Allison Tate was the guest on Katie today, and the show's producers asked me to write my personal thoughts about being in photos -- and about this wildly resonant essay. Here they are:
Allison Tate's clarion-call-of-an-essay first appeared in my work inbox on a Saturday afternoon. I read it. I cried. Then I opened the closet where I cram thousands of my own family photos and started to search.
I guess that makes me the first of millions of mothers to see themselves in her article -- which was about not seeing ourselves in actual pictures.
I 'm not exaggerating when I say there are thousands of snapshots in that closet. One day I will put them all in albums, really. (Hey, the babies in the photos are barely in college now, so I have time, right?) Until then they stay stored in shoeboxes, some of which are labeled, most of which are not.
Nearly all of them are of my children. Many of them include my husband. I can count on fingers and toes the number that include me with my boys, and most of those are posed and formal: Weddings. Bar Mitzvah. Graduations. The extended-family-goes-to-the-beach-all-dressed-in-khakis-and-blue-shirts.
Of the few that show real life, there's one at Thanksgiving showing Evan, then a toddler, reaching joyfully for the camera, and me holding him and radiating his joy. There's one of me consoling him when he was shy at a birthday party, and a few of all of us riding horses together on a long ago vacation. They are rare. I used to hate them. I don't anymore.
I am not in the picture for the same reasons that Allison Tate wasn't, and that the millions of women who responded to her post weren't. In part it's because I was behind the camera (though in an era of front facing iPhones, that is no longer really an excuse.) In part it was because I ebbed and flowed on my feelings about family photos in general. Mostly, though, it was because I shunned the camera. My hair was a mess. I had no make-up on. I looked too tired and weighed too much.
In the two weeks since I first read Allison's words -- weeks during which her post became the most viral one this year on the Huffington Post; where readers felt moved to send us more than 1800 photos of themselves "in the picture"; where Allison brought her message to Katie Couric here today, and to the nightly network news, and to websites in a variety of languages that Allison doesn't even speak -- I think I understand as never before what motherhood does to too many women. It makes us disappear. We lose ourselves in a new identity, that is rewarding, yes, but also all-consuming and overwhelming. We erase ourselves, as if we are unable to reconcile our old lives with our new ones, so we hide instead. Lord knows we critique ourselves. Would we ever not take a photo of a child because her hair was a mess? Heck, that's WHY we take their photos, to remember the messy times.
Allison's essay resonated because we all recognized our own absences. Not from our children's lives -- we know we are there, in spirit and in person, every moment of the day. But from their memories -- the ones that will be sparked by photos decades from now. When we catch sight of our own parents holding us before, there for us, at times we don't remember, we feel embraced through the years. There aren't enough of those photos, because our mothers shunned the camera the way we do. But we can change that. Starting now.