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Why do we feel sad looking at old photos?


Two children sit on the sand with sand mermaids

Recently I got my hands on a cassette tape to mp3 converter so that I could listen to (and convert) a cassette tape recording of myself singing and talking from age 3 onwards, occasionally letting my younger sister get a look in too without telling her to ‘shhh’.


I was reminded of a question I’d seen asked before and which resonated with me: why do we feel sad when we look back at old photos and memories? Whilst not everyone feels this way, it is clearly a common enough feeling; the word ‘nostalgia’ is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past”.


When I shared the recordings with my sister, without mentioning any of this to her, she told me that whilst they made her ‘so happy’, she also felt incredibly sad, and sometimes worried that she was trapped in the past.


But why do we feel this way? Firstly, I think there is a feeling of loss tangled up with these memories. We are looking at, or listening to, a child and a person that often we don’t remember being, and it’s like looking at someone else.


But we will never be this person again, we can’t go back to visit them, or reach out and give them a hug, and I think that in a sense when we look at these memories we are grieving for that person that we once were, who we have now lost and cannot hope to get back.


We’ve also lost that childhood innocence; we look back and see a beautiful little person who knows nothing about the darker side of life and the challenges ahead, who hasn’t yet made any mistakes, and has no regrets to keep them awake at night. That little person is full of potential – they have their whole lives ahead of them, and perhaps it makes us question whether we’ve made the right choices and made the best of our lives.


This is all similar when we look back at old photos of our children or other family members too, and in some cases I feel this way when I look at my children – in a way I’m jealous of them, but not enough to want to rewind the clock – I wouldn’t want to go through all that a second time!


A toddler stands in a pair of women's heeled shoes

Clearly there is also a wider feeling of nostalgia too, as often it’s not a person we have lost, but a particular time and place. We can see from the number of memes shared on social media along the lines of ‘it wasn’t like this when I grew up’, or, ‘You know you were an 80s child when…’ that many people look back longingly to a time when things were different.


Not only has the landscape changed, technology has advanced, and society has very different norms and expectations, but when we were children we were often the centre of our parents’ world. Not only this, but we had all our needs taken care of.


Being an adult is a tough gig, not to mention being a parent and being responsible for other little people too. We are looking back at a time where we didn’t have to worry about making a living, paying the bills, dealing with all the life admin, cleaning, cooking, AND creating happy memories for our own children. I look at a baby, kept cosy and warm, well fed with warm milk and often attached to a parent, and I think, who wouldn’t look back longingly at that time?


A family are on a beach, the Dad chases his daughter

I think that bond with our parents is something that we miss too. I’ve mentioned already that we were at the centre of our parents’ world, but also we were a lot closer to them.


How ever close your relationship now, you can’t possibly spend as much time with them as when you grew up and, for me at least, time spent with them now is often with the distraction of grandchildren vying for their attention. We just aren’t the most important person to them anymore (and rightly so, I suppose, however much it hurts!).


And one final reflection; when we look back at this time we don’t remember the times that our parents shouted at us, we didn’t see that they were tired, that they found it hard. All we remember is that they were there for us every single day, that they loved us unconditionally (I’ll forgive them for all the trips to antique shops and garden centres which at the time I hated).


Whilst we might have unhappy memories in there too, they (hopefully) pale in significance to the many happy ones captured on camera (and cassette recording).


A Mum stands next to a river with a child next to her and a baby on her shoulders

The whole time that I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve been wondering how I can use this knowledge in my own parenting journey – what it all means. Even Autumn aged 4 tells me that she doesn’t want to grow up, that she wants to be my baby, and I think even they have a sense that they are losing something as they grow older.


But I think the main thing to take from it is that your children feel that bond with you, they feel your love, and they don’t see the days where you are tired and are finding it hard. They know that they are your world. They will grow up with all of those happy memories that you’ve worked hard to create for them, and you will too. When you look back at those pictures and feel sad, that’s a good thing – cherish those tears.


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Belles and Babes is a UK-based rental business specialising in sustainable maternity, baby, and nursing clothes. Founded by Emma Gillespie in 2017, the company is driven by her corporate sustainability background and has a mission to provide a more sustainable alternative for parents seeking to move away from fast fashion and reduce clothing waste.


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