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Baby Paparazzi: An Excerpt From Sophie Brickman’s “Baby, Unplugged”

In her witty and informative new book, Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age, Sophie Brickman explores the myriad roles that technology plays in our children’s lives and how best to navigate the digital landscape as parents. In this excerpt, she ponders the question, If You’re Capturing the Moment, Are You Ever in It?
Written By
Sophie Brickman

I tried not to read too deeply into the fact that when Dave and I finally broached the subject of when we should first memorialize our life as a family of three, we had wildly differing opinions. I was, after all, in active labor and literally hours away from delivery—there was no turning back now.

“If there were ever a time to document something, isn’t it the first few moments of a person’s life?” Dave asked, offering up an arm for me to ravage during one contraction.

“IS NOTHING SACRED ANYMORE?!” I wheezed out, when I caught my breath.

We were cutting a stuttering path northwest, from my OB’s office past the tulips on Park Avenue, toward the shiny black monolith of Mount Sinai hospital, where, thirty-two years prior, I’d been born.

And as we walked, we talked—well, we didn’t so much talk as I monologued, hopped up on hormones and excitement, while Dave waited to get a word in edgewise during contractions—about memory, and privacy, and whether or not we were going to be the kind of people who shared baby photos and, if we were, how we’d do it.

“No photos, okay?” I said to Dave as we finally arrived at the hospital. He squeezed my arm and said, “Sweetheart, whatever you want.”

Two hours later, during which I briefly considered leaving Dave for the nice young Jewish anesthesiologist who administered my epidural, Ella arrived, blinking and silent and warm, and they placed her in my arms. As we gazed at each other, and Dave leaned over to kiss my forehead, it was perfectly quiet in the room, nothing like the chaos I’d expected. I fixated on her tiny nails, and the fuzz on her upper arms, the light-blue tinge of her fingertips, her wide eyes, all that hair, matted down on the top of her little head. She opened her mouth up a few times like a fish, and I thought, How could I ever forget this? In that instant, I vowed to be the kind of mother who slowed down, was present, trusted in her innate ability to filter out the important memories from the junk, and rarely, if ever, inserted a layer of technology between me and a sacred moment with my child. Why invite Steve Jobs into my life’s most important moments?

A week later: videos and photos of Ella’s tiny hands and toes had nearly maxed out my phone’s storage space. Did I really need fourteen photographs of the heft of her cheek, even as the afternoon light streaming in the windows picked up slightly different shadows in each shot? I wasn’t sure, but I felt an inexplicable urge to document and then to share them.

One day, as Ella gazed up at me and I gazed at a photo of her on my phone—I’d taken several in rapid-fire succession to capture a smile that was, I later confirmed, most certainly unintentional and likely caused by gas—I remembered the photo albums my mother painstakingly made of me and my sister, one a year, each bound in a maroon binding that rubbed off on the white shelves under the television set.

I guess that was kind of what I was doing, capturing Ella candidly as she hiccupped and burped—but then again, it was also really not what I was doing, since my mother had to make real choices, both in the shots she took, then in the ones she developed, and finally, in the ones she pasted into albums. I felt slightly unsettled realizing that I had to make no choices, ever, when it came to capturing and preserving my child’s life, other than how quickly to tap my thumb up and down on the home button. There were simply no limits. Much like economic inflation, it occurred to me, the ease of the digital world served to deflate the value and importance of each snap.

It was obvious that I was less in the moment avec camera as sans, but what about Ella, who, as she grew up, took increasing delight in going through old photographs of herself on our phones? Was she becoming a little narcissist? I tried to keep Alison Gopnik’s mantra in mind—parenting is a mug’s game, all these little decisions aren’t having as big an impact as I feared—but it didn’t seem like the best thing in the world for her to spend time each day cycling through photos of herself.

On the flip side, was I helping her remember her life story more clearly by having her revisit it so frequently? I can’t remember much before I turned four. Maybe Ella would be able to remember her entire life.

But what the hell was I planning to do with those fourteen cheek photos? I entertained fantasies of going through each day’s haul and editing them down to a choice few, but once Ella fell asleep and I was released from my role as parent paparazzi, I found myself so tired, and so done with the phone, that I’d rather do just about anything else. So there they sat, taking up space, stored in the cloud, which I hoped didn’t suddenly spontaneously evaporate and wipe out the record of my child’s life.

I was most likely to revisit these random shots when I got a prompt from Apple, asking me to rediscover a certain day, via a slideshow or video the company had made for me. Which led me to a bigger, scarier, more dystopian question: Was I essentially outsourcing my family’s memories to an algorithm?

Then one night, when Ella was about a year old, I realized that I had loads of shots of Dave with the baby on my phone, and he had loads of me with the baby on his phone, but we had none of ourselves. So he shared his Google Photos account with me, allowing me to view anything he’d snapped.

It was then that I found it: a video Dave took, sneakily, a few moments after Ella was born. She’s lying on my chest, and I’m breathing, hard, and looking down at her. The first thing I noticed was the noise. In my memory, the delivery room was unexpectedly peaceful, Zen-like. Here, I could hear the steady beep of a heart monitor, people rushing around off-screen, someone calling for some tests. Her tiny head was outfitted in a hat. A hat? When did that go on? Wasn’t there that full head of hair, all matted down? And when did Dave even take the video? I found myself no longer so sure of what my experience had been in the delivery room or when things had happened. I saw the IV line snaking out of my right arm, which instantly made me remem- ber the uncomfortable feeling of the catheter they’d attached during the epidural, something I’d completely blocked out. My rosy picture had, somehow, become tinged in blue. But instead of getting irritated with Dave for taking a video on the sly, for rupturing whatever haloed memory I thought was real, or pure, I found myself watching the fifteen-second video over and over again. It was the first few moments of Ella’s life. Even if it was different than I remembered, it was still magnificent.

Excerpted fromBaby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age ,” by Sophie Brickman copyright © 2021.