He’s scooting across the floor on his little diapered bottom. He’s headed for the bathroom because he sees one of those light-up toothbrushes on the floor. Halfway there, he stops and aims his body my way, throwing one sticky hand up in greeting. Then he pushes on, riveted to his task.
A moment later, the scooting sound pauses; I see his face appear around the corner of the door frame. He flashes enormous eyes at me, calls out, and shows me his good fortune.
“Rejoice with me! For I have found my toothbrush that was lost,” he is clearly saying.
My impulse is immediate and strong. Where is my phone? This needs to go on Insta.
My 3-year-old finds a carton of eggs I’ve left on the counter and selects two. She intends to bring them up to her play kitchen upstairs and cook them. One is dropped on the way, but she’s not ruffled; she continues on her way with the remaining egg. She’s busy upstairs when the baby finds the yolky mess on the floor and begins to cover himself with it. I stumble across him a few minutes later.
It’s so cute—her cooking with an egg! Him eating it! So messy, but so funny.
Where’s my phone? The grandparents would love this.
I find a note my daughter wrote on the kitchen table: “Father, I pray that you would help mommy to mace gould food, Amen.”
My oldest daughter has very kindly not mentioned any dissatisfaction with the repetitive quarantine menu. This must have been her gentle way of trying to nudge the bar up a bit— asking God for his help in the situation. We’ve probably had one too many vegetable soups lately.
At any rate, it’s funny, and it shows that she can extrapolate the spelling of “gould” from “would” (if incorrectly).
Where’s my phone?
I Am Not a Journalist
As a girl, I first experienced the grief of time passing when I was about seven. I still remember the precise day I realized I couldn’t remember anything that had happened when I was four. Then I realized I couldn’t remember much of what had happened even a week ago. There was a moment I stood next to a bookshelf in the living room and resolved, This—this minute right here, I’ll resolve to always remember it for the rest of my life.
And clearly, I have.
But I couldn’t catch many other moments. How many other things happened that day I’ll never know again? How many things happened the day after that? Can I even clearly dredge up the way my little brother pronounced his “r”s for every day of 1994? Not even repetition guarantees we’ll remember something. There’s too much, too many minutes to lose. And we’re so human; often we can’t even process it as it comes—much less preserve it after it’s gone.
I’m pretty sure this is what first got me keeping a diary. I was panicked when I realized how many thoughts I forgot, how many important details were slipping away. I tried to catch them as they flew through the air above my head; I spent long evenings writing things like, “Today me and Sophie got in a fite. She said sory. I was sory to. Then we got to eat ice-cream after supper and watched Seven Brids for Seven Bruthers, my favorit movie.”
Even at the time I knew it wasn’t enough. Writing the diary only showed me how much more time it took to write than to live through the things you had to write about.
Now I’m a mother, and the responsibilities of preservation feel even more weighty. They’re only children! Babies! They won’t be able to remember. I’m the witness. Who else will remember for them?
So I tell them lots of stories about when I was young. It’s multitasking, killing two birds with one stone—we’re making memories snuggled under the covers of my bed, and I’m also trying to keep alive another memory that tries to die.
Sentimental? You better believe it.
I write down things they’re saying and doing in a little notebook for each of them. Once a month, I sit and try to write just one page, any little stories I remember. I can’t get it all but I can catch a few things as they fly past. I take photos with a real camera out in a field, where the girls play every night after supper. I’ll have it forever. Unless it’s misplaced in my computer.
The Preservation that Doesn’t Preserve
But there’s another thing I do when I want to catch a moment. I pull out my phone. I put something on Instagram Stories, which is a loophole in social media that makes you feel like you aren’t constantly filling your social media presence up with posts. It is called a “story,” a misleading name for something that you tell without ever having to articulate anything or make eye contact with anyone who is listening to the story. You never get a laugh, an eye roll, a listening grunt. Because you never hear any of these gratifying responses to telling your story, you keep pulling out your phone to get a bit of the virtual equivalent—the comment, or the scrolling list of people who are watching.
You put up the interesting things that happen throughout the day, and they disappear in 24 hours, which allows you to feel that you’re just casually dropping by to let your family and friend in on everyday life, instead of making some permanent statement that will always be on your record. Instagram designed it so you’d use the app more as a result. They nailed it.
But when you start to notice that your record keeping is only as permanent as the app, or only as permanent as your willingness to keep getting online and looking around—you wonder if you’re preserving memories or altering them.
Eventually, you feel as if to quit posting things would almost be wrong. Family members live far away. This is how they know your kids. They would be hurt, perhaps—or worse, they would forget your kids and feel distant from them. How will they know that your child is this funny? How will they know you’re making pizza from scratch for everybody? How will they know how happy your family is?
It is called a “story,” a misleading name for something that you tell without ever having to articulate anything or make eye contact with anyone who is listening to the story.
And what if you stop taking videos at all because you don’t have the immediate viewership? What if you miss all the good shots? What if you lose all the moments because you step away from your journalistic post? Will your third child feel the way your younger siblings do? We’ve got fifty home videos of you, and none of me. What gives?
That may be a disturbing question, but here’s one I find even more disturbing: How interesting does my child have to be to compete for my attention with the square light in my hand that I’m using to invite friends and family into their childhood?
The Gnat and the Bull
There’s an Aesop’s fable about a gnat who lands on the horn of a bull. It rests there a while and then says to the bull, “Sorry about that! I’m getting up now. You won’t have my weight on you any longer.” The bull responds with something like, “What? Oh. I didn’t even know you were there.”
The moral: People usually aren’t thinking about us as much as we’re thinking about us.
I think social media is even more like this fable than real-life interaction. We think they’re going to miss us when we’re gone, but they don’t, not really. They can’t. Maybe that’s the worst part.
I’ve seen people get online to make big announcements about how they’re getting off—or worse, big announcements about how they’ve been gone for the last three years, and they just thought they’d check it out and let everyone know they can be reached at this email address, and my first thought when I see that is, “I truly had no idea you’d gotten off.”
If I need to slip away from Instagram (Instagram seems to be the main problem for me), I need to slip away quietly and without fanfare. It’s over, Instagram. You’re taking away my children’s childhood. I can’t pretend any longer that you aren’t wasting my time—my phone is now telling me at the end of each day how much time it’s taken from me today. And I’m just letting it.
My children are not having their childhoods preserved for them by Instagram. They’re having their childhoods taken from them by Instagram. Or more precisely, by mommy’s addiction to Instagram. If I can’t update friends and family in a temperate manner, and then get the heck off of there and stop living other people’s lives through the screen, then it’s time to get off.
My children are not having their childhoods preserved for them by Instagram. They’re having their childhoods taken from them by Instagram. Or more precisely, by mommy’s addiction to Instagram.
If I sound exasperated, it’s because I am. I feel like Westley in that scene of The Princess Bride where he’s crying on the table and Count Rugen tells him, “I’ve just sucked one year of your life away. Tell me, how do you feel?”
How do I feel? Distracted. Almost strung out. I feel like I need to remember my responsibilities and rearrange a few things in order to attend to them. I say it again: I’m a mother, not a journalist. My responsibility is to mother my children, not report on them. (I used to be a reporter; I know the difference.) My responsibility is to enjoy my children, not distribute cute videos of my children for other people to enjoy. I can’t believe my daughter has to say my name three times to get my attention because I’m rewatching a video OF HER to see who’s seen it and what they’ve said about it.
I’m not preserving memories. I’m missing them.
If there’s any chance of preserving these memories, it can only be done by absorbing them fully, taking them right in and processing them as fully as a human can. Of course I won’t remember them, not all of them, and experience shows that even the memories I keep will be slightly mangled. But I have a shot at enjoying them. And I have a shot at having more attention available during the years when that attention is so precious, so needed, so divided already.
I’m taking my shot.