“Among our closest friends and family members, we operate furtively without even trying to, for no reason other than that we are using a nearly omnipresent, highly convenient tool, the specific use of which is almost never apparent.”
—Susan Dominus, “Motherhood, Screened Off”
I am pretty sure I didn’t always love family gatherings, but I started loving them around the time I went off to college. There’s something wonderful about being in a crowded kitchen, everyone preparing a different side dish as we chatter about the minutia that make up our everyday lives.
I am not at all good about keeping in touch with family members other than my own parents, so holidays are one of those rare times when I have a chance to connect with extended family. Growing up, I was close to my sister (we’re just two years apart), but after she got married and started that all-consuming thing known as medical school, we mostly followed our separate paths.
On a vacation to a cabin up north this past summer—which involved my parents, my sister, her husband, and their three-year-old son, plus Mr. NaCl and our two kids—as well as during a Thanksgiving spent with Mr. NaCl’s family in Iowa, it seemed to me that the nature of our interactions was different than it had been in years past. At the end of a long day that involved some combination of cooking, dish washing, and keeping the exuberant children well occupied, the adults were tired. Both families include a good number of introverts, so after the kids were all in bed, evenings offered a chance to recharge.
I come from a family of readers, so it used to be that we would all gather in a common space and each curl up with a book (or perhaps some knitting, for my mom and me). Conversation would happen in fits and starts; someone would start laughing at something they read and then share it with the rest of us. But now, the evenings are spent with each person absorbed in his or her own electronic device. I couldn’t really put my finger on why that bothered me until I read the essay from which I quoted at the beginning of this piece. That’s it! Our devices obscure what we’re doing from each other even when we’re all in the same room.
Despite all this, there’s something to be said for the brief moment of respite provided by escaping into a screen. Someone might have emailed me in the last ten minutes! Or perhaps someone at this very website said something witty that I really need to see right now! But it’s so easy to slip into something more than a quick check of a website. The minutes pass by and suddenly a child is calling my name and I’m responding, “just one more minute.”
I’m not on Facebook, but every month or so I’ll use Mr. NaCl’s account to check what my sister has posted. What I love about her is that she does not document her life’s highlights. Instead she notes every sickness (her son is a puker), every flat tire, every vet appointment for her aging dog.
Our screens keep us apart, our screens bring us together. I’m not sure I have any answers here, but I feel certain that years from now, what I remember most about the time spent with my extended family will not be those times when we all sat around looking at our devices.
The next time I’m with extended family, there isn’t any reason that I couldn’t propose that the adults all play a game together one evening—the kind of game played on a board or with a deck of cards. The fact that the kids are young right now restricts what our options are, both in terms of their limited attention spans and in terms of their relatively early bedtimes. So I realize we won’t always be in circumstances that require us to be engaging in quiet activities at home starting at 8:00 in the evening.
I don’t think technology is the enemy—some of my closest friends are people I know “from the Internet.” And I don’t think that family interactions must be entirely devoid of tech devices. But I am trying to figure out how we can overcome the lure of our individual screens and really connect with one another on those occasions when we are all together. I’m more than a little curious to hear from others here about how technology has affected your family gatherings and what you make of this brave new world of screens.