I used to joke that my meanest mommy day of the whole year was the day that I took our family’s annual Christmas card photo. After scrubbing their faces and fixing their hair and getting all the children dressed in carefully selected, seasonally appropriate, coordinating outfits, I would be completely frazzled – before the “photo session” even began. Once I had everyone carefully positioned and expertly posed, one of my blessings would invariably stick out his tongue, make bunny ears behind her siblings’ heads, or cross his eyes. Combine this with the fact that their go-to poses were forced, frozen smiles, that made them look more like crazed ventriloquist dummies than adorable children- and I was usually on the edge of a break down by the time I had taken half a dozen photos.
“Stop smiling like that!” “Sit up straight!” “Do. Not. Move. Again.” I don’t know why it never occurred to me that hissing at my kids through my clenched teeth was not likely to produce the image of shiny, happy children that I was going for, but I not only hissed, I bribed, begged, and threatened.
Then one day something happened that changed the way I photograph my kids. After about twenty minutes of trying to get the perfect shot, of fighting the wiggling and the whining and the complaining, I had had it. Why couldn’t they just sit still and look semi-normal? On shot. That’s all I wanted one good shot. That’s when my oldest daughter, who was about four at the time, decided, that instead of saying “Merry Christmas” on the count of three, as instructed, she would strike a karate pose and yell, “Hi-yah!”
I lost it. I flipped. I mean, what the hell!
I grabbed her little arms and held them firmly at her side. And I yelled. “Stop goofing off. Stop being silly. Stop ruining this for everybody else! Stand there like I told you to and smile. Right Now!”
I don’t know how that sweet baby managed to keep it together, but she did. She sucked it up. Smiled. And I got the shot. It wasn’t the shot I wanted, but it was the shot I needed. Right to the heart. I looked at the image on my camera, and there she stood perfectly still, hands behind her back, a nervous little smile on her face and fat tears welling up in her big blue eyes. She looked bewildered and afraid.
That poor baby! What had I done?
I scooped her up, covered her little face with kisses, and begged her forgiveness. Then I deleted the picture. I could not bear to look at it. I never joked about picture day being my meanest mommy day again. That joke wasn’t funny any more.
After that, I stopped working so hard to get perfect photos of my kids. Every once in a while, especially now that they are older, I get lucky and get a picture of all them smiling and looking at the camera at the same time. But when I look through old photos, those aren’t even my favorites. I love the ones with jelly on their faces, nappy hair, and goofy expressions. I love it when a photo captures a brief, candid moment of joy or humor or even boredom. My favorite is one I snapped of all four of them playing on the swing set. Their clothes don’t match. Their hair isn’t combed. They aren’t even smiling. But that photo more perfectly captures my whole world than any posed and perfected photo ever could. And I didn’t even have to make anyone cry.
It has been 12 years since that day that I made my little girl cry over a silly photgraph. I read this to her and she laughed hysterically at the image of her four year old self karate chopping during our Christmas card photo. She assures me she wasn’t traumatized or scarred for life. If her open smile and willingness to be photographed now are any indication, I guess that’s true.