Like the ‘baby books’ of old, these emails are time capsules – little intimate tidbits and clues of who my child will become, sent off to her future self
Around the holidays last year, when I’d been fielding lots of deep questions at bedtime about sickness and health and Zoom school and “pods,” I wrote my daughter an email, though she could not yet read:
Scratching your back just now before bed, you sleepily asked, Mama, do you know anyone in the family who’s bold? I was like yes! You’re bold. And you said I am? And I said yes, you’re brave. And you said no no, like has no HAIR, mama.
The first email I sent her, she was two. I’d texted a friend one day that, apropos of nothing, my daughter had started referring to people she loved – her aunt, her grandma, her friend at the playground – as “my little darling.” My friend wrote back, “You gotta find a way to remember that. Email her!” And I thought: Yes, in an age when the prospect of buying a physical scrapbook and getting out the glue stick and photo corners is about as realistic as my making it through the day without crushed Goldfish in my hair, I can send an email. So I opened up a new account and dashed off a note to my pint-sized Holly Golightly.
And I keep dashing off notes, because the lift is pretty low; it’s one way to manage the morass of digital ephemera I collect on my children every day; and, like nearly every parent before me, I feel an inexplicable urge to preserve in amber the moments of childhood that are too charming to be forgotten. And it’s an urge that’s been documented for centuries.
“The design of this little book is to supply a want, though perhaps an unknown one to many,” begins the preface of Baby’s Record: A Twofold Gift for Mothers and Children, published in 1889. “Most persons regret that the little items of babyhood, so interesting, to the parents at least, pass into oblivion.”
What do I not want to pass into oblivion?
Here’s a note from me, on the occasion of the morning of my 36th birthday: You tromped in, looked at me v closely, and said, Mama, I know it’s your birthday but you still look like you’re the same height. You still look just like you’re 35.
Here’s another from my husband, sent – I realized when looking at the date – just a few hours before I started contractions with her little sister: Your mama told me that after you brushed your teeth this evening, she walked into your bathroom to find you brushing your nose, quite 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 sorts of stuff that doesn’t get recorded otherwise,” Russell Johnson told me when I reached him on Zoom. “There are gems throughout.”
Johnson is a curator at the UCLA Library Special Collections. Through donations, and searching on eBay, he’s built up the university’s baby book collection to its current 1,900 volumes. The collection spans from 1872 – around when infant mortality started improving, but also when people started caring more about babyhood as a life stage – to the mid-twentieth century. So we’re in the 150th year, give or take, of chronicling baby lives in some way.
The alleged purpose of these keepsakes has evolved over the years, Johnson explained. Well-to-do families of yore often used their pages to list gifts given to their babies. As scientific medicine grew and pediatrics was formalized as a specialty, mothers were encouraged to document metrics: height, weight, all the things we measure today at doctors’ visits. More recent books, whether those are physical or virtual, allow room for photos of sonograms, or hashtags. But all babybooks remain at heart an in-between document – part biography, part scrapbook; part data, part personal – that often says more about the chronicler than it does the chronicled.
Take this mother in 1906, who wrote in one baby book from the archives:
Five weeks have passed since I was born,
Quite uneventful thus far each morn,
But Today I go to Auntie I’s,
A trip quite long for a girl my size.
If my friend told me she’d been filling out a baby book in rhyming couplets five weeks post-partum, and from the POV of her baby, I’d scurry over with a magnum of wine and the phone number of my therapist. And no one – baby, mother, or century-removed observer – will ever care much about the fact that this baby visited her aunt at five weeks’ old. But the effort it must have taken! The love this mother must have felt, as she memorialized the monotony and wonder of the early days of parenthood – that’s what this entry is about.
Only one friend of ours isn’t documenting her kids’ childhoods with emails or digital journal entries or iPhone notes. Her husband is fearful of big tech companies, rightly pointing out that he doesn’t want Google having a record of who his daughter is before she is of an age to understand and consent. I hear that. But I’m not sure raging against the machine in this particular way will protect my children from the ills of big tech, save for keeping secret that my daughter will be advertising target #1 for a new-to-market nose brush.
As for how my millennial friends and I are evolving the practice of baby chronicling, my hope is that what the medium lacks in physicality, it makes up for in honesty. Photos are taken and preserved because they project some desirable image of the family. Metrics become irrelevant the moment they’re jotted down. Instead, these letters are time capsules, little intimate tidbits and clues of who my child will become, sent off to that future self, from who I once was.
Johnson is often asked why people would ever give their beloved baby books away, such that they find their way to him.
“Kids might not be that interested,” he said – underscoring that we parents write for us, even if we think we’re writing for them; that we leave behind a chronicle of our own lives, even as we think we’re leaving behind one of theirs. “I would hope that when you give these emails to your children, one thing they will be fascinated at is how interested you were in them.”
My infant son has started to do something at bedtime. Right before I put him down, he’ll gaze up at me and start cooing, like a little dove, his eyes big and round in the dark. He’ll do it for a solid minute or so before exhaustion overpowers him, at which point he’ll stick his second finger in his mouth, turn his head to the side, and fall asleep. Years into the future, will he care that he once did this? Probably not. But I wrote a quick email to him about it this morning. Because yes, I’m interested, interested in every moment.
Sophie Brickman is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications, and the author of Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age