As a scientist, I love data; the more the better. It nourishes me, and, along with good academic parenting/mentoring, has helped me solve complex problems and allowed my career to thrive. So when my son was born about a year ago, I wanted to collect as much data about him as possible.
I took about 5,000 photos with my smartphone.
I thought I was doing a great service and some science by documenting changes in his growth, development and personality (not to mention how cute he was). While I cherish these photos, they came at a high price that I recognized only recently: I wasn't participating in his growing up. I was watching him grow up through the screen of my smartphone.
I carry a bit more baggage than just that of being a scientist. I was the sixth child born in 10 years. The earliest photo of me is from when I was about 4 or 5 years old. In the first weeks after my son's birth, it hurt a bit when friends, family and in-laws wanted to compare baby photos. My wife was a beautiful infant. But the earliest image of me shows a rumpled, dirty-faced kid in 1970s garb.
I have no Mommy Dearest story. It's not my parents' fault. They were busy, and picture-taking was not so easy back then. Maybe part of my taking 5,000 photos was that I wanted my son to have what I didn't have: the ability to someday show his children what he had looked like.
It got even crazier than just taking 5,000 photos. I started a "picture of the day" that I would send to my family. If NASA does it, why couldn't I? My family loved it. But a few months ago, it started to feel like a chore, and scrolling through so many photos was a time suck.
I began to stress by 4 p.m. if I hadn't sent the picture of the day.
That's when it dawned on me. I was taking a significant number of these photos for too many wrong reasons: treating my son like an experiment, overcoming some childhood issues and trying to get the sweetest picture of the day.
I decided not to obsess. If there was a good opportunity to take a picture, I would take one (and maybe text or email it to family and friends). One photo a day is a bunch more than my parents managed -- and still fun. And I became the more-present dad that I wanted to be.
It's funny, as I got a similar piece of advice while visiting the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in 2010. I got to stand only a few feet away from F-18s being catapulted off the ship. It was really no different from Top Gun, but so much better to hear the roar of the jets, feel the deck shake with each launch and watch the elegant choreography of the deck crew. Of course, I had my smartphone glued to my face during the first few launches, not wanting to miss anything. At one point a sailor pulled me aside and said, "You took enough pictures; just enjoy the show." So I did. I still have the video and pictures from that day, but I also have the memories of just watching so many launches in awe.
Where was the equivalent of that sailor when I was taking so many photos of my son? It was certainly a joke around my family that I took so many photos. Perhaps my family was too polite, or I was too dense to pick up on their hints that I had gone picture-happy.
And as a scientist, I am beginning to recognize that I may be collecting more data than necessary, too.
Babies don't care if you buy them the fanciest clothes or most expensive toys -- and having extra photos of them should be added to the list. They just want your love and attention, and you can do a much better job by not holding a phone. Enjoy the real (and unobstructed) show: listen to your children roar with laughter; watch them shake their booties when they dance; and giggle as they not-so-elegantly learn to walk. Then you will have the true memories of being awed by their launches.