My baby was 18 months old when I joined Instagram. I figured the platform would be a way to connect with other mothers and writers, with the side benefit of bringing into sharper relief all the small everyday moments that define the life of a parent: the spilled Cheerios, the appalled reaction to a first hardboiled egg, the walks in endless circles around the patio with Perrito the pull toy.
I had been wanting to start some sort of a project that would etch out the lines around these moments, set them down for posterity and also as emblems of a way of living and seeing. I was wary, however, of doing too much whimsical, frivolous writing that would detract from work on my book and bigger projects. I didn’t want to get so mired in the everyday that I lost the larger web of meaning that is the writer’s material and map.
Thus, photos. I figured they’d be harmless, existing in a visual terrain safely marked off from the verbal and unthreatened by any shred of talent or reputation on my part. I’d take a shot here and there, of the baby’s new huaraches tied around her chubby brown ankles, of her discovery of piñatas, and be done.
But I quickly remembered why in all my years of travel I never took a camera with me: Photography is not simply a sequence of isolated photos but a distinct way of experiencing, and the instances a camera captures are not simply instances but become the whole of time itself, swallowing up eras and places in their representations. In other words, in an insight that will shock no one, photos do not represent so much as mediate our relationships to each other and to lived reality, and often end up standing in for that reality in ways that leave a slight rippling echo of sadness: Here is that moment I didn’t quite experience. So I was standing on the terrace one morning watching the sunrise over Santo Domingo, frantically trying to delete old videos to make space for another photo, when I felt disgusted with myself, put down the phone, and just watched the sun lift, as it does, in gradual brightening until suddenly the whole ball pops over the brown hills and the city is awash in orange. I felt cleansed.
Then I forgot about Instagram and never again commodified another moment of my baby’s precious childhood into a blue-filtered shot of her tiny fingers clutching a crayon.
Well, no. I thought about it, yes, I did. I read a poem a poet friend shared on Twitter—a social media outlet with which I long ago made somewhat bitter, somewhat merry peace—about Instagram (“What full full days!/Each moment is a pose—/the chair that’s been distressed, the knowing cat, kimchi or pork-ribs from some popup pit/the jam-jar’s tilted, pouty rose/graffiti in the toilet: IS THIS IT?”) and vowed to Jorge never to publish another photo. But then the baby would turn on the cobblestoned pedestrian street and beam her eight-toothed grin from under her sombrero and I’d go weak-kneed, fumble for my phone and say, “Wait, wait, show mommy your teeth! Elena, show mommy your teeth! Look at Papí Elena, look, teeth, look, dientes!” and after fifteen minutes of cajoling and fake sneezing I’d have one shareable photo. Then, guilt. No more interventions! No more co-opting of life for likes!
But what I came to realize after weeks of back and forth, throughout which I continued to take photo after photo—baby with a baby dachshund! Baby with a fuzzy fox hat!—was that the impulse to document via Instagram was new, perhaps not so much because of the novelty of the medium as because of who I have become, how the focus of my life has shifted, and what I now struggle towards. Essentially, I’m a mother. Of an eighteen-month-old. The vast majority of my life consists of wiping sweaty brows, changing diapers, pretending to feed kale to a stuffed turtle, convincing a hesitant young human that it’s fun and natural for people to beat the crap out of a stuffed figure of Dora, trying to focus on an adult conversation about Guatemalan road trips while also making sure the baby isn’t eating cigarette butts or diving off ledges. My time consists not so much of a few salient experiences, as it once did—a run, a big sweep of writing, mezcales, a movie—as of a thousand tiny moments scattershot onto the canvas of the day. I can hardly pinpoint what happened when; the day shoots by in a white blur. It is the strangest paradox of early parenthood: I don’t seem to do anything, to “achieve” anything, and in fact twenty minutes of watching the baby puzzle out the light switch can make me feel like the prime years of my life have just eked by, and yet at the end of the day, the end of the week, I feel whiplashed by time. I am left with details, sensory impressions of intimacy, frustration, growth: how she pointed at the wall and said “WALL!” in big round tones and I shouted “YES!” like my team had just taken the Superbowl, and how she somehow managed to twist in supreme toddler awkwardness when I wasn’t looking and smash her lip into the sewer, and how her beautiful body lay curled like a delicate pink shrimp in the middle of the bed.
There are so many small impressions within such an all-consuming air of cautious-frazzled-noticing that I often feel like I’m riding the rapids of a river, constantly trying to hang on, then giving up, ordering Super Tortas Gigantes and watching Parenthood. It’s cliché, of course—it goes by so fast. Instagram is a quick way to hang on to these moments before I’m swept forward, before she grows up and we give away the penguin onesie and forget she ever loved it so much. With Instagram I cull a few moments from each day like a fisherman sorting his catch from the toss, and the next morning, when I feed the baby her oatmeal, I show her the photos. They spur her memory: sandals, and she points to her feet; donkey, and she mimes holding the reins; the pool, and she ducks her head under imaginary water. She enacts the moment itself via the representation, a very real physical display of how photos shape our narratives. These are the moments I have chosen for her, for us, the emblematic ones that will dig a little deeper into her subconscious.
At the same time, within the forward surge of days and weeks and months are the eternal stretches of going up and down stairs, of putting the circle in the circle-shaped hole of the shape sorter, which demand an almost Buddhist embrace of nothingness. Instagram becomes a way to pay attention to these stretches of time, to acknowledge and tolerate them, while also marking their passing. It captures the absurd blend of swift and sluggish that defines these baby years. On the one hand, I hardly have a half second to step back and observe her beret sitting just so, her sultry pout, and the improvisational mosaic of strawberries strewn across the floor before I must engage with it all directly, be swept along into time; on the other, the acts of cleaning up strawberries and putting on and taking off the beret and saying “How does the baby laugh? How does the baby cry?” feel slow and endless, an eternal loop whose B-side goes Not-Writing Not-Writing, Not-Productive Not-Productive. Instagram inserts itself between the two: It sharpens the interminable, blurry repetition of childcare into a clear memory, and it briefly stills the rush of ongoing toddler madness into a moment of noticing. It functions both as a diary—I’m quickly able to record a certain moment before there is spinach all over the floor and it’s 6:45 and she still hasn’t had a bath and it’s clear we’re going to do at least two more readings of Little Blue Truck—and as a way of putting the quotidian before the epic. By this I mean: it is a way of repeating, this, this attempt to fix my nose with the wrench, this smelling of Christmas pine; the quotidian is valid, as worthy of my whole body and mind as writing, as reading, as work, as everything I would instinctually take to be bigger and more valuable. I recognize this is not the case for many women. Doris Lessing once claimed there is “nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children,” and surely many intelligent women would agree. I might have before I had children. Now, however, I find that I can’t operate under the historically Anglo and Protestant hierarchy that places endeavor, work, intelligence far above the more nebulous and easily derided categories of meaning, spirituality, communion. The ultimate shallowness of artistic fervor became terrifyingly clear in pregnancy, and although there are moments when I get my fierce ambition back, its centrality has been forever tested. There is something more, and how it manifests in hours of late afternoon pigeon-chasing remains to be told, but I feel obliged to seek it there. The type of meaning-making, attention, and purpose necessary for mothering are far more difficult to master than the concentration and thought I conjure in writing.
Closely connected to the elevation of the quotidian above the epic is another, deeper motivation, which I was slower to recognize and which speaks to more than my own desire to remember and curate: the need to lend validity to a life that is often invisible. This is family life and above all, a life of mothering. The domestic life of women and children, in spite of its cheery ubiquity in advertising, is largely hidden, belittled, oversimplified, ignored. Rarely do we read stories about what this day-to-day experience consists of emotionally and corporeally; Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work is one notable exception, although it leans more towards scathing exposé than intimate revelation. There are an overabundance of frustrated essays about work-life balance and the struggle to preserve one’s identity postpartum, yet the nature of everyday mothering is not the subject here but a problem to be solved. Literature commonly depicts marriage, divorce, the rebellion of older children or dissolution of families, but the average days of mothers with their children are almost never the subject of art, unless we’re talking about the occasional dreamy painting of the breastfeeding mother. Instead of the textured context of the everyday we get platitudes, clichés, often tinged with patriarchal condescension: the soccer mom, the stay-at-home mom, the eco-mom, the insert-your-latest-trend-in-the-mommy-wars mom. But a day with a toddler begins around 5:30 a.m. and ends, on average, around 7 p.m., with a blessed two-hour break in between if all goes well. What does all that time consist of?
This is where Instagram comes in: It confirms the substance of this time, which goes so quickly and also seems not to pass at all, but to consist of a perpetual muted frenzy of Play-Doh clean up and food preparation and the yanking of impossibly small t-shirts off of small bodies. It gives this time texture and depth, sorts it into discernible instants that have the weight of an adult life: that is, a life lived in a flow of discrete tasks, not the whirlwind of a 15-second attention span. It creates scenes, story. More importantly, it asks for recognition and imbues meaning. It ushers the domestic out as worthy of attention, praise, Lo-Fi filters and exaggerated lighting. For this, I believe, women in particular are so dismissively criticized as being frivolous, or violating their children’s privacy, or trying to glamorize or highlight what should be mundane, unseen. As Adrienne Rich points out in Of Woman Born, her classic work debunking the institution of motherhood, the domestic sphere of the home in which women and children are sequestered together all day every day is an invention of the Victorian era, intended to keep women out of economic life and unthreatening to men. Before this time, children were often raised by many mothers in a wider community, the barrier between the domestic and public realms was fluid, and the burden of childrearing did not fall so squarely on the shoulders of one woman frantically searching Pinterest at 5 p.m. for toddler-friendly sensory activities. Perhaps part of the surge in concern about privacy, and particularly about mothers protecting their children’s privacy, comes from deeply ingrained notions of Victorian modesty, of keeping the hearth and its secrets of blood and milk sequestered from the men’s realm of serious issues. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, faces smeared with papaya: These should remain hidden. The house should be shining when the guests show up, the children well-mannered with bows in their hair. What lies behind this is for the mother and the mother alone to attend to.
Instagram can both threaten and reinforce this paradigm. Of course, many Instagram accounts predominately feature children with bows in their hair. As with most social media sites, the overwhelming majority of posts are positive. Most posters are also white, middle- or upper-class women uploading photos of their children munching Gouda on quilted blankets at wineries. Yet the focus doesn’t necessarily have to be negative to be “real”—often, for me, the most important thing is simply seeing mothers in action at all. I want to be reminded not only that I’m not alone but that what I’m doing is important, at times beautiful, universal. Motherhood is hard enough—mothers know that. At times I desperately need a release valve for the inevitable guilt and am thus grateful for posts like these from @Momastery, who currently has 107,000 followers: “I’m just a girl. Standing in front of a clock. Asking it to be my kids’ bedtime.”
But most of the time I appreciate the affirmation of seeing a laptop in the midst of a tornado of markers and teacups, of a tiny body perched on a kitchen chair; I know it’s cute, I know I’m a sucker, I know I’m supposed to be tough and snarky and intellectual and juggling work-life balance and “having it all” and not letting my identity be subsumed by motherhood and not falling prey to clichés of merry-cupcake-making and domestic softness. But fuck all that: My life right now, most of the time, is watching the baby learn to ladle water out of her little tub, and watching fireworks through the barred bedroom window while she nurses to sleep, and making a Lego dog frolic with a cat puppet. In between there are pockets of surreal silence when I read, cook, or write, and throughout there are instances of strange clarity that I collect in essays. But most of the time there are so many small moments that pass so quickly and that I would otherwise forget, that go unrecognized and uncelebrated in most art and social life, and that would otherwise blur together into that tumbling, messy, eager time of childhood. There they are in their neat little boxes, so much tidier than real life, on screen, and the baby and I recreate them: “How do the monas dance? How did you spill your cheerios? How did you ride the donkey?” I claim motherhood one square at a time.
“What are the good parts for you?” a friend asked me once, referring to motherhood, since most of what she’d heard about parenting was that it was hard, really freaking hard, and miserable. I’m very grateful for the surge of recent literature that speaks candidly about just how crappy parenting can be, but I also think that it’s much more difficult to represent what is good about parenting without bromides and empty sentimentality. What is good about parenting has been co-opted by furniture makers who whitewash a room and put a gorgeous blonde lady with a perfect pregnancy bump in the middle of it. What’s good, I tried to explain but couldn’t, is both what happens everyday and what is unspeakable, what has taken self and life and stretched them far beyond the limits of what I thought possible, desirable, mine. What’s good is the Instagram photo of one of my best friends from high school with her newborn baby. She looks tired, a little pale after labor and delivery and the first unreal days with a new human being, and she is smiling a tender quiet smile I remember so viscerally from those first few weeks, of incredulity, of one’s heart splitting open, of timeless hours and days and nights, of the warm weight of this fully trusting bundle on one’s chest. It made my throat catch. I went back and looked at it over and over. I was so happy for her, and happy to see her, and I grabbed my own now-seemingly-giant baby and kissed her on the nose until she shouted “No bye-bye!” as she does now and squiggled away.
My relationship with Instagram is still not one of unequivocal enjoyment; there are times I have to tell myself to put the camera down, or I feel gross for trying to organize her toolbox and stacking cups just so, or I wonder if I’m sharing too much. I am constantly trying to find the line between rearranging my life for Instagram, living the representation instead of the experience, and deepening the experience by documenting it, setting it aside as worthy of memory. Sometimes I err, but sometimes when I look back at the grid of all those small moments I see an era going by, all those discoveries and sensations of fleeting stages temporarily grasped, echoes of lullabies sung over and over until one day I no longer need to sing. Poet Lisa Furmanski writes, “Every mother recalls a lullaby, and/the elegy blowing through it.” There it is onscreen, filtered, shaded, contrasted, brightened, vignetted, and gone forever.
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My daughter is now a teenager, so not an instagram girl, but I – usually we – still sing before saying goodnight! A lovely essay, bows in the hair and all. And 18 months is big, that’s a lot of months and Cheerios, with many more to come. Good they won’t pass you by.
I really liked this story, Sarah, and it resonates with me deeply. I feel that I’m constantly struggling between “capturing the moment” in a photo but also simply wanting to enjoy it with calmness and curiosity. Though, when a photo does come back into my life, all of sudden maybe while skimming through old files on my hard drive where thousands are stored, the nostalgia and reflection that ensues makes having left the living-in-the-moment mantra to take the photo worth it. I imagine the nostalgia and reflection you’ll experience will bear fresh insight into who you are as a person and how you got there while perusing the photos of your family down the road.
I really enjoy your writing and I’m happy you’ve created such a great space to share yours and others work!
What a thoughtful and beautiful piece! I love your insight into how Instagram elevates the quotidian and connects those of us who would otherwise live hidden lives. I recently began an Instagram project (@by_teresawong) where I make daily drawings for/about my small children, and your essay articulates for me why I’m even bothering to do it. Thank you!
I’m just now coming across this post, and I must say how spot-on your assessment is: capturing the otherwise invisible moments for a waiting world is what I call my writer’s curse. My need to Capture. Express. Engage. Release. And at the same time, temper my shares with space, to experience life as it comes without want of feedback.
Beautiful. Thank you.