The Depiction of Parenthood: the lies we’re all complicit in, and the photographers telling a more honest and diverse story
In the latest in our Creative Parents series, Gem Fletcher beautifully dissects the gap between the lived reality and representation of parenthood, speaking to Alex Huanfa Cheng, Chieska Fortune Smith, Phillip Toledano and others about their contribution to a broader pictorial view.
It begins with family albums; whether you're from the neat, faux leather-bound variety or the overflowing shoeboxes under the bed type, those nostalgic 6 x 4's are intrinsically the same. Moments of celebration, milestones, family gatherings all laced with a heady mix of cheshire cat grins and awkward forced smiles. While we look back on them with fondness, they seek to hide reality. The mess, the chaos, the pain and the struggle, have all been carefully buried and erased. Perhaps the most deceiving portrayal of family life is the one we are all complicit in.
As a relatively new parent, I'm still assimilating the parenthood paradox. A journey of empowerment, growth and joy that also sees the attrition of identity, epic self-sacrifice and boredom. The expectations and reality of parenthood can be wildly different, belonging in various ways to different identities. It's both uncontainable and unshareable in its complexity. It's physical and experiential, and sometimes beyond language. Our current vernacular is tied up in shame if we dare to speak freely. Phrases like “life-changing” feel pompous yet parenthood is a catalyst for a recalibration of every aspect of life as you know it.
How we visually network our lives plays a critical role in our wellbeing; art and culture can stabilise us and help us better understand ourselves and the world around us. It makes us feel seen, included, and our experiences validated. Yet the dissonance between the lived reality and representation of parenthood is vast. TV and film, in particular, flatten the experience. The titles, Catastrophe, Breeders, The Letdown, speak to a current trend in exposing the existence of some loveable yet flawed parents, often mothers, trying to keep everything together but often failing. There’s little joy, no sign of the weird and wonderful irreverence that comes with raising humans. It’s initially cathartic, before violently catapulting you into a shame spiral screaming “don’t end up like that!”.
It's not just depth, reality and emotional variance that are missing from the depiction of parenthood. Identities outside of the white, cis, straight, able-bodied, middle class rarely show up beyond tokenistic stereotypes. As an LGBTQ+ family, we've spent the last two years wrestling with heteronormativity in all its forms. The binary has an all-encompassing power to dominate so many spaces and expressions from medical forms to storytelling. The outcome of this lack runs the gamut of frustrating to harmful, leaving us feeling isolated from what should be standard everyday experiences. We still don't see an adequate representation of so many marginalised communities and the myriad of ways these identities intersect.
“Perhaps the most deceiving portrayal of family life is the one we are all complicit in.”Gem Fletcher
For me, photography has always been a place to seek solace, a conduit for discovery and empathy. The beauty of the medium is its limitations; while it cannot capture the entirety of a subject, it excels in distilling moments of the human experience. In The Reluctant Father, Philip Toledano expresses the tension between how he felt becoming a father and the enormous cultural pressure to perform parenthood. The book charts the early years of his daughter Loulou's life as he showed up for her, but struggled to find an emotional connection. Catherine Opie crisscrossed the US in an RV for three months photographing lesbian families trying to figure out what domestic life for queer women was like as she moved towards her future as a mother. In Pia, Christopher Anderson portrays the father-daughter relationship, as he tries to stop time and appreciate every moment of the experience. Some of the most emotive work depicting parenthood comes from non-parents. Melissa Cana and Alexander Coggin capture an acute intimacy in the parental bond from very different perspectives. Artists have also used the medium to speak to the physical and emotional trauma of parenthood from Heji Shin’s bloody captures of the epic moment a baby’s head emerges from its mother, to Jon Henry’s Stranger Fruit, picturing black mothers and sons in a suspended embrace confronting the disarming violence Black men face daily. These works hold space with agency, power and care.
Parenthood is not one thing; it's many. Let's reclaim our ideas and experiences from corporate spaces and bring them to life in exciting and regenerative new ways. Depicting this universal experience in its entirety may be impossible, but as we continue to have more open and honest dialogues in spaces like this, it will embolden curiosity and create vital support for those of us stumbling through trying to figure it all out.
Naomi Wood, photographer and curator of @Picturingparenthood
There has been a recent upsurge in sitcoms and films exploring the realities of parenting. I think we are finally at the stage where we are more open about it, yet that messy, honest woman is still the butt of the jokes. There is acceptance, but she's not deemed acceptable. It’s not what you're “supposed” to aspire to. These shows are essentially saying this is normal but don't end up like that. We are setting people up for failure, all through an exceptionally limited cis, white, straight, abled-bodied lens.
In Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty by Jacqueline Rose, she talks about this idea that all the messy parts of parenting are kept hidden. Parenthood is not celebrated, and the messiness is made to feel socially unacceptable. You have to keep things neat and tidy. These societal and cultural expectations can be so harmful to parents. I began I Wake To Listen to document and explore my own experiences of motherhood and parenthood. It's been therapeutic, especially early on, when I was trying to make sense of everything happening around me. I wanted to hold space in time for all of those complicated and raw emotions and experiences and remember everything I went through. Having my son, Charlie, broke down everything I knew. It broke me down. I'm now in the process of rebuilding it all from my daily routine to how I function emotionally. Putting these images into the world has been an exercise in vulnerability, but the reaction has been so positive, especially from other parents who relate to the work.
Toby Kaufmann, creative director at Facebook.
I don't think it's possible to represent parenthood in an image. Parenting is this long race and photographs are just moments. In culture, the portrayal of parenthood has no depth — nothing which speaks to how great or how challenging it is.
As kids grow up, parenthood is in some ways easier, but in many ways harder. I'm raising a white upper-middle-class man. My focus right now is teaching him how to shirk his privilege and how to help other people and make that a daily practice. I think about whether my kid is consuming the right content and media for him to grow up as a functioning member of society. There is so much that people don't talk about and I still don't understand why that is. As children get older, complex conversations are missing – everything from emotional health to crucial dialogues around how you teach consent. You have to take a small child and start educating them in relation to how you want an adult man to act. It's a tough one. You're responsible for the future.
“In culture, the portrayal of parenthood has no depth — nothing which speaks to how great or how challenging it is.”Toby Kaufmann
Alex Huanfa Cheng, photographer
Parenthood is a constant learning process. Figuring out how to support and enable your children openly and respectfully, while navigating the realities of everyday life is a constant challenge. I respect my mother and father very much, but their approach to parenthood was very conservative and direct. It was serious, at times, violent. They come from a generation who didn't know how to educate sensitively. In many ways, my approach is to actively work against that and try and be friends with my kid, accompanying him in exploring the world.
Most of my reference points for parenthood come from social media. The images and videos, friends, family and colleagues share online. Yet, we all continue to perpetuate the idea of a successful family life consisting of just the positive and beautiful moments and hiding the negative and challenging. My friends confess to me in person that life is much more complicated, their struggles real and their suffering palpable, yet we are all complicit in this cycle.
Chieska Fortune Smith, photographer
There is no uniform way to look at parenthood; everyone's ideas and approaches are different. I grew up in a mixed family, (my father is African American, and my mother is Japanese) at a time when this was considered controversial and often lacked any acknowledgement. There was little depiction of families like ours in any form of creative culture. It was frustrating. I had to continually explain who I was, why I looked like I did, what I was mixed with. That was exhausting and very lonely.
I was raised on TV shows like Family Ties and Growing Pains about typical nuclear families. Then The Cosby Show came along and changed the dynamic as it was about successful Black families. You don't realise it as a child, but it gave us such a different honorific view of my parents. I imagine for my dad it was very profound. Even now, when I see mixed-race families on TV, it gives me hope as I see myself in the culture. That's what we all strive for. You don't want to depend upon it, but it gives us a voice, and it says we are seen.
Moving through the world as mixed, I can anticipate what's coming for my children. You try to educate them, but it's a constant battleground. That's why culture is so vital and why we must strive for more honest and diverse depictions. We need to show the true, honest reality of parenthood. The pain and tears is a beautiful part of the experience. It shows our growth, and that is where we realise how much value there is in having kids.
“The pain and tears is a beautiful part of the experience.”Chieska Fortune Smith
Rose Marie Cromwell, photographer
Parenthood has been an expansive experience; it's expanded my ability to feel empathy and extended my emotional capacity. Before having my daughter Simone, I had discarded all pop culture references of motherhood and was drawn to work by photographers Sally Mann and Elinor Carucci. Mann raising her children in nature and Carucci's depiction of the messiness of intimacy were both very inspiring for me.
There is a huge societal and cultural pressure put on mothers; the mommy shame is real. Not everyone understands that you are juggling this other love in your life, which is work. Finding examples of other mothers working in the same way I am was hard. I found comfort in Lindsay Addario's book, where she talks about her journey with children, working on the road. Likewise, Justine Kurland crisscrossing America with her family, making work and living out of a van. These kinds of alternate stories have been essential in letting me know that I can be myself and have an alternative lifestyle with my child.
Kalpesh Lathigra, photographer
For me, my reference point for parenthood was split into two camps, popular culture and eastern philosophy (a strict discipline informed by religious or spiritual text like the Bhagavad Gita). In reality, films are fiction, books are subjective, and the daily grind of life plays havoc with your eastern ideas. Yet, parenthood affected me in the best way. Being a parent is singularly the hardest thing I've ever done, but I always think the one thing I got right. The rest of life is a constant minefield.
Capturing the reality of parenthood is so subjective and charged by personal experience. Often, it's the sheer mental exhaustion of parenting and the internal battle of being a parent that is lacking. I struggle immensely with being a father and that idea of what it means to have this rich and profound connection with your kids. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a portrayal of the bond between parent and child that stays with me. In essence, it's a love story.
“It can be unremittingly shit sometimes and then you have these glorious moments where it's all incredible, and then you go back to the shit again.”Phillip Toledano
Phillip Toledano, photographer
The reality versus the depiction of having children is like people telling you about going to war versus going to war; you can't really understand it until you're in it. I was blindly ignorant before becoming a father. My wife Carla's experience with our daughter Loulou was calm and joyful, and mine was more “what the fuck is all this screaming about?” I found myself very unprepared for the shift in landscape – on the most subatomic level. The book was my way of trying to make sense of everything.
It was a fairly divisive thing to do at the time, but I felt it was a dialogue missing culturally for anyone who is a parent. I received so many emails from mothers who craved that honest dialogue with their partners. In many ways, society supports men grumbling about parenthood, but for women, it's heresy. That lack of frank discussion and depiction is frustrating. Being open about reality doesn't mean you're abdicating your responsibilities. It doesn't mean that I didn't love my daughter and that I wasn't there to change her nappies – it's just that I found it a miserable reality at times. It can be unremittingly shit sometimes and then you have these glorious moments where it's all incredible, and then you go back to the shit again.
Now Loulou is older, I'm so bitterly aware that the moments we share could be the last. It might be the last time she wants to hold my hand for a while or the last time she runs and leaps into my arms. I look at those photographs with sweet nostalgia, and in some ways regret, as I couldn't see past my confusion to appreciate all of it.