This Photo Revealed The Reality Of Motherhood To Me

by Catherine Ryan Gregory
Catherine Ryan Gregory

Every so often, I see a photo of myself where the truth is laid so bare that there’s no avoiding it. These are usually realizations of something physical that I hadn’t noticed before. (After all, I don’t have a lot of opportunities to gaze into the mirror since I am always accompanied to the bathroom by two pint-sized, iPhone-flushing, TP-unrolling chaperones.) Take, for example, the picture of me after my first daughter was born where I’d lost so much hair I was balding at the temples or the picture of me with under-eye circles so dark I drove straight to the mall to buy some makeup when I saw it.

But these moments of clarity sometimes reveal a truth more profound than skin-deep musings of how I’ve aged so much in the last four years. Like this one. Not long ago, a friend of mine sent me a photo of me at the park with my daughters, ages 3 and 1. When I saw it, I thought to myself, This is what motherhood looks like.

Motherhood is balance.

In this picture, what motherhood looks like is balance.

Having two kids is exponentially harder than having one. After all, you have to meet both kids’ needs, which are usually conflicting, and you have to meet them at the same time when you’re operating on four hours of sleep and haven’t had a chance to drink a cup of thrice-reheated tea. Rarely, though, you find a way to satisfy both children.

These moments — like when I was pushing my happy toddler on the swing while holding my 1-year-old — are the very welcome points of harmony. They are the balance on the teeter-totter when each side is perfectly poised in the air.

Moments of balance make me feel like a mom who has it together, who can make this work. They are even more pleasant for knowing it’s only a matter of time before we slip into conflict — both kids wanting the same toy, wanting Mom, wanting opposite things.

Motherhood is holding it all together.

What you don’t see in this picture is the backstory: the big, painful, scary backstory.

My youngest had been discharged from the hospital the day before this photo was taken. She had been seriously ill all week, throwing up dozens of times a day and unable to keep anything down. I’d taken her to the doctor’s office, the emergency room, and eventually the children’s hospital. She underwent tests and pokes and terrifying visits from all sorts of people wearing scrubs and white coats.

Thankfully, the doctors ruled out the worst-case illnesses, though they never figured out what was wrong with her. She slowly, so slowly, recovered, gradually regaining her strength and spunk. But when this photo was taken, she hardly had any energy, which is why she is hanging out in my arms instead of bombing around the playground like she usually does.

But from this picture, you’d never know that.

Motherhood is not what you see in a photo.

In this photo, what motherhood looks like is an easygoing trip to the park. Of course that’s not the whole picture.

Each of us mothers has a much deeper story than what you see at first glance. The photos we post on Instagram and Facebook barely scratch the surface of what’s really going on.

One reason I love this photo is it shows me taking care of both my daughters at the same time, when no one is crying.

But I also love it because it reminds me that none of us — even the moms who look like they have motherhood all figured out — leads a perfect life.

That mom posting selfies with Baby Sir Cheeks-a-Lot? She might be battling postpartum depression. That mom who never fails to publish her pumpkin’s milestones? She might worry her baby’s development is lagging. That mom who shared her family’s 40 professional portraits? She might not have talked to an adult today.

Motherhood sometimes looks like flattering angles, smiling children, and a Clarendon filter. But motherhood also looks like tantrums and a week’s worth of unswept crumbs under the table and spit-up-crusted nursing tanks and sore C-section scars.

Motherhood is beautiful, it’s messy, it’s transcendent. Motherhood is so many things, but it’s not always picture-perfect.