Picture Imperfect

One mom learns when to put the camera down and enjoy the moment.


Documenting the growth of my 3- year-old and 10-month-old sons, from cute firsts to messy meals, had become a full-time job. Every moment became fraught with my attempt to capture these moments, and I was exhausted: Look, there’s my older son on a horse! I’ve got to get the picture! Wait, my baby’s crawling? Grab the camera, for crying out loud!

But I also became convinced that I was somehow going about it all wrong. I was so consumed with getting the perfect shot—click 17 times and maybe catch the baby smiling—that I was spending all my time diluting the experience of being with my children through a lens, layers of glass between us. It was like viewing life through a scrim: You’re there, but you’re apart.

“I know the feeling of wanting to document every single second very, very well,” says Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child (Free Press). “There’s an inner heckler that sits on many of our shoulders telling us, ‘I’d be a better parent if I took more pictures . . . or better pictures.’ ”

Then, one day, as I frantically groped through my diaper bag for it, my camera fell out and broke into three pieces. I stared down, filled with dread— finances were tight, and we wouldn’t be able to afford a replacement soon. But then I realized: I was free. For the next few weeks, not chained to a camera, I was overcome with relief. This, I thought, sliding down the slide next to my son instead of taking a picture of it, this is living.

Except, here’s what I learned: Memory isn’t that reliable. One day, three months into my camera-free life, my baby started playing his tiny piano. You should have seen the way he played it—you’ve never seen such laughter and surprise! But now, four months later, I can’t picture the moment anymore in my mind’s eye. I know it happened, but I can’t see it. And I’d give anything to see it again.

Was I being selfish hoarding these images in my mind, as I relished every uninterrupted-by-technology moment? My sons’ birthday cakes, their dress-up costumes—without photographs, they would have no recorded evidence of their fun. Was that fair to them? Was it fair to me to be in charge of remembering all this?

“Take a few pictures and then put the camera down,” advises Greenland. “This requires staying ‘awake’ through the entire experience. The problem with these photo-ops is that we often go on autopilot, pick up the camera and snap away until the moment is gone. But if we take it one moment at a time, one photo at a time, we can deliberately choose when to start taking pictures and when to stop. This way we can have our cake and eat it, too.”

My aunt Lois bought us a new camera for our anniversary, and now, after a few months off, I was determined to take Greenland’s advice. I took a few pictures of our kids sleeping in the car. Then, once we arrived at our destination, an amusement park, I took one posed picture of us together, then a few of the monumental moments—ice cream faces and big-ride gleeful smiles. I treated the camera as if it were an analog film camera, not a digital one with unlimited exposures and chances to get it right.

When I uploaded the photos to my computer, I realized I had gotten it right. None of the pictures were perfect, but they were enough. Enough to remember the details of the day, enough to call back memories of the fun we had. And maybe that’s what family pictures are: aids for our memories. Take your picture, put your camera down, enjoy your moment. But always keep the camera close by.