So, I came across this in my FB feed the other day. And – to be clear – I totally get the sentiment and have not read anything by Pam Leo. Thus, what follows is in no way a reflection on research that I have not read, on the person who posted this excerpt, nor on the idea that children often act in ungrounded ways when they are not emotionally tethered and supported by their primary caregivers… In short, the quotation makes perfect sense to me, I was just caught and mired (read: irritated to mildly enraged) as I assimilated the juxtaposition of the words with background image.
One is meant to think, I assume, that the baby and bikini-wearing woman on one corner of the blue beach blanket is the mother of this story and that the little girl in her perfectly tidy pink-dress with un-mussed hair is her other child. The baby and the preschooler are, ostensibly, both getting their emotional needs met by having time with their golden-skinned, relaxed, and undistracted looking mother.
I mean, heavens alive, but that little blonde cherub almost looks like she has her hand up to ask a question in the world’s most beautiful classroom doesn’t she?
It’s a lovely scene and meme…
… ONLY if I take the offered juxtaposition as a kind of visual metaphor for how having ones emotional needs lovingly met should feel.
Warm, peaceful, engaged, smiling, beachy, sun-drenched, peaceful, respectful, and golden.
I can go with the meme-makers to embrace bright and shining moments of mutual attention and togetherness as a powerful representation of an important (even crucial) feeling tied to emotional wellness and the nurturance of children.
Sure. Yes. Okay.
Are they kidding me with this noise?
I want to see the before shot.
Maybe an after shot too.
I want to see the baby uncontrollably wailing about something. I want to see the preschooler spin gleefully around with her skirt over her head and her hands open as she creates an artful 360 degree armageddon of flung sand.
This shot, as-is, borders on reckless for the way it contributes to the all-too-prevalent cultural tendency to make parents and caregivers feel utterly wretched about themselves.
Where is the grounded, realistic, emotional support for parents and caregivers in even the juxtaposed suggestion that the best way to offer good care and emotional support to children is by being at a gorgeous beach, looking hot-as-hades in a bikini, with a stereotypically well-behaved preschooler all while breastfeeding with seamless ease?
Don’t her knees hurt? Mine probably would and I’m pretty bendy…
I will quickly point toward the obvious class-based limitations of this photo by saying that unless this is a bizarre remake of Blue Lagoon where a woman winds up trapped with only her bikini, her baby, her preschooler, and one blue blanket on a desert island, one can pretty much smell the 5000 square foot, two-story colonial beach house (replete with support staff) that’s just out of sight behind the preschooler. I will also not focus on the unrelenting white and blonde’ness of the image. I additionally choose not to linger on the fact that there are no adult male humans in the image because even when we perhaps unthinkingly pair an image with some words we seem to instinctively exclude men from all processes and responsibilities of emotional nurturance. I will also avoid emphasizing the danger of assuming that emotional support and wellness is best represented by calmness and ease, as if anger and sadness etc. are not also important emotions to honour.
For me, the standout issue – the one that has brought me here to write – is that no matter how good is the Pam Leo quotation – or might be the research in general – how we frame things for mass consumption matters.
Putting important words with an image is a full-on form of communication in and of itself. Every political entity since the dawn of mass media knows this. Word and image pairings and their juxtaposed meanings are powerful and so incredibly ubiquitous these days that my child, as I type this and probably at any point that any of you might be reading it, is endlessly scrolling his Instagram feed for “tasty memes.” To take its power for granted is dangerous. Especially when addressing the ongoing emotional stability and wellness of our children, that power should always be wielded thoughtfully rather than carelessly.
I feel confident when I say that I am quite good at attending to my child’s emotional needs. Arguably, I am less good – and certainly less gracious – at attending to some of his other needs (sometimes feeding myself is a challenge so, for example, having to constantly make sure there is food for him and his growth spurts too can be a real strain on my less domestic nature). But, really, I’m a nibble or two of cheese ahead of the other mice on this Pam Leo stuff. I will even provide references to attest to this truth if asked. I ain’t perfect, of course (or at all), but I really am damn good at the creation of a nurturing and safe space for my son’s emotional expression and growth. The bald fact is, though, that I’m not doing it from my sun-soaked knees in the sand.
I showed the image/word/meme thing that opens (and inspired) this post to my son the other day. He read it. He said, “Okay. I’m not sure why you’re so upset by this. I mean it seems fine.” I said, “Okay, first off. My love, do you feel like I do my best to offer you what the quote is saying is healthy?” He thought about it for a very short moment or two and said, “Yeah. You’re good at that stuff.” I said, “Thank you. I’m glad to hear that because I work at that and if you ever feel like I’m pooching it, please let me know and we’ll talk it out and I’ll do better.” (Yes. I really do say that exact kind of thing to my kid. Often and regularly.)
“Okay. But, I still don’t know why this is making you so mad.”
“Baby. Look at the picture. Really take it in. Does it represent how you think being a mom feels for me?”
“Um. No. I mean the photo might need to be, like, upside down maybe? And spinning?”
There it is.
Even the few times I’ve made it to a beach with him in the last decade have been fraught with endless discussions about weather and rush hour traffic and who’s driving and how long do we plan to stay and “did you pack a snack for yourself, you’re not five, why do you think I’m going to pack a snack for you?” By the time we get to the beach, I’m always pretty fried. I happen to be a beach person for whom just the feel of sand bars and tidal pools slows my heart rate and breathing. But logistics are a thing. Family is a thing. I don’t control all the pieces and, frankly, I wouldn’t want to because it isn’t healthy. Trying to control everything and everyone is one of the things children need to unlearn as they grow in order to be emotionally balanced and secure. I feel pretty confident that if I ever dig into Pam Leo’s work, she probably knows that too.
The upended swirl my kid immediately imagined as more appropriate than the sunny, polite, presumed perfection of the image on offer is a powerful truth for many parents I know. Our tornados are all different and we each have different gifts and challenges but I really do believe most of us have a pretty potent upside down whirl of dog walks and cat yarf, of aging or dying parents, of the fish you were saving for dinner being rotten two full days before its best before date… We have jobs that suck a lot of our time or more time free but not quite enough money. Some of us parent completely alone, some of us co-parent from different homes. We are dealing with racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, endless, endemic, deficit-based education systems… Some of us are struggling with our marriages or relationships or have somehow eschewed all forms of adult touch and connection just trying to keep the lights on and the fridge full…
Even the people I know with basics more-than-covered, beautiful marriages, and strong parenting relationships have their whooshing whirlwinds, their upturned messiness. Just the other day, in fact, a good friend of mine who is one of the most amazing, accomplished adults I know told me that when one of her children was two, she used to literally flip chairs when she was mad. And, I promise you, that little girl got mad even with a mom who understands how to attend meaningfully to emotional needs.
To make any of us feel – even accidentally, even casually – as though emotional presence and care of our children is best represented by images as potentially exclusionary and idealized as this one actually winds up undermining Pam Leo’s important words. The whole point, it seems to me, is to be able to support and love and nurture our babies even in the inverted storm.
Even when it’s rainy.
Even when it’s dark.
Through hurricanes and lacerations.
In quiet and cacophony.
All the feels. All the contexts.
And this one, as you can probably tell, kind of got under my spinny, capsized, always tired, always trying skin.
All I ask, moving forward, is for all of us to give more thought to the many memes we throw around because, honestly, our children ingest far more of them than we do even if their only exposure to tech is in school. The memes are here and there and everywhere and short of the full collapse of the world as we know it (something that keeps me up sometimes while I’m clinging to my ceiling) I don’t think they’re going anywhere soon. So, if you ever are the one creating a meme… If you have some words you care about and want to share – or an image you love that seems to beg for words… Please remember that each part of the pair has its own story and together they will always tell a third.
So. Please. Think about it. Do it on purpose. Or maybe don’t do it at all.
We are all someone’s child with emotional needs and this damn meme did not fill my damn cup with love.