A MOST DISCOURTEOUS MACHINE
by Elizabeth Foss
The phone rings for the fourth time this morning and, once again, I cut my
2-year-old off in mid-sentence to answer it. He is visibly annoyed --and
then vocally annoyed. Five minutes later, unable to finish the
conversation over his protests, I hang up, leaving my caller frustrated,
my previously content child squalling, and myself feeling utterly out of
That innocent looking machine, a wonder of modern technology really, has
once again wrought havoc in my household. I won't condemn telephones. They
are wonderful tools. In a time when conversations over the back fence and
shared morning coffees are no more, the telephone does provide some sense
of community and companionship. For me, there is the added bonus of being
able to work from home via telephone and fax machine. But I know that my
heart rate must speed up every time the phone rings. I am programmed to
jump to its beck and call and I often see it as my greatest enemy in the
fight to protect family time.
There is no way around it, the telephone is a most discourteous machine.
Regardless of where I am or what I am doing, its shrill voice interrupts
to call incessantly for my attention. I would never tolerate that from my
children! The phone has called me from a deep sleep, interrupted my baby's
nap time, and intruded upon our dinner hour.
Right after my first child was born, my mother-in-law warned me that
children don't like their parents on the phone. Time and time again, she
has been proven absolutely correct. I was always fairly careful not to
talk too long or to talk when they obviously wanted my attention, but it
wasn't until my husband spent the entire day on the phone that I really
understood what children must feel.
Mike was at home working and making telephone calls from the kitchen
phone. All day long, the children and I were in and out and he was having
conversations with people we could neither see nor hear. By early
afternoon, I was really annoyed. There is no feeling of being ignored
quite like the one I got the day he talked all day and never said a word
that included me.
I empathized with my children that day. They must have hated it when I
went my merry way around the house, chatting on a cordless phone and doing
various chores while they merely existed in the same room. There are times
when telephone calls are necessary, but all too often, family members from
moms to teenagers abuse the phone to the detriment of the people living
We have changed some things in our house so that telephones are easier to
control. I had a bad habit of talking on the phone while doing housework.
A cordless phone allowed me to talk anywhere for as long as I wanted. The
cordless phone is gone and now my calls are limited to the amount of time
it takes to clean the kitchen. (Once upon a time, my mother taught me
never to sit still and just talk on the phone. To this day, I can't be
still and talk; it seems like a terrible waste of time.)
The answering machine, often maligned as a nuisance, is my best friend.
The only phone that rings is upstairs in the room we use as an office. All
the other ringers are off. If the phone rings, I don't hear it unless I'm
working. The answering machine picks it up, a message is recorded, I check
the messages frequently, and return calls at my convenience (or my
children's, whichever the case may be).
Other personal rules are to never interrupt a nursing baby or a bedtime
routine to answer the phone, to never be on the phone when my husband
walks through the door at the end of the day, and to never talk on the
phone during dinner time. Both my husband and the children understand
their priority clearly by my extending these very simple courtesies.
The telephone is a tool invented to simplify life. If kept in its place it
can be just that. The trick is to fight the habit of jumping every time
it rings and considering the people who are physically present in our
homes as the first priority. If it's really important, the phone will ring
Foss is a freelance writer and managing editor of "Welcome Home", a
magazine for mothers at home.
This article appeared in the November 11, 1994 issue of "The Arlington
Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the
Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511
or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.