Virginia Heffernan, in her piece Framing Childhood in this week’s New York Times Magazine, writes, with only a hint of sarcasm, that “we form families in the Internet age so we can produce, distribute, and display digital photos of ourselves.” I am here to admit, that at least from where I’m sitting, she speaks the truth. From the “marching orders,” which “come immediately, with the newborn photo, [and] must be e-mailed to friends before a baby has left the maternity ward,” the business of parenting is intertwined with the business of photo-taking, sharing, tweeting, Facebooking, and, shouting from the rooftops – look what I’ve done!
I justify the obsession by reminding myself that our closest family members live hundreds of miles away. I am doing a great service, I think, when, in the middle of a game, instead of playing along, I jump up and run for the camera. I am conquering lands and oceans, bringing my children into the homes of the people who love them most.
For ultimately, this obsession with keeping records of our children, and sharing them with anyone who will gaze smilingly along with us, is connected to the overflowing human desire to be in relationship. And, like all of today’s technology, the act of taking a photograph creates the illusion of being in relationship. When we take out our cameras, we think we are saying to our children, our extended families, and our friends: you are important to us. It’s analogous to “friending” someone, or tweeting at someone. What we’re forgetting, though, is that when we pulled the i-phone out of our back pockets, our kids were in the middle of a game, engrossed in real relationship, and we interrupted them, or, worse, extracted ourselves from being in real life relationship with them to duck into the role of observer. We’re engaged, but not too engaged.
Because relationships are hard, and technology is easy. It is harder to be an active member than to be an observer, aloof, behind the camera, manipulating the images, choosing what to show and to whom and when. And parenting is one of the messiest relationships of them all. It is infinitely harder to be a parent than to showcase our children. It is harder to be a good child than to send cute pictures to the grandparents.
My family came to visit this weekend. From the moment they arrived, cameras and camera-phones were clicking, as if, somehow, those ephemeral pauses, cloaked in hugs and smiles, could help bridge the gap of distance, and delay time, keeping us close together a little while longer. Interestingly, the frequency of the prevalence of the cameras diminished over the course of their visit. Eventually, we all got too busy being together. Eating. Going to the park. And laughing, spontaneously, when things happened so fast that we forgot to record them. And when I look back at the time we spent, those fleeting moments which cannot be shared over the internet on Kodak Gallery or Snapfish, are the ones that will stick forever, messy, joyous, and gone, guaranteeing we’ll need to come back for more.