Why some moms stay in the picture

My husband and I signed up for the Philadelphia half-marathon in November. Coordinating two parents’ long runs on any given weekend is always rough (my husband returned from his, sweaty, after the guests arrived, to a dinner party we were hosting on Saturday. He got a late start because he was setting up the kids’ new ant farm…) But I am loving how it feels to get back into a routine of running significant distances. I did around 10 miles on Saturday afternoon, much of it on hills and trails. I love how I feel stronger week to week as I go long. I love the slight twitches the next day in muscles that haven’t been used in a while — twitches that remind me of what I accomplished.

I was not particularly athletic growing up. After getting married though, my husband and I found running was something we could do together, and running with him soon made it a habit for me. We ran a half-marathon together on our first anniversary.

Running has a nice side effect of keeping my weight in check. But as I was reading Allison Tate’s recent essay at the Huffington Post on “The Mom Stays in the Picture,” (hat tip to blog reader Karen for sending the link) I was reminded that I’m not a fan of running just for that. Perhaps what I like best about serious athletic pursuits is that not only do you look better and better as you pursue them, you wind up caring about your appearance less and less.

To back up a bit… Tate has four children, including a 5-month-old baby girl. In her essay, she recounted her niece’s Sweet 16 birthday party, where the parents had brought in a photo booth. One of her sons wanted her to take pictures with him, but she hesitated, because she felt frumpy and overweight and tired (due to said 5-month-old). Then she realized that “I’m everywhere in their young lives, and yet I have very few pictures of me with them. Someday I won’t be here — and I don’t know if that someday is tomorrow or thirty or forty or fifty years from now — but I want them to have pictures of me. I want them to see the way I looked at them, see how much I loved them. I am not perfect to look at and I am not perfect to love, but I am perfectly their mother.”

Tate then proceeded to post adorable photos of her with her son and baby girl in the photo booth. She clearly hit a nerve, because her essay has now been “liked” 439,132 times on Facebook. Which means its page views are probably into the millions. The HuffPo was so overwhelmed by the response that they’re running a campaign to get moms to send in pictures of them in the photos with their kids. Lisa Belkin wrote about some of the responses in her HuffPo column this week.

It’s a wonderfully sweet essay, and I’m thrilled for Tate for rocketing to super-stardom. But there are lots of great essays out there. Why did this one touch such a nerve?

We talked on this blog, last week, about narratives, and how each of us have our own deeply held beliefs about the way the world is. It is always jarring to realize that other people do not share your narratives, or to see that other narratives you’ve never considered might be widely believed. Tate tapped into an apparently quite commonly believed narrative that if you are a grown-up, but are not as svelte as a Vogue cover model, nor dressed like one, then you do not deserve to be photographed. Belkin tells of women who have 10,000-plus photos of their kids and fewer than a dozen that feature mom in there too.

In some cases, this may be logistics. Mom is taking the photos, so mom isn’t in them. We have somewhat of the opposite problem in our household — my husband is more of a shutterbug, so he isn’t in many of the photos.  

But in many other cases, it’s a self-esteem/self-confidence issue. Which brings us back to running. Athletic pursuits create a different script: your body is a functional object, not something to be seen and judged. Nobody looks good in marathon finisher photos, but runners display them proudly all the same. Likewise, it wouldn’t occur to you to demur from being in a beach photo with the kids just because you don’t look like something out of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. You’re probably in a swimsuit to swim!

Do you show up in family photos? I’m also curious what people thought of the original HuffPo essay.

Photo courtesy flickr user genericface

33 thoughts on “Why some moms stay in the picture

  1. Yes, the article you referred to touched a nerve in me too, and several of my favorite bloggers have linked to it or posted their own essay in response. For me, it’s not about not “deserving” to be in the picture, it’s just plain vanity! I don’t look like “me” right now (8 weeks postpartum), because I see myself as the size 4 I was 3 years ago, not the size 8-10 I am currently. I am not particularly photogenic.

    It’s not just photos. I can’t bear to watch my birth videos either. And similar to an athlete, I am very proud of what my body was able to do at all those unmedicated home births 😉

    I guess I’m too vain. 🙂

  2. I liked the article when I read it, partly b/c it related to one of my (too many?) pet peeves: families sending pictures of their children but not their *family* in correspondence like Christmas cards. I want a picture of the whole family. Not just the kids.

    I don’t have kids but I take lots of pictures for my knitting/crafting blog. I quickly realized that I was going to have to “get over myself” and use pictures of myself. Now I try to make sure my hair isn’t a mess, but really I just take pictures of myself as I am wearing things I’ve made. Not b/c I look so great, but b/c that’s who I’ve got. If anything, I also hope it encourages others to just take pictures of themselves too. Let’s lower the bar. 🙂

    1. I have this peeve too!! In most cases the cards are from *my* friends, not my kid’s friends’ parents, so I want to see my friends, and in many cases haven’t even met their kids ;P

      I also have the same peeve about people (usually moms) using their kid as their Facebook profile pic.

      1. Oh yes, the Facebook photo issue. I know most people don’t mean anything by it, other than that they have cute kids, but there’s the symbolism of living through one’s kids. That’s a frequent parental temptation (for men and women) — and not a good one to succumb to. Children are their own people, not vehicles for your dreams.

        1. Gee, I sure hope people I send Christmas cards to aren’t as offended as you folk. I’m gonna keep sending the kids’ pictures anyway. Because relatives seem to enjoy that and what else are we going to do with school pictures (or the professional pictures my MIL always has done whenever we visit). It’s either pictures of kids or no pictures, one or the other.

          1. Yes, we occasionally once did the kid only (& one year, the dog only) for our holiday cards. mainly because, well, as everyone tells me, I look exactly the same as I did in high school, so know need to send a picture of me every year unless they want slow motion of me aging! I’ve never been offended or even gave a second thought to holiday cards with other people’s kids, either. The other option is just the generic non-picture cards, which are fine, too, though I don’t see the point unless you write something beyond “happy holidays, love X” in them.

          2. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m offended, since I love getting holiday cards 🙂 I’d just rather see my friends *AND* their kids, not just the kids I’ve never met. Even just one tiny photo on the back would be cool!

    2. Yes, Christmas card pictures of just the kids are one of my peeves too! We did that one year because we had some *really* cute professional photos of our kids, but we decided afterwards that we just didn’t really like that approach. I started doing a letter, complete with photos of everyone, the next year. (And yes, I do it because I like to do it, not because I feel obligated).

  3. Having had a baby this week, and gotten a DSLR camera last week, I’ve had a million people send me this article.

    I have to say, it *doesn’t* strike a chord with me. I’m not thin or gorgeous, but every 6 months we get pro photos taken of our whole family so we can be sure to have some with me in them. (I’m the photographer in our family so it’s by design that i can’t be in most photos.)

    My husband does occasionally pick up the camera to get shots of me and my daughter but he just doesn’t think about it as much, and doesn’t enjoy photography. But if I ask him, he’s more than happy to do it (and is quite good at it!).

    So I guess I don’t get the article (for my own life). It most definitely didn’t make me cry, as many people warned me 😛

    When I used to run (so long ago!) I loved how it made me feel and how it made me NOT focus on “being skinny”. I’m planning to do the Couch to 5K once I’m all healed up and back to doing some exercise.

    1. @ARC- I think it’s not just the photography part. Alison is also tapping into the moms-do-a-lot-for-their-kids-and-are-never-recognized mystique. Arranging the stuffed animals just right, that sort of thing. I think one of the reasons I’m happy to have kept a professional identity is that I (like probably all humans) enjoy being recognized for what I do, and in my regular work this happens on a somewhat regular basis. I give speeches and people pay attention and applaud. I write articles and books and people email me about what I’ve written — sometimes even fan mail, which I don’t exactly get a ton of from my kids.

      1. Our son is very good at thanking us for doing things. We thank each other too. I imagine a lot of things in our house don’t get done (arranging stuffed animals?) because there’s no appreciation for the act. (Not to say DC doesn’t thank us when we find the missing bear, just it’s not something we do unless the bear is missing.) Why continue to do something thankless?

        1. Well, there are some thankless things (like making sure the kids brush their teeth regularly) that are probably worth doing. But while we are trying to encourage thanking, I think that it’s a lot to expect of small children to boost up mom’s self-esteem, or to hone in on the exact things that fit with her narrative of what a good mother does (“Mom, I’m so thrilled that you stayed up late baking home made cookies for the bake sale” — per our discussion on baked goods and narratives last week).

          1. Hm, maybe that’s why nighttime teeth brushing is DH’s job. And actually, DC1 does thank us for reminding him to do his morning routine when he forgets, which includes teeth brushing. He’s a very considerate little guy. He also doesn’t want bugs/plaque in his teeth, so he generally remembers himself.
            ***
            But if organizing stuffed animals or staying up all night baking isn’t appreciated, then why do it? There are plenty of other things one can do that are either more fun for mom or more appreciated.

      2. Yeah, I guess I’m just not into the “mom as martyr” thing so I just glossed over that part of the article entirely.

        As much as I love external reinforcement, for whatever reason I don’t need it as a mom. Or maybe it’s more like N&M say below – I don’t do the “sacrificial” stuff that no one notices. I do stuff like bake cookies for T to decorate because she LOVES it. Id on’t need her to thank me for it, because seeing her having fun and enjoying it with her is fulfilling enough.

        However, we are teaching her to ask nicely and thank people for nice things they do for her that they don’t have to (both by example in our family and direct lesson). For example, she pitched a fit when she left a toy at Home Depot last week, which my hubby warned her about not doing. He wasn’t going to go back and look for it (“I told her so!”) but was convinced to do that *after* she stopped pitching a fit, and asked him nicely if he would take her back to look for it. And then she thanked him when she was done, which was pretty cool.

        But I don’t think treating family with courtesy == boosting parents’ egos. It’s the kind of environment I want to live in – where no one takes the other members and their work for granted. IE, hubby and I thank each other for getting dinner, taking out the trash, etc.

    1. @Nancy- love it – sounds like Julia figured out the same thing Tate wrote about. But yeah, I’ve never scheduled a professional photo session just for the kids. I’ve always assumed that my husband and I should be in the photos too! I even had the last professional baby photographers we hired take shots just of me — I’m always looking for more marketing photos…

  4. I thought it was a nice essay, but it didn’t “get me” (though Lisa Belkin’s response post did tug at the heartstrings what with all the mentions of cancer/dying moms/dying kids). My husband is the photographer in our family and while I have definitely stepped aside as his primary muse, I like to have pics of me and the kids. (and I try to take some of him with the kids, too). Yes, I am generally less than pleased at the result (I haven’t quite come to terms with the changes in my appearance due to kids/age), but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to be in family photos. My mom always joined in our pictures, never showing any signs of being insecure in her appearance…maybe having that role model helped.

    1. @Ana – What I find funny about the family shots is that we all have certain angles of ourselves we prefer, and inevitably the family photo in which all three kids are facing the camera and not scowling are not the ones where I’m in my favorite angle.

  5. There must be something in the air this week because I wrote about running too. 🙂

    I read the essay and I have mixed feelings about it. I thought is was very tender and genuine, but I don’t really connect with it on a personal level.

    I do have a lot of baggage about photos, but mostly it’s because I feel like I never take enough pictures or organize them, etc, etc. I really don’t like getting my picture taken either as I believe it steals my soul. (Okay, kidding…) But… I think sometimes people get so focused on capturing their moments that they forget to enjoy their moments. No matter how many pictures you take you will never get your time back with your kids so you may as well just love them as they are now whether they are bony, awkward, adolescents, young adults, or aggravating toddlers.

    Also embedded in this essay is the ‘silent martyr’ image of motherhood. I can’t relate to this at all. I don’t throw magical birthday parties or scour the town for perfect presents. I don’t stress about how I’m raising my kids and I love dropping my daughter off at pre-school. My daughter wanted me to join the parent club at her school and I told her, ‘Sorry, kid, that’s not how I roll’.

    I don’t fill my daughters’ lives with enchantments and magic, but I love them more than life itself. I play with them and I listen to them and try to give them room to be who they are. I don’t need any recognition for that, it is its own reward.

    1. Yes, exactly what you’re saying. (Except the running part.) We also don’t take a ton of pictures just in general, didn’t even have a photographer at our wedding. We’re big on experiencing rather than documenting. And not only do I not understand the silent martyr narrative, I think it’s unhealthy (IBTP). Definitely not how I roll! And yes on autonomy for kids. I love the way my oldest can do so much stuff and make so many decisions himself, even at age 5. DH is a bit better with the enchantment and magic (if writing stories and playing games counts), but he enjoys himself doing it and DC1 appreciates it.

    2. Kelly I agree with everything you said, especially re: the “silent martyr” schtick. Its not a good look on anyone & I refuse to play along. I do not make myself crazy or stay up late doing ANYTHING non-life-sustaining “for the kids”. I’m pretty sure they’d rather you skip the fancy birthday parties and spare them the guilt later in life.
      I make up songs & stories & dances, though, so maybe that’s “enchantment and magic”, or maybe its just “embarrassing and goofy”.

      1. @Ana, @Kelly, et al – I should do another post on the martyr mystique one of these days (I think I’ve done a few). There’s also the frump mystique — that motherhood means never having time to shower, do your hair, or wear matching clothes.

          1. It’s the same thing. In theory there’s an amount of free time I would have in which I would get bored enough to care about my appearance. Or if I were motivated, I would make time. It wasn’t a priority before kids and still isn’t.

      2. I think a HUGE thing here is the intention behind the actions. I *do* love enchantment and magic, and spend tons of time setting up crafts, throwing themed birthday parties, making scrapbooks, etc. but it’s because *I* like doing it. (And also T likes the crafty stuff.) Not because I’m planning to guilt trip her when she grows up about “everything I do for her”.

        I don’t know if there are moms who do these things but don’t enjoy them and then resent not getting recognized/appreciated? Or if people call them “martyrs” because they themselves can’t imagine said moms actually enjoying activities like that.

        Kind of like the staying up all night and baking thing. Personally, not my gig, but I have a friend with a full time job and 2 daughters, and a baking blog, who does this all the time, because that’s HER soul-soothing activity.

        1. Anandi, you make good points, but in the essay linked above, the author specifically mentions doing these things “for her kids” and laments that they will never appreciate it. I’ve definitely seen mothers run themselves ragged, and end up grouchy and exhausted, organizing toddler birthday parties and the like. If you ENJOY it, and its not making you cranky, go for it. My husband stayed up late last week baking cookies & a cake for my son’s first birthday—its his thing. My “thing” is going to bed early so I can be patient and present with my kids (I do NOT do well with sleep deprivation, the first thing that goes is my patience).

          1. Yeah, good point about the article. I guess I don’t love reading how motherhood is a “thankless job” because I don’t think one should expect kudos and thanks for doing it. It’s like the guilting just radiates from that statement.

            And +1 to sleep 🙂

          2. Sorry, just jumping in to point out I never said they “wouldn’t appreciate it.” I don’t expect them to. They are children. I said they wouldn’t SEE it. That’s a whole different statement. I listed my reasoning below, but wanted to speak to this directly. I do NOT think motherhood is a “thankless job.” Not by ANY stretch. I want no kudos for being a mother. I’m grateful for being a mother. And I don’t think I implied differently in my post.

        2. @ARC – yes, all about intentions. But it’s hard to figure out anyone else’s intentions! In the past two weeks, I had two major project deadlines, and I hosted 4 parties and ran most days. You could look at that and invent some narrative about how I’m a slave to cultural notions that not only do I need to succeed at my job, I need to be the perfect corporate wife and the perfect mother and also stay svelte, etc. Whatever. It was my choice to throw all those parties and everything else and I quite enjoyed it.

  6. My late mother-in-law is not in any pictures with my husband as a kid. She passed away long before I met him, while he was doing his national service (in Germany) between high school and college. She was young (early 50’s), and her death was quick and unexpected. As I was getting to know my husband, I was kind of shocked that there were so few pictures of her, not just so few of her with him, but so few of her in general. There is one nice one extant, and we have it framed on our mantlepiece. This phenomenon was strange enough to me that I had thought it was cultural–something that a privacy-obsessed German might do–until relatively recently.

  7. Hi!

    I wanted to respond to some of the “silent martyr” comments. I didn’t intend to imply a sense of “martyrdom” at all. What I was trying to do when I listed the things I do for my kids was two-fold. First, I wanted to say that as their mother, I have a lot to do with my children’s lives right now — simply because they are young and I am able to. That will not be forever. They don’t see or know a lot of what I do “behind the scenes,” and they shouldn’t, really. I’m their mom, and it’s what I WANT to do. No martyrdom there. I LIKE it. But if I am going to be a huge part of their lives and their stories, I should be in their pictures.

    Secondly, I was trying to say that I am willing to do so much for my kids, but I haven’t been willing to get in pictures with them, and it’s just as important as all those little things I do all the time so willingly.

    I am NOT a fan of martyrdom at all, and I agree it isn’t healthy. I don’t live FOR my kids. But they are small, and I can still do a whole lot for them, so I do. And I believe that is okay, because I do it by choice, and not because I think I am sacrificing myself at some motherhood altar.

    When I wrote this, it was a personal, my POV kind of thing — not a crusade or manifesto. It’s turned into something much bigger than I ever imagined, and that’s great, but I never thought it would speak to everyone — I only knew it was my experience.

    Okay, carry on, as you were!

    😉 Allison

    1. @Allison- thanks so much for stopping by to leave a comment! I really appreciate it. I also apologize for spelling your name wrong up above and I will go in and correct it. You clearly tapped into quite the cultural zeitgeist here, and I’m curious what you think is transpiring that women were writing into HuffPo talking about having 25,000 photos of the kids and being in less than 10 of them. We’ve been talking a lot about narratives on this blog lately (such as the narrative of motherly perfection that involves baked goods) and how jarring it is to see broadly embraced narratives (like not being in photos) that you’ve never considered. I personally subscribe to the Nora Ephron nugget of wisdom: “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four.” I may not look cover-modelish right now, but I will definitely look better in family photos now than I will in 15 years!

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