From watches that ping you the news to fridges that send you grocery lists… modern life is getting ‘smarter’ by the day. And, as writer and journalist Sophie Brickman discovered, parenthood is no exception.
In her new book Baby, Unplugged, the New York mother and self-confessed tech-skeptic embarks on a personal journey to find balance, reason and sanity in the digital age.
So, do we really need a smart baby monitor or a breast pump that connects to the cloud? We caught up with Sophie to find out more…
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First, we LOVE the book! What made you want to write it?
My husband is a tech guy. He works in tech and loves gadgets—loves to bring them home, strap them on his body, all that stuff. It didn’t really faze me until my older daughter was born five years ago. Her third day of life, she comes home from the hospital and bam, on goes a little tracker that’s supposed to monitor her heart rate.
In the wee hours of the morning, an alarm goes off—I of course thought something awful had happened, but it turns out the device had just lost connection to our wifi. In that moment I thought wow, all of this tech has been infiltrating my life for ages but I haven’t ever been really thoughtful about it, and now we have a baby in the mix—what is it doing to her?
So I went off on a journey to determine what tech was beneficial, which was awful, which should be shoved in the freezer and forgotten about until the new millennium. I spoke to a ton of experts who were all fascinating, and it helped me figure out a strategy for how to navigate all the tech that is thrown at us parents. The result is Baby, Unplugged.
When it comes to selling the latest tech, what do you think makes new parents such an easy target?
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Sleep deprivation! Well, not just that, but it’s part of it. We’re a particularly vulnerable population: we haven’t done this before (the first time around, at least), we aren’t sleeping much, and the most important little human just arrived in our house, and we’re supposed to not just make sure he or she stays alive, but also make sure he or she thrives and conquers the world. It’s a tall order, and marketers know they have us by the jugular.
Of all the experts you spoke to, were there any that made a lasting impact on your own parenting choices?
I spoke to many, many experts who impacted my choices, from Alison Gopnik, lauded developmental psychologist, who told me that all these little choices we’re making won’t really have a huge impact on our child after all (a very comforting notion, actually), to Jenny Radesky, who taught me a simple test to figure out if the tech I was giving to my kids was beneficial or not: give it to them, and then take it away, and see what they do in that moment. Do they have a tantrum? If so, maybe it’s not the best way for them to be spending their time.
And did you come across any gadgets or apps that you would recommend?
There are of course ways to use tech in your life to enrich it (the ability to use eCommerce on my phone to purchase diapers and the like at the click of a button proved invaluable). Part of the reason I wrote the book was because I felt I was in the middle of two extreme camps: those who said you had to live off the grid and never show your kid a screen, and those who said ok, let’s plug the kid into the wall and come back in 18 years and they’ll have been spat out a perfect citizen of the modern world. I wanted to find a middle ground, to incorporate tech into my life in a smart way.
What about your maternity wardrobe? Were there any pieces you wouldn’t be without?
I basically lived in stretchy black leggings and an oversized button down white shirt for most of my pregnancies. My third coincided with the pandemic, so I’d already been wearing stretchy pants and comfy tops—I didn’t have to change much!
You talk about balancing tech & data with instinct & common sense. Do you have any tips for finding that balance?
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Check your gut. Is the data gathering actually making you calmer, helping your child gain weight, or sleep through the night, or whatever it is supposed to do, or is it cluttering up your mind with extra info? Is your child truly enjoying whatever program they’re watching, or app they’re playing, or are they zoning out?
What about as a working mother? Does tech play a role in how you balance work and family life?
I have a little closet in our apartment where I write and work, and the only piece of technology in it, besides my computer, is a ring light I had to buy to do Zoom interviews for book promotion! And our family would probably combust if I didn’t keep a very up-to-date google calendar of everyone’s whereabouts (three kids = NASA-level coordination of schedules). Otherwise, I try to keep it simple.
You completed your first draft right before the pandemic hit. How do you think the last year and a half has affected our relationship with tech?
It was an interesting time to finish the manuscript because of course I thought, ok, I’m going to have to take this and throw it in the fire and start again. I was pleasantly surprised that many of the conclusions I came to in the book, pre-pandemic, remained true after it arrived: boredom is ok for your kids, don’t constantly feel the need to enrich every moment, and nothing can trump cuddling up with your kiddo and reading a book.
Of course the pandemic was a huge stress test on our reliance on tech. I am forever grateful that FaceTime exists, so that my parents were able to communicate with our children while they were quarantined in their apartment eight blocks away, and happy I was able to share photos of our (monotonously similar) days with them, too. I’m also grateful that we dodged the remote learning bullet—our oldest, Ella, is just starting kindergarten now. I looked in awe at my friends with older kids, who had to become teachers overnight, while working remotely themselves.
Lastly, any advice to share with new & expecting mums?
You know your kid better than Silicon Valley. You just do. You got this.