Photo: Courtesy of Rita Poliakov
My oldest son, Max, stood in the middle of the indoor playground, staring longingly at the slide. This wasn’t your normal, run-of-the-mill slide; it was a behemoth—a fast yellow monster with bumps and hills and screams emanating from its plastic body. I knew what Max was thinking. At three, my son wanted to conquer this slide. Like all the other three-year-olds, he wanted to climb up to the very top of the playground and have an adventure, but he was scared. This was how he’d been acting at the playground for months. My son—a calm, serious, cautious boy—wasn’t ready for the big slide yet, but he wanted to be.
And then it happened. He climbed up to the very top, took a deep breath and slid down. Instinctively, I dove for my phone, determined to capture the look on his face. This was the moment I had been waiting for. I had to document it. I had to share it and send it to all my friends. I had to turn it into my phone’s wallpaper. And in that mad dash, I missed it. I missed his first ride down a big-boy slide. I missed that look of pride on his face. I missed the very memory I had been trying so hard to preserve.
It was in that moment that I decided to cool it with the pictures. I had a lot of pictures—my phone was filled with my two sons’ faces. If they wore something cute, I had to have a photo. If they sang a song, I needed a video. My parents could barely pick up the boys without my phone in their faces.
Ever since becoming a mom, I’ve had this fear of forgetting. Forgetting a first time. Forgetting a cute sentence. Forgetting that, for about a year, Max called the Hokey Pokey the “Pooky Pooky.” In the rush of parenting, I didn’t want to miss anything. But the thing is, by trying to document my sons’ lives, I’d been missing things. It wasn’t until I put my camera away that I realized just how much I’d been missing.
The biggest example of that came one afternoon when my oldest son got his microphone out. Until just recently, Max had been oddly obsessed with an 80-year-old Italian singer named Adriano Celentano. He knew his music by heart, had all his dance moves memorized and loved to give hour-long concerts. Usually, I played the role of paparazzi, capturing his every breath. But one day, I didn’t reach for my phone. Instead, I participated in the concert. I played an audience member, a backup vocalist, a dancer and, for a short time, even Celentano himself. I saw things I would have missed if had a phone in my face: the way he broke character every so often to see if I was watching, the way he carefully sidestepped his little brother in the middle of a dance move to make sure there were no musical casualties, and the way my one-year-old son, Nicholas, wasn’t just yelling but trying to sing along.
Looking back on these performances, I can’t say I remember what my kids wore or which dance moves they perfected, but I do have full memories that a phone couldn’t capture.
My decision to photograph my kids’every movement isn’t unique. As a society, we excel at documenting even the most mundane moments. Forbes recently put together a list of eye-opening social-media statistics in an effort to show how much data we put out into the world. According to the article, 527,760 photos are shared by Snapchat users every minute every day and 46,740 photos are posted by Instagram users every minute—that adds up to 95 million photos and videos every single day. If that’s not enough, Facebook users upload more than 300 million photos each day—this adds up to a dizzying amount of photos racing through our feeds daily. But how much do we retain from these snapshots?
The answer can be found in a combination of studies published in June 2017 in the journal Psychological Science, which suggest that taking photos may improve our visual memory but hinder our auditory memory. Researchers conducted several experiments, including one where they asked 294 participants to tour a museum exhibit. Some were allowed to keep their cameras with them and told to take at least 10 pictures, while others were left without their cameras. All of the participants also had to listen to an audio guide while touring the exhibit and complete a quiz at the end of the tour.
The researchers found that the photo-taking participants did better on the visual aspect of the quiz than those without cameras, but they didn’t remember as much from the audio guide as their counterparts. So while I may be putting the visuals of my sons’ childhoods into my mental vault, taking a constant stream of photos means that I’m missing a key component of a full memory.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that while trying to preserve a memory, I’d be getting in the way of one. When I stopped asking my kids to “Look at Mommy,” smile and move so that I could see their faces, I stopped interrupting their play.
While Nicholas doesn’t have as many photos as my oldest son, he did have the opportunity to crawl from one end of our park to the other—a feat I didn’t know he was capable of accomplishing. Without a camera in his face, my youngest son taught himself to play peekaboo. He learned to make a clicking sound with his tongue and growl like his brother. He learned where the big-boy toys were hidden and how to annoy my oldest just enough to get a good giggle. And even though I don’t have photo proof of these moments, I remember them.
Rita Poliakov is a writer, mother of two and chocolate addict living near Toronto.
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