“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” – Robert Burns
Working with children, whether your own or someone else’s, is always a balancing act. It’s a dance. It’s acrobatics. It’s not easy or simple or by the book. By the same token, it’s always unexpectedly rich with rewards and treasures. It’s a tumultuous ride with moments each and every day that are impossible to anticipate or describe in their unique wild, wonderfulness. There are many times when we may, however briefly, wish to get off the ride. Choked with panic as we crest a steep hill, we press our backs against our seats and close our eyes in anticipation of the fall. It’s usually in those moments that children astonish us with something wonderful, if we’re brave enough to open our eyes.
We seem to struggle, as adults — as parents, as teachers, as caregivers — to organize and categorize and plan, plan, plan so that this balancing act is always on center. When it’s not, when the unique, wild, unexpected occurs, we often find ourselves unraveling in ways not unlike our toddlers and preschoolers. There are adults who truly embrace the unexpected and delight in a little bit of “happy chaos“. I’m not, by nature, one of them, but I’m learning along the way to let go of my expectations and instead grab hold of what’s real and messy and inherently delightful in it’s imperfection.
A few weeks ago, I attended a birthday party for one of the infants in my care who was turning one. The party was a Big Event. This infant’s parents had taken two months to plan it, turning to Pinterest for inspiration. They took two days off of work before the party to get things ready. When I walked in, my first impression was of absolute perfection. There were beautiful touches everywhere — from the decorations (which included a banner featuring a photo taken each month of the infant’s first year), to the food, to the areas that had been arranged for play and for pictures. It was all truly lovely and every guest was admiring the attention to detail. If you’ve attended a one year old birthday party of this kind of scope, you’ll nod your head in understanding when I report that it wasn’t too long before things began to unravel a bit. The birthday girl did not wish to wear the party hat that had been designed and purchased to coordinate just-so with her birthday bib and birthday tutu. Presented with her “smash cake” in a corner of the backyard set up for the perfect photo opportunity, the birthday girl was unimpressed. She conceded to remove and chew on one of the cake decorations, but didn’t feel like smashing and eating birthday cake in the way her mom had envisioned she would. Numerous family members and friends hovered nearby with cameras, not unlike paparazzi, while the baby occasionally glanced at them, nonplussed, and nibbled at her sugary snack. She was encouraged to lunge at the cake, to stick a hand in it, to taste the frosting. The pressure mounted. My co-workers and I exchanged nervous glances between us, anticipating trouble. It didn’t end well. The baby was unhappy. The mom was unhappy. The guests were a little uncomfortable.
Two days later, on the infant’s official birthday, she was picked up early from our care. “We’re going home to try to re-take the smash cake photos,” her mom told us as she packed up to head out the door. “I’m not happy with how they turned out.” It wasn’t the experience she was after, as it turns out, but the image of the experience.
I wonder, years from now, when this mom looks back at the photos from these two days (the picture-perfect party and the cake-redo), what memories they will bring to mind. That’s the power of photos — to bring to mind a slice of life, an exact moment in time. In my own experience, sometimes those photos that bring to mind less-than-perfect moments are the ones I most treasure for their authenticity. In hindsight, sometimes those are the moments, those less-than-perfect moments, that I most treasure. For example, my husband and I have a wonderful candid photo from our wedding day where one of our guests captured our photographer attempting to get a Perfect picture of my husband’s boutonniere. We’re both doubled over laughing at the absurdity of the photo being attempted. When I look at this photo, I remember the humor that filled this special day in our lives — when we had to let go of our image of perfection and embrace the awesomeness of the wind (we had a beach wedding) and the slight eccentricism of our photographer, who approached the day with her own image of perfection.
There are often cases where it’s the experience we’re truly after and we’re still disappointed in the end. Last year, my family booked tickets for a “Polar Express” train ride. We anticipated the fun of it for two months in advance. My nieces, three and five years old, dressed in holiday pajamas. But something went wrong as we prepared to leave for the adventure. The pressure and anticipation had mounted to such a degree that the three-year-old, feeling the ill effects of a cold virus, broke down in tears. Her mom snapped at her, overwhelmed by the struggle to get everyone out the door on time. Other family members grumbled and fussed. By the time we boarded the train, we were all feeling a bit forcedly festive. In all the anticipation and rush, no one had quite caught on to the fact that my five-year-old niece was quite convinced that we were on our way to the North Pole. The real North Pole. Her disappointment at reaching the end of the ride and still being in southern California was crushing. I felt that we, the adults in her life, had dropped the ball in not being more clear about the experience we were embarking on (which was pretty fun in its own right, if one wasn’t imaging disembarking to snow and Santa’s house). We had all been caught up in our individual images of this wonderful holiday experience and had all equally failed one another in sharing in what it really was.
I was remembering that experience yesterday when my husband and I packed up the very same nieces and set off for the pumpkin patch. Our destination was a very specific pumpkin patch at a farm thirty miles away, with pumpkin pies, cider, a childre’s sensory garden to explore, and acres and acres of enormous pumpkins to marvel at. We prepared the girls for the car ride, explaining that it would take us about thirty minutes (“As long as a drive to the beach,” I explained). We packed snacks and water. What we couldn’t have anticipated was the angle at which the sun slanted into the car, settling square on our younger niece’s eyes and face. She wilted. Whatever other factors had conspired throughout the day to sap her energy were compounded by this latest injury. It was too much. She was nearly in tears. My husband and I were pulling out all the auntie and uncle tricks we had up our sleeves, but the trip was rapidly going south, unaided by southern California traffic. I started to feel that little choke of panic. We reached the exit of the freeway and saw, to one side of the road, another pumpkin patch, quite unlike our original destination. Our older niece, with the delightful enthusiasm of six-years-old, exclaimed, “I see the pumpkins! The pumpkins!” We quickly abandoned our plans for the Perfect, Amazing, Pinterest-worthy farm, and pulled into this roadside pumpkin patch. And wouldn’t you know it: it saved the day. It wasn’t the Plan. It wasn’t what I had envisioned. But those two girls were absolutely delighted with the variety of pumpkins available, the meandering “hay ride”, and being able to stretch their legs in a tiny maze built of hay bales.
The true magic of childhood and in the privilege of sharing in our children’s experiences, isn’t in perfection. Not even close to it. It’s in the unexpected. It’s in the moment. It’s in the messy. It’s just beyond the tears. It’s in the letting go of our expectations for the experience, whatever that may look like. The perfect childhood doesn’t really exist, does it? I know for certain that it’s not one-size fits all and can’t be created block by block like a Pinterest board. It’s created in the moments beyond the tears, amidst the chaos, on the edge of a photo, right where our memories will live.