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The Truth Behind Those Perfect “First-Day-of-School” Photos

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I lost it with my kid yesterday. My mom-meltdown happened just minutes before I herded both of the girls outside for our annual first-day-of-school ritual. It went a little something like this:

“Ok, you stand here, no, not there, over there, OK, good, now you get next to your sister. Closer… closer. Wait. Stop. Not that close. Get your hands off her! You, calm down. She only poked you once and it wasn’t that hard. OK, now you hold this sign, and you hold this one. OK, good, now look at me. And smile. Can we please smile? Look at me. Eyes over here. Can you please freaking look at me? Hello?!?”

Eventually I got the picture, at which point I opened it in Instagram, filtered the crap out of it, and proudly posted it, evidence that at least for one brief moment, I was on top of my Mom shit.

I mean, that’s what these pictures are all about, aren’t they? Sure, in years to come, it will be nice to have a record of what the girls looked like in early elementary school, and not just because I fully intend to use the most ridiculous images in their bat mitzvah slideshows.

But at the end of the day, the carefully staged poses, the beautifully brushed hair, the hand-made signs and happy captions, well, they’re really a performance of parenthood–an opportunity to act as if we might actually be getting this parenting gig right.

Don’t get me wrong; I love these performances, both when my kids are the actors and when I can pull up a seat to other parents’ shows. In the midst of so much national and international unpredictability, chaos, and anxiety, I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to put it all aside for even a few minutes and immerse myself in the mundane rituals of American childhood.

All of these performances become a problem, though, when we confuse them with reality. This is happening with increasing frequency as we interact with other parents as much, or more, on social media as we do in real life. We start to think that well-groomed, well-behaved children are the norm, and that the whining, meltdowns, attitude, and too-cool refuseniks who want nothing to do with you or your damn signs are an aberration, a problem to be fixed.

That, my dear friends, is baloney. The refuseniks are the reality, which is why it’s so important to snap those happy pictures when we can; we need some kind of reminder that our child is capable of standing still, smiling, and following directions. If nothing else, it gives us hope for the future.

But this is a very hard thing to remember when you never see what’s behind everyone else’s curtains. Which brings us to my morning meltdown. I had printed out the girls’ First Day of School signs, and they wanted to decorate them. I agreed, but not before reminding them, carefully and clearly, that I didn’t want them to color over the words. The girls proceeded to grill me about exactly what they could and couldn’t do: Can we color over them in yellow? Can we color inside the letters? What if I draw flowers around the letters and the the leaves overlap a little bit? Once we got all that straightened out, I headed back to the coffee maker while they sat down with the markers.

Not two minutes later, I hear my husband say, “Why did you color over those letters? You can hardly read them!” I looked over at the table, and saw that not two minutes after our extended conversation, my little girl had picked the fattest, darkest marker and worked her magic. Her evil, evil magic.

And so I did what any reasonable parent would do. I lost my shit. I grabbed the paper off the table and proceeded to bite her little head off. I snapped at her, yelled at her, and then glared at her before stomping off and sighing dramatically into my coffee. She started crying. I kept glaring.

Eventually I calmed down enough to print out another sheet, which I dropped in front of her with a stern warning that I wouldn’t be printing another one. She nodded tearfully and picked up a marker.

A few minutes later, she had finished her sheet, I had finished my coffee, and we both apologized to each other. She was genuinely sorry for coloring over the letters, and I was genuinely sorry for losing my temper. We had a good long hug, and I herded the girls out the door to take the picture.

I share this story not as an example of what not to do (although I’m not necessarily recommending my behavior), and not because I’m looking for your feedback and advice on what I could have done better (ahem!), but as a reminder that this is life.

This is parenting. This is not a failure, and it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of. But it can be so damn hard to remember that when we think that we’re the only ones bumbling and stumbling our way through it all.

The truth, of course, is that every family has their moments, and the more often we can remind ourselves of that, the less alone we’ll feel. And the less alone we feel, the easier parenting becomes.

So, the next time you find yourself perspective on parenting is getting a little skewed by all of the smiling pictures on Facebook, call a friend, schedule a playdate, or find yourself a parenting support group. Figure out where the real people are, the ones who aren’t, at least for that moment, putting on a performance, and go hang out with them. You can get back to your posed pictures another time.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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