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I Accidentally Became a Stage Mom

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Claire Donnelly for Fox Island Printworks

Like most parents, I think my daughter Penrose is the cutest of all. I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when a friend who owns a t-shirt printing and design company on the island where we live asked if she would be the onesie model for their summer line.

She was just over a year old, with rolls stacked up on her arms and legs. At the shoot, I changed her into each outfit—one with buoys, one with “Young and Hungry” written on it, one with sailboats—and set her down at one end of the room. The door was open to the outside at the opposite end, and as she charged happily towards the sunlight, crossing in front of the white backdrop, my friend snapped one picture after another. The resulting photos garnered a lot of compliments.

When we were asked again to model the size two t-shirts, I was happy and flattered. I brought Penrose to the t-shirt shop where my friend had her backdrop set up. This time, as soon as she saw the backdrop and camera, Penrose burst into tears. She clung to my neck and wasn’t swayed by the shirts with neon narwhals and squids, animals she loves. Even when she got to play with the camera and take a picture of me, she was inconsolable. I put a t-shirt over her long-sleeved shirt. With her pink winter hat, she looked like a 90s skate punk, which is to say totally adorable. But we couldn’t get her to smile or to even leave my lap.

Thinking that my presence was making her clingy and anxious, we scheduled a time for the photographer to come up to our house when I wouldn’t be home. My husband was supportive of her modeling the shirts, and agreed it might go a little better. When she arrived, my husband and the photographer were both surprised by Penrose’s immediate meltdown. They managed to get two useable photos, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience for anyone.

I was surprised at how disappointed I was by her reaction. I wanted her to think this was fun, and to understand the connection between taking the photos and people thinking the photos were cute, but she couldn’t care less. She’s not even 2 years old.

Why was I so insistent that she model the t-shirts? The island is full of adorable toddlers, one of whom might be a more enthusiastic model. Penrose made it clear from the first attempt that she wasn’t interested, and was even frightened by the experience. I realized I wanted her to do it for me, that I was craving the positive reinforcement the photos would bring.

I love to act and sing, and somewhere in the back of my mind l wish I would get asked to model, as ridiculous as that might be given that I’m 4’10” and far from the media’s ideal body shape. I hope that when Penrose is older, she shares my love of performing. But now I worry. Am I a stage mother waiting to happen?

My response to her negative feeling about the photoshoot tells me to be cautious and willing to listen to Penrose when she expresses her opinion. I have plenty of performance opportunities of my own, and shouldn’t feel the need to get vicarious thrills from people’s reaction to my adorable kid.

My happiness, even in a small way, can’t be tied to her willingness to do activities that I think she should enjoy. Even if they involve adorable narwhals.


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