Getting real about babies and social media

Though we might try to protest it, Ashlee and I technically are in the millennial age group — a population known for its technology obsession. Thankfully, we’re on the older side of this demographic and can remember a time in our youth before cell phones made connectivity ubiquitous; however, we’ve admittedly found ourselves swept up in the social-media culture spawned by this digital age, which adds an interesting dimension to modern parenting.

When I was young, my parents documented my and my sister’s every move in “old-fashioned” photo albums; dozens of them still take up real estate in my mom’s bedroom closet. Today, it’s not just how pictures are taken and stored that’s changed  but also the expectations of what you do with them — that closet full of photos is a thing of the past and now, it’s all about sharing.

We noticed this truism long before Jackson was even out of the womb. Almost as soon as Ashlee found out she was pregnant, we decided social media seemed to be the easiest avenue to share the news with our friends and family (except for our closest loved ones, of course), and we spent lots of time scouring Pinterest for baby-announcement ideas. I spent a solid hour trying to set up and snap the perfectly lit picture of a pair of baby shoes atop an assortment of Valentine’s candies for our Feb. 14 post. Sure, the photo was a fun way to surprise our circles, but was straining my very limited photography experience to capture the “perfect” picture worth the added stress? Probably not.

The pressure to capture the ideal photo grew exponentially once Jackson arrived. In the operating room during Ashlee’s c-section, the anesthesiologist seated behind me seemingly doubled as the hospital photographer, prompting me to pull out my phone and showing me exactly where to stand and when to start clicking away in order to get the best shot of his birth.

In the rare quiet moments that next day, we spent time looking through those blurry memories, with an eye toward which pictures would be good contenders for Jackson’s Facebook debut. As anyone who’s been present for a birth can attest, it’s far from a picture-perfect experience, and we had to weed out the photos filled with gore, nudity and ugly crying.

In the months that followed, we fell into a similar same trap: striving to share pictures of Jackson with his twinkling eyes, tiny smile and fluffy little head of hair, showing the world our healthy, happy boy.

I think this pressure is exacerbated for LGBTQ couples: So many of us grew up in a world where children of same-sex couples were few and far between that there’s an unspoken expectation that we need to go the extra mile to prove that our family is just as perfectly “normal” as everyone else’s.

After a few months, though, something changed — perhaps it was the accumulating effects of exhaustion or the fact that we were growing in confidence in our parenting, but we stopped caring so much about the world seeing our perfect little guy and instead seeing our real little guy. He has tantrums; he throws up; sometimes (often) his shirt is covered in sticky substances; his eczema flares up on his face — so why were we trying to show an always-smiling, clean baby in a color-coordinated outfit playing serenely in a spotless house?

We started seeing — and sharing — the humor in the disarray.

For instance, again inspired by Pinterest, we thought it would be cute to take a Halloween picture of Jackson sitting in a pumpkin. Not only did we end up taking it in November, but every time we went to put him anywhere near the pumpkin, he screamed his head off and, once seated, proceeded to fall backwards — prompting us to wedge a pillow behind him and try to snap a picture…before the dog came charging into the photo and knocked Jackson sideways. Pinterest fail!

On the next holiday, Thanksgiving, we dressed him in a snappy outfit and put him into a seat on our coffee table to take some photos — which ended up being a series of him throwing his head back in a dramatic howl.

On Valentine’s Day, we envisioned a sweet photo of Jackson covered in lipstick kisses, posing with a stuffed heart; in reality, it ended up looking like he had welts all over his body, and he ultimately vomited, mid-photo, on his heart.

On the seventh of each month, we sit Jackson on a blanket to show his growth and, in keeping with his “Harry Potter” nursery, dress him in one of his many Potter-themed outfits, using a plastic wand to point to what month he is turning. During his six-month photos, he faceplanted on the rug, giving me a nice shot of his butt. At nine months, we forgot his “Harry Potter” outfit altogether, and he was tired and miserable and screamed the entire time, in higher octaves when the dog started an actual tug of war with him over his wand. 

Mother’s Day may take the cake for photo fails. While at breakfast in Pittsburgh with Ashlee’s family, we thought we’d have Jackson experiment with eggs for the first time. We snapped a picture of this food first — seconds before he started spitting out the eggs and then projectile vomiting for about 30 seconds in full “Exorcist” mode to screams from our surrounding tables. Unfortunately, we didn’t capture that part.

Social media typically isn’t the place to share that kind of mess — as filters, shading and the ability to take about 100 pictures in 10 seconds encourage us to show what we think is only the “best” of the bunch. But, once we were assured Jackson was perfectly healthy and not actually choking, that debacle ended up being a hilarious encapsulation of our first Mother’s Day. It highlighted how very different our social media-fueled preconceived ideas about this special occasion (flowers and hearts) were from reality (missing breakfast to bathe a puke-covered infant in an Eat’n Park bathroom sink). So why put a filter on that experience? Babies are messy, in every sense of the word, and I think we should start being more real about that. Sure, Jackson smiles and laughs all the time and is often absolutely precious, but just like any of us, he isn’t always camera-ready — and it’s ultimately those moments of chaos that provide levity and produce the photos that will keep us, and eventually him, laughing for years to come.

While Jackson may not have a closet full of photo albums to help him walk down memory lane in the future, we are hoping to tap into the real power of social media to give him something just as valuable: a real, unfiltered look at the moments — often messy, but always full of love — that helped make him and his moms a family.