If your child doesn’t know mine, you won’t have heard that I am the world’s worst parent ever – frequently clueless, mostly bossy, and totally unfair.
Wait, you say, that’s me! And while I won’t ask what crimes you committed to deserve the title, mine is a series of annoying expectations (homework before screen, clothes off the floor, feed the dog) capped by the monumental sin of declining to buy my child a phone until he finished primary school.
Between ages eight and 12, we have debated various reasons for getting said phone.
“I’ll be safer” didn’t add up as he has a ride to school and the walk home is along bustling streets. The unsafe kids seem to be those stumbling on pavements and walking into traffic eyes glued to phone.
The “right to entertainment” made even less sense. Phones are supposed to be stored away during class, which still leaves him with an iPad. At home, there is the PlayStation and far too many streaming services.
The inevitable comparison with his older siblings didn’t work because they, too, had waited. My eldest would often ask how he would remember his friends’ phone numbers (hint, hint). “Write them down,” we said.
But the justification that persisted was “all my friends have a phone, and their parents don’t care”. His most compelling argument was the least compelling for us, especially when we watched the older children’s phones light up at all hours of the night while charging outside. Unwilling to be drawn into the parenting habits of others without knowing what went on in their lives, I held the line that parents did what was best for their children. My evolved reasoning was dismissed as a “total cop-out”. Ouch.
Truth be told, the experience of schooling during the world’s longest lockdown soured me on devices. Some formative years of my son’s life were spent watching YouTube shorts with the teacher reduced to a small square on the screen. Along with attention, his learning suffered. Closed playgrounds and cancelled sports squelched his athleticism. There was only so much bread to bake, so we made our peace with a daily dose of screen as a calming agent.
Lockdown ended but the intrusion of screen in our lives seemed permanent and while it was a mere drop in the proverbial ocean of parenting, I wanted my son to learn the discipline of waiting while shielding him from yet another device for just a little longer. After all, if Steve Jobs did, why not me?
I nearly succumbed to the guilt trips but now we are at the finish line. Cleverly, when his grandparents asked what he would like for a graduation present, he mentioned AirPods. “I will need something to connect them to,” he said to me archly.
My son’s forthcoming graduation will be the demarcation between the pre-phone dark age and post-phone Enlightenment. But if I am being honest, it was never about the phone but letting go.
The transition to high school will bring teen spirit, new friends and new customs. Unlike the first day of primary school, I won’t meet a sentimental mum wiping away a tear or doing circles of the playground wondering how to treat that first taste of freedom. There will be less interaction with the teachers and more emphasis on autonomy. Oversight will have to make way for trust. Before I am fully ready, we will move to driving and drugs and alcohol and relationships.
It seems incredible that my parents got through their children’s entire education without hearing from the school. My inbox is bombarded with notifications that I mostly ignore, but there is no avoiding the increasing number of emails that convey tragedy, the ones that begin with “We are very sorry to inform you …”
My heart twists itself in a knot as I give thanks for my child and think about the mourning parents of those who have taken their lives. In this age of privacy, the grieving stay anonymous while rumours fly – it all feels wrong.
As a mother who happens to be an oncologist, my mind is never far from other people’s children.
“Primary school age” brings an instant lump to my throat because no young child should face the loss of a parent. High school sounded better until my own children got there and I realised how much they needed parenting. I imagined kids at university would be self-sufficient until I remembered how often I turned to my own parents for moral support. When my oldest patients laugh that their children are “no longer children”, I feel relief. Then, reality crashes in as a mother begs me to save her life because “without me, what would happen to my son and his disabled child?”
You don’t need to be an oncologist to bear witness to the ties that bind parent and child, but medicine certainly teaches you a thing or two about the act of letting go.
A daughter attending her school formal. A son graduating from his father’s alma mater. A child getting married. These are the occasions for which my patients ask to be fully present because there is an implicit acknowledgement that there may not be a next time. A mother recently observed that she is learning to seize the day while simultaneously letting go. This balancing act is masterful and poignant, and I want to learn it.
My baby who toddled into childcare and took tentative steps into kindergarten will soon enter high school. He will be admiring his new phone and I will be feeling bittersweet for a whole lot of reasons he won’t yet appreciate.
I will make a big deal about his last day at primary school because I know how much I will miss the end of this phase. As I drive him to his first day of high school, I will insist he talk to me if only to keep him off that new phone just a bit longer. I will relish that sliver of time.
Then I will let go.
• Ranjana Srivastava is an Australian oncologist, award-winning author and Fulbright scholar. Her latest book is called A Better Death