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Lisa Endlich Heffernan Headshot

I Photographed My Kids At All the Wrong Times

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We photograph and video the big moments in life, the staged spectacles that seem so important at the time. We know that we will want to see weddings and showers, births and birthdays, school performances and graduations again and again.

I recently sat down and watched a 12-year-old video of one of my sons in a class performance. There he was, his little 7-year-old self, sitting among his classmates, singing away at the top of his lungs and glancing over occasionally to see if I was still watching. His smile, to me, was the most beautiful thing on Earth, and the little movements that I know so well yanked hard at my heart.

But in a blinding flash I knew that I had recorded the wrong thing. For although I thought this concert was a big moment, one that I would want to revisit, I now see that I was entirely mistaken. There are moments I want back, moments I would give anything to relive, and they were not staged, not expected and I never saw them coming.

I took pictures of our sleeping children either crashed on the couch, in their car seats or their cribs. But never once did I bring a camera into our bed. If I could do a deal with the devil, I would transport us back to mornings where all three of our sons had climbed into our bed. In turns we would all awaken and doze and I would open my eyes to see arms and legs wrapped in little boy pajamas draped over my husband and myself. This moment exists only in my minds eye and I want it back.

I photographed my children on the first day of school every year from nursery school to grade 12. In each photo there is an expectant smile on their faces and they gleam with new haircuts, new backpacks and new clothes. I treasure these off-to-school photos. But the moment I want back is a few weeks into one new school year when my eldest, a child who loved school, climbed into my lap one morning and told me he didn't think he could go to school anymore and that he was just going to stay with me. It was one day in 14 years of education and as he sobbed in my lap, needing nothing more that my arms around him, I know that I would trade every shiny first day of school moment for a few seconds when my arms were the safest place in the world to him.

My brother in law has a house with a hill sloping downward from his back porch. On a hot sunny August day they lined part of the hill with plastic and turned on the garden hose. My young sons and their cousins proceeded to ruin this patch of lawn by sliding down the slippery plastic, oh I'd say 100 times. Every inch of their little bodies was covered in mud and I don't know when, before or since, I have ever seen them so happy. I want to be at the side of that bathtub as I tried to scrape the layer of mud from their scalps and they told me again and again how it was the best day of their lives.

Prom pictures. I took at least one hundred -- and that's a conservative estime. Slide a teenage boy into a tux and watch a miraculous transformation from scruffy adolescent to man-child in a matter of moments. I caught it all, and the bigger the event, the more I snapped the shutter. But the moment I want to relive is when my son arrived home late one night, weeks before the formal event, and recounted to me how he had gathered his friends to serenade his date into accepting his prom invitation. He had never really discussed girls with me and at the moment our relationship crossed yet another bridge towards the two adults we will be for so many years. We weren't yet there then, we are not yet there now, but that night, we took a big step closer.

We moved to the United States in the middle of my children's childhood. In our first few weeks here we did not have all the electronic gadgets that would later clutter our lives. During one of those weeks we went on a trip in a rental car and bought a Harry Potter CD to listen to on the journey. When we arrived back home, all five us were enthralled and with no device in the house with which to listen to the remainder of the story, we sat in the driveway for hours, in a cocoon of storytelling rapture, late into the evening. I photographed every moment of the trip, except those last ones, which were my favorite.

I have held my camera at the wrong moments, mistaking the pageantry of my children's life for the moments I would hold dear. But parenthood never ends and tonight my husband was playing soccer with two of my teenage sons in our backyard. The three of them laughed and joked in the fading summer light and after two decades of being a mother I had the good sense to breathe in the smells of summer, let my heart fill with the joy of watching them together and bring my camera along.