My first baby was one that the books (and my pediatrician) referred to as ‘spirited’. What that really means is from the moment they are born, IF they are awake, they ARE screaming. ‘Spirited’ is not to be confused with colic. Spirited hangs on much longer. She also never slept for more than 2 hours at a time (often 45 minutes) for months and months. Even as an older baby, she didn’t sleep well and was crying most of the time. It wasn’t a ‘something hurts’ cry, it was an ‘I’m pissed’ cry.
For that reason, I was forever trying to get her to sleep. She hated the carseat, and would scream bloody murder the entire time she was in it. She hated the swing, the crib, the co-sleeper and the bouncy seat most of the time at first. I mostly held her when she slept and then shared the bed with her for the first year. I was not one of those mothers who loved being a mother and whose heart grew three sizes the moment I looked into her eyes. I went months without more than a 3 hour stretch of sleep and even that was rare. One day I told my husband ‘I don’t exist anymore’. Cue the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie (preferably with a brunette Reese Witherspoon playing me).
I would see other mothers with their babies out and about and they looked happy and refreshed. I would stroller her around the town center where we lived, and was sometimes lucky enough that she slept long enough for me to get a milkshake from Potbelly to drown my sorrows. If she woke up she would scream. If someone looked at her, she would scream, if she had a bath she would scream and if I was hysterical (which happened a lot), she would scream — assuming she wasn’t already screaming.
I asked my pediatrician and he was always reassuring and made me feel normal, but I also didn’t think he realized that her weekly batshit crazy freak outs in his office were status quo for me at home. I didn’t want to hysterically explain it to him for fear he would put me on some sort of postpartum watch list. I was rational enough to know that she was an innocent little baby and I was just a struggling, overwhelmed, and sleep deprived mom reacting to an intense situation that would eventually pass.
A few weeks into scream-ageddon I thought I would take a few photos in the fleeting moments she wasn’t screaming – a.k.a. while she was asleep. I figured I could post them on Facebook and send them to relatives and everyone would think she was adorable. They didn’t have to know the ugly truth: that I didn’t enjoy her, she didn’t enjoy me and I was about to see if the hospital had some sort of return policy.
There was no question that I loved her and I was fiercely protective. Maybe this was because I knew she couldn’t help that she was a more difficult baby and I wanted other people to be able to see past that, even if it was proving to be tough for me.
So I took some photos. 56 during month 1 to be exact.
Wordlessly, the photos said:
“Look how precious my child is!”
“She is a miracle!”
“Words can’t express how happy we are!”
Oh and of course my favorite… “Look at my well-lit arm, I’m not fat anymore!”
In reality, I felt like saying:
“All she does is scream”
“I am miserable and so is she”
“She is the most unhappy child ever”
“I have yet to meet another mother who feels this way”
“I understand why sleep deprivation is used to torture certain types of prisoners”
Of course after posting and emailing the photos, I got responses saying how beautiful she was and I felt a little better.
…And thus my photo addiction was born. Month 2 = 94 photos, Month 3 = 196 photos and so on. I took hundreds of photos every month. It would have been more, but I was very careful to delete those that were redundant or just poor quality as well as those where she looked drunk or angry (both common photo looks for her). I would share the photos and get compliments on how pretty, sweet and adorable she was and it would convince me, if just for a moment, that maybe she was sweet and adorable and things would be okay, because soon I would start to see it too.
One day I caught her smiling in her sleep and thought to myself “Wouldn’t it be crazy if one day she did this while she was awake?”
And then she did.
As time went on, I started to believe the photos more and more and she screamed less and less. This was not a fast process, in fact it was very slow. The screaming was frequent (bordering on constant) for a LONG time and was just tapering off at 15 months when her brother was born. From 4 months until probably close to 2 years old, she would break down if a stranger so much as looked at her and smiled. She is almost four years old now and still very dramatic and emotional. If I had not seen her since the original photo shoots, I could still pick her out of a toddler line up based solely on her temperament, but it is more predictable and relatable now. She still keeps her smiles close and is quite serious, but that makes her joy all the more special.
I still take shit tons of of photos. I still enjoy looking back at them when I have a quiet moment to appreciate the kids, since they sometimes make it hard in their waking moments. She is sass mouthy, a 0 to 60 tantrum thrower, and stubborn as all hell, but she is also kind and sweet and thoughtful and greatful. My favorite photos now are not the perfect ones, because I enjoy the kids so much more these days and don’t need the photos to reassure me of anything. Now my favorites are the ones that capture their personality or soul a little, as imperfect as it might be.
I was able to quickly pull these photos from thousands I have taken because I must have looked through them a hundred times in those early months and years when I was struggling to find the joy in being a parent. I know each one intimately and for each early photo of a sweet angel, there is a memory of my insecurity and an inconsolable baby. Those have faded some and have been replaced by a perfectly imperfect little girl. She is a little person who drives me a little nuts every day, but who I enjoy more than not.
I used to wonder when she would grow out of ‘it’. I’d get different answers and those timeframes would pass with ‘it’ still being around. Somewhere the edge started to be taken off and I started to enjoy being mommy more and more.
The photos were a way for me to see things clearly in the few silent moments I had during my early days of parental hazing. To see that what I thought was an unhappy child and my failing as a mother, was really a lot more than that. What the photos were telling everyone else was true at some level, but at the time, I just couldn’t find a way to match it up with the reality of a screaming baby at first. The photos let me look in and see it from a different perspective.
I am not a photographer, but I do encourage anyone in the same boat that I was in to try to find a different perspective to look at their situation even if it is just the perspective of your point-and-shoot camera.