Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about family narratives and how they shape family culture. Most children grow up hearing stories about themselves: “You were a curious toddler and we had to keep the front door locked or you’d wander down the street. You were a brave child and always demanded to be pushed higher and higher on the swing.” Hopefully the stories are positive and not “Mom says I’m uncoordinated so I’d better not play soccer with the other kids on the playground.” Because over time kids internalize these self-stories and use them to form identities.
Narratives about who we are and what we’re capable of can be extremely powerful, to the point where adjusting one’s narrative can change one’s entire college career. Psychology professor Timothy D. Wilson wrote a whole book about this called Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By in which he advocates personal writing exercises as a method of “course correction.” As a writer myself, I’m a big fan of these methods, but I also wonder if visual components can also help sculpt an empowering narrative.
I just read Anne Lamott’s amazing Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year about the emotional landscape surrounding the birth of Sam, her only child. She grapples in the book with the fact that her son’s father doesn’t want to be in Sam’s life. She worries about coping as a single mother and she worries about her son only having one parent to love him. During her pregnancy she takes a Polaroid photograph of a domestic shrine that she assembles in a moment of clarity and strength. The shrine contains a sonogram picture of her son, a recent photo of herself holding her cat, and a photo of herself as a little girl, all taped under the crucifix hanging in her kitchen. Lamott uses this collage of photos to tell herself a new story about the meaning of her impending motherhood:
“[I] carried [the Polaroid] in my wallet for the rest of my pregnancy, as my family portrait—me, Jesus, Sam, and the little seven-year-old girl. I’d say to myself, See? We are already a complete family unit. We don’t need some guy. We are whole.”
Whenever my cousin moves into a new house, the first thing she does is hang up her photographs. Before she stocks the fridge or even puts toilet paper on the roll, my cousin gets out a hammer and nails her family narrative to the wall. She wants to see the story of her parents’ marriage, her childhood with her siblings, her and her husband’s honeymoon, her pregnancies, their children. It’s a constant reminder of who they are and where they came from and how fortunate their lives have been. And it’s especially important to remember these positive narratives when you’re feeling down and discouraged. You might know that you and your husband got into a fight immediately after that honeymoon picture was taken, but the photographic record tells you that the most important part of the story is the kiss that happened moments before.
A kid might feel grouchy or be mad at his mom and dad, but when he looks up and sees that framed photograph on the wall of all of them smiling together in a perfect, honest moment of connection, I think the image probably helps him keep his mood in perspective. No matter what storms sweep through the household, that happy family will always be there, looking over him, saying, “This is us. You are loved.”
On Sunday afternoon Matthew and I held four family mini sessions on Panorama Farms just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. We were delighted with the weather, the landscape, and—above all—the children. First of all, their outfits were amazing. Nine-year-old Ike worships Justin Bieber, thus he arrived in full urban regalia, boasting not one but two gold chains. The R&B teen idol fashion theme might not have corresponded to the rural location, but we went with it, and managed to bring the farm out of the boy/Bieber.
The little girls E and M wore cowboy boots and black patent leather shoes, respectively. Baby J wore a hat that his darling mother insisted was a “bucket,” not a bonnet, because buckets are a far more masculine accoutrement than what Little Bo Peep wears. And the little boys wore collared shirts, just like their daddies.
Matt likes to experiment with placing objects in the foreground of his photographs. We found a field of grain that the kids enjoyed roaming around in, and used the blades of grass to create an ethereal atmosphere. The stalks of wheat that M is holding so sweetly were originally used to tickle her nose.
One of the cutest moments of the day was when lifelong friends L and E trotted up the farm lane hand in hand. It was like seeing a vision of their future prom night. Only the corsages were missing. L is usually bold and rambunctious, but when leading E by the hand (and occasionally being led), he was a perfect gentleman. If these two are still besties in 15 years, I hereby declare that we will shoot their portraits for free. But they have to wear the same outfits.
At the end of the day, we’d shot holiday card photos for all the families, and collected an entire field of grass in our tennis shoes. Next time we shoot in the country I’ll have to take a page from E’s book and wear cowboy boots—far more practical.