Saturday, May 19, 2007

Call Waiting

The phone has always been a symbol of independance. Remember the desperation with which you wanted your own "line" in your own room? The first phone I remember coveting was called "Private Call". It had some sort of lock and key, and what could be more important to the oldest of three kids who was regularly throwing her sister and brother out of her room with a force that sometimes drew blood?

I still remember those nights on the phone, after my parents finally gave in, lying stomach down on my carpet, feet in the air, stereo playing, ankles locked, talking to a best friend or boy friend (two words). I had limitless energy for the phone. One would call me at midnight to watch Headbangers Ball, and another regularly phoned at 6:00AM to ask what I was wearing to school that day. I would chat until my cheek got sweaty, my mouth dry. Sometimes a friend and I would not even speak on the phone, but hold the line while we watched TV in order to quickly comisserate at the commercials. I liked to play mood music in the background. It was a multi media experience, at least for the late 1980s.

In my single years in NYC, the phone maintained its appeal. Boys you met at bars either sank or swam based on if they gave "good phone" (later replaced by "good email"). Date nights were analyzed with girlfriends while we sipped wine across town from one another. I remember calling my sister the morning after my first date with now-husband, babbling for hours about my fears that he was just not that into me. I loved coming home to the blinking answering machine light. This was before I had a cellphone, which later only served to enable my vice.

And then I had a baby. And I feel like my entire life is now filled with unfinished conversations, unreturned and uninitiated phone calls. At work, where the walls are thin and time limited, calls to friends and loved ones are hushed and sparse. At home, they are nearly impossible. Chloe whines and orders me "Off, Off" as soon as I get on the phone. She glares at me from beneath her trademark heavy eyelids of discontent. And she's right. It's rude. I am somehow sending a message to her that our time together does not warrant my undivided attention.

And the rudeness does not only extend to Chloe. If I am able to multi task, I run the risk of an annoying and obnoxious simultaneous conversation, one with my friend, the other with my kid. I am not a fan of this. When I am on the other end, I find it confusing. Do I want a peanut butter sandwich? Wait, you aren't talking to me. When I have to engage in a chat with Chloe while amidst another conversation I try to pause and apologize -- but often, like when my sneaker is dangling above the toilet in a passive aggressive threat, I don't have time and find myself abandoning my friend mid-sentence. It's wrong. I just can't lift the rules of phone etiquette because I am a mom. I would never have a dual conversation with another adult while on the phone, why should I do it just because someone who is only three feet tall is demanding that I shift my attention? What am I teaching her about manners and patience and "just a minute"?

So I avoid the phone when I am with Chloe, which leaves me the evenings. The only time that I have to collapse, reunite with my husband, watch mindless TV. And by then, I am so tired, I can barely dial. So what does that leave me? I don't miss the casual conversations. But there are times when I need to deconstruct an issue, to really hear someone who is reaching out to me, to catch up until there is nothing left to say.

The only silver lining is that this conflict has forced me to redefine quality time, and chase it. Friendships are built less on good phone sessions and more on terrific in person time, no matter how hard it is to arrange. I use the phone for catch up in between, when I am alone and can really contribute to a conversation. I leave longer than appropriate voicemail messages. I make the most out of every moment, and try to manage these moments in a respectful and valuable way. It's not ideal, but at least it's real.