As the mother of a newborn, I spend many hours a day sitting on the couch nursing my baby. This doesn’t come as a surprise – this baby is my fourth, so I’ve been through this before. But for the first time I am now nursing with a smartphone, a device I can hold in one hand for hours on end, so that time passes seemingly unnoticed and I find myself, to my consternation, oblivious to the miracle of new life at my breast.
I am trying, as much as possible, to wean myself off my phone while breastfeeding. Aware of the shallowness of the smartphone’s trance-inducing temptations, I seek instead to immerse myself in the deeper pleasures of fiction. Jess Walter writes in Beautiful Ruins about a character who takes a data hit from her smartphone, and I can attest that those pings have an intoxicating lure. In Station Eleven, one of Emily St. John Mandel’s characters complains about “smartphone zombies” who walk around glued to their screens, oblivious to the world around them. And yet according to a modern Israeli rabbinic commentator, a woman who has just given birth to a daughter—as I have—is supremely alive, since not only did she create new life, but she has created a form of life that has the potential to give birth to new life someday, as all baby girls do. How tragic it would be to miss out on these moments of peak vitality.
Ever bent on self-improvement, I have started setting daily “reading goals” so that I don’t immediately reach for the phone. Each day I strive to read one chapter of whatever nonfiction book I’m in the middle of (currently David Brooks’ The Road to Character, which works well, as each chapter can be read as a self-contained essay about, well, self-improvement). This usually lasts for about two breastfeeding sessions. I also make sure to learn a page of Talmud a day, keeping up with the daf yomi cycle, reading aloud to my baby so that she may imbibe Torah with her mother’s milk. Then I reward myself with as many pages of fiction as I can get through, often reading aloud the passages of dialogue so that my baby—who is alone with me for most of the day while her three older siblings are in preschool—can get accustomed to the cadences of human speech. She is not yet smiling, but I am pretty sure she gurgles happily at the funny parts.
And what about the smartphone? Now I keep it in the bathroom, where I check it each time I pee or change a diaper. I like to think I’m in good company. The midrash relates that the Talmudic sage Shmuel used to study astrology in the bathroom because it was the only place he could not learn Torah. Like Shmuel, I prioritize my reading and learning – Torah, fiction, and nonfiction come first; e-mail and Facebook can be left for the bathroom, where I am less likely to linger in their thrall. Unlike Shmuel, though, I don’t bother checking my horoscope; thanks to my beautiful baby daughter, I’m already starry-eyed enough.