[Warning: Cliche overload ahead. Proceed with extreme caution.]
Next week my baby boy turns two. When did this happen??
Pretty much every cliche I’ve ever heard about parenthood has turned out to be true. Scarily true. They grow up so fast. Every moment is precious. The time flies. It seems like only yesterday…
Life has changed completely in the past two years, and it feels like an eternity and an instant at the same time.
Kids just don’t follow the laws of physics, it seems.
I wouldn’t say that I didn’t realize that things would change. I knew it would be different. Here’s what motherhood looked in my head…
Instead of sitting at my desk working by myself, I’d be sitting there working while my baby played happily and quietly behind me for hours. And instead of casually walking out the door to go to a shoot, I’d have to arrange a babysitter (free and readily available of course), and my son would cheerfully wave as I left, then he would eat his dinner without complaint and go to bed easily and on time, while I was off shooting, completely carefree.
(In case you’re wondering what that strange noise is – that’s the sound of all the parents reading this laughing until they snort.)
So I was naive and unprepared for the reality of parenthood. I suspect that’s an evolutionary necessity for undertaking this adventure. Two years in and I wouldn’t change it for the world, but man if it hasn’t been hard. Really hard. It’s changed everything, and made it all more challenging.
But it’s also made everything better in almost every way.
So here’s how things have changed, and what I’ve learned in the process. Some of it is about photography. Some of it is about business. Some of it is about life. All of it is filled with cliches. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Photographing Your Kids Is Really Freakin’ Hard
Photographing family portraits gave me a dangerously misinformed expectation of what photographing your own family would be like.
Here’s what I mean. This is what shooting someone else’s family looks like:
You pick a scheduled timeframe (usually optimized for naps and good light). You arrive at their house (already spotlessly cleaned) or a beautiful location. The kids have all been bathed, gorgeously dressed and given strict instructions that they must listen to everything you (the photographer) tell them, and behave themselves, and smile nicely, and then they’ll get to go for pizza afterwards.
You proceed to play around and take photos in the golden light as they all smile and laugh and act nicely with each other for precisely 1.5 hours. You have absolutely nothing else in the world to do during this time except take their photos. It’s practically relaxing. Plus you’re getting paid to do it. Dreams do come true don’t they?
Then, when you decide you’re done, the session ends and you say goodbye. They pile in their car and head off (the doors are closed before you can hear them arguing about who’s turn it is to pick the pizza place). You think about how much fun that was, and imagine how wonderful it will be when you have your own family to photograph like that EVERY DAY.
Then you go home and nap for two hours.
That’s what I thought it would be like to photograph my own family. I had no clue. No idea about how exhausted I’d be just from looking after the kid, let alone summoning the energy to actively chase him down for a photograph. How much effort it takes to keep him relatively clean each day, let alone looking stylish. How your plans for photos with your own kid take a back seat to teething, tantrums, or plain old disinterest. There are only so many times you can tell a toddler to stand in the gorgeous light before they’ll just scream at you and run off.
He doesn’t care that this is a great place for a family photo.
Now, it’s definitely an enormous challenge, but we’re trying. Really hard. In two years we’ve taken over 64,000 photos of our daily adventures, and a vast majority of those are of Max. We even take a photo of him every single night before bed.
But I don’t feel like I’m doing a very good job of capturing him. Some days we do. We do an especially good job when traveling, and everything is new and exciting. But the day to day stuff, the new faces he’s making, the new games he’s playing, I’m not trying hard enough to record those. And I’m definitely not trying hard enough to do it with the incredible artistry that so many photographers manage to get in their family photos.
Do I feel guilty about it? Of course. I’m a photographer, and I’m not doing as much or as good of photography as I’d like.
Do I make mistakes? Tons. I forget to take photos. I get lazy, and take sloppy shots. Sometimes I even actively choose not to take any photos at all.
But I don’t ever give up completely.
I keep trying. I keep coming back to photography. I keep reminding myself to say “Yes” to taking the camera, to taking the photo.
If there’s anything you need to be a great photographer of your family it’s stamina. My photographic career has thus far consisted of small bursts of shooting. A hour, a day, a weekend at the most. Photographing something over years? Decades? That’s serious business, and you don’t just instantly develop the stamina you need to undertake it. You fight for it every day, and gradually, bit by bit, you get stronger.
Will I ever be perfect at this? Of course not. Perfection doesn’t exist. But I will get better, and, most importantly of all, Max will one day see how many shots we took, and how much time and effort we put into documenting our life together, and he’ll know how much we love him. That’s why I keep trying.
(And I’d like to now give a shout out now to all the parents who are putting in the tough work it takes to capture their families. You are doing a super hard job, one that is often undervalued, and you should be incredibly proud of your efforts!)
Patience is The Most Important Skill
If there’s a word to describe everything I’ve learned about parenting in two years it’s patience. When I’m patient, I’m a better parent. When I’m not, things get frustrating really quick for me, him, and everyone around.
Patience isn’t something I come by easily. International travel has helped me develop a little bit of it, particularly when waiting in long lineups or when trying to figure out confusing train schedules, but generally speaking I like things now, and I don’t want to wait.
Kids don’t give a darn about whether you want to be patient or not. They demand it in everything you do. And so I practice. I breathe. I repeat the parent’s mantra: “This too shall pass”. And I try really darn hard to be my most patient self.
An interesting thing happens when I actively work on my patience: Everything else improves. My photography gets better. I pay more attention to what’s in front of me instead of pressing on to see what’s around the next corner. I stay still for a longer time, and appreciate more.
And I remind myself that photography is a lifelong journey, and that I need to be patient with myself. I may not be where I want to be right now, but I’ll get there one day.
And business? Yep, patience is king/queen there too. That project taking longer than you expected? Patience. That new idea you tried out not working? Patience. That customer who is getting frustrating to deal with? Patience. Your business not succeeding when everyone around you seems to be doing victory dances? Patience.
I’m not sure if there’s anything harder for me to be than patient, but I also know there’s nothing more important.
It Won’t Be What You Expected
I’m coming to suspect that expectations are to blame for a lot of the challenges and disappointments I face on a regular basis. I thought life with a baby would look one way. It turned out differently, and that made me frustrated.
It’s so easy to fight against reality in the hopes that we can make things fit what we imagined. We often don’t even realize we’re doing it. But when you write it out, and see those words right in front of your eyes, it instantly seems so silly.
Parenthood won’t be what you expect it will be (see everything above). Your photography business won’t go exactly as you imagined. Even that shoot you have coming up, it’s going to be different than what you pictured in your head.
We have a choice. We can accept what truly is, and embrace it. Or we can desperately cling to what we thought it would be, and resist accepting the reality.
I suspect only one of those paths leads to happiness.
Change Is Hard. But Essential.
We wanted to spend as much time with our son as possible, so we worked hard for years to create a company that would give us the freedom we needed to keep him with us all day, and still make a living.
Surprise, surprise. Our expectations of what it would be like working and having him home did not match the reality.
After a year and a half of struggling to balance it all we were faced with a tough decision. We felt like we were barely keeping our heads above water. Spending all day taking care of Max left us worn out, but as soon as he was in bed we had to trudge into the office, slump into our chairs, and work. We dreaded the evenings, we weren’t sleeping much, and we were doing our work when we were exhausted. Not a recipe for quality. But a very good one for burnout.
Eventually we knew we had to change something – the business, or the situation with Max at home. He was starting to show a lot of interest in other kids, and seemed desperate for more social interaction. Changing our whole business wasn’t appealing, since we do indeed enjoy our work, and so we made the call. We enrolled him in a day home.
Making that decision was hard. It felt like we were admitting defeat. It felt like we were giving up on a dream that others would have fought harder to keep. More than a few tears were shed in the process, and that first day dropping him off with a relative stranger was absolutely heartbreaking.
But then something happened. We came home and sat down to our computers, with hours stretched out ahead of us to focus. And we worked. And (who knew it was possible) we enjoyed that work again.
And then Max made friends. And brought home adorable fingerprint artwork. And we got more done in a few months than we had in a year.
Pyjama day is the best day.
One of the toughest decisions we ever made has brought more balance, happiness and progress into our home. The tough decisions are tough for a reason: they have so much potential for change. And change is scary.
Here’s something that helped me when making this tough choice. Change is hard, but it is very rarely permanent. We can change again. We can try something new. Sometimes we can even go back. When we were making this decision about dayhome we said “If it doesn’t work out, we’ll try something else”. And that made it doable.
“But what about those permanent decisions?” you say. “Like having a kid!”
Good point, I say to you. And then I can only say that change isn’t an isolated event. It’s never the case that only one thing will change. Instead, a change sets off a chain reaction, and forces everything around it to change as well. Think life with a kid will be hard? It will be. Think it will be impossible to accommodate with your current situation? Maybe. But that’s the thing. Your current situation won’t be your situation with a kid. You will change. People around you will change. The way you approach everything in your life will change. And the universe will balance it all out.
If kids teach you anything, it’s how to be present. Those little munchkins don’t worry about their email inbox, the chores they have to do this weekend, or whether they’re saving enough money for retirement. They simply exist in the moment, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.
As photographers this skill is essential to great images. Without our minds on our current situation, we won’t be able to create the best work from the scene. Your ability to be present is key to your success as a photographer.
But it seems harder than ever to be fully present. There are countless diversions pulling at our attention, buzzing in our pockets with promises of distraction. We need to make being present an active pursuit. When you’re out shooting watch yourself for any of those little ways you separate from the moment. Wondering about your to-do list. Thinking about social media. Thinking about dinner (guilty!). When you feel yourself drifting, pull it back and get present.
The benefits of this practice extend far beyond photography, and make every part of life more fulfilling, so I highly encourage this. It’s hard, I know, and I constantly need to give myself little reminders. But every time I do manage to get present, I find I enjoy what I do so much more.
Ego Gets In The Way
I think it’s probably a tough thing to hold on to your ego when you care for small children. The simple act of devoting yourself to someone else is an excellent exercise in removing ego.
When your baby pukes right in your face, and you don’t think for a second about how it affects you, but worry only for the child, you know what it’s like to be without ego, even for just a small moment. (After you’ve determined that the baby is ok, you probably will jump right into thinking about how it very disgustingly affects you.)
Our egos hold us back from so much in life. In photography, your ego can get in the way of your interactions with your subjects. Coming into a session ready to wow your clients with how interesting you are? You’re missing out on the real value of portraiture. Think you know exactly how to get the best shots, and there’s no need to learn anything more? You’re only holding yourself back.
And business? Just think about it. Would you like to do business with someone who is full of themselves? Or would you rather work with someone who is giving and sensitive to what you need and want? Your clients feel the same way.
Eliminating ego is one of those big life challenges that will be a constant struggle. And it’s all fine and great to talk about how important it is, and a completely other thing to live it. But I’ve definitely seen that in those rare shining moments when I manage it, things change. Big time. And always for the better.
You Will Fail. Repeatedly. Keep Going.
I’ve failed so much as a parent, as a photographer, and as a businessperson.
I lose my patience, daily.
I don’t take enough photos. And I definitely don’t print enough photos.
I get distracted (all too easily) and neglect to be present. I let silly things like social media distract me from these fleeting moments I have with my son, when he actually wants to spend time with me.
And all too often I forget to remove my ego from my business dealings and end up missing out on valuable interactions.
Some days it feels like I well and truly suck at what I’m doing, and I just want to give up.
But that’s the thing about kids, isn’t it? You can’t give up. Your next chance to do better will come sooner than you can imagine (like at 4AM) and you’re right back in it.
You can quit photography. You can quit business. But you can’t quit being a parent. You’ll always be a parent. The one thing you can choose is whether or not you’ll go all in. Whether you’ll jump into the mess, make the mistakes, and never stop trying to be better, even when you fail day after day after day.
So maybe, in all of these lessons, the most important thing I’ve learned is that we are all stronger than we think we are. I never knew I could be as patient as I’ve been in the last two years. Or work as hard. Or keep going when I’ve been so exhausted.
And I do it because I’ve made the choice to go for it. We can all make that choice, when it comes to parenting, photography, or business. We can choose to take the failures. To face the tough challenges. To pick up the camera even when we’re exhausted. To try a new business strategy even when the last one failed.
We are the only ones who can make ourselves a good parent, a good photographer, and a good businessperson. And we all have it in us to do it. So let’s go for it, shall we?
Although if you get puked on at 4AM I give you permission to give up. For 5 seconds. Then get back in there, champ!