I Photographed My Children at All the Wrong Times

I photographed my children at every big moment in their lives, the staged spectacles that seem so important at the time. We know that we will want to see weddings and showers, births and birthdays, school performances and graduations again and again.

I photographed my children, children swinging, siblings

Recently I was watching the video of a class performance of one of my sons that took place 12 years ago. There he was, his little seven-year old self, sitting among his classmates, singing away at the top of his lungs and glancing over occasionally to see if I was still watching. His smile, to me, was the most beautiful thing on Earth, and the little movements that I know so well yanked hard at my heart.

But in a blinding flash I knew that I had recorded the wrong thing. For although I thought this concert was a big moment, one that I would want to revisit, I now see that I was entirely mistaken. There are moments I want back, moments I would give anything to relive, and they were not staged, not expected and I never saw them coming.

I took pictures of our sleeping children either crashed on the couch, in their car seats or their cribs. But never once did I bring a camera into our bed. If I could do a deal with the devil, I would transport us back to mornings where all three of our kids had climbed into our bed. In turns we had awakened and dozed and I would open my eyes to see arms and legs, wrapped in little boy pajamas draped over my husband and myself. This moment exists only in my mind’s eye and I want it back.

My brother’s in-laws have a house with a hill sloping downward from their back porch. On a hot sunny August day they lined part of the hill with plastic and turned on the garden hose. My young sons and their cousins proceeded to ruin this patch of lawn by sliding down the slippery plastic, oh, I’d say 100 times. Every inch of their little bodies was covered in mud and I don’t know when, before or since, I have ever seen them so happy. I want to be at the side of that bathtub as I tried to scrape the layer of mud from their scalps and they told me again and again how it was the best day of their lives.

I photographed my children on the first day of school every year from nursery to 12. In each photo here is an expectant smile on their faces and they gleam with new haircuts, new backpacks and new clothes. But the moment I want back is a few weeks into one new school year when my eldest, a child who loved school, climbed into my lap one morning and told me he didn’t think he could go anymore and that he was just going to stay with me. It was one day in 14 years of education and as he sobbed in my lap, needing nothing more that my arms around him, I know that I would trade every shiny first day of school moment for a few seconds when my arms were the safest place in the world to him.

Prom pictures, I took conservatively a hundred. Slide a teenage boy into a tux and watch a miraculous transformation from scruffy adolescent to man-child in a matter of moments. I caught it all, and the bigger the event, the more I snapped the shutter. But the moment I want to relive is when my son arrived home late one night, weeks before the formal event, and recounted to me how he had gathered his friends to serenade his date into accepting his prom invitation. He had never really discussed girls with me and at the moment our relationship crossed yet another bridge towards the two adults we will be for so many years. We weren’t there yet, we are not yet there now, but that night we took a big step closer.

I have held my camera at the wrong moments, mistaking the pageantry of my children’s life for the moments I would hold dear. But parenthood never ends and tonight my husband was playing soccer with two of my teenage sons in our backyard. The three of them laughed and joked in the fading summer light and after two decades of being a mother I had the good sense to breathe in the smells of summer, let my heart fill with the joy of watching them together and bring my camera along.brothers playing soccer, practicing soccer,



  1. Kyle says

    You may not have a photograph of those moments but it’s obvious from your descriptions that you don’t really need them. You have the detailed images in your mind.

    Your post made me think of all the times I wish I had a photo of special moments. But then I remember I was able to enjoy them without the distraction of fiddling with a camera. They’re etched in my memory.

  2. says

    Sometimes I think that the camera is a curse: I worry that while I was framing the perfect shot, I was failing to drink in the joy of the moment.
    Truly, I think that as long as I can close my eyes and relive those unrecorded special times, I’m OK.
    Glad, though, that you caught your sons and husband at their soccer game!

  3. Flawed Mommy says

    Thank you so much for the reminder! It’s only been recently that I realized that I want to capture those every day moments of my kids lives. Playing in puddles, laying on the grass, playing with their toys, or even when they sit quietly talking with each other. With my 17 year old son, just 1 year shy of adulthood, the moments I want to remember are those where all my children are together, living under my roof, happy and interacting with one another.

  4. says

    This is so true. This post should be printed at the close of a new parents tip book. I think the teenagers of today though have the right idea. They always seem to be carrying around their small digital cameras and their cell phones, they are forever just snapping shots of each other being silly, primping in front of mirrors, dancing and just enjoying life. Their FB pages are loaded with snapshots of real life moments.

    • Grown and Flown says

      My kids seem to take thousands of pictures with their phones and then sometimes…when I am lucky…they share them with me. Feel so grateful to see their lives away, but to be fair I told them I would’t pay their cell phone bills if they didn’t!

      • Crista says

        I snap pictures of mine with my phone quite often and then email them to myself later and have the pictures printed. It’s how I’m getting those little moments but I’m sure I’m missing some.

  5. says

    This is beautiful and so true. Years ago on a family vacation, my camera batteries died at the very moment I hoped to capture some incredible scenery we’d not likely see again. I was pretty bummed, but my middle daughter piped up from the back seat, saying, “Mom, you can just take a picture with your heart and you’ll have it forever.” So I did. Sounds like you’ve taken a picture with your heart, too, at all those moments that mattered—moments you’ll have forever.

    • Grown and Flown says

      I love your daughter…how is it that children can be so wise?

  6. says

    you may not have taken the pictures you wish you had with your camera but you took them with your heart and that is far more important.

    • Grown and Flown says

      I hope so, but as I am sure you know, I think I have forgotten far far more than I ever remembered. Too bad I had my kids before cellphones had cameras!!

  7. Melissa says

    What a beautiful and thoughtful piece. It reminds me of Anna Quindlen’s essay on motherhood. As the mother of a 2 year old and 6 year old, I glean so much wisdom and perspective from mothers who are a little further down the path of parenting than I The parenting moments pass by all too quickly, and I can barely even remember my own name sometimes, let alone the precious moments of raising kids. So thank you for this great reminder!

    • Grown and Flown says

      There are years I don’t even remember…so sad what the fog of exhaustion does to a parent. It warms our hearts to think that younger mothers might hear us. I could have used the wisdom of others so many times…don’t know why I put that in the past tense…I still need it now. Parenting evolves yet the challenges seem to remain.

  8. says

    Grown and Flown,
    I almost cried reading this. I always feel your love as a mother pour from your words. As someone who loves photography and has been doing it for a long time I had to smile. I have always been the kind of photographer that actually has to “force” myself to take photographs of “milestones”. I’ve always been more of the type to take photographs of people when they are not in their “Sunday best”, but I knew that a special moment was happening between the subject/subjects and whatever else was going on at that moment. ‘
    With that being said I completely hear you on capturing our children when they are sleeping by our sides. It’s such an intimate family moment, but here is the thing. Those moments feel so amazing, heavenly and intimate that even for me, getting out of bed to go grab the camera and take a picture means taking yourself out of this dreamy setting. It’s so hard to extricate yourself from this moment because it’s something that cannot be staged, but is organic. So in the end all you have left is the imprint of this moment in your heart.
    It’s difficult to be the photographer and be in the moment. Maybe one can try setting a camera on a tripod in their bedroom and when they find that their little ones have all crawled into bed you won’t have to go far to set the timer, crawl back into bed and be part of this moment on film, but watch out for the little ones knocking your tripod over ; )

  9. says

    As I look back over the pictures of my children, I wish I had more of their backs. More of the back of their curly little heads, more of them bent over a toy busily (and quietly playing). You are right. Wish I could have every moment actually in a album..but sigh, that’s what memories are for.

  10. Marie DeWolfe says

    I think, looking back, there are so many times in my children’s lives that I would have loved to capture, but didn’t. It does make you feel a little melancholy, but those memories will never fade. Memories can’t be lost in a flood or a fire, as photos can, so in some essence, those moments HAVE been captured, in our hearts. Beautiful post, brought back a lot of memories for me of when mine were young! Thank you!

  11. says

    Oh my. I have written a few posts about this…especially because when I look back through the old photo albums (remember those?) WHOLE days come back to me…my memory jogged by a “nothing” photo. In fact, when I look at the posed ones, I often have a twinge of sadness…remembering wrangling my children into itchy clothing and “hurty” shoes…yelling I did that I regret…not intended to stop a child from crossing the street…but to “SMILE” DAMMIT!. oh well. now we know.

    hey, BTW, I think we met in the Speed dating portion of BLOGHER and as I JUST NOW am checking my tweets, one very on top of it person had remembered to remember!
    I ADORE your blog..I am a new follower…

  12. says

    This was really good and really sad/happy! I’m sending my oldest off to year two of college and the memory that hits me when I miss him is of his little boy giggle and how periodically I can still hear a bit of it in his young man laugh. No picture or video could do that amazing giggle justice. It is, however, firmly planted in my memory to pull out when I need it. Thanks for the great post.

  13. says

    Oh my goodness! This beautiful post had my eyes watering and my mind replaying all of the moments I missed photographing.

  14. Crista says

    You are always so spot on. I smiled and remembered right along with you reading this blog post. I have taken first day of school pictures for 12 years now. This year’s shows a glowering, I’m going to destroy your camera, teenager. Next year is my last chance. It made me smile to think I can line up all of these images on a photo board at her graduation party all too soon. Or my phone picture of her playing air guitar in the kitchen as we jammed to Lady Gaga and made homemade pizza for dinner one night while daddy was deployed. Her and her friends in a jumbled mess under her fleece blanket, arms and legs sticking out in all sorts of directions, at marching band regionals. When she was little, I snapped pictures of everything. As she’s gotten older, it’s more of the big moments than every day life, but my phone has made it easier to capture the every day moments….when she lets me. hehehehe

  15. says

    I have to say that I HATED my mom’s obsession with taking photos of every major (to her) moment. But I kind of saw things through her eyes in this post. She thanks you! :)

  16. says

    There is definately a lot to find out about this subject.
    I really like all of the points you have made.


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