Elizabeth Foss writes “I was a better Mother before the Internet”. As always, Elizabeth is eloquent, thoughtful, thought-provoking. I love reading her reflections in part because she has been here where I am, has survived, and has gained some wisdom. But of course her life is not mine. So after I read what she’s written, I think about it, chew on it, think about how it does and doesn’t apply to my life.
Elizabeth’s first child is in college now. She’s been doing this mothering thing a long time. I’ve only been a mother for two years and change. I’ll never know what it was to be a mother before the internet. I discovered the world of the net and blogging long before I discovered the world of motherhood. And yet we both approach the same questions: How do I find balance? How much is too much? Does the time I spend online nurture me, fill me? Or does it empty me? What are the qualities of the relationships I’ve made online?
Mothers were made to nurture. We nurture babies. We nurture little girls who look to us as examples of what they are to become. We nurture restless teenaged boys. We nurture young adults who are boldly going forth in the world. We nurture a love with a man who is called away from us and into the world in order to provide for our basic needs. Mostly, we nurture relationships. And real relationships require thoughtful time and attention. They can’t be a click away. They require the investment of energy and understanding. They require prudence and forgiveness and genuine charity. It is true that in our lifetimes we might find one or two of those friendships online. But that is all. Just one or two. And those friendships will more than likely grow and flower over much time and many long, thoughtful letters and many more phone conversations. They will not remain confined to the screen and the keyboard.
Most of our genuine friendships, most of the contacts that will fill us rather than deplete us, are the ones we nurture face to face and the ones where we are nurtured in return. They’ll be the friends who watch your first baby when you go to the hospital to give birth to the second. They’ll be the friends who sit in stunned silence at playgroup while the doctor on the phone tells you that you must arrange for a CT scan immediately. And they’ll be there when your hair is falling out and you need a second opinion on a wig. They’ll help you move and set up housekeeping in your new house. They’ll be the extra set of hands you need the first time you attempt to nurse both your baby and your toddler following an unexpected C-section.They’ll understand how fragile you are in the months after your first child leaves for college and they will be kind, very very kind, when the whole world seems like a hostile place.
Frankly, she lost me here. That list, that lovely list. I almost envy her those friends. Perhaps it’s my extreme introversion—perhaps it’s just a matter of time, the difference between just starting out and having been journeying—but the friends Foss describes here, I don’t have them. Not in real life, not online either. And I don’t think it’s the internet that has prevented these friendships from forming.
When I went to the hospital my mom watched my first baby. And my mom and my dad were here to help after the c-sections. When I had the miscarriage and cancer scare, Dom held my hand, his mom and sister drove down from Maine to be with us in the hospital and to help with Bella, and I received great consolations from family by phone and friends via email and comments on my blog. My mom flew out to be with me after the diagnosis and during the follow-up tests. (And, incidentally, I received a lovely note via email from Elizabeth Foss that was a great source of comfort to me during those dark days.) No one helped us when we moved last summer. So for every example Elizabeth Foss gives there were certainly people in my life—family, though, not friends. Not that I’m discounting family, not at all. But it isn’t exactly the same thing, either.
In the three years that I’ve been married I have been happy. I have found the greatest friendship of my life with my husband. But I don’t have any close girlfriends. I haven’t made any of those close friendships since I moved to Massachusetts in 2000. And, apart from family, I don’t have those face to face friendships that nurture me. I just don’t.
Yes, I had some wonderful roommates here, good friends indeed. But not kindred spirits (to use the Anne of Green Gables style of labeling friendships). And they’ve all moved on to other places, other stages of life. Maybe nice to see them and grab dinner or drinks. Not people I call on in an emergency or even see on a regular basis.
And my best friends who understand me on that deep, soul to soul level? Are Stephanie in Seattle and my sister Theresa in Texas. Both far away. Both single and childless. I love them, I need them. Lots and lots of cell phone minutes logged attest to that. But also not face to face friends. Not nearly often enough.
And my support system in an emergency, the people who are here, now, face to face when I need them? With the exception of some acquaintances from church—very nice but acquaintances not kindred spirits—family all: My sisters-in-law here, my mom and my sister in Texas. Lovely ladies, my sils I love them to death. I am so glad they are my family. They have welcomed me as only real family can. But as much as I love them they are also not kindred spirits. Count on them to help out in a pinch, to provide social outings, to give me parenting advice, yes definitely. But not people I can talk to about my deeper questions, my fears and insecurities. And maybe because I’m an introvert and they are so very extroverted, maybe because just differing personalities and maybe because of busy schedules and driving distances, while they are a good emergency backup, I haven’t found myself weaving them into my daily life. Yes, they are there, they are necessary and I appreciate their presence and I don’t take advantage of their offers and invitations nearly as often as I should. (I really, really hope I don’t sound ungrateful for these amazing women.) But I can’t classify them as nurturing face to face friendships, not for what I need from a friend. And my mom has come up to help out with both births and after my miscarriage. Yet she lives in Texas and I live in MA. So she’s a help with the great big things but not the small daily ones. (Except of course those emergency phone calls when I just need mom’s voice and common sense advice.) Nevertheless, with a combination of distance and differing personalities, I just don’t see anyone in my life fitting into the slot of “genuine” face to face friend that Elizabeth Foss describes in this reflection.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into her description. But I feel a hole in my life when I read it, an imaginary girlfriend—or girlfriends—who doesn’t exist.
I don’t go on girl’s nights out in part because I don’t have any girls to go out with. My sils and friends from church don’t have similar tastes in movies, books, entertainment. So playdates with the kids, yes. Girls going out for fun, no not so much. Dom has that sort of frequenty time out with his guy friends but I don’t.
So for me the internet is a primary source of that female companionship that I crave. It’s where I sip coffee (metaphorically speaking) and chat about books, about education, about childrearing, about faith, about hopes and fears and dreams. It does nourish me, fill me, give me something to recharge my batteries. And I have found a faith community online as well, brothers and sisters to pray with me and for me, people I can in turn pray for, the Body of Christ, not at all incorporeal for all that my connection to it is “virtual.” And maybe because it fills a hole that no person in my immediate physical environment does, I have a very very hard time finding that balance, setting those boundaries. I am still at sea when it comes to figuring out how much time is enough and how much is too much. I know I’m probably straying into too much more often than not, giving the internet time I should be giving to my family. But it’s not because I’m neglecting friendships I could be cultivating in “real life” that could become that source of nurturing. I’ve been looking for those for eight years now and they just aren’t here.
So are these internet friends illusions? I don’t think so. I think that if any one of these many friends lived close by we might develop that deeper friendship. However, as things stand now, they aren’t necessarily deep, rich friendships either. But they do feed the intellectual life. And I feel more potential in some of them than I have with anyone I’ve meet face to face. Perhaps over time some of them will take root and bloom and become more.
I’m not lonely. In fact with Dom and Bella and Sophia I feel less lonely than I have in a long, long time. Probably since those golden years of college. And really more fulfilled that I was then even, for even the greatest of friendships couldn’t feed the deepest needs of my soul as being a wife and mother have. I am now where God wants me to be and I am very well content to be here. But, still, there is a hole, Dom’s out all day working, the girls are, well, babies still. There’s room in my life for a girlfriend. And until she appears I’ll probably continue to be out of balance, spending too much time haunting the internet, seeking more than it might be able to give. And if I know I might be short-changing my family at times, all I can do is attempt to make course corrections when I become aware, put the computer down when Isabella demands my attention, try to be attentive to the need to just sit and giggle with the girls, to read to them and cuddle them. And try to limit my online time so that it doesn’t interfere. But I know I will fail and fail and fail again. Because I’m human. Because I’m imperfect. I might be a better mother without the internet, but I don’t know if I can bring myself to unplug and find out. Not right now.
I can’t tell my young correspondent how much time to spend online. I can’t even seem to set those hard, fast parameters for myself, but I can offer this: make sure the time you spend is really nurturing you. Make sure it’s making you a better wife, a better mother, a better Christian. Your time is so precious and your time alone is so scarce. Make it count. Make it matter.
Right now I’m still trying to figure it out, how to find the right balance, how to discern, how to discipline. But I’m glad that I have voices like hers to remind me, to challenge me, to help me find my way.