Last month, during a third continuous night of insomnia, I realized that my constant screen time was impacting my ability to sleep and relax. So, I decided that the next day, I would turn off my cell phone, TV, laptop and iPad and leave it all at home. My only "screen time" would be via my Canon camera, so I could document my 36 hours of being totally unplugged.
I'll admit, my first thought when I woke up that morning was: Oh crap. Why did I do this to myself?
"Mommy, can you make me breakfast?" was my sweet, pre-dawn wake-up call. I immediately felt simultaneous pangs of regret and morning sickness (I recently found out I'm newly pregnant) as I begrudgingly crawled out of bed. I knew that today, rather than throwing some cereal in a bowl, turning on Octonauts and dozing back to sleep, I'd actually have to converse with my child before 7 a.m.
Gulp. Don't give up. And don't throw up, either.
"Sweetheart, just so you know, we're not going to be watching any TV programs today. We're just going to play."
I braced for an all-out tantrum. Surely, my child must be just as addicted to constant stimulation as me.
"OK," he said with a smile as he got out his pirate hat and started talking pirate.
Well, that was easy. He actually seems happy and relieved.
We lay on the couch and cuddled. Played. Talked about what his favorite toys are and why he loves the zoo. There wasn't much to do. But, we were filling the void, left by ignoring the emails, texts and Facebook notifications, by just being a mother and son. It was surprisingly easy, and it just felt really pure and really good.
I saw the pink haze out our back doors and suggested we go into the backyard to watch the sunrise. (I mean, seriously, when is the last time you did that?) He brought out his bug collection and sat on a lawn chair next to me. We pointed at airplanes in the sky and named the colors in the sunrise.
Later, I snuck back to my bedroom to steal a few moments back in bed. This nausea better pass soon. A few minutes later, our toddler came into the room and climbed into bed with me. With the absence of the usual Disney channel on the TV, he looked around for something to do.
"Bible," he said as he pulled my husband's Bible off his nightstand.
I didn't even know that he knew that word.
He left the room and carried the heavy book to my husband, who was sitting on the couch with the baby.
"Daddy, read it?"
As I could hear what was happening, no amount of nausea could keep me in bed. I stumbled to the doorway to witness one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. My husband, reading the Bible aloud, as our two boys looked at him with wide, hopeful eyes.
Beautiful and unprompted.
Something we've never done before, even though we go to church every week.
Luckily, we had a full day of activities that would save us from our TV-free home today. As part of the free toddler playgroup I organize, we'd planned to meet our friends at a park I'd never been to before. (Earlier in the morning, I'd asked my husband to turn on his cell phone to get directions for me. It's too bad we don't have a Thomas Guide because I would have totally used it!)
My husband dictated, and I wrote the turn-by-turn down in my white reporter's notebook, but about 40 minutes later, I found myself lost amidst skyscrapers and one-way streets. Since I had no cell phone to rescue me, I parked (illegally) in the valet driveway at the Marriott in downtown Tampa, ran inside and got quick directions from the front desk. The ladies at the desk were Latina and had the most warm, authentic and hilarious way of communicating. They made me smile from the inside out.
Their directions weren't totally right, but I eventually found the park. We were 40 minutes late, but no one really cared.
And then, as we were at the playground, something really crazy happened. I just talked to my friends. That was it. I was just simply, really in the moment. Out of habit, I kept looking in my bag, thinking: There's something I should be checking. Then, I'd smile to myself as I realized I was relieved of the burden of a cell phone today. I was starting to really like this.
From the park, we drove to a friend's house for lunch. Without GPS in an unfamiliar part of town, it took me a little longer to get there, but we made it about 10 minutes late. Again, there was nothing to distract me from laughing with my good friend. We just talked and had nothing else on our minds, aside from our sons occasionally hitting each other with toy swords.
When we got home, it was naptime for the boys, and I was rejoicing because the upset stomach and nausea hadn't let up all day. After three nights of insomnia, I was utterly exhausted. But usually, during the boys' naptime, my mind is too distracted to fall asleep. Not today. I lay in my bed, and I don't even remember falling asleep. (Anyone who has trouble sleeping knows that this is basically a miracle!)
The next thing I knew, the baby was crying, and it was 4:05 p.m. We had a birthday party to get to, and it had started 5 minutes ago.
We arrived 35 minutes late, but again, no one cared. It was a great time of seeing friends, laughing with them about the ugly pajamas we wear to bed and telling our kids they couldn't have three cupcakes. I couldn't help but smile when, at the end of the party, I realized my diaper bag was at least 15 feet away from where we were sitting. And I'd never once had the urge to dig through it to check a device.
During this day, I realized how much the Internet is a crutch for my to-do list. My calendar is on my laptop, emails are the language of business, Facebook is central to my social life and Pinterest is my hub for dinner recipes. It felt rewarding to find ways around that dependence.
Instead of consulting my Google Calendar, I had to handwrite my to-do list in my notebook.
For dinner, I opened up my old cookbooks, the same ones I'd used when we were first married. A rush of warm memories came flooding back as I turned the wrinkled, stained pages. I remembered my history. I didn't have to wipe a screen with a wet hand or refresh the page, and then be distracted by an email that just pinged in. It was just the paper. And I was just making dinner. Everything seemed so one-dimensional in such a great way.
After dinner, the lack of TV was noticeable. We played outside.
We played puzzles with the boys. We read books. And then something awesome happened. Our "baby" (he's actually 17 months) started talking. A lot. He's said a few words here and there, but tonight, as my husband was reading to him from our UCLA book, we heard "ball," "doggie" and several other words all at once. It was like he wanted to say them every night but he was too enthralled in whatever TV program we had on that he couldn't hear this own voice. And neither could we.
It was beautiful. The void of time, created by turning off our devices, had actually created space for new memories and new experiences. And new voices.
As I laid my head on my pillow that night, it felt different. Unlike the last three nights, there was no muscle twitch in my back, pulsing with each review of the long to-do list in my head. My eyes weren't sore from hours on the TV, iPad and cell phone. My whole body felt loose, warm, soft and ready for sleep. I had no problems falling asleep and staying asleep all night.
The whole day, my main fear had been the next day. I pictured the dread in my gut, as I turned my devices back on to find countless messages and texts that needed immediate response. As it turned out, I did have a lot of notifications (33 emails, 10 text messages and 448 Facebook notifications from four different accounts), but it only took me about 15 dedicated minutes to go through them all, and respond to the ones that needed response. After I was done, I realized how much more efficient I had been, compared to days when I'd waste a few seconds checking my phone every three minutes, only to see an unnecessary notification or junk email.
I also learned that my kids are really well-behaved when they're not constantly being ignored or told to go away. Since I had nothing else to do, I ended up playing with my kids more and having conversations with them, and they thrived. There wasn't a picture of them playing Legos for me to take and post on Instagram. There wasn't an email pinging in that I had to stop our race car game to check. There wasn't a text that I had to glance at, while simultaneously reading a book to the boys, and trying to act like I wasn't missing a word.
There was nothing to do but be with them.
And on this day, I really was.
My husband asked me if I ever plan to do this again, and I said, "Absolutely!" I am going to try to start doing this every Sunday, calling it screen-free Sunday (#screenfreeSunday), so that I can really focus on making that day about church and family. It's time to breathe. And enjoy every moment. Not every email.
Formerly an Emmy-nominated TV news reporter, Janie Porter is the creator of SheJustGlows.com and (often-unshowered) stay-at-home mama to two boys under 3 years old. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more posts about less-than-perfect parenting, juice and smoothie recipes and tips on finding your inner glow.