TODuring vacation last year, when I had been answering a lot of deep bedtime questions about sickness and health and Zoom school and “capsules,” I emailed my daughter, even though I still couldn’t read:
Scratching your back just now before bed, you half asleep asked: Mom, do you know anyone in the family who is bold? I was like yeah! You are bold. And did you say that I am? And I said yes, you are brave. And you said no no, like he doesn’t have HAIR, mom.
The first email I sent her, she was two years old. One day I texted a friend that, for no reason, my daughter had started referring to the people she loved (her aunt, her grandmother, her friend on the playground) as “my little love.” My friend replied, “You have to find a way to remember that. Send him an email! ” And I thought: Yeah, in an age where the prospect of buying a physical scrapbook and taking out the glue stick and the corners of photos is as realistic as going through the day without Goldfish squashed in my hair, I can mail electronic. So I opened a new account and sent a note to my tiny Holly Golightly.
And I keep throwing notes, because the elevator is pretty low; it is a way of handling the tangle of digital ephemera that I collect about my children every day; And, like almost all parents before me, I feel an inexplicable need to preserve in amber those moments of childhood that are too charming to forget. And it’s an impulse that has been documented for centuries.
“The design of this booklet is to meet a need, though perhaps unknown to many,” begins the preface to Baby’s Record: A Double Gift for Mothers and Children, published in 1889. “Most people regret that the small articles of childhood, so interesting, at least for parents, is forgotten ”.
What do I not want to be forgotten?
Here is a note from me, on the occasion of the morning of my 36the birthday: You walked in, you looked at me closely and you said: Mom, I know it’s your birthday, but you still seem to be the same height. You still look like you’re 35.
Here’s another one from my husband, sent – I could tell by looking at the date – just hours before the contractions started with his little sister: Your mom told me that after you brushed your teeth tonight, she walked into your bathroom and found you brushing your nose, very seriously, with an electric toothbrush. She said you shouldn’t brush your nose and you replied “Why not?” And she didn’t have a good answer.
“Baby books are full of minutiae, capturing all kinds of things that don’t register otherwise,” Russell Johnson told me when I contacted him on Zoom. “There are gems everywhere.”
Johnson is curator of the UCLA Library Special Collections. Through donations and eBay searches, he has grown the university’s collection of baby books to the current 1,900 volumes. The collection spans from 1872, when infant mortality began to improve, but also when people began to care more about childhood as a stage of life, to the mid-20th century. So we are in the 150 year or so of chronicling the lives of babies in some way.
The purported purpose of these memories has evolved over the years, Johnson explained. The well-to-do families of yesteryear often used its pages to list the gifts they gave their babies. As scientific medicine grew and pediatrics became formalized as a specialty, mothers were encouraged to document metrics: height, weight, everything we measure today on doctor visits. The most recent books, whether physical or virtual, leave room for photos of sonograms or hashtags. But all babybooks remain an intermediate document at heart: part biography, part scrapbook; partly data, partly personal, which often says more about the chronicler than about what is narrated.
Take this mother in 1906, who wrote in a baby book from the archives:
It’s been five weeks since I was born
Pretty quiet so far every morning,
But today I’m going to my aunt’s house
Quite a long journey for a girl my size.
If my friend told me that she had been completing a rhymed baby book five weeks after delivery, and from her baby’s point of view, I would rush in with a double bottle of wine and my therapist’s phone number. And no one, not the baby, not the mother, not an observer from centuries ago, will care much about the fact that this baby visited his aunt when he was five weeks old. But the effort it must have taken! The love this mother must have felt, as she remembered the monotony and wonder of the early days of parenthood – that’s what this post is about.
Only a friend of ours is not documenting her children’s childhoods with emails, digital journal entries, or iPhone notes. Her husband is afraid of big tech companies, and he rightly points out that he doesn’t want Google to have a record of who his daughter is before she’s old enough to understand and consent. Listen to that. But I’m not sure raging against the machine in this particular way will protect my kids from the evils of big technology, except to keep it a secret that my daughter will announce the # 1 goal for a new nasal brush on the market.
As for how my millennial friends and I are evolving the practice of chronicling babies, my hope is that what the medium lacks physically, it honestly makes up for. Photos are taken and preserved because they project a desirable image of the family. Metrics become irrelevant the moment they are scored. Instead, these letters are time capsules, intimate little details, and clues to who my son will become, sent to that future self, who I once was.
Johnson is often asked why people would give away his beloved baby books so that they would find their way to him.
“Children may not be that interested,” he said, stressing that parents write for us, even if we think we are writing for them; that we leave behind a chronicle of our own life, even when we think that we are leaving behind one of theirs. “I hope that when you deliver these emails to your children, one thing that will fascinate them is how interested you were in them.”
My young son has started doing something at bedtime. Just before I put him down, he looks at me and starts cooing, like a little dove, with big round eyes in the dark. He will do this for a full minute or so before fatigue takes over, at which point he will stick his second finger in his mouth, turn his head to the side, and fall asleep. Years in the future, will you mind having done this once? Probably not. But I wrote him a quick email about it this morning. Because yes, I am interested, I am interested in every moment.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism