A Most Discourteous Machine

Author: Elizabeth Foss


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 control.

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 with them.

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 again.

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 Catholic Herald."

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.