What’s So Great About Bad Pictures?

Last summer, my sisters and I spent a long afternoon in our parents’ basement. Our goal was, as my mother put it, to “help her clean out her family photo collection.” She’d told us that she had “some bins” and “lots of photos.” She didn’t tell us exactly how many bins (there were dozens) or how many photos (there were many thousands). She did, however, promise us wine and lunch, so we were more than happy to oblige.

As one might expect, our efforts took hours. They were mostly happy hours. Some of them were quite silly. (“Look at that hair!” “What was I thinking wearing that outfit?!” “Who is this person holding me as a baby, and why do they look like such a polyester nightmare?”) Some of them were wistful. (“How long since she died?” “Do you think we can get this picture to him even though they’re divorced?”)

In addition to food and drink and silliness, my mother had also promised us the chance to fill a whole box with whatever photos we wanted to keep for ourselves. I filled my box to the brim, mostly with old pictures of my parents, grandparents, and even a few of my great-grandparents. I kept a few fun photos of my sisters and me when we were little.

None of these photos were professionally taken. All of them were imperfect in some way. But they were all beautiful to me.

One of my favorites was a square-shaped snapshot of my father and grandfather. The image is blurry, the color is off, and neither man’s face is fully visible. I don’t think that they were doing anything remarkable besides walking together. It is a wholly imperfect photo: one that a 21st century photographer would likely delete from whatever memory device they are using. And yet I identify with the complete ordinariness of the picture. In all of its imperfection, it captures a moment and evokes a feeling that I wanted to preserve: these two men, two of the most important men in my life, being ordinary and imperfect and human.

bad pictures

I have an emotional connection to the photo: not an artistic one. And with family photos, that’s an important difference.

Nonetheless, not all my mom’s pictures struck me that way. Not even most of them. And as my sisters and I sorted a few photos into our boxes and tossed hundreds of repeats and plain old terrible pictures into trash bags, we asked my mom why she’d kept so many pictures in the first place.

“These are my memories of you guys,” she said. “I’ll never get those moments back again. And then some of these people aren’t alive anymore, and this is all that I have of them. It’s hard to part with them.”

I didn’t know if by “them” she meant the pictures or the people. I suspect she meant a little of both.

Though my mom’s point was beautiful in its own right, my sisters and I still felt pretty smug about the fact that we didn’t have so many pictures spilling out of storage bins in our own basements.

“This is ridiculous,” we said to one another. “We’ll never have this many photos in our house.”

Of course, our smugness wasn’t all that justified. We do have that many photos. In fact, we might have that many photos from last year alone. But instead of taking up space in our basement, they’re taking up space in the overflowing digital corners of our lives.

Without being confined to 24 shots on a camera roll or the interminable wait of the picture development kiosk at the grocery story, the modern person can get immediate photographic gratification with the mere press of a button. And with our phones glued to our bodies, we can do that all day long. We can Instagram them. Post them on Facebook. Save them to a digital storage site. Upload them to our computers or external hard drives.

Our “bins” do indeed overfloweth.

When I returned to my own home later that weekend, I asked a few friends how many family photos they in their collections.

“Probably hundreds.”

“2,183. And that’s just on my phone. I’m not even counting the cloud or my computer or my external hard drive or even the hundreds of prints I have stashed away in the scrapbooking drawer that I’ll probably never use anyway.”

“Oh God, so many of my children, I can’t count.”

“30,000. Give or take.”

This overabundance of photos is a common experience for modern parents and non-parents alike.  For parents in particular, this overabundance involves loads of pictures of our children

With the exception of some trained or professional photographers, few of us parents have a mass collection of fine art prints. We have blurry, off-color, poorly-composed pictures of our kids walking, playing, eating, sliding, smiling, crying, and just, you know, standing. We have 12 different shots of the same pose from the first day of school. We have one professionally-taken photo for every hundred-or-so phone-snapped photos.

We love our kids. And we really love taking photos of our kids. It’s a love that resides somewhere between narcissism and nostalgia, excessiveness and happiness.

When I reflect on just how much narcissism and nostalgia I’ve amassed over the years, it’s enough to make me want to delete all the bad pictures—to trim the fat, so to speak—and keep only the best photos with the best light and the best composition and the best expressions on all my family’s faces. It’s time to get rid of all those hundreds of bad photos taking up space in all my digital “bins.”

But when I try to get into deleting mode, I stumble. I hesitate.

Like my mother before me, I find that it’s hard to part with my pictures and with my past. In some ways, it’s even harder to part with the imperfect, mundane pictures of my past. Especially the pictures of my children.

It’s the emotional connection I feel to those ordinary moments of imperfection. It’s the look of my kids’ squishy cheeks and pouty lips. The intent expressions on their faces when they’re fighting an army of zombies with a Buzz Lightyear figure. The blur of an arm trying to hit the tormenting brother. The hand-me-down pajamas with the too-long pants legs. The child who cried in his Halloween gnome costume. The crooked smiles and the peanut butter that I forgot to wipe off their cheeks.

Much like that blurry, imperfect photograph of my father and my grandfather, I imagine that the pictures I’ll treasure the most one day will be the ones that capture the ordinary moments of my parenting life, in all of its blurry imperfection.

So do I need 15 messy, imperfect shots of my children having a pillow fight in the living room? No, probably not: I can hit delete a few times on that one. But will it hurt to keep just one, along with the hundreds—or thousands—of other ordinary, “bad” pictures?

It won’t hurt. In fact, those unremarkable, uneventful moments are probably the ones that I’ll cherish most some day when my kids are grown and sorting through my photos (or files), wondering aloud why their mom hoarded so many bad pictures over the years.


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Why Babies Get Babied

The baby of my family is 3, and he will never be 3 again.

He says “snuggling” like “snug-a-wing.” He calls plums “cwums,” hermit crabs “herbit crabs.”

He waves to birds and squirrels and pouts quietly when they don’t come sit and rest on his outstretched hands.

His feet don’t stink, and I don’t recoil at the thought of kissing them. I kiss them every chance I get.

He’s given up calling me “Mommy,” but every so often he lets a “Mama” slip out, and it makes my heart flutter.

Sometimes he needs so much from me, makes such frequent requests and demands, that I must do all I can to keep from screaming. I could throw a tantrum that would rival one of his own, I really could. But he still wants me near–wants me to be close physically, doesn’t push away hugs, doesn’t begrudgingly settle for the quickest kiss on his forehead like his older brothers do.

He can fit in my arms and wrap his legs around my waist, and I call him “my little koala bear.”

He is absolutely delighted by waking up in the morning. Tasting lollipops. Watching butterflies. Jumping over cracks in the sidewalk. Studying a line of marching ants.

He is not embarrassed by his own imagination.

He sings to himself while he plays.

He associates rain with puddle-jumping, snow with snowman-building.

He thinks that school sounds exciting, that homework seems like some exotic, wonderful treat.

This doesn’t last forever. It doesn’t even last that long. Even when the days seem interminable–interminable because they are long, desperately long. But the time it takes for a day to pass, and the time it takes for a little boy to get too big and too self-conscious to snuggle with his mother any longer, are two different sorts of time.

baby of the family

I’ll never have a 3-year-old again. God-willing. Vasectomy-willing.

I’ll always have a baby of the family. God-willing. Time-willing.

And the struggle is, I think, to ensure that my babying is a type of wistful-loving: not coddling, not spoiling, but a sort of reverence toward time’s passing, its embodiment in my child’s squishy (and increasingly not-so-squishy) toes.

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The Quiet

The morning narrows to the place where I sit cross-legged on the carpet, my eyes closed against the scattered detritus from the day (coffee mug, plastic giraffe, an unused diaper, a book which I intend to finish but can only tackle two pages at a time). There is quiet. It is an ephemeral quiet, I know this. Quiet spaces between a parent and her toddler are always fleeting, after all.

I relish the quiet and inhale the honeyed scent of baby shampoo in my son’s hair as he taps a dimpled spot above my jaw line.

“Dis? Dis, Mama?”

“Cheek. That’s my cheek.” I stretch out the hard “k” because I’m giving him a word, and I want the word to be clear and precise and right. He’ll use this word as he charts out the boundaries of my face, my little cartographer with banana-sticky fingers.

This is a moment I resolve to savor.

As a parent, I often think about savoring. I’m urged by others to “cherish every moment.” To “realize that these years go by so quickly.” To “savor my precious time with my children.” But the savoring never comes that easily. It’s easy to talk about, easy to endorse. Not so easy to do.

To parent is to give oneself over to relentless noise. To parent is to be selfless, and selflessness is a strident beast. A child’s needs are ceaseless, like so much thread unspooling and unraveling downhill. My mind whirs with static even when my child is not in front of me or next to me or on top of me. There is noise, not quiet. Or, there is scarce room for quiet.

But for now, in this moment, on the floor, underneath the morning light and shadows, held fast by two hands that once formed inside my own body, I have quiet. We have quiet.

My son’s fingers slide an inch to the right, tugging a trail across my face. “Dis? What dis?”

“Cheek. That’s my cheek.” He kisses me, my cheek, marking this newly mapped-out place with a sweet, wet smacking sound. He leaves a glisten of slobber on my face, and instead of wiping it I simply hold my hand against the wetness because though it is disgusting it is also beautiful, and there is much to be cherished in each of our tender gestures.

An inch further, and he finds my mouth. His index finger digs into my lower lip. I wince before stretching out his hand, replacing the sharp corner of his fingernail with the plump folds of his palm.


“Lip. Luh-luh-lip,” emphasis on the l, on the p. He knows it’s my mouth, and he knows where his mouth is. He can point to and identify both of our mouths, says the word like “mowsh,” and so I elongate the “thhhhhh.” But this place also has another name. It’s part of my mouth, and so we can call the place where his tiny finger touches me “mouth,” yet we can also call it “lip.” The borders and the boundaries converge upon one another, synecdoche etched upon our faces.

I close my eyes and extend my hands. This is quiet. This is savoring.

He continues exploring the topography of my face. He pushes his finger through my mouth, through my lips (a new word for his map key), and finds my teeth. “Teeth!” he exclaims. He finds my teeth funny, inexplicably so. I laugh with him even though I cannot pinpoint the reason for our laughter.

“That’s right! Mama’s teeth! Mama’s teeth are inside her mouth!”

This time he throws his head back with a wild chortle. Our teeth are in our mouths, our teeth break free from our mouths and lips when we smile, our teeth are wet and slimy and sharp and hard. Our bodies are places of absurdity. I tickle the spot just below his armpits—ribs, side, torso, this, baby boy, is such a silly spot—and his giggles gather in his throat like tiny bubbles.

He calms and returns to my face with a deliberate touch to my eye.


“Yes, honey, that’s Mama’s eye.”

He nudges upward until he reaches my eyebrow.


“Eyebrow. Eeeyyyyeebrowwwww.”

And then a quarter inch more, slightly beyond the last hair of my brow.

“Forehead. That’s my forehead.”

He crisscrosses the length of my forehead, pausing at each uncharted territory. His eyes intent, serious. He asks for the name of this place on my face again and again, and he listens to me as I reply “forehead.” Forehead. Forehead, forehead, forehead. It’s still my forehead. This vast expanse on the map is still my forehead.

He reaches my temple. For a moment I wonder if I should teach him that this spot, circular, about an inch in diameter, nearly imperceptible to his own touch, is indeed my temple. Is the specificity necessary? Has its time come, just as the time came for “lip?” Or will the word clutter the map of this two-year-old, he with his burgeoning vocabulary, the words still sometimes twisting on his tongue?

I tell him that this, too, is my forehead.

I lie back and close my eyes, hands open and empty against a sun-dappled spot on the floor. He returns to my eyes and cheeks and mouth and lips, tap tap tapping out the boundaries of his map.

In this moment we have quiet, and the quiet has us.

the quiet

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I never planned to breastfeed my third kid until he was two-and-a-half years old.

Don’t believe me? It’s true. Nursing past two years old was never in my plans. Even as a former doula. Even as someone who gave birth in a tub in my living room. Even as someone who can probably cross off at least a third of the items on a “Crunchy Parenting” checklist. (Make my own granola? Check. Grow organic vegetables in my backyard? Check? Avoid all processed foods? Absolutely not: give me cheese fries and chicken wings, or give me death.)

With my first two children, I aimed to meet the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations for breastfeeding. I do well with clearly defined goals–“continuing breastfeeding for a year” was clear enough for me–and so I nursed them until they were 12 and 14 months old, respectively. With my third child, I was open to breastfeeding him for a little longer.

But just a little.

And yet the ongoing months of toddler-nursing just happened, kind of like how piles of school papers on my kitchen counter have “just happened” to grow into a three-inch stack, or like how my email inbox has “just happened” to balloon to a whopping 845 messages over the past few years.

Breastfeeding a kid who was old enough to speak in complete sentences is something that happened to me without much foresight or planning.

To many people, however, toddler-nursing doesn’t seem like something that just happens. Toddlers can do and say and accomplish things that make breastfeeding seem strange and unnecessary. Toddlers have teeth: a full mouth of them. Toddlers eat plenty of other foods (and non food-stuffs too, like shreds of paper and bits of crayon). For God’s sake, my two-and-a-half-year-old son can build a pumpkin out of Legos.

weaning a toddler

Though toddler nursing is quite common worldwide, it’s not all that common in the United States. In fact, most people in the U.S. find it to be kind of weird and off-putting. I once thought it was pretty weird–and yes, a bit gross–when I was a newly minted mother. Before I had children, I even uttered the words, “If a kid can ask for it, they’re too old to breastfeed.”

Like most people who make sweeping generalizations about topics with which they have little experience or expertise, I didn’t understand the complex, messy, lived reality of parenting and breastfeeding and caring for small children. And I met that complex messiness head-on with my third son, Eric.

When Eric was six months old, he slept for eight to ten hours straight every night. He took two hour naps every day. He was easy-going and affable and adorable and would sleep anywhere: our room, his portable crib, even my uncle’s living room floor.

But then at seven months old, Eric stopped sleeping through the night. He stopped sleeping through solid chunks of the night too. He woke up every hour or two, sometimes every half-hour. He would only nap nestled in my arms or bundled against my chest in a baby carrier. He stopped being easy-going and affable and started being clingy and impatient. And in those wakeful nighttime hours–interminable nights that went on for more than a year–breastfeeding was the only thing that calmed him.

With the help of his doctor, Tim and I ruled out illness, allergies, and other major health concerns. Now we’re nearly certain that teething caused his (and our) sleeping woes, but there’s really no way to tell for sure. All we do know is that our year-and-a-half of sleeplessness was hellish. Tim spent many hours in the living room with Eric, who screamed in Tim’s arms until they both fell asleep. I spent many hours curled into a neck-stiffening question mark, nursing Eric until we both fell asleep.

I didn’t keep breastfeeding my son because it was beautiful or magical, though some nursing moments were truly beautiful. I didn’t do it for the health benefits, though I’m sure there were some. I didn’t do it because of any particular principles or values or goals.

I kept breastfeeding because it was the only thing that worked.

weaning a toddler

In the thick of it, breastfeeding a toddler never seemed that strange or weird or off-putting to me. Eric needed to nurse to fall asleep. I needed him to fall asleep to feel human. And in many ways, with his cherubic cheeks and pudgy legs and gummy words, he was still a baby. Baby enough that nursing felt more right than wrong, more an act of care than an act of maternal-martyring.

I didn’t know much about weaning a toddler, but I knew that he’d have to wean eventually. “I mean, he will, right?” I’d ask Tim. “He won’t be breastfeeding when he goes to kindergarten, right? I mean, that’s not even a question. He won’t.”

I didn’t know how it would happen, though I hoped it would happen easily. I didn’t know when it would happen, though I was determined, so help me God, that it wouldn’t happen long after his third birthday.

And over the past few weeks, weaning has just kind of happened, much the way that breastfeeding for this long just happened. It happened so seamlessly that I wouldn’t be able to articulate a list of the steps I took to encourage breastfeeding cessation if I tried. Eric seemed ready. He was willing to trade “milkies” for snuggles. He was able to fall asleep without nursing at all. But mostly, I was ready. I wanted my body back. I wanted a less demanding bedtime routine. I wanted the heightened sense of agency one gets when a child is no longer draining–literally, draining–calories and energy from you.

About a week ago, as our breastfeeding sessions had tapered off to once every couple days or so, Eric asked to nurse before bed. I relented because it seemed easy. Since he was already cranky and whiny, it also seemed like it would be the thing that would “work” for bedtime. I grabbed a book and lay beside him, and for a moment I thought, “God, I hope he falls asleep soon so that I can get back to the computer and get some work done.”

A few sentences into my book, however, I stopped reading.

I can’t say for certain how to decipher between the moments that one should wish away and the moments that one should cherish. I don’t know the critera. Can’t articulate the necessary and sufficient conditions. But I will say this: in that moment, lying next to my toddler, breastfeeding him for the many-thousandth time, I savored the seconds. I gazed at his face and touched my fingers to his matted hair. I marveled that my body was feeding him, just as it had fed his brothers before him. I whispered a silent prayer to whatever luck of biology and circumstance it was that had made breastfeeding so easy for me with all three of my children.

I kissed my toddler-nursing son on the forehead, and I told him that I loved him. I cherished the moment with every ounce of my being.

It was the last time I ever breastfed one of my babies.

weaning a toddler

Eric, breastfeeding at two days old. Image credit erika ray photography

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To Cherish

People love to repeat the oft-echoed sentiment that we should “cherish every moment” with our children. They like to repeat it in grocery stores. At family gatherings. In restaurants. At places of worship. In the park. On the sidewalk. In schools. Pretty much any location where they might spy a frazzled and exhausted parent wearing a “OH MY GOD GET ME OUT OF HERE” look on their faces.

Whenever I hear someone tell me to “cherish every moment,” I start to wonder if they’ve thought long and hard about what it means to cherish.

(That’s right after I’ve thought, Fuck you. And, Oh, I’m sorry for swearing at you in my thoughts. And, I’m sure you mean well, but come on, I cannot possibly cherish everything.)

“To cherish” means something like “to savor.” To appreciate. To take delight in. To relish. To enjoy.

And I’ll be the first to admit that I do not cherish or savor or etc. every moment with my children. Frankly, I despise some moments with them. Sometimes I’m like, “Ugh. God. Slog. Parenting. Blech.”

These are the moments where I do indeed want to be “gotten out of here.”

It’s not that I never cherish my children: I do. I cherish them as persons. I appreciate and enjoy them as people.

But do I cherish the moments I spend with them? Not always. Maybe not even often. Not with the constant din of care-taking blaring in a loop, like some doomed and frantic soundtrack to my life. (“Feed me! Clean me! Clean up after me! Tolerate my whining! Give me freedom, but not too much or too little! Make that appointment! Worry about me! Conform to societal expectations that idolize white, middle-class, able-bodied parenting! Optimize your parenting decisions! Feel like a failure when you fall short!”)

The din. It never stops. And when that din is at its loudest, it obliterates the conditions that make cherishing possible: conditions that are absolutely, unbelievably precarious.

To cherish, there has to be a certain ripeness in the moment, the right sort of quiet calm. The mind must be sharp and open. Time has to move not too quickly yet not too slowly.

In other words, you can’t be in the presence of a snot-bubble-covered two-year-old who’s screaming at you to “Squaw blah da frooooiiiiind!” while their sibling dumps their dinner on the kitchen floor.

Even happy, quiet kids: they too can make cherishing a complicated and near-impossible task.

Cherishing is damn hard. Harder than the hopelessly romantic “cherish every moment” mantra would have anyone believe.

cherish every moment


In  Pilgrim at Tinker CreekAnnie Dillard reveals an uncanny ability to capture what it means to cherish. Writing about her experiences in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, she observes and learns about and muses on the wonders of the natural world. And she has so much quiet. So much calm. So much sharpness and openness. So much time. Enough time to reflect on the physics of waves, to see a frog be devoured by a water bug, to pursue a group of muskrats for weeks and weeks just so that she can spot them slipping in and out of the water.

I read this book in the throes of a year-and-a-half long period of hell where my toddler (the youngest of three) never slept for longer than two or three hours at night. Which meant my husband and I never slept for longer than two or three hours at night. Which meant that most of my days were challenging ones.

On one of my especially challenging parenting days, I remember reading the book and thinking, “Dammit, I want the time and quiet and calmness to observe a pack of muskrats! Muskrats! I mean, fucking muskrats! Where are my muskrats? Where are my water bugs? Where are my mountains? Where is my creek?”

Instead, I had a lukewarm cup of coffee, an unmet deadline, and a toddler who didn’t sleep at night.

So much for cherishing’s ripe conditions.

In one of her particularly beautiful reflections, Dillard writes that:

You don’t run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled. You’ll have fish left over.

With all her empty-handed waiting, Dillard is indeed filled with cherishable, savorable, delighted-in moments. Muskrats, mountains, and all.

I thought about this passage for days after I first read it. I was (and still am) so envious of all that cherishing, and of all the quiet calm that made it possible. Again, I wanted my muskrats and my creek and mountains.

But as a parent, I don’t have many muskrats. I usually don’t have hands that are empty and able to wait for the present. In fact, I often want to use my hands to push the present out of the way so that I can reach a few quieter, calmer moments.

Sometimes I think we all want to fast-forward past the screamy, tantrumy, messy parts of our parenting lives. I mean, we do, right?

You do too, right?

cherish every moment

When those cherishable moments do arrive, they are magnificent. So much so that I can understand why they loom large in people’s minds long after their children are grown, long after the unromantic realities of parenting have faded away. These moments beg you to stop, to relish the calm quiet, and to cherish. But these moments are just that: moments. Momentary. Ephemeral. Not constant or ever-present, but dotted across the wide expanse of our experiences.

And so when those moments do arrive, I savor them.

When my hands are empty enough that I can wait for the present to fill them with “fish left over,” I cherish the hell out of it.

The rest of the time, I’m perfectly content to say, “Alright then, moment. I’m not going to cherish or delight in or savor you, no matter what all those well-meaning folks implore me to do.”

And I won’t ask anyone else to cherish every moment either.

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