This was the photo that made it click for me.
Like many of us, I had been chasing the illusion of “perfect” motherhood. I thought that success in mothering looked like a wrinkle-free shirt, a still-hot cup of coffee, and a backyard with no toys scattered about like a tornado just left town. The children of good moms always have their hair combed, I figured, and never harbor traces of this morning’s yogurt in their ears and on their backs. They put their pants on before their shoes, they don’t dissolve into a puddle when their mama gently asks them to please go potty, and they never stop to do a lengthy downward dog in the grass when their parents are in a hurry to get in the car.
And the photos of them online reflect this – right? Their outfits are coordinated. Mom’s makeup is just so. The kitchen – in which they’re baking healthy blueberry muffins, smiling – miraculously has no spills of flour or milk on the floor. Or maybe they’re walking, hand-in-hand, in a golden field at sunset. Nobody’s having a meltdown or wearing that too-small, ratty, monster-truck shirt that has become the daily uniform.
And then it occurred to me. That’s not real life. It’s just the image we project to the outside world. This is the life I wish for you to believe I have. This is the life I wish for. And the more we see this fantasy perpetuated, the more we all feel like we want that – we need that – too. To keep up. You know we all do it.
But here’s the thing.
It doesn’t have to be that way. In perpetuating this concept of “perfect” motherhood, might we be selling ourselves short? Could we be letting ourselves gloss right over what’s touching, authentic, and downright hysterical about real family life?
Let me explain.
I have bounced in and out of the field of lifestyle family photography for the better part of the past 10 years. Last fall, I shot a session with a delightful couple and their two adorable toddler daughters. Wanting to do it “right” and to make a beautiful photo for their Christmas card, we met at a local greenbelt just before sunset. My idea, of course. The session went fine, and the family was happy with the results.
And yet, I couldn’t let go of the feeling that we had all been pretending. The photographs we took reflect a happy, well-connected family who hangs out in beautiful fields at golden hour. And don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with wanting gorgeous, honey-lit photos of your family looking their best. And I know many photographers who absolutely shine at this particular artform.
But in my specific case, the situation was – and felt -- staged to produce a result that looks sweet in photos, rather than reflecting anything about who this family is and what their life is like. And what’s missing from the photos is the messy and memorable reality about that day: the gale-force winds. The quiet, limp way the older girl cuddled with her mama because she was recovering from pneumonia. The pink plastic animal the little one insisted on carrying instead of holding her dad’s hand.
In reality the photos held clues of both versions, but why did I choose the one on the left instead of the one on the right, to share with them?
Two weeks later, I used my tripod to make the photo at the beginning of this post. My every morning reality at the time involved my daughter urgently needing me to help her with her shirt in the morning, usually at exactly the moment that I went into the bathroom to pee. So I set up the scene one day, knowing what was going to happen. And it did. At first, I thought of this image as kind of a joke. The glamours of momming. Ha. But the more it sat with me, the more I loved it.
Here’s the best I can explain it. The season of life all of us baby/toddler/preschooler moms are in is defined, to an extent, by a total lack of autonomy. Those kids want physical connectedness all the damn time. It’s exhausting. But isn’t it sweet too, in a way? So I started reflecting on what experiences are defining this point in my own motherhood journey. Not just the lovely, picture-perfect ones, but the less glamorous ones, too. Can I find the poignant, the touching, the funny in the daily slog?
When I went down this path, I discovered that the answer is a resounding YES.
In my life (and I suspect in many of yours), an insightful photo of today’s truth is more valuable than one of us dressed up and pretending. I needed to show myself the beauty in the everyday. And so evolved my personal motherhood self-portraits project, Babies and Bourbon. What began as a sort of joke has become a cathartic and therapeutic way to strengthen the voice in me that wants to yell: real life is perfect enough! from the treetops.
I now shoot client sessions through this lens, too. Instead of manufacturing situations that make good photos, I enter their lives for a day – or sometimes just an hour or two – and quietly observe and document. No awkward smiles for the camera, no pretending. I like to think I have a knack for blending in and finding the tenderness (and the humor) in the reality, without judgment or disruption. I really believe that the messy, beautiful truth is what we want to remember – and what we want our children to remember, too. In showing the emotion, connection, and tenderness in a family’s real life, I hope to help them better appreciate what is already before them. The beautiful ordinary.
A dream of mine is for mothers to feel a sense of satisfaction and pride in the raw, imperfect nature of mothering. But this is hard to do in isolation. What if we ALL moved toward opening ourselves up and sharing our vulnerabilities, imperfections, and the tiny, humble beauties of daily life? Could this someday become a stronger common thread of motherhood than the quest for the picture-perfect?
Real motherhood is beautiful. I hope that if we say it enough times (and see it enough times) we can begin to believe it, together.
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(Oh! And for reference, this is the photo going on MY Christmas card this year)