At the beginning of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” At the risk of my English Major card being revoked, I admit I haven’t read this particular masterpiece, though I hope to someday. Until then, however, I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Tolstoy.
Because happy families, they’re happy in their own way, too, if we look closely enough. I think about this as I glance into my kitchen, where several Christmas cards hang from a ribbon on the wall. They are all rectangular, all bearing the smiling faces of friends and family I haven’t seen in far too long. Many of them have dogs, though not all. If I didn’t know these people—if I were someone who, for some reason, hung stock photographs of strangers up in my kitchen—the Christmas cards would eventually fade from my notice, a collage of Happy Family that, yes, looks pretty uniform.
Perhaps I once thought there was only one way to be a happy family, or at least a happy mother. I would never have written it down, but I used to imagine there was an Ideal Mother somewhere, doing everything that we were supposed to do. She knew all the enrollment deadlines, made all of the appointments on time, had a solid understanding of various parenting methods and executed them consistently. Her house was clean and decorated, and her kids helped her keep it that way. She planned meals and exercised a lot. In late summer she had an idea for the Christmas card photo, and she made it happen, with a real photographer in a pretty place at golden hour, the family smiling in color coordinated outfits. Ideal Mother was happy because she was doing this thing the best it could be done.
The Ideal Mother started to fade away as soon as I became a mother myself, not so much because she seems unattainable (though, to be clear, she absolutely is) but because I continued to meet—and later to be—so many varieties of mother. There are, in fact, a million ways of doing this right, and those blog-inspired details are just one version of it. The Happy Family is full of possibilities, as the mere half-dozen Christmas cards on my wall remind me.
Which is why our card this year makes me laugh. Designing and ordering the card is usually Step 2. Step 1 is the photo itself, and it is a process. Though I’ve only ever aspired to the whole “book a photographer” scene, I have tried in the past to orchestrate a photo that looks as professional as possible. We walked across the picturesque pastures of late autumn in the Black Forest. We posed in plaids in the fresh snow in the Cascades. We did golden hour at Greenlake in the fall, surrounded by gilded leaves and drenched in late afternoon light. We were coordinated and careful, smiling at the best cameras and photographers we could afford. Those photos are undeniably lovely.
This one, though, is something else entirely. Taken at high noon in late summer, our family poses on the shore of Lake Ketcheelus. Our clothing is not only not coordinated, it’s not even clean. Nor are we. We had woken up that morning after our first night sleeping (but mostly not sleeping) in our new tent, and had come out to the lake with my brother and sister and their families. My hair is in two braids, tied up in a Rosie the Riveter scarf, and everyone else is wearing hats. Both of the girls are muddy from playing in the lake; Ellie has dirt on her forehead. Even the lake is at its least photogenic, in late summer mostly a dry, stumpy wasteland that stretches beyond us like the surface of a strange planet.
I thought for a while about this photo, whether I wanted to use it for our Christmas card or make an effort to take a “proper” one. What did it mean that I called this one “hilarious” or “the most 2020 photo ever”? Because really, it’s a perfect picture. We are enjoying ourselves, rested enough, together on the only real outing of the summer, exploring a new place on a beautiful day. Though none of us looks particularly polished, we all look quite honestly and happily ourselves. And isn’t that the best kind of family photo, after all?
Five years into motherhood, I feel like the Ideal Mother is finally dissolving away into something more generous, less demanding, a multitude of Happy Mothers, each one different from the next. Perhaps I never actually booked a photo shoot for this Christmas card thing, but I always felt like that’s what I should be doing, if I were going to do this really properly. Among the many things that 2020 has erased or displaced, I’ve found this to be a year in which the ideal has crumbled in the face of its impossibility. Ideally, I could have joined a gym and enrolled my daughter in preschool, ballet and swim lessons, gone on a vacation somewhere, taken really perfect family photos. But in the process of letting go of the impossible ideals, like the ballet lessons, I’ve also begun to loosen my grip on the others, learning to choose not only what’s possible, but what I actually, personally care about.
My husband proposed to me, almost eight years ago, on a snowy night in February in the middle of a forest. I followed some clues there alone on a sort of scavenger hunt, not completely sure where I was supposed to be, but when I finally arrived I found him in a mossy ravine, with the bare branches of leafless trees arching overhead, their pale trunks glowing in the flickering light of a dozen candles.
When I told a few colleagues in the days afterward, more than one stared at me, nonplussed.
“You got lost?” they’d ask. “In the dark. And the cold!”
“Well, no,” I’d argue. “Not lost. I knew where I was, just not where I was supposed to go. And it was so beautiful out there. It was perfect.”
Perfect for us, that is. Just like this picture, this perfectly accurate record of the year, imperfect but happy, far different from what we expected but still very good, all the same.