How to Parent via App

What is motherhood but a surveillance state?

from the 1922 Atlanta City Directory, via Flickr

Today was the last day of school. This means I filled out my last Covid health form of the school year. I’ve done this every weekday since September, except for the times I forgot and my son had to do it on paper when he got to his fifth-grade classroom. The form is easy enough: First, I would tap on the NYC Department of Education’s app that led to a series of questions about my son’s potential exposures to Covid. After the first few weeks I didn’t even read the questions, just tapped “no…no…no…” The information I’d entered went… somewhere. To some nice, helpful database? To some creepy, dystopian database? I didn’t inquire. Instead, every morning when I got to the screen that announced he was cleared to enter his Brooklyn public school for the day, I took a screenshot and texted it to his teacher with some unnecessary emojis, because I’m still addicted to trying to win over teachers.

The questionnaire seemed a little pointless, like pandemic theatre — surely were my kid exposed to Covid I would simply not send him to school! — but at the beginning of the year I was just so relieved my kids were back in buildings, after over a year of virtual learning, or should I say “virtual” “learning,” that I was happy to jump through any hoops that made it possible. I was worried about what all that time at home — since March 2020, really, with some small breaks for outdoor camps, masked team sports, and occasional escapes from the city — had done to their brains and social skills. The pandemic has been different for New York City kids, it just has. More things closed, for longer; more time spent in small apartments.

My kids emerged from those many months of screens and silence hungry for independence. My son started walking himself to school early in the school year. He’s in 5th grade, and has a phone, so this might not sound like a big deal, but keep in mind this is a 20-minute walk through Brooklyn. The mornings he left from my house, I waved and blew kisses from my balcony like he was going off to war. The mornings he left from his dad’s house, I had to satisfy my parenting urges by texting him to have a good day, and by, yes, filling out the health form. The health form helped me to feel like I was parenting, mothering, caring for him, even though I wouldn’t see him all day.

This year my daughter went to school in Manhattan, so she emerged from pandemic-era school in her bedroom, to a school on the Upper East Side, an hour-long train ride away. We all got used to this, but as I write the words they seem more and more strange. Last fall, when this began, she was 12. She was still healing from spraining her ankle badly over the summer. And I was putting her on a train, with her still-healing injury, her little mask over her little face, and sending her off into the city. It felt, honestly, surreal. I’m all for free range parenting but — MY child?!

And thus, like with her brother’s health forms, I became addicted to parenting her remotely, via slightly creepy technology. Every morning I’d track her phone as she made her journey through the boroughs. I became weirdly attached to the tiny icon of her phone as it scootched across my phone’s digital map. Yes, it’s a touch “Black Mirror,” but I wonder if you can also understand how unspeakably cute the phone icon looks as it inches across the cartoon bridge, throughout the sketched-in city. Sometimes when she was underground, the map would vaguely indicate to me that she was “somewhere in Manhattan,” showing me a giant circle hovering over the city like a flying saucer about to land, all but shrugging at me. Every morning I would unclench only when I saw her phone tucked into the box her school made on the map.

Because I’m divorced and coparent and despite the Supreme Court still retain some bodily autonomy, sometimes I wake up in someone else’s bed. “What are you doing?” the someone will say, sleepily, as I reach for my phone. “It’s so early.” The mornings I parent in person I’m up by 5:30am because of my daughter’s commute. But the mornings I parent via app, that sounds like an impossible time, not a time at all. The mornings I parent via app I send in the health form and track my daughter’s phone, and tell the person I’m in bed with, “One sec, I’m just parenting,” before putting down my phone at 8:00am when I know everyone is where they need to be.

Do I sound like a helicopter parent? I don’t like to track what they do online very much, actually; even though I know the Internet can be Real Bad it’s also the world we live in, and the whole theme here is that they have to learn how to live in our current reality, just like I have to learn how to live in our current reality. As the school year progressed, I did get more relaxed about my tweenaged babies wandering around the city. My queasy gut was taught by repetition: Every day they were fine. One day there was a shooting on the subway. My daughter was fine. Another day there was a shooting on her subway line, even. And that day she was also fine.

That’s the weird thing about life: Even when the facts are scary, you can get used to the patterns of your lived experience. My kids haven’t gotten lost or hurt or kidnapped or worse on the way to school. After all, most kids don’t. Miraculously, they haven’t even gotten Covid. There is plenty of terrible news about things that happen in school buildings, on trains, on city streets, on the Internet. So far, I’ve learned to be used to my kids being fine.

I hope to always be so lucky. But of course, all I can really do is cross my fingers, pick up my phone, tend to my little apps.

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Amy Shearn

Amy Shearn

Formerly: Editor of Creators Hub, Human Parts // Ongoingly: Novelist, Essayist, Person