By Irina Reyn
The significance of showing colleagues and friends a picture of the baby.
I don’t want to admit I have a baby. As far as most people know, I’ve had no baby. I’m afraid once I admit the existence of the baby, my life will be helplessly slotted in a certain very closed category. Peruvian Zumba instructors will accommodate their routines for me, my hairdresser will advise me to cut my hair as appropriate to my new role, rolls of flesh will no longer be contained by waistbands, I will be included in the kinds of conversations I fear and excluded from the ones I’ve always wanted to enter. I already prefer dinner at five o’clock and buying paper products in bulk. I’m one step away from what I imagine as a gray version of life, the long purgatory of errands before death.
To have a baby is to become one thing: Mother. The Mother may have a variety of symbols ascribed to her in our culture (Freudian punching bag, cheerleader on the soccer sidelines, vaccine denier, etc.), but in society’s eyes it is a classification with specific boundaries.
“Didn’t you just have a baby?” a colleague stops me in the hall. “You look great. I couldn’t tell at all.” She is looking me up and down the way you’re allowed to do for some reason when faced with a post-birth body.
“Thanks.” Because I know it’s a compliment, and this is the appropriate response.
“Where are the pictures of the baby? Have I missed them?” she asks. She waits politely for the phone to come out, for scrolling and cuteness, dimples and funny hats. “I bet she looks a spitting image of you.”
“I’ll post them soon.” But I keep my phone tightly wedged inside my pocket.
After a while, she starts moving away with her tote bag filled with student papers. “I’ll look for them on Facebook.”
For many months now, I’ve posted no photos on Facebook because all my fears of becoming Mother are encapsulated in the Photograph.
Like many new fathers, my husband has become an amateur photographer, adjusting light and angle, restlessly seeking the elusive smile. He doesn’t have a Facebook account, and has been fielding inquiries from his side of the friendship spectrum.
“They’re bugging me for pictures of S.,” he says. “How about the one in the cat pajamas? In the frog costume? Doing that thing she does with the fists? How can you resist?”
“Ok, I’ll do it later,” I promise. But I don’t.
Sure I take pictures, but I hoard them, enjoy them in privacy. How can I tell my husband that if I post a photo of S. certain men might not find me attractive, the eyes of my child-free friends will film over, my mentors will file away my former ambitions. I will be scanned past. I will slowly go underwater and emerge in a land I never wanted to inhabit. The baby in my photograph will inevitably be paired with me as my creation.
“Photographs furnish evidence. A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened,” Susan Sontag once wrote. That’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid, the evidence of my annihilation.
When I see others’ baby pictures, I see past the actual baby being represented. What I look for is everything around the baby. How is the relationship of the parents? Do they look sleepy? Conflicted? Invigorated-joyous or exhausted-joyous? Are they handling it fine or are they as shell-shocked as me? A picture of a baby is never about the baby, it’s all the breathless hope surrounding its subject. What compels people to post so many baby pictures—is it a brimming over sensation, where the emotion is too large for someone to keep to herself? Is it a selfless act for the viewing pleasure of grandparents and other relatives? Is it a more engaging equivalent of diplomas on the wall, life’s accomplishments marked, noted? Is it, as Sontag writes “a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power”?
An old friend who is a very good non-professional photographer offers to take black-and-whites of S. and us. Perhaps, I reason, I require the excuse of high art in order to disseminate a picture into the world. A black-and-white picture might distract from the subject matter, focus viewers’ attention on the photographer’s craft.
She comes over with her Canon and tells us to pretend she’s not there. She will alternate between unstaged and staged shots.
“I’ll just be in the background snapping away,” she says, because she knows me too well and is trying to set me at ease.
I focus on engaging in the kind of activities that will make S. smile. She likes a Russian game in the vein of “This Little Piggy” called “Tochka, Tochka,” where a body of a baby is deconstructed into dots, circles, cucumbers (better not ask) and other shapes in order to finally create “an entire little person.”
I’m aware of being stiff, unnatural. The game is being played artificially, with too much enthusiasm. When I scoop up S., she twists away, almost too big and unwieldy in my arms already. I imagine the entire scene through the eyes of anyone looking at the final product. It’s like a science fiction movie, this transformation into Mother. Almost immediately, I want the session deleted.
The next day, I have lunch with Lynne, a friend in her sixties, a wonderful writer and poet and critic with two children. She published her first book at forty, when her children were already teenagers. Although she had been writing for many years, she became a mother first, then a mother-writer. I ask her some conventional questions about balancing career and motherhood, leaving out all the things that will make me sound even crazier than I am.
“We didn’t think about all this stuff until it was too late,” she says, shrugging. “We just had the kids. No one expected it to be easy.” Then she took out her phone and showed me a picture of her adorable granddaughter. “Now show me S.”
And I scroll through a few from the photo shoot of the day before. The pictures are not as hard for me to look at as I’d assumed. In fact, they are so special I can’t believe I ever wanted them gone. One or two capture S. as an “entire little person,” an expression I can imagine will be gone soon, that would, if not for photography’s ability to freeze time, be lost forever.
“She’s just beautiful,” Lynne marvels.
I find myself wading into that soft place of pride and achievement. The burst that radiates back to me, that fills me with a seeping, saturated warmth. I was numb before the act of showing pictures, but now I’m unable to stop. I keep going, scrolling further back into the archives, more pictures than my friend ever wanted to see: S. on changing tables, positioned in the center of fluffy rugs, under mobiles, in snowsuits, at the breast, asleep, awake, in tears.
Before this shifting array of babies, I understand that I can’t stay in the closet forever. I’ll be posting one of these pictures on Facebook and waiting for every single crumb of response, even the one from my colleague at work. It overpowers the fears about becoming an archetype of Mother. The evidence we need, the proof we so badly desire. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.
Irina Reyn is the author of What Happened to Anna K: A Novel. Her website is irinareyn.com.
Note: The author has not yet made peace with her predicament. Thus, Photo Credit: Veer