There's a family picture I’ve seen but now can't find: It's Thanksgiving 2011. We're at my parents' house and everyone is gathered around the table, smiling at the camera—except me. I'm a blur in the background, bouncing with our four-month-old son on a blue exercise ball because that was the only way to get him to sleep.
There are no pictures from the Thursday nights when my wife was still working and I would try to put him down for the night. He didn't seem to be soothed by music or baths or the routines of both that we held onto for months. Since I couldn't lay him down in the crib without waking him up, we'd swing in the rocking chair like a ship in high seas. In one arm I cradled him, my smartphone in the other to wander the Internet or pump music through headphones to drown out his crying in my ear.
My mom made a baby book for him and gave it to us with this advice: Write things down as they happen, because you won't remember them later. We remembered that advice, too, when we decided what not to write down, what pictures not to take.
Selective memory wasn’t a filter I expected to use. I thought I would want to remember everything. Capture everything. And I had all the memory cards and social media accounts to make it happen. I thought we’d be deciding between Instagram or Flickr, but instead of shooting with #nofilter, we were deciding some days to take no photographs at all.
Helping our son sleep was an endless struggle. We had to bounce him to get him to sleep and keep bouncing if we wanted him to take a nap. He hated strollers and car seats and was unimpressed with the other soothing schemes we tried. Only swaddling, breastfeeding, and bouncing seemed to help, and that was exhausting, especially for mama.
That's not what we wanted to remember about his first two years. It certainly wasn't what we expected parenting life would be like. The first few weeks are difficult; the books at least agree on that. After an uncomplicated birth and short stay in the hospital, I was geared up to cruise through a rough first month until we hit the phase most Facebook parents seem to live in: taking pictures and changing diapers. I wanted to have friends clamoring for me to post more pictures of my beautiful child, and I was ready to do my part. I wanted to post little videos of him cooing or making faces in his sleep. Those pictures weren’t available to be made.
There were other worries, too. Was he eating enough, pooping enough, gaining weight quickly enough? There are smartphone apps that help you chart all of those details, and more, though taking accurate measurements is no small feat. As first-time parents, I wondered if checking boxes on a smartphone offered merely an illusion of control. Breastfeeding moms really don't need an app to tell them which side they last nursed on. Digestive regularity is very important, but down-to-the-second timestamps are probably not. And unless you're using a calibrated infant scale, those ounces aren't precise enough to chart.
Save that for the pediatrician’s office, where your careful plotting will not be added to your child's medical record. Instead, you get to strip the baby naked and do a quick-carry over to their scale. The results will be immediately graphed. Our boy clocked in just below the 50th percentile. Steady growth, but average—not a number to crow about online. When the pediatrician asked how things were going, our answers only earned us more guilt. "There's no reason why your 6- (or 9- or 12- or 18-) month old should not be sleeping through the night." It was our failure for not laying him in a crib and leaving him to figure out how to sleep.
Friends gave us a calendar for Baby's First Year that included stickers you could place on the dates of significant events. There were something like nine "Slept Through the Night" stickers. In the first year, we used none of them. We would have used none in the second year, either. It would be easy to turn those unused stickers into a martyr’s badge. At times, at my wit's end, I'd share on social media how frustrated and helpless I felt. It wasn’t sharing so much as falling apart. Sometimes someone would say, “I’m sorry.” What I usually heard back was advice—here's what worked for us—from a parent whose baby started sleeping through the night at eight weeks old.
We really didn't have to try! She likes structure, we do a bath and infant massage every night. Have you tried a big bottle right before bed?
They were sharing what they had seen, but those stories burned me more. I know sleep is a journey for every baby. When our son was born, we had no idea we were setting out on the Appalachian Trail. If that's where you are, you don't ask advice from day-hikers. You're climbing the same hill but looking at a very different route. We needed a different set of mile markers, so we made them up and largely ignored the baby-book map we were given. Doing that, you lose the sense of shared travel that social media can provide, at least when it comes to sleep.
In some cases, technology helped us access useful resources. We found some encouragement in the Longest Shortest Time podcast, which sends the message that this hard time with young children can feel endless, but they also grow up so fast. You don’t want to miss it. We knew that feeling. We wanted to pay attention to his little life, even though it hurt. The podcast isn’t filled with stories just like ours, but it does share stories of people trying to respond well to their challenges. It also freed me from the desire to explain what this was like to people who hadn’t experienced it—or mostly freed me, anyway. It helped me give myself permission to write our stories in private.
You write differently when you're only writing for yourself. You take pictures differently when you aren’t hunting for a shot worth posting. Sure, at family events, I'm testing whether my mirrorless ILC camera really can shoot 10 frames per second. There are days when it’s my mission to make memories. Partly that changes as children grow. As the boy—he’s almost three now—has become more engaged with the world, it's easier to find less complicated moments to capture. Like when he makes up new verses to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” or when he mispronounces “yellow” (“lellow"), or the way his pretend sneezes come at a whisper.
I still don't share very much about our son online. This year on Facebook I’ve posted pictures of him twice and told one story—about his transition to a toddler bed. My wife posts more pictures of the “ain’t that cute” variety, but plain-speaking is reserved for small groups of friends. I confess I subtweet the boy on Twitter, but I’ve only posted two photos in the last year. When I want to share with family or close friends, I use private cloud services or I just don’t share at all.
Now he's sleeping better than he ever has. We're on to other challenges like potty training and sharing toys, which puts us back on common ground with a lot of parents. This fall, he’ll become a big brother, and I’m sure I’ll want to talk to friends about that change. But I'm still cautious about what I record, and even more circumspect in what I share. When I first became a dad, I found it hard to relate with the crowd of parents publishing their Peacable Kingdom scenes on Facebook. They were living a different reality, and I’m not ready to rejoin them if it makes me focus on sharing and not on him. I want to be present in these moments, however harrowing they feel.
I love my boy. That love is fierce, whether he’s proudly pointing to a rhombus or dropping books on me while I’m still asleep because he’s ready to get up. I want to help him, though there often seems to be no way to help. I haven’t yet convinced him that sleep is a good use of time, not with commands or with tears. But that struggle belongs to me, and not to my Twitter timeline. The triumphs, when they come, are ours because of the story they’re in.
And so we've never, until now, recorded the difficulties of the early months. There are no photos or status updates from the 2 a.m. winter nights awake with him, or the 4 a.m. mornings when my wife got up with him to do the dishes instead of lying awake. In revising our family history this way, what are we protecting? Our memories? We remember, even without files to prompt us. Other first-time parents? I’m ready to share with parents who have stories like ours.
Recently we were leaving the zoo at the same time as a dad who was carrying his screaming toddler to the car. He was calm, walking at a normal pace, while she was worked up to hurricane force. I wanted to go all Secret Service on this guy: set a perimeter around him, quietly and efficiently move people out of his way so they could get to their car and head home. Keeping your cool takes tremendous effort. Knowing what it takes, and that I don't always have it, keeps me ready to stand up with people who are showing (and in need of) mercy.
There’s no pre-written narrative for that scenario in a baby book: When did your baby first make you want to silently hug other dads? Our careful selectivity is certainly revisionist, but so is every decision to share a moment or a story online. Simply remembering is an editing process. We’re already editing our experiences before the lens cap comes off. We’re real-time revisionists. We decided to write our story on blank pages, offline, and we're writing it for us. Which is how it should be.