Erin Knowles loves taking photographs of her children -- she snaps dozens a day. But of the 25,000 she has, only ten include her with the rest of the family, and the most recent of those is more than two years old.
Nicole Clawson is a professional photographer. Yet she had to go back ten full months to find a single photo of herself with her kids.
Of the 11,000 photos Erin VanHoeven has of her 4-year-old son, only a few include her; of the 200 taken at his birthday party in July, she isn't in one.
Josanna Webber is in one photo from her son's first birthday party. Nancy Pollard had to search back an entire year to find a single one of her with both her children. Irene Martin has only been in six photos in 11 years. Angela Hayden found one -- just one -- with her and her son, after sorting through three years of photos, and Anna Johnson found five -- wow, five! -- with her daughter, after clicking through 3,000 on her computer.
Stories like these have been filling our inboxes in the days since we published Allison Tate's essay, "The Mom Stays in the Picture." Writing about her own absence from family photos, Allison vowed to be there more often, to make tangible the memories of how she is always there for her children in life.
Her essay was flooded with comments, and when we asked readers to join Allison's crusade, and send us photos of themselves "in the picture," you responded. Actually, you did more than just respond. You embraced, inhabited and claimed the cause as your own.
To read through the notes that came with the thousand-plus photos (and yes, we have read every single one) was to read the minds of today's mothers. Over and over you told us that you don't look the way you want to look, don't look the way you once did. Even when joining a movement created around the motto "I am not perfect to look at and I am not perfect to love, but I am perfectly their mother," you felt the need to apologize.
"First thing in the morning, overdue for a haircut, in need of highlights, suffering from brutal morning sickness in the early stages of my pregnancy with #5..." wrote Wendy Haas.
"My son is 6 months now and I feel like I will never be pretty again," wrote Miss Courtney. "These are a few pictures that didn't get deleted off the camera because of my weight and appearance."
But though they started as messages of regret, many then spun upward into ones of affirmation and love.
"Squishy tummy, engorged breasts, crazy hair, no makeup...but so in love with our baby boy," wrote Emily Chow.
"No makeup, an extra 100 pounds, and grey hair. Look how much my kids love me anyway :)" wrote Susan Top.
"No make-up, unbrushed hair and sweats," Kayt Sukel declared (hers was the very first note we got). "But Mama is in the picture." "You will notice that I am tired, unshowered, no make up and sporting one of those beautiful mommy pimples...," wrote Christina Gerdes, "but THANKFULLY my mom made me get in the photo because I am always behind the camera."
It wasn't just bad hair days that kept you from the camera. You told us tales of skin splotched by vitiligo, and hair gone from chemotherapy, and weight gained from lupus treatments, and not wanting to be photographed in a wheelchair. Of "self hatred and depression" that "makes me hide in a shell of the person I used to be." Of illness and drastic weight loss which mean you "avoided mirrors, the camera, going out, I'd dress up but still feel ugly. My self esteem dwindled away. I'm still adjusting to my new role as 'Mommy', but it's a drastic change from who I used to be."
But even as you told those stories you sent pictures -- ones you dug out of old albums, or ones you took just to be part of ours. Those photos were declarations.
"After reading this article, I realize, I must be in the pictures,she must see me, for who I am today," wrote Katia Berdichevsky, of her decision to pose with her daughter, Tassia, despite 45 unshed pounds gained during treatment for post-partum anxiety and PTSD. "She loves me just as I am, so why shouldn't I do the same?"
You also sent the urgent message that mothers should take photos because one day it will be too late. Because divorce means an end to family pictures; because children grow and rebel against the camera; because tragedy intervenes.
Parents die -- as Clare Butler's husband did when their daughter was not quite 3, leaving the little girl only able to feel "close to him when she sees the pictures of them together." As Allison's friend Barb Barnecott did from cancer, leaving behind her husband John and two children three years ago, when Hope was a college freshman and Trent was a first grader. John sent Allison a photo of Barb holding an infant Hope. We gently tucked it into the gallery among the others.
Children die, too.
Stacy Saville sent a photo of herself and tiny Morgan, who died in 2005. "Just seeing the picture of me holding her, made me long to hold her in my arms again and make everything alright," she wrote.
Anna Whiston-Donaldson sent a series from Mother's Day 2011, which she didn't like at the time. "My eyes are closed in one, the kids are goofing off together, and a dart in my J. Crew dress looks like one of my headlights is on," she says. But now, she treasures them. "I had no idea that 2011 would be the last Mother's Day with both of my kids," she explained. "My 12-year-old son died in an accident in our neighborhood last September. So even though I always included myself in photos as a gift to my kids, so that they'd have pics of their mom, these pictures are now a precious gift to ME, headlights and all."
Grappling with images of yourselves as mothers made many of you think of your mothers -- with gratitude for the times they posed for a camera, and regret for the times they didn't.
"When my mom died two years ago, we couldn't find many photos of her for the funeral," wrote Jennifer Lathrop. "It was then that I realized I did the same thing she did: avoid being in a picture because I'm overweight and didn't feel pretty."
You even sent us your mothers' photos in addition to your own.
"I'm 22 now and my Mom has struggled with weight problems her whole life," wrote Chance Carmichael. "So, seeing Allison's article and the picture really touched me. I decided to send in a picture I love of my mother staring on in awe as my twin sister tries to climb on top of our great dane. I just love how she was watching and there for the moment. Her big cumbersome glasses and weird screen print shirts don't make me cringe, they make me happy I had a mom like her as a kid."
That, in the end, was the realization that most of you came to. It was one that Allison reached as well, when she wrote that "when I look at pictures of my own mother, I don't look at cellulite or hair debacles. I just see her -- her kind eyes, her open-mouthed, joyful smile, her familiar clothes... I always loved that her stomach was soft, her skin freckled, her fingers long. I didn't care that she didn't look like a model. She was my mama."
And you are theirs. That was what you vowed when you sent us your photos. To be their mama and store up memories together that they can hold onto separately. To understand that how you look has nothing to do with how much you are loved. To teach THEM that, too.
"I can find something critical to say about every picture of me," wrote Debbie Reiley, "But you know, I am a good mom. When I read this story, I looked back to some of those pictures and fond memories, and saw myself in a different light."
"I hate, Hate, HATE pictures of myself! But I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE my children and husband," wrote Irene Martin, "So I put aside my vanity and swallow my pride for my family and take the plunge!"
As Summer Lewis said of the snapshot she chose to send: "When I first saw these pictures I thought, 'Yikes. Well these ones won't go in the photo book for the year.' But looking at them now, I can see how much fun my girl was having--and how much fun I was having... I can look past the lack of make-up, and the fact that I never did my hair that day, and the post baby weight I still had from my then nine-month old. And it's okay. Because I'm in the picture."
Yes it is.
And yes you are.