On photos and parental smirks

by Gina Schouten on September 27, 2019

Since becoming a parent I’ve been experiencing a new flavor of gentle inter-generational antagonism. The thing that I call a “pack-‘n-play? My parents call it a “play-pen.” This linguistic development is amusing to them. I kind of think they’re right to be amused. I’m not sure if it’s funny that we can’t handle product names that evoke a sense of our children as animals, or if it’s funny that we can’t accept that our children basically are (sometimes) just animalistic things to be contained. But they’re right that there’s some plausible story behind this product’s evolution that says something sweetly laughable about those of us on this end of it.

They’re also gently antagonistic about the sheer number of products we have available for easing our various parenting tasks. When they have need to buy a gift for someone’s new kid, they like to go to brick-and-mortar child accessory stores to handle all the objects and wish—smirkingly and out loud—that they’d had these contraptions when we were little. What I hear in that smirk (Is the smirk even really there? Am I only imagining it?) is the thought that we are all really very cute to think we need all that stuff to keep a kid alive.

The gentle tease makes me feel so conflicted: On the one hand, yeah, yeah, we’re big soft goofs who can’t accept that sometimes the thing to do with a kid is just to pen it up. On the other hand, if we just pen it up, how will it know that we regret that we have to pen it right now so that we can pee, but that we wish we could engage with it instead?

I’ve learned, though, that there’s revenge to be had. I’m not the only one feeling conflicted here.

I get that it’s sweetly satisfying that your kids who just yesterday were rolling their teenage eyes at your attempts to capture a moment are now adults obsessively photographing every darn thing their kids do. But do you know what disrupts that sweet satisfaction just a little bit? When you also really want to see a photo of every darn thing your kids’ kids do. Score one for the big soft goofs.

Of course the next turn is to remember that there’s something wise in each gentle tease. I do take a lot of pictures. The most immediately obvious reasons to regret that don’t seem to apply. I’m not photographing the moment to the exclusion of living it—My phone’s right here in my pocket; I can snap a picture with little disruption and I don’t even have to hold my phone in front of my face to do it. And I really do need these pics to remember this moment—That business about sleep deprivation and enduring memory is real, I think. For example, I know that this time last year we took the kid to a pumpkin patch. But short of finding the pictures, I can’t bring that experience back. I can’t feel the texture of experiences from the recent past like I used to. What did he look like then? Had we started putting shoes on him yet? Was he old enough to be interested in a pumpkin? Was that one of the outings that we enjoyed or one of the ones that resulted in tears from all three participants?

So taking the photo doesn’t seem to ruin the present, and I know my future self will be glad to have it. And yet I can’t shake the sense that I really should resist the urge to capture so much. What are the values here that I’m neglecting to account for? What have philosophers said about this?

A loving smirk can be its own reward for those on both ends of it. I’d find it kind of satisfying to find one loving parental smirk that is only fun and not at all full of wisdom. Might this finally be that long-awaited smirk?

I doubt it, but one can hope.



Ray Vinmad 09.27.19 at 8:49 pm

Growing up, my father was a shutterbug. We were constantly being posed in front of things, or we still can’t manage to go through this closet he has stuffed from top to bottom with envelopes of these moments. Perhaps as a form of rebellion, I eventually refused to be in photos, take photos or even save or value photos. My long-term memory is exceptional (or so I thought) and I tend to remember visually. You can ask me what the railings were like in my grade school stairway or what color my childhood couch was or what the interior looked like in the first car my parent’s bought, and I can remember. I can even remember the cordoroy brown seats of my best friend’s car. I preferred this internal record to an external one.

Then I got older. Now I often stare at one the few photos I allowed of myself as a teen. I’m standing there, head down in a blue turtleneck. We’re in my grandmother’s front yard, my head is down. Handheld video units were a new thing. My uncle had one that was a football game, I am probably playing it. Next to me, my beloved troubled aunt and grandmother, both gone now. I see the mountains in the back, the split rail fence, my grandma’s rust bucket car, the weird trees she had that were actually some kind of invasive plant the neighbor planted that turned into trees if you didn’t pull them. I’m very thin and lanky (I always believed I was fat). My grandma’s house was in the countryside. It’s no longer the countryside–the surrounding land, all empty and full of snakes and quail and rabbits has all been developed. I’ll never go there again. No one I know lives there. I can remember the smell of her well water, and the taste but there’s just something about that photo that gets me.

I’m sure there were many other photos I could have that would evoke this feeling of loss and the rush of memories but I don’t have many photos.

Someone once said time is a fire. It is–and all the photos will burn up in that fire someday as well–but the pictures are like something we can fish from the ashes and hold on to. I know what they’re for now.


Brian 09.27.19 at 8:51 pm

My experience has been that all those pictures are like the rest of digital photography: No, you don’t need them all, and most of them are junk, but you will get a few great shots of your kids that your parents never got of you. How much that’s worth is up to you.


Emma 09.27.19 at 9:46 pm

This is why I got my tubes tied.


Joshua W. Burton 09.27.19 at 10:50 pm

In Hebrew it’s a lul, which is also a chicken coop; in Spanish, corralito, a little corral or barnyard.


Alan White 09.28.19 at 3:19 am

Gina (if I may) a lot of good reflection and wisdom in the OP. And I wish to thank RY@1 for those careful thoughts as well.

I too only have a few dozen photos from my childhood, and I wish I had more. I came from a low-income background with Brownie cameras and such, and photography then was much more a function of planning than the photographic serendipity we have today with smartphones in nearly every pocket (and that’s across all income levels since they’re in such demand as a requirement of being part of any society). Now most people snap stuff more as a matter of social programming than inspiration, and of course any addiction too often leads to overdose, but taking pictures isn’t at all fatal unless one Instagrams oneself into dire trouble from the habit. So far, being older and having only a mostly neglected FB page, I’ve avoided taking photos all the time with my iPhone, but I’ve been grateful to have it when an opportunity arises.

But there is something to be said for the value of memory–it very often constitutes the basis for its imprint into poetry and other literary and oral reminiscence, which if done well can impart aesthetics that no picture can capture alone. The fallibility of memory is a strong component of the richness of oral traditions after all, but having a picture (or even worse, Googling every minor point of controversy, as a friend of mine does) can rob us of that opportunity. Don’t get me wrong–facts are essential for public life–I’m no fan of Trumpian alternate reality–but an overabundance of them in our personal lives deprives us of a real source of the creativity of memory.


dbk 09.28.19 at 8:25 am

I guess as a brand-new grandparent I’m in the bricks-and-mortar store category, sigh. Hard to believe that time has come and that, oddly enough, I’m enjoying it and trying very hard not to be ironic or wise with the new parents – who swore up and down they wouldn’t buy “stuff” for the Little One, and whose flat is now filled to the brim with “stuff” and they’ve just gotten started, ahem ahem.

The google photo albums our SIL started when Little One was born are great – lots of the pics aren’t, true, but they do give an idea of what they’re up to, and SIL is kind enough to post new pics every day, often with a couple short videos thrown in for good measure.

Where we live, the play pen is called a “little park,” which I think is kind of cute. Our kids absolutely refused to be confined for more than the time it took them to figure out that we had put them in it, so it turned out to be a useless piece of equipment.


John Quiggin 09.29.19 at 4:20 am

Not sure if it’s because I’m old or because I’m an Australian, but I’ve never heard it called anything but a playpen.

An OT anecdote. In one city I lived in, there was a nightclub called the Playpen. The only time I visited was when the university I worked for hired it (during the day) for an all-hands meeting of senior staff (professors were senior staff in those days). It was exactly the fiasco you would expect from the choice of venue.


bad Jim 09.29.19 at 8:46 am

Family gathering last night, youngest a few months, oldest 91. My middle brother, father or four, specialized in making the small ones (two and three) squealing in happy fear of his feigned assaults. This is a case in which shrill means a risk of hearing damage: ow!

Of course there were photos. We’ve always had photos. What used to be a dark room in the garage is now used for storage, which I don’t need to explain, but the point is that my family has a long tradition of capturing the moment, going back to the beginning of the last century.

Twenty five years ago, when our neighborhood looked likely to burn, my mother bundled the photographs, the fine china, and the dog into the car. Last year when I had to evacuate I just gathered the photos, having neither mother nor dog. My brother, nearby, had to move his dog, tortoise and guinea pig into a handy nearby animal ark, and they were all in my house the next day because the city was slow to relax the evacuation order.

My mother had always said that if worst came to worst she’d save the photos, and she did, and so I did, though next time I’ll remember to take the ones on the wall as well.


Nickp 09.29.19 at 1:39 pm

If I’m not mistaken, Pack ‘n Play is just the brand name of the portable playpen that dominates the market. Adoption of the term as a generic could be something like kleenes or hoover.

I have occasionally run across the term “playard” or “play yard” which might be an attempt to avoid “playpen.” But “play yard” parallels the Spanish corralito, which Joshua W. Barton mentions above, so I dunno. Maybe play yard is a regional Americanism?


William Timberman 09.29.19 at 2:02 pm

Wonderful post, and comments to match. At one time or another, I’ve experienced more or less all the emotions documented here. I suppose that’s what makes them wonderful, the fact that they can so easily afford me a moment or two of affinity with the rest of the species I was born into. In times like these, such moments are not to be sneezed at.

Still, I owe them no allegiance. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, etc. (The sure and certain hope of resurrection bit is surely one of those ambiguous adult smirks anyone who lives long enough earns the right to display on his or her own face.)


Margaret Atherton 09.29.19 at 3:05 pm

My daughter takes many pictures of her now 2-year old son and posts them on a limited access website and I purely love it. I try to stop myself from harassing her if she skips a few days. On the other hand, my mother used a play-pen and so did I. I’m much happier with a full and frank name for what we were doing.


Sam Tobin-Hochstadt 09.29.19 at 6:37 pm

I think there’s a less interesting explanation for this name change: the name pack-n-play is the brand name of the very popular Graco brand of these devices, and has become a generic term in common use.


Harry 09.30.19 at 12:44 pm

“Pack ‘n Play is just the brand name of the portable playpen…” Sure. It was a follow up to Graco’s previous product “Pack ‘n Imprison” which, strangely, didn’t sell very well.


LFC 09.30.19 at 8:50 pm

Graco’s competitor ToughLove entered this market with a playpen under the brand name “Discipline ‘n Punish” which came with a small photo of Foucault affixed to one of the playpen’s legs, and also in a deluxe version with a miniature panopticon, in soft foam rubber (so as not to be a safety hazard), in the playpen itself. It sold well as a novelty item for a little while but then was discontinued.


Area Man 10.01.19 at 7:59 pm

On top of what others said about Pack ‘n Play being a brand name, its distinctive feature is that you can fold it up into something like a suitcase and take it with you anywhere. This is something that I’m guessing playpens of previous generations didn’t do, or didn’t do very well, so is really is a different product.

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