It all began with Pinterest.
Row upon row of perfectly styled Christmas trees, creatively wrapped presents and stylishly dressed children skillfully making star shapes out of cookie dough. Everything in perfect order.
As a photographer who documents real life of real families – mess, warts and all – I of course knew this perfection was an illusion. I know how these photographs are created, mess creatively cut out of the frame, decorations skillfully arranged in good light, children expertly entertained with fart noises to get the most gorgeous smiles, all the tantrums left on the cutting room floor. I know how it’s done because I’ve done it myself for many years.
And yet as a mother I still felt deflated and defeated.
Guilty that my house looked nothing like what I saw online and in magazines. Convinced that it’s my inferior parenting skills that prevented my child from being engaged with cookie-making for more than 5 minutes. Frustrated that no matter how much washi tape and kraft paper I bought my present-wrapping will never ever be Pinterest-worthy.
So I dealt with this bout of mummy-guilt in the only way I know how. I got people to invite me into their homes and photographed their Christmas preparations. I captured tree-decorating, cookie-making, gingerbread house building and everything in-between. They were all beautiful, and loving, and crazy, and happy, and imperfect – just like my own. I’ll be sure to tell all their stories in time.
One of the families I photographed as part of my “un-Pinteresting” was Danielle and Mike’s with their brood of four energetic kids.
Danielle describes them as “four independent, single-minded totally unique personalities almost always running in four different directions at warp speed”.
We met on a drizzly Saturday morning at a garden center where Danielle and her family headed to pick their tree and see the reindeer. Children dispersed immediately – one stopped, fascinated with the light-up penguins, while the others sped ahead in search of Santa’s reindeer.
Picking the tree while making sure none of them kill themselves (‘Asher, if you do that you will die!’) or run off unnoticed is not for the faint-hearted – but Danielle and Mike are anything but. Between laughing with the kids, laughing at the kids’ antics, and gently but effectively calling to order when things got completely out of hand, they managed the first part of their day more gracefully that I could ever do with just one child.
Danielle says that growing up in South Africa, and her British-born husband spending his childhood in Zimbabwe definitely had an impact on the way they parent.
Thinking back to her childhood experiences she says, ‘On one holiday we shared our swimming dam with a hippopotamus family and, we later discovered, crocodiles. We shared our garden with venomous snakes. We watched them slowly swallow the bloated bodies of their prey and slither back into their log pile homes. We respected everything – but we were afraid of nothing.’
‘I developed a sense of invincibility which, retrospectively, never left. I didn’t believe that there was anything I couldn’t do.’
She wants to give their children the same opportunities she had, ‘To grow up slowly, play hard and have an enriching childhood.’
‘A childhood defined by “I can’s” and not “You cant’s”. I want them to know that they are capable of anything. That their potential is unlimited.’
Their first Christmas together as husband and wife involved a trip to Harrods to pick out special decorations.
‘Everything was crystal and cream. Everything was co-ordinated. Everything was Pinterest-Perfect.’
‘I remember insisting that we fit as many “classy Christmases” in as we could, before our ‘one-day children’ brought home hand-painted Father Christmas decorations with cotton wool beards and made requests for tinsel.’
‘I got itchy from imaginary hives, just at the thought. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.’
Back at home to decorate the tree, the chaos continued. Between the fights over the snow globe, Vivi’s (the youngest) frustration that it wouldn’t stay on the Christmas tree, everyone wanting their turn to decorate and switch off the lights at the most inopportune moment, and eventually losing interest in the tree and running off somewhere else, there was not a moment’s rest for these parents. It was a beautiful mess – as only Christmas with kids can possibly be.
I’ve asked Danielle to tell me what Christmas means to them as a family. Here’s what she wrote:
‘As Christians, Christmas is one of the most important celebrations in our year, next to Easter. I recently looked back through our Christmas photos to see the many faces (more than sixty in fact!) that have graced our Freecycled 8ft table over the years, from our first flat to our family home. With our immediate families all abroad, it has become a time of year where our friends fill our home.’
First singles, then young, well-dressed couples. Then baby bumps, and tiny babies, “brothers from different mothers”, all dressed up as Christmas Elves in a line on the sofa. Toddler chaos reigned and decorations migrated slowly to the top half of the tree.’
‘The nursery years brought in their fair share of now much-beloved toilet-paper-roll robins and glittered pasta stars. A few years ago, my eldest discovered tinsel a the garden center. This year my youngest fell in love a gold, glittery fawn. And, perhaps most surprising of all, I fell in love with some red, berry-shaped tree lights. Alongside our few surviving first decorations, they all adorn our tree.’
‘Our tree is a symbol of all that matters to us at Christmas. The people we are called to love, near and far. How our love for them has changed us, and a reminder that we are called to love, still more.’
‘This is the first year I have not redecorated the tree after the children were safely tucked into their beds. The uneven boughs were not calling my name.
‘The chaos and the honesty of it filled my heart with joy. I love it for its imperfection.’