The [my] Truth Behind Family Photos

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My son’s school offered family portrait sessions yesterday. I signed up for a slot a few weeks ago because we hadn’t done a family portrait for three years, and the kids have changed a lot since then. Last week, I hastily ordered $250 dollars worth of white clothes online so that I could decide on outfits later. Kal wanted us all to do the classic all-in-white photos, which always looks beautiful in pictures but feels so far from a color I’d associate with a real family.

I arranged the outfits and put away the ones I’d return late this week. Kal has been working exhausting hours, and I’ve been working overtime with other hats to fill in the blank. On Friday, he dropped off the kids with me after school so he could return back to work, and I took Zade to get his hair cut, then to get a gift for a birthday party, then to a party, and then to a playdate. If you’ve been following my life or my posts, you know that my duo has challenged me more than I’ve ever been challenged before.

I know that this statement is sweeping since with kids, one thing gets easier while the other thing gets harder. When they finally start walking and you no longer have to hold them everywhere, you’re then stooped over all the time because they can bump their head on something; when they start eating solids, and you’ve just had your fit over washing that last yellow Medela bottle, your bottle brush is replaced with worry about how small or chewable food is so they don’t choke. Something goes away before you notice it’s gone, and then another thing replaces it, expanding like a prism inside a circle.

The night before family photos ended like this: with me staring across the room as I sat across from a plate of food. I probably looked crazy, absently staring at the blinds over the kitchen sink. Kal asked me why I wasn’t talking, and I said it’s because I know everyone’s response. Life has become routine, the arguments, the grocery shopping, the work, the house. Even the excursions feel predictable sometimes. It sounds utterly insensitive in the face of so many people’s uncertainty. And yet there it is. My own truth.

What he didn’t know was that Friday night ended with Layla’s ice cream on the floor, ketchup all over the shoes, more sibling bickering, total greediness, watching my friend fill out an incident report at Chikfila, and a near vow that I’d never take both my kids out at the same time.  By the time we got home and I was staring at that plate of food, I was totally undone. The word I found in my head was stunned. When words made sense again, I had that metaphorical serious come to Jesus talk with the kids and hoped that their little, unclouded memories would last longer than those small flies that only live for one day.

The next morning, I scrubbed the kids and made them shiny. Blow dried hair, styled outfits, and even repainted nails. Kal was away all morning, and he called and said he may not be able to make the photo session. I about lost it, and then he wisely reconsidered. I got the kids into their shiny, white clothes.  I remembered I’d forgotten to set out my own outfit and put something together. I reminded them not to spill anything on their clothes and frankly, not to move. For the first time, I got myself into the car first because the effort to get out of the house was about to push me over the edge. I sat and waited.

We arrived at the session in two cars so Kal could return to work. As soon as we walked in, Layla started bossing Zade around. She didn’t want to smile in pictures unless she was doing it on her own terms. I was trying to find my smile, and the boys were just doing as they were told.  The kids had smuggled in their most bootleg toys and wanted to put them in the pictures. Writing this now, none of this sounds like anything but kids being kids.

But listen–the me that will read this in five years and want to shake myself and say you missed a great moment or you’re over-reacting–I promise you that life in any circumstance is hard and that the common words we use to depict something can’t do justice to it when we see those same things in a whole new angle. Like when you remember that saying, “time heals all wounds” after a time it applies to you. It doesn’t sound cliche anymore once it does, right?

This morning I woke up with the real sense that God has answered my prayers for authentic experience by giving me this vast thing to sift through: what about that picture is real? What about this life at 34 feels more than what it is? And how do we move forward knowing that the stuff that we control, we can make hard and make routine, and the stuff we can’t control makes us afraid and cautious?

And why are all the little things adding up to so much hard?

By the time we left, I’d had enough of my own looping thoughts. I drove over to my parents’ house. I walked in and the house was warm as always. Persian parents love warm houses; it’s like the AC is their nemesis. We sat at the plastic-covered table, and I vented to my mother. I told her that I know my recent dwellings on marriage and children sound so selfish, but it’s just where I am. I’m not sure why I feel such weight now. Maybe my friend’s melancholy shaded or colored my own, and maybe this is the butterfly effect that happens sometimes. But it’s real.

Mom gave me food for the soul and words to the heart. She took me out to run errands as my dad watched the kids. Before I knew it, I was being sent home with food and my kids were going to spend the night–no toothbrush, just the picture day clothes they came in with.

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My mom’s hand under Layla’s hand

A few hours later, Kal and I had an evening out where we got to hear each other speak to each other while we spoke to others.

I woke up to an upside down house, but I don’t feel as flipped like I did yesterday.

When that email comes and I see the family portraits, I’m going to distinctly remember this year. I pledge I will not diminish the challenges I’m facing now because the pictures are beautiful, inspiring an inevitable nostalgia for a time when things looked easier. I pledge that the truth behind the photo is the parents who helped nurse me back to face reality last night, the effort it takes to wear white, the truths we share with each other every day so that we can continue absorbing, refracting, and spraying light like a prism, where white light sorts out its different components, producing these wavelengths of this life we construct, flowing out colors that we lean back and study.

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Quiet

Quiet feels so good right now.

For the last 72 hours, there’s been a lot of good noise–Persian-festival noise, cousin- reuniting noise, sibling-rivalry noise, and parenting-head noise.

IMG_8768But right now, Zade is sitting underneath a fort he made in his room. Layla is watching t.v. I put them in separate rooms because I think they need a break from their own noise just like I do.

I picked up the house that was overturned, putting back decorative letters and returning items back to the pantry and such. The house did its duty and now needs some rest while the sun goes down, getting hotter each hour as it makes its grand departure.

I am doing this now and sitting here. The warm sun is softening the moment. 

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My shoulders eek up and tense around the blades and my mind goes a little blurry in the presence of my kids’ arguments. They were so happy playing with their cousins just hours ago, but they argued with each other at every other increment; they can be so bad to each other in the middle of so much good, so many significant memories. I try not to worry that their small age difference (hence, maturity) is hurtful to them when we truly hoped it would be the opposite.

To top off the hours of back and forth, sometimes the steadfast oscillation throttling my own parenting voice, I decided to blast Shakira so loud no one could think above it. Unfortunately, it only worked for a few minutes until they had a climactic exchange in the car.

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We saw Boss Baby last night, and the film involves an only child who has to grapple with having a new brother. A few minutes from home,  Zade, seeing how something sounds to him, told Layla that he wants a little brother instead of her as a sister. And Layla, the mothering sister with quirks and big feelings of her own, sank even more into sibling fatigue.

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She had a day of some well-deserved no’s mixed in with some brother meanness, especially when he made a show of not letting her into his fort. She looked so grown staring back at him in her long, patterned skirt and denim top. Pain hurts more when you’re older.

So now they are in their own spaces. I tell my kids, “I need 20 minutes by myself,” and though it takes ten minutes of interruptions to get it through sometimes, a version of what I need gets across. At this moment, in this time, it feels like the breeze through a hammock. Returning back to me is my place of peace.

Before posting this message, I walked back into the house to check on the kids. To my surprise, at the center of the living room, Layla has made a huge fort of her own, even bigger and better than the one her brother excluded her from this morning. On the seat of the chairs that pillar the tent, she has lined up provisions: paper plates, utensils, a box of cheese crackers, gatorade, and cookies. A propped-up device and cascading sheets seclude her and offer her some time of her own. She let her ankle come out from the wall sheet as she said with satisfaction, “I love this fort I made.”

If I didn’t do anything else right today while hoping to squeeze the most love out of moments with family, at least I’m seeing something I think my kids will grow up knowing, something I think my patterns show clearly: you’ve got to have some quiet time, some space away from all of it. It’s unapologetic time that all of us–kids and adults–need to face the current.

Sometimes you just need a fort of your own.