"It's one of your kids again," my co-worker said, handing me the telephone.
"Joe is bothering me," Peter, then 8, blubbered at the other end of the line. "Tell him to leave me alone."
"OK," I said wearily. "Put him on, and I'll see if I can straighten this out."
"I can't," Peter explained. "I locked him out of the house."
Ever so faintly, over the line, I could hear Joe, then 12, banging on the back door and screaming that he would not stop until he had settled the score with his brother.
Once again, I found myself practicing the art that Doctors Spock and Brazelton never tell you about: mothering by phone. Since I first started calling Joe from the office when he was just a toddler, I have had almost daily practice. I have diagnosed fevers, soothed scraped knees, settled squabbles and, more recently, explained what little I could remember about polynomial equations--all over the phone.
All the personnel manuals, of course, say that the ideal employee should avoid letting personal and family matters interfere with business. Life should be neatly compartmentalized, so that what is going on at home never impinges on company routine. A worker should keep his mind on his work.
There may be some paragons out there who actually live by these rules--but they're not mothers.
Working mothers nearly always know what is going on at home, no matter how busy they are. Whether they spend their days word processing or working on assembly lines or drafting multimillion-dollar legal contracts, mothers are linked, as fathers rarely are, to what their children are doing at home or at the baby sitter's.
And the link, more often than not, is the telephone.
Ear to Ear
Mothering by phone usually starts with those nervous calls to the baby sitter right after the new mother returns to work, to check on whether the baby is napping and eating on schedule.
By the child's first birthday, the phone will be held up to his ear so that Mommy can speak directly to him and perhaps, O bliss!, elicit some response. By 3, he can report fully on his day at nursery school. By 5, the child of average precocity is direct-dialing Mom.
So accustomed is Erica Johnson, 1, to talking to her mother, Susan, on the phone that when someone asks, "Where's Mommy?" Erica holds her hand up to her ear as if she were cradling a receiver. Her brother, 6, is more practiced and a bit more formal; when he dials Susan's office, he announces, "This is Lionel, your son."
School-aged children often get into the habit of calling as soon as they reach home, whether there's a baby sitter there or not. "My daughter calls just about every day because she wants to check in, to be reassured that I'm here," one Arcadia mother said of a 6-year-old. "She asks me whether she should change to cooler clothes, what she should have for a snack.
"If I'm out of the office in the afternoon, I'll come back and find a stack of messages. 'Mommy, call Tara.' 'Mommy, I called 15 minutes ago.' Then, 'Mommy, it's an emergency. Call home.' Once I got a message that said, 'Call Tara in 15 minutes.' It turned out she figured she would be away from the phone doing something else that long."
Savvy kids quickly figure out that if they've broken a household rule or misbehaved, it's better to report the transgression on the phone rather than wait for Mother to come home. "My kids know that if they tell me they've broken my favorite vase when I'm in the office, I can't yell at them without calling attention to myself," a Westside lawyer said. "And by the time I get home, I've cooled off."
Many mothers find, however, that, in a crisis, they can even discipline children on the phone. When her son balks at taking his bath, one mother has been known to hiss into the phone, "Take a bath now or there'll be no 'Square One' for a week," thus threatening to deprive him of his favorite television program. It is the only punishment, she said, that is "so specific and . . . so horrible that you can deliver it over the phone."
The phone can be used to deliver motherly comfort, too. Scraped elbows, cuts and bloody noses are often reported to mothers, even when there is a perfectly competent housekeeper or neighbor on the spot to minister to the injured. "It's not that the baby sitter doesn't do the right thing," Tara's mother said. "But Tara wants me when she gets hurt."
Some children can be eerily calm when reporting the worst calamities. Tricia Vick, a Pasadena lawyer, recalls the day her younger son, Kevin, 13, called to report a skateboard accident. "Do you need to see a doctor?" she asked frantically. Matter-of-fact Kevin said simply: "I think I may need stitches. I can see a flap of skin hanging out from my arm."
Too Busy to Talk