How I reconnected with my daughter when nothing else worked.

The silent language of family photos.

Being a parent is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, or should I say, still do. It’s playing a long-term game that constantly changes. Right when you think you’ve finally got a grip on it, it shifts around and punches you in the face. I’m not negative towards parenting, but let’s be real – it ain’t easy!

We immigrated to New Zealand from South Africa when my daughter was 18 months old. At the time; we were young and ambitious, and willing to do whatever it takes to build a safe life for us, but mostly for her. South Africa has the highest rape rate in the world, so it didn’t take long for us to decide those odds were not something we’d be willing to gamble with.

What I never accounted for was the slow-burning trauma immigration imparts on you. As a young mum already dealing with post-natal depression, I found myself in a new country completely alone and unsupported. The years ahead were filled with many good things, but they were also filled with crippling loneliness, sadness and guilt for leaving our family behind and exporting their only grandchild to the literal other side of the planet.

I knew I was struggling, and it took me a long time to find ways to recover. My priority was my daughter, and by all accounts, she was doing well and growing up as a happy little kiwi. Social, smart and sassy; her exquisite brown curls were always the topic of conversation. I photographed her with enthusiasm, we adventured everywhere together! In awe of the freedom and beauty New Zealand had on offer. 

Publicly I voiced my delight in a new country but privately I mourned the losses of my homeland. Unaware of the observations of my deeply empathetic child who translated this as her fault. I was oblivious to her inner dialogue which convinced her it was her fault. She felt responsible for seeing my struggles and coupled with the calamity of puberty this soon cemented my darling girl into a dark headspace of bitterness and unworthiness.

No matter how I tried to celebrate her, no matter the words, the positivity, or the counselling. She was writing her own story. There are few things as soul-crushing as hearing your child say they have no place and no interest in participating in your family any longer. It was like watching my life’s work sink into despair; refusing any attempt of being rescued.

It was a dark and difficult time, and the once confident child I had was now nowhere to be seen. There was no more adventuring, no more photos and certainly no more smiles. I needed to remind myself of the good times we shared so I decided to create a photo wall. I discovered the removable decals from Happymoose and realised the 6×6 inch square prints would create a perfect life-size IG-style grid right in the centre of my house. 

It was at this point I realised how my mood was lifted every time I looked at this wall. A once beige space now vibrated with colourful holiday snaps, family photos, pets and our adventures in New Zealand and abroad. It was both a mix of the old and the new, the people I missed and the people I have found, coupled with some inspirational quotes.

This wall was positioned directly opposite her bedroom, these images were in her line of sight when she was in bed. I ordered more photos to apply to the wall with her in mind; if she wouldn’t hear how important she is to me; I’d show her. Over the next 2 years, I expanded on the wall and soon it was filled floor to ceiling! It showcased her having fun, our family adventures and all the people who love her.

I also had a large print done for the dining room, a close-up of her as a little girl kissing her younger sister. At the time of this print going up; she didn’t even comment, in fact, she probably snarled at me. However, a couple of weeks later she was standing in the kitchen looking over at the print on the wall and said to me “I love that photo mommy, it looks great!”

After 2 years of subtly reminding her through photographs how loved she is, she started softening. The most obvious sign of improvement was her relationship with her younger sister.

She started interacting with us, making jokes and even spending time with her sister again.

Tweens and teens are deeply complicated, and we can never be sure what difficulties we may face when raising our children. I hope sharing my story will help others realise there truly is a hidden language in our family photos, capable of saying everything we need to without saying a word!

If this was of interest to you, read more about the hidden power of photographs in your home, where we investigate the deeper psychological effects of fostering connection and belonging through family photographs.