I remember the day one of my maternity photos went viral on Tumblr.
I had to blink a few times and refresh my browser because it was so strange to me. In a single day this random image had been viewed, liked and reblogged thousands of times by thousands of strangers. The comments underneath the photo left an unsettling grumble in the pit of my stomach.
“Real Black Love!”
“This is what I want.”
It was a photo of us back when we were still an “us”. I was standing with my back against the wall in the rock garden of William Land Park. My six-month pregnant mound was protruding through a sheer maxi dress. His hand was on my belly, his lips kissing my smiling cheeks as I beamed at the camera — filled with satisfaction and pride. We were both still so young, in that way you’re young before you have kids. Before you truly understand the meaning of love and depth and selflessness. Before life strips you bare and forces you to see what you’re actually made of. It was the middle of Spring. Hell, I was still just cute-pregnant — gross-pregnant was a few months away. In this photo, thousands of people had created a story. We were a beautiful Black couple embarking on a family, we had figured it all out, we would possibly live happily ever after.
By the time the photo went viral, we were separated and practically enemies — both facing a new life as single parents.
Behind what looked really simple and organic was actually a lot of work.
Because looking like you love and understand someone is easy, but loving and understanding someone — through the hard shit — is work.
Smiling was the easy part. Posing for a picture and being excited about the arrival of our little one — that required no effort. But being a young family, being newlyweds expecting their first child, navigating the waters of a shaky relationship that we both desperately wanted to keep together — that was the unseen and that was the death of us.
What I’ve learned since then is that pictures, these things we idolize and hashtag to kingdom come and share with our friends and point to and say,“There it is. That’s what I want. That’s what I’ll have one day…” is really setting us all up for the worst kind of failure. The kind where you don’t make it to the end because you didn’t even realize you would actually be required to run to the point of exhaustion. You thought maybe you could just stand on the track and little magical fairy people would carry you to the finish line just in time to snap a pic as your illustrious chest breaks the tape.
What I think is worthy of aspiring to — those things that one simply cannot capture in a photo or a phrase — are the millions of hard things we do everyday internally that help us get to the beautiful moments.
In this life where things come instantly, pictures can often be our worst enemy.
They are staged. Even the most “candid” of shots are staged. And what isn’t staged is just appealing by the sheer concept of itself. Young couples are sexy, babies are adorable, a well-plated entrée captured in natural light will make you salivate. These are facts. But to build goals around what is captured by a lens in a matter of a few seconds may very well convince you that you’re doing it wrong when the ugly sets in.
And the ugly does set in. The ugly is where the magic happens.
The ugly is when it’s 4 AM and you just want to sleep but your baby is awake again and it’s just you because that picture perfect guy you fell for didn’t pan out and you have to scrape yourself out of bed and find the strength to open your eyelids and pull out your breast and not only feed this child, but change this child, tenderly reassure this child that everything is ok even though you don’t actually believe that to be true yet.
Ugly is when people you’ve spent decades building relationships with begin to fall off because they think you work too much and don’t think you’re fun anymore, because you would rather sleep than party and the few moments you have to yourself you actually prefer to spend…by yourself.
Ugly is when you have to persuade people to give you opportunities you’re not even sure you deserve, so you undersell yourself and regret it later. Ugly is when you have to wait days or weeks for a payment from a publisher or a client who might think their little $400 is just pocket money for you, but it’s actually what you pay your car insurance with and you count the days to its arrival because being a freelancer sometimes feels like a cruel joke you voluntarily play on yourself.
[Tweet “Ugly is missing someone you only have photos of now”]
That you show people and say, “This used to be a person I could touch and hug and tell secrets to…” even though no one could possibly comprehend how much people who have died actually meant to the ones who loved them. And the cruelest part of remembering someone who passed is how you might linger a little too long on the memory of them cursing you out or telling you their disappointed in you or crying to you over the phone because they knew they would be dead soon and raged for a moment against the unfairness. And no one wants to remember that.
No one shares pictures of their ugly internal quiet shit. Even though every beautiful moment we’ve all ever witnessed was filled to the brim with all the ugly shit that made it possible.
Then there are those times when something fills me with so much joviality but is also sincerely no one’s business that I wouldn’t dare take a photo of it and post it to Instagram or Tweet about it (#ILoveMyLife) or even tell a friend. I just kind of marvel in it, and all of its effortlessness and in its rarity. This is when I generally fall silent and take things in as deeply as I can knowing there will be no tangible evidence of its existence. Knowing that when it passes, things may get significantly harder.
I find solace in knowing that my fondest, most important, most romantic, most endearing moments are nowhere to be seen.
I’m glad that even though I stand just as human as the rest of the world, forever chasing beautiful things and sparkly shiny sun-drenched goals — I still rest happily in the privacy of my sh-tty moments.
And I remind myself that the magic is in the work, not the results.