It happened while I was writing an email for work; the email wasn’t saving. I tried to refresh, and the page wouldn’t load. I seemed to be having a connectivity issue with my Wi-Fi. I hit the reset button on my router. No dice. Certain it was a fluke that would be resolved momentarily, I busied myself with some household chores. An hour later, I came back and tried again. Still no internet.
I work from home and need the internet to do my job, but I wasn’t panicked. Okay fine, I was a little panicked; my heart was racing. But I was telling myself everything was fine, and not outwardly panicking, and that’s what really matters, right?
I called my internet service provider and was greeted with a prerecorded message informing me that service was out in my area due to a damaged fiber-optic cable and they didn’t know when service would be restored. Well, shit.
I have hot spot with my cell provider, but I don’t get great service from inside the house. Unless I went somewhere else to work, I would be out of luck until I got my service back. No big deal though, I told myself as dread compressed the organs in my chest into a tight ball. It’s just internet, it’s fine, it’s fine, EVERYTHING IS FINE.
I picked up my kids from school and broke the news to them that we were temporarily without Wi-Fi. My 9-year-old daughter took it pretty easily, with an “Aw, man,” but my 13-year-old son may as well have just been told our house had been broken into and someone actually stole all our electronic devices. He was personally offended, as if the damaged fiber-optic cable was an intentional assault on his gaming and socializing plans for the evening. As if someone had taken an axe to the cable for the sole reason of pissing him off.
He slumped in the passenger seat and muttered under his breath between gritted teeth about crappy internet service until I gave him the “You’re a spoiled American teenager and you need to get your shit together” speech and made it clear that should he continue to complain, when the Wi-Fi came back on, he would not be using it.
After that, he managed to control his whining for the most part. Meanwhile, I continued to silently panic about what we were going to do for the rest of the night if the Wi-Fi didn’t come back on. I also panicked about the fact that I was panicking. Am I really panicking over fucking Wi-Fi? Who panics about Wi-Fi? What have I become?
At home, we dropped our things and kicked off our shoes and stood there in the kitchen, the three of us gazing around at our house with new eyes. It was eerily quiet, like the morning after a prolonged and deadly battle. The refrigerator hummed, but the reassuring energy of humans potentially being entertained by the internet was obviously absent. My son went to his gaming computer and tried it anyway, just to see. “It’s the whole neighborhood,” I reminded him. “It’s no use.”
For the first hour, we alternated between pacing the house and sitting down and restlessly staring at things. None of us knew what to do, including me. I could not believe how reliant we were on the internet to function.
Before you judge me too much (I’m already judging myself twice as hard as you are anyway, thanks): I do enforce breaks from electronics with my kids. My son has to do his homework and chores and practice guitar. My daughter busies herself with artwork and reading during her time off. But a complete loss of Wi-Fi felt different. An unknown expanse of internet-free time now stretched before us. How would I cook dinner? Oh, wait, it was just the Wi-Fi that was out, not the electricity. But that’s how lost I felt. Not having access to the tool I needed to work, and not having access to a TV, made it feel like nothing worked.
“Will you read to me, Mommy?” My daughter brought me the book we’d been reading together at night before bed, and we snuggled up on the couch in the sunroom and read together. My son trudged in with his sketchbook and pencil in one hand and a Rubik’s cube in the other and plopped himself at the other end of the couch. That panicked voice inside me warned that I would get dangerously behind on my work if I didn’t find a way to get connected to Wi-Fi, but I really liked the feeling of having one kid on either side of me on the couch as the sun edged toward the treetops in the west and turned the atmosphere a beautiful golden yellow. So I told that voice to hush up.
Who am I, even? Who are these kids who don’t know life without the internet?
I read a few chapters aloud while my son completed a beautiful sketch. I closed the book, my voice tired, and my son suggested we take the dog in the backyard to play fetch. I hadn’t been in my backyard except for the walk-through with the realtor a few months earlier, before we moved in. My backyard. It’s a pretty nice backyard, I learned. We had a good time out there screaming with laughter because the dog had a hard time picking up his ball because the grass kept tickling his nose. Also, we discovered that the backyard fence has a gate in it that leads to the canal that runs behind my house. It had vines growing over it, and the lock was all rusty. We agreed it felt very Secret Garden.
After dinner, my son played guitar while I sat with my daughter and did some coloring sheets. Later, after the guitar had been quiet for a while, I checked on my son and found him asleep on his bed with his phone in his hand. I think he’d been scrolling through his saved videos to entertain himself. Like an addict taking whatever scraps he can get. Ugh. 15 years ago I didn’t even have a cell phone. Who am I, even? Who are these kids who don’t know life without the internet?
My daughter and I ended up in the sunroom reading again, though it was dark by that time, and my son woke up from his nap and joined us, again with his sketchbook and pencil. The evening had positively crawled by. But we’d spent it together. When bedtime rolled around, the three of us snuggled up and talked about how strange it was not to have Wi-Fi, and I thought about how strange it was to find something like that strange. I’m the one who let that happen.
“I have to admit though,” my son said, “I did have fun just hanging out with you guys. Especially playing fetch in the yard with Gizmo. We should do that more.”
“I like it when you read aloud to me,” my daughter said.
The Wi-Fi was back the next morning. I was relieved because I was able to work, but I was also sad. A night without Wi-Fi had made me feel so close to my children. The lack of connection to the outside world had deepened ours.
I am grateful for the internet. I have so many loved ones who are so far away, so many friends I’ve made via the internet through my writing. I cherish these connections. But, after spending a single night without internet, I am also ashamed of how much I have relied on that connectivity to entertain me, and the extent to which that entertainment has impacted my connection with the immediate world around me. It has caused me to move too fast. It has shortened my patience. It has wedged itself between me and my kids.
The Wi-Fi was back the next morning. I was relieved because I was able to work, but I was also sad.
The internet is useful enough that I know I can’t give it up completely. But I also know that I have need for balance. This past year has been a difficult one, and I haven’t put as many restrictions on my kids’ internet use as I probably should. Sometimes it’s easier to let them play their games than it is to deal with their complaints of boredom when I force them off.
And my kids are not the only ones who need boundaries with the internet. I haven’t restricted myself either. That day without internet was probably even more restorative to me than it was to my kids. It showed me that I’m not living in the moment with them enough. Their childhoods have already gone by so fast, and I only have a few more short years with my son before he heads off to live his own life, and less than a decade with my daughter. I have to do better.
So, from here on out, I’m instituting a once weekly Wi-Fi free night. Intentional boredom, intentional in-person connectivity. For my kids, but just as much for me. My kids may whine and pout, and I may feel that little burble of panic in my gut, but the long-term bonds we build with one another will far outweigh the short-term lack of connection with the rest of the world.