parent opinion

A new mum checked her phone during a play. Now she’s the most hated person in Australia.

We love reading stories about people being publicly shamed for using their phones. Remember when Beyonce told off a phone-wielding audience member during her Mrs Carter tour?

“I’m right in your face baby, you gotta seize this moment baby! Put that damn camera down!’” demanded Queen Bey. The audience whooped and applauded, as did I when reading the story online. I hate it when people are staring at their phones and not engaging with the world around them.

A story published in The Sydney Morning Herald last week had similar elements of a phone user being shamed by a performer. This time, however, my response was less “yes, queen” and more “oh, girl”, because it was revealed that the phone user was a new mum who had left her six-month-old baby with a babysitter for the first time.

During a performance of the play Freud’s Last Session at the Seymour Centre in Sydney last week, a woman arrived late to the performance and sat in the front row, where she was “texting throughout”, reports journalist Gary Nunn. The actor who portrayed Sigmund Freud (Nicholas Papademetriou) broke character, and Nunn describes what happened next:

“‘Get off your phone!’ Papademetriou shouted from the stage, breaking from a passionate fictionalised debate the two characters were having on – get this – the meaning of life. ‘Put it away now!’  She eventually obliged, but was, incredibly, back on it before curtain up.”

In his opinion piece, Nunn (whose work I admire and respect) called for a ban on mobile phones during live performances. He concludes the piece with this:

“The audience member later told an usher this was the first time she’d left her six-month-old at home with a babysitter. But no doubt she’d want her new babysitter, just like the actors on that stage, to give 100 per cent focus to the job they’re paid to do.”

As much as I dislike it when people are obsessed with their phones, I felt enormous empathy for the woman at the centre of this story.

In Nunn’s account, there is no direct quote from her, no photo and no name – probably because she had to slink away in utter humiliation. But that also means that she is not given a voice or a right of reply.

This woman unwittingly became the centre of attention during the play. And as the play had no interval, and was in an intimate setting (Seymour’s Reginald Theatre seats 153 people – a fraction of the size of a Beyonce concert – and the cast is tiny, with only two actors), the spotlight of public shame was well and truly upon her.

And now, her tale of embarrassment has been shared via Nunn’s article, which was published digitally on the Fairfax mastheads (I read it on The Canberra Times site).

I think it’s time that we gave each other a break. A benefit of the doubt. And a huge heaping of kindness and compassion.

Usually, when someone is breaking social norms – such as tapping away at their smartphone screen in a dark theatre – it’s for a good reason. That’s not to say that we should all go around behaving like dicks whenever we want. But, when we’re observing a situation like this, perhaps it’s worth adopting a kinder and more considerate attitude.

When we sit in a theatre seat, we are not simply an audience member, but also employees, parents, partners, children, enthusiasts and more. We are complex. We’ve had countless tiny experiences throughout a day before we sit down. And sometimes, real life happens, whether you like it or not, in the hallowed space of a theatre.

A family member could be in a fatal accident. A friend may need immediate words of comfort as they grapple with their divorce. A gaffe at work could be risking one’s employment. Perhaps this woman’s child had special needs. Or the babysitter had dropped all of the expressed milk on the floor. The woman could have anxiety – something I’m familiar with. There is more than one simple reason why a person is behaving in a “rude” manner, and shouting at them and writing a story about their plight won’t help.

Even if the woman’s reason for being on her phone isn’t because of difficult or tragic circumstances, targeting her during a performance and then publicly documenting it seems a harsh punishment for someone who wasn’t doing anything dangerous, hateful or wrong.

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On the rare occasion that I have a night out, sans kids, I check my phone repeatedly. I trust my babysitters, but I also want to be available for any questions they may have. Being a parent is a 24/7 thing. I try to be discreet when looking at my phone, but have been caught out. I’ve even checked my phone during prayer time at a wedding, and I felt so terrible and disrespectful for my actions – but I still did it and won’t apologise for it. And do you know what? During prayer time, God didn’t send me a lightning bolt and scream at me.

Leaving a six-month-old baby with a babysitter is not as easy as it sounds, and requires plenty of preparation – sometimes months in advance. If I had organised everything to within an inch of its life, chatted with the babysitter, put on ‘real’ clothes, fought back tears while saying goodbye to my baby, struggled through Sydney traffic and then made it to the theatre – only to then be yelled at by a man (playing Freud, no less) in front of a small audience, and then have my humiliation documented on a widely-read news site… well, to say that I’d be upset and mortified would be an understatement.

And then I’d see all the comments, on a story that I didn’t write or ask for, most of which pile on the hate.

“Her reasons are irrelevant. If it’s such an issue don’t leave your baby and being a new mother does not excuse you of your manners,” wrote one commenter who called themselves ‘eyeroll’.

“The actor professionally reprimanded this foolish theatre goer, enough is enough the whole I’m a mother so I get free pass is done to death,” said quick and the pointless.

These comments received lots of ‘likes’. The least popular comments were in support of the woman – and they were definitely in the minority.

“Sounds like public bullying of a new mother to me. Obviously the woman was anxious about her 6 month old that she’d left for the first time. Completely reasonable,” said mike.

Sprinkle commented, “If that was me, and it was the first time I’d left my six month old baby at home, and I was using silent texts to communicate with a babysitter – then poor pet up on stage there needs to suck it up. He’s being paid for his performance – not for his critique of what I’m doing in the audience. First world problems indeed.”

“It is a form of bullying when a person uses their power to humiliate another less empowered person to make them do what he wanted. Regardless of the socially inappropriateness of the phone use it is still not OK,” agreed MySay.

When it comes to mobile phone usage in public, there are no clear-cut rules on what is and isn’t socially acceptable. The fact that smartphones are a relatively new technology means that the etiquette surrounding it is still hotly debated.

A tale as old as time, though, is that everyone has an opinion on what a mother should be doing in public.

Equally as plentiful are the views as to what makes a ‘good’ mother. From these comments, one could surmise that there is still an existing belief that women suffer from a type of hysteria and are overly fixated on their children.

Freud would have a field day with that.

Do you think it’s ever OK to be on your phone during a public performance? What would you have done in this situation?

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