I tend to be one of those parents who take and share a lot of photos of my children. At least part of the day, I keep my cellphone camera in my back pocket and frequently snap candid shots of my five-year-old sons playing trucks, digging in the dirt or caring for their baby dolls. I regularly take images of my three-month-old daughter, hoping to document that elusive first year as she grows exponentially by the day.
For years I rejected owning a so-called smart phone. I didn’t want to be distracted by the lure of constant information, and I certainly didn’t want to pay the phone bill that comes with it. But then there was that stormy spring of 2012. It seemed like every day sirens were blaring and we were huddled in the hallway with a mattress over our heads terrified and longing for a basement. We don’t have cable in our home, and the thought of a device that would alert me to the locations of fast-approaching storms held an illusion of safety. I caved and finally accepted the free upgrade my phone company had been offering me for years. Suddenly I could read the weather all day long, check Facebook whenever I wanted and take thousands of photos of every detail of our lives.
From the beginning, I tried to set healthy boundaries around my phone. It may seem ridiculous, but in our home we make it a constant practice to give ourselves large chunks of time away from the accoutrements of entertainment-based technology. Though it’s sometimes challenging to make a conscious decision to turn off the computer and put the phone away, it gives us time and space to notice the details of our daily lives: the colors of the sky, the pauses between our children’s sentences, the clue-filled ramblings of our own hearts and brains.
Turning off the computer feels freeing. Ignoring the constant flow of information from social media can be liberating. But fighting the endless desire to take photos of my kids and share them with dear friends and family? Now that’s a real challenge. Yes, it’s true I want to be in the garden all day far, far away from a scrolling news feed. But I also want a picture of having been there. Why? Am I a product of our societal addiction to information and over-sharing? Am I more concerned with capturing the moment than actually living in it?
My mother was the documentarian of our family. Even in the days before digital she managed to take thousands of photos. She never missed a chance to record a special occasion or a birthday cake or relative who came visiting. I’m not sure how she would have felt about Facebook or Twitter. But I’m pretty certain she would have loved Instagram. Years after her death I look through those boxes of photos and can put together fragments of my childhood, image by image. This is, of course, a gift beyond measure. I’ve clearly inherited my mother’s love for taking photos. Whereas she used film to capture special gatherings and events, the endless accessibility of my cellphone camera allows me to document frame after frame of the everyday stuff.
Though I love taking photos, I hate the thought of my kids feeling like they have to perform or be on display. Instead, I prefer to capture the daily chaos of it all: the late afternoons in the front garden, their hands and feet covered in dirt; the impromptu dance parties in the kitchen where there’s upbeat music and four little legs forever dancing underfoot; my daughter sitting on my husband’s lap on a Saturday morning, her fat little legs hanging out of her slightly stained onesie. The photos are often blurry, snapped quickly so as to not interrupt the movement of it all.
In the spirit of helping to develop autonomy in my children, I usually ask my sons if it’s okay to take their picture, quickly putting the camera down on those rare occasions when their reply is “no.” I’ll do the same for my daughter when she’s old enough to answer. But still I sometimes wonder, should I put down the camera more often? Despite my best attempts—or perhaps rationalizations—to never make them feel on display, am I focusing more on capturing the moment then actually being in it?
My children’s lives are not my own and, within reason, I try to never force my own desires into their realities. After all, this is their childhood. Not my own to relive. And I recognize my yearning to take thousands of photos stems, at least partially, from my memories of my own mother. I see those boxes of photographs as one small way I can still be near her, viewing the world from her camera’s temporary lens. I fully understand the depth of the gift she left me in those large, unorganized Rubbermaid boxes.
Someday I want my children to have their own troves of treasures, albeit packaged in little small boxes we call hard drives. Even though my obsession with the ease of the cell phone camera is somewhat at odds with my desire to unplug, my children’s generation will likely have decidedly different views on the prevalence of hand-held devices. We older people likely won’t agree. But it won’t be our decision to make. And if my children someday choose to pilfer through my library of images, I hope they’ll find something useful about their pasts and the people who came before them, and, perhaps, a connection to what will most surely feel to them like a simpler place and time.