The invisible mother

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It’s not every morning that something you come across during a mindless Facebook scroll challenges and changes you in such a significant way, but that morning, I did.

Allow me to backtrack a little. Jennifer* is the mother of one of my childhood best friends. Her house, which smelled of fresh chocolate chip cookies, was always open to little barefooted, grass-stained visitors who were greeted with a warm smile. As we grew, that same warmth was teamed with wisdom which encouraged us through life’s ups and downs.

Jennifer got seriously ill a few years ago. As she looked back on her life, treasuring memories of full years and precious family, she uncovered some boxes of photographs she had stored. It was then that she noticed something: she wasn’t in them. She was hit by the sad realisation that, if she were to pass away, her family would have few pictures to remember her by.

Thankfully, Jennifer has made an incredible recovery…and (have you guessed?) it was her photo which, that morning, stopped me in my tracks: there she was, on the beach, in a swimming suit, with her grandchildren. It took my breath away.

You see, I became a mum almost a year ago, and I have been tempted to be invisible in my own picture records, too.

This isn’t is a new thing for me – I’ve had a tumultuous relationship what I look like both on and off camera for as long as I can remember. But when my body started changing in pregnancy, I found it difficult to see it in photos. Not all the time, don’t get me wrong: I was also amazed at what my body could do and loved my bump. It was the same when I had given birth. I couldn’t believe this little human miracle had been grown by my own body. And now, it was sustaining this little life outside of the womb while recovering from major surgery. It was incredible. But it also was frustrating. I still looked pregnant. I hardly had time to brush my hair and I looked ‘messy’ on a good day. In essence, I was constantly going back and forth in my own mind, trying to stay positive and appreciate my body but struggling to love it completely.

Those feelings seemed to be amplified when it came to having my picture taken. I remember hardly recognising myself in the first picture of me I saw when I got home from hospital. I felt nervous when people took pictures, while simultaneously desperately wanting to mark this precious beginning and all it meant for me, for us.

And I know I’m not the only one to experience those feelings. When I started thinking about this, I held a poll on my Instagram stories. I got hundreds of replies, and the results were sobering: over 90% of mums struggle with what they look like, and of those, over 50% avoid being in photos because of that. Wow.

I think there are several possible reasons why so many of us are tempted to be invisible.

+ The first is that ever since we could walk, society has been telling us about our role as girls and women. And it’s not been good news. Shrink! Be quiet and gentle. Reduce, decrease, minimise – your hair, your size, your voice. Yours is a supporting role, never a leading one. Be small: don’t up too much space. So not only are we told what to look like (a narrow ideal which suits only a fraction of us), we are told how to carry ourselves as we pursue that ideal. It makes sense then that being photographed leaves us fraught – we doubt our image and our position, in society and in photographs.

+ I think we also want to stay invisible because it’s what we think is expected of us as mothers. We take on so many roles when we have children: cleaner, cook, nurse, counsellor, teacher, singer of lullabies, reader of books, head of wardrobe. Our lives (rightly) change, often drastically. There is a temptation that comes with this change, though, to believe that we exist only to sustain our families – and then, through this self-effacement often masked as selflessness, we lose our place, including in photos. But families need mothers who know who they are, who have passions and goals and personalities. Who own the space they’re in, who write good, interesting, brave stories – and who have photos to prove it. This can only benefit those who depend on our care.

+ The third and perhaps most obvious reason for avoiding the camera is down to our bodies. Pregnancy changes us, often permanently. Naturally, our bodies undergo transformations as they cocoon our little ones. We become larger, softer, more marked in order to house, sustain and nurture life. This change continues post-partum, and is in some ways intensified by the raw physicality of mothering ex utero: it is a 24/7 job, requiring strength and endurance and energy we often doubt we have. So we look different, and we run out of time to do the things we once did that helped us feel ‘pretty’ or ‘put-together’. We shy away from the lens because we are scared we won’t recognise ourselves, and even if do, we won’t look our best…or will we?

What if we saw in ourselves and our bodies the wonder of bringing life into the world? What if we saw in our largeness room for our children to shelter? What if we saw in our softness a reflection of the love we have for them? What if we saw in our marks stories of overcoming vulnerability and adversity in order to bring life? 

A mother’s body is her child’s home, and we should never be ashamed of that home being seen. We should decorate it and celebrate it and say: look! It’s mine. My body has permanently changed, and I’m glad of it. It means I have the tremendous privilege of being a mother to the most precious gift I have ever been given. It means I have sustained his little life for 9 months in the womb and 12 out: through fragility and uncertainty and sleepless nights and cluster feeding and soothing sobs and endless lullabies. My body is my baby’s home.

And I realised a few months into motherhood that I wanted it to be seen. That it was OK for me to take up space. I wanted my family to have pictures to hold onto when I’m gone. I wanted my body to be remembered for what it’s done and what it represents.

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I started asking friends and family to take pictures when we were together. It felt awkward at first, and I worked out that when going through them afterwards, it was best for me to be in a relaxed state (I was untangling years of negative messaging, from myself and the world around me!) But I soon got used to it and started to look forward to seeing my face – usually laughing or kissing little cheeks – and my body, most often holding my son in a way that only it is designed to do. And do you know what happened? I have ended up with so many wonderful photos that I and my family can look back on. Precious mementos of the best year of my life.

I also got some printed, and I intend to keep doing that. To me, it’s a way of honouring moments, of time-stamping them and appreciating the way things are, right at that very second. How and who I am now is exactly who I should be: not 10 pounds down the line, not after I’ve had a full night’s sleep, no…I am my son’s mother, I am a woman whose body is miraculous and which deserves to be seen, now.

Just as bodies are constantly evolving, so too are our minds. I hope that if you count yourself in the 90% of mothers who struggle with how they look, or the 50% of those who avoid cameras, you are able to take a moment to pause and appreciate what your body is done, and to celebrate how and what it is, here and now. You are a beautiful force of life. You are worthy of being seen.

As we approach the beginning of a new year, could you change the way you talk to yourself? Could you resolve to take up a little more space? Could you take a risk and accept the discomfort of the camera? Could you let yourself be seen?

Jennifer and I have. I dare you to join us.

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*not her real name

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