Several years ago, I was enjoying a solo breakfast upstairs at Fairway Café in New York City, surreptitiously observing people at the other tables and conjuring up their life stories. It was a father and son of about 18 months who captured my attention from across the room.

They were sitting opposite each other at a four-top next to a huge window overlooking bustling Broadway below. The father laid out a placemat in front of his son in preparation for their meal. Then he picked up his cell phone and fell down the digital rabbit hole, lifting his gaze only every few minutes. Whenever the father looked up, his son leaned toward him, trying to connect, and failed every time. The server arrived with their food and I became hopeful, thinking that finally, they’d connect over their yogurt, and bagel and lox. But the father’s fascination with his phone continued unabated and the two ate in silence; together, but very much apart.

I’d been painfully observing for about 20 minutes when the mother arrived and sat down next to her son, who wiggled with delight to see her. My renewed sense of hope quickly dried up as I observed her say a few words to her husband, give her son a cursory smile, and pull out her cell phone to make a call. The boy looked down at his yogurt with a blank stare and in the five minutes it took for me to pay my bill before fleeing the scene, I observed that neither parent said more than what looked like, “Have another bite” to their son. At less than two years, he’d already learned that when competing with cell phones for his parents’ attention, he was likely to be the loser.

What do we make of cell phones and other digital devices now, during the pandemic, when so many parents are juggling caring for their children and working from home, necessitating hours and hours on laptops and cell phones?

These are challenging and unprecedented times and the lofty parenting goals aspired to pre-pandemic are not within reach right now. If you succeeded in using your laptop and cell phone out of sight of your children pre-pandemic, you are to be congratulated, and if that is now no longer possible, don’t feel guilty about it.

Instead, focus on the caregiving activities.

Put your devices away and out of sight at mealtime and when you bathe, diaper and dress your child. Bring your attention to your child and to what you’re doing together. Look for moments of connection and mutual enjoyment. Catch a glance, notice what captures your child’s interest, have a little chat together. This way, unlike the boy at Fairway Café, your child can delight in your full attention. Protecting the caregiving activities as sacred together time can be emotionally refueling for you both.