There’s really nothing sinister about them. The shrouded mother was never meant to be featured in the photograph. Here’s how it was supposed to work:
I can remember my mother being asked to do something similar at my baby sister’s first portrait session when she was four months old. They wanted the baby to be sitting up, so they had my mother put her hand under a rug and prop her up from behind. When my own kids were little, I was asked to sit right next to them just out of view while they were being photographed, for safety reasons. Remember that not only did these Victorian photographers not have access to fancy baby-propping devices, but that pictures were not instantaneous back then. The kids needed to be kept safe, and STILL.
But even knowing the history, these pictures still speak to me. Whatever their intention, the result is that we have pictures of these little children, but not of the mothers who bore and raised and loved them. Even without knowing the names of these little ones, we can see they existed. The mothers, on the other hand, are just gone. Disappeared. Nothing of them is left.
The shrouded figures signify to me the death of self that takes place in every woman who becomes a mother–because once you have a child you just aren’t the same person anymore. You aren’t separate and apart from your children, either before birth or after. And isn’t it the way of many mothers to sit back while their kids stand in the spotlight? To hide their own light in favor of their children’s?
Sometimes when I walk in cemeteries and look at the graves of little babies, I will say to them, “I see your names. Today someone remembers you, even if everyone else has forgotten. Today someone cares that you were here.” And I find myself wanting to say the same thing to these faceless mothers.
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