My mom sent me two decades worth of family photos. This gift is not merely beautiful photos of my only child; she showed me how much I'm in the picture—even when I'm not.

By Jessica Runberg
May 19, 2021
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An image of a grandmother looking at a camera.
Credit: Getty Images.

For Christmas, my mom gave me a hard drive of family photos labeled 2000-2020. This period encompasses my high school graduation, college, my wedding, and seven of the past eight years of my daughter's life. The photos end abruptly after a February 2020 sleepover at my parents' house, one of the last times we were all together before COVID-19 made the five miles between our houses feel closer to 500.

My mom is a photographer who has the talent and the equipment to go pro (she had a better camera than my wedding photographer), but her favorite subjects have always been family.

A photojournalist at heart, she looked for the moments between the moments. There's a picture of me in the '90s sporting a high side ponytail secured by a scrunchie as I stretched the phone cord to the recesses of the house for girl talk and another of my now-husband and me eating pizza for breakfast before my college graduation, laughing at the absurdity of having this nonevent documented. Sometimes the flick of her shutter elicited groans of "Oh, Mom," as I evaded photo ops growing up, but she was so deft that mostly I didn't notice or care.

Within a half-hour of my daughter's arrival into the world, my mom was in the birthing suite documenting the family's newest addition. She captured my daughter's full head of red hair (a Valentine's Day surprise) and the piercing look she gave my dad (she was not so sure about beards). It's also when she snapped her first picture of me as a mom.

Moms are not known for getting in the picture. We're either self-conscious about the way we look, or we're tasked with being the family Ken Burns. The kids are usually so cute that we don't think about taking pictures of anyone else. We know we should get in the picture. Next time, we say.

Because I didn't stop being my mother's daughter, she never stopped taking pictures of me.

There I am. Bouncing a baby to sleep in the BabyBjörn, putting on a kick-offed shoe at the park, brushing my daughter's fluffy red hair after a bath. I would have never thought to get out the camera for such mundane moments. Plus, I was usually wearing a spit-up-covered T-shirt and no makeup. There were thousands of afternoons like these; I didn't think they were anything special.

Only they were.

My parents babysat my sister's children during the workweek for several years so in some ways they were more like "playdate friends" than grandparents during this time. We were in the trenches together—changing diapers, chasing toddlers, going to library storytimes. I felt like a wayward time traveler as I watched my parents parent and I marveled at my mom's patience. Her soft voice was a calming presence. How does she do it? How did she do it day in and day out with my sister and me?

My mom always knew when to put the camera down, when I needed a good cry or a hug. When my daughter was 15 months old, and I was questioning whether I wanted to have another kid, she was the first to assure me that it was OK to have one child. She has always been my first call when I needed advice or to vent because I knew she would listen without judgment. My parents never tried to mold me into who they thought I should be—they just let me be who I was.

The gift my mom has given me is not merely beautiful photos of my only child; she showed me what it meant to mother. I'm struck by how happy I look in the pictures. Surely, I was tired, stressed, or overwhelmed just outside the frame. But the upturned corners of my mouth tell another story.

When I felt ill-prepared for a photo op, my mom's lens softened and showed me doing what all mothers do: rising to the occasion. Laughing it off when my daughter arched her back in the baby carrier and attempted her best Broadway belt, pushing an empty stroller through the zoo when my wild thing refused to sit still, pressing my baby's chest against mine until the rhythm of my heartbeat soothed her soul.

Sometimes I feel like an observer as I watch my child grow, interpreting cries and literally sitting on the sidelines of big-kid extracurriculars. But now I can see how much I'm in the picture—even when I'm not.

When the pandemic is over, I'm going to take more pictures of my mom. Because she's the one behind the camera, there aren't enough grandmother-granddaughter pictures. But I know their bond is more than pixels on a screen. Their multigenerational pillow fights, paper airplane contests, and Jenga matches are indelible. I always knew my mom would be an awesome grandma because she was an incredible mom.

Clicking through a terabyte's worth of memories, I'm surprised the milestones didn't stop when I turned 18; the last two decades of my life are filled with as many milestones as the first two. As my daughter gets older, with the rapid-fire firsts (teeth, foods, words, steps) behind us, there's still so much to look forward to.

I text my mom a picture of my daughter rocking a sky-high scrunchie-clad side pony. "Just like you," she laughs.