Following closely behind obtaining travel insurance as the number one thing to do before you hop on a plane to travel the world, is to turn off data roaming on your smart phone.
When you are embarking on extended travel, the usual goal is to reactivate your phone with a domestic sim card of the country you are visiting.
As it turned out, this wasn’t entirely possible for us, as we would be spending the first four months of our family adventure in the northwoods of Wisconsin, in a town called Clam Lake, which is in the middle on a national forest, with a population of 37 people.
The one and only mobile phone tower in the area was a Verizon tower. I was impressed that in quite a remote place there was still mobile coverage, but this did mean that we couldn’t use our Australian iPhone and insert a Verizon sim. (I am no phone expert but I think it had something to do with the difference between the GSM and CDMA networks – whatever they are).
We still needed a mobile phone for emergency reasons, so we purchased a little $50 prepaid phone that lets you call and text (think Nokia 8210).
No phone data
At first it was a strange thought - to not have the ability to be connected.
It is not that I am someone who is always connected – I have deliberately not had email on my phone for over a year, even before we started our adventure.
But to not have the choice. That was something different.
Initially, through habit, I would still reach into my pocket for my phone during those uncomfortable moments, to flick.
You know those moments. When we are waiting in line at the grocery store and we don’t want to make eye contact with people, as then we might even need to smile or make conversation. Or that moment when you’re out with friends and the conversation has a slightly longer and more awkward pause than usual.
So instead of numbingly flicking, I now had to be present in those moments. I looked out windows in cafes watching the world pass by as I waited for people to arrive, I made funny faces with my daughter in grocery lines, and I made larger sandcastles at the beach.
There but not there
It didn’t take long for this new way of life (how everyone in the world lived pre-1999) to become normal. So normal that when I saw people acting the way I used to, it felt strange.
Being the primary carer of Andy, our five-year-old daughter, this past year, I have spent countless hours at neighbourhood parks pushing her on swings, running around playing tag, or sitting on benches simply watching her play with newfound friends.
By not having a reason to reach for my phone, I have been able to watch Andy play, see how she interacts with other children and be completely there with her for the entire time.
But as I would look around the playgrounds, all I could see were parents that were there, but not there.
If they weren’t fully engaged with their children by pushing them on a swing or helping them balance across a plank, they were sitting with their head in a screen.
My intention here is not to berate parents, I think we all do enough of that to ourselves anyway. And hey, I was that parent only a year ago and I would still be that parent if I could have used my iPhone in the United States. But because that choice was taken away from me, I now see things differently.
I see what I used to be like, and I am glad I am not like that any more.
What do you miss out on?
We reach for our phones, as we are worried that we’re going to miss out on something. That there has to be something better than what we’re doing right now.
But when we reach for our phones, especially when we are with our kids, it is the complete opposite. We miss out on the here, the now, on them.
If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you know I don’t miss out on that. I still flick through the feeds, like and comment, and upload my own photos. But because I am not connected remotely and only via WiFi when we are home, I do all that in batches when the time is right for me, not continuously during the day when I find myself slightly bored.
Be engaged even when your children are not
When Andy was first born I was back to work the following day, as her arrival coincided with a large pitch for the company I was working for. Now it wasn’t that the directors were making me work or even asked me to come in. I just thought that while Andy was sleeping at the hospital with Inga, I might as well come into work and prepare for the presentation.
One of the directors (the female and mother of two) said something that really resonated with me. She said, “Go to the hospital and watch her sleep. She will only be a few days old for a few days.”
I thought that because my child wasn’t engaged with me, I didn’t need to be engaged with my child.
And this was my realisation at all the parks, beaches, grocery lines, everywhere parents were with their kids – parents disengaged as soon as their children did.
What I learnt by being more engaged
Children do have shorter attention spans than adults, they move from one thing to the next. But. And it is a big but. They come back to things, or check in with past things.
I would push Andy on the swing or play tag, or dig a hole with her if we were at the beach. And then she would go off and play by herself or with newfound friends.
And as I would watch her, I would see her look up and check-in with me. I think it was part her reconnecting with that safe zone of her father, but also to see if I was watching all the new things she was doing, the progress she was making, the new obstacles she was overcoming.
I learnt that just because Andy wasn’t near me didn’t mean that she wasn’t engaged with me.
I started to observe other children and I would see them look up at their parents too, but their parents, like I used to be, had already disengaged with their children, sending the signal that what is on their phone is more important than what their children are doing.
But Mike, you’re travelling and you don’t have the choice so it is easier for you.
Yes, I am sure that is partly correct. When you don’t have a choice there is not much you can do about it.
Inga and I have had many conversations about this and we decided to make it easier on ourselves when we came home and took the choice away. We are experimenting with having no data on our phones.
We have lived this entire adventure without it so we might as well give it a try now that we have arrived home.
I have already done some quick research online and we should be able to save approximately $100/month combined on our phone bills.
An extra $1,200 a year and the ability to be more present and engaged with my daughter and my community when I am out and about – seems like a win/win to me.
Give it a try for two weeks
We never know how something will affect our life until we try it, test it, measure it and assess it by seeing if it had a positive or negative affect on our life.
Experiments, testing change, is how we grow.
If you are in a phone contract or worried that you might need data for some apps like Evernote, Maps or other productive Apps, you can still experiment with no data. (And even the cheapest contracts or prepaid plans with unlimited calls and text come with a minimal amount of data.)
If you have an iPhone (I am sure you could do this on an Android too but I don’t know the exact steps) simply go to Settings, tap Mobile (Cell for my North American readers), and then scroll down. You will see a list of your Apps that use data.
Unclick all the Apps that disengage you from your children, family and friends when you are out and about. I will give you a hint, start with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, or any other form of social media along with any games if you have them.
You have now taken a huge, important step and taken the choice away from yourself. You have made it easier for yourself as now you will only be able to use these Apps when you are connected to WiFi, and not when you are at the park or beach with your children or at dinner with your family or friends.
Instead of flicking through your feeds when you’re commuting to work, you can read that book you never had time for, or simply look out the window and think of all the things in your life you have to be grateful for.
Give it a try for two weeks and I promise that you will not miss out on anything. And you will gain a deeper connection with your children and people in your life.
You will also develop a deeper connection with yourself, as you will spend more time simply sitting and waiting. Which might feel a little uncomfortable at first, but it is such a beautiful experience when we allow ourselves to enjoy moments of nothing.
Admire your creation
Sometimes those 10 minutes, sitting on the park bench, while your children are finally entertaining themselves without you, is the only free moment you get to yourself for the entire day.
I get it, I really do.
But it could also be the only moment where you get to sit back, relax, stop, and admire what a great job you have done as a parent.
And that is more important than anything happening in the palm of your hand.
Stay engaged and live immediately.