short stories

We Are Watching Other Kids Grow Up

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A few months back when the first snowstorm of 2017 hit East Tennessee, we were all home together in tiny house land, cranky started to settle in and boredom began to kick in. I remembered our rather large collection of play dough in the kitchen, so we all settled in to create our masterpieces. Each of us took a turn making an object that the others had to guess correctly what it was. There was a flower, some sort of battle droid from Star Wars, and an inchworm.

I remember all of this vividly, mostly because I recall something I didn’t do that afternoon: pull out my phone to take a picture. When I wear jeans, I usually keep my phone in my back jeans pocket, like a quick draw of a weapon in the Old West. Typically, it would have been an aerial snapshot of colorful molding clays and tiny hands shaping it, with a short caption of “Snow day vibes” or “Chillin’ with my peeps on a snowy afternoon”. But I just didn’t.

People say that we tend to only share photos online of “the happy moments”; that these images, frozen in time, are carefully curated and perfectly posed. And while I am of the opinion that this is largely true, I also know that photos from my childhood are the same: there are no photos that I have held in my hands of kids crying, parents fighting, or a bad grade on a report card. It is of all of the typical picture worthy moments: holidays with sweet memories of relatives now passed, backyard birthday parties of which only a themed sheet cake from the local supermarket was required, and awkwardly posed prom photos next to the neighbor’s azalea bushes now grace all of our childhood photo albums.

The difference is not the inspiration of the photos. The difference, I believe, is this: we are watching other kids grow up. Instead of watching our own kids climb the highest jungle gym at the park, listen to our children read before bed, or watch them tear through the wrapping paper of that sought after Christmas gift from the grandparents, we are zoned out in a corner, watching photos of acquaintances and their little ones climb, read, and open. When we watch a stranger’s child sing a nursery rhyme on an online video, yet our own children are in the next room playing alone. These photos float into our consciousness and subconsciousness, when we wake up and think we’ve forgotten school picture day, but it was a memory, shared by a friend, of a child that is not ours.

How often do we just simply watch the play dough being formed, or the sun set, or the ice cream melt, without making it a picture perfect frame for another mother in another state, who, surrounded by chaos and looking for escape, thinks to herself, “Her kids are so creative”, while scrolling on to the next frame?

Yes. Her kids ARE so creative. But so are the ones sitting right in front of you. We are watching other kids grow up, and others are watching ours. We are searching our phones while riding amusement park rides with our kids, sitting next to them in the church pew, and in the dark theater while the previews run. They are there, we are not.

A few weeks ago, I was on my way to pick up my daughter from dance class, and I witnessed the most incredible sunset. The swirly hues of magenta and deep plum filled the dusk sky, and I slowed down to breathe in the vastness of it all. I glanced over at the driver next to me, who was staring down at his phone while his son’s eyes glowed in excitement at the majestic sunset. The man looked up, pointed his phone at the sky, snapped a picture, and went back to driving. I thought about it, for a moment, but I just didn’t.

I pulled in right at pickup time, as she bustled in and said, “Hey! Did you see that sunset? It was amazing!”

“I did!”, I replied. “How was dance class?”

And then we drove home, to our house on the hill, to mold play dough.

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