I think I should hate this photo, but I actually love it.
My mom took it. She had a photography career before she switched to medicine when I was little, and she still loves to lug around a big DSLR and snap photos of her family.
This particular day, we decided to go up to my alma mater’s campus in our college town, deck out my three and a half month old in the school colors, and have a cute photo shoot at some iconic locations.
Only, Lydia wasn’t having it.
She cried and cried. I checked her new outfit to make sure it wasn’t hurting her, verified she didn’t need a new diaper, tried the pacifier, rocked her, and finally tried feeding her. Nothing helped.
All the while, I was keenly aware of young college kids walking around noticing me and my screaming baby.
My parents stood around patiently waiting for the situation to improve, my mom offering suggestions, my dad helping me juggle bags and baby gear, and I couldn’t stop thinking of how we weren’t doing what we came there to do.
So finally after Lydia refused to eat, I just sat on a stone wall, defeated, out of ideas. Exasperated and soaked in mom guilt. I put Lydia on my lap, and a swaying tree caught her interest, wiping away her unhappiness.
And unbeknownst to me, my mom took a picture.
I’m hunched over, only highlighting the weight I’d accumulated during and after pregnancy.
Beside me sits a bottle of—heaven forbid—formula. It sits untouched, too—a symbol of yet another wrongful guess in my vain attempts to get my baby to stop crying.
There’s a hint of resignation on my face; all that I tried desperately to do to meet my baby’s needs didn’t make a dent in whatever was upsetting her, and here this simple tree was doing a better job than I could.
Pregnant me would have cringed at all this. Pregnant me would have thought I didn’t try hard enough. And now mom me was crushed under the weight of the mom guilt and everything I was doing wrong.
But I hadn’t yet tackled the weight gain because I’d focused on moving to a new house when Lydia was two months old, and I’d been working almost nonstop to set up the home during her naps.
I’d made up a bottle of formula because postpartum depression had tried to kill me three months earlier, and switching to bottles gave us an edge to help me get better.
And the milk sat uneaten because I’d been rushing around, trying too hard to fix Lydia, self-conscious of perceived judgment from those around me, when maybe all she needed was for us to slow down and take a breath.
There’s a quiet beauty in this photo because of its imperfection.
Because it’s real.
A real photo of a first-time mama, many pounds heavier than she wants to be, doing her absolute best to meet her baby’s needs.
A real photo of a survivor of postpartum depression, grateful for the ability to feed her baby from a bottle.
A real photo of a moment of stillness after great frustration, seemingly cured by the mystical attraction of tree leaves ruffled by an early summer breeze.
Mamas, your journey will never look like what you think or hope it will. You have great power over how you want your motherhood picture to look—to an extent, it is a choice. But there will be some things that go “wrong” despite your best efforts. There will be some things you “fail” at. There will be days when the mom guilt overtakes you and kicks you while you’re down.
But some of those moments can be the most beautiful, if only you know how to look.
My mom saw it that day. Now I see it when I look at this picture.
May you see it, too.
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