When I was three, my aunt took me to the playground at her college. I had to pee but didn’t want to stop playing. So I held it, with a toddler’s ardent belief that if I ignored the pee-pee, it would go away. It didn’t, of course. And when I couldn’t hold it one more second, my backup plan lived in the slide that all the other kids had been avoiding, the one that was still damp and puddled over from a brief Florida rainstorm that had blown in just as suddenly as it had blown out earlier that day. I plopped myself on the hot metal, and let my pee-pee out while scooting down the damp surface. No one will know I peed, I thought. They’ll just think I’m wet from the slide!
I was barely back on my feet when my aunt was right there, out of nowhere, gripping my arm. “Did you pee? Did you pee in your pants?”
I tried to lie at first, and told her that my red shorts and Wonder Woman underwear were wet from the puddle on the slide, but she didn’t believe me. I was completely okay with being in pee-pee shorts, and just wanted to play. My aunt, on the other hand, was not okay with it. We spent the next hour in a dormitory laundry room, me with a towel wrapped around my bottom, while she put my shorts and underwear through a wash and dry cycle and berated me for my accident.
For close to 20 years, every time that memory crossed my mind I was overcome with deep shame. I’d force myself to think of something else, often resorting to pinching myself or making random noises in order to shake it off. The pee-pee incident was a terrible secret that I interpreted as evidence of the very wrongness that is me. Who does that? Pees her pants, just like that? Thinks she can fool everyone? Lies about it? Ruins a perfectly nice afternoon? Why didn’t I just say I had to go? What is wrong with me?
Here’s the thing, though… I was THREE. And one day, in my early twenties, that fact clicked into place in my head. Just like that. Out of nowhere. I was THREE. And, actually, I was a pretty damned clever three, right? It was a good plan. If my bladder had been a little less full – or the puddle on the slide a little bit bigger – it probably would have worked.
And I thought, What a stupid thing to spend almost 20 years feeling ashamed of.
This moment of clarity has been on my mind lately as I consider the topic of photographs. As in, we have very few of them in which I am a subject. It would be easy to say that this is because I’ve struggled with my weight for the past nine years, but the truth is that I avoided pictures even before then, even when I was very (dangerously so) thin. Really, the simple truth is that I am often not in pictures because I am embarrassed by how I look in them. And my failure to meet the standards of beauty that society has etched into my brain has been a source of shame. A painful secret. More evidence of the very wrongness that is me.
And all of that would be fine, really, except that one day, when I was looking through old photos, I realized: My children have virtually no photographic evidence of me in their lives. At all. Years and years worth of pictures of them and Nick and family and friends… but not me. I am with them every day, have taken them to zoos and museums and playgrounds and even DisneyWorld, but through it all the only evidence of my existence is the fact that someone took the picture.
Kids… they’re amazing. Aidan wants to marry me; he thinks I am the most wonderful woman on the planet. Isabel looks up to me. She asks all the time to hear stories from my childhood. It’s reassuring for her to know that I went through the same things she does because, in her mind, I’m great, and our shared experiences help her believe that someday she’ll be great, too. They look at me and see someone different from whom I see. They see lullabies and nursing to sleep and cuddles when they were sad and kisses on boo-boos. They see comfort and security and bravery.
They see love.
That’s what they see.
It’s what they see now, and it’s what they would see in photos 60 or 70 years from now, when I am gone and they sometimes need help to remember my kinda-crooked smile, or what cheek my dimple was in. Love is what they would see and feel when holding a picture in their hand, in moments when they are scared or sad or lonely and want, just for a minute, to live in the memory of the safe place that is Mom.
Except, I realized, that I had been denying them that.
And why? Because I’m not perfect? Because I’m not a supermodel? Well, no shit. I know that, with or without photographs.
How utterly and ridiculously selfish. All the times I’ve scooted out of the range of a camera, the times my kids have said, “You, too, Mom!” and I’ve made a dumb excuse. To protect myself, to preserve my feelings. Me, me, me, me, me. Now that’s something to be ashamed of.
When, I wondered, did I become so oversensitive? For crying out loud, I thought. Get over yourself!
So I’ve been working on it. Instagram helped at first – I used it to take the pictures on the About page of this blog. In the last couple of months, I’ve played with non-Instagram photos; I even put one at the end of my Marriage Matters post, specifically because that piece was so rooted in vulnerability, and sharing a photograph of myself is one of the hardest and most vulnerable things for me to do at this stage in my life.
This weekend, Nick threw me a surprise birthday party. Set out among the decorations were photos from my childhood. I loved seeing them, even the ones that I know I was deeply embarrassed by at the time. Even the bad ones. And I had a moment of clarity.
What a stupid thing to be ashamed of.
I’m not perfect. I’m not a supermodel. But I’m Isabel and Aidan’s Mom.
For them, I’m not hiding anymore.
And just to hold myself to it, this is the worst, most hated photograph I have of myself:
I was so huge that when I took Isabel on the little, kiddie train that goes around this amusement park, I got stuck in the car and then couldn’t get out for, like, 30 seconds. Was seriously jammed in there like a cork in a wine bottle, with visions of firemen and power tools going through my head.
But you know what? That was me.
What a stupid thing to be ashamed of.
I refuse to be ashamed any more.
Hold onto your hats, because I’m going to be photobombing the crap out of everybody from now on. Time to make some memories.