Pretty, Pretty Baby: Overexposed?

On my roughest days as a mother, if I want to feel instantly better about my parenting skills, I only need to do one thing: watch an episode of Toddlers & Tiaras. Have you seen this show? The focus is on toddlers who compete in beauty pageants, and the parents who force, err, encourage them in these endeavors.

Toddlers & Tiaras photo

I don’t know what’s sadder, watching a baby wearing blue eyeshadow and bright pink muck on her cheeks, or seeing a mother tell her three-year-old that the crown she just won isn’t good enough because it wasn’t the top crown.

You can’t help but wonder what motivates these parents. A desire for fame and recognition? To live life again through their child?

At least I’m not that bad, I always think when I catch the show, which is akin to rubbernecking a traffic accident. Poor kids!

However, after my daughter’s 11-month photo shoot recently, I had to question my parenting skills once again.

Here’s what happened: I found some adorbs photos of babies on Pinterest, and in them they’re wearing lace and pearl necklaces with no shirts. They are completely innocent images, or at least I thought so as I pinned them. And so my daughter had some pictures taken of her wearing a ruffled lace diaper cover, leg warmers, and pearl necklace sans shirt.

However, when the photographer posted this online to Facebook, an odd thing happened: I stared at that pic, and all I could think of was protecting my baby from other people’s eyes. Sure, she looked as beautiful as ever. Sure, I thought the outfit was benign. But in my stomach I had the uneasy feeling that someone else staring at the photo might view it in an adult way.

It wasn’t long before my husband Skyped me and said he felt unhappy with the photo and could we please get it taken down. He found that he didn’t have to ask me twice, as I had felt funny too when viewing it for the first time. We made an agreement then and there that no more shirtless pics of our daughter would be taken.

And you know, if that same photo had been taken at age six months or younger, it probably wouldn’t have evoked the same reaction in us. But somehow, in the past few months, our daughter’s cognizance and personality have emerged so much that I think how she might feel one day, to know so many strangers were staring at her without a shirt. Although she’s just a baby, she’s also a person with a basic need for privacy.

Now before I hit the “Post” button, I ask myself if I’m posting too many pictures of our daughter on Facebook and Instagram—leaving a digital history of her childhood whether she wants it or not—and also if someone might misinterpret an outfit she’s wearing (or not wearing, in this case).

Loving is protecting, after all. If I would be embarrassed to have a picture of myself posted without a shirt, I have to think maybe one day, my daughter might be embarrassed too. Baby or not, in the digital age, any kind of overexposure can live on for infinity.

Fissures and Fantasies

Common wisdom says that a baby will draw a couple closer together, and while that certainly can be true, a baby is also a litmus test for the true strength of a relationship. Whatever was solid before becomes even more golden, and whatever fissures existed before start to deepen very rapidly into massive cracks.

Like any stressful situation, having a baby brings out the true character of a person. Combine the cocktail of sleep deprivation with nerve-jangling wailing, elevator hormones, less money, and fewer friends and social escapes, and it’s easy to see why the person you’re closest to might become the target of your pent-up frustration and angst.

On the other hand, when you view your partner in the middle of all that mess cooing lovingly at your child, then praising you for doing an excellent job as a parent, you can’t help but fall more deeply in love and realize why you married the person in the first place.

I wonder how many relationships break up over the stresses of raising a child together. Is it because knowing the person as a parent allows you to view them truthfully for the first time? It’s hard to keep a romantic fantasy going when you’re in the middle of explosive poos and projectile vomit, and a little one depends on you for their very survival and happiness.

Or does it all boil down to emotions and immaturity, not being able to work together toward a common goal, which is raising this beautiful human being? Maybe if more grace were given, more words glossed over, more fights forgotten, then more marriages would last. Maybe a baby is a test of endurance, and not just for eighteen years: till the end of your life.

If getting married is the dessert, perhaps raising a baby is like the meat and potatoes, the solid substance that may not always taste sweet but strengthens both the soul and the constitution. If a couple can join together and savor the experience, gristle and all, true growth can occur right alongside baby.