What Are We Really Doing When We Take a Photo of Our Kids?

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Photo by John-Pierre Brungs.

Children often give us lovely moments. But occasionally there are some which seem so perfect they are un-real, literally breathtaking. Why do they come with such a pang of loss, of saudade?

Is this why we so often reach for a camera, to quell the feeling of panic of losing a beautiful way of seeing someone we love for ever? I guess it’s mainly because we know children grow so fast, but I think there is more to it as well.

I had two of those recently. Both times I wanted a camera, but missed the photo opportunity and had to resign myself to commit the moment to memory.

One afternoon last week, as the late sunlight slanted all golden into our backyard and a light rain started, our two year old was drawn outside to wander among the flowering clover amid the shimmery rain drops, singing softly to himself.

Everyone else was engrossed in their homework or play inside. I alone happened to notice. It was exquisite. But my camera battery was flat and my phone memory full.

Then a few days later, very different but also lovely, our nine year old called out to me, “Hey mum, look at this, I love the way my hair goes straight up when I do this”. I turned to see her skipping by, swinging her long dark brown hair from side to side.

Again, that stab of joy and melancholy, which for me is often a sign I’m called to pay attention.

“God looked at the world saw that it was good,” from the Book of Genesis came to mind. Which probably wouldn’t if I’d been snapping away trying to capture the moment.

When God sees the world, and especially when he looks at us, he doesn’t need a camera. They’re useful for us, of course, and like all art and storytelling photography can bring us lots of happiness and a way to pass on love and knowledge to others.

But I need to remember that gifts of beautiful moments are not mine to own, just as the children are gifts, not mine to own. This lovely time of childhood, enjoyed as their mother, is something I can easily over-romanticise and make into an idol.

Like any gift, and being a mother to young children is a precious gift, I can become too attached, too grabby, and even too invested in chronicling their childhood in words and pictures.

How much of it is a subconscious ploy to try to make time stand still? To try to delay not only their growing, but my own ageing and mortality?

Can I trust enough to commit these beautiful moments to God’s memory, who alone sees all and remembers all that is good?

St Edith Stein, in her essay, Spirituality of the Christian Woman, wrote, “Our being, our becoming does not remain enclosed within its own confines; but rather in extending itself, fulfills itself.

“However, all of our being and becoming and acting in time is ordered from eternity, has a meaning for eternity, and only becomes clear to us insofar as we put it in light of eternity.”

When I read this, through the lens of motherhood, my thought is that yes, motherhood is a rewarding, fulfilling role, but it is lived best with an eye to the eternal.

We’re not simply trying to raise good people here, taking as much pride and pleasure in them as we can along the way. We’re trying to let Jesus, the Christ, bring us closer to himself every day, and hopefully in the process help to bring our children along with us.

“Draw me, we will run after you,” sings the writer of the Song of Solomon, which St John of the Cross took to refer to the way that people, when drawn closer to God, draw others higher along with them too.

At least, it consoles me, when I’m tempted to regret all the missed photo opportunities around here because we’re too busy actually living (and a bit too disorganised, I’ll be honest) to remember that our primary job here is not to create beautiful memories to preserve for immortality. Or to try to capture life’s beauty and slow it down.

It’s to raise our children as best as we can, humanly and spiritually, while trusting that God will raise us all as only God can.

One day, hopefully, we will be together in a place of unspeakable, un-showable, and un-replicable beauty. No pictures or stories necessary.

My column published recently in The Catholic Weekly.

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