This morning, my daughter and I ate yogurt, granola, and plums for breakfast. We sat together on the couch and read The Time of Easter, a rather dry picture book that explains the theological roots of Holy Week via the persona of two church mice. Then Thisbe and I walked to the library and I put my hand inside a Cookie Monster puppet and my daughter fed the puppet cookies and squealed when Cookie Monster nibbled her own tender fingers with his felt lips. We borrowed a picture book about a domesticated tiger named Lily and then we walked the two blocks to Thisbe’s new school. She will begin attending the school in two weeks, the day after her third birthday. While I picked up the registration forms and chatted with Teacher Gwen, Thisbe rode a decrepit scooter over a sidewalk marked with white arrows, removed her shoes in the sandbox, and whispered to a new friend through the window of a playhouse. When it was time to go, Thisbe wanted to stay and I was terrified she would throw an epic tantrum in front of her new teacher so I bribed her into willing acquiescence with the promise of a cookie. We ate toasted English muffins with peanut butter and jelly for lunch. She chose raspberry jam instead of peach. My husband arrived then and he and I discussed the logistics of a night away (Could you handle the Hotwire reservation?). Then I grabbed my bag and keys and began to make my exit. Hug and kiss, hug and kiss, Mama! screamed my daughter, scampering over our new hardwood floors and throwing herself into my arms rather aggressively. I hugged her back and then drove to the coffee shop to work.
Telling a story, any kind of story, is always an exercise in absence and presence; what one chooses to mention will reveal certain truths while simultaneously veiling others.
It has taken me 292 words to tell you the story of our rather mundane morning and even in this lengthy telling I have eliminated myriad details. Telling a story, any kind of story, is always an exercise in absence and presence; what one chooses to mention will reveal certain truths while simultaneously veiling others. Each collected or forgotten detail might seem negligible, but those details add up to a greater story, a story that, in the case of familial documentation, might be the singular story your child receives about her earliest self.
Using words like “self” and “truth” when discussing the practice of snapping photos of birthday parties and jotting down phrases like “first tooth!” and “stands without support!” might seem a wee bit heavy handed. Indeed, it is almost impossible to gauge with certainty what forces most shape the people our children become. But consider the findings of writer-anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson in her essay “Composing a Life Story.” Following the Iranian revolution, Bateson lived and worked with many who had been displaced by the political turmoil. Among these refugees, Bateson discovered that those who viewed their current circumstances as a continuation of the life they lived previously were happier and more successful than those who viewed the forced change as discontinuity, as a cleaving from their previous lives and selves. Both groups of refugees had suffered through the same kind of trauma, but their ability to thrive was more dependent on the story they told about the trauma then on the event itself. If memory begins at the age of two (as the current research tells us) then my husband and I (and our handy Nikon) are seemingly the main storytellers of our daughter’s early years. I am, at some level, in charge of how she will understand this portion of her life. Not entirely, of course. I give my mature daughter more credit than that. But even if I go easy on interpretation, she’ll be limited to the details that I offer, that I decide to document.
As parents, we are biased and broken people. Does it do our children more harm than good for us to offer them our version of their story? Might a blank page be better than one covered in our imperfect scratches? And if telling an imperfect story is warranted, how do we tell the story well? As Christians, how do we integrate the story of our children’s spiritual identity with their corporeal one?
I believe that offering a broken and biased story is (almost always) better than no story at all.
But first things first. My own bias is that I myself am a writer; as a result, I believe that offering a broken and biased story is (almost always) better than no story at all. I teach memoir writing because I believe that writing our own stories helps us to make sense of the past so that we can move more honestly into the future. One might here suggest that documenting a child’s life is closer to biography than memoir; the subject is the other rather than the self. This is not entirely true.
Becoming a parent is one of the greatest transitions a human being undergoes. During the first few months (and sometimes years) many parents become submerged in the growth and development of the child. I think this is natural. But I also think that our obsession with documenting each gurgle and burp, each food puree and tottering step, emerges from a desire to mark what we have done as well. While I was on maternity leave, I didn’t have the brain space to write or read anything of intellectual depth. I could barely carry on a conversation. My child’s accomplishments felt like my own. Surely there is a problem when parents never grow out of this stage, when they fill the entire book of their own lives with the triumphs of their children. I’m simply suggesting that when we document a child’s life, we are also documenting a portion (sometimes large, sometimes tertiary) of our own. So telling the child’s story is important in terms of who we are becoming as well.
Because it is impossible to live life in a vacuum, photos and jotted anecdotes also tell a story about a particular moment in time. Photos don’t simply reveal the child, they also reveal something about the culture, politics, and economics of a certain era. One photo in my childhood album shows my mother pushing me in a stroller at an ERA rally. In another, I am stuffed into a 1970’s version of a car seat that, to my contemporary eye, looks more like a death trap than a safety precaution. In another my mother wears her elementary school teacher garb: a billowy blouse and miniskirt. What I receive from these photos isn’t simply my own narrative but also the story of the world into which I was born.
I believe in documenting a child’s early years for another, more personal reason. My parents divorced just before my third birthday. When my daughter, Thisbe, was born, my mother gave me the daily journal she kept during my first year. The pages are small and usually contain no more than a sentence or two: K. figured out how to push herself out of her infant seat. or K. and I went to our first gym and swim or K. hates plain yogurt!. The book also gives me this: We all went out for pizza. Then Mark [my father] played with K., who began shrieking and belly-laughing. She chortled in anticipation of Mark’s gestures as well as after them. We laughed till the tears came. I have no recollection of our family life together before the divorce. Though the divorce itself was extremely amicable, though I also have no recollection of fights or coldness between my parents, I like to turn to this page and know there was a time we all laughed, together, until tears came. I write for my daughter in part as a protection against the future. Here is your father and you and I together. We are happy. We are all alive. Should we divorce, should I die tomorrow, this life happened.
Clearly, while there is risk involved, there are also enormous benefits to offering a child a glimpse into her early life. But even if we could all agree that this documentation is generally a good thing, the question still remains: how do we do it well? The story I told earlier contains a wide variety of details: what does Thisbe need to know? That even when she was three-years-old she preferred raspberries to peaches? That she was independent? That her mother was self-conscious about what other people thought of her? That her parents needed a weekend away? That they were doing their best to take care of their marriage? That she loved unabashedly, with the full force of her small body? That she demonstrated an early interest in theology? The responsibility of knowing what will matter, what will be of use to a future version of my daughter overwhelms me.
Perhaps the answer is to simply document as much as possible, all the time. I certainly feel cultural pressure to do so. Our world has blossomed with digital cameras, videos, and blogs. During the first week of Thisbe’s life, we took over 500 pictures. Here is your story at 5:45pm! Here is your story at 5:50pm! Here is your story at 6:02pm! We were besotted new parents of course, and quite frankly, taking pictures helped us pass through that dreamy early-infant time period. But this hyper-documentation also raises the question of whether we should give our children so much of their early stories. Is there something healthy about the gaps? About having occasional snapshots in an album and a few repeated anecdotes? Might those gaps provide more room and freedom for the child to grow into her own identity?
The Christian “highlights” of my daughter’s life will unfold more like this last example. Baptism (click), communion (click), confirmation (click), marriage? (click), ordination? (click), death (final click). These are the highlights, the snapshots, and in between, the Gospel, the communal stories we will tell her to remind her that she is a beloved child of God. As a Christian parent, it is easier (though never simple) for me to offer biblical stories to my daughter. I trust in the message and the author(s) of these texts (even as I realize that “message” and “author” are loaded terms).
But as I consider the Christian implications of documenting my daughter’s corporeal story, I feel pulled in two theological directions. Part of me recognizes that I am a type-A control freak by nature and that many of my impulses toward writing my daughter’s story emerge out of anxiety: If I don’t tell the story, she’ll have no identity! If I don’t tell it, someone else will—but poorly! If I don’t write, she won’t remember me when I die! If I don’t write, no one will remember me! This part of me likely needs to spend a little more time considering the ravens and the lilies, a little more time contemplating the trust of women like Mary, pregnant with a story over which she had very little control. This part of me bemoans my inability to trust that Christ’s story might be—is?—enough.
Love of another person begins with knowledge, begins with the act of seeing that person fully and completely, without turning away.
The other side of me considers Simone Weil’s admonition that “looking is what saves us.” This part of me believes that we are called to pay attention, that one way to love my child more completely is to practice paying witness to her shapes and contours, to her mosquito bites and invented songs. This part of me believes that love of another person begins with knowledge, begins with the act of seeing that person fully and completely, without turning away.
So is documenting my child’s early years an act of anxious control or deep love? Likely, of course, it’s both. My life as a Christian parent continues regardless of the answer. As I yawned this morning over the Thrivent Financial produced, rather-didactic book about Smidge and Smudge, Lutheran church mice in training, Thisbe was riveted. These are good stories we tell our children—about ancient people and ancient ways of life — these are strange footsteps inside of which a child might find her own.
Join the Conversation:
How do you give your children their stories? What do you say and what do you leave unsaid?