Time Online

I got a note from a young mom the other day. She’s in her mid-20s, with four children and she’s really got me thinking. I told her that I think she is a lot like me. She wants to do the very best she can with her husband, her children and her home. She wants to let God plan her family. She wants to grow in holiness. She wants to connect with like-minded women. She wants to be alone. She’s wondering if she’ll ever hit her groove.

I’m wondering that about myself, too.

The biggest difference between the young mom she is and the young mom I was is that she has Internet access. I didn’t. I didn’t get online until I was over 30, didn’t really communicate with other people online until I was 32. And I think it might have been better that way.

I was chatting with an old friend today about the mom I was. This is my oldest “mom” friend of all. We met in a pre-natal exercise class when we were pregnant with our first babies. We grew up together. We grew into our roles as new wives and mothers together. We knew each other inside and out. So, I began to wax sentimental with Martha and she was as practical as always.

“There were finger paints outside. Remember the time we let them paint with their feet on the deck and then slide into the baby pool and make the water all colored? Remember how my house always smelled of fresh-baked bread and Murphy’s Oil Soap?”

“I remember,” replied Martha wryly, “that you wore the finish off the floor because you were addicted to that smell.”

“OK. So maybe it wasn’t perfect,” I agreed, “but it was more peaceful.”

“Um,” she ventured, “You have eight times the children and you’re going in a million different directions trying to meet the needs of absolutely every stage of child development.”

Well, yes, there’s that. But still. There is something stirring restlessness in me that wasn’t there years ago.

I talked to another friend, my closest friend in the world.

“I think it’s the Internet,” I ventured. “I don’t think it’s possible to live a recollected life and be plugged in.”

“And there you go again,” she said. “Everything is black or white. Plugged in or unplugged. No middle ground.

“Here’s the problem you’re hearing with your young mom correspondent and you’re seeing in yourself: you reach a point in your day when you want a bit of time alone. You’re feeling needy. Instinctively, you know that time alone is how you recharge. Years ago, you might have spent that time with a book or a magazine or your Bible. You might have called a friend. You might have sat down to write, but you would not have published instantly. You would have been writing because writing brings you peace.

“But now, you think you’re spending time alone, but you’re really connecting with all these different people in all these different places. You’re getting tons of input and sensory stimulation. And then you think you’re nurturing relationships, but really, it’s very rare that a true friendship uses a keyboard as a medium. I just don’t think people are created that way. In the end, the place you go when you’re feeling depleted, the place you look for shoring up, ends up sucking the last little bit of energy from you.”

She’s got a good point.

My young friend wants to know how much time is okay to spend alone. And I’ve pondered this for quite some time. I think we need time alone. Some of us need more time than others. I don’t think time spent on the computer is time alone. There is the rare e-mail friendship that involves long “letters” that might qualify as time spent shoring up. But the time spent surfing for ideas from decorating to dinner (not to mention researching educational philosophy) is not time spent alone. Mothers at home today with Internet access are suffering information overload. The time spent on message boards, blog comments and e-mail loops is not time alone. It’s time in a crowd, sometimes a very large crowd. And it has much the same effect.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in doctors’ offices this week. From orthopedists to obstetricians to radiologists (and back around in circles), I noticed one thing: everyone was working. The people in scrubs, the people in lab coats, the people in office attire, no one was slinking away from her work to check her mail, contribute to an online conversation or surf for craft ideas.

Mothers at home have more freedom than all those people I watched work this week. We can call the computer from its sleep mode “just for a minute” to do any or all of the above tasks and no boss is going to frown upon the habit (or worse). But a habit it becomes, and a minute becomes 10 or 20 and then we go from just clicking and reading and start to write a response and suddenly the afternoon is gone. Or we don’t write a response, but we arise from our chairs troubled by something we read and we hold it in our heads as we go about our daily rounds, and we wonder why we feel frazzled.

“I just want to bake bread and wash the floor,” I insisted again to Martha.

“You are allergic to wheat and Christian washes the floor now,” she reminded me.

Slowly, I recognize that it’s not the bread or the soap or even the paints (though I intend to do that with my little ones tomorrow). It’s the quiet thoughts I carried in my head while I did those things.

Mothers were made to nurture. We nurture babies. We nurture little girls who look to us as examples of what they are to become. We nurture restless teenage boys. We nurture young adults who are boldly going forth in the world. We nurture a love with a man who is called away from us and into the world in order to provide for our basic needs.

Mostly, we nurture relationships. And real relationships require thoughtful time and attention. They can’t be a click away. They require the investment of energy and understanding. They require prudence and forgiveness and genuine charity. It is true that in our lifetimes we might find one or two of those friendships online. But that is all. Just one or two. And those friendships will more than likely grow and flower over much time and many long, thoughtful letters and many more phone conversations. They will not remain confined to the screen and the keyboard.

Most of our genuine friendships, most of the contacts that will fill us rather than deplete us, are the ones we nurture face to face and the ones where we are nurtured in return. They’ll be the friends who watch your first baby when you go to the hospital to give birth to the second. They’ll be the friends who sit in stunned silence at playgroup while the doctor on the phone tells you that you must arrange for a CT scan immediately. And they’ll be there when your hair is falling out and you need a second opinion on a wig.

They’ll help you move and set up housekeeping in your new house. They’ll be the extra set of hands you need the first time you attempt to nurse both your baby and your toddler following an unexpected C-section. They’ll understand how fragile you are in the months after your first child leaves for college and they will be kind, very, very kind, when the whole world seems like a hostile place.

I can’t tell my young correspondent how much time to spend online. I can’t even seem to set those hard, fast parameters for myself, but I can offer this: make sure the time you spend is really nurturing you. Make sure it’s making you a better wife, a better mother, a better Christian. Your time is so precious and your time alone is so scarce. Make it count. Make it matter.

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  • Claire

    I have a desk job where I sit in front of a computer all day, and it’s just as easy for me to spend time on the Internet at work as it was when I was home with the baby. I get online when I’m on hold on the phone, having a snack, etc.

    I totally agree that excessive Internet time can be problematic by stealing time from relationships, etc. However, in some situations the Internet is actually a good resource for relationships and information that is hard to find in person. For example, when I was struggling with infertility, there was no support in my diocese for women like me who wanted to avoid illicit infertility treatments. The internet was the only place that I could find such a group of women. Now that I have an adopted baby with fetal alcohol syndrome, I’m in a similar situation where I have had more success finding internet support and information than I have in person.

  • I agree that too much of a good thing is just that…too much…but the internet is a good thing.

    The internet has been an emotional boon to me…I live in an area where there are not a lot of stay at home moms, and those that do stay at home are more the ‘desperate housewife’ type.

    I can not connect with them. With the internet I have made friends with amazing women I would never meet otherwise.

    Unfortunately, although the area I live in has a very large Catholic population (long Island NY) the contraceptive mentality is very prevalent and I can’t really identify with those women since the only thing they want to talk about (once they realize you have more then 3 kids) is their birthcontrol methods, as if I want to know..which I don’t. Plus you feel like they are watching for signs of child abuse, which is nerve wracking. But thats NY for you.

    mom of 8