There are no photos of my entire family together —meaning myself with my three brothers and our parents. They simply don’t exist. My parents divorced when I was 5 and my youngest brother was less than a year old. Since cameras weren’t as prevalent in everyday life back in the early ’80s, we didn’t get a chance to take photos all together before the family fractured and my dad moved out of state. There are photos of my parents with some of us kids — mostly me and my big brother — but I’ve yet to find one with all four kids and both parents.
This lack of photos featuring my entire family is a strange, troubling realization. And it’s a reality I aim to keep from happening to my own children.
I actually understand all too well how separation and divorce naturally lead to the end of family photos, because it started happening to us. Serge and I divorced when my youngest son was a newborn — the same age my youngest brother was when my own parents divorced. Even with smartphones offering the ability to snap hundreds of photos in an hour, those early days of my last child’s birth were filled with the heartbreak of separation and divorce, and capturing happy family moments was the last thing on our minds.
But, in the three years since we’ve been divorced, we’ve taken dozens of family photos because I consciously made it a priority. It’s important to me to get photos of the moments when we’re all together, and my ex-husband is happy to oblige.
Just because we are no longer a traditional family who lives under the same roof doesn’t mean our children have to grow up in a world filled with division — a world where their core family unit has never appeared in a photo together. My ex-husband and I understand this and, thankfully, we’re able to set aside the petty differences that spring from divorce and co-parenting for the few minutes — seconds, even — that it takes to snap a family photo.
While once rare and time-consuming, photographs of our lives can now be captured instantly on smartphones and have become a central focus in a society that increasingly revolves around digital images. And for good reason: Photos enable us to view ourselves in enlightening ways that may not be perceptible without the images. They help us tell the stories of our lives in an age where social media rules. They give us a sense of emotional belonging, whether it’s a photo of us with our parents, lovers, or best friends. They give us a sense of physical belonging by turning our houses into homes with framed memorabilia. In short, photos tell the history of who we are and where we come from.
So, to deprive my children of photos of their entire family, just because their parents divorced, would be a huge disservice to the stories of their lives. You don’t remember all the moments from your childhood, but you’re able to use photos as puzzle pieces to help you put together your past in a way that can often give you insight and purpose as an adult. Without some of the photographic signposts from my youth, I wouldn’t remember many circumstances surrounding my childhood. And without certain photos, specifically those featuring all your family members, you have nothing to tangibly anchor yourself to as an adult.
But it’s not just a continuation of family photos after divorce that I’m advocating. I also think it’s important to save photos and mementos from during the marriage, because eventually they belong to the children, who deserve to know the coupling they came from and the one-time love between the two people who brought them into existence.
My marriage certificate, photos of us on our wedding day, love letters, cards, emails — they’re all in a plastic tub in my attic, saved for my children who can do with them what they wish. Attempting to erase our relationship or my one-time love for their dad is a form of denying their existence, and I won’t do that. While the marriage is over, our family continues in this new form, and I want to honor that by saving old mementos and creating new ones with their dad.
Continuing to snap family photos with their dad and, yes, any stepparents and children we may eventually bring into the picture (literally) is the creation of a beautiful history we can all weave together for our children to appreciate when they’re older.