Do you remember when there was only one phone in your house? It was attached to the skirting board in some communal place. If you were posh you might have an extension in another room. If you were trendy as well as posh you had one with a long curly cable which never hung properly so that you could wander as far as the stretched cable would allow to afford yourself a degree of privacy.
Can you recall when you rang people after 6 in the evening because it was cheaper and when phone calls during the day were reserved for matters bordering on an emergency? I clearly remember my parents walking past me tutting loudly because someone important might be trying to get through. They would mouth questions about whose call it was and then relax visibly when they learned they weren’t paying for it. And if I was chatting for longer than half an hour, they would make me hang up simply because being on the phone was a waste of time and what could I possibly have to say to my friend when I had been with her all day at school?
But I am beginning to realise that there were distinct advantages to the parent of a central phone for the family. My mum always knew who I was friendly with because she could monitor the frequency of calls from various people. My dad could tease me about my boyfriends because if they wanted to speak to me then they had to get through him first. If they decided that there was a more legitimate use of my time than chatting, they could ban me from using the phone completely, telling my callers that I would ring them back. And if, heaven forbid, someone unwanted rang, they could shield me from the call with a little white lie.
I have none of this luxury. If our house phone rings it is almost invariably my mother. The rest of the time it sits silently on its cradle. Since the girls got mobiles, all their telephonic communication is conducted in private. Not for them, sitting on the stairs in a draught. I have no way of knowing who rings or even when they are on the phone. If a call came when I was doing my homework, my mum would tell them that I would ring back. I have no such control.
In fact, with the introduction of modern communications all control is lost. The children deal with their own calls, texts and emails and I am entirely excluded. I’m not saying that that is a bad thing. Everyone is entitled to privacy and let’s face it, there was little enough of that when the call came through into a room filled with your family all watching “The Generation Game.”
But it is not a breach of their privacy to have a handle on what’s going on. If someone upsets my child, I may never find out. If someone rings more than is necessary I have no way of knowing unless they tell me. And when boys start featuring in their world, I will have to rely on them telling me rather than by asking strategic questions when someone rings more than once.
My children don’t know any different. They would scoff at the systems that were in place when I was their age. But I do think that being constantly available makes life more difficult not just for me as their mother but also for them. I wouldn’t deprive them of their phones. They are a product of the age in which they live and are consequently more or less obligatory. But I will have to devise ways to make sure that they are supported and safe in the world that they build for themselves. And their dad needs to find a way of making potential suitors squirm because that’s what dads do.