Cradling a newborn can feel very elbowy, their fragile little body creaking in the crook of your arm, and their giant head threatening to loll off. For me, cradling my baby was the moment I awaited that would anoint me a mother, the moment I had heard about in that Live song. It's the photo everyone wanted to take of me; I have countless snaps of me hunched over my baby daughter, my pointy nose jabbing toward her face, chin collapsing into neck, the classic mother Mary pose. You see this pose throughout the history of art, in People magazine, in the work of "Instamoms" all over Instagram. You see it in ancient fossils of moms who look legit exhausted, and I hate it.
The choreography is famous. It’s the posture little kids practice with their dolls, rocking them back and forth. You sort of scoop the baby up like a forklift, and then go through a thought-cycle of "this baby weighs nothing!" and then "I cannot believe how heavy you are" while peering down at a scrunchy little face for hours on end. It’s the perfect pose if you want to find yourself trapped with two arms under your sleeping child while sensation ebbs from your hands. It's the baby-hold you think you're supposed to use, until you find out about the far-superior "cross-cradle" and “football hold” from your lactation consultant. It is, I think, an overrated pose.
Scrolling infinitely through Instagram the other day, I realized there has been another pose there all along that better represented motherhood, and didn’t leave me with a humpback. A pose that gave me the feels. A pose that should be in every mom's repertoire. Am I thinking a little too hard about the #aesthetics of parenthood? Maybe, but we will look at these photos over and over — these snaps are destined to become hard-coded memories. Representation is powerful. We need a way of translating what we feel into an image we can keep.
Is there a posture that captures dad-dom? I think so. You see it at ball games, at Disney, at parades: Kid on Shoulders. Aloft in the sun, Kid on Shoulders is capable of anything, can reach for the stars, might grow up to be a CEO or an commodities trader. Kid on Shoulders is going somewhere, along with dad. It's not even always clear dad realizes he has a kid on his shoulders in these pics; sometimes it looks like he's striding about his business and a baby has simply dropped onto his head.
In contrast, Baby in Arms can’t do much but feel comforted; can suckle, can take. The mom in those photos is exhausted, is counting down to the 12-week milestone, busy tearing off parts of herself to feed to this tiny creature because her entire existence is bent on ensuring survival.
Fast forward a couple months, and you get Kid Toddling With Mom.
This pose is empowering. You’ve seen the framing before, probably in your childhood. You’re tottering along, and your mother has wrapped her body around you while bent over, forming a windbreak but waving your gaze on to the world ahead of you. Her hair blows across your face — she’s looking at you, and you are looking at the world. She is sharing you with a vision of the future — of the moment you grow up to take RBG’s place on the bench, or start a noisy Twitter campaign, or come up with the next tiny-food and become a billionaire — but in an instant, it looks like she could flap her coat around you and banish whatever malevolent sh*t is afoot. I love this pose.
The importance of Kid Toddling with Mom is partly that it is much kinder a photograph for a mom to take. The postpartum bod, the chins I couldn’t be bothered to deal with, are hidden, which I know sounds shallow, but it’s important that moms have a photo they love of themselves with their kid. The camera chooses what it brings to light, and for me, what I want to capture is that moment that my kid is starting to stand or walk; the moment they are about to take off, but can feel me there behind them.
Our kids are generally going to have some nice photo albums. Instead of bendy Kodak prints from Walmart stuck into cellophane sleeves, they’ll have hardcover retrospectives of superior iPhone photography doctored to present their childhoods in the literal best light.
The search for a good Insta pose isn’t a silly concern. So much of parenthood is a scary freewheeling that the blocking we assume — mom cradling baby, mom burping baby over her shoulder, dad holding baby’s neck straight as a ramrod in his surgery mask — act as footholds. Sometimes I look at photos of me doing something parental and I think, Phewf, it almost looks like I know what I’m doing.
Other times, I still don't know what to do with my hands.
Part of the reason we sucker up and buy matching "Mommy and me" tees for our kids is for the photo. "Here, at this moment in time," we are announcing, "the two of us were very in love." Sometimes we state simply: "Taco Twosday." Whatever the tee, the subtext is "us."
But body language says this much more beautifully. The Toddle Pose catches something ineffable about motherhood; the push-pull of preparing your kid for the world and never wanting to let them go.
Tourists flock to places — Robert Indiana's LO/VE sculpture; the Four Corners; the Museum of Ice Cream — to assume the pose that says, “I was here!”
As Celeste Ng puts it, motherhood is also a place; our children allow us to return there every time we hold them, and we can’t get there alone.