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Small Talk: Kids can’t stand it when Mom’s on the phone

I need to consult a biography to be certain, but I have a hunch that when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, his children were already grown and gone. If there had been anyone in his house under the age of 10, he would have taken a sledgehammer to the revolutionary invention within a week and we would all still be tapping out Morse code.

Before my children had even a tiny clue what this contraption was for, they reacted to it. I swear I could have had a one-way conversation with the blender, the toaster or my hairbrush, and my children would have merrily continued to drool and color on the walls. But the minute I picked up that telephone receiver, something began to happen to them. Their little heads snapped around and if their ears could prick up like a dog’s, I am certain they would have. Their eyes glazed over and they began that desperate chant of “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!”

I might have just spent a full hour giving them my undivided attention, smothering them with kisses watching their somersaults, pushing them on the swing, reading books, whatever. The faint buzz of the dial tone must be like a screaming siren to those little ears. It somehow seems to say, “I have your mommy now and you may not get her back.” When they were toddlers, I could rationalize the behavior. Suddenly Mom is silent, or distracted with making words into this funny thing by her head. She is not looking at you anymore, not focusing on you for the moment. It’s a clear threat.

But I am at a complete loss to explain why, seven years later, my daughter still reacts the same way. This is the child who refuses to let me interrupt her while she chats with her grandparents. She understands how annoying it is yet will blithely stroll up to me when I am in the middle of a serious phone conversation and simply begin talking. If I wave her off, she simply talks more loudly. When I take a swipe at her, she just ducks deftly and becomes more insistent. A frenzy of body language and mouthed threats on my part go unnoticed. She refuses to recognize that my phone conversation, and the person on the other end of the line, might perhaps take precedence, even briefly, over her immediate needs.

Before you presume she is simply a spoiled horror, I must add that the phrase, “Just a minute. I’m busy,” is my personal motto. When spoken firmly, under other circumstances, it will quiet her for a bit — unless I have that phone to my ear. This dilemma has set my hair on fire repeatedly during the past eight years, until I spoke with a clever fellow writer I bumped into recently.

She has the ultimate child/phone challenge. She works at home — during the day. This means that her children are dancing on one leg and doing the “Mommy” chant from across the room while she is trying to negotiate a business call with a calmly modulated tone of voice and professional manner. So, she told me, she has perfected what she calls “the slipper toss.”

She first offers the standard series of various facial expressions and wild hand motions, but when those fail, she has developed the extraordinary skill of reaching down, silently pulling off her slipper and flinging it accurately at the offending youngster. This is done without so much as a ripple in her, “All right then, cut paragraph 4 and insert line 12, Page 3. Yes, Wednesday, March 4 at 3 p.m. would be splendid — thank you so very much.”

As for me, I’m scouring the bottom of my closets for old slippers and reviewing trajectory skills from my skeet-shooting days. Go ahead, give me a call.

Jean Gillette is a freelance writer who might be responsible for passing on her impatient nature. Contact her at [email protected].