Negligent mothers

Here’s an opinion piece I wrote for The Age addressing Leunig’s recent mothers-neglecting-children cartoon.

I thought it was an interesting cartoon that, for me, brought up many issues around how we parent, flexible work, the internet (!) and being judged.

Anyway, I had a strict word count so I couldn’t touch on much, but here it is. Please don’t call Child Protection…


Almost a week after Leunig’s cartoon of the pram-pushing mother distracted by her phone ignited outrage, I find that I’m still thinking about the central question that it raises: am I on my phone too much when looking after my children?

I’m confident that my three-year-old daughter would say that I am. Recently, she asked me to draw a playground. I obliged and drew her whizzing down a slide.

“Where are the parents?” she asked.
I drew in a mum and dad.
“What about their phones?”
I obediently put smartphones into their hands, and as I did so, I felt a pang of shame. A nerve had been hit.

That made me wonder, what am I doing on my phone in the playground?

A lot of my activity could be classified as productive: work, household admin and researching childcare-related matters. I tell myself these activities are necessary. I’ll even talk aloud, justifying my tapping away to my three-year-old: “Mummy is just telling Daddy where we are” or “I just need to answer this for work”, but still, my (over)use of the phone doesn’t sit easy with me.

To take the example of work, I have enjoyed flexible working arrangements. However, I feel I have to justify my right to this by proving that I really am working. That involves staying on top of work issues as they happen and being responsive. Flexible working is a double-edged right – I do get to spend more time with my child, but I’m not 100% present. When we’re in the park and she shouts out “Look at me!”, sometimes I’m not looking at her – or I am, but my mind’s in the office.

Mothers generally do the majority of child rearing alone, and that can be isolating. It’s a privilege, to be sure, but it’s also emotionally and physically challenging. Partners typically go back to work just weeks after a child is born and the mythical ‘village’ that once raised children doesn’t exist. I turn to the phone for company and advice. Where once we learned from our family and community, we now learn from online forums, blogs, YouTube and websites.

So that’s the ‘virtuous’ phone use. But there is also plenty in my usage history that doesn’t enhance my parenting – memes, cute puppy videos and Miley Cyrus relationship updates. And not all the activity that I like to class as productive needs to be done at the times that I do it – or even done at all.

When it comes down to it, my daughter can’t differentiate between my scrolling mindlessly through Facebook or writing an essential work email. She doesn’t care whether I’m using the phone to be ‘worthy’ and productive or idle and self-indulgent: what bothers her – and me – is that sometimes all she sees is the top of my head when she wants my full attention. At times she has batted away my phone and said firmly “no photo” or even just “stop looking at your phone”.

As I continue to reflect on the issue, if I’m honest with myself, my daughter is right: as a parent, I use my phone too much.

Kelly's drawing

I call this ‘Parents on phones in parks’





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