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Lessons Learned from a Year of Staying in the Picture

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It was a year ago this week that I was sitting at a restaurant booth with my husband, sneaking in a lunch together, when my phone pinged and I saw that the Huffington Post had published a piece I wrote called "The Mom Stays in the Picture." The week that followed stands as one of the craziest of my life: a whirlwind of emotion and disbelief as that post was shared all over the world.

In the past year, I have worked very hard to stay in the picture with my children. I was in the holiday card photo for the first time in years. I took selfies with my kids for the first time ever. This year, you can tell I went on vacation with my kids -- because there's my face, right alongside theirs, in front of the Biltmore Estate and at the Pirates' House in Savannah.

I won't pretend like it's been easy. I realized quickly that I screwed myself forever by telling the world I was making a point of being in more pictures, because now -- no matter what -- I can never beg off when someone proposes a quick snapshot, or I will surely catch a load of grief. I still have to push down feelings of insecurity when giving myself over to the mercies of the camera. But I'm working on it.

I wanted to share a few things I have learned over the past year while making an active effort to stay in the picture with my children, both literally and figuratively:

1. It's fun to write something that goes viral, but I wish it hadn't been this piece. I have been blown away by the hundreds of emails, tweets, Facebook notes, blog posts, and comments in response to "The Mom Stays in the Picture." Every single one means the world to me. But it makes me very sad that so many people related to what I wrote, because it drives home the fact that we have a lot of work to do when it comes to our self images and how we value ourselves as women and mothers. I think that most of us think that we are alone when we nurse insecurities or when we allow ourselves to be last on our list of things we value. We are obviously not; we are obviously actually far from alone. That is both reassuring and also profoundly sad to me. And if you look at the slideshow of pictures that accompanied my post, you see that every single mother is beautiful. Every single one.

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2. When we take pictures with our children, we are asserting ourselves as important and valuable, and our children are watching us. The summer before last, I went on two family vacations with my children. I am in not one picture from either vacation. It's as if I wasn't even there. This summer, I handed my iPhone over to my kids or to my mother or to strangers and I asked to be in the pictures. I wasn't in all the pictures or even most of them, but I was in them. More importantly, my children saw me making the effort. I could tell they felt that I was more engaged, more a part of these memories. It's important to me to model this to my daughter, who watches everything I do and mimics me in a way my sons never did. But in some ways it is even more important to me that I model this for my sons, whom I am hoping to teach how to view, value, and treat women and mothers. I want them to know that I am not just the person who plans and navigates these vacations for them -- I am also on the vacations myself, enjoying those moments too. When my face appears next to theirs over ice cream sundaes and beside waterfalls, I am showing them more than just my smile. I'm showing them my place in the family.

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3. Pictures serve as more than memories; they also tell our children where and who they come from. It is amazing to me, as I grow older, to look at pictures of my own parents and grandparents at my age and to see who they were when they were where I am now. When I look at pictures of them with me when I was younger, I don't just see them -- I see where I came from, why I have my blue eyes and my small hands. Pictures are really the only way to show them how the faces of our families carry familiar pieces of them in their eyes and cheeks and hair. It's the everyday, candid, caught-in-the-moment pictures that reveal the way eyebrows arch, or the smiles turn, or the chins point. That is why it's so important that we allow -- or even demand -- that we be in pictures: to leave traces, to leave a trail. We were here.

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4. It is easier said than done. I hear everyone who said, "But I am the family photographer!" I get it. ME TOO. I'm still the one who bothers to take pictures, who cares to capture moments. But I have forced myself to hand over the camera to my husband, to strangers, and even to my children. Are the results always what I hope? Yeah, no. But they are there, and I have them. My friends and I have also gotten better about trading off and taking an extra moment -- I take pictures of them with their kids, and they reciprocate. Sometimes, I still feel the desire to delete pictures of myself or hide them, too. But I don't. And honestly, when I look back at them with some distance -- they're not usually as bad as I thought. I don't have to look perfect for it to be a perfect picture.

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5. I can't just do this for my kids. I need to do it for myself. It's pretty clear that women and mothers in this country have a tendency to put themselves last on their own priority lists. That certainly has been true for me, and when I wrote "The Mom Stays in the Picture," the moment I wrote about was an epiphany for me because I realized that my own habit of squashing myself down to the bottom of my mental and emotional pile was actually also a way of withholding myself from my children and depriving them of something essential. I was motivated to change because I didn't want to take anything away from my children. All I have to do is read some of the comments on my post to see that there are adult children everywhere who desperately wish they had more pictures of their mothers or grandmothers. I don't want my kids to feel that way someday.

But I know now that I must also change for myself. We women and mothers cannot let our insecurities interfere with us participating in our own lives and families anymore. By not being in pictures with our children, we are actually disappearing from our family histories. We are disappearing from the world. It's not okay. Because if we are ever going to live in a world where women do have all the same opportunities as men, where our daughters and sons can hope to have the ability to make lives that are fulfilling both at home and in a workplace of their choices -- we can't disappear. We must be here, all the time. We must be here whether we are the size we want to be, or whether our hair looks the way we want, or whether we are feeling strong or just faking it 'til we make it.

We can't hate ourselves and expect our children to treat themselves differently. We can't hate ourselves and expect the world to treat us differently. And for that reason, we must not just stay in the pictures for our kids; we must do it for ourselves. Pictures of us say: we laughed, we loved, we had adventures, we felt pain. We lived. We were perfectly their mothers... and perfectly ourselves.

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