I didn't know yet that my marriage would go up in flames when I first realized that I was in very few of our family photos. My son's young life was already well-documented, with thousands of digital pictures housed on hard drives and cameras even before we had iPhones or an infinite cloud to store many more. Most of the photos were of my son alone -- in a giraffe costume or reaching for the Christmas lights, with ridiculous bed head or swaddled in a duckie towel fresh from the bath. But there were also many of him with his toddler friends and grandparents and many more than that of he and his dad. There were some, far fewer, that documented those early years of a small boy and his mother.
I let that fire burn within me for a long time. I was a restless stay-at-home mother who felt isolated and thrilled at the same time to spend long days and longer nights with my boy. My then-husband was working two jobs in the suburbs, commuting too far, earning too little money. The kid was the joy. The rest was harder than I got, even at the time.
And so I had many concerns and worries and complaints. Money. Our tiny, cluttered cave of an apartment. My weight. My relationship with my mother. Having five bucks in pocket and no car to use during the week. The judgmental other mothers at playgroup. If I'd ever find fulfilling work again. The bills. Holy God, the bills. There was so much to fret over, that being absent from the photos fell far down the list.
Until it occurred to me that being un-pictured was about much more that not seeing my own face on the slideshow that ticked past in the digital frame we got as a Christmas gift one year. I was out of frame and no one thought to invite me into it.
Looking back, I see how lonely I already was, but that realization deepened the pain. I spoke up.
"I see you with our son and I am so overwhelmed and in love with you both, that I HAVE to capture it, I HAVE to take a picture," I remember saying tearfully to my son's father. "I want you to feel the same about me."
I didn't know then that he was breaking -- in his heart and in his brain (and this is putting it compassionately) -- and that there wasn't room to pull me in closer, to him or to the lens. I don't remember how he reacted, to be honest, just that he never did make up for that gap in our family portraits.
When the time came, more quickly and urgently than I could have ever pictured, for me to leave the marriage, the camera was one of the things I packed into a laundry basket with a few changes of clothes and other necessities. I don't think I threw it in there among toothbrushes and stuffed animals and tiny undies thinking I'd reclaim my space in the photographs, but the camera was there, in my possession.
We never went back to live there permanently, my son and me. But the days and then weeks and months which became years since have all been well-documented. My son is still the star of nearly every frame. But I am also in many. Plenty. More than enough.
Even when days were painful -- tantrums, heartbreak, tears, exhaustion -- there are photos that show how we feel. When times are good -- happy, sunshine, laughter, silly faces -- there are even more, snapped quickly in and in progression, of the two of us.
Out on our own, I got -- this time in a flash -- that I was solely responsible for getting myself into the photos. Selfies, taken with the camera or phone held high above us at impossible angles or dangling precariously while we are jumping in the ocean or peering off the balcony, are the way my son and I both are shown living the moments we share.
When Allison Tate wrote "The Mom Stays in the Picture," I wasn't surprised it went viral quickly and that so many mothers would relate and react, challenging themselves to ask someone else to take a photo so they would not be left out of the family archive. But it was also too much for me to read at the time. It struck too close to my hard drive.
A year later, when Tate updated her audience on what it had been like to write that post and to actively stay in her own albums for the full calendar, I was finally able to take it all in. I read and it clicked, this time with less pain.
I have a new challenge, now that the Not Boyfriend is in our lives and photographs, to voice my desire to continue staying in the picture. We're not yet at the place where it occurs to him, in moments of overwhelm and love, to snap photos the way I do. I'm not taking this as a sign that things in this relationship are anything like they were the last time I told a man to please include me in the photos (things are definitely not the same). I am, however, still working to say aloud how important it is to me to see my face alongside theirs.
In the meantime, there are selfies. Lots and lots and lots of selfies.
Counting myself in has been one of the greatest exercises of being a single mother, and it has not always been easy. Even when the numbers only go up to TWO, adding myself in -- and then clicking the camera button -- has reinforced with each photo that I am important, my face matters, I am still here.
Single mamas need to take selfies -- with kids, solo, with lady friends, with new loves. It is critical for us to put ourselves front and center, to position to our best side and to stay in frame. It's also momentous to learn to ask friends and passersby to please take a picture of you with your children or you standing fabulously all on your own. Practice that. Move out of the discomfort and in front of a beautiful piece of artwork, an ornate door, the magnificence of the ocean or into a crazy, hilarious pose.
But don't forget to take hold of your own camera and snap away, reminding yourself that every click counts. Just like every person in your family. Especially you.
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Jessica Ashley is creator of the newly launched Single Mom Nation and the long-time author of the single-mom-in-the-city blog, Sassafrass. She is a content strategist who wears inappropriately high heels to the playground, mom to a one-boy-band of a nine-year old and expecting a child with the Not Boyfriend this summer.
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