Story by Amanda Ann Klein
Photos by Maisy Gold Woodmansee
Only years later did I think to upload any of the hundreds of photos my daughter took with her brand new Fisher Price “Kid Tough” digital camera during the first few months of 2010. In addition to her burgeoning interest in amateur photography, it was during this time that my daughter learned what it meant to have a sibling, a brother who arrived, angry and red, late in the evening on that January 13th.
These photos are a record, in a way, of the shifting of my world from one thing into another. In this new world I was expected to love another human being with the same totalizing, one-of-a-kind, impossible-to-share love that I had for my daughter. My new world was wrapped in the gauzy fabric of sleeplessness that my fussy baby spun around us both like a soft, suffocating dream. My new world was 2 hours of sleep, then 1 hour, then 2 again, all logged with pen and paper in neat columns, a puzzle I could never solve, only record. I read a lot of blogs about sleep training and feverishly skimmed the tearful testimonials published to online mommy groups, anxious to learn of yet another sleep training method, another technique that would finally transform those 2s and 1s into 4s and 6s and, Lord Almighty, even 8s.
My memories from that time are brief and scattered bursts of moments in an otherwise blank expanse. I remember, for example, taking both children for a walk, a few weeks after the birth of my son, and my mother taking him from my arms. “Go on,” she said, “Go walk with your daughter.” This was the first (but not the last) time I would have to pull myself out of that obsessive, abusive relationship that a mother often has with her newborn — a co-dependence which is not chosen but which is thrust upon them both — in order to remind myself of my daughter’s existence. I knew she still needed me, but I had nothing left for her.
A large percentage of the photos on the camera were illegible — out of focus, streaked with action, or simply opaque frames, the product, most likely, of my daughter repeatedly pressing the shutter while the camera was buried in her lap. She was, after all, only 3 years old at the time.
My daughter’s favorite subject was surely her face. Her expressions are either of concentration or surprise, a reflection not of her mindset at the time, I hope, but of the 3 year old’s total absence of self-consciousness. She can’t yet see how she might look from the outside, as a photographic subject. These are un-selfies.
Her next favorite subject was me, then the center of her world, and these photos reveal me from her point of view: as a woman forever holding The Baby. And when I’m not holding or feeding or changing The Baby, I’m about to pick up or put down The Baby. We are not two but one, The Baby and me, and my daughter is on the outside looking in.
Sometimes my daughter catches me eating furtively in darkened corners of the house, like a fugitive who knows she might need to drop her food and dash at any minute.
Sometimes I’m cleaning.
In these photos I am barely there, a ghost-mother hovering over her life. My body was not my own then; it belonged to my captor, my accomplice, my paramour, who controlled when I ate and slept and woke and shit and showered. I wasn’t Me then; I was Mother. Some days, though, I would remember myself, and I would pose.
When my daughter had enough of me, she turned to still life compositions.
Some, weirdly artful.
Without her mother’s constant attention, my daughter found herself increasingly in the company of her father, who, unlike me, was always willing to pose.
I’m comforted by these photos, proof of my husband’s existence in 2010, because I can barely picture his face from this time, only his actions: he is the driver of carpools, the drawer of baths, the maker of meals, the buyer of groceries, the one who can’t breastfeed.
I can only remember him on one day clearly. It was a Saturday in May, warm enough to open the screen doors and let the spring pollen dust the hardwoods and the tile countertops with its fine green coat. I had washed my hair. I remember that it smelled good that day. And I was telling my husband that his weekend afternoons alone at the community garden were too much to ask for because, while he felt entitled to a hobby, I didn’t get to have any hobbies other than keeping the baby alive, a baby who swallowed hours and days whole with his great gaping baby maw, so that meant that nobody got to have any hobbies.
I was holding on so tight then, fearful that my bone-white grip would loosen and then break free altogether, sending me spinning, weightless and out of control, into space. I don’t think I said this last part out loud. But he understood me. Some days were like that.
That summer the tomatoes in the community garden didn’t bud. Instead we bought bright, flavorless heirlooms at the store and no one complained. This is my only memory of my husband before July.
My daughter’s camera also documented the steady stream of visitors who came and went during those first few months — bringing gifts and extra arms and the promise of naps which never came — and who acted like they were there to see my daughter even though she was old enough to understand they were not.
My husband’s cousins:
My hometown best friend:
And there were, of course, photos of him, The Baby, the one who everyone loved but who barely did anything at all. Did she love him then? There was nothing in it for her, but still, I think she loved him a little.
Looking back to 5 years ago, I’m remembering my guilt. I’m remembering how I assumed my daughter felt abandoned by a mother who possibly loved her a little less now that there was a new baby in the house. I imagined her pining for me, the mother who cried during bedding commercials because she wanted to slip between the cool whiteness of that Egyptian cotton and sleep for hours with a big smile on her face, too, the mother who was always around but never really there, the mother who was so close to spinning away and away and away. I always assumed that this time was as hard on her as it was on me.
But now, when I look back at these photos, I can see that my daughter was fine all along. These pictures tell me the story of her life from moment to moment as she set up still life compositions or went to the park with our neighbors or, after many failed attempts, figured out how to take one, perfect selfie.
Editor’s Note: After Maisy read this story, I asked her if I could interview her and if I could add it to the story. She was down.
About the photographer
Maisy Gold Woodmansee is 8 years old and lives with her parents and younger brother in North Carolina. She has a high blue belt in Tae Kwon Do and enjoys acting and singing.