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I don’t particularly want to stop and look at the snail. But it’s caught your attention, and I can’t possibly distract you now that you’ve noticed how it expands and contracts its slimy little body in a futile attempt to escape the looming shadow of your giant foot.
I’d rather keep moving, maybe stop if we find something vaguely more interesting, like a horse, or even a tractor. But we stay, watching the snail, poking the snail, talking about the snail in the limited terms your vocabulary will allow, but which actually is sufficient, given the topic.
No one warned me that having a small child involves going so slowly, and so fast, usually within the same hour. We can cover entire museums in minutes, but we also stop at every dog we pass, and inspect sticks and leaves for so long that they stop looking like twigs and leaves.
You’re very happy to meet the snail. It’s a happiness that can only come from your obliviousness to the world’s order, to the many self-inflicted boundaries that prevent most adults from joining you in your constant series of daily delights, to the on-paper version of existence that you will one day be drawn into – and away from the real world and all its pleasures.
The longer we spend here, crouched down on the puddle-riddled footpath, the more I feel the rise of a familiar sense of unease at our stillness, at my inability to comfortably engage with the world as you do.
You grab my finger and instruct me to touch the snail. Yes, wow, isn’t it lovely. You seem satisfied with my effort, and I gratefully return my hand to my pocket, where it brushes against my phone.
My hand twitches, and I steady myself in my squat, ready to take my phone out of my pocket and check to see if anyone has e-mailed me on a Friday evening. Thankfully, you become distracted by the prospect of visiting the cows at the bottom of the footpath, and off we go. “Bye bye, snail!” we sing.
It often feels that we’re both as new to the world as each other. For you, the constant buzz of novelty comes from your newness to life, whereas I’m trying to spend less time looking at my phone.
I can no longer ignore what I’m missing out on, even just by glancing quickly at my phone, which I feel compelled to do throughout our time together, as if I need constant little breaks from reality even though I know that this period of time is what I’ll spend the rest of my life wanting to relive.
Our time together is pockmarked by my weakness because every time I check out of your world I’m missing a part of your unfolding, which is the ultimate privilege mothers risk their lives to obtain. But my phone is so enticing, with its constant promises of validation and insights into the lives of people who I don’t know or care about. The phone has got a grip on something deep inside my brain, and knowing this doesn’t lessen its pull. I constantly ask, but cannot answer: what is it all for, this manipulation of my attention? Is it purely so I part ways with the money I pay every month for my phone bill?
It sickens me to think that I might have already contributed to your future relationship to screens. There’s a white light behind your head every night as you fall asleep on me, because I can’t be fully in the moment and experience your eyes finally drooping to a close, or your breath deepening, when there are 3,500 round coasters I need to scroll through while shopping online.
Sometimes, you catch me checking my phone, and I wish I could explain to you that, when I was at an age when I should’ve been learning how to be in the world, I was handed my first mobile phone, instead. So many of us millennials were. Our comings of age were inadvertently diverted away from reality, and our new digital guardians ensured that we no longer had to endure the mild discomfort of boredom.
Our parents didn’t know any better than to let us navigate adolescence through our mobile phones – after all, this was their first exposure to them, too. If only they’d known how addicted we’d become, perhaps they’d have relegated them to the top cupboard behind the sugary snacks.
People say having a child is living with your heart on the outside of your body. It’s a concept I’m used to since I’ve spent most of my life with my brain in the palm of my hand.
The longer we watched the snail, the more I could sense a rising sense of disconnection from the imposter world online. You’re so happy at this age because you don’t need to cling to this fake world and its false promise of connection. You’re still trusting of nature and its ability to ground and connect you with whatever you need. While I’m constantly oscillating between two dopamine reward systems that have no business competing: unopened e-mails versus your chubby thighs digging into my stomach, your clumsy fingers wiping dirt on my jeans.
Sometimes, you spend 10 minutes eating a biscuit, and I give up trying to ignore the pull toward my phone.
But then, just as I check social media for the 10th time that day, you offer me a bite – always bringing me back into the moment with you – and I pretend to nibble it and dip it into my tea, in my mug, on my new round coaster.
Jessica Bradley lives in Yorkshire, England.