When Josie was just a few months old, I remember stumbling upon Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman’s TED talk on the four taboos of parenthood. In it they explain their own experience of reconciling their expectations of parenthood with the reality that their first son delivered. Being in the publishing world they had prepared, among other things, by reading lots of magazines, but as Griscom realized “when we lowered the glossy parenting magazine that we were looking at with these beautiful images and looked at the scene in our actual living room” there seemed to be a gaping disconnect.
Part of this, of course, is marketing – showing us impossible ideals we wish we could live. I remember trying to reconcile my parenting expectations during those first few sleepless months when I came to think of my daughter as a small vampire-like energy parasite whose banshee-like crying sucked my own life force for her own. This was not in those glossy magazines, but I wouldn’t know, since unlike Griscom and Volkman, I had never picked up Parenting magazine. So where did this “false-advertising” of parenting come from? Surely by then, I had seen thousands of commercials featuring smiling families driving new cars or smiling kids sliding down a slip n’ slide, but I’ll argue that the false advertising of parenting is far more effective when it is done by your closest friends.
Our family just got back from Hawaii. Over the course of our eleven days on the Big Island, I took nearly one thousand photos. Most of those photos feature my smiling beautiful wife and our daughter happily embracing, or other wised engaged in some positive parenting activity like tide pooling.
Of all the photos I took I don’t think there is a single picture of Josie crying. Nor are there any of Sarah, feeling nauseous, trying to comfort Josie in the backseat on a curvy back road. In fact, if a picture had anyone not smiling or showing our daughter as anything but inquisitive, peaceful or happy, I probably deleted it or at least didn’t make it public on Facebook. And there’s the rub. While we are all more or less programmed to smile for a camera, when we only show the happy depictions of parenthood to our childless friends I believe we create a more believable expectation, than they would otherwise receive from the mass media, that parenthood for them will be a warm and snuggly blanket of love you and your partner can wrap yourself in. And while sometimes it is, like your offspring’s wildly shifting moods, sometimes that blanket more resembles one of those silver emergency blankets handed out to survivors of airplane crashes. And either way, it probably has spit-up, pee, or food stains on it.
So why do we do this? Why is it heretical to whip out the camera when your kid is throwing a fit? I can think of three reasons.
1. Subjectivity. When you are emotionally attached to your photographic subject, the objective nature of the lens conveys a cold disinterest or unwillingness in helping to reduce the cause of the distress. This is good journalistic practice when you’re working for National Geographic, but considered bad parenting (no matter if your subject resembles an irrational wild animal).
2. Pictures of your kids crying don’t paint your parenting in a very flattering light, while pictures of smiling happy children make you look good. Everyone knows that in our culture that the number one goal of public parenting is the prevention of crying children. And since photos are shared, this taboo is adopted as a matter of course in photography.
3. Recruitment. For those out there to be the first of your social group to fall into the fold of parenthood, photographs are the best propaganda. Admit it – you’re not going out anymore – after spending your Saturday night comparison shopping strollers on Amazon, you’re sitting on the crapper before going to bed at 8:30, lingering on a magazine’s Toyota Sienna ad. If you want to maintain your old friendships, you’ve got to get your friends to take the gloves off.
Butwhen I dissect the reasons for the absence of anything but happy photographs in my vacation’s album, I find each a little shallow. The first is the hardest to refute, but the truth of the matter is, if photos become the surrogate for memory as we grow old and senile, then our recollection of our children’s lives will surely be erroneous. For example, I made this heretical video of my colicky daughter during her second month, and though it wasn’t easy to film, there wasn’t much else to record. Next, stroking your ego by self-editing your kids emotional range isn’t probably healthy for anyone. And lastly, doesn’t the planet already have too many people, without satisfying your selfish need to maintain your tenuous Friday night friendships? I’d say so. Maybe we should all just share videos of our kids having Grand mal tantrums for the betterment of the planet and share them on YouTube. Oh wait….