable, a nutrition consultant, a weight-loss tool, a recipe box, a meteorologist, a career advisor, a headhunter, an accountant, a neighborhood map, a personal shopping assistant, and a bank. And of course, an escape hatch.

So why are we mothers so ambivalent about our smartphones? Why are we so quick to judge the mom with her phone out at the playground? Why are we made to feel so guilty about grownup screen time? Why all this approving attention paid to studies that purport to prove that "smartphone-addicted moms" are crankier, more distracted, worse than moms who came before us? (Because we're certainly past the point of comparing moms who own and use phones to those who don't—recent numbers suggest that 92% of American moms have a mobile phone.)

All the hand-wringing women performed as part of the weekly laundry in the pre-washing machine era (more on that in a minute) is nothing compared to the hand-wringing we do about using our smartphones, when we should be paying scrupulous, nonstop attention to our children.

In researching that historical horror novel about motherhood that I started on my smartphone when my daughter was a newborn (yep, not a joke), I found a number of striking parallels between the 1910s, when part of the novel is set, and the 2010s: The early 1900s were a period of huge change in America, and in particular, in the everyday lives of women and mothers in America—a lot like now. The technology people used in their homes was making huge advances (just like now); professional and educational opportunities for women were changing (um, sort of like now); and it was also a period in which the way Americans raised their children was a subject of intense cultural debate (hello, original "mommy wars").

It got me to thinking about other eras in which home technologies experienced a great leap forward—the most obvious and most-studied example being the 1950s, when American postwar abundance led to a decade of gorgeous, high-tech, technicolor domesticity, immortalized in countless cultural artifacts from advertising to television shows to film.

And it led me to a theory. Here's where I think our smartphone guilt really comes from: Coincidentally or not, periods of technological advancement in the home tend to be accompanied by simultaneous cultural shifts that encourage an increase in the amount of time and effort women spend on childcare.

It's a pattern: During eras when motherhood has been made easier by technology, our culture has demanded that motherhood itself get suddenly, drastically harder.

Enough with the Hand-Wringing

Let's take a leap here that's only going to seem like a big one at first: Consider the washing machine, introduced in America in 1914. Before the advent of this literally life-changing technology, generations of women grew up dreading "wash day," which, as Susan Strasser writes in Never Done: A History of American Housework, "consumed staggering amounts of time and labor:"

"One wash, one boiling, and one rinse used about 50 gallons of water—or four hundred pounds—which had to be moved from pump or well or faucet to stove and tub, in buckets and wash boilers that might weigh as much as 40 or 50 pounds."

And that's before you started in on the sorting, soaking, sudsing, rinsing, wringing, rubbing, boiling, re-rubbing, re-rinsing, re-wringing, dipping, re-re-wringing, and hanging required...for every single load. More than any other invention of the early twentieth century, the washing machine freed American women from days of intense labor every week. Days. And what did women do with those extra days? Some women took advantage of the opportunity to bring in alternative paid work. Most women just got other things done. And a few may have had a bit of extra time to devote to a little cause called Women's Suffrage.

The washing machine, like a lot of inventions that change things, was part of a bigger story. It represents the crest of a distinct historical wave in home technology that revolutionized women's everyday lives. 

In the early years of the twentieth century, concurrent with the rollout to American homes of electric and telephone wires, canned goods and packaged foods, indoor plumbing, and machine-operated wringers and washing machines, American culture underwent a major sea change in its expectations for American childhood. In urbanizing, industrializing Victorian America, children were no longer considered mere cogs in the wheel of the family economy. Increasingly, children were viewed as precious resources to be nurtured and educated, a change in cultural attitudes often referred to by historians as the "invention" or "discovery" of childhood. Periodicals, advertising, and advice publications developed to reinforce this new view of child-rearing as intensely focused on the child's physical and psychological development. Meanwhile, child labor laws and an evolving public education system helped create a system of protections for the American child—a system that we've all undoubtedly benefited from."By 1915," Thomas Schlereth writes in Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, "middle-class children were the subject of a profusion of public and private institutions to promote their welfare."

The people who were expected to direct all this nurturing, educating, and rearing of American children were, of course, American mothers—and not necessarily because we didn't have anything else to do, now that we were no longer hand-wringing the wash. As the historian Ruth Cowan shows in her book More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, as homekeeping technologies improved and became more widespread, American housekeeping standards rose, and so did the amount of time women were expected to spend on childcare. The early years of the twentieth century saw a huge proliferation of published information directed at mothers, who were seen to be the crucial nexus of two industrial-age American obsessions, a healthy home and a healthy child. Victorian American moms, for their part, relished the opportunity to master new home technologies while embracing their children's well-being. But "at every step along the way," as Cowan writes, "there was more work for middle-class housewives to do in their homes." Mother's Day, as a national holiday, was invented in 1914 to commemorate the all-encompassing role of the American mother: Psychologist and technologist, caregiver and caretaker, hearth-warmer and machine operator.

It's Nice to Be Modern

In the mid-twentieth century, the Second Wave of mom-focused technologies gave us toaster ovens, refrigerators, and electric washing machines, all specifically marketed to women, who had by then assumed their place at the forefront of America's exploding postwar consumer economy. Even though electric washing machines were originally developed for commercial use, American housewives "owned" electric washing machines long before most of them ever actually owned one.

Washing machines and vacuum cleaners were technologies that women, and mothers in particular, were expected to desire, often in hilariously sexualized ways. The most casual search for images of women in mid-century advertising offers thousands of examples of home-keeping technologies marketed to housewives in the interests of helping them save time, save money, build a better home, and create an atmosphere of love. A young mother quoted in Walter LaFeber's The American Century: A History of the United States Since the 1890s put the postwar housewife's love affair with new technology in neat terms: "It's nice to be modern. It's like running a factory in which you have the latest machinery."

And again, just as women with kids at home started being able to shave precious hours off the clock thanks to some massive housekeeping technology upgrades, the philosophy of child-rearing in America got an upgrade, too—and again, childcare was expected to consume more time rather than less. A postwar baby boom, combined with a dramatic rise in the standard of living, plus the introduction of a host of technologies that reduced the amount of labor required to keep house, all combined to create the cultural juggernaut that was Dr. Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care.

Dr. Spock's book, which sold by the millions in the late 1940s and 1950s, introduced an even more intensely child-centered approach to childcare than the parenting philosophies that had guided early-twentieth-century mothers. The book's central message for mothers is an encouraging, even empowering one, from its very first lines: "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do." And yet, in its meticulous attention to the minutiae of parenting, as well as in its overall admonition to mothers to be guided by their children's personalities and desires (and not, say, by what might be more doable for others in the family), Dr. Spock's great work fostered a standard of motherhood that would prove difficult for many women to sustain, especially women who lacked the time, leisure, and technological comforts of the postwar middle class.

Because if the laudable message of Dr. Spock's wildly influential book boiled down to: Pay careful attention to your children if you want to care for them well, the dark echo of that message became: Unless you pay careful attention to your children—at all times, and all the time—how can you ever hope to care for them well?

How Good of a Mother Are You?

At least twice, then, since the turn of the twentieth century, American mothers have benefited hugely from surging technological advances in the home. But at the exact same time that homekeeping technologies were changed by breathtaking advances, cultural expectations for child-rearing also developed in such a way that childcare was expected to become more and more of an intense, full-time pursuit.

Each time, technology was targeted to mothers in a way that raised the emotional stakes of consumption: Good mothers bought coal stoves, bought formula, bought detergent, bought sanitizers, bought toasters, bought refrigerators, bought whatever new technology made their home run better, safer, and cleaner for their children. At the turn of the century and again in the postwar years, the message connecting motherhood and technology was clear: Good mothers bought—and used—technologies that helped their families.

How different from the way we're encouraged to see smartphones and other digital technologies. Smartphone releases are followed breathlessly in the news for the benefit of "early adopters," most of whom are assumed to be young single men with disposable income to spend on technology. But no one consumer group truly adopts their phones into family life like modern parents. And no one consumer group feels more guilt about being "plugged in" than parents, especially mothers.

And that's the compelling irony of this Third Wave: In part because we're not encouraged to see digital technologies as being primarily for the benefit of women, women are burdened with guilt about how incredibly useful they are in our day-to-day lives. Despite how helpful smartphones are, mothers, more than any other type of user, are more apt to waste precious time apologizing for how much we use them. Of course, moms aren't the only ones taking advantage of the efficiency of their smartphones to multitask while parenting—dads check email at the children's museum too, and with noticeably less guilt. But even if using a smartphone helps moms take better care of themselves or their homes, any time we spend on a smartphone is considered time stolen from childcare—because a smartphone is not considered a permissible caregiving tool for mothers. In fact, it's considered the opposite.

No one would ever tell a modern family to stop washing its laundry in a machine and start pounding their clothes with a stone down by the river. But a striking number of voices can be heard insisting parents should unplug—at least in part because doing so would be consistent with the heartfelt and well-intentioned beliefs that now constitute the ideal of "good parenting." Good parenting, as it is currently defined, urges us parents to do nothing more or less than slow down and enjoy our children, however difficult that may sometimes seem. Family dinners. Face time and not screen time. Experiences and not toys. Child-centered play. All of these are good things. But they take time, love, and care, and of those ineffable commodities, time is the only one that most parents don't have in abundance—and the only one that a smartphone can help parents conserve. Hours spent scrolling through Facebook aside, smartphones stand to help mothers save hours of precious, precious time, in countless practical, real ways, from job hunting to meal planning, from depositing checks without a trip to the bank to checking the hours for the carousel in the park.

It's not true, of course, that we moms would feel less guilt about spending time on our smartphones if only digital technology was marketed in such a way that defined women as its primary consumers, as was the case for the washing machine and the refrigerator. (And no, slapping a pink or a pastel case on a smartphone—or anything else for that matter—doesn't count as respecting women consumers.) But that is certainly one key difference in the way the current wave of life-changing everyday technology is framed, both for and by the moms who use it most. You're a good geek if you live by your smartphone; you're a good employee or a good Instagrammer or a good Yelp reviewer. But you're not considered a good mother if you live by your smartphone, even if it makes everything you need to do as a mother easier. Today, a good mother is no longer the one who makes the most of the technologies available to her. A good mother is the one who most successfully ignores them.

But should we really be lamenting how plugged in we are, when we recall the way it used to be? I'm all for less hand-wringing. I think most of us are.


By Siobhan Adcock

Siobhan Adcock is digital editorial director at All You magazine, and she has also written for HuffingtonPost, XOJane and The Daily Beast. Her novel "The Barter," a ghost story about motherhood set in contemporary and historical Texas, is just out in paperback from Plume.

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