Parenting By Heart — and By Cell Phone

Brookline Tab, August 31, 2006

Good parenting is in the eye of the beholder; or at least, the family in question. For me, an often tired and busy mother of three, one of my more successful parenting tools happens to be my cell phone, especially this time of year. Camp is winding down, and our Cape getaway is just around the corner; but not quite. I’m still here in my hot home, trying like a good green citizen not to run the air conditioning too much, until, a suddenly snappish remark to my child, and then I break down and finally flip that switch. It’s the summer doldrums; and with temperatures in the triple digits combined with kids at home, I want some alone time, even just driving in my car to the Stop and Shop with my cell phone within reach in case they need me.

My cell phone has become both my key to an outside life and my lifeline to my children. My cellular needs are not about arranging luncheons, catching up with friends or anything else other drivers imagine, safe inside their phone-free cars. If I am on my phone and alone, then most likely I am talking to my middle child, Max.

Fourteen-year-old Max is competent and calm, the perfect babysitter and foil for my wily, sarcastic little guy, eight-year-old Ben, and a trustworthy, watchful eye for my sixteen-year-old autistic son Nat. Yet, I can’t simply get Max to take over for me whenever I please; he is a teenager, after all. But also, there is the matter of respecting his need to remain a child without heavy responsibilities. All three boys have their own, equally important set of needs. So, the most important thing I’ve learned as a parent of three such different boys, is balance, balance, balance. And use that cell phone.

I spend a lot of time weighing each boy’s wants and deciding who gets what and who sacrifices this time. Like when Nat got invited to a birthday party (the first in nearly a year) on the day we were to leave for our long-anticipated vacation. Should he go, and cause Max and Ben to start vacation a day late? Should my husband and I split up to do both, party and vacation on the right day?

Needless to say, we all juggle and give in a bit to make things happen, relying frequently on our phones to keep us together. When I was asked to give a talk at Mass General the other day, I had to see what Max and Ben would be up to during my three hours away (Nat would be in school), whether I would be destroying some carefully laid plans, and whether later on there was a way to make it up to them if I went out. It turned out Max had arranged to take a girl to a movie, but he was willing to go the next day.

So I was able to give my talk — with my phone ringer on (my audience, a group of doctors, were very understanding) and also with the phone perched at the top of my bag, staring up at me with its blank face like one of those tiny robots little Ben draws. I called in when I was finished; everything was okay. I called from the Charles T stop; still okay. And then, of course, no reception while underground! When I got home, I threw my stuff down and called out breathlessly to them, “Boys! Everything okay?”

Max lumbered downstairs. “Yeah.” So very little conversation is freely offered by him, that I have to push and prod a little. But in the end, I learned, to my delight, that while I was gone, Max had built a good-sized Lego tower with Ben.

That night, we had dinner out, at their favorite place; Bertucci’s (the South Brookline one). Three quiet faces occasionally glanced my way, chewing, swallowing, thinking their own thoughts. But I was satisfied because we were all together, a silent but content family, and also because I did not have to cook. From time to time I spoke with my husband, who was working late — calling him on my cell phone, of course.