On one year of photographing my child

Moving toward the future, September 2019.

For me, the toughest part of parenting is the photography. Am I taking enough pictures? Am I taking them at the right moments? Am I capturing the times I'll care most about? Did I develop a cute enough theme for the monthly photos? Did I remember to take the monthly photo on the actual date? Do I have enough storage left on my phone? Where have I saved past photos? What are their filenames? Have I shared recent pictures with family and friends in the way each individual most prefers -- email, text, shared link, private third-party aggregator? Can I put just one on social media, or should I continue to abstain in the name of privacy?

Enter the creeping "shoulds." I should get in the habit of reviewing and culling photos monthly; that way it won't be such a huge endeavor later. I should mark my favorites as I go; that way I have a short list for special photo gifts. I should make an album every year on his birthday; that way I never forget. I should print photo gifts for the parents and godparents; that way they'll be reminded of his special bond with them. I should stick some on the fridge, take more to work, keep them all updated in as real time as possible as he metamorphoses second by second into an entirely new person, one I know on a molecular level yet one I re-meet every morning when I walk into his room and see him standing ever taller in the crib that once dwarfed his swaddled body. That way I won't miss a moment. Not one. Not a single blessed second.

Then anger bubbles up. For on top of being a parent -- no, on top of becoming a parent -- I am expected to simultaneously experience and document the transformation of the little human who made me one. I must be present, yet objective. Open, yet prepared. He must look cherubic and/or funny and/or advanced in every photo. If he does not, I have failed him. Apparently, no middle ground is permitted.

You see why I'm exhausted.

As this inexhaustible topic loops through my consciousness, I think back to a photo of me taken a year ago when I was 8 months pregnant and floating in a kayak during our babymoon weekend getaway. When I reflected on this photo one month into parenthood, I wrote:

... when I look again at this shot, I recognize what will be invisible to those who weren't there, such as the dried tear streaks on my face and the burgeoning blisters on my thumbs. But I also see what was invisible to me at the time -- chiefly, the sun rays defying the clouds and searching for reflection on the water below. They illuminate how this photo captures more than a moment in time; it captures a transition to a new state of being.
(Side note: Only someone who was still getting a consistent eight hours of sleep could have written those words. Right now, the sole state of being I want to transition to is napping.)

What do photos of my 1-year-old reveal? They show a chubby Gerber face, inexplicable blonde curls, delicious thigh rolls, little hands constantly pointing. Many pictures catch him pre-smile, which will mislead future generations about how often he grins and laughs. Quite a few are blurry because he rarely stops moving. There's usually a brightly colored object sticking out of his mouth. Sometimes he's clothed.

Invisible to the neutral observer will be his near-constant giggling, reliably invoked by actions as goofy as snapping cloth napkins or playing peek-a-boo around the nearest corner. The pictures don't replay his little voice, which sounds more like a kid's every day. They don't convey the full extent of his mesmerized curiosity, his tenacious exploration, his burgeoning sense of self, his deepening will. A photo couldn't capture his sly "aha!" expression last night when he realized that holding food over his head evoked a strong reaction from his parents and that he could file away this practical information for future and entertaining use.

I know these backstories and qualities because I live with him. But no photo or video can communicate his essence. Hell, I grew and birthed this little being, and even I am shocked by how individual, how distinct he is. I have created a human who is of me but not me. That fact blows my mind every day. So I snap, post, and stare hungrily at blurry pictures to anchor us in life's whooshing current and to ground my quixotic grab at immortality.

A more useful exercise going forward, I think, would be to consider "what was invisible to me at the time." In the moment a particular photo was snapped, where was my brain? My heart? What was I sensing or feeling? What else was happening in my life? What did I just, or what was I about to, discover? Did I take the picture because I thought I "should," or because I couldn't help myself? Did I manage to make the moment indelible not because I fixed a detail in pixels, but because I captured a transformation in progress?

Though the 1-year milestone is bittersweet, I'm pleased I can stop the monthly progress shots and take one thing off my to-do list. Overall, I'm getting better at predicting the baby's movements and timing my shots. Plus, now that I'm used to sleep deprivation and farther along the steep learning curve of new parenting, I'm developing a photo storing system that I hope will make projects easier going forward.

For beneath my low-humming stress is a sincere desire to create a meaningful record of my child's life -- of our life, together. I want him to marvel at his growth, learn his personal history, and be rooted in the continuums of family and time. And as with every aspect of parenting, I want to give this gift freely, without self-judgment or criticism, and with compassionate love for who I truly am as a mother and person.

It will take more than a year to get there. In the meantime, I'll keep snapping photos to remember the process.

Prayer #340: Darkroom

What did humans obsess over before photography became accessible and ubiquitous? What method of recording beckoned them? Were they more comfortable with their mortality, less curatorial about their legacies? Or were they too busy surviving to want to document the slog?

God of profligate light, concentrate Your beams through the negatives burned in my memory to reveal the positive image within. My Technicolor life makes me sensitive to the full visible spectrum, so deploy darkness judiciously to develop an illuminated print. For we self-absorbed subjects are far from black and white. With us there can be no safelight -- only a blind and tentative hope, followed by brilliant understanding.